No Place Like Home – Appreciating the Urban in Urban Homesteading

I had a commitment in Eastern Washington this weekend which necessitated a little family road trip to the hot, sunny, dry part of the state. When we returned Sunday night, we followed I-90 west, eventually climbing up the Cascade Mountains to the summit at Snoqualmie Pass and returning back down to the cooler, greener side of the state.

As locals know, the urban sprawl of the greater Seattle metropolitan area arrives shockingly quickly once you begin your descent off the pass. After hours of driving through sparsely populated scrubland and no-stoplight towns and green-and-golden rolling farms, the appearance of large corporate office parks pushing ever further up the mountains announces the approach of an urban hub with bittersweet tenor.

With a crying 11-month-old in the car in dear need of a nurse and a clean diaper, we pulled off the road in Issaquah, a once rural-town about 17 miles east of Seattle that is part of the great sweep of software gigantism that has claimed the lands east of the Emerald City.

There was, naturally, a Starbucks there.

One clean diaper, a nursing, two Frappucinos, a pumpkin scone and a single-serving, ultra-high-temperature-pasteurized, organic-vanilla-milk-pod later, the whole family was feeling revived.

As I sipped my Frappucino, I heard the barista explain to a customer that “Grounds For Your Garden” was not a blend of coffee, but rather used coffee grounds, available free to anyone to use as a soil amendment.

There were a lot of smartly dressed Asian people and a few black people with phenomenally hip hair, all enjoying their expensive caffeine fix. I’m pretty sure the soil-amendment-explaining-barista was gay, and 50% of the women were wearing yoga pants.

God it felt so good to be home.

Nick and I had played the “what if we bought 20 acres in Eastern Washington” game on our roadtrip. It’s a fun exercise, a way to envision a real stepped-up homesteading. Urban Homesteading, sans Urban. Room to really go for it.

As I sat, surrounded by my creature comforts and an ethnically diverse (but, it’s worth mentioning, not particularly socio-economically diverse) cafe population, I realized I didn’t want sans Urban. For all that I occasionally resent those aspects of urban life that seem to push people towards consumption and unthinking consumerism, there’s something to be said for urban living.

I like hip dreadlocks on a well-dressed professional. I like extra fabulous baristas. I like yoga-pants girls with their soy lattes and gluten free muffins. I like that they can get their soy latte and GF muffin. I like that coffee shops give away soil amendments.

I like good Vietnamese food and going out for Sunday brunch at the Indian buffet or the Dim Sum place. I like people out riding their bikes and jogging around lakes and socializing over power walk-and-talks. I like museums and aquariums and music venues and farmers markets and all those things that tend to happen only when you get enough people in one area to support them.

I guess I just like my city.

We left the Starbucks and in the next 10 minutes – no joke – the following things happened:

  • Our car was overflown by a Boeing 747-8 on a flight test.
  • We were passed by a Smart Car with a bike rack and a Coexist bumper sticker.
  • The acoustic version of Smells Like Team Spirit by Nirvana came on the radio.

Seattle, man….that’s Seattle.

One day my anti-social, introvert, hermit-like tendencies may get the better of me. Maybe I will want to flee the crowds and periodic irritations of urban living (honestly, more suburban in our case) for a legit 40-acres and a mule.

But for now, home and surrounded by my family, my vegetables and my chickens, I feel like I’ve managed to stumble into the best of all worlds, and I’m so grateful.

Are you rural or urban, and would you ever want to trade?

Comments

  1. We're suburban here, on the edge of Kansas City. Our little city has both a Starbucks and a Tractor Supply Company. At night I can hear both sirens and coyotes howling. We're just half an hour from all the city has to offer, such as the farmer's market and other things you mentioned, but we're also just minutes away from being "in the country". I like living this way.

  2. We gave up the Chicago-suburbs six years ago and although I don't think I could ever move back there, I DO miss some things. Namely a restaurant where all the menu items are NOT smothered in gravy. And Thai food. And a live theater. And real pizza. Hmmm….ya think I'm hungry already this morning?

  3. Lol, that is the Bay Area too! Best of all worlds I guess.

  4. You described the beauty that is Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Your life in urban homesteading has the opportunity to affect so many and to teach and show the possibilities to folks unfamiliar with the idea and wanting to learn more. I think you are exactly where you need to be. You have a delightful blog :) Cheers, Jenni

  5. We're suburban of a small city with a huge university. That adds some to the normally midwest middle of the road life we would have otherwise. There is a lot to miss in a big city but I don't like the inflated prices, the constant traffic jams, taking a highway to get across town, the air pollution, the constant brightness and noise at night of a city. It is OK for a vacation i.e. I love going to NYC for a week. But I like getting across town in 10 minutes, too, with seldom, if ever hearing a car honking its horn.

  6. I had the very same realization after waking from a dream in which my so-called "dream come true" happened.
    Ever since I was small I wanted to live in the country – have horse, grow food, be Laura Ingalls. But in this dream, as my husband and I prepared to leave our city for a gorgeous piece of land, I got hysterical over the only place to shop being a sprawl-mart. I spent the entire rest of my dream visiting all my favorite local places, saying good-bye to the owners and crying over all the amazing local restaurants I'd miss.
    I woke up from the dream realizing that I'm actually very happy where we are, and although horses and land and a milk-cow *would* be amazing, I'm not ready to make the trade.

  7. I had the very same realization after waking from a dream in which my so-called "dream come true" happened.
    Ever since I was small I wanted to live in the country – have horse, grow food, be Laura Ingalls. But in this dream, as my husband and I prepared to leave our city for a gorgeous piece of land, I got hysterical over the only place to shop being a sprawl-mart. I spent the entire rest of my dream visiting all my favorite local places, saying good-bye to the owners and crying over all the amazing local restaurants I'd miss.
    I woke up from the dream realizing that I'm actually very happy where we are, and although horses and land and a milk-cow *would* be amazing, I'm not ready to make the trade.

  8. I grew up in a very rural area, on a 9-acre parcel where my parents still live. I milked cows, I gathered eggs, I rode horses. This is a big part of who I am and what my values are, still.
    But now I live in a medium sized college town/city in NorCal, and I'm with you – I like being able to run to the store down the block at 11pm to grab ice cream, or tin foil, or beer, or whatever else. I like having a plethora of dinner options when I don't feel like cooking. Vietnamese? Thai? Jordanian? Jamaican? Me likey!
    I don't think I'll ever want to move back to the middle of nowhere – but I'm sure glad I have roots there, and I can visit whenever I want :)

  9. Oh, you are sooooo making me miss Seattle. I'm in semi-urban so. Cal, and even though I live 1/2 mile from a huge Cal State campus, it's a commuter campus, so we don't get nearly the college town vibe that I miss from my Berkeley days. Still, sandwiched between Los Angeles and Orange County, everything a person could need is within a few hours' drive. If only the whole "drive" thing were not so very necessary, it would be heaven.

  10. Astronomers who study extra-solar planets have an interesting phrase: the Goldilocks Zone (more formally the habitable zone). It is the range of radii around a star that would allow for the conditions necessary for "life as we know it" – stuff like liquid water, etc.

    I'm beginning to realize that each of us have our own Goldilocks Zone – near enough to a city to provide what we need/want, far enough from a city to provide the freedom/distance we need/want. For some of us, 10 minutes to the city and an hour to the country is great. For some of us, two hours to the city is still to close.

    For Erica and I, we are about 20 minutes from the City (and even Seattle is city-lite compared to you all in Chicago or what not!) and no more than an hour from the country. That seems to be our personal Goldilocks Zone.

  11. Currently I am reading The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, and it is scaring the b-jeesus out of me, and I am ready to run for the hills… we are aware that real farming & living on the land would be hard, but better to stake out our piece of land & set it up now? However, the reality is, we are not in a position to leave suburbia yet, and in fact, this is the perfect place for us to be right now… we can earn money & make the most of the city facilities, BUT also gather equipment, learn skills, gain knowledge and get prepared for a possible move in the next few years. Trying to balance our 'real lives' with the urban homesteading we are doing can be tricky & exhausting, but I think it's worth it!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Ya know, it is always greener on the other side. I grew up split between very rural Norway and Allentown, PA ( just North of Philly). I always wanted to get back to that rural life and once I did you discover it isn't nearly what you thought it was. I believe taking what you got and making the best of what it is/ can be and combining into it what you wish it to be ( a couple of raised beds) divided by time/job/family = a very wonderful life.
    –crazy fruit lady from shoreline

  13. How lucky are we to to live in near Seattle? I never take it for granted. Our tap water is tasty, we are 90 minutes away from skiing or wine country or killer whale sightings or salmon fishing or clam digging. Bridges that float- got 'em. Volcanoes? Got 'em. Rain forest? Check. Desert? Check. Mythical beast? Heck yeah!

    We are a city of literate, music-loving, theatre-going, politically plugged-in, environmentally concerned,techie romantics who get delirious when the sun shines and park our cars on the freeway if it snows. I know people that design jet engines and paint 787 fuselages, I know the guy who invented the cut-n-paste feature in Windows. LA needs hundreds of square miles to support a passionate food scene that Seattle crams into a little strip between Puget Sound and the Cascades. We are so interracial and multi-cultural that I am shocked when I go to other places in the country and remember that most whites are hi/bye friends with black folks, and that missing cat jokes in Asian restaurants are still really funny.

    One of my favorite road trip games is trying to pinpoint exactly where western Washington gives over to Eastern Washington, because on I-90, it happens in about 3 minutes. I live here, I've seen it,and I STILL can't believe that Vantage is only 90 minutes away- it's like the moon is in our backyard. And they have concerts there!

    The BEST thing my parents ever did for me was to move me from Northern Kentucky to Seattle. I love this place. I grumble about living so far from Seattle (40 whole miles), but this morning I found the tree two bald eagles nest in- it's one of mine.

  14. Dave Soler says:

    Erica,
    Liz and I laughed our asses off when we read this, because we have had the exact opposite conversation.

    ME "What if we lived in a condo, or better yet an apartment in a high rise in the city."
    LIZ "That would be amazing, we would be clean all the time!"
    ME "And there would be no mud!"
    LIZ (longingly) "I could wear nice clothes and be one of those people who actually gets to ride my horse in clean breeches, and we could actually take a vacation, for like a week, in Hawaii!"
    ME "People do that?"

    These conversations usually happen when there is a foot and a half of snow crushing in skylights over the horse stalls, or when we put off our anniversary plans yet again to pay emergency vet bills or buy ahead on hay, or when it has rained steadily for the last five months and the farm more resmbles a swamp,but truth be told we love where we live because the dogs can run for miles in any direction, heavy traffic is two cars at a stop sign and our neighbors are mostly four legged and eat grass. Would it be nice to have great dim sum near by? Sure. But if it means giving up the pastoral view from our pourch, we'll have to get by with Panda Express.

    But we do have those "the grass is greener on the other side" moments…

    See you soon,
    Dave

  15. Smile. This could have been written by my urban offspring. I treasure my rural 10 acres, but can totally understand where you are coming from. We make regular visits to our children, who live in metro Vancouver and love it. They have also taken to gardening. When we come home we always notice that almost everyone is white, and too many, including ourselves, are grey.

    • Ien – this past Friday I took my kids to see Gauguin at the Seattle Art Museum and we got Dim Sum and rode an urban bus (new thing for my suburban kids!). The next day everyone was shoveling and hauling mulch and planting onions and potatoes, and the youngest was trying (unsuccessfully) to defend his oatmeal cookie from the chickens. I had another moment of “Ah, yes, this is why we try to work this balance – because there is sweetness on both sides.”

  16. I definitely prefer to live in the city. In the middle of downtown, where I can walk to everything I could possibly want to get to and grab a reasonably reliable bus to get anywhere further-flung.
    I just happen to also want a one-acre lot with non-leaded soil – possibly via huge-container gardening – in-which to grow a huge amount of our food (freeway runs through my neighbourhood –> leaded gas may have gone the way of the dodo, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t 60+ years of leaded exhaust blowing around…).

    Right now, I’m making due with a large balcony and a lot of converted rubbermaid containers.

  17. We are out of town but not quite far enough to be considered rural. We moved here the beginning of the year and I am loving my garden and all the space (3 1/2 acres). I am in the middle of green bean harvest and just finished processing about 70 pounds of plums.

    I am a bit sad that the trees are starting to change. I have really enjoyed the summer.

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