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How a Cross-Country Trip Led Me to Buy a Piece of Rural Land at 27

Maine Sustainability Narrative
by Emma Thieme Sep 12, 2016

I think that when it comes to defining the quintessential millennial, I’m not far off. I work online. I have a large amount of student loan debt. I don’t make much money, but I still travel. And I have some obscure artisan side hustle going on — I upholster custom motorcycle seats. The only big factor that really sets me apart from most of my generational group is that I now own a piece of property and it is nowhere near a significant city.

This past April, I spent the morning of my 27th birthday in a credit union conference room signing mortgage paperwork. When I walked out the door, I owned 12 acres in a small Maine town with 1,500 feet of frontage on the Narraguagus River. I should mention right off that I didn’t do this alone, although I could have. My name is on the deed, but half of all the money put up came from my boyfriend. Even though we don’t have any plans to get married and don’t have any kids, we were both fed up with the idea that all our rent money, for years, had just been going to a landlord. So we took a big risk as a couple, not legally bound to each other in any way, and pooled our money together to buy a piece of property.

The land was $25,000 and the 15-year payment is $188 per month.

I have not spent the past few years looking at properties and pouring over Zillow. In fact, the thought to buy land didn’t seriously occur to me until just a month before I actually made the purchase. Cj and I left Maine this past Christmas and took two months to drive to Baja, Mexico. We put 17,000 miles on my ’99 Ford Ranger and basically went everywhere in the south and southwest. Some places, like the entire length of Texas and Santa Fe, New Mexico we went to twice, maybe even three times.

A lot of great things happened on this trip. I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. I finally got to see why everybody loves California so much. We did make it all the way to Mexico and my friend let us borrow his KLR650, so we got to do our remaining miles of the Baja Peninsula on a motorcycle.

But seeing the country in such an intimate way also solidified a lot of what I have been reading in the news and online for years. There is so much waste, pollution, and dependence on oil out there. I have written about this in other essays but I seriously thought the LyondellBasell oil refinery was the actual city of Houston while driving through at night. I can’t tell you how many times I saw people burning trash, or how many times someone looked at me funny because I asked where their returnable bin was. When I bought something in Ensenada, the store clerk was floored that I didn’t want a plastic bag. When I finally told him that the reason I didn’t want a bag was because I thought they were bad for the environment, he threw up his hands and said, ‘Who cares?’

And he kind of had a point, I didn’t care enough to not go on my trip. What’s one plastic bag when you compare it to the thousands of gallons of fossil fuel I just spewed all over the continent?

Maybe these are anecdotal experiences but nevertheless, they made me appreciate my home. Especially, when it came to the idea of water. I felt guilty reading all those pleads in Southwest hotel rooms, to please conserve water because there isn’t much left. I kept thinking back to Maine, where there is a literal lake of clean drinking water underneath the single acre of land that I grew up on. On my own property, I can’t dig a 2-foot hole without having it fill up, and we’ve been in a drought all summer.

The water, the pollution, it all made me realize one thing: I wouldn’t mind settling down in Maine one day. Yeah, we have a crazy rogue Governor but when it comes to protecting the environment, we’re all pretty much on the same page. It’s very rare that I come across someone back home who doesn’t believe in Climate Change.

The trip was also really influential for me as a woman switching over into her late 20s.

There is a 6-year age difference between Cj and me, which seems like a strange detail to include but it’s one I reflect on a lot. This trip marked only my second time driving across the country, but by the time I had graduated college, Cj had covered basically every major route in the United States, many of them on a beat-up KZ650.

Before I made this last road trip, I hated the idea of settling down into a comfortable situation, especially in my home state, and I had constantly been forcing myself to be uncomfortable for years — opting to give up an affordable downtown apartment in Portland for an abandoned house in the sticks with no utilities. Before that, I lived on a 27-foot sailboat in St. Lucia where I had to tuck myself into a cubby every night to sleep. And in between all that, I lived in various dingy rented rooms, one with a ceiling so low I couldn’t fully stand up and another in a house, which I realized later, was clearly for housing middle to late-aged men who were single and all in varying states of recovery.

While I obsessed over when Cj and I were going to go on our next ‘big trip’ together and continued to take small trips on my own, he waited patiently by, developing his reputation as a custom builder, remaining committed to any opportunity he could get to showcase his skills, and occasionally talking about a piece of land or a small house he’d like to buy so he could feel a little more stable.

It wasn’t until we were on the road this past winter that I finally understood what he was talking about.

Cj and I are both very hands-on people. I sew and work with leather and he can basically take any idea out of his head and turn it into something you can walk through and sleep in. If I don’t have a place where I can work with my hands — with my own tools and my own collected materials — I get really bored. And kind of unhappy. But I couldn’t put that into words until we were ready to head back to Maine this past spring.

I was thinking about all the years I’ve been lugging a sewing machine around to every rented room and setting it up in some dark corner or just on my bed so I could sit cross-legged in front of it and use my hand to press the foot pedal. It was making me pretty anxious thinking about where I was going to do it all again when we returned. Plus, I went to trade school in New Jersey this past fall and before we left for Mexico, I was already getting orders for my custom seats. Returning to Maine meant that I was returning to potential clients, an actual business that I was excited about, and an upgraded, 200-pound industrial sewing machine that was definitely not going to fit on my bed.

Did I explore enough cities? Should I be in New York or Austin or San Francisco like the rest of my American generation?

If you’re someone whose passions lie in a craft, you know that having to worry about where you’re going to set your tools up next, or where you’re going to store materials, sucks. Because when you don’t have a place of your own to create in, nothing you make is at the potential it could be. And the anxiety about that continues to grow with every little bit of outside attention you get for your work.

So while we drove back, I started looking at property listings — pretty much as obsessively as I had dreamed about road trips before. The land we bought was the second lot we looked at. There was still snow on the ground when we walked the property line down to the river. We put an offer in that day.

Now, five months later, I’m living in a tent on my own plot of acreage. There’s a well-worn path down to a secluded spot on the water and a gravel pad where a workshop and small apartment will be in a month (hopefully). I live on a road surrounded by like-minded people. There are artists, jewelry makers, musicians, conservationists, masons and carpenters. The river is watched over by the Downeast Salmon Federation and the forest across the water from me is protected conservation land.

Living on my own lot has brought me closer to the person I feel I’m meant to be. Yeah, sometimes I do catch myself wondering: Shit, did I do enough before I made this decision? Did I explore enough cities? Should I be in New York or Austin or San Francisco like the rest of my American generation?

But those thoughts don’t really last that long. Yes, I am obligated to pay $188 to this place a month for 15 years of my life. But when I think about what I have now: 12 acres to call my own, a place to work on my craft and grow my own food, within a community of people who want to do the same, I realize that I’m getting a really good deal. I actually kind of enjoy making the payment every month.

And my obsession about my next ‘big trip’ hasn’t left me. Because my living expenses are so low, I know I’ll be able to afford another trip this winter or spring. And all those sewing machines I’ve lugged around will be there for me when I get back.

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