“If you’re like me you grew up in the suburbs of a large city in the final third of the twentieth century,” Kristy Athens writes in the introduction of her book, Get Your Pitchfork On, “You spent your twenties living in that or another large city. You now own a house there and fantasize about living in the country.”
In 2003, Athens and her husband Mike gave up their lives as urban professionals in Portland, Oregon, to make their rural fantasy come true. They moved to a seven-acre farm in the Columbia River Gorge of Washington state and for a while, all was well. But then it wasn’t.
The couple hadn’t counted on the 70-mile commute to the city being such a burden. They hadn’t given enough thought to what it takes to fit into a rural community. They didn’t have the time or the resources to do everything that needed to be done on their farm.
“When we moved to the country, I read a bunch of reference books, but there were things missing from most of them,” says Athens. “First of all, most of them were about 30 or 40 years old, but most of all, no one talks about the social part of living in a small town. When we moved, we were just romantic and driven by desire rather than practicality.”
If she had any idea what she would encounter in her attempts to acclimatize to small-town living, Athens says she might have reconsidered the move, or at least approached it differently.
“I didn’t want to feel like a squatter out there,” she confesses. “I wanted to be more involved in the community. Some opportunities came up, but once it became evident that I am not a ‘mainstream’ person it became an issue.” Because she didn’t have children, didn’t attend church, and didn’t take part in many of the local social activities, Athens says she was marked as an outsider. “I wanted to talk about that in my book,” she says. “You can read about raising chickens and canning, but you can’t read that anywhere else, not in a practical way.”
Get Your Pitchfork On offers ample opportunity for readers to benefit from Athens’ experience and mistakes. She talks, for example, about the need for appropriate implements. “Enthusiasm will take you so far, but not all the way,” she says with a laugh. “You can’t do it all with two shovels and a wheelbarrow. If you think you can get away without a tractor, you are wrong!”
Over more than 300 pages written in a light-hearted and sometimes snarky tone, Athens guides a newbie farmer through the pleasures and pitfalls of buying and maintaining land and buildings, raising livestock and coping with wild animals. She devotes time to growing, harvesting and storing food but the real value of the book is the attempts to educate the uninitiated on the etiquette required to successfully live in, entertain oneself, and find gainful employment in a small town.
Looking back, Athens says she would have approached her move a bit differently. “I would have been quieter about who I was, at least at first,” she declares. “You have to show your value to the community,” she says, so that people will stand up for you when others try to tear you down.
Athens’ small town adventure came to an end in 2009, when the couple admitted they were in over their heads and sold the farm. They are now begrudgingly back in the city, enjoying small tradeoffs like being able to walk or bike wherever they need to go instead of driving five miles to pick up the mail. But ultimately their goal is to move back to the country, perhaps in five or ten years. “We won’t just launch ourselves out there again, though. We want to do it sustainably this time.”
Get Your Pitchfork On! The Real Dirt on Country Living
By Kristy Athens (Process Media, 341 pages, $19.95)