Overland №1: Portland, OR

This story begins just over a year ago, on an Oregon farm where two game developers feed pigs in overalls. Or maybe it begins when we upended everything to set out for that farm, or even further back, when we had other, more ordinary careers and dreamed of living exactly this sort of nomadic life. Maybe it was always beginning, as stories do.

One place it began was an island in the San Francisco Bay. We had quit full-time jobs to develop what would be our second game, and our budget was running low. That’s when we decided to swap it all for the road. We sold most of our things, put the rest in storage, and headed north with just our car and our dog. We would be nomadic farmhands. WWOOFing, as it’s called, was our survival plan: free room and board in exchange for 20–30 hours of farm work per week. We’d have half-days to work on the game, and for a couple of outdoorsy, adventurous souls like us, it was a perfect setup.

So, on a small, family-run farm just south of Portland, we lived in an old camper beside a barn. We woke with the chickens at sunrise every day, slipping on boots and overalls against the cold morning fog, animals nibbling, pecking, crowding us and our feed buckets. First, to loose the chickens in a stampede from their coops, then to the happy pigs with their flopping ears. One stole a curious bite from David’s leg, and we moved on quickly. Next, the grazing rabbits. Two were young, brothers, and charmed me daily with tiny paws in my lap while I rubbed that spot on their foreheads that makes a friend of most animals. Finally, to the lambs, who are not so docile as their reputation allows: sometimes under us, sometimes on top of us as they sought frantic mouthfuls of the hay we tossed into their feeders. Chaotic and a bit mischievous, those guys, but even they couldn’t resist a good forehead scratch.

Oliver the terrier showed signs of developing into a real dog there on the farm. He dug his first real hole and managed to find a shrew, which I was quick to rescue. Oliver, with his long history of chasing squirrels, assumed that the shrew had climbed a tree. And so, in another first, our dog also climbed a tree.

On weekends, we’d step out of our overalls and drive into Portland proper, where we filled nearly two loyalty cards at our favorite waffle place. We’d sip cappuccinos among the browsing tourists and the the literati at Powell’s, wander town in that anticipatory space between good meals, and return to the farm at sunset: just in time to put the chickens to bed before owls went on the hunt. It was a juxtaposition that could only exist in a city like Portland, where shops for the hipster elite sell work boots and hatchets. We loved it.

There was a hot week, when working out in the sun left us thirsty for a swim in the river. We’d heard it wasn’t far, so we walked, cutting across fields and down back roads, with the river at our side but no way in. Sweating, grumbling, we turned back. The next day, we asked directions. And there it was, just further down the road we’d been on the previous day. Scrambling past rocks and eagle-stripped fish bones, we stepped into an ice-cold stream and within minutes could say nothing negative of the day’s heat.

A large man in a raft approached, nodded. “How’s the water?”

“Freezing!” we shouted back through chattering teeth. In response, the man hauled himself over the side of the raft and floated on by. Later, we learned that this was the warmest the river ever got.

On a day in early October, we loaded up the car again. We’d spent a healing month working on that farm: unscheduled, messy, and satisfying. We’d fallen in love with Oregon. But it was time to drive again, and we were eager in the way that a traveler is when they still believe they have a plan. “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us,” said Steinbeck of his own drive across the country. By the time I read his words, we’d learned this lesson a few times over and continue to. It is always beginning.