Tiny House, Big Idea
I had to go. No, like, I mean, I had to go. This is an absolutely terrible way to start a book, of course, and it was an equally terrible way to kick off a two-week pilot test of this entire five-month journey coast-to-coast via buses, trains, bikes and working on organic farms. But I woke up in an absolutely adorable tiny house with every simple and social-media-ready thing I needed, except a bathroom — and I had to go.
I didn’t think I was going to make it to the outhouse or the farmhouse, both a good ways away in opposite directions. Plus, snakes. Dealbreakers for me, team. The lack of a bathroom, by the way, is a dealbreaker for many people, maybe even you, because the second question I get asked most often when people hear about my trip is “What about the bathroom situation?” The first most-asked, and often the only, question is “What does your husband think?” We’ll get to that.
And so I did my business in a plastic supermarket bag crouched in the dark on the side of the tiny house. I then had to make the fun decision of what to do with this bag of, shall we call it, sugar. So I tossed it under the wheels of the trailer on which the tiny house rested, to deal with later. Somehow.
But then, as luck would have it (and there’d be a lot of that so-called luck on this trip), while weeding mustard greens with my fellow WWOOF volunteers here (providing farm labor in exchange for food, housing and experience), Hillary, the farm manager, called to me down the vegetable row to tell me she was giving a tour of the farm to a group of students shortly and that would include the tiny house. “Just to letcha know.”
“Thanks! That sounds like fun!” I replied, as the words oh sh . . . sugar almost came out as well. Oh, to have faith the size of a mustard seed that I would get through this with my already-stripped-to-the-bone dignity intact!
So now I needed to intercept that bag, and fast. I walked — left, right, left, right — trying not to run, my breath quickening, my post-menopausal easily-tripped anxiety just on the edge of full-blown panic.
I got to the tiny house alone and unnoticed, thank you dear lord in heaven. I grabbed the bag with fervor and tossed it like a hot potato under some discarded wood pallets laying nearby. Whoo. Relief. Close call. I did it. I could deal with the final disposal later. Somehow.
A cup of caffeine short yet for the day, despite this unexpected adrenaline rush, I stopped in the farmhouse to whip up another couple of spoonfuls of the truly horrible instant coffee I had brought with me. Asmira, a fellow volunteer 35 years younger than me (who ended up my dearest friend there) was diligently working on a lesson plan for a Basic Construction Skills for Women class she was about to give in the geodesic dome (which is where I eventually did morning yoga at sunrise each day). I asked her, nonchalantly while the microwave attempted to transform my beverage into something palatable, what they would be building. She replied “We’re gonna build a deck out of the old pallets.” Gulp. Or as my Irish Catholic grandmother would have said, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
So now I had to slip my way back to the pallets, unobserved, and somehow get that bag and then find the elusive somehow to get rid of it. All without the proper amount of morning caffeine for which 32 years spent married in Metro Atlanta, most as a mother in a four-bedroom house on the bottom of a hill in suburbia, had trained me.
Bag in hand, I dragged my folding bike out of the tiny house, snapped it open, and loaded (so to speak) the bag into the upcycled-ocean-plastic basket that a company had given me to test. Now, what? Now I had to make it across the farm, past about a dozen people, and out into a town I did not know to dump this dump!
“I like your bike!” I heard someone say in the distance as I smiled and waved while scurrying away with the hopes of quelling any future inquiries. Keep walking, keep walking, keep walking, I chanted to myself like a mantra. I unlocked the gate and made it off the property. Victorious!
Now what? I was in the middle of a residential neighborhood but I knew there were businesses about a mile or two away. Businesses have garbage cans, amirite? So I started pedaling on the sidewalk so I wouldn’t get killed by speeding cars — my goal in life is to avoid headlines such as woman with a bag of . . . sugar . . . killed while riding her bike (even though I had already survived a hit-and-run and been featured in both print and broadcast news stories). I looked for somewhere, anywhere to save me.
I saw a dumpster (and perhaps even heard the angels singing Hallelujah) behind a Chevron gas station. I got to thinking how another gas station sign, a Citgo, near Fenway Park and Boston University, from which my younger daughter just graduated, serves as a landmark — shall we say, even a beacon, by Beacon Street. And thus this gas station sign was my beacon as well, until I realized, mid-toss of my bag of . . . sugar, that there were surely cameras and that this, in fact, would technically be the first photo of my 5,147 mile trip. Perhaps there might even be an unexpected stay at the local jail.
I rode away without looking back, listening for sirens that — thank you again, God — never sounded.
And so it began.
I survived that adventure unscathed. Within a day or two, my body adjusted to the rhythm of the farm, and my starlit treks to the outhouse became precious time. Snake-less, with hands in prayer again to my Maker.
But would I survive two-week stays at six organic farms across the USA — including a goat farm during birthing season; a horse sanctuary near historic motor highway Route 66; the largest llama rental farm in Utah, run by Hare Krishnas; and an off-the-grid eco-farm in the Mojave Desert — in the heat of August? What about the investigative journalism immersions regarding all aspects of resiliency in more than a dozen cities small and large, not to mention (okay, I’ll mention) buses and trains at all hours of the day and night?
How would I do with all the strangers I would meet, and with being estranged from my family? Would my abundant home garden (often referred to as “the jungle” during Metro Atlanta’s long, hot summers) swallow our house whole? My daughters were already away, each on one end of the country, both in cities I planned to visit on this trip. Would this trip assuage the empty-nest ennui I felt? My father was turning 90. I was turning 60. Our country was turning into something no one seemed to recognize anymore, with neighbors and families not able to even talk to each other. Climate disasters were becoming the norm. Shootings were barely news anymore. Religion, including the Catholic Church I had left behind so long ago and replaced with my own brand of spirituality, seemed increasingly like a date with the devil. Would we, all of us, survive these times?
If you want to know the God’s honest truth, there was one other nagging question inside me every time I started thinking this was ridiculous and I should just get another job and get on with it. And it was this: Would I survive if I didn’t go?
I was just finishing an entire decade that tested my resolve. At the tail end of the recession back in 2012, I lost the full-time freelance writing business I had successfully enjoyed since my older daughter was born seventeen years prior when literally all my clients were laid off from their big corporate conglomerates (which had been paying me comfortably on dependable monthly retainers), and the magazines for which I wrote (including both frequent feature articles and as a regular columnist) folded. In the years since, I simply could never rebuild professionally. I pivoted to significant pro bono work in organic agriculture and bike advocacy. I started commissions. Led teams. Created and revived dozens of gardens. Wrote blogs and books. Showed up.
Desperate to have value in a world increasingly in crisis, I applied for and was accepted as a Peace Corps Volunteer — one of only about 4% over the age of 50 and probably close to zero percent who are married and not serving with their spouse. My husband deeply supported this as he knew how close to despair I was and how hard I had tried close to home to serve a purpose. He also knew I would learn skills that I felt would be helpful for years to come in our changing world, and that this was an investment in our shared future.
I was scheduled for departure to Uganda on June 4, 2020 as an agribusiness volunteer, with an intended secondary project helping women and girls ride bikes. I was almost all packed, right down to the microfiber towel, and a special passport was already waiting for me in Washington D.C., when COVID hit. Over the next two years, my departure was delayed six times. I tried so hard to use this liminal time wisely. I served as a PeopleForBikes Ambassador and the first Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor as part of a global consortium with the Amsterdam-based social enterprise BYCS (positive steps I took after surviving a hit-and-run while riding my bike). Plus, I started and tended two sharing gardens, one on my front lawn for my neighbors (whom up until that point I barely knew anymore) and the other for refugees-of-war in the most diverse square mile in the USA. I even learned to roller-skate again and had fun sharing that journey on social media.
The backpack for Uganda — already holding a water filtration bottle, a solar phone charger, and my comforting art supplies — got dustier and dustier. Three of the remaining four octogenarians in my family (we had lost a 91-year-old loved one to COVID in the first month), now all two years older, were concerned about me still planning on going (the fourth, my mother, was characteristically game), and the constant delays were taking a toll on my mental health as well as my husband’s and my ability to move forward. My older daughter was about to get engaged. My younger daughter was about to graduate from college. It was time to make a decision, and so I prayed on it. Considering myself heavily non-religious but deeply spiritual, my motto is Trust the Journey and the journey was taking me elsewhere. But where?
A surprisingly perfect job opportunity appeared, project-managing and writing the “Healthy You in 2022” multi-platform campaign for the State of Alaska Department of Health as part of the CDC Foundation’s task force nationwide during these trying times. It was a seven-month contract. I applied and got it, which was its own little miracle. Shortly thereafter, the Peace Corps contacted me and said that so much time had passed that we all had to re-do our medical and legal clearances, and that there would be new requirements for those over age 50 due to the realities of COVID. Now working full-time, I couldn’t fathom when or how I would get to all these appointments, never mind all the forms and other administrative loopholes they required. It had been so arduous the first time that I documented the rollercoaster journey in eight quick-read chapters I intended to be the beginning of another book, had I actually gone to Uganda. My husband and I talked long and hard and made the decision. It was time to stop.
My CDC Foundation contract ended up being extended three extra months, during which I watched online as my Peace Corps group, probably mostly different people now from the original cohort, did finally depart. I saw them stand on the steps of the plane upon arrival at Entebbe International Airport. I saw them in classrooms learning native languages. I saw them wearing traditional clothing during the official swearing-in ceremony. It tugged at me and I realized I perhaps wasn’t done yet with the Peace Corps, but I knew I had made the right decision for now.
But what was next for me? Another job opportunity like the one I had and loved that whole year proved to be elusive. I seemed to have no purpose, which is, of course, no surprise to other older women in our country. I had even, on more than one occasion, considered calling the nation’s new 988 suicide prevention hotline, about which I had written during the Healthy You in 2022 project, and which was already much used by an increasing number of my fellow Americans. Times were tough, and I was not immune to the challenges we were all facing individually and collectively regarding not just our physical health but our mental health as well.
I thought back to how our younger daughter had considered working on an organic farm in Italy following graduation, which had gotten me interested in the global WWOOF program. Started in 1971, and standing for both World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and Working Worldwide on Organic Farms, WWOOF had participating farms in more than 100 countries. To apply for an opening, you first have to pay a small fee to join the individual WWOOF program for the country in which you are interested in volunteering. No experience is required to volunteer, but placements are competitive as each farm has limited room and the conditions at each farm can be very different and may not meet your specific needs. In exchange for labor, volunteers receive room, board and knowledge. Although I already had lots of experience creating farms and gardens (something I started doing after the tragedies of 9/11), I knew for sure at this point in my life that I still had much to learn.
My daughter ended up starting a new job that only allowed for a week away so she skipped the farm but went solo to Italy anyway. I, however, fell down the WWOOF USA website. When I saw that there was an online informational webinar, I signed up. My husband joined me. We both shouted out loud when they mentioned bison farms. Bison farms! How interesting! All I knew about bison was that my former employer, Ted Turner, the founder of Turner Broadcasting, had pretty much saved the species from extinction. By eating them.
My husband and I both loved the WWOOF idea — for me, not him, mind you (he being the indoor guy in this partnership). This suddenly breathed new life and excitement into our marriage. The elders reacted positively to it as well, especially after these past few years of Peace Corps talk. “You’d still be in this country?” they asked. “You’d be reachable by phone? You’d be able to fly home if you needed to?” Yes, yes, yes.
I started plotting out the journey and decided a pilot-test close to home was best. Would I even like doing this? What would my priorities be as far as living and working conditions were concerned? Would this work for our marriage? Would I feel safe? I tapped in to the excellent WWOOF USA website and found a place to test this big idea in Metro Atlanta, where we live. Named Our Giving Garden, it’s a small farm in Mableton, Georgia that donates 100% of what it grows to those in need, plus offers education and outreach opportunities to the community.
I went. I worked. I ended up loving it.
Two weeks after I left the farm, the citizens of Mableton voted to become what was then the newest city in the USA. Where I live, twenty-two miles away, had become the newest city in the USA fourteen years prior, which is when the first mayor appointed me to start the Sustainability Commission one week after our new city started operating, and where I was appointed to serve on the steering committee for our new city’s first Comprehensive Land use Plan. I knew a thing or two about how cities operated and I was excited to see the possibilities ahead for Mableton. I was also excited to see what’s become of our cities across the USA, especially since a feature article I wrote that highlighted municipalities taking steps to become more sustainable had been published in a national magazine fifteen years ago. How far had we come since then? What could cities both large and small, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, new and old, learn from each other? What could we? My curious was piqued.
The duck was a surprise. I hadn’t intended to travel cross-country with a duck, nor to name my subsequent book Round America with a Duck, but maybe I shouldn’t have been caught off guard. My favorite book of all time is titled Round Ireland with a Fridge. Written by a British comedian named Tony Hawks (not the skateboarder Tony Hawk, with whom he is often confused), it is about a man who makes a drunken bet in a pub one night that he can hitchhike around the perimeter of Ireland in a month — with a refrigerator. And so he sets out to do this, showcasing the creativity, curiosity and generosity of strangers along the way. It is a funny, heartwarming, wonderful book that had me cheering along and wishing, I, too, could sign the fridge as it passed.
I had been trying to come up with a concept to replicate the spirit of this quest ever since. ‘Round Georgia with an Aquarium? ‘Round Atlanta with a Microwave? No, no, not quite right, not yet in my life (implying that perhaps, one day, yes, it will be the right time for trotting around in public with one of these). And then my friend Caryn brought me back a rainbow-colored rubber duck she saw while vacationing in Amsterdam and bought for me. I had taken her on our bikes not long before to a dirt road marked by a sign that said Slow Duck Crossing that had served as inspiration for a middle-grade manuscript I wrote by the same name. I had been leaving little yellow ducks on the sign throughout the pandemic. I had even shared ducks with my Alaska team as they had seen them in the bookcase behind me on Zoom meetings.
Now, this new larger duck begged a journey of his own. I named him Disco, hot-glued him onto an old bike light strap, hooked him onto my handlebars and took him everywhere with me. More people than usual smiled at me after seeing the duck, and the world suddenly seemed more hopeful. And so, all of this somehow came together. And now, here we are, you and me.
About a month after I returned from Our Giving Garden, by the way, I found a small package delivered to my front door. I had no idea what it held. I opened it carefully and gasped. It was my special Peace Corps passport. I flipped it open and gazed at my face, already changed by now, looking back at me. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. I simply smiled. I had a new passport-to-the-future now. I would be traveling across the USA — on a wing (the duck’s) and a prayer (mine).
Would I ever be able to simply wing it myself? Or would I need to plan this thing down to the day before I even left my house? How much is chance and how much is choice in life? Are the greater number of people good, is there really reason to still have hope, and can we actually pave a new way forward as a society and a species — without eating each other? I didn’t yet know the answers to these questions. But I would one day. I would.
33 Lessons Learned
Since this farm stay was a pilot test for the bigger cross-country trip, I traveled and packed as I intend to do so. I had already pilot-tested this pilot-test (Virgo that I am) and took a bus, so this time I rode my folding bike the 24 miles from my home to the farm. My bike basket broke right when I left my neighborhood so I hauled my carefully-curated (but still extraordinarily heavy) backpack contents* on my back the entire way. Logistics challenges became immediately clear, and I would strongly recommend doing a pilot test or two before embarking on a big journey such as Round America with a Duck. In just this short time, I already learned all these lessons:
1. Keep going; You are strong; You can carry a lot — but maybe you can lighten your load (on your bike, in your life)
2. Stopping for breaks is nice even if it adds time to the trip — never pass swings without swinging
3. Share bounty; You have enough; Your needs are met
4. You are flexible
5. It’s ok to just be
6. People are here for many reasons — it’s a liminal space; Meet everyone where they’re at
7. You are the only person in charge of your good time
8. It behooves you to “be of good cheer”
9. Space heaters are honestly the best invention ever
10. Be present; Be kind
11. Take care of your needs unapologetically
12. There are lots of ways to live a life
14. Find solutions
15. Keep it simple
16. Have fun, and invite folks into your fun
17. Empowered women are unstoppable
18. Chickens are my farm animal of choice
19. There is so much time and yet not enough hours in the day
20. My family rocks, and I love the creative ways we stay connected
21. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude
22. The sun, moon and stars will light the way (especially to the outhouse)
23. Go with the flow for the first 4–5 days; then make adjustments you need
24. Be available but protect your need to recharge alone
25. If you feel the need to hoard, share instead — reminder that the world is a place of bounty
26. Follow the directions on the instant coffee — more is not better (and is, in fact, worse!)
27. Everyone needs a little caring — the trick is to figure out how (everyone is different)
28. There’s a magical moment when people start to believe the impossible is possible, and then, really, you’ve just begun a journey beyond your wildest imagination together
29. The Tiny House is very cozy in the rain!
30. Be careful or you could end up eating a lot of browns (rice, pasta, bread, granola bars, pita chips) — make an effort to center greens and fruit
31. Ask if plants have been sprayed with fish emulsion before making it a habit to nibble in the garden!
32. It’s ok to ask for help
33. It’s both hard and easy to be “in community” — it’s also easy to start caring about people very quickly
* I share what turned out to be the stars of the backpack later in the book
WWOOF has affiliates in over 100 countries, and thousands of people have volunteered at participating farms since its inception in London in 1971. Each country keeps its own member list so there is no central spot for statistics. WWOOF USA has 1,600 host farms that offer volunteer opportunities and more than 14,000 active members interested in volunteering (membership costs $30 annually for an individual). Social media posts and farm reviews suggest people of all ages, races, abilities, and walks of life have WWOOFed. Families are often welcome. If the three fellow WWOOFers I met during my stay at Our Giving Garden are any indication, no two WWOOFers are alike.
A.M. travels with a hatchet. She had recently chopped her corporate job from her life a thousand miles away. She came down to Georgia specifically to help ensure upcoming election results supported what she considers to be a better future. She left most days after our farm hours to canvas voters.
Nick is working on a five-part science fiction multiverse novel, into which he is channelling extensive trauma he recently experienced (which he shared with me one day while we were painting vegetable row markers together). He also works as a massage therapist.
Asmera slept under the stars, with dreams of becoming a soil scientist. She spent her alone time studying for the GRE and teaching kindergarteners online. She also loves to cook, and we shared lots of time in the kitchen together, leaning on counters and chatting about life.
All three of them had no other home at the time I met them. All three have since moved on. A.M. was intending to go back north. Nick was planning on moving into a spare room at the home of one of his massage clients as his massage business was getting very busy and, after five months of WWOOFing, he didn’t have time anymore for four hours of farming every day. Asmera left the same day I did, although she had been at the farm for a couple of months. She went to her mom’s house a few hours away to finish preparing to take the entrance exam for graduate school. Her mom, by the way, was one of the women who took the excellent Women Building class that Asmera helped teach.
The farm seemed to be a very unique and special space where lives crossed for moments or months. It felt safe and supportive, and I was surprised how much I missed everyone afterwards. Even though I only spent two weeks at Our Giving Garden, I know for sure it changed my life. I continue to stay in touch with Hillary, the farm manager, and to follow the farm on social media. I asked Hillary if I could circle back at the end of my cross-country trip to volunteer again as sort of a book-end or check-in to notice how much I and the farm have changed, and she said yes. I’ll let you know how that went later in the book. Thank you for joining me. As always, trust the journey — mine, yours, and ours.
This is the draft first chapter from Round America with a Duck, a work of creative nonfiction for which I am currently doing hands-on experiential research across the USA via bikes, buses, trains, and WWOOFing on organic farms. Follow to see photos, blog posts and videos from throughout the trip, if interested, on the dedicated website at RoundAmericaWithADuck.com. Join almost 50k others around the world who have already viewed TikToks tagged #RoundAmericaWithADuck. Here is my query letter for literary agents. If you are a literary agent interested in receiving the complete book proposal, which includes the Overview, About the Author, Chapter Descriptions/Outline, Marketing Plan, and Comparable Titles as well as this sample chapter, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone can see the current chapter outline here, as well as FAQs and Bonus Content. Thank you for your kind consideration.
Trust the journey,