Kate Epstein

Song of the Open Road

Lifting my head, I breathe deeply. Only a few hours ago, frost coated the ground, but now the air is pleasant and fresh, almost warm. I’m on the eighth rung of a ten-foot-high ladder, my head rising just above the crown of a mature apple tree. I wear a worn baseball cap, beige hiking pants, an oversized red flannel shirt, and what Sarah calls my “little drummer boy” picking bag. Made of canvas with a rigid lip around the top, it sits like a backpack on my chest, thick straps crossing my back and supporting the fabric sack.

Pausing in my work, I close my eyes against the morning sun. I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also. Like a tune stuck in my head, refrains from Walt Whitman’s "Song of the Open Road" drift through my mind. I smile, relishing the feelings of strength and whimsy, independence and carefree joy that wash over me.

The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness.

I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times

Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Charged by the bracing fall air, by the pervasive beauty of the green valley and snowcapped mountains, I reach as far as I can, stepping up to the next rung, and gently roll an apple upward. With my index finger, I put light pressure on the stem until the apple breaks free, taking care not to snatch next year’s bud, which clings to the stem just above the fruit. I tug a toothed leaf free of the stem to reveal its image mirrored perfectly on the apple’s shiny surface: the apple is bright red where the sun has kissed the fruit, but in the leaf’s shadow a serrated oval remains honeydew green. Gently, I add the cool orb to the growing mound against my stomach and chest. Carefully reversing down the ladder, I land on solid ground and waddle over to Richard’s tailgate, where he stands sorting apples with some other hired hands. Best-quality apples go into boxes for the farmers’ market and the grocery in town; seconds go to cideries, the food pantry, and home with today’s workers. Big enough blemishes and we toss the fruit casually over a shoulder. The black bear will be back tonight to pick up the ground-fall, despite Richard’s best attempts to shore up the electric fence. So far the bear has been polite enough to stick to the fallen fruit, and Richard is cautiously okay with this arrangement.

I step between the apple sorters and gingerly lift my load into the box on the tailgate. Gently, I tug at the cords on the bottom corners of the bag, opening a chute, and ease the fruit into the box.

Richard smiles and polishes one of the giant Honeycrisps, turning it in the air and admiring it against the huge blue sky. Words of lost love affairs and finding home in a new place drift to my ears from the crowd around the truck bed. Apple sorting leaves lots of space for talking, and this group is chatty, learning about each other from week to week, opening up about displacement and broken hearts. I listen in, though I’m on the outer circle this time, coming and going with my fresh loads of apples. Maxine continues her tale, smiling freely, her tight curls of red hair bouncing as she gesticulates. It is nice to be among travelers, other wandering souls, people who understand the experience of transplantation.

I’ve been in Twisp for four weeks now—longer than I’ve stayed almost anywhere in five years. In 2014, my partner Sarah and I both veered from the high-achieving tracks we had been marching down for years. We gave everything away, quit our legal careers before they even really launched, and hit the road. We shouldered our backpacks, bulging with our few remaining possessions, and literally walked away, leaving New England afoot and lighthearted before hitching rides all the way to California.

As far as we were concerned, Walt Whitman had written our manifesto:

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,

Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,

Listening to others, considering well what they say,

Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,

Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

Our first priority was to leave the old ways behind. We would not plan or try to control; we would figure it out as we went along. We would ask our own questions and seek our own answers. We would reexamine our philosophies and preconceptions—They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents. We would not pursue money or prestige, comfort or certainty; we would forge social instead of economic ties. We would divest ourselves of all the holds that would hold us—gently, but with undeniable will. We would be free.

Since then, we have hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles, criss-crossing the United States and Canada, tucking away for the night near interstates and tumbling through time and space with no plan, using little money. Again and again we have been met with kindness, hospitality, and openheartedness. What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine? On foot over thousands of miles of North America’s most remote wilderness, we have wandered the sun-struck deserts and arid pine forests of the southwest, the glaciated granite peaks of the Cascades and the Canadian Rockies, and the sparse, tranquil expanses of Alaskan tundra. We have lived, fleetingly, in yurts, cabins, teahouses, tents, and on bedrolls under the stars. We have worked on farms, in hostels, at campgrounds. What we’ve gained—a new perspective on humanity and ourselves, a fervent passion for wild landscapes, the serendipity of living in the flow—far exceeds what we’ve left behind. And what we continue to leave behind, when we pull up shallowly-planted roots again and again, as we will do next month when the harvest season ends. There is no tangible reason why we must leave, but there is a stirring restlessness, a pull back to the open road. These constant partings are bittersweet. We have met many kind people, found ourselves in many wonderful places. And still, the lure of freedom outweighs the sorrow of separation.

As I make my way over uneven grass through the rows of apple trees, Whitman beseeches me. Allons! we must not stop here, the voice inside me implores:

However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,

However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here

However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

Whitman’s words evoke this valley bursting with fruits and vegetables, placid and serene, permeated with hospitality and inclusivity. In this cradling community I feel anchored in a sheltered port, floating peacefully on calm waters. And yet I feel something tugging deep within me. Allons! my heart cries. Onward! There are outstretched hands to hold, unfathomed landscapes to discover. I fear that if I stay I will become too comfortable, too complacent.

From atop a nearby ladder, I can just make out the busy hands and murmurings of the figures around the truck. There is Richard in his green fleece vest and well-worn khaki work pants, white whiskers and hair pulled back in a neat ponytail beneath his wide-brimmed straw hat. In his early seventies and now retired from his career with the Forest Service, he can finally dedicate more energy to the beloved orchard he first planted forty years ago. As a young man, he traipsed up and down this valley, interviewing old timers and collecting hardy rootstock that survived the great freeze of 1968. The locals told him of the severe cold snap during which temperatures dipped below negative fifty degrees Fahrenheit, killing almost all of the other apple trees in the Methow Valley. Over the years, he grafted many different varieties onto the cold-tolerant homestead roots. Slowly, he grew this three-hundred-tree orchard, a sort of living apple museum, a unique library of over thirty flavors and varieties. One gnarled tree looks like it belongs in a fairy tale: each branch flaunts a different type of apple, shades of green and red and yellow drooping from the myriad boughs, a curious display of nature and man’s ability to shape it.

Since our arrival, Sarah and I have been working hard to identify each variety, to know all the flavors and textures and unique histories, so we can advise customers at the farmers’ market as they marvel at the options. We love to be part of the market stand each week, proudly smiling at the customers when they ask about the apples. “We picked them ourselves yesterday, just two miles up the road,” we say, pointing up-river towards the glaciated mountains that tower in the distance.

We landed here by happenstance a few weeks ago after spending the summer months high in the nearby North Cascades, exploring virgin forests and alpine landscapes more fantastic than any scenes my imagination could conjure. We spent week after week meandering, climbing, swimming, and sleeping in the depths of the wilderness. Finally, ready for a rest and shelter from the arriving fall weather, we sought work near those very mountains, unable to stray far from their shadows. We found Richard and his wife Jocelyn, entering their harvest season, understaffed and worried about bad backs and bumper crops. At first, we pitched our tent on their land, but when it became clear that the arrangement worked well for all involved, they offered us their camper to live in and we gladly accepted. Now the tiny shell mounted on the back of a pickup truck is our temporary home. We have just enough room to lie down and cook out of the rain to thrill any transient backpacker. A stately tamarack tree, its needles just starting to turn golden yellow, shades our abode. We happily toil away in the crisp autumn air, helping sweet-tempered Jocelyn in the kitchen and with projects around the house, reading on the plush benches of our miniature house, watching the Twisp River rush by on its way to the meandering Methow River and, ultimately, the mighty Columbia. While the season has passed for us to live outside in the mountains’ high embrace, we have moved down to the valley, where the waters flowing down the stream come from our most beloved alpine meadows.

In the distance I hear the donkeys. When a donkey speaks, it complains loudly and unapologetically. Like a tortured cow, it bleats and then inhales with a constricted screech: bleat, screech, bleat, screech, bleat, screech. At first, this chorus alarmed me, but with three donkeys as our closest neighbors in the trailer, I’m well used to it by now. The distant ruckus reminds me that Ron and Mary Ann will be leaving town tonight and we will be donkey-sitting: doling out the appropriate allotment of hay and alfalfa, scooping up manure, sleeping in the guest room. The donkeys are friendly and lovable, much like their owners, with whom we have grown close since arriving almost literally in their backyard. Over wine and dumpling soup Mary Ann made out of a chicken she raised and slaughtered herself, we learned about her Japanese-Peruvian heritage and Ron’s adventures in the mountains with the Forest Service throughout the decades. We have happily helped Mary Ann in her garden, sunflowers towering high overhead, juicy scarlet tomatoes bursting from their vines. One chilly evening, we accompanied her to a community contra dance at the grange hall just down the road. Do-si-do-ing with the neighbors, I almost felt like one of them, caught in the tight weave of this small, close community. I am acutely aware that I am something between community member and outside observer; I am both a part and apart. I know there are kind souls here who would be delighted if we stayed, settled down, made this place home. But they can’t hear what I hear: the irresistible call of the open road.

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

I feel that tug of destiny that urged Whitman along the literal and spiritual road. I am hardly settled here in Twisp, and yet I feel the overpowering desire to depart, to dispense with comforts, to shed excess weight and baggage, to flow through time and space in kinship with all humanity.

Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes

These are the days that must happen to you

The rough new prizes I have found—self-reliance and self-confidence, freedom and weightlessness—are double-edged swords. Like a rolling stone, I gather no moss. Or, what moss I gather I gradually shed as I bump and tumble onward, keeping only memories and addresses, photographs and correspondences. The old smooth prizes of comfort and security are no longer enough; my soul craves the paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides, the cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

“One more load and then we’ll break for lunch,” Richard calls after me as I make my way back to the row of Honeycrisps with an empty bag on my chest. Each day that we work, Richard and Jocelyn feed us an alluring array of bread, cheese, apples and more. In fact, each time we have worked for anyone in Twisp (and we have done a few other odd jobs around town), our employer of the day feeds us a midday meal, harkening to a bygone era. I feel like a transient laborer of Whitman’s time and not of my own.

My back to the increasingly powerful sun, I stand between rows and examine the hanging fruit. I extricate my ladder from the tree it’s under, tip it toward me, thread the back pole out from between gnarled limbs, and shimmy it over to the neighboring tree. Positioning it just right, I lean forward again and slip the pole over a Y-shaped joint, finding earth and giving the bottom step of the ladder a couple of quick stomps to make sure it’s stable. Then I’m back up in the leafy treetops, savoring the golden light and distant craggy peaks, the light breeze blowing fluffy white cumulus clouds through a cerulean sky. I hear Walt Whitman again, the fall air suffused with the drumbeat of his song:

To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens...

My gaze sweeps across the landscape, over the fields of onion and cabbage to the giant flowers in Mary Ann’s garden and the donkeys munching on grass and clover in their pen, past our tamarack tree and trailer, down to the bend in the gurgling river and up to the glaciated peaks in the distance.

To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts...

I hear Richard laugh heartily somewhere down below, and see Jocelyn on the lawn setting out a table and six chairs, a big block of cheddar cheese and a sharp kitchen knife.

To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,

To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

I can’t know, but quite possibly the open road will lead back to Twisp someday. For now, there is a green shadow etched on the ventricles of my heart: the perfect outline of a serrated apple leaf.