In the Oregon woods, free time seems like the norm, and that scares me.

By Zach Walker

The best part of my day today was pouring a stew of compost, dried algae and liquid fish guts onto a bed of cabbages from a five-gallon bucket. The brown, sour-smelling mixture splashed up from the dirt and soaked the spaces between my toes and the leather straps of my Eddie Bauer sandals. I was the only person in the garden and the whole chore lasted 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes meant more than the other 1,430.

I’m a garden intern at The Oregon Extension, a fall academic program at which I’ll be a student come late August. I live in Lincoln, Oregon, a mountain town so small that when I search for it on Google Maps, it directs me to Lincoln County, an area of coastal towns 289 miles up Interstate 5. When the semester begins, I’ll be surrounded by 27 other college students from across America, 100 pages of assigned reading each night and multiple daily discussions about nature and community and what it means to be human. But until then, I’ll pitch mulch from a Kawasaki Mule and pour organic “compost tea” on cabbage beds.

My boss, a bearded man skilled in farming and banjo plucking who picked me up from the airport in an old Subaru Outback with the windows down, has been on a backpacking trip with his wife and two sons for the past three days, so the other seven interns and I have had some time away from the garden.

Free time looks different in Lincoln. There aren’t dorms full of roommates ready to play “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” or Bob Ross painting parties sponsored by Student Activities. And my parents aren’t just gone for work. Everyone who knows me is 1,900 miles away and my cell service works only half the time if I’m within 100 feet of the mail shed.

To fill the time between cooking fried eggs and turnip-chicken pasta, I’ve leaned on my own company. Yesterday, I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in my hammock for an hour. The day before, I biked down a ravine to a mine spotted with industrial construction vehicles. And I’m constantly playing podcasts to convince my ears that someone wants to talk to me.

I realized earlier today I hadn’t spoken in six hours. I’d listened to Pete Holmes interviewing comedians on a loop but hadn’t offered anything in return. I thought about the reporting I could have done in that time. The creative work that would have made me more marketable to a future employer. My chest tightened as I made a mental to-do list with none of the boxes checked.

Each day has had its one or two shining moments, like when I sang “Rivers and Roads” with my cabin neighbor above a rocky gulch or discussed the history of newspapers with another bearded man who will be my professor in the fall, but those moments still felt like missed opportunities.

The jarring disconnect that came from uprooting myself from everything I’ve known brought with it wonder and opportunity but also dragged along a creeping sense of loneliness and responsibility. With every free hour I’m given, I feel the need to produce something in the same way I would if I were still a Bethel student. I convince myself that I should be pitching freelance story ideas to the local community paper or starting on my memoir or writing letters to every person who has ever smiled at me.

I’m used to operating off the to-do list I write every morning in my Field Notes pocket notebook and using the few spare hours to connect with friends and family over shared meals, video games, podcasting and conversations about the latest season of “Survivor.” Free time has always been a gift. In Lincoln, it seems like the norm, and that scares me.

Back home, I’m a journalist. Just one week before I left for Oregon, I covered the peaceful protests in the Twin Cities and spoke with an indigenous woman about the impacts of George Floyd’s death on her community. Here, it took me two hours to download the documentary “13th” onto my laptop.

Back home, I’m a writer. I spent my nights last semester crafting a 30-page short story about an old man on a scavenger hunt. Here, I haven’t written anything outside the pages of my journal other than this column, which was born out of a gnawing need to feel useful.

Back home, I’m a best friend. On my last night at home in Wisconsin, I played Mario Party with the one person who makes me smile more than anyone else. Here, I’m the new guy who laughs too loud and talks about the Oscars.

Back home, I’m a son. I canoed through the Boundary Waters with my dad and helped my mom cook my favorite tacos before my flight lifted off. Here, I’ve explored hiking trails without my dad there to help read the map. And I haven’t tried making tacos.

I’m more alone than I’ve been in a while, and I feel the need to compensate with achievements. The work, the process of doing – that will be my newsroom, my writing partner, my best friend, my parents.

I spent this morning wandering trails and casting a line for bass and hanging my wet laundry on a clothesline, but my effort felt worthless. Like I was wasting time I could have used to make myself better.

I came to the Oregon woods out of a desire to slow down. My life back home often feels like a marathon sprint speckled with fleeting moments of rest. I wanted to remain in one place and dig in. So, why do I now fear this slowdown? Why do I feel the need to take the very thing that I asked for and turn it into a disguised version of the thing I wanted to escape?

As a journalist, a writer, a best friend and a son, I crave to make a difference. I reported on the George Floyd protests to make myself feel like I was contributing positively to a community that’s hurting. I write to understand the world and persuade others to do the same. And I foster relationships out of hope I can brighten somebody’s day. But when the system in which I operate is stripped away and replaced by wood stove-heated cabins and organic gardens and hiking trails and fish guts, I can no longer feed those cravings in the same ways.

Dumping fish guts from a five-gallon bucket was the best part of my day because it was a concrete sign that I was worth something. I shouldn’t have to write a column or grow a garden to feel that.

My short time here is revealing that my idea of achievement and worth is fractured. I don’t quite know all the subtle ways in which I can make a difference, but I’m beginning to understand that it doesn’t always have to look like days of reporting on cultural movements or pages of creative writing. Differences can be made through fish guts.

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