A few years ago, writer and surfer Joseph Conway moved from San Francisco to Maine in order to capture the age-old American dream, the one where Americans own land and live off of it. It was a chance to free himself from the “rat-race” and “escape the complications of modernity,” but he wasn’t going to jump into it without fully understanding what it takes and how it can be done. Realizing he wasn’t the first one to have this idea, he started looking into the 1970s, when people were doing this kind of thing in bunches. What followed was a lot of conversations with a lot of interesting people. So he wrote a book. Here he explains a bit about where that book came from and what is at stake by committing to a back-to-the-land lifestyle.
So you used to be a surf journalist, and then what happened?
I still am, sort of—I just expanded my focus to other things like sustainability issues, which always factored into my work in surfing work. I haven’t done much surf writing in the past couple of years, mostly because I was working on this book. It was pretty all-consuming, but I did get to do some really fun little riffs for the back flap of The Surfer’s Journal on the side. That was a dream come true!
Did you leave journalism specifically to write a book, or did that idea come over time?
Books are such a massive undertaking. It’s hard to comprehend when you’re thinking about writing one—I initially thought Get Back Stay Back: 2nd Generation Back-to-the-landers would take me three or six months. It took three years! The whole time I was doing little pieces here and there for publications, and doing all of the other things that I do to support my writing financially. Some of it is writing, like work I’ve done for Hurley and Converse, but some of it is totally random just-paying-the-electrical-bill stuff like carpentry, mussel farming and cooking in a restaurant that my friend opened up.
The writing life these days requires a lot of flexibility. It can be a challenge to make it all work, but at the same time, it all gives me a lot of stuff to write about.
What was initially interesting to you about the 1970s?
When my wife and I moved to Maine from San Francisco six years ago, we had what I think is a common kind of fantasy about getting some land, having a barn, planting a great vegetable garden and doing our own thing. Maine has this reputation for being the kind of place where normal people—not millionaires—can afford to do that. For me, I dreamed of being able to live close to the beach to surf, growing a lot of my own food because I love to cook, and maybe even finally getting to build the mini ramp I’ve always dreamed of having in a barn for when the surf is flat.
What I didn’t realize is that a whole generation of people who are now my parents’ age actually did that back in the ’70s. Not necessarily the surfing and mini ramp part, but the rest of it. They bought big plots of land, some of them built their own homes or lived communally with friends, and a lot of them tried to achieve total self-sufficiency.
It blew me away that I hadn’t known about this thing, this movement. I guess I had always had some sense that at a certain point a lot of hippies moved to places like Maine and Vermont and Northern California, but that it was sort of “the thing to do” for a number of years escaped me.
So I figured that if these people had tried something similar to what I was considering doing, it might be smart to ask them how it went. That ended up being a very complicated question.
How did you go about finding people who were into sustainability and such?
I started out wanting to interview the people who were there in the ’70s to try to figure out what had worked and what hadn’t. Buying land with friends? Living communally? Growing all of your own food, a year at a time? If trying to step outside the box of modern life—to get away from it all, as we like to say in this country, and leave the rat race behind—was going to mess up my relationship with my wife or friends, I wasn’t going to do it.
I drove around a lot trying to meet those people. I stopped at health food stores and farmers markets, and got in touch with organizations like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. My sister lives in a very rural part of the state, too, and has a bunch of friends who are farming up there.
It didn’t take long to realize that, a) people have some serious feelings about the whole thing, and b) as some dude roaming the countryside 40 years later, getting an accurate sense of what had happened back then was going to be tough. The thing you start to understand is that life plays out day-by-day at a pretty slow pace. So even when someone chooses to drop out of society and do something pretty radical, they edit their approach incrementally, not all at once. Some people’s homesteads evolved over the years to have full solar power, hot water and gas-powered tools. To me, the fact that they stayed on the land and kept living the lifestyle—more or less—meant that they were successful. But other people would be like, “No way, they didn’t stick to their original plan to do it all as low-impact as possible.”
What were you looking for?
After a while I ended up meeting some of the “back-to-the-landers’” kids. A lot of them, after growing up with ultra-hippie parents, taking baths in ponds and eating just the most hardcore health food ever, ended up moving to like Manhattan and becoming investment bankers and eating nothing but takeout. But then some of them ended up moving away for a while only to realize that their parents had done a pretty incredible thing back in the ’70s—in a pretty incredible place.
Finally, it occurred to me that it might be best to ask kids who grew up in the lifestyle, and witnessed all of the challenges that are a part of trying to grow all of your own food (or tromping out to an out-house in the middle of winter when it’s -30 degrees because you don’t have running water), why they were still willing to chase a lot of the same ideals that their parents had. The approach has definitely changed, but they’re still going for it. That to me means that it’s an idea worth considering—figuring out how to sidestep a lot of the complications of modernity so you can enjoy life a little more.
What did you learn?
The first thing I learned was that I chose a good place to move to in order to research this kind of stuff. Americans have been obsessed with going back-to-the-land for a long time. The kids in the ’70s were far from the original wave—I mean, the Pilgrims were essentially going back-to-the-land, looking for freedom in this wild New World that they couldn’t find elsewhere.
Maine is significant because it’s where the figureheads of the modern homesteading movement—Scott and Helen Nearing—ended up settling. There’s a lot you can read about them, but they wrote this book called The Good Life, which served as a blueprint for a lot of people in the late ’60s to early ’80s. So it all started here, more or less.
I also learned how interrelated all the crazy stuff that went on back in the ’70s was. All that experimentation in surfing—board design, all of that—it fed off the same energy that a lot of these hippie homesteaders and farmers did. I think it’s hard for our generation to really understand how intense things got back then. The student protests, civil rights stuff, the Vietnam war, massive government crackdowns—it was nuts! (If you want to get a good sense for just how nuts, check out the documentaryThe Black Power Mixtape.) It was the era that spawned one of our favorite surfing words: radical. Back then, getting rad was just that—vertical hacks, mind expansion, dodging the draft, dropping off the face of the planet so you could do your own thing.
What was the hardest part about the whole process?
Still finding time to surf! Seriously, it was a lot of work. Lots of driving, lots of time standing in fields talking to young farmers, reading tons of stuff just to understand the basics of agriculture and the problems inherent in how we feed ourselves as a nation today. It was all fun though, just a different kind of fun.
Do you think this focus on sustainability and eco-farming will ever go mainstream? What’s holding it back or what’s pushing it forward?
That the interesting thing—in a lot of ways, it already has. All of this stuff we talk about today—organic farming, conservation, alternative energy—it all started its journey toward the mainstream back in the ’70s. It still has a long way to go, but progress is a process. Even the other “radical” stuff associated with hippies and the back-to-the-land movement like yoga, health food, compost—think about how popular all that stuff is today. Your average suburban mom is into them, which when you think about it, is pretty amazing considering how far out that stuff was 40 years ago.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I have to thank my friends—most of whom are in my life because of surfing—for helping to make this book what it is. My Maine-by-way-of-San-Diego surfing buddy Mark Yaggie shot all of the photos for the book (any of the ones that aren’t from the families’ archives). And Scott Massey, who’s the art director at Surfer and a nuclear reactor of inspiration and creativity in and around surfing today, and his buddy Masato Nakada, who designed the book. Also, Joey Dello Russo, who edited the book trailer together for me.