My frayed hem suffered from the dampness and dirt of hitchhiking through six Oregon counties. I could feel the bricks through my ragged, blood-stained flats. I squinted as I looked up, flicking the rain away with my eyelids. The statue’s patina face, neither forgiving nor welcoming, glanced away, permanently fixed on the sidewalk across the street. She was unconcerned with my past, stoic like all the faces passing me on the street. Yet, her extended arm reached down toward mine, reaching for me at a time of unhampered need. I crumpled under the weight of this gesture. I slumped against the nearest pole, not ready to break eye contact with the crouching statue above. I placed my sign in front of my crossed legs. My bright red fingernails still had dirt caked underneath.

A passerby dropped me a dollar. 

I arrived four months ago to a farm in a squarish Western American state. In retrospect, I suppose I was careless. I scanned anxiously through the email, anticipating a ranch in Colorado or perhaps a hippie commune in Vermont. When I read the nearest town’s name, I googled it and had to zoom out several times to find the dot’s closest brother. Though terrified and disappointed, I told myself to accept the adventure. Eighteen, I am told, is the age to coast the waves of uncertainty. I chose to surrender and accept my tenure.

I sat for more than two hours on a firm seat of vacuum-sealed skirts and work clothes filling the interstices between a vast shoe collection. The six hours of flying left me slumped with my head resting on my knees. I opened my eyes to worn shoes and frayed jeans standing in front of me. A haggard couple of an uncertain age stood before me.

“Welcome, sister,” said the woman as she grasped a hold of my hand. The creases connecting her mouth and nostrils were deep, embossing her small mouth in a frown. Her hair was thick, grizzled, and greying from a light brown. The man looked about the same age, give or take a decade. His hand nearly crushed mine when he shook it. His eyes were nearly black, like his unkept hair. I distinctly remember shivering after he let go.

We exchanged names, and they led me to their rusted truck. He terminated my small talk as he tossed my luggage in the truck bed and said, “Soon you’ll realize you don’t need any of this.” I felt his forthright coldness but knew he didn’t mean any harm. He was probably right, but I hadn’t really known what I was packing for.

The drive lasted half a day, and I spoke rapidly about my flight as the man shifted the rattling gear stick. I rarely got a response or smile. They made me feel stupid for asking questions, meeting each question with a lengthy pause. “Soon you will see, sister,” they kept saying, as if it were some monastic chant. We wound through moss covered forests under a sky of an eternal gray. A delicate spray formed unbroken rivulets down the window like a road map through Appalachia. After the first two hours, I let the wipers do the talking. I looked down at my hands, noting that I had unknowingly been chipping away at my nail polish.

The rain eventually ceased and with it ended the unbroken chain of green. The brown before me hardly described the Northwest I had expected. My view traded a leafy shelter to a dirty vastness I hadn’t known to exist. A handful of pines dotted the desert, and a smell I couldn’t quite place flooded the car.

“The sage is how we know we’re almost home,” the woman said. She inhaled deeply. She seemed slightly more at ease.

An hour later, we rumbled down the final gravel road of the day. I spotted a house a half mile before we arrived. The immense emptiness of the valley made the destination certain. We approached, and I had hardly taken a breath in ten minutes. Something deep in my chest kept me from exhaling. I had not seen another car, asphalt, or structure in an hour. No powerlines, either. If the car were to ever break down, it would be a full day’s walk just to reach an asphalt road.Probably another day’s walk to reach a town.

The house was primitive. Built on scrapwood, the structure was hardly sound. The place felt timeless, as if it had been here forever and would continue to pass each hour until earth breathed its last. My hosts’ room was lofted above mine, and I heard each of their steps creak above me. When I laid down my luggage, a cloud of dust exhaled from below it. There was no electricity and no running water. The toilet was forty feet from the entrance, and I could feel the draft in most areas of the ground floor. In one corner of the room, I could see straight into the fields. The house, it seemed, felt colder than outside. The sun was setting, so I lit the candle next to my bed. I laid on my bed and watched the flickering on the slats above.

My first month on the farm was misery. Each morning I cracked through the insufficient comforter before the sun had time to defrost. I’d fix myself some tea on the propane stove before crossing the frosted yard to feed the chickens. By breakfast, I’d have completed two hours of work. With spring only a month away the to-do list was bottomless. I never complained because both my hosts woke earlier and worked later than I. They had an inexhaustible well of energy here, though they never struck me as particularly happy.

We would have conversations at dinner that reflected the food itself: sparse and unmemorable. We would chat about the weather every night. I learned from them the subtleties of greyness that would make for a shower or warmer temperatures. Then we’d briefly discuss the tasks for the following day before one of the hosts would clear the table. I would take this as a gesture for me to retire to my room to gaze at the flickering ceiling, wrapped in all my blankets and jackets I owned.

During the day, I was always occupied, so I never thought. I just executed my tasks as asked. But at night, staring at the ceiling, I’d let my mind drift. I’d think about how awkward it would feel to make my hosts drive me to the nearest station. One night, I even considered running away. I estimated that it would take five hours to jog to the nearest paved road. I even halfheartedly looked for my tennis shoes, only to find that I had apparently forgotten to pack them. I was surrounded by an unpopulated desert, to leave would be to risk my life. I blew my candle out, watched the wick turn to black and then let the world fade to black.

After the first month, my hosts trusted me enough to let me join them to the grocery store. Twice a week, we’d drive an hour with the hosts to the closest town. Every once in a while I’d learn a bit more of their past lives. They weren’t raised on a farm, but came here out of disdain for the urban lifestyles that afflict so many Americans. They viewed their pasts as a long mistake filled with unnecessary things: clothes, cell phones, the Internet, and difficult jobs. They were elusive when I’d pry, so I learned to let the stories come to me. Our trip would dictate the end of the conversation.

While my hosts shopped, I’d checked out books from the library, make a call at the general store, and drop letters at the post office. I’d chat with whoever I could to fill my unmet social quota before loading the groceries in the car and driving an hour back to the house.

“Did you remember candles?” the woman asked her partner.

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “Always need to remember candles.” Then he looked at her and almost cracked a smile. In relative terms, it felt affectionate, warm even. Under their somber demeanors, I was starting to detect the subtleties that made their relationship make more sense.

The gray fell into darker shades as the sun set each night. I’d then light a candle to continue reading. Reading by candlelight became a ritual for me. I didn’t have the internet or a phone or any mechanized machinery in my room. Relative to the rest of the objects in my room, the flame stuck me as a modern comfort. A flame is a menace though, even when confined to a wick. It lengthens and whips around with changes in pressure only it can detect; it bends horizontally when a curtain draws near; papers creep close as the flame shortens from asphyxiation on the wick’s last tendrils. I was mesmerized and troubled by its presence. Moments before blowing it out each night, I would tempt it, wetting my fingers before running them through the flame’s peak. Or I’d unplug a piece of my blonde hair and watch the cells writhe, blacken, and turn to a cauterized odor. When ready, I’d purse my lips and blow and watch the thin light of smoke tangle its way through the centimeter-wide spaces between the floorboards above. And as the smoke rose, the light from the hosts’ room fell, striping my room like piano keys or an old timey prisoner’s costume.

My sentiments toward my situation began to change as my callouses grew thick and the days grew longer. The work became second nature, and I began to appreciate the soil under my nails. I found strength in simplicity. Something was transforming inside me, and I told my host parents that I no longer missed the Internet. I didn’t feel the need to call home any more, and I didn’t care much for what happened outside our small patch of Oregon.

I grew closer to my hosts, too. I started to detect more subtleties in their seemingly stoic outward bearing. It felt like I was recalibrating my understanding of human emotion. Their facial spectrums were smaller than the average person, and they seemed to express excitement, stress, and frustration without changing their mouth, eyebrows, or tone of voice.

As I gained more revelations about their personality, I developed a bit more of an understanding of their worldview as well. They had distilled a lot of thought into their brief sentences and eliminated all those phrases we use to fill the air. They spoke with intention and left me thinking long after the conversation had wrapped up. I, too, started to think more consciously about my word choice. I babbled less.

I felt myself merging into their lifestyle, and, as I started to adjust, they found in me an ally with whom they could share their worldview. With greater frequency, they referred to their lives as journalists in Chicago.  They called it their “distracted life.”

“We’d wake up several times a night needing to reply to Tweets and e-mails,” the woman said. “I don’t think I ever slept more than three hours at a time.”

“Work is an obsession for Americans. We want everyone to know how hard we work. We attach our identity to our career,” the man added. “One day I lifted my head from my phone and asked myself, ‘Why?’ In that moment I severed my career from my identity.”

I initially felt defensive when the hosts attacked the lifestyle I, too, operated in just a few months before.The feeling that I needed to defend my upbringing eroded over time, however. I started to listen to them, learn from their experience. Why do need to wash our hair with chemicals? Why do we need for our house to smell like detergent to feel clean? On our next trip to town, I brought my bottle of shampoo, my makeup bag, and my scented lotion. I dumped them in a trashcan outside the library.

Midway through my third month, the hosts informed me that they would be retrieving another volunteer from the airport. Without room in the truck, I offered to stay behind and relish the final hours of having the room to myself. They returned that evening with a terrified looking volunteer. I recognized the fear in her face but saw myself as a foil. The other volunteer hadn’t built up my resilience. Soon she would see that she didn’t need the internet or makeup or calls home. She would learn to love the life humans were intended to live.

Only two days into her stay, she asked the hosts to take her back to the airport. Her close mindedness shocked me in light of all the hosts had already done for her. They refused, saying they wouldn’t make a trip to town just for her. The volunteer complained about them to me, and I quickly came to my hosts’ defense. I told the volunteer that they are good people with limited time and gas money. She could wait until Tuesday and catch a bus from town.

When Tuesday arrived, I heard my host parents sneak out of the house and roll out the driveway. The volunteer, who slept a less than ten feet from me, woke up and ran after them, screaming for them to stop. She came back crying. She refused to help me with the labor while the hosts were gone.

Instead of preparing lunch, she prepared conspiracy theories about how our hosts were forcing us to stay here against our wishes. She said they had stolen her tennis shoes so she couldn’t escape. Her wallet, too. She attacked me, too. She said I had been indoctrinated. She didn’t understand that our hosts just wanted her to adjust and learn to love her surroundings the way I had. She didn’t see that the hosts cared about her, that the hosts just wanted what was best for her. She just didn’t seem to get it. She left crying, and I fell asleep that night not feeling any pity for her.

“Hey!,” she whispered. I woke up to her crouched over with me with her backpack. Her things were packed.

“I’ve got everything we need. Do you want to come with me?” she said. Her face was excited but terrified.

I shook my head. The nearest town was at least a two days walk away and only a handful of times had I seen another car on the way.

She didn’t ask twice, and in the morning she was gone along with our house’s food and my wallet. The hosts were furious. I denied hearing her leave. The man stormed out, started the truck and sped off. I suspected that he was going out to save her from her stupid decision to return, but he returned with bags of groceries instead.

“Did you get any candles? We’re almost out,” his partner said.

“No because the store’s out, too. They won’t get another shipment for three weeks,” he replied.

Within the week, life had returned to normal. Without a second volunteer, we struggled to get our work done before nightfall, but I enjoyed the peace that resumed in the wake of the other volunteer. I was down to my last candle, which I didn’t mind so much because the sun set late enough that I could continue reading. I would usually just lay in the dark for an hour before I was tired enough to fall asleep. As I stared at the floorboards above me, I started to think about the volunteer. She had been so out of place here that she chose to risk her life rather than stay. She thought we were crazy. She didn’t understand. We were the ones who were living the way humans were supposed to live.

A month shy of my four month anniversary, I had only about an inch of wick left on my last candle. The shipment, which was supposed to have arrived the day before, was another two weeks out. I had grown restless in the past week, and hearing the news of the delay crushed me. That night I thought about the other volunteer again. I had stumbled upon her shoes at the edge of the field earlier that day. She had apparently ripped them up and buried them there. She must not have known she’d need them. She had stashed some of my things there, too. Among them was a bottle of nail polish. I picked it up and put it in my pocket.

In the darkness, I couldn’t figure out why the other volunteer had destroyed her shoes and blamed the hosts. The thought so disturbed me that I groped around for the matches and lit the stump of the wick. I looked at my belongings: the unopened suitcase, my stack of library books, my dirty jeans. I opened up my suitcase of city clothes and slipped on a pair of flats. I looked down at them as the flame began to flicker. I dug through my suitcase until I found other treasures: my spare purse, clothes without stains, and earrings. I dug into my pocket and grabbed the nail polish I had found earlier that day. I applied the red to my nails and admired them in the dimming glow. I put on the flats, the earrings, and clothes. I had a dizzying feeling from dressing up to match my former life. The flames flickered some more as I rotated before the window. I looked at my reflection in the window and saw someone I recognized staring back at me. And as the flame breathed its last, my reflection was replaced with a view outside. The full moonlight had broken through the clouds. I realized I hadn’t seen the full moon since arriving.

I could still smell the smoke as I walked out of the room into the moonlight. I was cold when I crossed the lawn, and I could feel each piece of gravel through my flats. I kept walking without thinking about where my motions were taking me. I followed the road for a couple of hours, waiting for myself to turn around. Blisters formed on my feet by about the fourth hour, and I was hobbling by the sixth. As the sun rose, I noticed my blood had stained the rocks I had walked on. I thought about my hosts waking up and discovering my absence. I imagined the man firing up the engine, but there’d be no reason to go to town as I had not stolen anything.

To leave a place is to leave a life. When you’re young, and maybe even when you’re old, noteworthy change comes with a clean break.

I heard an engine in the distance and wondered if he had in fact decided to come looking. As the vehicle approached, I realized it was not my hosts’. I stuck out my painted thumbnail. The vehicle slowed.