A Journey North to Pelican Lake

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During my years at Bowdoin, I had promised my close friend and teammate Eric that I would visit him in Minnesota. For those that don’t know him, Eric is a man of the wild. He’s been known to go off the map for months at a time on epic excursions into northern Minnesota and Canada, embodying the antithesis of the semester’s-end platitude, “keep in touch.” During opportune times at Bowdoin, Eric would wake up at 3 am and head to strategic areas in the Maine woods, huddling in the brush and making turkey calls to summon his prey. While many of us might show up to tennis practice stressed by a particular workload or personal issue, Eric would lament over the morning turkey that got away.

Eric isn’t just a man of the wild. He’s a man of the Minnesota wild. (Not the hockey team, though he probably could have been given his athletic ability and, well, his favorite adage that “anything is possible” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyjOy7fRzs0]). In fact, Eric wrote one of the most resonant narratives I read as an undergrad about the environmental history of his family’s ancestral home in Minnesota. I’ll include his introduction here:

Time off in Minnesota means going North. It might mean driving six hours from your place of permanent residence in the Twin Cities or fifteen minutes to an isolated lake from an already isolated lake that you call home, but no matter the distance, the important thing is that you are going North. In the minds of many, a trip South is reserved for college students, the elderly, and those of weak constitution who can’t handle the weather. Whether journeyed monthly or once a decade, a trip North is a pilgrimage traveled by countless devout Minnesotans across the state. North was a place to escape the pressures of home or the congestion of city life. Born and raised in the North Star State, my experience and the experience of four generations of my family that have preceded me have been no different.

Pelican Lake sits at the center of my family’s ancestral geography. On the Southeastern shore of Pelican Lake, 8367 acres of deep blue, gin clear water spilled onto the landscape of central Minnesota, my family’s cabin sits nestled on a short ridge dotted with oak and white pine. When my great-great Grandfather Willard Sparks spent his summers there, the cabin was described as quaint, or primitive, depending on your outlook; a single room opening out the back to a golden, sugar sand beach. The color of the grains seemed to be stained by the thousands of setting suns that have bathed our shore in a cascade of gold, yellow, and red light every day during dusk of clear summer days since it first emerged from the cover of glaciers. Together the sand and light gave our stretch of shore its namesake, Sunset Beach. Ninety-one years later, when I walk out the back door of my cabin I leave a four bedroom, three bath, all season home with a two car garage and full kitchen. Yet, I step onto the same golden sand. The lake rests quietly, exhausted from a day of playing with the wind. Rings of water emanate where fish have broken the still surface, and loons lure each other closer with their stirring calls. All of this growing stillness and subtle activity set to the ephemeral cascade of colors that accompany a falling sun. It is a scene that my great-great grandpa Will saw hundreds of times all those years ago; it is a destination for my family’s northern pilgrimage that connects me to a man I never met and rarely hear of. He created a place to go North, and I continue to follow in his footsteps, arriving at a place that has in many ways stayed the same, but that also has been profoundly changed over the last century.

To really understand Eric, or attempt to understand Eric, I wanted to experience him in his element. I knew this couldn’t just happen in the confines of Lubin Squash Center, home of the janky tennis stringer of years past, or the beer-soaked halls of Coles Tower. I would have to make the journey to Pelican Lake and see Eric in the Land of the Golden Gophers myself. And so I did.

It was October 26th, 2014, and I looked out from an airplane window at the rolling expanse of Minnesota wilderness. I remember thinking that the landscape reminded me of Maine, except with the prevalence of lakes substituting for rivers and ocean. It was late in the unfolding of fall, though the trees held to their leaves of orange and yellow and red with conviction. I could sense that the natural environment was much more saliently a context for human life here, a distinction I could draw from other parts of the US having lived in Southern California for much of the last four months.

I landed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and navigated my way to the shuttle service that would escort me the 2.5 hours north to the town of Brainerd where Eric would meet me. I couldn’t help but recall the opening line of Eric’s environmental history piece–“Time off in Minnesota means going North.” I was a fish out of water–or a fish out of lake more aptly–but all I knew was to make my way up north.

In the van, I struck up conversation with an old man who had grown up in central Minnesota. He told me he now lives in Alaska, where he spent most of his working career as a fireman. In fact, he had served as a guard at the entrance to the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which he said was a place of precipitous crime and disorder. The man gazed out the window and narrated much of our journey up north, commenting on the flora and fauna and some of the stark changes he observed in the built environment along the way. It was clear that this place evoked  great deal of memory. He told me had come back to visit a former girlfriend of his childhood, a person who has undergone a number of broken relationships in her life. I inferred from his drop-off location that he was staying in a hotel, but planning to be here for at least a few weeks, and so I gathered he was pursuing a substantive connection with this important person of ages past. People, place, memory–and so this man made his journey north.

 Eventually, darkness descended upon us. It wasn’t your typical half-mitigated darkness characteristic of most of the developed American landscape, but an overwhelmingly dark void obscuring most any vision apart from the immediacy of the highway and the luminous stars apparent above. I proceeded through an unfamiliar land, but Eric’s land no less, and I was excited to gain some vision in the dark with the help of his local stewardship.

We reached the town of Brainerd, and pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant. Sure enough, Eric was leaning against the hood of his car, set to receive me with his flannel and backwards hat. I gave him a big hug, and he helped me schlep my excessively heavy bag into his trunk. His car was filled with camouflage gear, fishing supplies–I was glad to see some things hadn’t changed. We went to a local restaurant-bar and caught up over food and beer, before heading back to his family’s cabin. The cabin is a cozy, wooden-furnished home with the amenities to combat the extremities of Minnesota’s seasons, while enveloped by an ethos of history and ancestry. Taxidermic largemouth bass and old photos hang on the wall, while one particular doorframe is marked with the height measurements of countless family and friends who have graced this place over the years. We walked down a set of stone steps to the edge of Pelican Lake, whose massive expanse was barely comprehensible in the darkness, aside from the spotted lights dotting the distant shore. I realize that deep in my subconscious, I had harbored an instinct that told me I needed to be close to the ocean to feel truly grounded in my life, but in this place, I could experience the real solace of home.

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I arose early the next morning as sunlight illuminated the cabin, and looked out at the beautifully vibrant lake before me. Eric had already prepared breakfast for us, which only made the experience that much richer. We decided to go on a walk with his dog Boulder, a tranquil yet loyal companion who very clearly constitutes an indispensable aspect of Eric’s identity and rootedness in this place. We trudged through the surrounding woods, where Eric showed me his hunting camera set up with night-vision images of bucks and other critters that had found their way here. He was intent on getting a buck one of these days, and a picture message I would receive weeks later confirmed my intuition that he would. We talked about our realities beyond college, and how great of a challenge it was to reconcile these different chapters of our lives. Selling fruits and veggies in California, living and working in the woods of Minnesota–what people and experiences and ideas would we carry with us across these distinct realms of existence? What’s the right balance between holding on to emblems of the past and embracing the novelty of the present? How do we meaningfully sustain relationships with people and places in a time when individual mobility is such a common phenomenon in our circles, and things so quickly change?

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We returned back to the house and made a fire on the beach, over which we barbecued our lunch. I cherished how connected I felt to Eric, the food we prepared, and the beautiful environment situating our experience in this place. I asked some questions about Pelican Lake’s fish population, and Eric responded with his keen insights into the ecological state of the lake. We decided to spend the afternoon fishing off his boat, with the hopeful prospect of providing dinner for the night. We gathered warm layers to confront the cool chills of the late autumn wind, and set out on the lake. Naturally, Eric ramped up the motor and sent us cruising over the surprisingly choppy surface of the water, and I rejoiced in an overwhelming state of freedom, joy and connectivity.

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We spent some time fishing in the shallow, vegetated waters of an inlet on the far side of the lake, where Eric snagged a few largemouth bass. These were beautiful freshwater fish that would make for a great dinner, and providing our own sustenance for the night was a rewarding prospect.

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We relocated to a deeper section of the lake, where Eric wanted to troll along a particular ridge at which the vegetation drops off to a more barren abyss. Here, he told me, was a great place to catch the big guys. We motored along for a while as our lines dragged behind us, and I stared up at the unbelievable expanse of open sky presiding over the rim of the lake. What an amazing place to be on planet earth. Suddenly, I felt a bite. I jerked my rod to set the hook, and started battling what I could feel was a powerful creature dwelling in the depths of this lake. My adrenaline was pumping, and Eric came to my side to help land the unknown fish soon to reveal itself. After an arduous struggle, I summoned this remarkably large freshwater pike to the surface, and Eric grabbed the line and brought it into the boat. “Wooooooooooooo” he yelled, and I responded with a blaring “yeeeeeeeeeppppppppp” as we shared this epic moment of utter elation out on Pelican Lake.

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We navigated our way back to shore, where we would fillet the fish in preparation for dinner. The pike was still alive, and I decided I wanted to be the one to put it out of its misery. It was a strange sensation of asking to kill the fish myself, especially since Eric had been relatively more used to this aspect of hunting and fishing, but I wanted to experience the visceral act of taking something’s life that I intended to put in my stomach. I thought: how often do omnivores pick out meat from the butcher, or the frozen food section, and completely dissociate from the inevitable death that creature had to undergo? The suffering and death of these animals is so distant from our realm of consciousness that we hardly think about it, often choosing not to think about it as a justification for particular dietary preferences, or an aversion to unappetizing “morbid thoughts.” Meat is so often considered a replaceable “product” occupying a particular space in these commercial establishments, not a remnant of a living being that lost its life and quite often suffered in finding its way onto our plate. As I bludgeoned this creature with a piece of driftwood, I could see the life leave its eyes before me. It was a powerful experience that was much more rattling than I could have anticipated, but so damn real in putting me face to face with the real sacrifice of what I chose to put on my plate. I would eat our pike dinner that night with profound gratitude, and deep sense of respect for the life of this beautiful creature.

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We woke up the next morning intent on going for a run. Eric had heard of some nature trails in a small town about a half hour away, and we decided to go there to get our exercise for the day. We stepped out of the car in the brisk morning air, and I had to make a conscious commitment to move my body around. Soon after taking off into the nature preserve, I relived my many experiences chasing after Eric on the various gnarly workouts of our college career. The notions of “a jog,” or “easing into it” were not in his vocabulary, and I had to book it just to keep pace. We weaved around on these narrow trails that ascended up to woody vistas, looking out on the expanse of former mines that had filled in as lakes. I reaffirmed my motivation to run in reaching these beautiful spots, but as we doubled back the way we came, we quickly learned that our main route back was blocked off. Of course it was. A cathartic few mile run turned into a cumbersome slog navigating back and forth around a series of nature trails, getting found only to get lost again. I suppose this was part of the Minnesota experience, and I had to embrace it at that.

We spent most of the rest of the day fishing on another lake behind Eric’s house, and caught our dinner for the night. I continued to be impressed by the depth of his understanding of the ecology of this place. At one point, Eric threw back a particularly large largemouth bass back into the water because he thought that it was probably a strong progenitor of the species in the lake, and ought to be present to sustain the health of the ecosystem. I realize that hunting and fishing are often considered brutal activities, and I recognize they involve quite a bit of suffering, but I do think they can provide a unique platform to connect deeply with the natural environment. They can induce a greater understanding of humans as a part of the natural world–something often lost in today’s circumscribed understanding of nature as somehow apart from ourselves–and a more intimate awareness of the implications of how we cohere with that world. It’s a complicated issue, one with which I continue to grapple today, but I feel more ethically grounded when I fish (I have never been hunting) with an appropriate ecological awareness, the intention to eat what I catch, and the compassion to minimize suffering when possible. As an avid fisherman and hunter, Eric embodies all of these qualities, and I am confident he is one of the most conscientious stewards of this Minnesotan environment you could find.

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The next day we drove down to Minneapolis, which offered a change of pace in meeting up with Eric’s sister and experiencing the surrounding city. Eric suggested that a great way to see the place would be to go for a bike ride. I should have seen it coming. A leisurely, “touristic” ride turned into an over 40 mile arduous trek through the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. I struggled to keep up with Eric as he careened around the dips and turns of the road, which for a good long while paralleled the Mississippi River. Surely my calves were not built for this kind of long-twitch muscle exertion. Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing a number of public parks, the modern cityscape, and the interaction of the built environment with natural water bodies, things I felt I could experience that much more closely through the physical activity of riding a bike along the way. Riding in the trail of Eric encouraged me to test my own limits, and to gain a glimpse of a lived interaction with this place through his eyes.

We said our goodbyes later that day, as Eric was waking up at the crack of dawn to drive back north. It was one of those inevitable points of departure I had come to know in the “real world” where Eric had a duty to head back to work, and I had a duty to visit my family back east before leaving the country for 9 months. I was definitely saddened to realize we wouldn’t be heading to practice the next day, or procrastinating on homework in the dining hall that night. This wasn’t a semester’s break where I knew Eric would head off the map for some time, only to return to our familiar stomping grounds soon enough. I didn’t know when I’d see my friend again. But at the same time, I felt a deep sense of contentment that I could share this experience with Eric. In some ways, I cherished our time together that much more because I knew it was limited, but also because I could experience him in the context of his home in Minnesota–a physical and psychological realm in which Eric is truly Eric. And for that, I was immensely grateful. I boarded a plane the next morning back to New York, but inside I knew my life journey would continue to bring me back north.

High on Life at Rainbow Falls

Dan and I concluded our “foray into the real world” together in mid October, where we headed up north to spend a week in Mammoth Lakes, CA and Yosemite National Park. Rather than include a written synopsis, I’ve decided to share this “high on life” moment filmed at Rainbow Falls. The journey continues!

The Veggie Man

 

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Soon after settling into life at the Brave House, I felt real pressure to get a job. As a senior in college, I had intellectually understood the importance of finding work after graduation, but did not entirely internalize that pressure until taking off on an independent life. For one, I realized that I had to be much more intentional about how I spent my time outside of the confines of an institutional academic environment. Nobody was scheduling classes or meetings or imposing deadlines I would be held accountable to, so the onus was entirely on me to build a lifestyle that would reflect my needs and values on an everyday basis. It was almost uncomfortable to have that much freedom in my day to day choices–there were no “right” and “wrong” answers that a educational environment might implicate, or perhaps more relevantly to my experience in college, much less of the affirmations and negations imparted by peers, faculty, and staff that might help guide my decisions. Finding work was one tangible means of constructing my own cosmos and building a baseline of purposeful structure on a day to day basis.

It was also a change in consciousness. Over the course of my cross-country journey, I became increasingly aware of the countless Americans who worked in seemingly unremarkable ways to make it possible for my friends and me to engage in such formative yet admittedly privileged life experience. At one point, we had stopped for food in the small town of Tonopah, Nevada, which emerged out of one of the most barren and lifeless landscapes I have ever experienced. The town seemed like a quintessential old western ghost town just holding on for relevance in the 21st century. A single lane road snaked through a series of built attractions conveying an almost desperate plea for our patronage, most notably the ‘Clown Motel,’ which caught my eye with creepy images of clowns glued to the facades of its tackily-colored rooms. This place radiated an ethos of perpetual transience, which was only confirmed when we took refuge in a roadside Subway. Inside the establishment, an endless procession of unexcited and road-weary travelers descended upon the sandwich window, mumbling and gesturing toward particular ingredients as if hunger was an inconvenient annoyance along a necessary yet overwhelmingly mundane highway route. A notably tall, adolescent clerk no more than 17-years-old conformed to their wishes, time after time, and fought off the face of death every time a patron insisted their sandwich be “toasted.” Thus commenced the inevitable 30-second microwave waiting period whereby the next patron would gesture toward another one of the unremarkably uniform sandwich buns and restart the process all over again. The tired-looking man at the cashier would wearily wrap the sandwiches in the same folding motion, time and time again, followed by a mechanical exchange of plastic, at which point the patron would set off with the same unappreciative, tunnel-visioned resolve to dispose of that sandwich and get on with the monotonous trek out of Tonopah.

As I navigated my journey across the country, and relied on the toil of more and more people along the way, I came to value the humble sacrifices of time and energy and wants of hard working people that made this journey possible. It was these seemingly insignificant actions that allowed my friends and me to embark on such rich shared experience without really contending for survival, and though I’d worked hard for the requisite savings, I knew that the sacrifices of others were critical to helping me build certain skills, find work, and cushion me from personally significant financial burden in order to accrue these savings. I realized that people like that young young Subway worker from Tonopah, Nevada constituted the backbone of my life and of American society more largely, and I was determined to have a stake in the working world myself.

Perhaps more tangibly, I was losing money. It didn’t take long to notice that most every personal demand came with a monetary cost. Things like food, drink, the gym, gas, tolls, toiletries, and leisurely expenses that had mostly been absorbed or rendered unnecessary by my lifestyle at college became a quick pocket drain. Whereas “fun money” was a largely a paradigm of the past–for things like eating out, going to a movie, or taking off on a trip with friends–spending money was now an indispensable aspect of meeting daily necessities in a way that wasn’t so sexy or readily enjoyable. Finding a job would allow me to support myself and help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with financial uncertainty.

And so, I was on the hunt. A fellow resident of the Brave House happened to come across a job posting on Craig’s List for a Sales position with a home delivery service of organic produce. That sounded interesting, I thought–after all, I was personally interested in food as an integral component of a healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, and had taken a course in food systems the spring semester of my senior year. I decided to apply. Soon enough, I heard back from the company asking me to come in for an interview. I dressed up and headed over to the office, only to feel overdressed once I realized the ethos of the place was much more casual. I liked that. The interview went well, and I appreciated the mission-driven nature of the company in connecting consumers to healthy sources of food and building awareness about where that food comes from. I received an email from the regional sales manager later in the day asking if I could start on Monday. I said yes.

I reported to the office on Monday morning for orientation, balancing a strange mix of excitement and nervous anticipation. I was joined by a small yet diverse group of new hires, which presented a welcome opportunity for me to cultivate closer relationships with new people from the Orange County area. We were given a break for lunch, and asked to report back at 2 pm for our debut into the world of sales. I dawned my new t-shirt and consciously hydrated as the bedrock of my responsibilities would be door-to-door canvassing. I was excited and geared up for the opportunity as it felt like a “raw” and authentic inauguration into the working world. For one, my job was physically demanding as I had to walk as much as 5 or more miles under the grueling California summer sun, presenting a steady physical challenge I craved. I was also making a tangible difference in in the lives of others–no matter how small–by selling a service that would bring organic fruits and vegetables directly to people’s doorsteps. Moreover, the entirely commission-based compensation structure meant that I had to really “show up” everyday, as I would only go home with as much work as I put in. As we set off for a residential area in the company van, I relived the nerves I used to experience before a big college tennis match. I was up for the challenge.

To kick off the day, I was encouraged to shadow a co-worker with whom I was partnered in a particular area of the map. We were dropped off in a quiet neighborhood with clipboards and a few laminated materials, and it wasn’t long before beads of sweat began gluing my backpack to my back. I accompanied my co-worker as she knocked on the first few doors, self-conscious that my presence as a young male creeping in the background might somehow thwart the prospects of a sale. The responses ran the gamut–nobody home, older woman who can’t speak English, frenetic pit bull, you name it.

After hearing a few sales pitches, I was determined to try it out myself. I walked across the street propelled by a strange fusion of confidence in my prospects and humility in thinking that my many years of formal education had culminated in this vulnerable and lowly exchange at the door of some unsuspecting, middle-class inhabitant of some random cul-de-sac in Orange County, California. I rang the doorbell, backing down to the bottom step so as to communicate the persona of a nonconfrontational “veggie man.” Clipboard in hand, my hopes of “fruition” hung on this awkward period of time between ringing the doorbell and the unknown prospect of an answer to come. No response. I knocked again. No response. I should have known from the shuttered windows and the empty driveway.

And so I kept going, over and over again. Eventually, people began to answer. And so I threw out my best change-up:

“Hi…uhh…my name is Sam and I’m from a…uhh…family-owned organic farm in the area…I mean we…uhh…deliver fruits and vegetables right to your–”

Before I could get through my nervous and embryonic sales pitch, I would often encounter a swift “Not interested,” or even worse, the “get the F*** out of here you F***ing solicitor disturbing the sanctity of my home” look that made the rest of my pitch feel like a fart in the wind.

And so I was rejected. Over and over again. The door-to-door journey was a true test in fortitude–it only took a few sales to make a day’s pay worthwhile but damn did some of those rejections sting. I discovered the hard way that my clipboard doubled as a defensive shield proving mildly effective in fending off the ferocious canine coming after me from the not-too-careful grip of the not-so-enthused homeowner. And perhaps even more disheartening, the 20-minute long conversation full of intrigue and enthusiasm and dietary soliloquy that would culminate in a, “oh…well…I think I’ll just check out the website but thanks so much for coming by.” I tried to console myself, I mean hey, at least I had a peanut butter and honey sandwich waiting for me at the van regardless of my output, not to mention my notoriously large calves were getting their fix for the day…

I kept going, trying to negotiate a proper mentality that would move me forward amid my struggles: ‘Cut yourself some slack, Sammy–who really expects results on Day 1?’ I thought. ‘It’s all about practice and experience to get better over time. Remember, it’s the journey not the destination that counts…’

‘Bullshit. That’s quitter talk! Get out there and sell me some Goddamn veggies,’ another voice told me.

I pressed on. It was all I could do during this allotted period of time before my ‘7:55’ pickup time in the van. Eventually, in a state of enormous fortune and triumph, I managed to pull my first sale. It was an older man with an interest in horticulture who was compelled by the convenience and affordability of our organic produce. He invited me into his home and showed me a small vegetable garden in the back, expressing excitement that he could diversify his access to seasonal fruits and vegetables through our service. He was incredibly gracious and commended me for what I was doing, in stark contrast to the perspectives of many of his neighbors. I left his home with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and spirit. I was the veggie man.

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Slowly but surely, I refined the art of the pitch. I would show up to the office at 2 pm, pound a cup of coffee, and knock on nearly 100 doors until daylight subsided and my voice grew hoarse. I spoke to young mothers, high surfer dudes, dog walkers, sketched-out children, shirtless old guys, and infuriated dogs when an owner was absent. I learned to study the perimeter of a house so as to gauge the demographic I was dealing with, and calibrate my pitch accordingly. I learned to adjust the pace of my voice and regulate eye contact so as to contend with looks of skepticality, impatience, enthusiasm, and an aversion to commitment. I learned to gauge whether Hispanic residents were conversant English speakers, and to redeploy my pitch in Spanish accordingly. I even learned how to balance my need for hydration with my knowledge that there were very few public restrooms in residential areas, not to mention the legal reality that getting caught urinating in public can render you a sex offender in California.

I had owners threaten to call the cops on me. I was offered jobs. I was told through a closed door that there’d been a number of recent murders in one area.  I had an older lady hug me thinking I was her grandson. I was offered beers. I had people give me advice on where I went wrong in my pitch, and how to improve it. I fended off dogs with my clipboard, and later, my iPad. I was told, “if this stuff will give me calves like yours, I’ve gotta try it.” I was told through tears that a resident just lost a loved one. I was asked if I could get people a job. I was greeted by a woman with a talking parrot on her shoulder. I saw the dispirited looks in people’s eyes when I told them our company didn’t accept food stamps.

The job exposed me to all sorts of realities in Orange County, and certainly complicated the preconceptions I had of the area from pop culture. I felt like I got a real pulse on distinct vibes of different parts of the county, all from the sheer act of knocking on someone’s door and seeing how they’d react. I was surprised that the wealthiest communities were often the most stand-offish and abrasive towards me. I got the sense that knocking on doors in these areas was perceived as a foreign challenge to the peace and sanctity of a home, and that these residents were above petty door-to-door salesmanship no matter what I had to offer. Indeed, I encountered many a sign that read, ‘No Soliciting,’ and proceeding was often a sure bet to get a good berating. I have to admit, I was sometimes self-conscious about permeating the private sphere of the home with my agenda-driven enterprise. But I’d remind myself of my purpose, and try to leave every door on a positive note no matter the outcome.

On the other hand, I had the most success in lower-middle to middle class communities. These people were almost always willing to hear me out, and very often enthusiastic about the prospect of convenient and affordable access to organic produce. I think these people would also more visibly empathize with my hard work out in the sun, offering me water and wishing me well even if they ultimately didn’t want to sign up for a box. It was easy enough to define my day by the number of sales I made, but these simple moments of human connection proved that there was intrinsic beauty in the daily door-to-door journey itself. I loved being the veggie man.

I produced better and better results over time, and started to feel real mastery over the art of door-to-door sales. Pretty soon my boss starting asking me to work a number of prominent events throughout Orange County. Health fairs, green expositions, beer festivals, corporate health fairs — these venues offered a welcome change of pace from the daily door-to-door grind, not to mention a more lucrative opportunity to sell. I would haul tents, tables, boxes, and samples of organic produce all over the county, packing and unpacking the supplies to market the product. My boss would give me advice and strategy in taking on these different events, and I refined my pitch to reflect the different environments in which I worked.

It was interesting to observe how these venues changed the dynamics of the sales process as well as my own psyche. For one, selling in a booth provided a much more credible platform than the more vulnerable proposition of knocking on a door. I was more empowered in the dynamics of a sale because people would more readily associate me with something bigger and viscerally appealing. Quite often they would take the initiative in coming up to me because I had the allure of the booth aesthetic, as well as the trigger words of “organic,” “food,” “local,” and “farms” to catch the eye. This was an interesting phenomenon as these usually uninformed passersby would assume a degree of vulnerability in deferring to me to give them my pitch, putting power in my hands, as opposed to the door-to-door paradigm in which I was more or less an intrusive problem until proven otherwise.

At the same time, I noticed my own psyche change as I navigated the high energy hustle and bustle of the event game. For one, I almost subconsciously accelerated the pace of my pitch to adapt to the cadence of events, as interactions became much more of a hit or miss commercial transaction than the relatively more purpose-driven and cultivated connection I might form with someone at the door. People were interested in what I had to offer, but wanted to get on with their lives, and I so had to be more and more of a hustler to close out sales there and then. I began to filter all the lively and diverse stimuli around me through the rather narrow prism of making sales, and in this realm of consciousness, I largely saw people as opportunities to make money. When I interacted with someone and it did not result in a sale, I almost always felt a sense of loss or insufficiency.

It was somewhat startling to introspect and see how tunnel-visioned I could be. Was this what it took to succeed in the world of sales? Indeed, my results spoke for themselves, as I’d risen to the top of our sales team, and managed to exceed 200 sales in consecutive months. But I wondered: can a motivation of rather narrow agenda-driven enterprise and self-centrism be a good thing for the world, even when I ultimately believe in the larger purpose that that self-centrism is channeled toward? To what extent is that self-centrism always connected with that purpose, and at what point could it obscure or even undermine that purpose? More immediately, is that mentality ultimately good for me? Would more sales bring me more happiness and a greater sense of self worth? If my sales were ultimately tied to my happiness and self worth, would I ever be content or good enough? After all, there was always that one couple on the fence that managed to get away. To the extent that I produced enough sales to cover my basic needs in life, which I did, what threshold of output was actually most conducive to my well being? After all, I was paid entirely on commission, and so the decisions of where and when to work were largely my own.

I never quite answered these questions, but I’m glad I took a step back to ask them in the first place. After all, it didn’t take long to realize that the day-to-day world of sales produced an infectious breed of self-centrism and hyper-competitiveness worth questioning before internalizing as my own, even if those values were ultimately bringing people organic fruits and vegetables. Much had changed since my humble first day fumbling words at the door, but sometimes I wondered how far I’d really come.

At the end of September, I gave notice of my intention to leave the company. This wasn’t fueled by disillusion, but because I wanted to take a trip up to northern California before returning to the East Coast to visit my family, as I was set to take off for Sri Lanka in mid November. I worked a 55-hour week to “max out” on my last of opportunities to finish on a strong note and save up money for my imminent travels. I raced around the county setting up for events, went door-to-door when I could, and pitched as many as a hundred people each day. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I understood the opportunity I had seized and was proud of my hard work, but I knew I had tipped the scale a little too far to the detriment of my health and  equanimity. I was ready to move on.

My last day was on Friday. I had worked a number of events lately, but was intent on one more day at the door. I showed up to the office bearing the weight of my emergent nostalgia, and tried to stay present as my mind cycled through the depths of my first “real world” work experience. As I left for the van, I hugged my boss and our assistant manager. They had believed in me and supported my growth in this chapter of my life, and I struggled to express my gratitude sufficiently. We took off in the van for a nearby suburb, and as we made our pilgrimage, I gazed through the window and watched time pass by.

We came to a neighborhood full of townhouses, and our team leader informed me that he was pairing me up with a new hire in the hopes that I could train him. He was a tall, middle-aged man wearing a rather ratty button down shirt. I figured the company was short on t-shirts, so this would have to suffice for the day. He had a pleasantly friendly demeanor, but harbored a discernible anxiety about the uncertain journey to come. He told me he was a recovering alcoholic, and that his family had undergone some troubling financial hardship as of late. As we stepped out of the van, he pulled out a cigarette and initiated small talk as we proceeded into the community of townhouses. He followed behind me as I knocked on doors and started giving pitches, intermittently sharing advice and reflections on the shortcoming I endured. I kept on going with the abiding resolve and meta-perspective that came with my last day, and eventually landed a sale. My partner was elated to share this experience with me, expressing his excitement that the product seemed to sell itself unlike the Kirby vacuum cleaners he’d sold in years past. He was determined to try it out for himself, and eager to adapt some of my technique as his own.

I decided to shadow him for a bit, and offer insight and support where I could. We approached a townhouse with an open garage, where a bald older man was tending to his pickup truck. My partner proceeded:

“Hello there, I’m…uhh…with a family farm and what we do is…uhh…bring fruits and vegetables and they’re…uhh…organics you know…I’m sorry this is actually my first day on the job.”

He froze up in an ultimate state of awkward uncertainty–a middle-aged man with a confused message for a confused inhabitant of this townhouse community. I stood behind him and I stood my ground, channeling the kind of retrospective affirmation of my own journey on the tremendous worth and potential of this man. This was just one door, and there were many more to come. And so we kept walking, and knocking, and hoping. That was all a Veggie Man could do.