Digging America, one farm at a time

A year ago I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in International Studies at the University of South Carolina and trying to figure out just what I was going to do next.

So when my boyfriend, Nick Mangili, proposed we take a road trip, I was completely on board. Not only would we be able to see the country, but we'd able to visit graduate schools along the way.

Nick and I decided to go through an organization called WWOOF -World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

The group connects people who want to travel on the cheap with small farms in search of seasonal help. You essentially travel as a freelance farm worker. The farms provide room and board in exchange for work from people looking for adventure. You can spend a week and then move on, or stay for a season.

The program is geared toward people interested in learning more about organic gardening or farming, raising animals, alternative energy, making wine or cheese, or just about anything having to do with living a self-sufficient life.

We started saving. I had a job serving at a fancy Italian restaurant in Columbia, and Nick was working at a brewery in his hometown of Durham. We'd mostly need gas money for Nick's Saturn Vue, food and other necessities while we were on the road, and the occasional emergency. We calculated the distance to be covered and came up with $650 each to cover six months.

Interning on the farm

I grew up in South Charlotte around Sardis Woods, went to Providence High School, and ate lots of sugar cookies at Harris Teeter. As far as I knew, that's where food came from, and I never gave it a lot of thought.

Then in the summer of 2010, I got an internship at a farm in Hillsborough. (Yes, some farms actually have internships, who knew?)

All of the sudden I found myself gathering eggs from a dusty, chaotic chicken coop and pulling potatoes out of the ground. I loved it. As it happens, it's also where I met Nick.

So when he suggested a mega farming road trip, I was ready.

A few weeks after my graduation in December 2010, our expedition began.

We headed south to visit family in Florida, and then west, making our farm stops along the way to California and Oregon, then back across the country to Maine before returning home. We'd stay about two weeks at each farm.

In total we stayed on eight farms, drove through 30 states and one extra country, visited 15 major cities, and got far closer to some people than we ever expected. In just days, strangers became family.

Highlights of the strange

There are a few questions people always seem to ask. We usually get, "What was the worst experience of your trip?" Hmm...

Sleeping in our cramped car in Denver, camping through a torrential lightning storm in Missouri, walking four hours across Chicago on the hottest day of the year, losing my wallet (twice), or getting attacked by a rooster? I really can't decide.

Nothing broke that we couldn't fix, except our shoes. Even then, Nick cut out cardboard inserts for the holes in his soles.

Another question: "How long did you have to go without showering?" Official answer: Two and a half weeks. The ghost town of Mangas, N.M., is at fault for that one. We lived in a secluded handmade house of pumice-crete and wood. The power came from solar panels and water from a pump outside. There was no indoor plumbing. Nick and I proudly constructed a toilet for ourselves and learned to cook on a wood-burning stove.

The third question we're always asked, "What's the oddest place you've been to?" That would be Spanish Fork, Utah, where we lived in the basement of a radio station at a Krishna Temple. We were vegetarians for a week, sheared llamas, and were awakened by peacock calls every morning. And yes, we did some chanting.

We met some people who others might consider strange. The people of Marathon, Texas, would be a good example. The hostel we stayed at to break up our trip from Texas to New Mexico was a community of alternative builders. Their compound was created from low-environmental impact structures made from sandbags, concrete, rebar, blankets, glass bottles, soda cans, paper and plywood boxes. After spending a weekend there, I found they were just as happy with their homes and hobbies as my suburbanite peers.

Notable sites

We came back with memories from the road including all the universities and notable tourist sites we visited, which include: William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss.; Cafe du Monde in New Orleans; the Alamo; downtown Santa Fe; Disneyland; Knott's Berry Farm; Redwood National Forest; Chicago's Millennium Park and Buckingham Fountain; Boston's Freedom Trail; and the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. There was also a lovely weekend trip to Montreal.

A side note here: When we found ourselves in a jam with no place to stay on the road, we took advantage of an online site called Basically, it allows you to crash on someone's couch for a night. And we'll be forever grateful to the Russian couple studying at Tulane who let us barge in and pass out one night.

Lessons from the road

I've learned America possesses so much more than I ever thought it could, and I've never felt so American... Not because of a flag or promise of fortune but because of my experience in the untamed countryside. These Americans worked hard every day for what they had.

They were inventive, creative and proud of their lifestyle. And I didn't foresee the kindness and generosity that would come to us as travelers. Whenever we had a need, it was met. The heartier and more rugged the person, the more generous the spirit. And that holds a lot of value to a traveler.