Pennies from ’97


Today’s Daily Post prompt: Buffalo Nickel. “Dig through your couch cushions, your purse, or the floor of your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find. What were you doing that year?”

My penny says 1997. It took me a moment to remember, but now it’s all flooding back in. At the start of 1997 I was living at Breitenbush Hot Springs, a retreat center in the Oregon Cascades with hot springs and yoga and workshops. It’s a beautiful place on the wet side of the mountains just under the (sort of) dormant volcano we call Mt Jefferson. How dormant can it be with hot springs all over the place?

The retreat center is run by a community of individuals organized as a cooperative corporation. I had the dubious pleasure of being the Fiscal Shaman, an alternative moniker for CFO. It made sense to me. I would venture out into the “otherworld” of business and bring back wisdom for my tribe. Really. I learned a lot about explaining finances in such a way as to avoid watching everyone’s eyes glaze over. Not an easy task.

1997 marked my fifth year living and working at Breitenbush. My daughter would be four years old that summer. It was in the spring, while on a brief vacation to Vashon Island, that I decided it was time to move on and settle down somewhere else to raise my girl. You would think that a close-knit community in the beautiful Cascades would be an ideal place to raise a child. And in some ways you would be correct.

But Breitenbush was a community of individuals raised, usually, in a culture of individuals. When confronted by the daily reality of communal living, compromise and sharing, many folks eventually run screaming. If the daily politics didn’t scare you, the weather could. Often people were hired for the summer season, and by the end of the summer they’d be done with the experiment. Or sometimes they were still game, and if hired permanently they’d make it through to late fall when the steady, week-long downpour of rain drove them batty. The storms that blew through the Willamette valley would pile up against the mountains and just rain. For days. For weeks. You had to love rain. If you didn’t get off on the vision of raindrops plopping into the hot tub reflecting grey skies, you were in trouble.

If you made it past the rain gauntlet, you would be rewarded by the beauty of the winter snow. Winter snow without having to drive in it. Without having to shovel it if you weren’t on the maintenance team, unless a snow-crisis occurred. Then everyone would pitch in with shovels to save the old, decaying deck at the main lodge. (Since replaced, no worries.)

Back in 1997, the usual maximum folks would stick it out was three years. Don’t know why, it just turned out to be an average. There were all kinds of ideas about why it was hard to stay, the favorite being that we were living on a volcano on top of bubbling hot water. Such energy was hard to stay put on, not unlike the way lobsters will try to climb out of a pot of boiling water.

Crustacean analogies were common for a place so far from the sea. Like the crab-pot analogy favored by one resident. Now I’m no fisherman, nor crabber (crabber?) but the idea was that if there were enough crabs trapped in a crab pot a resourceful crab could climb over the others to freedom. But the story went that the other crabs would grab that one and drag him back down to share the fate of the majority.

I don’t know if that is true, but it says a lot about modern American communal living.

1997 was the year that I realized that if I wanted my daughter to form stable, loving relationships that lasted more than a few months to a year we’d have to live somewhere else. Especially if she wanted to have those relationships with other children. There were other children at Breitenbush but it was a challenging place for parents to live.


Like most of society here, housing was an issue. There was never enough of it. And it all varied enough that there was quite a tussle for what was considered prime. And by “quite a tussle” I mean some of the most excruciating meetings were the housing meetings where sweet, groovy people turned into vicious clawed creatures vying for territory. To qualify for housing you had to work full time. Forty hours per week. Fine if you’re not a parent, but tough on the kids, especially babies, to be dropped at daycare all day, five days a week. I know it’s a norm in American society, but I don’t think it’s all that good for the kids.

So if a couple with a child wanted to live and work at Breitenbush, and one parent wanted to care for the child at home, the family of three would qualify for a single room in a house or a tiny house. Or a tiny trailer. By tiny house I mean about 120 square feet. No kitchen. No bathroom. The kitchen was a separate building and the bathrooms were separate too. It was this arrangement that influenced my decision to move on as well. When my three year old needed to pee on a cold, dark winter night, bundling her up for a walk down the path to the bathroom got old. I began to fantasize about indoor plumbing, imagining her shuffling in her pj’s down a warm hallway to a real bathroom.

So 1997. The year I moved away from hot springs, tall trees, fresh air and a tiny house. I traded all that for indoor plumbing and a solid community of friends.

It was worth it.

PS Breitenbush Hot Springs is an amazing place to visit. Despite the challenges of raising a toddler in the woods, I still have a deep love for the place. Click here for their website.


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