Nutrition student drops out of college in pursuit of permaculture, personal growth, and cross-country rides
Bailey Swan told her parents that she was miserable in college. Even as an excelling nutrition student at Indiana University, she vented how her report card wasn’t representative of her own food health ideals. She didn’t agree with the curriculum and thought that there was more to know than what she was being taught. Like Bailey, most young adults feel pressured to take the college route after high school. They read the books, take the tests, and form an orderly queue in the employment line. But if you’ve always been more of an upstream swimmer, hungry to learn lessons that can’t be taught from required reading, and are fearless in the face of adventure, then consider Bailey Swan your spirit animal.
Realizing that at age 21 she was already in debt $50,000, Bailey dropped out, readjusted her sights, and let her intuition take the wheel. She figured the best way to learn more food science was to go directly to the source. That’s when she made her game plan. She discovered World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a website that linked people to organic farms where they could work in exchange for room and board. She’d travel West on a motorcycle, stay at these farms and soak up all she could about nutrition, sustainability, and permaculture. In preparation, she sold her car and bought a 2010 Triumph Bonneville, and enrolled in an online course to study holistic nutrition. After 10 months of saving and working two jobs, in August 2016 she stuffed her saddlebags with supplies and set out to blaze her trail – a journey governed by trial and error and informed by wisdom from farmers and strangers she’d meet along the way.
When she first set out, the intensity of the ride hit her in the face, literally. What makes motorcycle travel unique is its direct exposure to the elements. She could feel the pressure changes, smell the air, and feel the rain – that’s when it was time to seek temporary shelter beneath an underpass or head to a farm to offer work in exchange for food and a roof over her head.
Farm life was enriching and educational. Bailey’s initiation included tedious tasks like building gates for chicken coops, mowing grass and pulling weeds. Later, she learned about permaculture design as well as plant and produce identification. A student of holistic health, she also sought practical information about the salves and tinctures that were part of farm life.
Of the five farms where Bailey lived and worked during her cross-country travels, the spread in South Fork, Colorado was her favorite. That’s were she was educated in the details of greenhouse and garden bed construction, as well as the benefits of composting. While there, she worked the fields, picking produce for Community Supported Agriculture baskets and learning how to preserve food. Around the same time, she completed her online nutrition studies and earned her certification as a holistic health coach. With this credential, she was welcomed as a legitimate expert, able to educate communities and children at farmer’s markets on how produce is cultivated and harvested, and to talk about the significant health benefits of locally-sourced produce.
But not all farms taught her about tomatoes and beets. In fact, her love for bikes and diesel mechanics almost landed Bailey her own business in the Ouachita Mountain area of Arkansas. She was staying on a permaculture farm managed by a 73-year-old woman who recently retired from the motorcycle business she had built from the ground up, even pouring the concrete and raising the steel frames. Looking to protect its future, she saw Bailey as the perfect successor to take over both the business and the farm, but Bailey, while flattered, knew it was too early in her adventure to settle down. With more to learn and worlds yet to experience, she declined the offer, mounted up and rode on.
After Arkansas came the Kansas corn fields, a boxed canyon in New Mexico, and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Then more farmers markets in Oregon, midnight cruises down California’s Pacific Coast Highway, motorcycle events with Babes Ride Out in Joshua Tree and dealing with stolen supplies and flat tires in the parched hills. She covered a lot of road . .. just take a look at her map.
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Over a period of four months, Bailey blazed more than 8,500 miles and crossed 17 state lines. Not only did she have more adventures and witness more sunrises than most of us will ever experience in a lifetime, she fed her passions and recognized her capabilities. Most of all, she received that unbiased broadening wisdom she had hoped for when she first set out. The farmers, who turned out to be her greatest teachers, opened their barns, garages, and refrigerators for her with nothing to gain but helping her in the moment. It’s a beautiful demonstration of the generosity and humility of humans. That’s incredibly important to remember when you’re young and green. You never know it all, but you have the opportunity with each new introduction along your ride to soak up all that you can.
May we all be blessed on our solo rides by time well-spent with the truly wise.