Joe Conway walks along the rocks of the Maine coast. Photograph by Mark Yaggie.
You recently published your first book. What's it about?
My book, Get Back Stay Back: 2nd Generation Back-to-the-Landers, came out a little over a month ago. It’s about the back-to-the-land movement. Specifically, I was interested in what actually happened when a whole generation fled cities back in the '60s and '70s and tried to get away from it all. I ended up meeting a bunch of kids who are picking up where their parents left off — despite all the lessons learned back then about how hard it can be to grow your own food or build a house out in the woods yourself. Their approach is really different, you could call it “dropping in” instead of “dropping out.” They’re farming and homesteading, but working within the system to do some pretty inspiring stuff. It’s exciting and I think it has a lot of significance to those of us who dream about living a little more grounded existence.
How was it writing a book for the first time? It seems daunting.
It was pretty daunting! And it was definitely a lot of work. Thankfully, along the way, a writer friend said to me, “Well, I guess that’s why they say it just takes as long as it’s going to take.” For me, that was two and half years, which is actually pretty quick. The next one I think I’ll tackle in more manageable chunks—chip away rather than chop at it.
What's it like to live in Portland (Maine)?
Portland is great. My wife and I moved here almost six years ago from San Francisco, in part because we wanted to “get away from it all.” I didn’t really know how deep that tradition runs here, hence the book. As a town, Portland has a lot of exciting stuff happening right now. The proximity to great ingredients means that the food scene here has absolutely exploded. Personally, I love to cook and love living on the ocean, too. I can’t imagine not smelling the sea or hearing seagulls cry all day anymore.
Let's say we're planning our first weekend visit ... What's on your 'Portland essentials' list?
Morning has to start at Tandem Coffee Roasters. Our friends, Will and Kathleen Pratt, opened it a couple of years ago and it’s sort of the center of our universe here. In a town this small we’re basically guaranteed to run into all of our friends there before noon. Half of them work there. Tandem’s getting a lot of national recognition right now, and rightly so. The coffee is some of the best in the country, but the best part is that they’re just the best, nicest people, too.
After that we might hit up the farmers' market, which is actually even pretty good in winter these days. Then over to the waterfront to Standard Baking for a morning bun, which we always take to the ferry pier to watch the boats pass by.
If I’m not surfing, which I am if there are waves, we’ll either ride our bikes to the beach or drive so the dog can come. This is a huge dog town, and we have a huge dog, so that works out well.
At night, we’re partial to Pai Men Miyake, an amazing—and affordable—option. Prices here skew toward the “Vacationland” standard, so other awesome places like Eventide for oysters are more of a splurge than an everyday kind of thing living here. After that, we might go to a show at the art space/venue my wife runs (SPACE Gallery), or just hang out with friends. Summer means backyards, patios and bbqs. (Sounds like a blast! Can we stay at your place?)
What's inspiring you these days?
People who grow food for themselves and for others. My wife’s art. Longform.org and the Longform podcast. The innate sense of style that all of the African kids in my neighborhood seem to have. Cass McCombs. The Whole Earth Catalog.
What's the deal with your blog? If you had to choose ... wool, wood or whiskey?
Oh man, I started it back in California, believe it or not. My friend Peter helped me out with the name, I guess we chose it because we’re both kind of premature old men. I just love the idea of getting back to basics, trimming the fat, finding more time for what really matters. It’s pretty … Maine. Wool! I can’t live without it. Especially in a winter like the one we just had. Not even a question.
This is kind of a random question, especially given this is our first guest profile here on the blog. Should brands like UM be in the content game? Why/why not?
Totally! Why should the big brands have all the fun? I’ve had the privilege of getting to watch you guys build UM from the ground up—from afar—and it’s nice how it all just works together seamlessly. It’s like, the odds that Oliver is skinning up some goat path around Stowe right now are really very good. So yeah, pass that on! Inspire people, show then that it is possible to get out of the city and move to Vermont and build something rad.
Good, that's reassuring, Joe. Any exciting plans lined up for summer?
Only one plan: we’re having a kid! A little boy, due in June. I’m pretty excited. I keep saying that it’s like having a little readymade adventure buddy. It’ll be a little while before we get to that stage, right now I just can’t wait to meet him. Wow, that's exciting! Congratulations...
The surfing scene in Maine seems pretty vibrant. How is it different to other places you've been.
Surfing here is an entirely different beast all together. It does get good, but it’s very inconsistent. Still, for those few days where you get to sit out on some desolate beach and get a few to yourself, it’s worth it. Even with 6mm wetsuits, 7mm boots and 5mm gloves in the dead of winter.
It’s definitely gotten way more popular, but surfing is just doing the “Gidget” thing again right now. It’s hot, so people are interested. Everywhere, even Maine. I’m looking forward to summer longboarding, no boots or gloves right now. There’s nothing better than the feeling of hanging up the heavy rubber for the season.
Lastly (we have ask), which of our products do you actually use and why?
No problem answering this one — the Stellar Shave Cream! I hate shaving and only do it to clean up my beard once or twice a week. With that stuff, I can basically shave with a paring knife without a mirror on a boat in heavy seas and not cut myself—all in record time. It’s the best. Thanks Joe, you're too kind. This was fun. Hope to catch you in Portland, unless you make it to BTV first. We hope you sell a million copies of your first book, in which case the oysters will be on you. Photo by Mark Yaggie (markyaggie.com)