A man and his girlfriend hiking in the mountains purposefully ignore the trail signs to find a private place where no one would disturb them.
“We might get lost,” the woman says.
“I’m hoping we do,” he says, winking.
In exactly five more steps behind a rock that does not appear to have space behind it, they find themselves looking down onto a small city, almost like one of those planned community architectural model towns. The homes are neatly laid out on a grid of clean and orderly streets. The couple sees no cars. Bicycles come and go. Tiny people (from their vantage point) walk with purpose but do not seem to be rushed.
“Where are we again?” the woman says. Her name is Cynthia.
“I am not sure. I didn’t think there were any cities in this area. There weren’t any on Google Maps,” he says. His name is Joel.
“This doesn’t look right. I think we should turn around and try to find our way back. It’s getting late,” Cynthia says.
Joel looks over the rock to his left. The city spreads about a mile west, with small buildings that might be an industrial area of sorts. “I want to see it. Don’t you?”
“No,” Cynthia says, unhappy that this place didn’t appear on a map. What is it? A government testing place like Area 51? Or is it a bomb manufacturing city or an experimental site for crazy people that the government doesn’t want anybody to know about? “I’d rather go home.”
“Fine. I’ll get you back to the trail, and you can follow the signs. The paths back to the trailhead are very clearly marked. You still have hours of light left. And we saw people along the way. You’ll be fine.”
Cynthia is a bookkeeper. Her gift is her attention to detail and unfailing willingness to follow the rules, stay within the coloring lines, and have all her companies’ accounts balanced at the end of each day. It also means that hiking alone scares the lavender drops out of her deodorized panty liners. “I’ll come with you.”
After thirty minutes of switchback paths down to the little city, Joel and Cynthia are making their way down what looks like the main street in the town. “The people here are weird,” Cynthia says quietly to Joel as they walk. “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone or something. They’re staring at us, and no one is smiling. It’s like they’re afraid of us.”
“Yeah. We’ll just grab something to eat and drink and leave. Here,” Joel says, opening the swinging door to a small mom-and-pop type café that looks like something out of the 1950s.
They sit down at a booth.
“Can we see a menu, please?”
“We don’t have printed menus. But I can tell you what we have for lunch today,” the waitress says. She seems a little distant as she takes their order for burgers and fries, one of the two blue-plate specials for the day. “Oh, about your drinks? We don’t carry sodas,” she adds. “I can bring you some ice water.”
As Joel scans the café, he notices it is more like a meeting place than a coffee shop. Some of the tables have blackboards and chalk. One wall is covered by a whiteboard with an odd list like the following, of which there are several.
Manufacturing – Bob B.
Farming – Sandie S.
Baking – David A.
Technology – Alayna R.
Teaching – All
Clothing – All
“Look at those,” Joel says, also remarking to himself that they are the only customers in the coffee shop.
“Yes. I wonder what it means,” Cynthia says, also noting the emptiness.
The waitress approaches the table and puts down the burgers, fries, and waters.
“We’re in a hurry,” Joel says. “I hope this covers it. Keep the change,” he adds magnanimously.
She looks down at the $20 bill Joel left on the table “Sir. We don’t accept cash here.”
“Oh. Here’s my card,” he says.
“No, sir, we operate on credits. But since it’s clear you’re from out of town, we will ask you to leave something of yours that we can use.”
“Huh? Like what?” Joel says.
“Like a book or some paper or clothes. We can use almost anything. A pen. A water bottle. Sunglasses. A hat. Anything.”
“Wait,” Joel says. “Are we in the United States of America?”
“Yes. Geographically, but philosophically, we differ from all that has come to represent America and the economy.”
“Joel,” Cynthia says, “I have a book in my backpack.” I can leave it here and get another one when we return.” She tugs her backpack zipper open and pulls out the novel she was reading before they left on their hike. “Here you go, Miss.”
“No, Cyn. Don’t leave it. I want to see what happens if we don’t leave anything. Will they arrest us?”
The waitress turns and walks to the door of the café, looks up the street, and sees one of the other townspeople. “Please find Zen or Steve.”
She returns to the couple and says, “You’re free to do what you’d like. We will not arrest you. But we will ask that you not mention this visit to anyone back where you live.”
“And if I do?”
“We hope you don’t,” a woman says, coming in the door with a man who might look like Jesus, depending on whose picture one believes.
Joel is even more curious. “What the heck is this place? Are we still in the United States?” he asks the new people, as he had before.
“Yes. We have taken ourselves out of the latest problems and found solutions by creating a society where everyone contributes. There are no handouts, and where we minimize our carbon footprint in every way we can.”
Joel’s eyes drift to the whiteboard to see the lists again, and then he refocuses on the man and woman.
“My name is Steve,” the man says. “This is my partner, Zen.”
“I’m Cynthia, but you can call me Cyn. This is Joel,” she says.
“And my name is Zila,” the waitress says. “But most folks call me Zee.”
“But how do you manage without cars and fuel and lights?” Joel says.
“We use the sun for our electricity; we have bicycles. Our warmth comes from the stored sun, and we eat off the land. Whatever we can grow, we eat. Whatever we cannot grow, we don’t eat. It’s pretty simple.”
“What if no one is a farmer?”
“We generally invite people here that are excited to learn new trades and want to live a simple, unencumbered, creative life. Many people enjoy applying their old knowledge to something new. An electrical engineer tries their hand at baking. If they like it, they stick with it. If they don’t, they move on, and we see if someone else wants to try it. No one is forced to do something that doesn’t fulfill them. Life is too short.”
“That’s crazy good,” Cynthia says. “I’m a bookkeeper and like it, but I’m getting tired of it.” She thinks for a minute. “I’ve always wanted to try my hand at beekeeping.”
Zen smiles. “We have a beekeeper here, but she’s interested in trying something new. She’d be happy to teach you her trade and move on to something else. No one is stuck in their choices.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Joel says. “You have to do something for a long time before you’re any good at it.”
“Not necessarily. The wealth of knowledge in this little town makes it so there is usually someone who can help if you get stuck. And if you make a mistake, you learn something, as does the entire community. Mistakes are growth opportunities.”
Joel doesn’t believe it. He stands abruptly and walks past the couple to open the door. He looks up and down the street. People come and go, waving, nodding, pushing baby carriages, or walking dogs and kids here and there.
“Where is the school?” he says.
“There’s a building that serves as a school, but for the most part, kids teach themselves with the proper guidance.”
“I’ve read about that,” Cynthia says. “The kids are allowed to follow their curiosity to learn what they want. They are allowed to participate in experiments and real-life situations that teach them math and physics, for instance.”
“Not every kid wants to learn that stuff,” Joel says.
“No, but every economy needs tradesmen – builders, electricians, leather workers, and plumbers that don’t have medical aptitude, but can contribute plenty to the society.” Cynthia reads widely, listens to podcasts on her walks, and belongs to several nonprofit groups that seek to preserve the earth, celebrate people’s gifts, and maximize developmental collaborations.
Joel regards Cynthia, seeing a new side of her. Mild-mannered bookkeeper becomes cutting-edge eco-scientist. “What the fuck, Cyn?”
“I’d like to stay,” she says to Zen and Steve. The waitress Zee shakes her head imperceptibly.
“We appreciate your enthusiasm,” Zen says. “But we are a real democracy. We will vote. Everyone sixteen and above votes. Then, you will have a trial period because you may decide it’s not right for you and you’re not right for us. You understand, don’t you?”
“But, what about me?” Joel says.
“You drank some of our water with your burgers and fries. We will get you back to the trail where you found us, but just about the time you arrive there, you will forget everything you saw, including any memory of Cynthia.”
Joel grabs Cynthia’s wrist, yelling, “We’re leaving. They can’t…”
But they do.
And Cynthia stays a long time trying her hand at beekeeping, baking, and beer brewing. She’s found her happy place.