In 2021, Dublin woman Fiona Byrne Ryan sold her home and business to live out of a tent full-time in Michigan, North America with her husband Brandon Garlow and their two-year-old son Dasan.
In the mornings, they wake up to temperatures of -17C.
But more specifically, the pandemic served the young family a wake-up call to live in alignment with their core beliefs, of which climate action is a major one.
Fiona, 32, who was born and reared in Dublin and who studied landscape architecture at University College Dublin, always knew office life was not for her and upon graduation she traveled the world, visiting places like Cuba, Guatemala and the urban jungle of Portland, Oregon.
She couch-surfed across North America, or Turtle Island as it’s called by indigenous people, with the aim of reaching Detroit – another city Fiona was fascinated by. It was here she met Brandon, 38, who is native American, and of the Mohawk tribe. Supporting indigenous people is another major part of their impetus to uproot themselves from urban life.
Up until October 2021, Detroit was their home, where they lived and ran their real estate business that served the elderly. But the pandemic and the various lockdowns gave them room to reflect and it turned out that their way of life was no longer morally sustainable for them.
“We collected the largest pay cheque we’d ever collected and we were left feeling empty. That was a wake-up call. So we asked ourselves: ‘What do we really want on a deeper level?’ The route we were taking wasn’t doing that, and we knew it was time to change,” says Brandon.
In August 2019, Fiona gave birth to the couple’s first child. Welcoming Dasan to the world also contributed to the wake-up, she says.
“With Covid and that whole time, we spent a lot of time going inwards and doing a lot of healing. We have a young son and just seeing the world we were leaving behind. And we just asked: ‘What do our souls want to do while we are on this earth?”‘” Fiona explains.
These large existential questions led them down various paths – one of which was to return to Brandon’s tribe’s traditional lands in upstate New York, and another was looking up YouTube videos about how to live out of an RV (recreational vehicle).
All of these options were going through their minds while they were trying to run a business that was almost shut down by the pandemic. And it was not like the family were not already living in a sustainable way.
“We’d made so many conscious decisions, we were growing our own food, we had a share in a cowherd to get our own milk, we were refilling everything – doing all of these things but we couldn’t really be in our values ,” says Fiona.
“At the same time, we were just living in the city, and as conscious as we were, we were still out of alignment,” adds Brandon.
Two pivotal moments occurred, one was when they sold their family business in February 2021, still with no plan in place as to their future and the second came five months later.
They attended an online summit in July 2021, where they heard former Green Party vice-presidential nominee and economist Winona LaDuke speaking.
“She is on the frontline of the ‘Stop Line 3’ resistance in northern Minnesota, and she finished her talk with: ‘Come to Minnesota the water is calling’.”
“We became very emotional, we were crying, and when you have that sort of emotion towards something like that you need to answer it,” says Fiona.
‘Line 3’ is a pipeline that has the capacity to carry nearly one million barrels of crude oil every day from Alberta, Canada to Wisconsin. The route crosses 227 bodies of freshwater, including the Mississippi River twice, and many rivers that feed directly into Lake Superior – the largest lake in North America.
Hearing about this pipeline and imagining the inevitable oil spills it will cause was enough for Fiona and Brandon to follow on from the sale of their business with the sale of their home.
Fiona returned home to Ireland to spend time with her parents and by October 2021, three months after hearing Winona LaDuke speak, their house, and pretty much everything they owned, were sold.
The next step?
To get to Minnesota 900 miles away to join the resistance to the pipeline, and to live in a tent along the way.
They knew this was not going to be practical with a toddler so they tailored their plan and called it ‘Running into a New Earth’.
“We asked ourselves: ‘How are we going to get to northern Minnesota? Because it was not just about raising money for the resistance. We wanted to strip ourselves down. We wanted to live in the woods.'”
“And what did that mean? We were going to have to live in a tent and we had no experience of living in a tent,” says Fiona.
They decided to cut the 900 miles down and run 227 miles of the North Country Trail – representing the 227 bodies of water the pipeline would cross over.
The couple would each take turns running.
“When we were running through the forest we were alone and you had to face yourself in a way you’ve never had to do before,” says Brandon.
The family reached Northern Minnesota in December 2021. However, they currently call Marquette in northern Michigan home, where they live out of a tent in a big forest.
“The first tent that we were living in was very thin, especially when the cold came in,” says Fiona.
We asked ourselves: ‘Do we want to continue to do this?’ If we wanted to stay here we would need to upgrade to a four-season tent and get a wood stove,” she adds.
But even with a stove, the nights, and mornings, are exceptionally cold.
“We are cooking our dinners on the wood stove in our tent, and we have our fire that keeps us warm and heats our water bottles. The gratitude you feel for these simple things is overwhelming,” says Fiona.
“But there are mornings we have woken up and it has been -17 degrees Celsius.
“When we wake up in the morning we have to have everything ready to go, so we can get in the car. Everything is frozen, we have to keep the electronics in a special bag,” she adds.
They joined the local YMCA non-profit gym where they can wash, exercise and where two year-old Dasan attends play groups, and has access to lots of children’s activities. They make great use of the local library too, especially for the internet.
They’ve started a community called Truthfully Living which provides articles about their experiences, teachings, workshops, talking circles, videos, and mentorships. But it is all in the name of their big why: living sustainably.
“Enbridge – a company that is responsible for one of the largest inland oil spills in US history in 2010, is the same company building ‘Line 3′”. This company already has a track record in oil spilling,” Fiona explains.
“’Line 3′ is a perfect example of what we are doing to the world,” she adds.
Fiona and Brandon document their life on truthfullyliving.com, while their instagram account can be found at @wearebrandonandfiona.
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