Sawyer Klebs goes west

The pattern of a welted moccasin drawn onto a casting of my foot. — Photo courtesy of Sawyer Klebs

Members of the class of 2014 share their thoughts and experiences while navigating their first year out of high school. Sawyer Klebs writes from Portland, Ore.

My time at Oberlin College lasted a grand total of six whole weeks enrolled, and about a week squatting in friends’ rooms until my parents could come pick me up.

College just felt too much like high school. Maybe I missed the point.

I contacted Jason Hovatter, a unique shoemaker in Portland, to try and work out some kind of internship or apprenticeship to learn shoemaking from him. He said yes.

So, I left for Portland, Ore., on Dec. 3 with a suitcase full of duct-tape casts of friends’ feet and the intention of making lots of shoes. I’ve been doing quite a bit of shoemaking since I got here, but more emotionally pressing has been living in a city where I know no one.

Housing, hostels, hoarders, and Holman Street

It turned out I did know two people in Portland. Ben Williams, a MVRHS graduate from before my time, was my first contact, couch, and friend along the way. When I arrived he generously offered me the couch in the house he was living in near Reed College. I had not actually met Ben before, though we have that Island connection. Ben showed me around Reed a bit, and introduced me to TriMet, Portland’s fabradabulous public transit system, but mostly he worked odd hours editing papers via the Internet.

From there, I found that the man who led the service trip I took to Thailand in high school was now running a hostel in Portland. Grant Williams, once a nomad, is now the proprietor of Travelers’ House. The hostel’s name is self-evident. This is where things start to get messy.

I moved into Travelers’ House as a work trader, working 16 hours a week in exchange for rent. I had a bunk in a room of eight, worked three shifts at the hostel a week and the other four days of the week made shoes for eight hours. Between not having my own space, the bunkroom antics (including but not limited to everyone being woken up by someone’s night terror and others’ drunk conversations in the wee hours of the morning), and working every day, I had to find a better situation.

This is the point at which I rented an attic bedroom in a hoarder’s house. It was a Dickensian experience. I did have more free time. Needless to say, I did not feel like I got my own space. It was cheap, and I rented it for one month for some breathing space from working all the time, and with the extra time I could look for a more permanent situation. With the extra incentive to leave, I found one after two weeks, and thought little of the half-month’s rent I never put to use. What a sad experience. Theorists of alternate reality could do all their research living with the residents of a different house every month.

I found a surprisingly sunny basement room on Holman Street in the house of a kind genderqueer witch. She also happens to hold a doctorate in sustainability and education and teaches graduate students. With my housing settled, I could move on to screwing other things up.

Loveless in Portland

It is difficult to make friends. It is pretty easy to make friends with friends of friends. If I had had a few more friends from the beginning, I would have been able to make friends with all their friends. I knew Ben, but our lives diverged since I slept on his couch. All together, it has been quite lonely in Portland. Emily Rose Keating had spent the past summer nannying my cousins on the Vineyard, and, as it turns out, she had moved to Portland to pursue her career as a musician. Emily is making beautiful music, by the way. We connected, and she introduced me to some of her friends. It was good have at least one familiar face around, though we did not have many chances to meet. Keeping cool is staying open. Freaking out over things tends to make them worse, as I had already learned from my experiences in the hoarding house.


There is so much more that I have experienced here, and in time I am coming to recognize the way of things. Making mistakes is the only way to learn, and if you can forgive yourself as you make them, you will only learn faster and better. If you are not making mistakes you are not learning. It’s true: Being taught not to make mistakes is called conditioning.

Apprenticeship and shoemaking on Martha’s Vineyard

It’s difficult for me to say in words what it has been like learning to make shoes. It is tactile, physical, visceral, and not that important to tell you right now. What is important to tell you is that I am coming back to Martha’s Vineyard in May to set up my shoemaking shop, and with enough mistakes I should be able to be taking public orders before the summer ends.

Next time: Paleo fitness in the mountain forests of New Mexico, the creation of the workshop, and more sojourns in the West.