Walking New Jersey, running for governor

| 27 Jun 2017 | 01:51

“I get lots more energy when I’m taking on something bigger than myself,” said Karlos Basak, 33, standing in front of the old farmhouse at the idyllic Vernon Valley Farm in Sussex, NJ. He’s two days into a month-long trek that will take him on a meandering route the length of New Jersey, from Port Jervis, where he started two days earlier, to Cape May.

He won’t be camping all that much, or carrying all his own food, like many of the thru hikers you see this time of year. Instead, he will be sleeping and feasting at farms like this one — where he was treated to a dinner of pasture-raised roast beef, carrots and onions, strawberries and greens the previous night, and a breakfast of duck eggs and bacon that morning — that are focused on regenerating land, building community, or some combination of the two.

Born Charlie Edmonds, Basak now goes by his self-selected “nom de guerre.” His new name comes from giving his first name a Spanish turn, and “a ‘K’ for extra flavor,” plus the last name of his ex-wife, which he adopted when they got married as a “shift away from patriarchy.”

This 250-mile trek is meant to bring attention to farms and intentional communities that are “doing it right,” and Basak is video blogging all the way (subverses.com, Karlos Basak on Facebook, @jerseykarlos on Twitter). He also wants to raise awareness about the danger of cars, which he calls an unnecessary evil that kills over 1.25 million people a year. Basak, who has a three-year-old son of his own, is dedicating his journey to a three-year-old boy he never met who was killed by a car in a nearly carless intentional community. When he finishes this journey, Basak plans to work with the land, and wants to expose his son to an intentional community.

“These days you have to actively do it,” he said, of the practice of cultivating community, “because there are so many consumerist distractions. There are 168 hours in a week. Where you put that time determines whether you’re cultivating community or isolation.”

So far, “my body’s holding up,” he reported. “I just walked in the rain all day yesterday; I thought it was kind of refreshing. Human have struggled, some have even existed and been fine, in these environments,” he said.

“Car-less Karlos,” as he calls himself, was unsure whether to take a ride in a farm four-wheeler from the trailhead the day before, and in the end, declined. The morning we met, he had a 20-mile day ahead. He was a ball of energy, eager to talk about everything from permaculture to fasting during Ramadan, and simultaneously itching to get started. He was headed to Two Pond Farm in West Milford; then a prayer camp of the Ramapough Lenape Native Americans in Mahwah, who are protesting an oil pipeline that would run through their land; then the Touch Mother Earth Festival held by a longtime peace activist in Long Valley.

Oh, and did we mention he’s running for governor of New Jersey? He calls himself the Robin Hood of power, intent on toppling “the hierarchy” and returning autonomy to community groups and municipalities. His campaign literature is glued neatly onto permaculture playing cards printed with tips on how to live symbiotically with the land. “Karlos will not be wearing business suits during his campaign and tenure as governor, believing them to be symbolic contributors to the unjust division of power,” his blog announces. “Wear their suits and you make yourself a mannequin.” Basak prefers to paint his face black and red on special occasions as a show of solidarity with native resistance.

Basak majored in political science at Rutgers, where he became deeply interested in the work of Karl Marx and developed into what he calls a “radical Marxist Kantian feminist.” “I’ve been in lots of classroom where I was the only guy,” he said. He spent seven years teaching middle and high school social studies in New Jersey’s Bloomfield School District, an experience he’s glad he had, and equally glad he left.

“I got in a lot of trouble with teachers and administrators,” he said, for straying from the curriculum. “Like I said, I was born an anarchist.”

He recently completed a three-week raw milk fast, renting a fridge from Walmart and drinking nothing but unpasteurized milk to show that milk in its unaltered form is a complete, sustaining food. He didn’t lose any weight, which for him was a sign of success. At the moment, it’s illegal to buy raw milk in New Jersey – you’ve got to go to New York or Pennsylvania.

Basak found the places he was going to stop at primarily through the organic farmers’ umbrella group, NOFA-NJ. He met the farmer here at Vernon Valley Farm, Kirk Stephens, two springs ago, when Stephens and his girlfriend Christina Arellano opened up their farm for a pasture walk arranged through NOFA-NJ. Stephens demonstrated the rotational grazing method he uses to raise grass-fed cows, and let his visitors open a fence or two to let the cattle onto fresh pasture. Basak became a regular visitor after that, and last year processed a duck here – the only animal he has ever killed.

I’m glad that Basak’s stopover gave Stephens the idea to write to me: “Hi, I have a farm in Vernon, NJ... there is this crazy guy hiking the full length of NJ and stopping at farms along the way. Might be a good story for you.” Glad too that it gave me the news hook I needed to come out here on a weekday and sit with my toddler on the porch of this old farmhouse and talk. Before us is the most perfect spring tableau, cows grazing in the valley, chickens pecking under the bushes and a couple young goats running free, stopping the cars on the busy road when they decide to follow Arellano across the street. The middle-aged passenger of one car wears a faint, bemused smile, as he waits for the goat situation to be resolved.

The scene is an apt illustration of Basak’s message, I realize, watching Arellano lead one goat by its horns out of the road, the other following. These goats had to do something unexpected to stop traffic for half a minute. Basak, too, wants to give us pause, literally and metaphorically. He is walking the length of a state, handing out cards, running for governor, blogging and talking a mile a minute when he finds willing ears, all to try to raise his voice above the din to deliver his manifesto: don’t forget to slow down.