“I was in New York on a business trip, and a mutual friend of ours invited me to a party,” recalls Alissa, then a public relations project manager in Seattle. “We started talking, and before we knew it, it was 4:30 in the morning.” A few weeks later, she flew back east to visit his new old home, a 1905 cottage on 18 acres with stone-bordered vegetable beds and apple and pear orchards. “It felt like the farms I’d seen in storybooks.”
Alissa and Jacob Hessler converted this 1877 barn into a photo studio and office for their boutique creative agency.
Fast-forward five months, and the California native had impulsively quit her job, uprooted her life, and followed her heart to Maine. Coastal Maine. In the dead of winter. With zero career prospects. “I knew I had to be with this person,” Alissa explains, “but I had no concept of the hardships.” The culture shock was immediate. Panic soon followed. “Coming from a world where you associate your identity with your job title, I was at a loss. I couldn’t tell people what I did anymore.” She and Jacob both grappled with unfamiliar exurban realities: the cost of heating a 2,500-square-foot historic house in sub-zero temperatures, the downright Sisyphean futility of plowing through 4 to 10 feet of snow … over and over and over again.
In an attempt to combat her natural fight-or-flight response, Alissa surfed the internet for other reformed city slickers who had left successful careers to grow their own food or loaded up a moving van and driven cross-country in search of their next chapter. “I desperately needed some sort of connection with like-minded souls, but all I could find were these perfectly idyllic stories in The New York Times.” So she did what any proud homesteader would, and built the thing to fix the problem – by herself. Today, Alissa describes urbanexodus.com, the website born of her initial sense of isolation, as “a tool for anyone considering a similar path,” populated with “realistic and honest profiles that don’t shy away from everyday struggles.”
The barn was in rough shape when Alissa and Jacob arrived. They ripped out the hayloft and cattle stalls, replaced the rotten wood floor with poured concrete, and insulated the whole shebang. Now the couple’s office and photo studio, the space also hosted their wedding reception.
The farm’s former owners, both architects, updated the kitchen, with its huge soapstone sink and latching cabinets.
Dottie dons a snappy red scarf to survey the snowfall.
By the time Alissa and Jacob got married on the property – almost a year to the day after that first, fateful meeting – they had renovated its barn, restored the long-neglected pear and apple orchards, and planted the vegetable garden with tomatoes, beets, carrots, greens, and more. She had also seeded her start-up website, photographing and interviewing neighbors like Annemarie Ahearn, a former assistant to chef Tom Colicchio and the current proprietor of Maine’s Salt Water Farm restaurant and cooking school. Says Alissa, “Since I wasn’t a trained photographer, I initially felt more comfortable shooting people I already knew.” Now, she travels around the country collecting tales of other professionals who’ve headed for the hills, detailing the inevitable low points (tomato blight, porcine eye infections) and highlights (weekday-afternoon hikes, control over your quality of life) on urbanexodus.com. Often, Jacob and the couple’s rescue dog, Dottie, come along for the ride. In remote areas, the Hesslers, who also host photography workshops and run a boutique creative agency, will often bunk with subjects.”
Of the orchard’s century-old pear trees, Alissa says: “Jake remembers seeing them from the road as a boy growing up here, thinking they were creepy, in a Tim Burton way, but beautiful.”
The house and barn peek out over a snowy slope.
We drink whiskey together at night, have coffee in the morning, and help with chores,” Alissa says. While everyone’s experience is different, one thread finds its way into each interview: “I always ask if they’d ever go back to their old city life.” Across the board, the answer is a resounding no. “People are starting to realize that they’re detached from their food, priced out of real estate, and can’t obtain any sort of American dream unless they make a major move.”
A wedding gift, this carved-wood stag head supports a strand of mini felt bunting. Jacob’s stepfather unearthed the woodcut of the couple’s property, by Maine artist Carroll Thayer Berry, at an estate sale.
Among the few possessions Alissa brought from Seattle: this midcentury dining set, a $100 Craigslist bargain.
Jacob heads upstairs after plowing the driveway. “Last year, we spent Valentine’s Day on our roof shoveling off four feet of accumulated snow,” Alissa says, referencing country life’s less-romantic realities.
Alissa nabbed this master bedroom lamp at T.J. Maxx in Rockland, ME.
Alissa fashioned the living room’s coffee table, painting a tree-trunk slice silver and setting it atop metal legs. Jacob’s photo of California’s Death Valley hangs above a hand-me-down console.
“I’m like a cat in here all winter long,” says Alissa of the living room and its abundant natural light. She and Jacob got the sofa from Ikea; the glass-topped coffee table came from his parents.
A gallery of family photos adorns the stairwell.
The candelabrum was a gift from the home’s previous owners;the porcelain glove mold, part of Jacob’s hand collection.
Alissa updated a cheap 1970s kit clock, scored at the Maine Antiques Festival, with black chalkboard paint. A hidden liquor stash lurks inside.
“Dottie only sits on the nicest things we own,” says Alissa.