The best pair of shoes for going Off The Grid

Its all about perspective right? I mean the concept of living “off the grid.” It is dreamy and hip now. It has its own magazines and newsletters. TV shows are popping up a dozen at a time creating the movements own small celebrity base. I’ve even been fortunate enough recently to work with some of them. Hollywood stars are buying Off-Grid farms as vacation homes, and bragging about them in people magazine. Hell, if there isn’t a fashion line out already I will be thoroughly surprised. Actually the “Lumber-Sexual” craze might constitute. The hype is growing so big and so fast that we may be edging towards being counter productive to the whole reason for the life style change to begin with. The reasons to do so, to make that step, is different for everyone, but the results in the long run I believe are the same.

Make no falsehoods about it, this life style is hard. You cant fake it, you cant be lazy, and you cant skip ahead. It is constant work.  Being”off the grid”  also means being self reliant. You will become your own utility company, and your own super market. You will work ten times harder for everything, but you will find a profound fulfillment and respect for the quiet hidden treasures that most people miss everyday. You will know exactly what I mean when you eat your very first salad from your very first garden, or your first steak from the game you butchered and packaged. You will feel the smile creep onto your face as you spend your first night in the house you finally finished building.  Eventually you might even gain an edge on your financial stability and freedom. You will be up earlier and  working later. You will certainly see more sunrises and sunsets and that alone is worth the switch. But if you think its all about skipping through the forest picking berries in your Birkenstocks, lounging around reading a book in your red plaid pajamas, or sipping wine by the fire place in a cabin in the mountains, then I am sorry to say that you my friend are in for a tough surprise. That might be what’s on the cover of the magazine but those moments only exist if you’ve worked hard enough to afford the time for them. Don’t get me wrong here the craze has produced some great resources now for would be off-griders. There are mail order shops, and on-line market places to pick up all the nifty gadgets that have come about in the last few years of the boom. I’ve even heard rumors that the mega-hardware giant Home Depot has contemplated an “off grid” section in their stores, though I’ve yet to see it for myself. Being Off The Grid is big and new and hip, and I guess its that direction of the movement that bothers me.

THIS IS NOT NEW… This is something very old that some of us have found priceless value in. There might be some fancy new gadgets, websites and romanticizing publicity surrounding living off the grid or being a “Homesteader” But there is nothing new about it. Now there are thousands of new innovations and techniques developed, and utilized by intelligent and resourceful minds, and that’s great! Anything that increases the awareness of this lifestyle, and moves a population  to step away from their over stimulated and over consuming behaviors is a tremendous thing, but make no question, the step you take towards living off the grid, the right step is not into a new place. It is turning around and going backwards towards something we’ve missed, something in the past.  Now read on a bit more before you start dishing out the aphorisms about always looking forward…..and you cant relive the past,  and yata yata yata…

I am a part of this movement. I believe in it completely because I feel the truthfulness of it in my bones.  The urge to live closer to the land vibrates in the chord strings of my soul, but that feeling is not from something I read in the latest addition of “Modern Homesteader” or “Off Grid Magazine” or even “Mother Earth News”  (I do subscribe to those publications in case you thought I was against them by my previous rhetoric) It resonates and resides in me because my ancestors put it there. Somewhere in the strands of my DNA is a link back in time. Its in all of us, because for the wide majority of Human existence on this planet there has been no Hollywood, Walmart, fossil fuels, or pretty little styrofoam packages of meat. Our ancestors hunted, gathered, farmed, and built their own small homes, and the longing to do so is in us for the same reasons that a herd of young elk  will follow the same trails 800 miles through new country to get to safe winter grounds. Because their ancestors had done so, and had learned it was the best way to survive. Going off the grid or being self reliant is not something learned, It is something re-learned.

“Off Grid Living” publishes a revolving list of the top 45 resources for off the grid-ers and new comers, and it baffles me that not once have I seen the most valuable resource that we have on that list; Our Grandparents, and if you’re truly lucky; Great Grandparents. Their past is the greatest tool we have. They earned their livings and learned from their mistakes, and are for the most part eager to pass on that hard earned wisdom to someone intelligent enough to listen. What you will get from them if you are, is far more valuable then what you will find on Google or YouTube. I mean how long have those been around? ten years? When I was ten years old I once put ketchup and mustard on a bowl of ice cream and declared that it tasted great. Why you ask? because at ten years old I didn’t know shit, and it tasted so good that I never did it again. Today what my wife and I are trying to do in our journey towards self sufficiency is to right a wrong path. To go backwards in time just a few generations, and re-discover the skills and values that have seemingly been  lost to ours. We want to earn our living by enriching our life,and eventually lead our family to do the same. I am not naive enough to think that what we are doing is the hot “new” thing. To say that, and buy into it is to steal something from every generation that had no other choice but to carve it out of the wild with their bare hands. I hope that those elders, are honored that more and more of us every day decide to listen, go backwards down the trail, and step back into their shoes.

April 2nd, 2013

I awoke to the sound of the creek running its course outside the little cabin. Some time in the last week it had caught its spring run off, and quadrupled in size. A whispering winter time trickle had turned into the rushing waters that I will fall asleep to all summer. I pulled my nose out from under the flap of my sleeping bag hood and exhaled. The breath shot out towards the north side of the room like that of some old steam engine inching along on frozen tracks. Out over the Apgar Mountains the sun was rising, and letting enough amber light show through the window that I could see the designs I had been drawing on it all night. Each of hundreds of exhales stacking a collage of spikes, and icy spirals on the glass.The white dog pulled her nose out from beneath the horse blanket under my cot, and blinked the sleep from her eyes. She sleeps here visiting the cabin during the colder months. Both of us conserving and sharing each others heat throughout the night, though some nights when the temperatures outside get bellow the minus 20 mark I’ll make room on the cot, and she’ll share the sleeping bag with me.  I laid there a few minutes rubbing her head and studying the window, trying to decipher which designs were mine, and which hers.

When we got the nerve we got to our feet simultaneously, and climbed down the stairs to the main floor of our two hundred square foot cabin. A hand to the top of the stove metal revealed some life still left in it, so I opened the flue and front door to get a draft going and the stove breathing again. I let the white dog out for a bathroom break, and grabbed a hand full of kindling splinters from the metal bucket on the front porch. I tossed the match size pieces of wood onto the coals, and they erupted almost immediately. I picked enough wood from the stack to get the blaze going good and hot, and watched the mercury in the thermometer on the window sill inch up a few notches on the tube, 41 degrees and climbing. I sat down in the red rocking chair by the wood stove and stuffed my feet into stiff boots. I grabbed my heavy coat from the nail behind the stove, shook it free of a nights worth of dust, and put it on. By the time I had the blue coffee percolator in hand the white dog was back at the door. She came back inside puffing and snorting frost off of her whiskers, and pranced around the room dancing the snow from her feet. I dropped a coffee cup full of kibble into her bowl, patted her head, and started down to the creek for water.

This time of year, after packing down a good trail through the forest that leads to the creek, unless I’m pulling in a “pulk” (fancy term for heavy-duty sled) full of supplies  there’s no need to strap on snow shoes. A step off the trail in either direction however, and I will be into it just shy of my waist. When I got to the edge of the creek I stepped down into the pit I had cleared along the edge for safety the day before . I had nearly lost the white dog coming in to the cabin that morning when the 3 foot ledge of snow she was standing on while waiting for me to catch up gave way, and she went in. I struggled to undo my pulk harness, and rush to the edge of the water. I got there in time to see her get pulled under, and washed down stream. I sprinted along side in my snowshoes, tripping, and falling ounce in the heavy snow. Struggling to catch my breath I ran hard to catch up with her, as she bobbed in and out of the waves trying to dog paddle up-stream. I made it to a narrow spot in the creek where a snow burdened group of alders had collapsed onto the water’s edge, and created a sort of woven bridge that stuck out a foot over the water. I dove down onto it and grasped for the white dogs collar. Catching it in time I heaved her out of the water and onto the snow above the creeks edge. I pulled my self back to my knees, and climbed up next her to catch my breath. As I assured her she was alright I looked down stream to see the creek disappear under the shelf of ice that was still present over the lake. Thirty seconds later, and she would have been swept under the ice.”That was close girl” I said as we walked back along the hundred yards or so she had been carried down, so I could retrieve the sled, and our supplies for the week. I shook the image of the ice out of my thoughts and dipped the coffee pot into the cold water.

As I set the coffee pot on the stove to boil, I sat back down in the rocking chair by the fire, took out the note pad I had bought in town the day before, and wrote down this very journal entry. I wrote with apprehension, and anxiety. I wrote with thousands of question in my head that had no answers, and many times more that I hadn’t yet thought up. There was to be so many memories, adventures, tears, complexity’s, and full filling days to come. More than I could have known as I sat there sipping coffee and writing in my notebook. It was the first morning I had spent at the cabin since building it that I wasn’t just visiting for the weekend. There was to be no hike out on Sunday afternoon. No snowy drive back to an apartment in town. That morning the Kadiwhompass cabin became my home.

 

 

To: All the Johns, now I know.

The project we are working on these days is a guest cabin. A place where friends and family can sleep comfortably out of earshot of my snoring, and Jonah the dogs midnight howls at the boogie man. It’s an A-frame design that I have always wanted to build, and its the prototype for a bigger project that Steph and I have in mind. I like this phase of a project. Once I’m confident in the design and layout, I just sort of zone out and bang nails. My mind wanders off and plays on the issues of the world. You know like global warming, presidential elections, whats that smell, important stuff. This week over and over I continuously find myself thinking about Fathers Day, more specifically I’ve been thinking about my fathers. As I lift a board to place it, miss judge my swing, and bring the hammer down on my thumb nail instead, I think about my biological father. Growing up I learned from him, and the obscenities that flow out of my mouth as the board goes sailing through the forest, until recently is about the only thing besides a few stitches that I thought I had collected. The older I get the more I realize the depths of what I learned from being the son of an abusive father and husband, and it took the thoughtfulness and aptitude of others through out my life to make me realize it.  The image of what a father is to me is much different now than what it used to be, and it took severing ties with the person who biologically is apart of me, the man whom I was born into believing was dad, to change that.

I remember getting off the school bus at my long time best friends house one Friday to spend the weekend. Josh and I were inseparable growing up, and his Dad, John was a real dad. So I coaxed Josh into playing at his house instead of mine more often. It was an unfair balance for him, but he never said anything. This weekend we would be fixing up tree stands and getting ready for “opening day” of hunting season. For a lot of mid-western family’s opening day is arguably more anticipated then Christmas, and we were definitely feeling the excitement, I especially because it would be my first.  Josh’s dad had the four wheeler’s tied down with tools, and saws and anything else we might need while up in the little 7 acre woods that they hunted. The three of us piled onto the machines and rode off.  When we got up to the edge of the woods Josh’s Dad said he and josh had a surprise for me, and as we took a new path up to what we would later name with great creativity “The Hill” He parked and turned off the machine. Mr Stemen (as I insisted on calling him back then) had picked a mid sized oak tree at the base of “The Hill” that stood looking over a thicket at the edge of a marsh. Here 3 deer trails converged and meandered right under the oak. About ten feet up the tree Mr Stemen had built a small platform with a seat, and ladder going up. Josh and his dad grinned. As I tried to work through the tangles of emotions in my young self Mr. Stemen hollered at me as he untied the hand saw  “get on up into your deer stand and tell Josh and I which bushes to trim up. You will need to have a clear shot to those trails.” I tried to contain my emotions as I pointed out twigs and limbs for them to hack away. This type of behavior from a man was out of place for me.

Later that week I would take my first buck from that tree stand, and that afternoon as we chatted with the neighbors about the day spent afield, Mr. Stemen would introduce me as one of his sons. I would oddly look side ways at Josh to see if I could notice any sign of jealousy, of course there was none. He was his fathers son after all. That evening as Mr Stemen taught me how to butcher, and package my deer just before we started stacking the little white paper blocks away in the freezer, he told me how proud he was of me, gave me a hug and said that if I called him Mr. Stemen again he’d kick my ass. We would go through this ritual hundreds of times over the years that followed. No, I never called him Mr. Stemen again. The ritual I’m describing he started, and he continued it with out my knowledge. He hid it from me while teaching me to fix my truck, arc weld, roof a barn, dry wall a bathroom, wire in a breaker box, split firewood, plumb a toilet, tell corny jokes, find the humor in things, clean a shotgun, sharpen a chainsaw, and love your wife. Its only now as I look back on my childhood, that I realize just what he was doing. At every opportunity John would carefully and quietly remove what I had learned from my Dad, and what I knew Dads to be, how they act, and how I acted as a result. John would delicately replace it with what it means to be a man, what it means to be a husband, and what a father is, so that now…one day…I’ll know how to be one.

Happy Fathers Day to all of the Johns,

 

 

That God forsaken Hill.

Who in their right mind would build down there? There have been so many times over the last 6 years that I have had to bare that question. Friends, other off-griders, neighbors, hell I’ve muttered it under my breath, and screamed it out over the valley in frustration hundreds upon hundreds of times. Putting on an Emmy winning display of child like explosive temper tantrums that leave my wife both speechless and mildly amused. Never the less, when the tears stop, the blood clots, the pain subsides,  I catch my breath, and my Irish temper takes a back seat, I still drop the load from my shoulders, turn around and hike back up for the next round. Damn that hill, I mean it. I hate that pile of earth. I don’t know how my wife, whom has joined me now in the human propelled migration of lumber and home depot loot down the mountain, participates with so much grace, but I’m learning in our first year of marriage that there are going to be a lot of those mysteries. Its obvious that the feud the hill and I have going is a mystery to her. She thinks its funny when I slip and drop an arm load of rebar and have to go digging through deadfalls to un-nest it. Its no laughing matter this little war, I assure you. I have descended that damn thing safely thousands of times loaded so heavy with lumber or concrete that my knees strain and threaten to buckle with each step. Only to slip on wet bear grass on the way to a job interview, tumble ten feet, and stain my only clean pair of pants. At one point in the early stages of the project, I had nearly 5 trailers worth of lumber and materials stacked and tarped up at the road waiting, taunting me from 73 feet above, two flights of stairs, and three switch backs strewn out over 317 steps. Damn. That.  Hill.

This year Steph and I finally had the opportunity to have an excavation company come out and give us a bid on building a drive way down to the cabin. The project will cost more than buying the land cost me six years ago. It will take nearly two weeks of work for an excavator, dump truck and bulldozer crew. They will dump over 100 trucks of fill and crush over the edge, cut down a dozen 100 year old trees, add a retaining wall, and bury that hill that I despise so much in well, dirt, ashes to ashes style. Up until then I wanted nothing more than to kill and bury that monolith that has been the source of so much agony and frustration over the years, but upon hearing the foreman’s plan for its assassination, my wife and I looked at one another, and decided that we could put up with it for just another year. As much as we hate it, we love what it adds to our little homestead. Its a 73 foot wall of privacy. Rather than looking at the few cars that go by on the road and choking on the dust, we look at a lush green mountainside full of chest high ferns and box wood. We pick gallons of Huckleberries and Saskatoons from it every June and July. It continually keeps us in competitive hiking shape, and it is by far the best security system there can be for an off the grid wilderness home. After all who in their right mind would carry anything worth stealing up that god forsaken hill?

 

Anyone can carry a house.

6 years ago, looking down over the edge of the small cliff that stands above my newly purchased piece of mountain forest. If you had asked me if it was possible, as I stood there deed in hand. Out of pure ignorant blindness I would have proclaimed it was. Not because I knew how to do it, but because I knew I could do it. I’ve always had a sense of the way things are done or put together, but this has always been more of a feeling then actual knowledge, and what I lack in know how I generally make up for with ambition. I would learn over the next 6 years that the combination of the two is not always enough.

All my life I’ve never really put the time in to learn or do anything all the way through. All the workings, and little pieces, the true 100 percent of a thing. I’ve been far more concerned in learning the next thing, and then the next. Stacking away in my life’s library 80 percents, 76 percents, low 30’s and some high 90’s, but never that full understanding of a passion or skill set that most people get to. My being wont allow it. I have a steady hunger to learn and do everything in the short time I am here, and as result I had rarely finished anything all the way. Put simply; the stuff I am made up of is more scared of not knowing at least some of everything then of knowing all of one thing, and in 26 years I had learned enough about myself to know that I was flawed. I needed a challenge, one that couldn’t be done in a week, and I needed to finish it all the way through. I also needed a home, so standing there at the road looking over the immense stacks of donated timbers, windows, nails, chainsaws, axes and other hardware’s. If you had asked me as I hoisted up the first of 36 bags of concrete, and started hiking down that god forsaken hill. “How are you going to build a house down there?” I’d have replied un-knowingly, “I’m going to carry it”