This article was contributed by Robert Richardson, environmentalist and arborist who has planted over 1 million trees in the last 50 years. He currently lives, studies, and maintains forestry in the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon. Read Part 1 of the Series here.
A Dream Realized
We arrived for our first off grid caretakers gig in the Umpqua National Forest in the middle of the night during an ice storm (just the latest one of my many good ideas). A quick Google Map search showed the remote location was near old growth in the national forest. Perfect.
The several families that lived in this small intentional community relied on a spring fed water system that had frozen solid. The sweet voiced elderly lady on the phone said she had no one to help her get the water running again. I was quick to jump at the opportunity to start a real off grid life, and help these nice people as well.
With the dream of a sustainable, peaceful life within our reach, we left our comfortable three bedroom central heated home. Our best friends, with whom we shared the house, were quite familiar with our beliefs and plans to go of grid, but were shocked that we’d leave midwinter during a hard freeze. We convinced them we knew what we were doing and excitedly prepared for our next adventure. We left early in the morning and drove all day, hoping to arrive before dark.
A freezing rain had turned to snow, making the last 20 miles nearly impassable. As we climbed in altitude, it became apparent the weather report of snow accumulations of a few inches was off by a foot. Not sure we would even make the cabin, it was clear it would be dark, and we’d be stuck once we arrived.
Finding the roads in a snowstorm was made more difficult because no one had driven on the road in months, so there were no tracks or even ruts to show the way.
Inching our way up the mountain on the edge of our seats and slowed to a crawl, we finally we found a mile marker verifying we were close. A few miles further, we found the mailbox with the family’s name, and broke down laughing (even crying) from relief that we’d made it.
It was just a few more miles I thought, as we came to a bridge, that, curiously was not noted on the map. Not able to stop fearing I’d get stuck, I pointed and accelerated, hoping to cross the rickety old bridge quick enough that it would not feel the weight of the truck.
My wife winced and grabbed my hand, and closing her eyes, said, “tell me when we get to the other side!” I tried to sound confident, squeaking out a “No problem” as we crossed the bridge, cringing at the creaking strain on the timbers below us. A few long seconds later, I exhaled in relief – we made it. I was tempted to give my wife a high five, but thought it best to not let go of the wheel.
Freezing, then Euphoria
Turning onto the final spur road where the little cabin was located, I pushed the throttle hard and plowed the last few hundred feet. Once the cabin appeared in the headlights, I looked for the best place to park. I had a choice, plow in straight and be stuck until spring, or turn uphill, then roll backwards and hopefully steer it so we were pointing out. I was already thinking about the possibility that we would want (or need) to leave the mountain.
We grabbed a few things and let ourselves in.
It was colder than a meat locker inside. No firewood. No propane. Mice had been the only occupants for, apparently, several years. We hurriedly brought in our blankets and basic necessities. We used some paper and a few small sticks found in the closet to get a small fire in the tiny, pot belly stove.
I realized my first mistake was assuming there would be firewood.
A search outside revealed an ample supply of woody debris and slash but it was too wet to burn. Further into the woods I found a stump with enormous diameter, an old growth douglas fir tree. I knew this remnant from a logging era long past could still provide one more thing to me, and I needed it desperately.
The center of the stumps was rotten, wet and mushy, but the thick bark was still rock hard and surprisingly dry. Our fingers growing numb in the cold darkness, with our clothing becoming soaked in our near frantic effort for heat, we used our hatchet and peeled off chunks of bark from the old stump and soon had a small supply of precious, highly flammable fuel.
Because old fir bark is packed with pitch they burned fiercely. Once we had secured our fire, we saved the fire starter for morning and set out to gather gather armloads of wood, frozen but decent enough to burn once it dried out.
Once we had a pile inside the cabin, my wife held the flashlight while I cut branches into small pieces with my handsaw. After several hours of dizzying blowing, huffing and puffing, we had a hot crackling fire and enough wood cut, piled and drying to keep it going.
As the cabin thawed we boiled a cup of tea and looked at each other, the reality of our surroundings set in with a smile and a sigh. Exhilarating.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
A Reflection on the Choice
Many years and many experiences have tested our determination. We still live in the Umpqua, working hard everyday to grow our own food and eliminate our reliance on the industrial power grid.
The things we miss out on in ‘town life’ and on the television, internet, etc, have little to no place in our world. The things we have in great abundance here in the wilderness have replaced any need or desire for material possessions or ease of convenience, or social acceptance or approval of our way of life.
Living off grid is a discipline. Life follows the seasons, the cycle of the sun determines your activities for the day. Planning, producing and preserving the harvest, observing the seasons, adapting to a life of abundance. There is not enough time in the day to worry about anything else.
Some have asked us to come work for them, offering generous monetary compensation, if we would just come down off the mountain.
But to us, the money we would make is not worth the price we would pay.
They ask, “Is living off grid worth it?”
We decided we could not afford to live any other way, and we’ve never looked back since.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Henry David Thoreau