By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner
My introduction to off grid living came as a shocking and unwelcome inconvenience. I was a city kid living large as a drummer in a pop rock and roll band when my lifestyle changed abruptly into that of a shivering off-grid homesteader. The reality of living in the woods without electricity or indoor plumbing was incredulous to me. As they say, it was a character-building experience with some very useful life lessons learned that I’ll share if you care to walk with me down “memory lane.”
I lived in one of the “fly-over” states in the 1960s. I recall our neighbors had underground shelters since the Cold War was full on. Some Russian named Khrushchev who built the Berlin Wall was pounding his shoe at the UN, telling Americans “we will bury you.” I was oblivious to everything outside the 25 square block area that I cruised with my bicycle. My parents wanted me to attend a “good” high school in a very rural area 25 miles south of our suburban home. In order to attend, my Dad purchased a 15-acre wooded tract within the district boundaries. The acreage had a rustic two-room cabin. My Mom drove me south of town daily to attend and I rode a bus back north to its final drop off point and walked home from there.
I suppose my folks figured I already had an ample amount of wild hair as a drummer, so they determined that a small rural school would keep me in check to some degree. At the good school, the entire student body totaled just over 400 compared to more than 2,000 at city high. In my parents’ wise view, it was worth whatever it took to keep me in a rural school which afforded an opportunity for a better education and a reasonably decent launching pad for college entry at a time when the Viet Nam conflict was grinding up high school drop-outs at an alarming rate.
The rural school seemed to work out to my parents’ satisfaction until they were notified by the school district hierarchy that I must actually live full-time in the district in order to continue attending. The solution, as my father saw it, was that he and I would move into the cabin. Now don’t think for a New York minute that I wasn’t totally indignant with this relocation scheme, but as it turned out, it was a great learning experience and a special period of bonding with my Dad that I’ve never forgotten. Here are 15 common sense lessons I learned from the experience.
Reality hits hard
The drafty 400 sq. ft cabin was built of horizontal log siding covering with a second layer vertical barn wood and batting strips. It had a tin roof, no insulation, and sat on concrete corner blocks. There was a loafing shed on the side used as a workshop and wood storage.
On moving in, the first thing that struck me that winter was that we were living in the dark – literally. The cabin had two windows in each room, but the place seemed black as pitch even during daylight hours. (Lesson No. 1: always carry a decent flashlight in the cabin) The dim lighting was probably a good thing considering we weren’t the only animate beings inhabiting the cabin at the time. There were two old kerosene lamps left behind by previous residents. We installed new wicks and fired them up to brighten the evenings. The kerosene stunk up the place but it was the only light source we had. Funny thing about living in the country, whether your off grid or not – you tend to go to bed early – not long after it gets dark, and consequently, you get to rise early at dawn. (Lesson No. 2: don’t worry about an alarm clock)
The cabin had scant furnishings, but it did have a curious-looking buffet with a mirrored top – sort of like a fireplace mantle. What I learned, after first sleeping on an old couch that smelled of wet dogs, was that this contraption was actually a Murphy bed. (Lesson No. 3: stack cardboard and newspapers under your mattress to improve insulation)
The kitchen’s large cook stove quickly became my favorite cabin appliance because that baby could generate some BTUs. It was our only heat source in that heat-sieve cabin and in mid-January with snow on the ground everywhere, we kept it burning constantly when we were on site. (Lesson No. 4: always have dry kindling and dry matches)
There was a deep hand-dug well, about 5 ft in diameter with stones lining its sides with a well-worn hand pump was installed over it. A clawfoot tub sat next to the pump, used for watering livestock. Well water always felt like it was 33 degrees no matter the season and we drank it liberally. (Lesson No 5: reserve bathing for really warm, sunny days)
We used Dad’s 48’ Willys pickup as our clothing storage area. (That winter, I snapped the rear axle on that truck in four feet of snow, but that’s another story involving a long walk (Lesson No 6 - always have good winter boots and extra socks) Behind the cabin was a breezy one-hole outhouse with a stack of old Sears catalogs inside. (Lesson No 7 – never throw phone books and catalogs away) The clawfoot got daily use for bathing regardless of the weather. I recall some mad dashes back into the warm kitchen after a soapy dip. I learned a whole new meaning to the term “pucker factor.” (Lesson No 8 - don’t hang your wet clothes outside in sub-freezing temps)
I hadn’t hunted much until the move, but I learned fast. The property had abundant rabbit and squirrel populations which did my best to shred on the weekends using a well-worn pairs of guns: a Winchester Mod 1906 22LR pump action rifle and a Winchester Mod 12 16 gauge pump shotgun. The rule was if you killed it, you better bring it home. Then you cleaned and skinned it. You’d be surprised how tasty wild game can be with the proper spices. (Lessons No 9a & b and 10 – don’t shoot squirrels out of trees that hang over the river; don’t cross a barbed-wired fence with a loaded gun in your hand, and it’s easier to skin squirrel if it’s nailed to the side of the barn)
It wasn't fun and games
My Dad taught me that good fences make for good neighbors. We built and fixed plenty of our fences, and fixed the neighbor’s fences a few times to keep their steers from crossing the river to dine in our pastures. (Lesson No 11 – leather work gloves offer little protection when you miss the staple and smack your finger with a nine pound hammer)
We had horses for riding and about 20 head of sheep which kept the pasture nicely trimmed. I learned that sheep are about the dumbest animals in the world. When the lambing starts on the coldest nights of the winter, you have to do whatever you can to keep them dry and warm or they’ll give up. And you have to keep predators away. (Lesson No 12 – don’t wear your best clothes to the barn at 2 a.m. and don’t think about going without your rifle)
Livestock require maintenance, and we had a barn and various sheds that needed replenishment of straw bedding on a routine basis. I learned that the stinky stuff gets tougher to fork up and throw out if it sits too long. (Lesson No 13 – should you get lazy and decline to do your evening chores, multiple layers of blankets and bedding offer little resistance to a stout buggy whip)
The cabin’s tin roof magnified the sounds of everything that fell on it. When the storms came and the wind got up (we were close enough to tornado alley), all manner of debris would bounce off that roof. But the most memorable sound was gentle rain. (Lesson No 14 – keep some buckets handy for the eventual roof leaks. On the upside, it puts needed humidity in your cabin)
Now, 55 years later, I can still remember rain on the roof, the squeaky bed springs, every fence row, every stall, every wooded path, all the good hunting and fishing spots, the sound of fire crackling in the cook stove, and how many steps it took to reach the outhouse. (Lesson 15 – never take any learning experience for granted because you just never know when you might need to put your firsthand knowledge to the test.)
PS: What I haven’t confessed is that country living wasn’t totally unknown to me. I had lots of useful experience growing up in the 1950s. From the time I was about five, we had a barn full of horses, ponies and other animals. I learned to ride at age seven, fed livestock and cleaned stalls, and bucked plenty of bales every summer. We had a massive garden and chickens producing fresh eggs and meat for the table. I was a decent Boy Scout and a licensed ham radio operator by age 12.
What life lessons do you have that can guide you toward success in an off-grid sustainable lifestyle?