True Story: 'We Lived Off The Grid' A Young Families Journey
Categories: Life Stories
How did you deal with electricity/plumbing/internet/phone?
There was basic plumbing that ran out to a leach field, so our bathroom was a normal set-up. We also used a homemade composting toilet. (Believe it or not, they actually stink less than regular toilets.)
Our water came from a spring on the ranch. The water was limited in the summer, so we learned to be conscious about our use.
We had no internet or cell phone reception, so if anybody wanted to visit we’d need advance notice because the gates were always locked to keep out poachers.
When we first moved in, there were solar panels on the front porch, but they turned out to be too damaged to work. So for quite a while we were dependent on a gasoline-fueled generator for lights at night. The noise and smell (and cost) were so bad, we’d usually use candles instead. Finally, we were able to have our own solar panels installed, and from those we could have lights on, charge our laptop, and even run a (regular!) blender.
When we moved in there was a small refrigerator, but that also turned out not to work. So for many weeks we stored our food in a cooler. That was pretty awful. Finally, we acquired a small refrigerator, which ran on propane along with our stove. We spent about $60 a month on propane and that was our only “utility” payment for the duration of our time on the ranch.
What were the biggest challenges of your time off-grid? The biggest benefits?
The biggest challenge by far was the other animals on the ranch. Rattlesnakes, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, skunks, foxes, raccoons and all manner of insects and ground-burrowing animals competed with us for the food and animals we raised, and in most cases they won.
We shared land with a cattle rancher, and there were all sorts of unexpected consequences from sharing land with cattle. Trying to raise a garden alongside cattle, even with the best solar-electric fencing we could afford, was an exercise in futility. The soil was so compacted, we had to use a pickaxe to break through it. And in such a hilly environment, the erosion was pretty bad. The roads were nearly impassable during the winter and spring rains.
Despite all the trouble, though, I’d count those two years as some of the happiest in my life. My family grew closer and we all grew stronger, mentally and physically. Much of my value system was clarified while living off-grid, which enabled me to move forward with much better understanding of what I wanted to do with my life and what I hoped to teach my children.
You’re no longer living off-grid. What led you back to ‘traditional’ life?
Apart from sheer exhaustion and reeeeally needing a bedroom door with a lock, we very much wanted to be a part of community life. While on the ranch my ideas about “self-sufficiency” took a turn. Instead of being fixated on absolute independence — which is virtually impossible — now I look for opportunities for interdependence — mutual community support.
This was difficult when we lived so far out that we rarely saw another human being. We were forced to be mostly self-sufficient, which is not only isolating but terrifically inefficient. We learned so much and became very capable and resilient on the ranch, but I wouldn’t say that situation was ideal for someone visualizing a more cooperative and sustainable world for everyone.
When we moved here we really hoped to maintain some of the lifestyle we’d developed on the ranch. We chose a small house on two acres, and intended to hook up our solar panels and run our house at least partially on that energy. But the house is completely surrounded by redwood and oak trees, which are lovely but block almost all direct sunlight. So we’re back on the grid for energy and utilizing a community water source. Sometimes I feel awful about this. It’s been a big compromise. But my aspirations haven’t really changed — I’m just willing to be a bit more patient in achieving them.
What did you learn from this experience that any of us could apply to our daily lives?
For me, this experience was all about living out my values and defining my limits within those values. In the process I learned a lot about balancing the inevitable gap between idealism and reality.
Before I went off-grid I was intensely influenced by Derrick Jensen’s anti-civilization philosophy and really sickened on a daily basis by my culture. On the ranch, I had to decide if I was a bad person for wanting refrigeration. That might sound silly, but that’s where this philosophy can take you.
I mulled over concepts of purity and extremism, the anti-civ belief system that pretty much all human activities outside of subsistence-level hunting & gathering are killing the planet, and my own experience growing up in overwhelming prosperity (even in the lower-middle class) and yet feeling that everything was very empty and meaningless… And in the end of all that mulling, I felt so defeated and helpless, it would have been easy to walk away from the whole thing completely jaded.
What I seek in my life now is balance. I don’t think it’s evil to want to be comfortable. I still find the suburban McMansion lifestyle disheartening, but there are alternatives aside from a cabin in the woods. There is a middle ground between being constantly entertained and unaware and being overwhelmed by awareness and guilt.
We’re never going to be an agrarian nation again, and yet our various systems are so unsustainable, we would be wise to seek alternative while we can. Because societies change in slow stages, there must be room for growth and learning between the extremes of producing nothing for yourself or your community and producing absolutely everything. That’s what I’m trying to find and what I’d encourage others to seek, as well.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Chandelle! This was so, SO interesting! Have any of you ever lived off the grid? Do you have any questions for her?