9 Things I Learned While Growing Up Off-Grid


1. In a one room cabin, there are no secrets.

Sorry, parents, I know I was quiet and you thought I was sleeping, but I heard everything: Every conversation, every argument, every snore, every fart. EVERYTHING.

2. CB radios are perfectly adequate for the purposes of prank phone calling.

In the mid-to-late 90’s, only really fancy people had cell phones. And, even in 2015, the cell coverage is still spotty out where I lived. I mean, who is gonna be updating their snapchats from out there? A moose? What we did have were some CB radios, hooked up to 12-volt batteries. It was great, like a town-wide party line, and a constant update on the inner thoughts of all the flavorful local characters. And when you and your buddies are obnoxious and 12 year-olds, who is better than a small team flannel-clad day drunks for a standard “Do you have any Prince Albert in a can?” type of conversation?

3. You can’t wear heels in the woods.

You just can’t. Nope. Stop. Stop it. Put on some steel-toe work boots you get dirt all over your cute platform sandals. And you’re wasting time with that eyeliner; the squirrels don’t care if you look pretty.

4. I am crazy strong.

No seriously. I can break ice, haul water, chop wood, plant gardens, catch chickens, swim across entire lakes, just for something to do. Being a girl was never an excuse to slack off, physically. Know how to work a chainsaw? I do! I can do anything!

5. Meat really is murder.

I am not saying this as a moral judgment but rather a fact of practicality. The delicious bacon on my plate would have been the same adorable piglet that I helped select and nurture just months before. At the very least, our pigs had pretty swank lives, with an open air pen, a lake view, the fresh scent of a pine forest, plenty of clean hay and, since we had a hookup at the local grocery store, as many stale donuts as they could ever want. Most of your meat will not have known such posh conditions.

If you eat animals, then that means that animals were raised and killed for you. Animals are absolutely capable of thinking, feeling, loving and suffering. If you can’t take that on, then stop eating meat.

6. It’s OK to be different.

Even by the standards of my very rural upbringing, my situation was a bit unusual. At first, I was quite ashamed of being the only kid in my class who didn’t have a bathroom. Rumors even circulated that I might not bathe. I actually did bathe, often, and quite thoroughly, in a galvanized tub, with a hanging shower bag. This even occurred indoors! I BATHED INDOORS, guys! INDOORS! The rumors subsided pretty quickly when I consistently smelled OK.

Weird side-tangent: For quite some time, my stepbrother actually took the rather Victorian approach of skipping the bag showers, which involved extra water hauling, and doused himself in layers upon layers of Hugo Boss, instead. It was gross.  I don’t think anyone ever harassed HIM about it, though, because all 13 year-old boys are pretty gross about hygiene. So annoying. OK, rant over.

Ultimately, I came to realize that if I knew I was OK, it didn’t really matter if my peers thought I was weird. I was weird; that’s just how it was. By high school, I could handle myself socially, and was pretty well-liked while still maintaining my identity as a forest-dwelling hippie dreamer. 

7. Reading is necessary for the mind and the soul.

When you share about 220 square feet of living space with 2-3 other humans, a tabby, and a black lab, you really need to build your own private world. It was during this time of my life that I really got to know J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. Ever stay up all night reading by the light of your battery-powered alarm clock? I was frequently being yelled at for reading too much, but it books were a dietary requirement for my voracious imagination. I needed to visit other worlds as often as possible to counter how very small my world felt at that time.

8. We depend on the natural world.

I established a close relationship with the wilderness by being completely surrounded by it. We drank lake water, and so we became vocal advocates that it’s cleanliness be preserved. Living the way we did, were completely at the whims of nature. If an ice storm knocked all the tree branches into the road, guess who wasn’t going to make it up three miles of dirt road to catch her school bus? This girl!

The thing is, even though I live in a city now, I am not divorced from the natural world. A heavy enough storm can still completely halt the flow of a work week. A drought can affect our food supplies. Insects will find us, no matter where we are. Heck, the projected rising sea levels will someday completely sink my city, maybe even within my lifetime. We could all stand to better ourselves by seeking to understand our part in a system much larger than ourselves. We could all stand to better the system.

9. Living well is all about embracing the small pleasures.

I don’t think I adequately appreciated how abundantly I was surrounded by miracles. Every day brought me something really special. When I first moved in, I placed a crystal in the front window, and sometimes the sun would hit it just right, and fill the whole cabin with rainbows. Fat, red-bellied hummingbirds visited in the summer, and small yellow finches in the winter. Sometimes, in the summer, I would take naps on soft beds of moss, or spend hours on a rope swing. If I measured my wealth in kayak rides and hand-built ice forts, I would have realized that I was a very rich girl.