It’s finally June again, and we are coming to the end of our year of living off the grid. It was never an intended thing, moving into our cabin in the woods of Montana full time. We had a family emergency, and the nature of an emergency doesn’t really give one the time to figure out convenient living situations. So you make do. When my mother got sick last year while we were living in Hawaii, we picked up and moved back, into a tiny cabin that we’d bought 12 years ago on the border of Glacier National Park (and an hour and a half or so from her house and about two from my brother’s house) in order to help take care of her. We thought we had more time with her, the doctors gave her two years. We figured…well, I don’t know what we figured. You find out your mother’s got an incurable cancer and you just do what you have to do. We at least had a place to land. She declined so quickly that I didn’t really have any time or energy to figure out a better home for the kids- my husband stepped into the role of “100% present parent” without flinching, and we at least got them enrolled in school last fall. My mother’s tumor was spreading like clover through her brain, and she succumbed gracefully in September. And it felt like we’d been racing along all summer with blinders on, driving her to radiation every day, sorting out these handfuls of pills, trying to figure out how to communicate with her when her speech was stolen away, making notes for the nurses of how much she would eat and when, trying to keep her at home and comfortable, and all the while the cancer was ten paces ahead of us pulling her into this downward spiral that we just couldn’t keep up with. Everything happened so fast. And then it was over. It just ended. She wasn’t there anymore. And it felt like we kind of came out of this fog and could only ask “what just happened?” But suddenly my mind was totally quiet. What to do? The kids had just started school, I was driving them into town 3 days a week and they had some sense of normalcy that I didn’t want to jeopardize. We thought about renting a house in town and waiting out the rest of the year, but decided that it would be altogether too much moving in one year so we stayed put. We spent the fall and winter cleaning out my mother’s house, tackling the mountain of forms and death certificates and taxes that all have to be put together after someone dies. But mostly, I spent the rest of the year in this tiny cabin with no running water or electricity trying to heal.
I write all this to explain why we’re in this situation. It was never my plan to live off the grid with young kids. My husband and I had lived here many years ago, and we’d spend weekends here, sometimes weeks after we had kids, but it was never set up for full time family living. But after my last post, one of my favorite bloggers, Melissa at Julia’s Bookbag, asked if I could write more about how we live up here. So I apologize for the heavy backstory, but now I’ll tell you all a little more about our cabin life.
First, we’re about 50 miles from the town where the kids are in school, where my mother lived, and where we’d lived and worked for 12 years before moving to Hawaii. About 36 of those miles are gravel. On school days, that means we spend about 3 hours in the car. It’s not ideal, but seriously, that could be so much worse. I mean, I’m driving through a NATIONAL PARK with glorious mountains all around me, a rushing, winding river beside me, and often stopping to see herds of elk or a moose or a bear or a wolf, when I could be white-knuckling it through traffic taking the same amount of time to drive 10 miles. And my kids are still young enough that when I turn the music up and sing along at the top of my lungs to whatever angst-ridden 90’s grunge band that comes on the stereo, rather than be embarrassed for me, they join in. So I’ve got that going for me.
Second, the town where we live has exactly three businesses- a Mercantile, a Hostel, and a Saloon. I have no idea what the population is. All winter long, the Merc and the Saloon were closed, and I think someone was living at the Hostel, there was definitely a guy about a half mile up the road, and we had a neighbor that would come up most weekends. However, there are probably over a hundred people living in the surrounding 50 miles or so. We have dear friends that live ten miles farther up the road and have been for over a decade, year round. Most of the cabins around here (probably 20 in “town”) are empty but for weekends through the summer. There’s no cell service, and there are no electric lines coming up this far, so everyone either has generators or solar or just doesn’t have electricity. Until this year we just did without- but we’ve installed solar panels and have a generator and an inverter that allows us to charge the computer and use internet (we also installed a satellite for that- I could only go so long without wi fi in such isolation before feeling a little shacky-wacky) that we turn on and off as needed. We really only generate enough extra energy for maybe a tiny bit of vacuuming. A very, very tiny bit.
Our appliances (refrigerator and oven) are run on propane, as are our lights. We don’t have running water per se, but we do have a hand pump as our well is located directly under our kitchen. For baths, we pump water into large pasta pots, heat up the water on the stove, and pour it into our claw foot tub- it’s quite an undertaking, so the kids still bathe together. It takes probably an hour start to finish. My husband and I usually shower, though, and we have a solar shower hanging by a carabiner to a hook in the ceiling above the tub- it’s a big black plastic bag with a tiny hose that we fill up with hot water and hang and then stand under while two gallons of water gradually trickles over you via gravity. It’s lame, but it works. Also: dry shampoo. I hadn’t even heard of this until over the winter, but it’s probably my favorite invention ever.
We have both an outhouse and also a composting toilet in the bathroom. The outhouse is preferable because it’s actually quite nice, but since we had a particularly cold winter with temperatures considerably below zero, the composter saved us. We installed a fan that takes a tiny amount of electricity and clean it out regularly and you’d never know it was there. Let’s see, what else? Laundry- that’s my luxury that I don’t even think twice about. I haul our laundry to a laundromat in town and just pay to have it done. It’s $1.10 a pound and they fold it and separate it so I drop it off on the way to school and pick it up on our way back up. I love those ladies.
The cabin itself is 20×20, two stories. The upstairs consists of one large loft bedroom that the kids share and a smaller bedroom sprouting from the stairwell. Can you even call it a room if there’s no doorway? That’s where my husband and I sleep. It’s fairly communal. I think having a door might be what I’m most looking forward to. We enclosed our porch with screens covered by plexiglass over the fall and put a wood burning stove out there so it stayed warm all winter. It gave us an extra 70-some square feet and has been worth its space in gold. Outside, we have a small vegetable garden, a fire pit, and plenty of space to roam. Beyond our property is a large meadow and then the river. It’s really, really lovely.
For four people and a dog and a cat, living in tight quarters is…well…tight. But it’s been a beautiful year of togetherness, grieving, healing, and growing. The kids have been blessedly TV-free without remembering the difference (though some nights we do put a movie on the computer, and we do have an iPad) and with free reign to roam and nothing but time, they’ve been forced to find things to do outside and with each other. They always surprise me with their resilience, their willingness to go with whatever we throw at them. Sure, they’re tired of the long road to school. Sure, I’d love to turn a faucet and have hot water. But this is where we are and we’re making the most of it, together. Everything has become a process (dishes, lighting, cleaning, shoveling in a particularly heavy-snowfall and freezing cold winter) and we’ve really had to embrace it all. I’ve loved giving them that. “Getting back to basics” is actually a lot of work, but it’s been an eye opening year for us, one I really appreciate and am thankful for. It’s not something I would have wanted to do, not something I was necessarily prepared for, but it’s an experience that I’m glad we’ll all have in our back pockets.
I think after all that, I probably don’t even need to segue too much into today’s book. It’s about a little girl whose family goes back every year to a log cabin in the woods with…ahem…no electricity or indoor plumbing.
The Cabin Key, by Gloria Rand, tenderly describes the little girl’s visit to the rustic cabin, where her family has been going for generations. She recounts old stories and feels a connection to her family before her for experiencing the same old-fashioned circumstances. Illustrated with lovely nostalgic details, it’s a book that my family can relate to.
We have only a couple more weeks until school is out, which is our ending point up here. After that, we’re loading up our ’67 Shasta and driving across the country to Michigan, where I grew up. Who knows after that. Adventure awaits, my friends.