When we first moved to this cabin, we didn't have a refrigerator. For most of the summer, we stored our fresh food in a cooler on our back deck, piled with ice that we replenished daily. We finally acquired a propane fridge, significantly smaller than any refrigerator we've ever had.
For several months we had sketchy hot water. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not work and we had no idea why. We took a great many cold showers, and some showers so hot we contorted our bodies to avoid the spray.
We live off-road and for many weeks at a time, during the rainy season, we've driven a 4WD vehicle on and off the ranch, transferring our things to and from our usual small car once we hit the paved road.
We have no neighbors and we live 25 minutes from town, 30 minutes from work, and more than an hour from anything that could be called a city. Some days we spend more than two hours in the car.
My partner and I have not had privacy from our children for two years.
We have never had cell phone reception or Internet access in this cabin. We wash our clothes in a laundromat each week. Needless to say, we don't have a dishwasher or microwave.
Before we had solar panels, we were dependent on a generator to have electric lights, which entailed a ear-shattering, gas-guzzling beast on our back deck. With solar panels, we can run lights, charge our laptop, and run a low-power blender, but not much else.
We have not hung a photograph or piece of art for two years, owing to the steep cant of our walls. For every thing that has entered our home, some other thing has left. We restrict our consumption of clothing, toys, books, kitchen implements, toiletries, furniture, craft supplies, and hobby materials according to the natural limits placed by our tiny home.
If I came upon some thing that I desired, most of the time I could not have it, because we didn't have enough space for it or enough energy to run it.
I regret none of this. At the end of my days, I expect to look back on this experiment in living as one of the happiest times in my life. My family has grown closer, and we've all grown stronger and more resilient. I've learned so much about what qualifies as “standard of living” and how to define this standard for myself. I know what I need to feel comfortable and what I appreciate simply because it makes my life easier.
I have a clear understanding of which luxuries have been inflated to necessities by a culture that elevates consumption to the status of a virtue. I understand that living with less, far from being constricting, exhausting, frustrating, or otherwise limiting, can be liberating and ultimately bring about greater contentment – even if you occasionally want to kick the on-demand water heater.
None of this means that I think you should go live in a cabin in the woods. This is only what I've found for myself.
My parents raised me to be deeply distrustful of welfare systems and disdainful of anyone who utilized those programs. I still flush with shame when I remember the years I spent on food stamps, and the times my family has been dependent on family assistance to pay our bills are branded in my mind with deep regret.
On a fundamental level, I believe in living within your means, but our “means” have historically been out-of-sync with basic expenses like rent and food, even though we've rarely been without work. It was during those times that we became dependent on family and governmental help. And even though our income is higher than it's ever been, we still lack basic healthcare, such that I recently had to take outside work – on top of my full-time job – to acquire the funds necessary for a doctor visit.
We might be detached from the grid, but our children have healthcare through California's “gap” program for low-income kids – and thank goodness for it. Because we produce our own water and energy and much of our food, we're less dependent on “the system” than most people, but in other ways we are more dependent than ever – with no end in sight.
This might be the most important lesson I've learned out here in the boonies. I feel a tug when I consider the many, many ways that we cannot provide for ourselves. We still buy food in a grocery store. We still drive a car (a shitload, too). We use propane. We are helpless. We are culpable.
When you start thinking about Transition -- about walkable cities, asset-based community development, sustainable food production, green energy, re-skilling, and so forth -- you begin to realize that we are at an absolute disadvantage to our government. When I consider my level of consciousness from several years ago, I realize that I was so pampered and provided-for by my government that I was functionally willing to exchange the health of entire ecosystems for a washing machine and dishwasher. This might have even seemed like a fair trade.
But even with a raised consciousness I've been humbled by our limitations at every turn.
I've learned so much from living in this place, from doing this work. But a few days ago I happened on this old post from Cinnamon Girl and when I read the following line, I thought, Well damn. That's our situation in a nutshell.
"There comes a point for me when trying to accomplish something where I depart from the land of trying oh so hard and move into a space where things are very clearly being forced."
That's where I am, and it sucks. Because it leads to questions like this, questions that float through the miasma of a cold night when you're lying in bed in your one-room, off-grid, off-road cabin, insulated with earth and recycled fibers and fueled by solar panels, pondering your impending move to a “regular” house and subsequent inevitable connection to the grid: are we going to be re-assimilated? Are we going to become numbed and lulled by thoughtless water and energy acquisition and abandon what we've learned? In the thrill of access to streaming Netflix, will we forget what kind of world we want to live in?
I think that would be a shame. It's just not possible for us to continue having all this crap indefinitely, maybe not even for much longer. I, for one, want to understand how unnecessary it is – that a joyful life is possible without these tethers.