This Ain't Leaves of Grass: Debunking Your Off-the-Grid Idealism

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We need to talk.

I know what you have been thinking while you are with your slow-food Social Practice friends, talking about sustainable craft and the amazing documentary you saw on PBS, Alone in the Wilderness, about Dick Proeneke. Or when you’re squatting with idealistic, pensive punks in an abandoned warehouse, reading Walt Whitman or Thoreau and thinking about how you wouldn't have to pay any taxes or have a job if you lived like the link you saw on Facebook of the guy who camps in the Canadian forest and makes a new shelter out of the stuff around him everyday. You’re probably thinking how easy it would be to be truly D.I.Y. if you lived way out somewhere, but not too far. You’re also thinking, once you go ‘farm-to-table’, after all, the next logical step is to go 'back to the land.' So, I think we should talk, because moving ‘off-the-grid’ is not a joke, it’s a terrible thing to do to yourself and anyone you love, and it happened to me. And since it seems so unbelievably hip to live in a reclaimed wood shack on a sustainable farm decorated with succulents these days, I really need to warn you about your ideological hippy fantasy before you make a serious mistake.

The scene of my tortured childhood

The short version is that I rolled out of the womb blithely rollerskating in the San Jose suburbs, until my mom remarried a man who lived like a rugged Tom Selleck-buddha on the top of a mountain. Our house in the Santa Cruz mountains burned down, and we bought 800 acres in the middle of nowhere in the Sierra foothills, where I suddenly became an L.A. Gear child in an off-the-grid nightmare. When I was older, I moved into ‘town’ in Nevada City, CA and I spent my late teens living in various houses in the woods with roommates which were not exactly off any grid anymore, but remote just the same, (out of a lack of real estate more than for more rugged experience). 

Here are some reasons not to move to the middle of nowhere. 

  1. There’s nowhere to pee. Whether you’re visiting a new construction site or a god-awful yurt, there are no bathrooms. As a girl, you’ll find this a problem when you go out into the woods and accidentally piss all over the back of your pants. The cute guy you are with will lay out newspapers on the front seat before you can get in his car so you don’t ruin his upholstery.
  2. You will get tired of each other like in The Shining. No matter who you move into the wild with, this will happen to you. You’ll think deciding to live away from other people is a good idea until you throw an ax through the door when your partner locks you in the closet because you were talking to your finger.
  3. Your weak city arms will not be able to start the generator and you will live in fear of getting caught for using all the solar power to watch 90210. Okay, maybe that was just me, but it could still happen to you when you try to stream Portlandia.
  4. You’ll run out of firewood and start cutting up everything around you. Once you use all the viable dry wood around the house, you’re going to have to cut and “season” your firewood. If you can’t use a chainsaw, you’ll find yourself chopping up your roommate’s dresser in the garage with an ax and lying to him when he looks for it.
  5. Crazy people are your neighbors. You know who else wants to move away from the rest of civilization? Tweakers, cult members, pedophiles and escaped convicts. That’s who goes bump in the night, not wolves.
  6. Mountain lions and bears are also your neighbors. My mom used to leave really early to go to work and I would have to walk by myself a mile down the road in the dark with mud boots and a flashlight to catch the 6 a.m. school bus. She would just say, “If you see a mountain lion, stick your hands up really high in the air and yell at it."
  7. There’s one pizza place in the single-street ‘town’ and it sucks. 
  8. Growing weed will seem like a good idea until the Feds raid your house and seize your property. This actually happened to a family member recently. It’s easy to think the government is just a likable black guy president, but it’s good to have a healthy amount of distrust for those in power who can claim to be searching for a ‘meth ring’ and raid your house. They can take your land because of a couple weed plants even with a ‘script.' Remember, weed is not actually legal on a federal level, and boy do those mountain cops know it.
  9. You might get lice or worse from the trailer park kids. I can’t even believe I am telling you this, but we all got scabies. So grossssss.
  10. You’ll forget a thousand times that they call it “fool’s gold” for a reason.
  11. All your things will lose their cultural capital. Do you think anyone you invite over will be impressed with your Bose speaker system or your Stone Island parka? No one understands what the difference is, and you will start shopping at the JC Penny one hour away like everyone else.
  12. Old man bars lose their ironic appeal when it’s the only watering hole around and everyone inside smells.
  13. If you can’t get the internet, just imagine what that means. No really. You’ll shop from catalogs, you’ll listen to the same records for the next 40 years, and you’ll be dead to everyone because you didn’t reply to their emails.
  14. The neighbors all believe in the coming apocalypse and will look at you as a fertility device to re-procreate civilization.  I once lived above landlords who believed so completely in Y2K's impeding social collapse that the only reason they rented to me and my guy friend was so we could repopulate the planet.
  15. Do you even KNOW how far away the doctor is?  One evening, my friends and I got drunk in the middle of the woods and decided that we should operate on my friend, Robin.  This was because someone had shot him with a BB gun and it was lodged in his scalp.  In a wine stupor, we cut it out with a razor blade.  But, if we had nicked an artery at all, and actually needed to take him to the hospital, he'd be lucky if he didn't end up bleeding out in the car.
  16. After your relationship doesn’t work out with the tiny pool of romantic options around you, you just might start importing Russian brides, who will all leave because even Russia is better than living off the grid.  That's what happened to my step-dad.
  17. Are you really going to home-school your kids? Do you even understand algebra?
  18. You’ll run into a bobcat or another large protective female animal with a cub while walking down the dirt road to your house.  They will stop in your path and stare at you for an hour and no one will drive by because you insisted on living in isolation. You decide you have a death wish and finally scare them into the bushes, but not without leaving your heart beating outside of your chest on the side of the road.
  19. I bet you think things would be easier if you lived communally, like Mormons or hippies. Well, there’s a reason why more people don’t all live together. People are annoying. Also, eventually there is bound to be one alpha dude who will decide the women should stay and take turns making babies with him, while the other men and boys are run off or chained up outside.
  20. When you come back to the city, I will say, “I told you so.”




We also need to talk just a little about the video which Gawker posted recently, aptly titled "Wilderdouches".  While Gawker basically said most of what needed to be said already, I would just like to add that only a San Franciscan Zynga-programming nerd would be convinced by  the narrator's Ira Glass-esque voice gently urging them to forget all the times they were picked on in gym class and decide to spend the weekend "reclaiming their manhood" while soft indie music lulls in the background. This trip will include not only throwing axes at trees from the side of the highway, but also catering to those who are unable to go even two days without artisan cheeses, with a private chef and gin and tonics.  It's a shame because it's the only way you could get me to go camping, and if it weren't for the bad-hair-and-polar-fleece tribe that I recognize from their lunch hour descent into my work neighborhood, I would consider going to learn to "be a man," too.  Well, that and the $3,000.