With winter ebbing and spring headed our way, some folks are probably thinking a little more frequently about getting out of the city once and for all.
Having “been there done that,” it saddens me to read comments on SurvivalBlog from people wanting to start living a simpler more self-reliant lifestyle in the country but they just can’t seem to make it happen. For some of those, I’m confident they could turn their hopes into reality if they could learn to think out of the box, rethink normalcy, toss some of their fears aside, and make some sacrifices to make it all happen. Once settled in and growing accustomed to their new lifestyle, the “sacrifices” they made will seem trivial in comparison to the lifestyle they’re now enjoying.
I hope by sharing my own story of how I was able to finally start living the dream the reader might be inspired to take a fresh look at their life and see what kinds of trade-offs they can make to achieve their goal of getting out of the city. While it’s never too early to start preparing for TEOTWAWKI, even if it never happens the joys that come from living a lifestyle in a rural area cannot compare to the way of life many are living at the present time in cities and suburbia.
My First Desires for Self-Reliance
It’s not too often that kids read life-changing books in elementary school. For me, the book My Side of the Mountain had that effect. The story of a boy running away from home in New York City to live a self-reliant lifestyle in the Catskill Mountains set me on a course which would eventually lead me to where I am today, living on my homestead and striving to live that self-reliant lifestyle I’ve dreamed about since elementary school.
After reading My Side of the Mountain, my desire to learn the skills required to live a self-reliant life began. The self-reliance/survival genre became my favorite books to read and that’s never changed. I read the Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson books my grandfather gave me in grade school, bought How to Stay Alive in the Woods in 7th grade, Alas Babylon in 8th grade, enjoyed The Last of the Mountain Men, and read every survival adventure story I could get my hands on, even the grisly ones like Alive and its unauthorized predecessor, They Lived On Human Flesh. My family subscribed to The Mother Earth News back when it was still a fairly new magazine dedicated to self-reliance, edited by a couple of hippies living off-grid somewhere.
From reading these kinds of books, even though some were romanticized fiction, I realized early on that living a self-reliant lifestyle would probably mean giving up some conveniences in order to make my dream a reality. But they also taught me that it’s possible to live with few possessions yet still live a good life.
I eventually ended up working in one of the larger cities in the US. I found myself in the same situation many find themselves in: unwilling and/or unable to give up financial security to move to the country. I was also in a relationship that was working great for the here and now but our long-term goals had almost no overlap whatsoever. Then one day I heard a saying that had a profound impact on me: “Nobody on their death bed ever wished they had spent more time at the office.” Wow, heavy stuff.
I was in my late forties and not getting any younger. It had been 40 years since reading My Side of the Mountain so I began to ask myself, “If not now, when?” I split up with my girlfriend and met another gal who was more interested in going wherever life led. Her occupation offered job opportunities almost anywhere we wanted to live. I one day mentioned my dream since childhood of living a self-reliant lifestyle in the boonies and she thought it sounded great. The pieces were falling into place to finally begin living the life I wanted. To do so, I knew I’d have to take a leap of faith, sail out of the safe harbor, and face some unknowns.
The hardest part of all was walking into my boss’s office that day and saying, “I’ll take a 50% cut in pay if you’ll let me out of here and work from home somewhere in the boonies.” If he said no, I was going anyway even realizing there was almost no chance of finding good-paying work in rural America in my specialized field. But if not now, when? My biggest concern at that moment in his office wasn’t how I was going to make money, it was what kinds of sacrifices was I going to make in order to make my dream happen. I had already decided I was moving to the country come hell or high water. The details would have to sort themselves out later.
To my surprise my boss said, “Sure, we can do that.”
I couldn’t believe it, I was finally on my way!
Searching for the Perfect Piece of Land
Where shall we live? I knew exactly which part of the country I wanted to live in and narrowed it down to a few counties in that area. My girlfriend didn’t have any particular preferences on location. She started sending out resumes. While she was at each interview I was at the real estate office looking over the offerings. After one interview in a one-dog town, we walked into the local diner for dinner. As we were walking toward our table, every single person in the diner either said hello to us or nodded their heads. My girlfriend couldn’t figure it out. After we sat down I said, “This is one of the many reasons why country life is so wonderful. Everyone’s on a first-name basis and most of them want to be your friend if you just treat ‘em right.”
She found a job and we moved to our new county and rented a house. Finding the perfect piece of property was harder than I was expecting and a few wrenches were thrown into the works as well. It took almost two years to finally find the perfect place to build a homestead. But it was worth the wait. My girlfriend had worked in real estate once upon a time. I was planning on offering a few thousand dollars less than the buyer was asking. She said the only way to buy real estate was to make an insanely low-ball offer. I told her the offer she was suggesting was downright nuts but went ahead with it. It was so low, only two-thirds of the asking price, I was embarrassed to present it to the real-estate agent. To my surprise, the seller countered with an offer that was only slightly higher. It was the only property I looked at that already had a well drilled. So that saved me another $10,000.
I finally had my 20 acres!
Planning and Development the Property
Part of my 50%-cut-in-pay deal with my boss was to allow me to work only the hours necessary: 15-20 hours a week during the winter, 60+ hours in the fall. That gave me extra time certain times of the year to start building my homestead.
I’ve always been a do-it-yourself (DIY) guy so building my own house was a given. I also didn’t want to be the first person on my St. Funogas line to not build a house. The property didn’t have any improvements other than the well. The first task was to scope the property out to find just the right location for everything. I once read about a family who bought some property and spent a year living in a small RV so they could really get a feel for their land. When it came time to build, they knew exactly where everything should go. In hindsight, I should have done the same and I can now see what a big difference it would have made.
During that first winter, plans were drawn up, ideas kicked around, and eventually we had as many things figured out as we could. One determining factor was trying to save as much money as possible to make my funds stretch their furthest without sacrificing quality in the construction. I wanted everything inside the house to be wood, no sheetrock or paint anywhere, which meant spending more on building materials.
She discovered an article about something called the “Lovable Loo,” a DIY composting toilet that was more or less a glorified kitty-litter box for humans. The idea sounded off-the-charts idiotic but I read the articles she printed for me and bought The Humanure Handbook. I decided she was right, not only was it a great idea on how to save thousands of dollars to put in a septic tank and leach line, but also a good way to add a lot of material to the compost pile. During our planning that winter we discovered many more ideas we hadn’t thought of. I built a prototype of our lovable loo and we started using it while still in our rented house. We started a compost pile as well.
That first winter I put up a barbed-wire fence to enclose a yard and pasture. As soon as people along my shady country road saw that someone had bought the property and was improving it, many stopped by to introduce themselves and ask if I needed any help. I occasionally took some of them up on the offer and began forming new friendships.
The first thing to do in the spring before beginning construction was to get a garden started since it takes so long to develop the soil. Some tomato plants were thrown into the ground (we found an arrowhead while digging), the area was covered with hay mulch, and then ignored all summer. The 60 quarts of tomatoes we canned that fall made that first garden pay off well.
With the garden in, construction began on the house.
There are advantages to buying a property with a house already on it and that’s what I’d highly recommend for many reasons. Since I had the skills and love a challenge I wanted to build my own house to customize it exactly how I wanted. I also wanted a smaller-than-average house that could be heated without using so much firewood. We eventually settled on building a 600 square-foot house with a 200 square-foot loft and a very open floor plan which makes it feel more spacious.
Building requires a lot of different kinds of tools, some of them expensive. While searching for a property, I began looking for good bargains on tools I was lacking. Many I bought at local estate auctions for a fraction of the cost of new ones. For others I was in the right place at the right time and got the deal of the century on things like my cabinetmaker’s table saw.
I decided to buy all my building materials locally. When I mentioned that to the hardware store manager he immediately put me on the good-old-boy price-discount list. When people ask me if I had any help building the house I tell them there were two people: my son and a guy at the hardware store. He knew my name, made excellent recommendations, and I soon learned I could always trust his judgment. I’d walk in the door every day on the way to my homestead and he’d always come over and ask what I needed today. He was an excellent resource.
One of the biggest construction helps was a type of book available in an 8½” x 11” format, generally around 3/8” thick and averaging 125-150 pages. They often have more pictures than text and everything is well explained and illustrated. They cover every home-building topic imaginable, as well as a multitude of other subjects like small-engine repair. I bought several of these on topics like plumbing, wiring, and house framing among others. On some of these, I was somewhat proficient but needed the finer details and what the national building code requirements were. Other topics like cabinet making, I was clueless and the book I bought turned out to be worth its weight in gold. While YouTube can partially fill in for these types of books, I much preferred having the instruction manual right there in hard copy and readily accessible.
I had help on certain portions of the house which only cost me a few six-packs of beer. One of those was when a bunch of neighbors showed up before the concrete truck arrived. When working with concrete, it’s nice to have as many hands on deck as possible to get things smoothed out before it dries. Family members from out of state also made vacation visits to help with other aspects of building.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)