Ten years ago, my wife and I, as young newlyweds, were living the American dream. Our future was bright. While my wife earned a lucrative salary and I built a successful online business, we were on the road to success. Our urban lifestyle provided us with everything our hearts desired. In 2006 everything changed. With the collapse of the housing bubble and the economy in a tailspin, we woke up to the fact that our easy urban lifestyle was fragile and dependent on factors far outside of our control. We began to be alarmed at the precariousness of our current situation. We asked ourselves what we would do if the economy continued to deteriorate and we could no longer depend on the comfortable income we had so long enjoyed. We considered our options and tried to determine what we could do to lessen our dependency on others and build in security for our family’s future. After much prayer, we decided to radically change our way of life. We put our house up for sale and resolved to move to a remote location and become modern homesteaders.
Our first step was to find a suitable location. Every weekend we loaded up the van and started looking for off-grid properties. With an eye towards self-reliance we determined our future property must include four things: 1) a reliable water supply independent from municipal sources; 2) a climate that would support growing our own food; 3) an adequate forest that could provide firewood for heat and lumber for building material; 4) a defendable property far enough from major cities to be safe from the influx of an urban exodus in the case of natural or man-made disaster. We decided on an area east of the Cascade Mountains in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.
After years of searching we found what we considered to be the perfect location for our future off-grid homestead. We purchased the land and set to work. Our new property was bare, forested land. Having a background in construction and site development, I was undaunted by the scope of work needing to be performed. Clearing land, logging, construction, building roads, installing septic systems and water wells were within my scope of abilities.
Before we started we had resolved to build out of pocket and complete the job debt free. We had made the necessary preparation and everything was accounted for and a go. What we didn’t consider were the road blocks about to be put up before us by the county building department and the dramatic increase in the cost of building materials. I have been in construction for a long time and am familiar with building department requirements, engineering, and the inspection process. Very early on I began to sense a perceptible resistance by the building department to sign off on our building plans. It seemed to me we were trying to hit a moving target with continuous requests for changes in engineering and permitting requirements. I cannot say with certainty that the building department was actively trying to make our life difficult. I think perhaps our project was so far out of their general scope of knowledge that they were reluctant to give approval over fear they may become liable for unforeseen problems in the future.
With the cost of development skyrocketing and the demands of the building department becoming ever more difficult we were quickly reaching the point of no return. We were faced with a very difficult decision: Do we continue to bang our heads against this proverbial wall or cut our losses; take the remaining money we still had; and purchase a homestead with an intact infrastructure? The thought of pulling up stakes and starting over was heartrending. We had already invested thousands of dollars clearing timber, building roads, and installing a septic system and fresh-water well. We had fallen in love with our future home site and developed relationships with neighbors that continue to this day.
With time and money running low a decision had to be made. We pulled the plug, loaded up the van and hit the road searching for a place we could call home. I believe my wife and I looked at every property for sale in the county. Toward the end of a long day of searching we came over a rise in the road and were treated to a spectacular view of the Cascade Mountains. My wife motioned to me to stop! To our left stood an old “for sale” sign and a promising homestead property with a modest house and several barns and out- buildings. We immediately got out of the van and investigated the property. We quickly realized it had everything we had been looking for: strategic location, favorable climate, ample water, timber and nearly move-in ready. I’m not going to go into the long and arduous process we went through to purchase our homestead, but to make a long story short, we now call it home.
Preparing for the Future.
In late November we took position of the property and moved in. The homestead had been abandoned and was in pretty rough shape. Winter was bearing down upon us and a lot of work needed to be done. Time was running short and the harsh winter snows were looming on the horizon. With my family living onsite in my parents’ fifth-wheel trailer we started to work. It was as if we had been thrust back into the 19th century. We had no heat or water in the house. Pipes had frozen and burst. The woodstove was so old and worn that it was no longer safe to use; which would not have helped much anyway since we had no firewood. This experience was very eye-opening for our family. I was amazed how dependent we had become on modern conveniences like warm water, a furnace with a thermostat, and grocery stores so close that a person need not worry about food storage or maintaining a pantry. The hardships of our first winter were a disguised blessing. We began to realize many short comings and vulnerabilities in our preparations. It has been said that every boxer has a plan until he gets hit in the nose. Our noses had been bloodied and we resolved our second winter would not be a repeat of the first.
We needed a plan. My wife and I counseled together to determine our most pressing needs. As an avid outdoors man I learned and at early age the four things one does if lost in the wilderness: 1) build a shelter; 2) provide a source of heat; 3) secure water; 4) find food. With a sturdy house and a dry roof we moved to step 2 – provide heat and warmth. We purchased a used woodstove and chimney pipe and installed them in the front room. With perseverance, determination, and a lot of very wet firewood we had a reasonably warm house. Just when our conditions started to improve a severe ice storm knocked out our power for nine days. With the well pump out-of-service we were forced to devise a water source that could operate independent from the power grid. How difficult it is for the modern mind to shift from the conventional way of doing things. If you need to pump water you have two options, correct? Either you use an electric or a gasoline powered pump. With the electricity to our home shut off this left only one alternative. With the nearest gas station many miles away down a treacherous ice-covered road, running a generator 24 hours a day is a less than ideal solution. One of the most important lessons homesteading has taught me is to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and to look to the old ways of getting a job done. I searched the internet for an alternative approach to our water problem. Lo and behold I found a 16th Century solution to a 21st Century problem, the ram pump.
YouTube is a modern homesteader’s best friend. By watching several videos I learned how to build a simple pump constructed of common plumbing supplies that operates on the kinetic energy of falling water. We now had a solution to our water emergency. By combining this simple pump with a small water tower, we were able to provide water for drinking as well as an adequate supply for irrigating our garden. I’m not suggesting our grandfathers had all the solutions but much can be gleaned from their past experience and the solutions they devised for similar problems we face today. It seems to me that the modern homesteader who combines the old-tried and true techniques with modern technology can devise simple and robust solutions for nearly any problem.
With shelter, heat, and water issues sorted we began to look at our food supply. Our first spring was fast approaching as we planned our garden. We homestead in an alpine forested area where we need to protect our garden from deer and elk. We settled on an area close to the house and began the construction of an 8 foot high perimeter fence and headed down the road to food independence
Fast forward a year and a half. Life on the homestead is much different. We have learned a great deal. My father used to say that it’s amazing how much a man can get done when he has to. This has certainly been true for our homestead experience.
JWR Adds: Be sure to follow their homesteading adventures, videoblogged at Wranglerstar.com.