When I bought our twenty foot Jayco Lite travel trailer before our house closed in the spring of 2017, I figured we’d be living in it for a few months while we looked for a new home.
I was wrong.
We lived within the confines of it’s half-inch walls for almost two years.
When I spotted it in an ad, I was sucked in by the extra amenities and the price. Plenty of room for the job as I saw it at the time. It came with a TV, radio, an air conditioner, central heating and something else so appealing I’ve forgotten what it was.
It also came with a badly rotted floor which I didn’t know about at the time. The rest was standard.
We spent a summer living in the thing expecting to find a property with a house. We didn’t, and ended up crammed in for much longer than we expected. The single table inside was only big enough for my son and his computer so I spent a lot of time in our bunk at the rear or outside in our half-built shed. My husband even moved his TV and Xbox outside during the summer. It was too cramped in the tiny house on wheels.
The sink was too small, the bathroom was too small and the hot water heater was glitchy. It became an art form to take a shower. We had to set the timer for twelve minutes exactly from the time we turned the hot water heater on. Whoever was taking a shower had to be ready to jump in at the mark or the water would boil out of the tank outside within a couple of minutes.
We managed to break not one but two windows and had to tape them up and when the freezing temperatures hit, we had a major problem on our hands with the canvas walls of the pullouts.
We ended up putting rigid sheet insulation and plywood around the walls and over the roofs of the pullouts but zero degrees doesn’t care. The rain had a tendency of finding a way through the tarps we put over them too. Wet mattress pads, sheets and pillows were the order of the day. I don’t know how we survived but we did.
Some time during the summer the rotten floor made itself apparent and we crawled under the contraption to shore up the floor with two by fours to prevent a “yard sale” while driving down the freeway at sixty-five miles an hour.
There wasn’t much between the outdoors and us in a canvas pullout.
One night shortly after we’d set up camp on our new property, we heard a distinct scraping sound against a trash barrel outside just feet from our heads. We’ll never know what was out there. I took the outside position only one time and ended up on the inner side within minutes.
Last fall we got a fifth wheel, not knowing for sure when we’d be able to build a real house but our fifteen year old insisted that he didn’t want to see the Jayco go to waste. He’s a teenager and he still lives in it.
We were quite happy to say goodbye and move next door forty feet away. At least we no longer have to worry about Mr. Foot reaching his hand under the canvas wall and making away with my husband.
Most people probably don’t give a second thought to their water heaters but ours came with a story.
When we bought our RV, it had been refitted for use with city hookups rather than for it’s original purpose of boon docking. The electric water heater that had been installed was gobbling our energy so we ordered a propane model.
When the UPS guy dropped off it off, we eyeballed it with suspicion as we’d recently watched an episode of the TV show Mythbusters featuring an experiment with hot water heaters.
They had disabled all of the safety measures on several tanks then set the temperature dials to maximum. Upon overheating to the point of exploding, they blew open at their weakest points – the bottoms – launching them hundreds of feet into the air.
We wondered how high our mini-rocket might be capable of traveling under the wrong circumstances as we wrestled it into its compartment on the side of our RV and hooked up the gas and water. We checked for leaks then lit it up.
We turned the water on to check the temperature but it got hotter and hotter then stopped flowing altogether. Clueless and sure the heater was nearing blast-off, we called it a night.
Our luck was no better the next day so we decided to call a professional.
They don’t normally do work on RV’s but they agreed to send someone to come take a look. For two weeks we waited – without hot water.
By the time he arrived, the repairman had attained hero status in our minds.
Armed only with a notepad and a toolbox, he listened with concern as we told him our plight. Wringing our now filthy hands, we recounted our misadventures as he stole sideways glances at the beast that waited behind the access panel that said “hot”.
Finally, he adjusted his collar, turned, and approached his foe with a swagger that would have made John Wayne proud. He opened the hatch, squinted into the darkness and went to work.
We stood back and watched nervously. What if he couldn’t fix it? What if we had to send it back for another? What if this cost us an arm and a leg?
Finally, we heard the rocket-like swoosh of propane igniting as the man cocked his head and made his final adjustments. We tried in vain to read his poker face as he turned and walked back our way to give us the news.
Suppressing a grin, he told us “I turned the heat down.”
How we came to live in the wild (three-and-a-half miles from the nearest town).
When I was a child, I would stand on the side porch of our suburban home and look down the hill past the developments to the expanses of farmland that stretched out beyond. I wished I could be there where I could be with the animals and roam.
My Aunt would occasionally throw us into the back of her station wagon and haul us off to go for a hike, explore a mine, or go camping. These adventures instilled in me a love of nature.
I went on to spend most of my life living in the suburbs, the idea of having a home in the mountains or country always in the back of my mind.
Then I met a person who shared my dreams – my husband. Together we made them come true.
Following are the stories of my family’s journey from a temperate place of perpetual rain, manicured lawns and HOA’s to a land of baking summers, frigid winters, wild animals, wild neighbors, a driveway from hell – and the best adventures of our lives.
After we sold our house in suburbia in the Spring of 2017 and pulled onto the road towing our twenty foot travel trailer, we didn’t know where we would end up by the end of that summer but we figured (rightly) that adventure awaited us on the open road and beyond.
Here’s our story.
We are a married couple with a sixteen-year-old son and two cats. We want a dog but for now we have the neighbor’s six or seven.
Life in the Puget Sound region where we were living was getting frenetic and overcrowded so we sold our house in the spring of 2017, bought a travel trailer, and hit the road. We felt squeezed out like too much jelly on a sandwich so we set out to find a new slice of paradise in the rural regions of Washington state.
The national forest and anywhere else we were allowed to camp became our home for three months as we cruised the real estate websites for property. In September we found a few acres of land near the Idaho and Canadian borders in eastern Washington that was just right.
It was three and a half miles from the nearest Walmart and tucked into the foothills of the Huckleberry Mountain Range. At the time, there was one neighbor nearby with nothing else between us and the surrounding mountains. The property was undeveloped and had been unoccupied for seventy years.
Moving onto raw land means you’re on your own. You become the engineer, contractor, electrician, and if something breaks, repairman for everything you depend on to live. We had to figure some things out.
At first, we got our water from the city standpipe then found out they close it in the winter. Luckily, by that time, we’d discovered natural springs on our property. For power we used a gas generator. The following autumn, we installed solar and it’s been a love/hate relationship ever since.
We initially used a WiFi hotspot for the Internet but it became us vs the Google data pig. The neighbors let us use their connection until we got into a fight and they changed their password.
We could only get online from my husband’s spot in our bed anyway, and only if it wasn’t raining. We eventually had three huge trees cut down to get a line of sight to a tower for Internet.
A person once suggested that having an Internet connection kicked us out of the category of being off-the-grid. Another made the absurd observation that having a phone did the same. Living off-grid is different for everyone and involves varying degrees of disconnectedness and choices of survival strategies and tools.
Attempting to put this flailing mess of variables into one neat box just doesn’t work. We don’t depend on the city for power but we sure as heck depended on the manufacturer of the solar panels and the generator. Get the point? 🙂
A New Way Of Life
In addition to the logistics of setting up “shop”, we had to adjust to a different mindset. Hardiness is respected in these parts and the local government pamphlet opens with the words “Welcome to the Wild West” and urges the reader to “get used to it”.
We were fresh from a lifetime of living in the suburbs and afraid to touch a gas-powered chainsaw let alone make a go of living amongst the trees and the turkeys. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into but we were too excited to be new landowners to let any reservations get in our way.
Our First Year
After the honeymoon period, winter barreled in with a seriousness that slapped all thoughts of anything but survival out of our consciousnesses. The neighbors had warned us of sub-zero temperatures and snow drifts as high as the eves on a house. It wasn’t far from the truth.
The weather turned cold and wet and we found ourselves ill-prepared for reality. Our water pipes froze and our worldly possessions disappeared under three feet of snow. Some things we didn’t find until spring.
As the temperatures plummeted toward zero, my son and I went to stay in an emergency shelter while my husband hunkered down at the property with our cats. I worried constantly about him but we visited often. I would take dishes back with me to the shelter to clean and straighten things out while I was there.
Three months later we moved back while it was still frigid. We were low on money and propane. Keeping warm was a challenge with frost and ice gaining a foothold inside our trailer by the day.
I would grab whatever I could find and obsessively fill small crevices and holes where cold air was entering to cut the chill. Our central heating system was inefficient so we used a small indoor heater to keep us comfortable until spring.
We sometimes cooked or made coffee over a fire. I would hunch over my homemade rocket stove in the cold and wet while my husband built his pit fire. I remember feeling miserable and hopeless as I struggled to get the stove lit in the freezing rain and snow.
The harsh winter had taken a toll and my outlook had become very bleak like the weather. There would be many challenges ahead before the days began to warm.
Spring, then summer arrived and we discovered a billion new bug species. I took up slingshot while trying to shoot down yellow jacket nests and we discovered ticks, or rather – they discovered us. Ticks and Sticks.
The grass grew up to our waists with stickers everywhere. They would lodge themselves into our clothes and our cats fur like tiny barbed arrows and we had to push them through rather than pull them back out or risk destroying the cloth in the process. We had to carefully cut them out of the cats fur when it got badly matted (better to have a veterinarian do this).
Sweltering heat made that summer one of the longest I’ve ever experienced but we had things in the works.
We tilled rock-hard soil and planted a garden using old barbed-wire left behind on the property for a fence. We put a handle on a pickax head we found and used it to chip away at the bedrock underlying the spring. I cleaned up a seventy-year-old can opener when ours broke and it worked fine.
We did whatever we could to pass the time and keep our chins up.
Thank you to my husband for helping me to get through it all. When I was at my worst, he would hold my face in his hands, look at me and say “Good things Baby, good things”.
It’s a year later and we have the solar power system, generators, a large shed, and a nicer RV (until we finally build a home). We have a fireplace to warm ourselves by and we have each other.
The following stories and poems aren’t meant to show others how to live off-grid as we still don’t know how but welcome and enjoy. 🙂