Off the Grid, Off the Radar

I did it. About three years ago. I found it, and I did it.

For centuries it has been debated, questioned, sought after, and feared. The edge of the world. The place where the oceans broke over the edge of the final frontier, descending in endless torrent, dragging every hapless ship and voyager to the churning void of the underworld. Odysseus, Columbus, Magellan all warned against this. Death would be their fate.

I found it. I bought it. And I now live there. About 2 miles past the edge of the world. But the edge of the world isn’t where everyone thought it was. It is a grey patch in California. About 20 minutes from anywhere anyone would know. People who live 21 minutes from this grey patch don’t know it’s there. “Where do you live” they ask, and after describing where I live, and I am met with the same blank stare. “Where?”

When my wife and I first saw the post for the house, we saw the picture of the traditional home on a realtor’s website. There was a button to click to find it on the map. We clicked it. Screen was filled with an empty grey grid. We clicked “satellite view” the screen was filled with the brown yellow blur of central coast burnt summer grass, and blotches of drying oak trees… no house.   “Where?”

Then we bought it.

Electricity can’t find us here. Water pipes can’t find us here. Sewers can’t find us here. Trash trucks can’t find us here. GPS shrugs and gives up about 2 miles before you get here.   We are off the grid. Off radar. Off the edge of the world.

What does find us here is sun. What does find us here is light, the stars, and the moon. And a mad collection of people who also chose to live out here in this grey patch on a map 20 minutes from anywhere.

I love it.

Im the Man

Joe, the owner of the off-the-grid-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-home-I-had -just-put-an-offer-on, was walking me, fresh-out-of-LA-urban-sprawl-havent-had-to-change-my-own-oil-in-a-decade, to the solar house to get me up to speed with the house solar electrical system. Up a short flight of concrete steps to a small grey shed set at the topmost ridge of the hill. Next to it was the single array of solar panels set on a tracking system. This system caused the panels to follow the path of the sun across the sky like the expectant face of a black square sunflower.

He unlocked the door of the shed, the door swung open with a breezy force that equaled the force of the fist I felt colliding with my gut. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but in this shack, this grey wooden tardis, this rabbit hole dug into the roof of Wonderland, I hit the limits of my understanding of the laws of physics. Wires, endless wires, some thicker than my thumb, arrays of batteries, electric boxes in rows each humming and blinking lights, control boxes (boxeS, there was more than ONE) each measuring clicking and making decisions, fuses pumps, and shelving of replacement and outdated parts.

The next hour was a blur, I feverously writing notes, asking questions, uncertain of their relevance “Float, what’s a float?” “Why do I need an inverter?” “If the batteries run dry… can they be jump-started?” (the answer is yes, Ill describe jump starting my house later). I understood nothing. Not a thing. I just wrote it all down hoping the facts would all make sense later… but how much later? Before we paid money for this… THIS. Whatever THIS was? All the wile with the same empty ache in my stomach I felt when the door had opened, that, and a fluttering feeling in my shoulders.

The empty ache I had felt once before. It was the week before my first professional teaching job at a private High School. The Principal was showing me the art room, she had indicated a shelf of art textbooks and said “This is all we got for textbooks.”

I responded “Thats fine, can I take one of these home to review the content?”

She looked at me quizzically: “These textbooks are yours. This whole room is yours. You can do whatever you want with them.”

Then I had felt the punch, and the ache. I was now the “Man”. I was now the “Man-got-me-down”. From here on out, the success or failure of the would venture was only on me. The buck stops here, and here was in my shoes.

Then it had been about making a classroom for human beings in a crucial time of life. Now, it would be my family. If the power went out, there was no one else to call to demand proper service. If a piece of equipment blew, no one else to blame. If I wanted power, If I wanted light for my child’s nightlight, I had to make sure the equipment was running smoothly so it would happen.

The ache said, “RUN! You are not up for this! You don’t know what the hell you are doing!”

The flutter in the shoulders I had felt too. I had felt it that same High School day, it said “There is one way, and that’s the way you have chosen. Forward.”

Homogenous Urban Nights, Part 1

Living here, in this breath away from everywhere, has enabled me to see where I came from most clearly. I wasn’t here for longer than a week before I noticed it. It wasn’t until I left it that I noticed it.  For the last two decades I had lived in two of the largest urban centers in California: San Francisco & Los Angeles, and every night for the last two decades had ben absolutely the same.

Every night for two decades was constant.  Over my head had loomed the same navy blue ceiling, punctuated by the same 13 stars viewed through the same sheer curtain of neutral orange. The color created by halogen street lamps casting a diffuse light through a constant presence of urban emissions. Every night the sounds of the evening balanced out by the same constant white noise of traffic, which would work its way through any wall or door.  This had been my bubble for two decades.

One week after moving here, I was surprised every evening. There were nights which were shockingly dark. The skies filled with thick fall atmosphere blotting out every light of the heavens. Stepping outside was like stepping into a deep closet, without sign or mark of sky or earth, except for an orange smear on the horizon where Paso Robles slept.

The next night, the land and sky glowed. The full moon lofting over the horizon like a second sun. Marking every pebble, blade, and leaf in sharp outline of cerulean blues and grays.

The next, with the moon hiding below the line of the hills, the land was charcoal grey, not that I could notice it. Because above me was a salt spill of stars cascading down the ark of the heavens. Each minute sun sending a single arrow of light to strike only the most essential forms of the earth below.

Then the next, and the next after that, each night a different dance of light, and then there were the sounds…

HOMOGENOUS URBAN NIGHTS, PART 2

I remember a friend in LA comparing the sound of the freeway traffic to that of a running river, a background roar. Soft, constant, and inescapable in the urban sprawl.  When she described it thus, I thought it a comforting presence. A simulacra to satisfy the biological need for water, but replaced by the constant flow of human lives encased in moving machinery.

Then I moved out here, to the blank spot 20 minutes from the nearest freeway, and 10 minutes from the nearest asphalt road. Here I realized how synthetic the simulacra really was. The contestant soft grinding of tire on concrete is white noise. White noise cancels out all other noises, mixing the hues of tones into one. One constant, neutralized, whitish grey.

Here, there is noise, and there is silence, and there is noise. But it is never white. And the palette of sound changes one night to the next. One night the wind blows cold blue over the gold yellow of long reeds of grass. The next, bows of the brown purple branches rub against the white green strings of the spanish moss. Depending on the evening, there are gentle burgundy percussive crescendos of animals passing the house, the kining of cows, deer footfalls, or coyote pack-howls, typically followed by the bright-orange symbol of dog baying do drive the intruders to a safe distance from our home.

Thing is, the sounds don’t cancel each other out. They don’t mix to a neutral. They emphasized and complement each other, as it is not in natures best interest to fill space and silence with sense-numbing stimuli. One must hear every entity, the benign and the malignant, to find one’s place among them.

 

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 1: DEFINITIONS

I have been writing about my life as off-the-grid, but let me describe more fully what this looks like. I live on a seven acre property, about five of those acres are oak tree forest, the other two are developable land. The house is only accessible by an easement road, which means I have to drive through four other properties before I get to my own. This also means the road is private, each one of us is responsible for up keeping the portion of the easement road which crosses our respective properties.

The nearest power lines are two miles away. The nearest phone lines are four miles away, right next to my mailbox, which is also four miles away. I have no clue where to find the nearest cable/internet lines, gas lines, or water lines. However I do know the nearest sewage lines are fifteen miles away. Nearest trash service is ten miles.

SO, if my family wants electricity, phone, internet, gas, water, sewage treatment, trash service, and a safe road to get us from our home to the main road…

It’s up to us to make it happen.

The funny part is, we are not out in the middle of nowhere hours away from civilization. We just happen to be in a forgotten corner of California where no one else thought it was worth installing those things.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 2: PANELS & BATTERIES

As mentioned before, at first glance my home looks no different from the standard North American stick frame and stucco house. The only things that give it away as having anything to do with off-the-grid living, is the bank of solar panels and the 2000 gallon water tank in the front yard.

Compared with some of the other houses on our ridge our bank of solar panels is pretty humble: 8 panels total, mounted on a tracker which follows the path of the sun from sunrise to sunset. Together, at maximum, they put out 1400watts. That is my house’s electricity budget. For perspective, that is also the amount of energy needed to run a single space heater on full blast.

However, the solar panels do not directly feed the house. Instead the solar panels charge a bank of batteries. These batteries in turn run a DC to AC transformer which then power our home’s appliances & lights. The batteries act as a buffer.  Without them the whole house would shut down every time a cloud passed in front of the sun. They also allow for spikes and plunges in electricity usage. So if the cloths washer and the fridge are both running at the same time, the house can keep functioning. Then when the house is sitting quiet, the batteries can charge back up.

If I withdraw more power from the batteries than the solar panels are putting in over the course of a day, say on a heavy laundry day, or on a particularly overcast day, the whole system shuts down. This makes us acutely aware of both our environment, and the way we use our resources. The consequences of our actions become self evident within 12 hours or less, not at the end of the month when we get the electricity bill.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 3: TOAST

Awareness and consequence. Off-the-grid living keeps bringing these two words up again and again. I have to pause at moments I never had to before I moved here. Pause, take account, count the cost. Pauses like when making toast.

We have a simple toaster oven in our kitchen similar to the ones in most U.S. homes. A simple device, made of heating elements and a timer. In the mornings on the way to work, it is nice to have a bit of toast to go with eggs if we got em. But before I throw the slices into the toaster, I pause. I look outside. Is the sun up yet? How many clouds are in the sky? What was the weather like yesterday? Did we do laundry? What will the weather be like for the rest of the day?

I have to stop and ask this, because the toaster oven uses 1200 watts, thats just 200 watts below the house electricity budget, and that doesn’t take into consideration if there are any lights on, or if the fridge is running. At that morning-moment the house batteries are at their lowest charge. If it has been clear sunny days and the the sun is up I can still toast without a second thought. If it has been cloudy days, or the sun is not up, or we used a lot of appliances the day before, the whole house will go black within seconds after starting the toaster.

Then I will have to decide whether to go out and run the backup generator at $4 of diesel pr hour to get the lights and my toast back before I head off to work.

Awareness and consequence.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 4: TRASH

Its about 4 miles of dirt road to get to my house. the last mile includes a steep hill of clay earth mixed with gravel, which turns into a steep slide of clay slip in wet whether. A garbage truck couldn’t get to us if it wanted to.

So we process our own trash. It starts with eatable green waste, that goes to the chickens. Uneatable green waste, including some paper goods, goes into one of two composing piles. One pile is from the previous year which is closed and “cooking”, getting ready for this year’s garden. The other is this year’s pile receiving fresh compost, but is still too “hot” to be used for gardening.  For the rest, there is a landfill 15 minutes from us which also processes recycling and green waste. Recyclables are a free drop off. Non-recyclables are a flat charge for a pickup truck. So we try to squeeze as much recyclables as we can out of the house refuse.

This gives us a pretty measurable sense of our carbon footprint. Our household of 4 people produces about a pickup truck of recyclables every 6-8 weeks, and a pickup truck worth of landfill-trash every 8-9 weeks. Which also means we have to live with our trash for that long before it goes away. This made a considerable difference to us in the way we purchase…well.. anything. We look differently at the packaging our products: food, equipment, technology, toys, come in, because we will be living with it for weeks, and toting it to the landfill ourselves.

Now, about that landfill…

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 5: LANDFILL

Between recycling and refuse I make pilgrimage to the landfill about once every 4-6 weeks. I wait until I have enough to fill the pickup, and since the landfill is between me and everywhere else I need to go, it becomes a part of my getting between here and there.

Like many landfills, this one is tucked up in the hills behind the nearest town, completely invisible from any approach, other than by a handful of small, introverted, invitations posted at the most crucial road crossings. Then there is the tole gate, followed by one or two miles of dirt road, then the landfill. I had mentioned in previous posts my growing senses in awareness and consequence, and this is definitely an area where before moving here, I really had no sense of “landfill”. Now I am a regular. My visits are spaced, so my perception of the the slow build of sediment is marked, like a real-time time-laps.

Driving in, there is hill on my left. It is a natural hill built up and torn down by the millennia. It is a slowly crafted thing. From below, the Pacific and North American tectonic plates are shoving this hill up from the bottom of the sea.  From above wind, water, and plant life are shaping and smoothing it into organic ridged forms like the shoulders of some giant.  Or rather I should say “used to” and “was” instead of “is” and “are”. Because now it is being shaped by new forces. Each visit I observe new, deep, cat claw trenches wearing away its sides at a rate previously incomprehensible to the forces of earth, water, and trees.

On my right, is a new hill. At its lower levels the untrained eye would find it indistinguishable from it’s older sisters. Here its greatest distinguishing marks are a tell tale geometry in form, that and the root-works of steel pipes which burrow into it’s base. Up it’s side, an a inexorable line of caterpillars and trucks. The former carrying terra from the body of the giantess on left. The latter porting the detritus from the human community just to the west.

My trek takes me to the top of this new hill.  What what trash that is visible sits at the top, but what is visible is a paltry volume. At best only a half-day’s contribution, probably the equivalent of 5-8 truckloads at most. Usually less. On the far side of the pile a couple of yellow machines work nervously to tuck the new deliveries out of site.

I am directed to park, I open the car door. The substance of this hill is then fully betrayed by the scattered chunks which refused to go down quietly and submit to the embarrassed repressive labors of the tractors: A chunk of tire here, the tip of a diaper there. Scraps of adds ground in with clay.

I step out of the car. My boot hits the ground. Then I really know what I am standing on. The earth below is softer than it should be, it is a softness that runs profoundly. It is not like the loamy earth of the garden where one can feel stone and clay below the epidermis of fallow soil with every footfall and shovel thrust.

I can feel it through my soles: it is a young hill grown up too fast. A hill without bones.

 

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 6: DROUGHT

I’m not sure whether to say the timing of our move to this land was fortuitous or disastrous. We moved to these 7 acres to explore off the grid living, and to begin the process of permaculture living: that is to grow our own food on the land in a manner that works with the land instead of depleting it. In this model water usage, weather, soil development, crop, animals, and refuse all work together, and requires very little outside support. And the land, if anything is richer for the usage rather than less.

However, we moved onto the land the year before the worst year of the current Callifornia drought. On clay soil. Hard dry clay soil. Which requires some extra water to get the land broken up and give the plants established.

Oops.

Less than opportune.

or

Opportune.

Awareness and consequence. The lesion this land keeps bringing me back to. Awareness and consequence.

“Listen.

Listen.

Hush my child.

Listen.

Pay attention or you may miss this…”