An Off-grid, Off-road UU in Alaska

By Laura Emerson – alaskauu1@gmail.com

One night, while preparing a labor-intensive risotto for dinner in our Houston high-rise, my husband ambled into the kitchen and asked, with studied casualness, “Honey, if I could buy a piece of undeveloped land in Alaska, under market value, would that be OK with you?” Who knew that five years later, we would be living full time in a two room log cabin with an outhouse, forty-two miles from the nearest road, having sold our high-rise and given away most of our belongings.

Obviously there are a number of “why?” and “how?” and “why?” again, questions raised by that paragraph, but for this Reflections piece, I’d like to focus on three things I appreciate more because of these changes. But first, the setting:

Since there are no roads, the only transport here is by floatplane, ski plane, or, in winter, a seven-hour snow machine (snowmobile) round trip commute to the nearest town. At this remove, we receive no community services whatsoever: no electricity, roads, or plumbing. Anything we need, we have to grow, make, or do without. Such a situation is like one of those lifeboat group dynamic exercises. What do you really need? What can you do without? The first thing my husband did after clearing space in the woods several years ago (while I sat down and cried, “What on earth are we doing here?”) was to build a 120 foot power tower for wind and solar power, a satellite system for Internet, and a phone booster. You see, we are not retired. He needed to first determine whether he could run his business from the middle of nowhere, with modern communications technology. (He can, and most clients don’t know where he is.)

Over the course of the day, we seem to straddle several centuries. In the mornings, he reads the Internet and engages in long distance conversations about high finance. Meanwhile, I’m washing clothes in a bucket after melting snow on the wood stove, collecting eggs from cold-hardy chickens, and monitoring the fermentation of our beer, bread, and wine. Later, he goes out to chop wood while I sit down to a laptop to write business articles or future sermons. When things go smoothly, I feel a bit like Laura Ingalls Wilder (although their house looks cleaner). Other times, particularly for the first few years, I felt like somebody in a mistaken time warp scenario or Eva Gabor on Green Acres (without the high heels).

By shifting so completely from living in a city to living on our own out in the boonies, I am very appreciative of what I have but also of what I left behind. Here are three:

First, living on our own, every single item on Maslow’s hierarchy, from water to heat to food to shelter depends on our own efforts. We had to climb a steep learning curve and drop a lot of expectations along the way. As a result, rather than demonize city life, I am immensely impressed by all the inventors, businesses, resources, and infrastructure that enable populations of 10,000 to 10 million people to live in close proximity to each other. Most rely on mysterious wires, pipes, materials, and delivery systems for both creature comforts and necessities without having to know how these things work. When I visit a city now, I love noticing on a restaurant menu all the items from remote longitudes and latitudes, like wine from Chile and lobster from Maine. I adore a bath with hot, running water. I’m amazed by how fast one can get from here to there thanks to highways through forests and bridges over rivers. Suggestion: be grateful next time you flip that switch or buy that strawberry.

Second, I love the silence here. Rather than wake up to a radio, I listen to the pulse inside my ears and feel the blood pump through my toes. It is a way of paying attention to that time-stamped battery in my chest. In the absence of “incoming” electronic entertainments, I spend more time with my thoughts and memories. As a result of our solitude and silence, I’ve processed some “woulda, coulda, shoulda” regrets that I had previously kept at bay with an array of city entertainments. This has brought some peace of mind. Suggestion: carve out extended periods of silence.

Third, because everything takes longer to do and is dependent on us, I have learned to enjoy the processes rather than rush through them. I’ve become a better cook. I’ve learned to staunch blood with yarrow leaves. I can distinguish the tracks of fox and coyote sniffing around our chicken coop. Being attentive and curious keeps me from getting bored. I think of the following anecdote:  One time his followers asked the Buddha what to do until they gained enlightenment. He answered, “Tote water; chop wood.” And what, they asked, would they do after they achieved enlightenment? He answered, “Tote water, chop wood.” We do both every day. I’m certainly not enlightened, but I’m trying to become more aware. Oops, the fire has gone out and the cabin is getting cool. Enough navel-gazing – back to work.

For more information about Laura’s life in the Alaska Bush, see: alaskauu1.blogspot.com.

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This is an administrative account for UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE).