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Off-Grid Living: Voluntary Simplicity or Involuntary Complexity?

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To go to the woods to live deliberately. To face but the essential challenges of life. To learn from raw experience and self-taught skill. To live simply, in a Spartan-like manner, in order to suck all the marrow out of life. These are the reasons why Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin near Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.

Many other seekers of a better way of life set out to do just the same today, all over Canada. They move "off the grid," denouncing the hum of the hypermodern world. They aspire to live off the land, the wind, and the sun, off the reassuring warmth of a stove fire and the cleansing promise of self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity.

But they differ from Thoreau in an important way. Whereas his experiment was meant to last two years, modern day Canadian off-gridders embark for their back-to-the-land endeavors with a one-way ticket. They strive to tough out windless, cloudy days and the seductive modern conveniences to which the rest of us are addicted--from piped-in heat to red hot blow driers--year after year.

And yet, sometimes, in spite of their adaptability and resilience, the grid has a way of eventually pulling them back.

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We reach West Prince Edward Island on a long and frustrating drive from the other side of the island. We have promised to bring dessert for lunch, but once past Summerside "West Prince" soon forgets to cater to consumerist whims. "West Prince is like a third dimension," Judy jokes, "as if you were entering Appalachia."

Jim and Judy escaped here shortly after 9/11, fed up with their "meaningless" lives filled with Saturday afternoon car washes, corporate careers, and empty preoccupations with matching countertop colors and kitchen accessories. "I found my lifestyle in the suburbs too..." Judy ponders pensively, in search of the right word made even righter by her polished English accent "robotic; as if we were part of a cult, without wanting to be part of it."

Jim quit his job on that fateful September day. One night, while Judy was fast asleep, Jim stumbled across a property for sale on West PEI. A former military officer--he is a man of few but deliberately chosen words and clear decisions--Jim briskly rose Judy from the bed, consulted with her, and bid on the property.

If buying a house half a continent away without seeing it first seemed crazy, visiting the property for the first time felt even more surreal. "There was absolutely nothing here, just trees," she smiles, "my dad--who was here with me--felt like he was in the Burmese jungle." Soon enough they cleared space for a driveway and a lot for the house. The Internet taught them how to build their new home with wood from the trees they had to cut. A few conversations with local renewable energy suppliers gave them the additional knowledge needed to set up a small hybrid system--solar and wind--to power their domestic needs. Next thing you know their teenage daughter--literally pulled from a "normal" suburban life filled with swimming pools and mall outings--was furnished with home-made snowshoes to make it to the end of their long driveway, and sent to school.

After some 175 interviews anywhere from the Gulf Islands to the high Arctic and the Canadian Shield, we know that this is generally the point in the story when the off-grid interviewee du jour indulges in a big hearty laugh, kicks back on a south-facing living room sofa, and asks if we wish to have a second slice of freshly collected berry or apple pie. Not today. The coffee gurgling on the two-burner propane stove is ready, but Jim and Judy--seated on the edge around the kitchen table--are in no mood to introduce the last chapter of the typical "...and everyone lived happily off the grid every after" story. The plan, it turned out, had a serious kink.

With a small military pension to serve as a steady cash flow, all they had to worry about was generating a small but significant income from their eco-tourism business. A couple of cabins were built to accommodate visitors interested in a bucolic getaway, and an educational program--including horse-assisted therapy and organic agricultural teachings--were put in place. A website and a thorough marketing plan were launched. But this is West PEI, not exactly the kind of place you stumble upon on your way to Disneyworld.

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I suppose this is where the irony--in its most bitter of flavors--set in. One may very well try and seek pure independence, but let us be clear: the off-grid life is never exactly an exercise in simplicity and autonomy. One, alone, can never grow more than a modest amount of daily calories, or extract propane, or forge metal to make tools. The ideal--the very aspiration--of self-sufficiency is undeniably there. That's why most off-gridders live out in the bush, away from the rate race, removed from the chaos of combined commercial fanfare and high-speed thoroughfares. But the ironic reality is that--as anyone who has seen Into the Wild or read the Kerouac book knows--by seeking more and more autonomy life gets more and more complictaed.

Jim and Judy's irony is that the people they ran away from never bothered to show at their doorstep. At least not in sufficient numbers. Those who did come were touched and perhaps forever changed, especially the children, Judy explains. But it wasn't enough, and soon both Jim and Judy had to take up full time jobs in town. Off-grid living demands attention, mindfulness, and a good deal of babying--especially if the system is not high-end. So as Jim and Judy began their shift work jobs to make extra money, it all changed, quickly and for the worse.

As the rooster continues unperturbed to chant outside, Judy excuses herself to finally fill her cup of coffee. The laborious two-burner propane stove is but one of many inconveniences they are no longer tolerant enough to endure. Coping with the many infant-like demands of an off-grid homestead is demanding, at best, when one has time to spare, but simply unfathomable when one is working full-time for the man.

It is almost time for lunch and we reassure our hosts that we are in no rush. They have a long story they want us to document, they say. It is a story filled with prohibitive $2,000 bills and $2,000 upgrade estimate--there is something about that number--sobering realizations, and broken promises of domestic comfort and convenience. Like solar hot water--which never worked and caused Judy to take bird baths with water heated on the stove and Jim to shower at work. Like refrigeration--which proved to be complex with only a cooler at first, and without a freezer later. Or like the promise of heat, which at first meant having to wake up to an alarm call in the middle of the night to refuel the small wood stove, and later meant having to rely more on propane and on purchased cut firewood. Not to mention the challenge of pumping out water and monitoring its conservation like a hawk.

"It's just too much," Judy confides, "we came here for a simpler life, and what's simpler about this? Absolutely nothing."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:
Hyperlinked audio documentaries produced by Lindsay Vogan