“A bad day up here is better than a good day in the city…”

The title quote comes from a fellow I got to know at MIT, name of Toby.  He used to teach a hands-on blacksmithing course in the basement for the Materials Science department.  A few days ago I had occasion to drive up into north central Vermont to pick up a piece of optical equipment for work, and my route took me right past South Randolph, where Toby and his wife Elizabeth have set up a homestead.  I had heard third-hand that they had a pretty remarkable off-grid place up there, and had intended to visit all the time we lived in Lebanon but never got around to it.

When I was a kid growing up in the woods with no telephone, there was no way to set visits up on short notice, so it was common practice for friends to just appear unexpectedly in the dooryard.  So that’s what I did – I dropped in on them unannounced at lunch time with a bottle of cider.   From the intersection (not really even a village) of South Randolph I stopped where a quirky fellow was doing some repairs on an old farmhouse (using hand tools and an antique hand-cranked drill press) and asked for directions.  Up a winding dirt track between rolling pastures I found their remarkable homestead.  I had heard that they had spent two winters living in a tent, and had finally built a cabin.  What I found was a tiny timberframe building, perhaps 12×16 feet plus an extra bent on one end to form an open porch.    On the right just inside the door was a bed, then a small heating woodstove.  In the far corner there was a kitchen consisting of a small bench with a sink and an old cast iron wood cookstove.  In the middle there was a table for eating on, and the left side seemed to be given over to storage of various items.  The walls were a single layer of pine planks, and the floor was gravel or rough planks, I can’t remember which.  Lighting was by oil lamps and beeswax candles, which they had apparently just finished dipping.    Water was provided by a hand pump from a deep well that protruded up from the ground at the side of the kitchen, and there was a privy in the woods.

The entire place was furnished in a most agreeable rustic style, dominated by well worn wood, iron, and natural fibers.  A hand-cranked coffee grinder dominated the far wall.  They invited me to join them for lunch, which was excellent and consisted of good bread, various artisan cheeses, a salad of mixed greens including some from their garden, and sparkling cider.  This meal did not seem out of the ordinary for them and they had no notice that I was coming; in conversation it became apparent that despite the outward appearance of privation they were accustomed to eating very well.

The larger setting was 50 hillside acres, with pasture below and woodlot above, vegetable gardens, two workhorses, several head of cattle, and a small herd of sheep.  Despite the distinct rustic feel the homestead was not allergic to technology; they had a bulldozer which had been used to make the roads and the building sites, a battered pickup, and a small WoodMizer band mill for sawing out timber for a more substantial residence planned for the future.  There was apparently even a telephone, though it was half a mile down the hill in an old pre-existing barn on the edge of the property.  This was not a hairshirt existence; they didn’t seem to be preparing for an apocalypse and growing the majority of their food, nor did they seem in a hurry to do so.  Clearly a lot of work had been done on the place, but surely in three years more could have been done, had they been hell-bent on working, but this didn’t seem to be the goal.  They seemed truly to be living what they felt to be the good life.

Something about Toby and Elizabeth’s homestead struck a strong resonance with my memory.  Here was a homestead very much like the way I grew up, not implemented haphazardly by 25 year old hippies freshly moved east from teaching mountaineering, but rather by two professionals who had been living in the city for years and working in the heart of a modern university until they suddenly pulled the ripcord.  Here was a carefully-crafted simplicity executed more out of intentionality and style than governed by economic austerity as in the case of my own childhood.   If Toby and Elizabeth can transition from Cambridge to a hill farm, intentionally and consciously paring away so much of  modern life, subjecting themselves to all manner of physical hardships in exchange for the pleasures of a carefully crafted rustic rural life, then surely all kinds of other arrangements are workable as well.  I’m reminded of a guy named Snowberg who worked as an engineer at Southwest Windpower, all the while living in a cabin tent secreted away against all regulation  in the national forest that surrounds Flagstaff.  He did this through every season for years, showering at a gym, cooking at work, and saving his money, then embarking on a years-long kayak tour of the world.  How much cooler is that than the much more common story of professionals who make piles of money and manage always to spend a little more than they earn, living in constant fear of disruptions and feeling like they don’t have any options?

Visiting the homestead filled me with joy, not because I want to emulate what they are doing (I’m pretty happy to have electricity and the internet, and my ideal setup would involve a machine shop rather than a sawmill), but rather for the reminder that many different kinds of life are possible, and that positive changes can be made quickly and boldly, with creativity and intentionality.  Some aspects of modernity that on the face of it appear no-brainers are not so obvious on consideration.  It seems pretty sensible to hook up a small electric motor to the apple crusher, but then you have no need to throw a party and  invite all your friends to lend a hand.    Life is the most important engineering project most of us will ever execute; it seems a shame never to tinker with the factory settings.

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