Living on the Grid
Happily forgoing the pioneer spirit
Illustration by Eric Schock
Across our state this month, school children will reenact the Land Run of 1889, which opened the territory to homesteaders prior to statehood. In addition to being problematic from a Native perspective, I’m opposed on a more selfish personal level: Let’s just say that, whatever gave my ancestors their rugged, pioneering spirit has been thoroughly flushed from the gene pool that hatched me. I wouldn’t make it one day as a pioneer. After half an hour of complaining about the flies, the heat, the boredom and the bumpy ride in the back of a covered wagon, I’d snap like a campfire twig at the prospect of one more primitive inconvenience.
Knowing so little about the trials the early homesteaders faced (to say nothing of those who were unceremoniously displaced), I Googled “homesteaders” and found an entirely different generation of pioneers who have chosen to live very Kaczynski-esque lifestyles off the grid today.
As someone who is plagued by the quotidian hurdles of the modern day – such as the possible reasons the Netflix connection has to be restarted every time we switch back from Hulu, or why the rinse agent in the dishwasher isn’t getting the job done – I can barely wrap my mind around the notion that people in 2018 are electing to live without electricity and indoor plumbing.
Nick and Esther Fouch, two otherwise reasonable adults, refer to themselves as homesteaders who live with their three children off the grid in the woods of Idaho. With no connection to a power grid, the couple has set out to create a “sustainable lifestyle” for their family “in a post-capitalist economy.” To the uninitiated, it might sound like code for “someone in this equation can’t hold down a job,” but a closer look into the Fouch family reveals a strong work ethic, peppered with some off-the-grid delirium.
Powered by a few solar panels, propane tanks and generators, the Fouches have spent the better part of the past five or six years inside a 314-square-foot yurt (a hybrid of a tent and a house) mulling the weight of their lifestyle, which is alarmingly rustic. Amid its rusticity, however, are a couple of post-capitalist exceptions to the simple life: they do have jerry-rigged Wi-Fi and cell phones, which they’ve used to chronicle their progress (or regress, depending on your perspective) through a fascinating series of “homesteader/off-the-grid” videos.
Early in the video series, as the cheerful Esther offered the viewer a virtual tour of the yurt and the rest of the property, she explained that the American lifestyle is unsustainable. Sustainability is a concept lost on me at the same moment my attention turned toward not one, but three, fly swatters and a respectable inventory of Deep Woods OFF! in the background.
Esther went on to explain – as she batted away a flying insect – that living off the grid was her husband’s dream and it’s been great for their family. (I’ll just insert here that if the Beau ever volunteered a “dream” that involves no electricity, I’d tell him to go back to bed and come up with a new dream.)
“I’ve learned how much I’m capable of doing,” she crows. “For example, before this experience, I’d never split wood before.” (Of course she’d never split wood before – she probably had central heat and air, a gas oven and stove, and manicured nails. Grrrrr.)
Later in the series, Esther took the viewer along for laundry day. First, she told us that all of her clothes – meaning all of her clothes for all seasons – fit in one drawer. At this point in the video series, it’s apparent that Esther has either become sympathetic to her captor, the Middle Ages, or the thrill is simply gone for laundry day; after filling a washing machine with water from an uphill spring, Esther hopped onto a stationary bike and pedaled for 20 minutes to power the washer.
To power the rinse and spin cycles, she pedaled even faster to the beat of “Dueling Banjos” for an additional 15 minutes.
Before she lost daylight, Esther would carry a five-gallon bucket of water to an outdoor fire pit, where she’d boil the water she needed to do the dishes for the next hour. Next, she’d homeschool her three kids about the unsustainability of the post-capitalist economy that drives the what-me-worry American lifestyle – a lifestyle my pioneer ancestors could only have dreamt about in the back of a rickety, hot covered wagon.