Friday, January 25, 2013

"Well, it's certainly not as rural as I expected." I made this comment to my husband just moments before we turned onto my parent's road. Pavement, houses, and farms were certainly not the "off-the-grid" surroundings I had imagined. However, as we slowed our vehicle and turned onto dad and mom's road, my expectations began to become reality as the pavement wound further and further into the brush, and eventually gave way to gravel road, then simply rock and sand, with trees closing in closer and closer around us and the woods growing more and more dense. Yes, indeed, this is what I was expecting!

My rugged mountain men!
Before Grayson and I embarked on this month-long taste of off-the-grid life, my mom asked me to begin a list of what I was expecting off-grid life to be like. Then, after we had arrived and sampled a bit of their new lifestyle, I could compare my expectations to reality in a guest blog post, here.

I actually found myself having a difficult time with this list, because I didn't exactly know what I was expecting our visit to be like. Now, I think my subconscious had a few more expectations than I did, because the months leading up to our trip I had several quite vivid, disturbing dreams (I'm sure my current pregnancy had nothing to do with the absurdity of these dreams....) One of these dreams entailed us arriving to a house half-finished. Now when I say half-finished, it was actually quite a contrasting dynamic as we moved room to room, discovering half of the house to be fully finished with plush, white carpets, brilliantly white painted walls and new windows--much like a home you would find in our suburban Milwaukee. However, moving into another room we found decaying wood, spiders, a thorough covering of dust, broken windows, and a very massive hole in the floor dropping about 15 feet to the ground. I was appalled that my parents would actually deem their home safe enough for my curious one and a half year old son to live in. Other dreams I had of our foreboding experience included a plethora of wild cats, of which I have a great phobia of. Needless to say, these dreams, exaggerated as they were, left me a little bit uneasy of what we would find down that rugged dirt road.

Grayson pulled our Jeep into my parent's drive just as the sun was beginning to set. Although a bit road weary, I was very grateful to see my parents waiting on their deck for us after we had not seen them for a couple of months since their last visit up North. We had been on the road for three days (Traveling with a toddler and a 5-month pregnant woman seems to slow progress on the road quite a bit), and all I wanted was a warm house and bed to greet us. And, thankfully, that's just what we had waiting inside for us!

As I wrote earlier, I had a hard time coming up with my "Expectations of Off-Grid Living" list before our trip. However, as we end our third week of being here, I've come to see that I did indeed have many expectations that I simply didn't realize I had! I'll detail some of these below, and how my expectations have been either confirmed, or proven wrong.

I expected to be "roughing" it...
Grayson warned me before our trip that we would basically be camping for an entire month. Now, I enjoy camping, but for an entire month? That's a bit long to be roughing it. I knew my parents had no electricity, only solar power, but my understanding of the capabilities of solar power were very minimal. So I expected to be living with candle light and limited electronics for a while. I imagined my cell phone to be dead of power most of the time, and that we would have to very carefully ration any power we were afforded by the sun. Along with this, I knew dad and mom had no running water. I wasn't too concerned about this, knowing they had somehow rigged up a way to take a warm shower and flush the toilet--I could live. They warned us quite a few times to bring warm clothes as it would be very cold. I hate the cold. It literally hurts my body to be cold, and because of my health condition I always have very low blood pressure, which causes me to become very cold very quickly. My biggest apprehension about this trip was that I would freeze, which, my husband will attest that when I am cold I am cranky! I feared that the cold would leave me a cranky and bitter visitor.

Zeke and Grandma painting
So how rough is living off-grid? Well it turns out, not rough at all! The solar power has greatly surprised me, being one of my smallest concerns or inconveniences. My parents have been able to power the entire house by the sun. Yes, after a couple of cloudy days we have to begin watching how many times we flip on the light switch or charge our computers, but electricity has not been a rough part of this experience in the least. What surprised me, however, was how rough it is living without running water. My parents do make sure we have adequate water for doing dishes, showering, and drinking. However, (up until they bought a very large water tank last week), we had to closely ration our toilet flushes depending on how much rain we got, or if the outside toilet tank water had frozen the night before. This wouldn't be as big a deal except that pregnant women pee every fifteen minutes.... The other challenging aspect of no running water is cooking and washing dishes. This, I have concluded, would be my biggest difficulty to living off-grid. I cook--a lot! And I cook with mostly fresh produce, which needs to be thoroughly washed. And a lot of cooking leads to a lot of dishes--usually 2 full loads a day at home. I do wash dishes by hand at home (Our version of "roughing it" is not owning a dish washer...), and although I don't mind at all washing dishes in wash basins with bottles of water here, it would be very time consuming to do so with how many dishes we dirty at home. As to the cold? This expectation as well was found wanting. Besides a couple of mornings of waking up before anyone had put more wood in the fire, I have really been very comfortable the entire trip! We've even enjoyed many 40+ degree sunny days to play outside and take walks in the beautiful Ozark mountains.

I expected to watch my son like a hawk....
Although my dreams of gaping holes in the floor and wild cats preceding our trip were quite unrealistic, I did, as a mother, have quite a few safety concerns for Ezekiel living down here for a month. I knew my parents were taking strong precautions to ready the house for him, including completely barricading the wood fire stove. I was still uncertain, however, of what conditions to expect their house to be in. Along with this, I knew Grayson would be doing a lot of work inside the house, turning the living room into a construction zone, which is not an ideal place for a toddler to be playing. I also didn't understand that snakes and spiders actually hibernate, so I added to my list of worries that my son would be bitten by a poisonous animal of some sort, if not carried away by a cougar.

It turns out that my parents, even though long distanced from their days of parenting toddlers, remember quite a few things of how to keep one safe! They prepared the house quite adequately to keep my little guy happy and safe! Although there were a few times of turning around to find a hammer or box of nails in his little hands, having him play around Grayson's work was actually not an issue. Now that I know that the spiders and snakes are all deeply sleeping for the winter, and that the wild cats are far from the house, the fear of Ozark wild life has also been dismissed. I have actually found being down here to be even less worrisome for me than at home,  as here I have an extra three sets of eyes to keep tabs on him throughout the day!

Zeke helping Grandma navigate the mountains
I expected to find a lot of hillbillies and strange mountain folk...
This expectation rang true, as we've certainly encountered a number of...colorful...individuals. I was surprised to find, however, just how friendly everyone is down here! It's common and almost expected that at the checkout of any store the workers will strike up friendly conversation with you. It seems the term "stranger" around these parts is far less daunting than up north, and any stranger at the market or restaurant can quickly become an acquaintance. A few nights ago we enjoyed a small town gathering for a bluegrass concert. One gentleman was sitting by himself up against a wall and commented to me in a low southern drawl, "You fixin' to have a baby?" I'm not actually sure if it was a question or declaration, but his wording made me chuckle. Grayson and I stood and talked with him for a few minutes. It surprised me because, up north, it's almost taboo to mention a pregnant women's expanding mid section just in case the culprit isn't actually a growing baby inside of her. This gentleman was quick to acknowledge and congratulate us on our expectation of a new son.

I expected to not get a whole lot done...
Zeke enjoying his new swing
I've been doing some database entry work for one of my mom's clients, and hoped to be able to log a lot of work hours while down here. However, my expectations of productivity at home are usually a bit idealistic, so I came down knowing that here as well I may be a little less productive than desired. I imagined that I'd be too distracted by chasing Zeke, or too inhibited by lack of electricity to get much done. However, as mentioned above, both electricity supply and Zeke's safety have not been issues. Now, I have to say that this realization may be skewed from my own perspective. Perhaps dad and mom are actually getting a lot less done, having a curly-headed, rambunctious one and a half year old distracting their attention from work. However, I find the extra sets of eyes and arms a great help to my getting my work done! Much in thanks to a grandma "getting in time" with her grandson while she can, and Zeke being quite entertained by himself with things such as trash bins, canning lids, and fabric remnants--I've actually logged quite a lot of work hours! Along with work productivity, I've also been able to spend some quality time reading, thinking, and praying, things I had really hoped for during this trip.

I expected to be a bit on edge...
I suppose this expectation could be the summation of many others already listed. The idea of chasing and protecting a toddler, being cold at all hours, and fretting over no water or electricity is not quite my idea of relaxation. However, as all of my other false notions of this trip were stripped away, I actually found myself able to relax! We do enjoy quite a few jaunts into town (I'd go a bit stir crazy without these ventures), but even just sitting at the house over my cup of coffee in the morning, or reading a few more chapters in my book, or simply watching the dozens of birds enjoying mom's handful of bird feeders in the yard have made this trip one of much rest and relaxation.

It took a few baths, but Zeke warmed up to his bath bucket!

I expected to be thankful despite of circumstances...
Don’t get me wrong, I was excited about coming and especially having this time with my parents. However, my apprehension at the foreboding camp-like experience held back some of my anticipation. I realize that many of these expectations I have listed were negative expectations. It's not at all that I wasn't looking forward to our trip, I just enjoy my comfort and the convenience of living in a home with water and electricity. As much as I enjoy adventure and traveling, I also find security in the consistency of life we've set up back home. This expectation was blown away, however, as even in our first days of being here I found myself filled with immense gratitude of simply being here. There is real blessing in living this simple life. There is a healthy pace to life around here, one which allows distraction and invites discovery. Time slows down here, and for that I am very thankful. Instead of having to seek out things to be thankful for, I am bombarded with them. This is a very precious time that I know that we will look back on with gratitude. Although I know Zeke is a little young to remember much, if any, of this trip, I know it is shaping him, and I am very thankful for this time he has in such a wonderful place and with his grandparents. Instead of being thankful despite the circumstances, I am thankful because of the circumstances.

Our trip thus far has been full of discovery, adventure, beautiful surroundings, great conversation and fellowship, a chance to slow down and process life, some productivity, and an all-around fantastic time! I know when it comes time to leave, I'll be excited to return to our life with some new perspectives and to really get started with our new year. However, I know I will also be quite upset to be leaving such a wonderful place, and of course to part from my parents for another few months until the new baby is born.

Oh, and one more expectation I had proven false? My parents may not be quite as crazy as I expected ;)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Company’s Coming!

“Company’s coming!” are two words that stir up a flurry of activity no matter where you live.  It is amazing how much the utterance of that simple phrase can effect your vision. 'Vision' You may ask. Yes, once those words have slipped out, or even just been thought, you suddenly see a myriad of things that need to be done around the house that just the minute before had been invisible. And why is it referred to as a ‘flurry’ of activity when a snow flurry is defined as a ‘brief instance of light snow’. Our preparations since we returned home after our Christmas adventure have been anything but brief and light. I think a ‘blizzard of activity’ would be more apropos in our case.

While I have started writing this blog entry while in the midst of our preparations, I am not going to post this until after our guests arrive as I will be including photos of our guest room that I do not want them to see before their arrival. Now I will cover the Five Ws and One H that journalism classes teach are needed to complete factual stories:

WHO Is Coming To Visit?
Our youngest daughter’s family will be our first official house guests. The mice and other critters we occasional heard scurrying around in the attic when we first moved in do not count, they were residents before us, not our guests. Our visitors will include our daughter, son-in-law, toddler grandson and grandson-on-the-way.

WHY Are They Coming?
Besides coming for a nice long visit (about a month) to enjoy the beautiful Ozarks, we plan on putting our son-in-law to work! He is a roofer by trade, and while the roof is one part of the house that does not need work (we think), we will be taking advantage of his carpentry skills for deck repairs as well as dry wall repairs. You may recall that the house had been foreclosed on and vandalized before we bought the property. In fact, the bank selling the property felt the house was in such bad shape they sold the property for the land value alone and the house was considered as having ‘no value’ due to the lack of wiring, heat, water, etc.

Dry wall nails sticking out of studs currently
provide lots of convenient hooks.
(clothes drying rack, wood carrying tote,
lantern and oven mitt for the fireplace.
I must admit that I think I am going to miss the gaping holes in the dry wall in all the rooms for some odd reason. Maybe it’s because they lend personality to the house, albeit it the personality you would associate with an eccentric, homeless person – rough around the edges but lovable in their own way. I am also going to miss all the protruding nail heads in the bare studs where the dry wall was ripped away as they gave us convenient hooks in almost every room. However, I am also very much looking forward to breaking out all those cans of ‘Oops’ paint I have been collecting to give all the rooms a fresh coat of paint once they have all their walls restored. In fact, I just made one more such purchase this week. Although I probably already have enough paint to cover every wall in the house twice over if I were not particular about which color went where, I found a 5 gallon container on the Oops shelf at Lowes that was marked down from $133 to $25. The selling point for me was that it is close to the color that is currently in the living room that I decided I really like. The living room is fairly long and will take 2-3 gallons so now I do not have to get creative trying to figure out which gallons I have on hand to mix-and-match in the living room.

WHEN Do They Arrive?
They will be arriving on January 5th and staying for about a month, assuming off-grid life works for their young family. Part of our preparations have included adding to our off-grid ‘amenities’ to encourage a long visit, such as heat in the guest bedroom!

WHAT Will We Be Doing While They Are Here?
Besides the work projects around the house and property, we want to introduce them to our new life as well as the beautiful part of the country we now live in.  And most important are family time and playing with our adorable grandson.

We have been making a mental list of various things we want to do, events we want to attend and places to go to, but there will be more details on that in future blogs as the activities unfold. Unfortunately, we will probably not get to show our grandson some of our favorite wildlife, such as armadillos and roadrunners, as we have not seen any since late fall. We have had a plethora (another of my favorite words) of birds at the feeders we put out this winter, so hopefully he will enjoy watching them as well as the antics of the squirrels that also come to visit around the feeders.

The guest room awaits.
WHERE Will They Be Staying?
In our newly decorated guest room. While it will not be complete when they arrive as the walls will not be painted until after our son-in-law repairs the dry wall, it does look much better from when we first moved in. You may remember pictures of me tearing up the hideously filthy carpet last spring. Well, after the necessary sanitation work to make the house odor free, the two spare bedrooms have been left untouched except to be used for storage for other household projects. But the the guest room is now inhabitable and hopefully comfortable for their stay.

HOW  Are We Preparing For Our Guests?
Here is a list of some of our most recent projects:
1. Building a toddler proof enclosure around ‘Reggie’ (the wood stove). Since the wood burning stove is not situated up against a wall, but is actually 3-4 feet away from the closest wall and sits at an angle rather than parallel to any of the living room walls, this was a bit of a challenge. We looked at various gate/fence systems designed for child safety and none of them really met the need. So, we strolled around Lowe’s looking for a solution. We found pre-made deck railings in 6 foot lengths and an adjustable ‘baby gate’. We created an enclosure by attaching angle brackets to the bottom of the railing pieces and screwing them into the recently painted living room floor with decking screws. We left a 4-5 foot opening in the enclosure at the front of the wood burner which is where the adjustable baby gate is attached. Both the left and right edge of the gate have hooks that slide into eyehooks we screwed into the railing posts, so that the gate can be totally removed.  So, until they arrive we can access the stove to add wood without opening the gate each time and we will also be able to do this when our grandson is napping and throughout the night to make ‘feeding the stove’ easier when the protection is not needed. Then later, the entire enclosure is removable until it is needed again in the future.

2. Baby-proofing the rest of the house. We decided it would be easiest to cordon off the laundry/work room with a baby gate. As most of the dangerous to babys stuff is already in that room, we can make the rest of the house safe by moving any other items deemed unsafe to that room a well. Plus, we can install the gate so that there is a few inches of clearance between the floor and the bottom of the gate so the cats can have access to their litter box which is also in that room. It will also give the cats a place to escape to should they for some reason tire of our grandson’s or his dog’s attentions. We also picked up a supply of child-proof drawer latches for various kitchen and bathroom cabinets. I am sure that there will be a couple quick responses to a few missed items soon after our guests arrive, like the oil lantern I just noticed we have sitting on the end table by the sofa. Although we do not need to use the lanterns that we started our off-grid life with, we still use them on occasion for ambiance.

3. Adding another hot water feature in the bathroom. You may recall that Alan installed a hot water heater shower system several months ago as the weather was turning colder and was making room temperature showers an ‘adventure’. Since our grandson takes baths rather than showers, and we thought there would possibly be other needs for hot water where we didn’t want to wait for the time it would take to heat it on the stove, Alan modified the shower’s hot water system to have another option. Besides sending hot water to the shower head, we can now pump water from the storage bottle through the water heater and back into the storage bottle. By cycling the water in this manner we can heat the entire storage bottle of water (about 3 gallons) fairly quickly.

4. Setting up the guest room. The first project on the list for this was painting the ceiling. This was the room I had determined was used by the daughter of the previous owners and the ceiling had a ‘lovely’ hand painted bright yellow sun that covered almost the entire ceiling and then was surrounded with various names that looked like they were added using a black Sharpie marker. After Alan took down the old, dirty light fixture, I pulled out yet another gallon of my ‘Oops’ paints. Fortunately I had one in a light cream color that would work for ceiling paint. I was not looking forward to finding out how many coats it was going to take to cover up our rendition of the Sistine Chapel. Let me tell you that I quickly became a believer in high quality paint brands! The one I was using was ‘Behr’ brand and when I opened the can I was surprised at how thick it was, and when I started rolling it onto the ceiling it covered the ‘artwork’ on just one coat – even the black Sharpie signatures.

After the ceiling came the floor. Yet another Oops paint, this time a gray floor and porch paint followed by polyurethane (unfortunately not from the Oops shelf but still worth the price for the nice smooth and glossy finish).

This propane tank feeds the heaters in the two guest rooms.
While I was working on the painting, Alan was adding optional heat sources to both of the spare room. We had brought a wall mounted propane heater designed for in-home use from our home up north and had purchased another one down here. The two spare rooms are side by side and share a closet which is situated between them and runs the length of the rooms. We will probably put a wall in the closet so you can not walk from one room to the other through the closet. It will probably be best to do this before both guest rooms are in use to give our guests a bit of privacy from each other! Anyway, Alan mounted a 40 pound propane tank on the exterior of the house right outside of where the shared closet is located. He then mounted a heater in each room on the exterior wall and near the closet so that he could use the one propane tank for both heaters.  We are building up quite a collection of propane tanks, which makes it convenient when one runs out when we are in the middle of using it. We can simply replace the empty one with one we are not currently using, such as the 20 pound tank for the grill, as a temporary replacement until we get the empty one refilled.

Back to the guest room projects, next came wiring in the overhead light and outlets. We added a ceiling light that turns on and off at a wall switch and made one of the outlets in the room ‘live’ (all 12V of course). After that there was a previously purchased cabinet that needed to be built, a newly purchased crib to be built and the bed to assemble. Throw in a few useful decorating items and voilĂ  the room is ready for guests, as long as they don’t mind some missing drywall.

So, I have answered the journalistic  5 Ws and a H, which leads to one more W: WHICH aspects of our off-grid life will not be what our first house guests are expecting? I am leaving the answer to that for a guest blog from my daughter which I have asked her to write sometime during their visit. I am just wondering if they are expectations are higher or lower than the reality they will find.
They have arrived!