Off the Grid: Living remotely raises the most curious of questions

by • August 25, 2014 • FeatureComments (0)215

Say, what?

Whenever an introduction to someone leads the conversation to “where do you live?” we encounter predictable reactions.  To the answer, “We live in the Bush,” most Alaskans assume that we live in a remote village community, with some infrastructure, like an airstrip and a post office, rather than on a fly-in only lake where we had to build our limited water and power infrastructure ourselves.

Illustration / Owen Tucker

Illustration / Owen Tucker

Other than that clarification, conversations with people in both the Lower 48 and in Alaska are similar but some comments divide men from women and others separate those who are attracted to our lifestyle from those who are appalled.
Men ask at least one of the following:
No TV?
No streaming video?
What do you do at night?
What guns do you have? And, my personal favorite;
How did you get your wife to go out there with you?
Why would you want your wife out there with you? (which I can only hope is not a personal indictment of yours truly.)
Women never ask why I want my husband out here. They figure I need him to do manly things with a Husqvarna chainsaw or a propane-powered flame thrower.  However, we do hear:
What do you do for medical care?
Don’t you get lonely?
What does bear taste like?  And, most frequently;
Only an outhouse and a chamber pot? No running water in winter?  No way. (According to a recent article I read, 12,000 Alaskans live like this).
Then, they shake their heads and conclude, “Well, you must really love your husband!”
The second type of discussion involves “how to” minutia.  People pepper us with enthusiastic questions about how much power we generate from the solar panels and wind turbines (250 watts – not kilowatts – per hour), how high our water pump pressure is (30-55 psi), how many spruce trees it took to build our little cabin (106).  They ask how often we fly to a town, how we get mail (a post office box in Anchorage), and what food we raise (fruits and veggies as well as chickens, rabbits, ducks and bees).  They may ask how we make a living “out there.”
Conversational reactions from friends and relatives in the Lower 48 are the same, but visits by Outsiders are very different than those by fellow Alaskans. In fact, it is fair to say that some visits have been unmitigated disasters.
One couple from Mumbai – among the most crowded and polluted cities on the planet – decided to visit. However, the wife had a panic attack shortly after arriving at our home and had to be flown back to the city the very next morning. Maybe it was the absence of roads, structures and people, mile after mile, as she flew in an air-taxi from Anchorage to reach us. Once here, perhaps she found the setting eerily isolated and lonely.
One man assured us that he was an outdoorsman of long standing. Maybe outdoor Manhattan. He arrived with a fishing pole that was too light for the fish up here, and promptly hooked his finger all the way through while wrestling a toothy pike into the kayak. When he saw a bear in our yard, he refused to go back to his guest cabin, so we loaned him an air mattress to sleep on our living room floor where he proved to be the loudest snorer I have ever heard (Really. He subsequently had to get surgery). Finally, I think he remained constipated the entire week because, he told me, he thought the term “outhouse” was a metaphor.
After a few guests like this, I came to fear an onslaught of naïve visitors who invited themselves because their free air miles were about to expire and we were the only people they knew north of the 49th parallel. Inspired by each surprising expectation or reaction, I expanded a planning and packing guide until it reached five pages. Finally, after one particularly social summer when I cooked 156 person/meals (yes, I counted), I put my foot down. No more.
The most touching visit was by my parents shortly after we moved here, when they were 79 years old. Although they did not say so, I think they wanted to assure themselves that their daughter was safe, and that my husband hadn’t turned into the Unibomber or Jim Jones. They took a cruise from San Francisco to Seward, clambered up into a small air taxi and deplaned onto our wobbly wooden dock to spend the afternoon with us.  They acted supportive and enthusiastic but I imagine that they were startled by a kitchen constructed of a plywood counter mounted over sawhorses with a dry sink and filtered lake water stored in an orange 5-gallon Home Depot cooler.  I overcompensated by serving them a three-course meal featuring Julia Child’s boeuf bourgignon, made with bear meat (pretty bad). Now, at least, they can picture where I live and can celebrate with me when I advance a century or two with some innovation, like a shower house and a water pump.
The questions people ask always interest me, in part because they reveal how much I have learned and adapted to a lifestyle I never would have pictured for myself or, come to think of it, for anyone else I knew. I, too, would have reached the same conclusion: “Well, I guess you really love that guy.”

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