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Outdoors North

Living off grid is but a dream, or is it?

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“On the roof it’s peaceful as can be and there the world below can’t bother me.” — Gerry Goffin/Carol King

On a day like tomorrow, the sun is going to shine.

I hope I’ll find myself walking or sitting along a rocky ridge, some high place up above, where I can get closer to those warming rays of sunlight. These January days, though noticeably longer, often afford little relief from the gray skies.

It’s been warm enough that I can reasonably hope to find some creek water running open. The sound of the water, like the falling rain, tends to melt away the confusion and concerns of living day to day.

My mind sometimes entertains a daydream of leaving the world behind, instead of the other way around. I’d whittle my possessions down to the knapsack essentials and fade into the background of some scenic landscape.

Maybe I’d go to some place far away or even close by? I just want to be out there, blended into the scenery, among the trees and the birds and the animals to spend remaining days learning about the true nature of nature.

A retreat of this kind seems romantic in some sense, but no doubt it would offer tremendous challenges, not the least of which would be defying the elements. Skills are required. No tenderfoots. Only the penitent man shall pass.

No phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury. Like Robinson Caruso, it’s primitive as can be.

There’s something appealing about the image of seeing the doors of the house left yawning, cars in the driveway, hearing the television news blaring through the open windows, clothes on the line, phone ringing, cars racing loud on the road.

Color me blue. Color me gone.

I think a lot of people may have seen similar images in their minds, at least once or twice.

The smaller the world gets, the smaller the people get.

Too much. Too big. Too soon. Not enough. Too small. Too late. Not here. Not now. And certainly not in my backyard.

Less than, but not equal to. Greater than, but not equal to. Incongruent.

On the roof’s the only place I know where you just have to wish to make it so.

Seems like long ago, way back before I was camping out in my backyard with my brother as a kid, trying to cook a frozen pizza on a charcoal grill, tracking out into the wilds for good was something people did much more than is common today.

Though, for the most part, I don’t think it had much to do with choice.

A lot of these people suffered tremendous losses of one kind of another and found themselves “on the skids.” Some were shunned or left to fend for themselves.

Often, catastrophic disasters were the cause, from the Wall Street Crash to the Dust Bowl.

I read a terse newspaper story recently from a century ago, involving a rumored “wild man” in the swamps of southern Mississippi.

The story reports his finding on Jan. 15, 1921.

“Driven from his cabin in the swamps along Leaf River by high water, Albert Parsons, an aged white man and woman who says she is his wife, were brought to Laurel Saturday and placed in the county poor house.

“The finding of Parsons is believed to set at rest the reports of a wild man current for years, said to be living in this section.

“Parsons says that he and his wife lived on wild roots, berries and what animals they were able to trap. With them was found a child, which was entirely without clothing. Parsons told the sheriff that he caught his wife in a steel trap many years ago.”

This lurid tale is but one example of folks pushed to the ragged edges, beyond society.

I think some of my fascination with living “off the grid” comes from my early childhood days. Growing up in the shadow of what was once the most prosperous hematite mine in the country, the wilds of the woods were still never far from home.

For some reason, maybe television and adventure books, I had a lot of desire to build “forts.” A lot of kids had this same compulsion. Forts and treehouses.

We took scraps of wood and other items from my dad’s supplies he was using to remodel our house that was built during the heights of those early mining days. It sure wasn’t much. It was basically a tarpaper shack built off the spot where our sandbox was.

We had some sort of tarp or plastic sheeting for a door. I recall a storm window for a view outside. There wasn’t much room at all, and this shack was by no means able to withstand cold or winds.

But I remember how good it felt to sit inside and listen to the rain striking that plastic, while we remained dry. There was a strong feeling of accomplishment to having built something, us mere kids, that could keep back the rain, at least temporarily.

We had dreams of sleeping out overnight in the fort. We never did. Apparently, we favored the blanket tents we made, holding down the corners with stones. At one point, we did have a real tent, but that seems like it wasn’t until much later.

Eventually, my dad ordered us to tear down the fort for fear it would “draw rats” or that his property taxes would go up because of a new “structure” built on the homestead.

That was a sad day.

Later, a more grandiose structure was imagined to be constructed in a more natural setting, farther away from home. This one was to be on the then “real frontier” for us.

It wasn’t far from home. We could get there on our bikes.

The site was at the mouth of a creek that fed into a wider stream. Brook trout lived in both. The water from the creek was icy cold. The stream water was warmer and slower, evidenced by the waving long growths of grass that would grow up on the river bends in the summertime.

Just downstream was a creosote soaked wooden railroad bridge that still reminds me of those described by Ernest Hemingway in his Nick Adams fishing tales from the eastern Upper Peninsula.

There were plenty of grasshopper there too, just like in the Hemingway yarns. Goldenrod, raspberries and queen Anne’s lace were some of the common plants. The ground was red dirt, but there was green grass on those riverbanks.

The dream of this frontier palace, where I imagined myself to be part of the Corps of Discovery as Captain Lewis or William Clark, was never realized. The construction failed on many levels, primarily due to a lack of access to building materials.

We did manage to take a level, hammer and nails and some other tools down to the site on a few occasions. I think I remember even drawing out a schematic of all the “rooms” we had dreamt of.

We were planning on moving on up from the cramped quarters of our backyard shack.

Even back then, I think the driving force was to be somewhere “out there.” We could be right there on the river, fishing and camping and talking and living.

Then we could ride our bikes home in time for supper.

Somewhere inside of me, those kid dreams are still alive. They help inspire me to get outside to the wilds to soak up as much as I can of the woods and the waters.

The reverie of leaving everything behind comes around every so often, especially in those times when it seems like the world is nothing at all but crazy.

The more I learn, the less I know.

So, when the sun shines tomorrow, if the weatherman is right, I want to be on that ridge. There’s one I can see in my mind right now. It’s rocky, perched high above a valley where the river twists from side to side.

There’s a long stretch of wide-open nothingness there to see.

I want to melt into that and become part of it.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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