Our move to the woods and off the grid.
I had planned on leaving Portland soon after I got out of the detox center. There were just too many shadowy corners with dark memories in that town for me to walk around comfortably anymore. But then Kara happened. She had very intentionally picked Portland as the place to start her adult life after getting her Master’s degree. She was drawn to its size, culture, and outdoor amenities. So I stayed and saw the city through her fresh eyes, which was helpful. But a few years later, we both felt like the next chapter was coming, we just weren’t sure what that would entail.
She still loved Portland for the most part, but quietly and almost without knowing it, was amassing her own list of reasons for an exodus. She worked hours north of town in rural Washington, Portland traffic was worsening, the cost of living had increased exponentially, and on down the line. Commonplace complaints that are part and parcel of living in a Metropolitan area.
We had both been independently dreaming of moving out into the woods for a while. Kara was from rural Pennsylvania and despite not being the biggest fan of her hometown, missed certain aspects of it. I had only lived in cities or suburbs my entire life but loved being in the wilderness more than just about anything at that point. We began discussing the possibility more and more earnestly. After enough map study, we noticed a number of sweet spots that were far enough away, but close enough to a city. Plus, I could work from just about anywhere, as long as there was some way of squaring up internet access. So we compiled a list of things we wanted in a house and agreed that if it was out there, we’d go. About a year after opening ourselves up to the idea, that place presented itself.
There were a few things that we didn’t anticipate though. Not the least of which was that the right place happened to be off-the-grid. But shockingly, not only were we both open to it, we were excited by the prospect. So in the summer of 2018, we moved into an off-the-grid home on 5 acres, roughly 40 miles west of Mt Rainier. We had a propane generator-powered battery array for electricity, a fenced orchard, our own well water, a septic tank, and an outhouse for good measure. And of course, the requisite internet access.
Were we wholly unprepared for such an endeavor? You bet. Were we also aware of that fact and willing to give it a go without a net? Absolutely. Despite our knowing that the learning curve would be akin to that of a hairpin, it felt like we adapted as quickly and eagerly as we could. The previous owner had left us a folder full of notes detailing how the place operated. Unfortunately, the collection of legacy knowledge compiled over time served as little more than a painfully inadequate and heavily coded starting point.
But the private road we lived on was populated by a number of off-the-grid enthusiasts who had lived there for decades. And luckily, a handful of them were eager to help us out. Though I believe in some cases their willingness to lend a hand may have had as much to do with the fact that they wanted to ensure the outsiders from Portland weren’t going to cause any trouble, as any eagerness they may have had to help out a new neighbor or proselytize the good word of going gridless.
We named the property Whiskey Jane. The primary inspiration for the moniker was a cabin we had stayed in for a pair of nights a few years prior. The trip was for a work assignment and I was able to bring Kara along. The cabin was a very humble but infinitely charming dwelling named Whiskey Jack. Both evenings, we stayed up late sipping on the cabin’s namesake distilled spirit, and giddily discussing how wonderful such an existence would be. Perfect for us as a pair and all we truly needed. But the home we eventually found, despite being almost everything we wanted in every other way, was painted the faintest color of light pink. Almost barely detectable, if at all, until contrasted by a fresh white layer of snow. Then our domicile would blush out like it had just heard the words “I love you” for the first time. And thus, Whiskey Jane.
Expectedly, living out there and in that way wasn’t a cakewalk, even under the best of conditions. But that first year was a real doozy. We took a few yard showers with hand-pumped well water and enjoyed a number of evenings by candlelight when the far-beyond-its-prime generator died. We also discovered terrifying new nocturnal forest sounds as well as the amount of wood that isn’t enough for winter, among countless other lessons. Believe it or not, however, for the most part we were reveling in it. We were dauntlessly learning, adapting, and slowly finding our feet. Hell, after about 6 months a catalog with things like log splitters, heirloom seeds, and emergency generators, became our grown-person equivalent of the Sears Christmas Wish Book.
The benefits of the place went far beyond its seemingly endless procession of character-building endeavors, however. Summer evenings were spent on a porch illuminated by the Milky Way. We grew our own food and learned to forage, ferment, and fix. Never underestimate the power of YouTube videos. And personally, I become far more in tune with the natural world around me than I had ever been - intimately aware of its cycles as well as my own, and how we danced together.
I would still make it to Portland every so often for work or to see friends, and I truly enjoyed those visits. But we couldn’t have been more satisfied with the move, our home, and especially our willingness to embrace life’s semi-accidental next chapter. Which for me wound up being the most perfectly imperfect life, with my imperfectly perfect wife - alone together in the woods of Washington.
A version of this story originally appeared in a 2019 issue of 1889 Magazine.