We arrived home on a dark and stormy night in mid-December. Melody, our eccentric elderly pug, jumped off my lap as I opened the passenger door of the white 80s pickup truck. My partner, Kevin, and I sorted through the mess of things in the cab and grabbed what we’d need for the night— my backpack, Kevin’s purse, and a plastic bag with old pasta sauce jars containing homemade cream of broccoli soup, gifted to us by a friend the day before. I pulled a headlamp out of my pocket and braced myself for the journey ahead.
Our driveway is not what most people think of when they picture a driveway. From September through to June every year, it is better described as a body of water than a surface suitable for driving on. We only attempt to ford it by truck when bringing home firewood every few weeks. To avoid situations involving tire chains and come-alongs on the way to work the next morning, we generally park just off the road and walk the 2 or 3 minutes back to the trailer. There’s a narrow path between the gargantuan puddles and the tree line that will keep your feet pretty dry if you’ve got your wits about you. It’s terribly inconvenient, but to be honest, I find that it always makes coming home feel like an adventure. I kind of love it.
But on that night, the puddles had all merged into one elongated pond and overflowed past our little path, right into the trees. I took the left side, and Kevin took the right, each of us walking straight into the bush, stepping into ferns and ducking wind whipped branches, hoping to avoid water getting in over the tops of our boots. Melody hung back and watched, trying to decide which of us to follow. Her creepy bulging eyes shone in the light from my headlamp and eventually came my way— Wrong choice. We ended up stuck against a steep bank with water still pooling everywhere. The water came right up to Melody’s chest, and my leather boots got soaked.
When we made it back to our little house— a 26 foot airstream trailer, from the year 1969— it was just as dark, just as cold, but quite a bit dryer. I threw down my bags and lit a couple candles. Melody jumped into our bed, tracking muddy paw prints all over the sheets, and Kevin got to work lighting a fire in the wood stove. We ordinarily keep the stove going 24 hours a day, all winter long, at just a crawl while we’re out and raging while we’re home, but we had just returned from an overnight trip into town. The occasion? Kevin had a sliver of metal lodged in his cornea, which was a little more than the little local clinic could handle.
We were advised to take the last ferry of the night off island, spend the evening in the emergency room, and the night in a motel. It was my first ever time actually handing over my own credit card for a private room to stay in. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, it was pretty exciting to shower without paying another dollar every two minutes, walk around naked in a room where the temperature was regulated by a knob on the wall, to sleep on sheets that were actually clean, and to enjoy the cable tv and internet right from bed. Not to mention that the lights came on just by flipping switches. It was pretty sweet, but no amount of modern conveniences can ever compete with the feeling of being home.
It only took a few minutes after lighting the wood stove for it to start pumping out heat, and we fell straight into our evening routine. I lit the propane stove and pulled a pot off the shelf to heat up some soup for dinner, then scooped a bowl full of crunchies for Melody. She got out of bed to eat, and Kevin took her spot, tired from a long day of having his eyeball poked. He looked like a sexy pirate with his eyepatch. He propped up his phone on the bedside table, power supply supplemented by rechargeable usb batteries, and put on a cartoon we both know and love. As I worked on dinner, we chatted about all kinds of things— gender politics, how funny the ER doctor from South Africa had been, the merits and shortcomings of different fast food chains, our respective work plans for the next day, how we might redesign our kitchen layout and clothing storage in the future. It’s painfully domestic.
Kevin fell asleep shortly after eating dinner and I was left alone with nothing but the sound of rain on the aluminum roof, the clicking of the eco fan that’s been dropped too many times to spin quietly, the snoring pug, and RuPaul’s Drag Race on in the background. I turned off the RuPaul so that Kevin wouldn’t miss anything and pulled out my laptop (charged at a friend’s house a few days earlier) to do some writing.
This is all terribly mundane, but that’s kind of the point. The concept of living off grid, particularly in the winter, scared me so much when I first moved to the spot back in May. I thought there was no way I could do it. I’m a city girl, not particularly dedicated to hippie ideals, I’ve got skinny little arms, I watch a lot of Netflix, I love frozen pizzas, and I’m generally just super lazy. But when it became clear that living like this was my only option if I wanted to continue living on an island I love, with a person I love, and doing work that I love, of course I didn’t turn away from it all.
What I’ve found is that there’s a way to have everything I need and want, with just a little extra effort, preplanning, and ingenuity. We drink from and cook with a big blue jug of water we got from the ballpark hose and carried down the driveway. We wash dishes in a salvaged sink, with water from our rain barrel. Underneath the house, there’s a stash of split firewood and a cooler full of everything from cold beer, to coffee cream, to leftovers, to fresh vegetables. There’s hanging baskets and metal boxes to keep the sojourning rodents out of our dry goods, and a crate full of tin cans. Over top of the wood stove, there’s an elaborate system of drying racks and clothes lines. But those aren’t even the best parts. We’ve got a radio powered by dewalt batteries that’s often tuned to Hornby’s fantastic local radio station, shelves full of books and craft supplies, a skylight over our bed, and art covering most every surface, both hanging from and drawn straight on to the walls. And then there’s the outdoor fire pit with undercover benches, the pond full of frogs, the owls, the eagles, the ravens, the robins, the tiny garden we have in the summer, the axe throwing target range, the alder trees, the arbutus trees, maple, cedar, holly, huckleberry, salmonberry, and the strange, yet wonderful pleasure of not having walls around the shitter that we dug ourselves.
I think this is what the hippies mean by “mindfulness”. Living this way, it’s impossible not to be intimately aware of what it takes to keep yourself alive. Each need you have, physical and psychological, is linked to a chore you have to make sure gets done, or you’ll surely feel the consequences. It makes going through the motions of every day feel worth while. It reminds me that my life is worth living. Like I’ve always believed everyone should, I’m going to live a life that’s a work of art.
One thought on “A West Coast Winter Evening— Living Off Grid on Hornby Island”
What a lovely little read. Exactly the sort of inspiration I was looking for on this rainy afternoon. My general laziness has been getting the better of me, but this piece reminded me of the great mindfulness that comes with domestic duties and how much better they make living feel in the end.
Wonderfully written. The mundane holds magic!