I have a person very near and dear to me. Let's call him my kin. He is a prime example of what can be called the "neo-rural". A few have made attempts at defining the neo-rural, but I'd like to broaden the scope of those definitions a bit. I think we are on the cusp of a whole new generation of folks who are moving to rurality. I'd love to know exactly who these people are, and what inspires their love of the country. This post is a modest beginning to this inquiry.
One of the groups of people who fit into the "neo-rural" are "modern homesteaders," which my kin most certainly is. I recently interviewed him, during which he decided to go by the pseudonym Bill (or, sardonically, "Bill Damn", when he has to throw down). He wants to keep his rural home and his name unpublicized because there are some grey areas with regard to legality where he lives, and honestly, he'd like to keep it that way. Bill's rural reflections on the law will be the majority of Part II of this post.
To get to where Bill lives, you drive a few miles out of a lovely small town with a population less than 6,000. The town is a tourist destination, but remains remote. Then, you go over a bridge, take a sharp turn and brace yourself for more than six miles of dirt roads that are unmaintained with the exception of the maintenance that local homesteaders do. Bill doesn't feel that far out. He told me:
Where I’m at is kind of a nice position to be in because it’s extremely rural and out miles of dirt roads and beyond the reach of the power lines but I’m still only, like 30 minutes from a grocery store, which is nice.Thirty minutes from the grocery store sounds pretty far-flung, in my opinion. I asked Bill if he lacked services way out there, and he said that was definitely a factor of his life. When a friend got injured once on his property, Bill had to lift her into his truck and haul-ass over the dirt and gravel out to the paved road - the ambulance wasn't coming anywhere near the acres he owns. It sounded harrowing.
However, that bit about the land is one that deserves some underscoring: Bill owns land. Acres of it. He owns several parcels around where he built his house (with his own hands), and several parcels in various other places down the dirt road where he lives. Bill is just 31, and he owns more land than I will likely ever own in my life. He is part of a movement around sustainable off-the-grid houses. He built his house (and many others) from the ground up. House-building is both Bill's passion and his livelihood. He flies all over the world building sustainable housing, and has built houses and structures in Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, South America, Canada, and more.
The desire to move out into rurality isn't new, but living and building like Bill --i.e.off-the-grid "homesteading"-- has been gaining traction in pop-culture circles lately. For two examples, check out recent books "The Unsettlers" and "Modern Homesteading". People who have gotten tired of relying on corporations and government entities for services can find a myriad of articles that offer "21 Tips For Quitting Your Job, Going Off Grid and Living The Dream", "The Secrets of Living with No Money", "Lessons from Off-Grid Living" and more.
There is a lot of overlap with Bill's work and the tiny house movement, and he's also involved in the straw-bale house and pounded-tire construction communities. The electricity at his own house comes from his solar panels, which give him what he considers "oodles of power" to run his wifi, laptop, lamps, blender and bass-amplifier-doubling-as-sound-system. However, his solar panel-and-battery setup slightly limit his ability to live a "modern" technological lifestyle. No hairdryers allowed at Bill's, and you can't use all of the above at once. Bill Damn's house has a composting toilet, makes its own heat through passive solar heating, and all the water is harvested rain from the house's ingenious roof. Thus, the house entirely takes care of itself.
With the rise of AirBnB in rural places and the concept of "glamping," Bill's house now also pays for itself. If you ask him, Bill'd tell you that he feels his house actually takes care of him better than many humans in his life have. He says this with love in his heart, and when you listen to him, you realize how much of a modern cowboy he is: in his solitude, in his love of the land, and in his powerful self-sufficiency. This romanticism might seem a little gauche (especially since some urban circles have "practically fetishized the idea of building humble rural retreats"), but you can't argue that it is a remarkable life he leads.
Of course there are tough aspects about living as far out as Bill lives. As indicated above, getting services is a struggle: ambulance service has been a challenge for several small towns across the nation recently (examples here and here). In addition, the struggles of community-building in rurality and the dangers of substance abuse have become sticks in Bill's craw, so-to-speak. I asked him about this, to which he responded:
I sort of struggle sometimes because I feel like I’m one of the only ones out there who really wants [community] and wants to make it a better place, and a lot of people kind of go out there and settle for less. They’re comfortable being more cutoff and reclusive and, you know, there’s a lot of alcoholism, and some . . . heavier stuff as well.The "heavier stuff" that Bill mentions might be a reference to rising methamphetamine use in rural communities (noted on this blog here, and here). He might also be intimating the rural opioid epidemic, which has recently been called "this generation's AIDS crisis." Fellow bloggers have also drawn attention to this heartbreaking issue's impact on rurality here and here. This upsets Bill, but the best he can do is look for other folk who are not part of that lifestyle -- who are more onboard with his goals for country living. The struggle of building community in rurality is an age-old one, but Bill has begun to discover new ways to create a network due to the house-building and subsistence-living communities that he has developed. He says that in recent years, community is improving out where he lives. He notes that "there’s starting to be some more younger folk coming out and building structures instead of dragging out trailers and starting junk yards."
Despite all the challenges of living in rurality, Bill Damn represents a growing contingent of Americans who find it to be the only way to live. Indeed, as of 2013, over 180,000 families lived off the grid in the US, and it appears that due to revolutions in battery technology and solar energy, it will only get easier to do so in the next quarter-century.
I asked Bill exactly what kept him out in the "hinterlands," and he said that rurality is where he feels closest to home. He observed that in the beginning, striving for his rural life was a reaction against some aspects of modern urban life that he felt were unhealthy:
We’re constantly surrounded with a whole lot of distractions these days that kind of keep us separated from nature – speaking in a cliché, but it’s true, you know? Our existence is extremely disconnected from nature and from the natural phenomenon of the earth. We’re constantly sheltering ourselves from it and finding other things to look at, and even just finding things that keep us from connecting with one another.Instead, Bill Damn lives deeply rooted in the earth, and he constantly strives to find new ways to connect to his rural livelihood and to reduce distraction. His life is built on finding more peace and harmony despite the craziness that he sees in modern society. "I guess I just feel more at peace when there’s less going on around me", he mused. It seems to me that he represents thousands of others in our nation who live by exactly the same sentiment.