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Besides, a lot of the idea of living off the grid is self-sufficiency, and that includes educating children. All of their close off-the-grid friends homeschool - a group that includes 13 kids.
Out in the studio, Ryan relaxes on the stool at his pottery wheel, kicking the wheel to get it spinning. He gracefully forms mugs from wet gray balls of clay, one after another. Clay splatters onto the wide plank floor. A string of small Tibetan prayer flags hangs above the window.
Ryan concedes he's the more social parent. He finds a reason most days to visit someone, to help with a project or to receive help. When a house is going up in the neighborhood, he's one of those who "oozes out of the woods" as he puts it, to get the job done - like the people who helped him with his roof joists.
Ryan and Courtney have weighed the trade-offs. They could get a mortgage, buy an expensive house downstate - be tied to a job to receive a paycheck or maybe make more pots, go to more shows, to pay bills. But they've chosen instead to be responsible for almost everything that sustains their family. Ryan calls their success "conscious independence-making. You must have a goal and the ability and self-discipline to see it through." They're creating a life, not working to earn money to buy a life, and they find that intensely satisfying.
I park in a small plowed area off County Road 510 to meet Cynthia Pryor, planning to ski about a mile to her house, set on 250 acres of hills, trees and streams in the Huron Mountains. We glide past friends' houses, past a storybook log cabin, through pines weighed down by snow. We pass a pond recently moved into by a beaver and climb a steep hill. At the top is her house overlooking a field and a hill beyond. Goldfinches fly madly about, and downy woodpeckers pound at suet.
The house she and her husband, Bob, built in 1994 when they semi-retired is warmed by both the soil and the sun. The back is built into a hill. Sun fills the south-facing rooms, shining through large windows. A black Amish-style wood cookstove dominates the kitchen and adds the final measure of warmth to the house.
In the summer Bob works at the Huron Mountain Club near Big Bay. Cynthia works for the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve. They can get by with very little: money to pay taxes, buy vehicles, pay for gas and food.
A spring that flows from the hill below the house provides water. The water's six-foot drop at the spring powers a ram pump that pushes water up to 80-gallon holding tanks in their loft. Inside the house, water flows by gravity from the tanks through the plumbing system, including a flush toilet and faucets in the bathroom and kitchen.
Water heats as it coils through the wood cookstove, providing running hot water at the faucets. There's even enough to soak in the bathtub, looking out through sliding glass doors onto the valley.
NPR plays on the radio. Cynthia rolls out dough for apple dumplings in the kitchen under an electric light. Another electric light brightens the bathroom. She shows me photos of her recent trip to Alaska to visit her 70-something mom - also an off-the-gridder - on a small DVD player. And throughout the evening the telephone rings, people calling about her work trying to stop a sulfide-mining project that some fear will damage the environment and their quality of life.
As darkness settles over the valley, Cynthia lights a kerosene lamp, and neighbors Nick and Sharon Cartier, who also live off the grid, arrive on skis. During dinner we reminisce about the 1970's when Nick moved to the Huron Mountains, lured by an ad for cheap land in Mother Earth News. He was part of the same generation of back-to-the-landers that I was. Thirty years later, he's one of the few who remain. Others perhaps lacked the skills to build, repair machinery and hunt; the ability to bring in cash by working at odd jobs or a craft; and the grit to withstand frigid winters and buggy summers.