Heading northeast out of Flagstaff, Arizona the landscape flattens, except for the sporadic volcanic cinder cones that pop up every now and then. The pine trees disappear and low-hanging, scraggly juniper take their place. The ground is covered by different varieties of tall, hardy grass. It’s the end of a dry winter and the grass is golden yellow and dry. It rattles in the breeze. Turning from Townsend-Winona Road onto Leupp Road will take you directly onto the Navajo Reservation, passing pickups and horse trailers, and a junkyard full of cars on jacks instead of tires.
I call Paul Lambert, the man I’m going to see, when I get to the turn because I’m about to lose cell service and want to make sure I know where I’m going.
“Our dirt road will be on the right. I’ll meet you at the blacktop in my burgundy pickup. Just follow the smoke and you can’t miss it. Our neighbor’s house is burning down,” says Paul, casually, like it’s a convenient landmark for me and not a tragedy.
I had already spotted the smoke and thought maybe someone was burning a heap of trash or maybe it was a controlled burn, but now I know. The tower of black smoke rises straight into the air because there is hardly any wind, which keeps it from smudging up the surrounding horizon. It stands out sharply against the beautiful blue sky, cloudless and flawless.
About 10 miles down Leupp Road, Paul is waiting in his vehicle. I follow him to his house, but when we get there, I realize that the term neighbor is not what I’m used to. His neighbor is a couple of acres away. His wife Julie comes outside to contemplate the blazing house with Paul and I. They don’t know how the fire started; they’re not that friendly with that particular neighbor. Paul hands me a pair of binoculars to see it better, though there is a small rise blocking most of the view. I can see no emergency vehicles; no one is fighting that fire.
They let it burn.
Paul and Julie deliberate on whether or not they can discern one of the walls still standing through the binoculars. They seem unfazed. It’s a risk they took when they chose this property and a risk their neighbor took too. They are not within a fire district boundary. Emergency services are not obligated to respond to the fire. It would take too long to get there anyway; a half hour drive is plenty of time for a fire to get out of control.
Paul and Julie live in an area called the 40s, which, besides being disconnected from social services like the fire department, is not connected to electricity, gas, water, internet or anything else that might get directed into a home from somewhere else. They are off the grid.
Their area is called the 40s because the land is parceled out in 40 acre increments, set up in a checkerboard with state land. Forty acres of private land is surrounded on all sides with 40 acres of state land and vise versa. Paul and Julie’s property is on 40 acres that was split into 10 acres parcels.
Paul and Julie have been married since 2000. They met in Texas, where they both worked at Wayland Baptist University, and moved to Arizona in November of 2001, after taking a vacation to the region and falling in love with northern Arizona and southern Utah.
As part of a trend of spontaneous decisions, Julie applied to a job at Northern Arizona University while they were still traveling around on vacation and had a call about an interview before they made it home to Texas. She got the job as administrative support in the Psychology Department and, shortly after, they made the move. Paul got a programming job in the information technology department at NAU about three months later.
They lived in an apartment in Flagstaff for nine months, walking to work and taking advantage of the many cultural events put on by the city and the university. Julie says they loved walking to a restaurant for dinner or spending snowy afternoons in large bookstores with coffee shops. After the nine months, they bought an RV and lived for two and a half years in various trailer parks around town, but they were ready for something more permanent.
According to Julie, she and Paul, who are in their 60s, were both raised in a time where the idea of home ownership was crucial; a part of the American dream. She feels that actually being master of your home is more important to her than to people of a younger generation.
This is the second marriage for both of them and they wanted to start over and not have the worries they had in their earlier lives. “We both just walked away from everything,” says Paul, referring to their divorces. They left all their assets with their exes. However, the housing scene in town wasn’t suitable for them. Everything was just too expensive. They didn’t want to get into debt and they didn’t want a mortgage. They wanted to pay for their new home with cash.
So when Julie found the land they now own for sale, at a price they could pay cash for, they bought it, knowing that it would require a lot more spending to make it livable.
“We’re kind of bad about doing stuff impulsively!” says Julie with a laugh.
For eight months, Paul and Julie lived in their RV on their new land, which is still parked on the lot, while they studied the weather behavior, built their house and put in their many systems. The septic system went in first, professionally done. Then Paul contracted a guy to haul a single wide trailer home out to the lot. He set four stakes out where he wanted the house to go and a half hour later, the guy was gone. He and Julie leveled the house and hooked everything up themselves. In fact, everything besides installing the septic system and hauling out the single wide they did themselves.
The original trailer home, now completed on the inside, was remodeled and had rooms added onto it. A small greenhouse sits off of one side of house, where tubs of lettuce just starting to sprout are displayed on counters and a trough full of vibrant green kale sits on the floor, surrounded by various types of flowers. Paul proudly shows off a layered plastic container in the laundry room, which holds a large washer and dryer set, some storage cabinets and more plants. It’s just full of dirt at first glance, but when he lifts up the top tray, dozens of little earthworms hang from holes in the bottom. Digging through the rich, black soil, my fingers catch on several worms. Paul is feeding his worms organic material from his kitchen, like orange peels, and using the soil they fill with nutrients on his plants.
the sun room
Walking from the kitchen through what used to be a door to the outside of the trailer, you step down a couple of stairs and enter a warm and somewhat humid sun room, where Paul and Julie have most of their living space. The TV is in one corner, facing a modest couch and a wood-burning stove is in the other. The room is quite long, and the far wall is almost entirely windows, where the afternoon sun angles into the room. A wood counter with slats in it covers several blue plastic 55 gallon barrels full of water. Sure, huge blue barrels with tattered soy sauce labels are tacky decorations for one’s living room, but I don’t even notice them under that counter because vines and blossoms sprawl off the many plants they grow there. Cacti and spider plants and small palms and orchids fill the space and shade the room. The room actually has a green tint to it from the sun filtering through the leaves of the plants.
The barrels are one of the passive solar features of the house. Every day during the winter, when the south-facing sun room gets the most sun, the water in the barrels heats up and gives off heat which circulates through the rest of the house to keep it warm. Paul stands in the doorway to the sunroom, explaining how he can feel the heat from the barrels in there rising through the doorway and passing him on its way into the rest of the house. He also says he can feel the colder air circulating into the sunroom on his legs. The green house also has several of these barrels for keeping the plants warm and growing all year round.
Outside, on the west side of the house, solar panels tilt toward the sun on a pedestal. A small wind turbine whirs above on a tall pole, its spinning a blur in the breeze. Both of these create electricity, which is stored in several heavy duty batteries that power the lights, fridge, the TV and other appliances in the house.
They have propane gas hooked up to their stove. Finding a stove and oven combo that doesn’t use electricity was a chore for Paul and Julie. Most of us probably don’t even realize it, but our gas stoves and ovens still have an electric element in the oven which helps light the gas when baking, and this usually just stays on the whole time the oven is on. The Lamberts found one maker of the appliance that creates completely gas ovens. They turn on the oven to demonstrate the clicking noise it makes, followed by the quick whoosh when the propane catches fire; the same noises you hear when you start a gas burner on your stove.
Outside, several yards to the south of the house, a cistern of water is buried uphill of the house, sending water to the faucets and washing machine inside. They haul the water from a water station about two miles away from their house in a small tank that Paul tows on a trailer behind his pickup. Paul estimates he spends about an hour hauling water each month.
To be as efficient as possible, they did away with machines that used gas or electricity unnecessarily, like the furnace that came with the house, because they have their passive heating and wood stove anyway. To get phone and internet service, they use a little box mounted on the pole under the wind turbine, which amplifies the signal they can pick up from town and routes it into the house through cables. They try to conceal the cords and receiving box inside the house behind and above the refrigerator. They use a mobile hot spot sitting on the kitchen counter to create wifi.
They don’t make a lot of trash that can’t be reused. They compost organic materials in the piles that Paul lovingly turns over every so often, or toss it in the yard to be picked up by the ravens, whose flying shadows pass overhead and which can be considered the noisiest neighbor out there. They recycle everything they can on their way to the university in the mornings, and make a trip to the landfill about once a year for everything else, like chip bags and chemicals.
All these features make the Lambert’s home very comfortable and actually pretty normal in comparison to homes that are on the grid. They can use everything they used to in town with about the third of the electricity, just through being mindful and through their efficient home. While chatting or going about his day, Paul simply glances over at a digital number display next to the kitchen sink, monitoring the electricity levels on the big batteries. He never lets them get too low, because this would ruin the batteries, but they rarely even get close to low. Eighty-five percent is the normal reading on the meter. Furthermore, they don’t have to create much extra heat in the winter because of the passive solar they receive through the barrels in the sun room, and when they do, they burn wood in the stove. And they don’t even bother with air conditioning in the summer. Though Julie complains that it does get warm in the house, Paul carefully planned the layout of the house to remain cooler in summer. For instance, the eves on the sun room are just right geometrically so that the summer sun cannot get into the room and heat the barrels. They also say that the roof they added as an afterthought to the deck they built helps cool the house significantly and they use a misting system outside to cool things off as well.
Their decision to go off grid may seem spontaneous and expensive, but the arrangement of the house and systems was not a quick decision. Paul did extensive research on everything he would need to consider to save the most money and do it himself. He went to classes on sustainable living at the community college. He carefully measures their energy usage, the temperature in the house and how much water they go through daily. He makes up his mind to do something, does it, and makes sure he does it right the first time, though he does admit he’s not a perfectionist. You have to be prepared to lay out a lot of money up front to get the best results later. “I always do everything with a backup plan,” says Paul. But now that the research is done, the money is spent and the house is functioning as it should, they get free heat and electricity from the sun and live more or less sustainably.
The only thing which restricts them is the amount of energy a Crockpot uses; Julie has to make sure it’s a sunny day before deciding to slow cook dinner, but she can even avoid this by using her solar oven, which she just places outside.
With the inside now finished, Paul and Julie spend their weekends focusing on the outside of their property. Paul is in the process of putting up a metal fence, which will help protect the house if a grass fire starts. He’s also clearing the tumbleweeds from around his property to lessen the fire danger. They have compost piles and rows of garden on the north side of the house, which need work still in order to produce a bountiful crop. The garden beds, raised up in long, wide rows on paving stones, now only hold the dry brittle remnants of fragrant sage bushes and other flowers. They will put edible landscaping in the yard within the metal fence and will replace their roof with a metal one someday so that they can stop hauling water and just collect it from the rains. They can even use grey water, or water collected from the shower and bathroom sink to feed their plants and garden. The whole thing is an endless project, but Paul likes it that way.
“It’s just been an adventure for the two of us to live out here, dream, come up with whatever we want to do and do it and do it together, and then, you know, stand back and look at it with a sense of accomplishment,” says Julie. She says this now, but just a few years ago she was singing a different tune.
She didn’t consider the toll this lifestyle would take on her social life when they moved. They hardly go to any of the events at the university anymore because of the drive into town. They are too conscious of the gas they use. And every time they decide to stay after work for an event, they end up just going home, exhausted from the work day and daunted by the tiring drive they would have to make even later if they stayed. And even though they know many of their neighbors scattered around Leupp Road and gather at parties, it hardly puts a dent in the isolation. Those friends are probably spread over 50 square miles.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle for me,” says Julie. “I’m a fairly social person and I like to get together with my friends.” She would appreciate a lifestyle where meeting her friends wasn’t such a commitment and she wouldn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of leaving home so much; she could just go. Even as we sit talking, a friend calls and invites her to lunch. She declines. “I just need a day to be home,” she says, not looking forward to the laundry and meal preparations for the week that are the real reason she stays.
A couple years after they moved out to their off-the-grid home, these negative feelings started building up in Julie. The long drive would grate on her so much that she felt like jumping out of her skin from irritability and she felt her needs weren’t being met.
“I got very irritable. I got very grumpy. I got just very discontent, as a rule. That’s just kind of how I became,” she says.
The couple would talk about how she was feeling and brainstorm ways to help meet her social needs, but they just didn’t work. Finally, one day a few years ago, everything culminated in a huge fight between Paul and Julie, one that is still referred to as “a big deal”.
It was Julie’s birthday, in February, and they were driving through the wintery landscape into town to do something special that they can’t even remember now. Julie supposes they were going to dinner to celebrate. But on the drive in, Julie began her usual complaining about the drive, the isolation, and the struggle she was having with their living situation. Finally, though, Paul had had enough. “Where he used to try to be understanding and supportive, he was no longer,” explains Julie, able to laugh about it now.
So Paul, deciding enough was enough, said, “We are going into town and we’re going to find an apartment and we’re going to rent it!”
They fought about it the whole way into town, but Julie realized towards the end of the argument that her desires were conflicting. She wanted to live closer to town and have everything that town has to offer if she had a whim to go somewhere or do something, but she didn’t want all that came along with it, like the bills and the stress. She knew it would be a blow to their finances.
The fight caused something to click in her brain, she says. “Yeah, I wanted something, but I didn’t want what I would have to do to get it.” So she decided from then on not to talk about her discontentment anymore and just try to find a way to be happy where she was. She started focusing on what she does have at her home on the 40s, not what she is lacking, like the peace and quiet, and the ability to modify her home however she pleases. She also started doing the opposite in town, focusing on how people in town have to deal with bills while she doesn’t and how crowded the neighborhoods are in town while she has acres of space.
She was able to make a definitive change in her mindset and got rid of the feelings of discontentment, which is always easier said than done. “I’ve been very happy. I don’t remember feeling discontent since then, but I was miserable for several years,” she says.
They tried to salvage the birthday dinner that night, but they were just too emotionally exhausted and raw to make it meaningful.
Now, she feels a sense of total freedom on their property in the 40s, where no one can tell you, “No. You can’t do that.” She feels lucky to live on what she considers one of the rare places left in America where she can truly be the master of her home and her land. The county doesn’t get involved at all, whether helping out or regulating. The roads are dragged smooth every now and then and plowed of snow when necessary by an ambitious neighbor with special equipment attached to his truck. The county does not maintain their roads, pick up trash or respond promptly to emergencies, and leaves them alone to build whatever they can dream up. She clarifies that she’s always been a rule follower, but not all the rules make sense to her, and out there, there are no rules. But to achieve that freedom, you have to be far away from what is considered normal society, or living on the grid.
Paul also loves the fact that if he wakes up one morning determined to do something to his property, like build a carport or a pool, he can do it with no problem. Paul doesn’t like to sit still, which is evident as he fidgets with an infrared thermometer he uses to check the temperature of each room in his house. He needs something to work on, someplace to go, or something to research because, he feels, it helps keep him young and active. Right now he is working at the university and can only work on his projects on the weekends, but he hopes to retire in three years and thinks that moving out to the 40s was a great deal for retirement. One of his neighbors, Rick Lane, is already retired. His painstakingly designed house is finished too, with only a few projects here and there to work on, like a retaining wall for a hillside next to their home. Rick comes over to Paul and Julie’s on the weekends and gets to work with Paul on projects around the house. He and his wife Liz found themselves bewildered and wondering what to do with their time out there in the middle of nowhere, retired with no house to build. There really isn’t much to do out there unless you have a project, so Rick helps Paul to keep himself busy. Liz goes to town more often, having just started a Spanish class, and walks their rowdy puppy, which has enough energy to walk the quarter mile to the mailbox and back a dozen times.
Paul hopes that living out there and always having to maintain a garden or his solar panels or his wood pile, or any number of chores, will give him a reason to get out of bed each morning, especially as he gets older. He cites studies carried out in nursing homes, where people who had a responsibility, versus those who didn’t, lived longer, healthier and happier lives in their old age. The fact that his property is not fully developed and will always need work gives him peace of mind. And just like a child, Paul explains, who wants to do everything independently, like tie their own shoes, Paul loves that he is 100 percent responsible for himself and doesn’t have to answer to or rely on anybody else. A part of him feels like he is bucking the system by not going along with the suburban life that many of us are used to.
“If somebody else can do it, I can do it,” he says.
As Paul explains this to me, Julie scoffs. “You didn’t think of all that before we moved out here!” she scolds.
Paul admits that they moved for economic reasons. “But now that I’m out here, I know this is a healthier life,” he replies. “Everybody that visits us says, ‘Oh, it’s so peaceful out here!’ Stop and listen…What do you hear?”
We pause to listen. Yes, it is quiet and peaceful, with lots of room to look every which way at the cinder cones, tiny glints from the solar panels of distant neighbors, and even, ironically, the huge electrical poles that march like broad-shouldered giants through the land on their way to the Navajo Reservation. But it is also a little too quiet. Julie mentions how, when she is in town now, she is so much more sensitive to all the noise of town. “You just don’t realize how loud it is until you don’t hear it,” she says. When one lives in town, they tend to tune out all the traffic noise, the occasional sirens, the music that is playing in the background of every commercial establishment, the shouting, the laughing, the banging of dumpster lids and the symphony of all our machines. Most people just go around with their headphones on anyway, living life with their own soundtrack. Julie, on the other hand, jumps or winces as someone slams a door or bangs something on a table. She used to love the noise of humanity when she was recently divorced and living alone for the first time ever. It was a comfort to her in the night and she would crack her window to let in the noise that meant she wasn’t alone. But now, a normal sound environment for her is the birds singing, the faint whistle of the train on days when the wind is perfect, the occasional howl of a coyote and the wind rustling everything outside.
Paul feels the same about the noise, and actually tolerates it, and people, worse than Julie. He thinks he would be hard pressed to move back to town. “I’m not going to take out a mortgage and I’m not going to live in a box with no possibility!” he says. Julie doesn’t see it that way. She knows that it’s easy to take your resources for granted when you live in town, but she’s always been conscious of her consumption. And she doesn’t view town so negatively; she doesn’t mind the hustle and bustle. In fact the first time they made the drive out to see their property, Julie had a very negative reaction to the dry, desert landscape, and the trashy looking properties, which have spurred the joke that they need a couple of rusty, junk cars in their yard to fit in with everyone else. The juniper and endless blue sky have grown on her since then. Furthermore, Julie is noticing a change in her health since they moved away from town, where they used to walk everywhere. But now they commute an hour or more every day in their car. Paul and Julie drive to work together and pass the time by reading books to each other. They don’t read novels, but books based off of research or histories. Right now they are reading a book about stereotypes called Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude M. Steele. Paul is grateful for this, claiming that they would never have grown personally nor had so much to talk about if they didn’t read together. “I think, all in all, the commute has been a positive thing,” says Paul.
“Well my hips don’t agree,” Julie replies.
Julie will get the chance to change up her routine and work on her health when she retires in May. She wants to go back to Texas to spend some time with her grandchildren and aging parents. She also will come to town a few days per week to get involved in health classes like yoga or Zumba. And she’ll be able to see her friends more and read more books. She is currently adjusting from the mystery genre to some other kind of fiction she hasn’t discovered yet. The mysteries were just getting old, and, for her, deciding what your new favorite kind of book is should not be done quickly and without research. She will miss the time she and Paul spend together commuting to and from work each day, but she knows they’ll be able to travel more and spend that time together. She wants to take weekend trips while Paul is still working because she’ll be able to relax when they get home and take care of the laundry and the groceries and other chores the next day, rather than rushing off to work.
Paul will continue working for a few more years. Though they planned this lifestyle to include their retirement, it will not be the last place they live. Paul says, “I can tell I’m aging. Too many people try to hold on too long. They don’t want to admit they’re getting older, but you got to admit when you get old and you need help.”
They have talked about an exit plan to move back into town and think that when they are close to 78 years old, the time will come. Paul knows he can’t stay too long and potentially leave Julie with all his responsibilities around the house, because while Paul likes to work, Julie is perfectly content to get cozy with a book on her days off and read for hours. Also, they want time to adapt to a new place, which, according to Paul, gets harder and harder as you age. And they don’t want it to be too late for them to admit when they can’t make their lifestyle work on their own anymore.
The Lamberts hope that the property, being well-developed and completed will be easy to sell, but they will be picky about who they sell to. Like they paid cash, they want a cash buyer, even if that means they won’t make a profit.
“Here’s my attitude,” says Paul. “I’ve had a good time here. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had a lot of good memories. If I was in town paying rent…rent runs what? About a thousand a month in town?”
“At least, yeah,” replies Julie.
“So if I basically, after it’s time to leave here, if I sell this property for half of what it’s worth, cash, I still come out ahead as opposed to living in town and paying rent. I still have a lot of good memories. I mean…it doesn’t bother me.” Julie nods in agreement.
“Life is too short. I don’t want a perfect world; I want one that’s comfortable, enjoyable, and fun and with good memories,” says Paul.
The Lamberts kind of stumbled onto off the grid living for economic reasons. And in the end they successfully avoided the monthly money collection cycle of urban living and became responsible for themselves through the use of renewable energy and sustainable living. It is lonely and isolating at times, rewarding at others. And it incessantly requires hard work and maintenance. The humans that do the upkeep on such renewable technologies, however, are not renewable themselves and will eventually need help maintaining their lifestyle or they will have to leave it.