Life Off the Grid

When I returned to Trego, an old friend suggested that I look at building off-grid, with the comment “Lincoln Electric isn’t a co-op anymore, it’s just another power company.”  In a way, he was correct – cooperatives rarely last beyond a couple generations before becoming bureaucracies run with more attention to the employees wants than the members.  To me, that wasn’t as important as the fact that the infrastructure of Lincoln Electric is all around me.  The presence of the infrastructure is of greater value.

Still, my community can be divided between folks who are on the grid and those who are not.  The decision to be on grid is fairly easy for me – 160 acres, and the most distant spot from a power line is ¼ mile.  That’s a different calculation than someone who is two miles or more from the line.  Real estate folks stress “Location, location, location” and they are correct.  Location can be a creek.  It can be a view.  Or it can be proximity to the infrastructure – in town, water comes through the meter, cell phone service exists, and the power lines are even closer than mine.  The decisions are simpler.

As I write this, I’m thinking about a fire up Edna.  My guess is that his tax bill includes the same $50 for the TFS fire department that mine does . . . but my fire protection is within a half-mile.  My phone line hooks through Interbel.  I have a six or seven mile advantage in emergency service, and it’s a phone call away.  We have different levels of challenges in land ownership.  The first – totally on-grid and in-town – is cash oriented.  A monthly check buys the needed services.  Still, it can be exclusionary in case of disability, job loss, or poverty.  It’s polar opposite is off-grid on the mountainside.  All the needed elements are brought in regularly by the land owner – and I recall an old rancher a half-century ago who described it as “When me and the bank had the ranch down in . . .” 

Off-grid isn’t for the weak – and I probably lost 30% of my physical ability in surviving colon cancer.  I still think it was a fair exchange to continue living.  My neighbors off grid have to be in better shape – if nothing else, they have to keep the 4×4 running to bring in the necessities.  Broken ribs or a leg in a cast are a greater problem.  At forty, most of them could handle the effort of being off-grid easily.  At 70, or 80, the margin isn’t there.

The Economic Research Service has the classifications: “The 2015 County Typology Codes classify all U.S. counties according to six mutually exclusive categories of economic dependence and six overlapping categories of policy-relevant themes. The economic dependence types include farming, mining, manufacturing, Federal/State government, recreation, and nonspecialized counties. The policy-relevant types include low education, low employment, persistent poverty, persistent child poverty, population loss, and retirement destination.”  We fit in a couple – we’re recreation, government dependent, low employment and retirement destination. 

Those types do not fit well together.  The recreation dependence raises land values beyond their productivity – as does retirement destination.  Government dependent and low employment translates to having a lot of government jobs and a lot of unemployed.  I’ve looked at recreation dependent and retirement destination counties on paper – basically the real estate prices increase, and affordable housing diminishes.  Add in the low employment, and affordable housing gets hit harder.

Living off-grid has made the hit less obvious here than in many recreation-dependent counties.  In the south end of the county, corporate timberlands have been the norm.  Here, in the north end of Lincoln County, more remote areas, unserved by the electric co-op, have provided the alternative.  Still, living off-grid requires more individual effort –  the body declines.  Tasks that were easy at 40 become challenging at 60 or 70.  The margin narrows with each passing year.

Back in the late 90’s, I knew an old guy who had built his place down the Kootenai from Libby while he worked at the sawmill.  He asked me to review his situation in case his math was wrong.  It wasn’t.  As he reached his mid-eighties, his retirement COLAs hadn’t kept up with the increased taxes and insurance on the beautiful spot he had built in his spare time.  I couldn’t argue with the economics of his decision – sell the recreation spot on the river and move to Chester, Montana.  I agreed, the people in Chester have always been nice when I stopped there.  There are some nice places offered at low prices in population loss counties.  Still, it seems an awful thing to see people pressed to leave their communities by disabilities and rising prices.

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