I wanted to get far away from pavement and pollution, to immerse myself in the rhythms of nature. My partner, who had the skills and equipment needed to build our dream home, was my knight in dirty work boots. But there are dreams, and there is reality. And living off-grid in a campervan for three years taught me how very wide the chasm between the two can get.
We were renting when a friend offered us an incredible deal on a large piece of land nestled in a quaint Ohio town. It was like fate had come knocking: the gorgeous 70-acre wooded tract of land, which we dubbed "Serenity", had maple and oak trees, pine groves, hills and valleys. There were fantastic views, and a charming creek snaked through the property. There was even a swimming hole, where I envisioned us cooling off after long hours toiling in the garden. Long ago, two natural gas wells had been dug, which would be a great resource once we built our house.
Because there was no house, or driveway, or access to the electrical grid. And that was what made it so exciting. We were going to build our dream house—with trees from the land! As for the driveway, we would simply use a four-wheeler, or our god-given feet! Just until we could afford the gravel.
Our children were still young enough to be unconcerned with things like personal privacy and fitting in with society. What we lacked in infrastructure and interior living space, we more than made up for in our thirst for freedom. No longer slaves to the system, we would be fierce, modern-day pioneers who cared not for indoor plumbing or lights-on-demand. We would be sticking it to The Man, one turd bucket at a time.
We set up camp at the top of a steep hill, about a mile from the road. This was where the gas well was located, and would serve as our future homesite. Summer was OK: we could drive right up to our camper door and run around barefoot on the hard, caked earth that was our garden. However, the rest of the year was not OK. We were essentially living in a thick brown soup from which there was no escape. Our entire compound, basically a construction site, soon morphed into pure, viscous terror.
Driving up the hill was horrendous; it was a giant slip-and-slide, growing even worse every time we attempted to force one of our vehicles to the top. Huge ruts and sinkholes began to appear from our abuse. Our cars took a serious beating. When we couldn’t get up the hill in our car, simple errands like grocery shopping and going to the laundromat became great feats of endurance, requiring everyone to trudge up a goop-laden hill pulling a heavily loaded handcart behind us. We were also constantly missing appointments and social obligations due our car slipping into ditches.
After a year, I cut back our activities because I no longer had the energy to fight through the muck, which sucked the joy from my heart like it sucked the boots from my feet. I'd dreamt of more independence, but I had less than ever. I resented being forced to rely on my partner to constantly “save” us, since he was the only one who could drive the big equipment to get us unstuck. Mentally exhausted, I felt bitterness taking root.
And the mud. The mud haunted me. No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, our clothes were streaked with dirt, our shoes caked with the stuff, and our car literally dripped with sludge. At first, we wore the mud as a badge of honour. By year two, it had become our mark of shame.
Our original set-up was a 10.5 metre campervan attached to an open-walled awning. The campervan was our bedroom and my paper-making studio, while our 1980 Chevy served as the kids’ bedroom, and we used an old tool shed for extra storage. We'd brought what we could with us, and tried our best to keep everything dry.
The van, the awning, the shed, eventually the entire camper; it all leaked. Slowly, one by one, our most treasured possessions were wet and ruined, from favourite books to my partner’s valuable antique gun collection. We learned it was best to not get attached. We tried to convince ourselves it was “just stuff”. But we all suffered the heartache of losing something we loved.
That first summer, we really thought we’d have the house built before winter. But while my partner had the skills and the equipment, we lacked the time and the money. And when winter showed up, we were still in our campervan. So we popped in a wood stove and hunkered down. There were cozy days we read books and admired the snowy forest from inside our warm camper walls. There were days we went sledding and heated cocoa on the woodstove.
But then there were the other days.
Days I felt buried under snow boots and winter coats and toys and everybody else’s stuff. Days I cried because there was no space to create my art. Days I needed to be alone but had nowhere to go and wanted to shower without going to a friend’s house. Days I wanted to use the toilet without the ears and noses of my family bearing witness and I screamed from the walls closing in on me. Days I didn’t get out of bed because I just couldn’t anymore.
We made it through that first winter, emerging from our camper like miners rescued from the pits of the earth. And we vowed: never again.
Spring passed, then summer and autumn. The second winter was drawing near, but our house was not. We dug a water well, set a foundation for the house, built half a barn for the goats and chickens and put a roof on the bathhouse. We bought a second campervan which made it possible, with some shuffling, for me to create my art. We could now take showers (claustrophobic, cold showers) as long as the water tank didn’t freeze. We’d doubled our living space. We could eat dinner around a table, sort of. There was now a kids’ camper and an adult one. Progress!
It still sucked.
The kids’ camper was cold and damp. Our eldest daughter was extremely disenchanted; she yearned for a bedroom, to have friends over, to be normal. She begged us to move. We were still crammed. We had no space for a Christmas tree, no place for presents. We tried to go out to explore, but leaving wasn’t always possible because of the frozen or muddy driveway. We dreamed of a house, of warm baths and space. And then, spring arrived and winter was once more behind us.
We made a little more progress that year: we added beams, some exterior walls, windows and skylights to the house. But everything was in a state of disrepair, and my partner spent most of his extra time just keeping things afloat. Campervans aren’t designed for permanent living, and ours were falling apart. The vehicles were tanking from the years of abuse, too, which meant when my partner wasn’t at work at his fence-building business or trying to build a house, he was lying in the mud under a car.
When he needed a break, he hid in a dark corner to avoid my seething stares. I blamed him for our misery. I felt at his mercy. I couldn’t work on the house myself, I could only garden and bitch and moan. I had dreamt of serenity; instead, I was surrounded by trucks, tools and mud. My eyes were sore from the ugliness of it all.
Every new problem, every milestone unmet, I hurled myself at him like a boulder of broken dreams. The weight on this sweet man’s shoulders could have crushed Hercules. Yet, he did not crumble.
So, with few options open to us and a stubborn spirit, we gave it one more winter. And we got through it; perhaps a little better than years past, thanks to the systems we'd developed to make life easier. We also stopped trying so hard, conceding victory to the elements. But despite one last push to get the house done, it was obvious it wasn't going to happen. And so we vowed: never again. And this time it turned out we meant it.
It was heart-wrenching, but also a relief. I was tired. We were all so fucking tired.
We hatched a new plan. We put Serenity on hold and went hunting for an investment property we could live in while we fixed it up. We found a huge 200-year-old converted church handy-man special, complete with its own private historic graveyard. "Church-house", as we named it, sits on less than an acre but is surrounded by a large farm in a rural community. A little too rural, to be honest, as we are now 40 minutes away from a grocery store or coffee shop. Yet this is a trade I'm willing to make in exchange for the luxury of bathrooms and bedrooms.
Restoring Church-house to her previous glory, I don’t feel so helpless. Even I can tear down walls and strip paint. And since my sanity is no longer under threat from a constrictive and flimsy living "space", we can take our time and have some fun. The pressure is off. Finally.
Serenity still waits for us, if we choose to return. And maybe we will. I miss her trees, her sheer potential. I don’t miss the heavy weight of the experience; the constant struggle, the dreaded mud. Still, we have made our peace: it was an amazing adventure—one we sometimes shudder to recall, but one that also made us more appreciative and more capable human beings. Which proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are pretty fierce after all.