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Gulching

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Notice: This essay reflects my reflections and experiences only. I do not pretend to know everything and you might very well disagree with some of my past decisions. I am sharing my experiences only with the intent of providing some insight with respect to my journey. This document contains several photos, although reduced in file size to help dial-up users. Please be patient with loading.

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(Winter 2006–2007)

I “gulched” myself 10 years ago. I did not choose my gulch. Instead, my gulch chose me. I use the term gulching based upon the novel Atlas Shrugged. (I’m no Ayn Rand groupie or objectivist, I merely use the term accordingly.) I claim no amazing foresight or reason for my situation. I simply did not like urban life and headed for the boonies. Only through conversations with other people did I learn to appreciate that my effort was something called gulching.

The term gulch, however, is easily misunderstood. As adopted from that same novel, the gulch in that story was a large retreat away from the mainstream of human life. That particular gulch was isolated and difficult to enter. The several characters who built that retreat all wanted to divorce themselves from a crumbling and incompetent society. To a certain extent then, a gulch implies self-sufficiency and self-reliance, but there are inherent fallacies associated with that concept.

The gulch described in the novel was a community oriented location and project. That is, the characters involved built that community with a lot of mutual participation and cooperation. Many people today who desire to build a “gulch” do so with a more isolated or stand-alone approach. Many people today yearning to divorce themselves from a crumbling and incompetent society soon learn the harsh reality of building a gulch solo style. To be self-sufficient while maintaining a modicum of the modern lifestyle costs a lot of money. Lots.

Another hard-learned fallacy is that self-sufficiency is an illusion. There never has been a single human who was self-sufficient. To one degree or another all humans have depended upon other humans for support. All humans spend the first third of their lives depending almost entirely upon other humans. From that foundation peaceable humans learn to trade and exchange with one another to acquire the necessary tools and equipment necessary for a more self-sufficient lifestyle. That effort requires money and time.

Lastly, a life of self-sufficiency or self-reliance requires additional skills typically not possessed by many modern humans. Acquiring those skills never occurs overnight or in any quick manner. The element of time once again requires a gut-check on reality.

Therefore, humans face two paths to become self-sufficient. They acquire a lot of material things that enable self-reliance and production or they learn to live without, to sacrifice certain necessities and luxuries often assumed for granted today. Neither option is correct or incorrect, just a fact of life. For many people, self-reliance lies somewhere in between those two extreme options.

Gulching does not necessarily equate with preparedness. The latter goal is an effort to avoid various expected challenges from a society of people caught with their collective pants at their ankles. Or to avoid the complexities associated with many natural disasters. Gulching is a purposeful effort to divorce one’s self from the mainstream of life, but even then no human will ever be able to become totally self-sufficient. There always will remain hooks of one form or another that maintain ties to mainstream life. A simple trip to town for groceries, supplies, or fuel is an example. The lone wolf might be able to survive without help, but not a lone human.

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[Image: Photo taken by author of lake front.]I’m located in the upper Midwest, north of the 45th parallel; and east or west of the Mississippi River, depending upon your point of reference; in what is commonly known as the United States. My home is located near several small lakes and rivers. The closest town is approximately 7 miles away. Population of the general area probably is less than 15,000. The closest area that could be called a metro area is three hours away. Definitely the rural boonies. Typical seasons here are spring in April and May, summer in June through August; autumn in September and October; winter in November through March. Not the type of weather many people seek, but that also means reduced population, smaller towns and cities, and generally, a slower and quieter pace of life.

I am an introvert and a quasi-recluse. Usually I enjoy people who think and are self-motivated, but many people who do not fit that mold I find intolerable. I also do not like a lot of commotion. Living remotely was long a dream of mine, but not gulching. The idea of a gulch never crossed my mind until well after building and moving into my rural home.

[Image: Photo taken by author of bald eagles.]I found my gulch by being at the right place at the right time. In the mid 1980s I was working in Arizona. An uncle, who at the time I was close, had retired and possessed title to 120 acres — the original 40 homesteaded by my grandfather and two adjacent 40 acre wooded parcels, obtained through the years by my grandfather and another uncle, now deceased. My uncle realized he no longer had any use for the extra 40s, and being retired, preferred the money. He sold one parcel to his brother and then knowing my preference for that part of the world, offered me the second 40. I had been born in that area and often returned for vacations. He offered me the land for the then market rate in the area: $200/acre. At that time I was making a lot of dough and I paid the $8,000 in cash. That was 1987.

A year later I paid $14,000 cash for a four-wheel drive pick-up truck — the one I still own and use. Understand that I was unattached, had no dependents, was young enough to work a lot of overtime, and had an almost debt-free lifestyle. I was skilled in an industry that paid well and at that time I could afford such purchases without much thought. Although I suspected somewhat remotely deep in my subconscious, little did I know then that those two purchases would be cornerstones for my current life.

Except for some occasional grouse hunting and reflective walks while on vacations, the wooded land lay quiet for several years until 1996 when I decided to abandon urban life. I never adapted well to urban life and the rising popularity of sub woofers in the 1990s was more or less the final straw in my decision to relocate. To this day I have a strong primal urge to destroy any vehicle that contains subwoofers and wring the neck of the owner. I am not prone to violence and such a reaction bothers me, but anybody who thinks subwoofers are cool is simply an idiot, rude, and is a life form deserving of cruel and unusual punishment.

[Image: Photo taken by author of porch swing.]I drew the plans for my house although I did hire a professional to provide me the final blueprints. A simple two bedroom house, with an old-fashioned mud room (entry-way), and attached garage. I built a screened deck in the back. The front porch is recessed to avoid most of the weather elements and includes a traditional bench porch swing. I have a full basement, most of which is now finished, which also includes my office and library. The house is very basic and by today’s standards for “average” homes, is considered a salt-block home (tiny). Total square footage of the primary living area is 1064 square feet. Of course, there is the 14 x 16 mud room, attached garage, and mostly finished basement. Yet often I find the house too large and in my mind occasionally I play mental games with how I could have built differently or more efficiently.

[Image: Photo taken by author of kitchen.]My kitchen is spacious, such that every woman who visits here falls in love with the room. I’m not stereotyping kitchens or women, just sharing an observation. Frankly, I’m not much of a cook or kitchen person and in hindsight the area is too large for me. Still, I enjoy the automatic dishwasher. Women also purr over the way I designed the main bathroom, with the clothes hamper hidden from view and a large utility closet that hides the clothes washer and dryer. The master bedroom contains a double closet with built-in shelves — although that probably is insufficient space for some women!

[Image: Photo taken by author of undeveloped homestead.]I have a deep well and a septic system. I heat my home and domestic water with wood and propane. I have a baseboard hydronic system that I designed myself. I love hydronic heating — quiet, clean, efficient, no cold zones in the house, and unlike scorched air systems, there is less dusting and cleaning required. I heat my domestic water with an indirect heater, which basically is costless to heat in the winter when I am heating with wood. The furnace room is located in the basement, directly under the mud room. As I write this, in mid winter, the outdoor temperature is atypically balmy in the mid 20s (Fahrenheit), but inside the house is about 72. I’m heating with wood.

[Image: Photo taken by author of undeveloped homestead.]I felled the first tree to start clearing the land in July 1996. To provide some idea of what I was getting into, prior to that moment I never used a chain saw. After clearing the wooded area I marked the basic boundaries for the house. A local contractor removed the stumps, rough graded the area, and dug the hole for the foundation and basement. Before delivering lumber and supplies I hired a well-driller to tap my well and sink the casing. At that time I paid approximately $2,200 to tap the well. The experienced well driller tapped a higher aquifer but decided to drill deeper to about 120 feet. I’m glad. The pressure from that second aquifer is sufficient to push the water level in the casing for about 90 feet. That’s good pressure!

I was my own general contractor and I hired a cousin to help with and oversee the framing. That was September. To add some flavor to the story, know that prior to this project, excepting a rare fix-it project, I seldom used any typical tools used in house building. I was as green as they come.

My cousin and I stopped building at the end of November and we continued in April. The weather was too cold to work outside and I needed to rebuild some cash. During that winter I rented a small lakeside cottage close to the property. From there for the first time in my life I learned to plow snow.

[Image: Photo taken by author of unfinished house.]When we had finished all the framing I continued on my own with the plumbing, wiring, insulation, and numerous small jobs. I hired a contractor to install the drywall and another to install the heating system. A lot of people helped me along the way of course, but I performed probably 50% of the labor. Additionally, I used about $35,000 of my own money to build the house and for several years I had a relatively small mortgage. The house is now debt-free. I pounded many more nails for many months thereafter. One thing I have learned about home ownership is that a house is never truly finished.

[Image: Photo taken by author of undeveloped homestead.]I moved into the house in November — of 1997. A full 17 months after felling that first tree.

That pick-up truck I mentioned hauled a lot of timber, brush, and later, lumber and supplies. Today I use the truck as my primary mode of transportation as well as for my winter snow plowing and hauling firewood.

Although sounding romantic or dreamy in many ways, there was a lot of work to be performed. I learned a lot. I had no construction experience before I started the project. I had an engineering and technical writing background, which meant I knew how to learn and adapt on-the-fly, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way simply because of inexperience. For example, I still painfully remember the day in which I spent a few hours wiring the attached garage only to discover that I had — absent-mindedly — grabbed two-wire cable instead of three-wire, which was necessary of course to operate all the three-way switches. No reason for the mistake other than being in a mental fog and not paying attention. I had to pull all of that wire and start over!

There are many small mistakes throughout the house. Some slightly off-center electrical switch wall plates, minor cracks in the drywall here and there appeared several years after settling in, one very slightly off-plumb wall around the chimney blocks. None of the mistakes are critical or terribly noticeable, but they are continual reminders of my original inexperience and naivete. Yet hindsight is kind. Today I see those mistakes merely as lessons learned.

At the end of the building phase I was facing the oncoming of winter and my lease on the cabin was expiring. I literally moved into the house at the last day of the lease and those last few weeks were incredibly stressful.

I remember that final weekend well. One of my brothers is an experienced carpet installer. He offered to help me buy carpet through his employer where he used his employee discount. But that was a three-hour trip — one way. I arrived that morning, somehow got all the carpeting into the pick-up truck bed — including a massive 14-foot roll supported by an extended sheet of 4 x 8 plywood. As I was departing the city just after the noon hour, I suddenly realized that deer hunting gun season opened in that region the next day. That meant I had about a one hour lead to avoid what was soon to become the traditional 100 mile annual traffic jam to the northern woods. I beat the mad mass of humanity and my brother arrived late that night. However, that 14-foot roll of carpet, for the main living area, was so long that we could not get the roll through the entry way — too many bends and twists. So we threw the roll back onto the truck, and I wheeled the truck to the large picture window in the living room. Thankfully there was only a smattering of snow on the ground. We disassembled the window and then easily moved the roll into the house.

For the remainder of that weekend, my brother installed carpet while I installed the kitchen counter-top and plumbing fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Another brother helped me move my remaining effects from the cottage to my new home. By the time the weekend ended and my brother had the last corner superbly tucked, I suddenly realized that I finally was moving into my dream home. I sat down and cried. My brothers understood and simply wrapped their arms around my shoulders.

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[Image: Photo taken by author of hom in summer.]More than 10 years have elapsed since I cut that first tree. I have learned much in those “short” years. Reflection and hindsight are always adequate teachers. Sharing those reflections and knowledge is one way to improve this world.

I would recommend avoiding any pressure to move into a new gulch by not binding myself into a fixed lease while building. Building a house is filled with too many unpredictable twists and turns. Expect things to go wrong and expect schedule delays. Best not to rush anything. I probably would seriously consider living in a used mobile home while building.

I’d modify my blueprints slightly. One regret is that I did not build a 28 x 28 foot garage, instead of the 24 x 28 I now have. That extra 4 feet, seemingly insignificant on paper — would have added a nominal difference in overall cost, but would have added much needed storage space.

I’d have two sets of blueprints. One would be for the zoning nazis. I’d build a basic house, nothing more. No decks, no finished porches, no finished basement, etc. After the nazis performed their inspections and final extortion assessments, they would have forgotten me and then I could have expanded the house with my “real” blueprints. And the nazis never would know.

I’d make a few minor changes in my electrical wiring. I’d change the locations of some switches, for example, and add some additional outdoor lighting. I have one window in my mud room that allows me look out to the back of the house. I now wish I had a three-way switch located there to power the outdoor light from that look-out spot.

As a gulching side note, any person concerned about SHTF (Sh-t Hits the Fan) times, should wire their house with that kind of event in mind. That is, consider adding some simple ideas such as powering the garage door opener through a switched receptacle. Then, if the SHTF, a person can interrupt power and open the garage door like the neighbors — manually. No need to advertise various preparedness efforts like possessing an alternate energy source.

[Image: Photo taken by author of backside of home.]Only a few years ago a brother asked me to consider letting him build on the property. In hindsight, I now would let him. Two people working together to survive in this world is far better than struggling alone. I have since learned the harsh fallacies about self-sufficiency. I have learned how to do many things by myself, and have learned to adopt a Rube Goldberg approach toward solving problems, but in reality a second head and pair of shoulders is a better long-term solution.

Although I am reclusive by nature, I am not anti-social. A remote location does have drawbacks, both professionally and socially. Do not underestimate that element of life. Also, gulching requires a high degree of self-sufficiency and although gratifying, comes with the steep price of having to own many tools and equipment — or living without. Do not underestimate those costs one way or another.

I find that as I age I want less clutter in my life and less to maintain. If I had to build again I likely would take the former blueprints and squeeze everything. Less is more.

I’d learn to think vertically. After 10 years of living in one house I am amazed at the typical wasted space. I’m talking about empty walls. Most people fill the space with pictures, paintings, and useless knick-knack shelves. I’d spend more time investigating how some people use space efficiently and then reduce the overall size of the house.

There is much to consider when planning a new home. I spent years collecting ideas printed in newspapers and magazines, and when the time arrived to build I had to play triage with all of those wonderful ideas. Some things a person should consider is how they currently live and how they want to live in that future home. Is there a need for lots of open space to create an “airy” feeling or is a cozy cocoon-ish design better? Is a huge master bedroom important or is the room merely a place relegated for sleeping and conjugation — and sitting on the edge of the bed to reach the chest of drawers is more important? What about aging? As many people age they find a disliking for stairs and having bedrooms and laundry rooms all on the same floor is important. Other considerations might include ample room for visiting children and grandkids. There are many variables and each person might decide those concerns individually.

[Image: Photo taken by author of view from front porch.]Come Hell or High Water, I’d build with no mortgage at all. I don’t have a mortgage now, but that would be one less paper trail for the various political nazis to see. If I had to live in a 12 x 12 cabin or mobile home while building my gulch, I would. After I built this house frame and had roofed the house I was still debt-free. Building the interior of the house was the expensive part. I definitely would adopt a Cabin-Sweet-Cabin approach and build gradually and without a mortgage.

One thing missing on the property is a garden. Although I did clear a sizeable area behind the house, I never found the motivation or time to learn the basics. Additionally, without a junk yard dog, keeping the black bears and other critters away from the garden would be an exercise in futility. I have built an insulated storage room at the far end of the basement in which I could store food — not a true root cellar but close enough, but currently I use the room only to store an emergency water supply. I keep an ample water supply in case the well pump dies. I have enough water to last a month. Another thing missing are some chickens. I do like fresh eggs. Perhaps some day.

Before starting any gulch plans, learn now to think and live “green” before building a new home or relocating. My typical electric bill is less than $25/month. I haven’t exceeded 200 kw-hrs in any one month in several years. True, there is no family here, nor am I enamored with electronic gadgets, and I watch far less TV than many people. Most of my home is lit with compact flourescents. I have replaced only a few light bulbs in the past 7–8 years. I purchased a small refrigerator (15 cu. ft.), one that is too small for a large family, but nonetheless the idea is to keep the fridge packed rather than buy a large appliance that remains relatively empty and inefficient. Many people who want to gulch also want to live off grid. Learn now to live with less grid before trying to live off grid.

Despite the eventual gulching nature of this project, the house is not powered with an alternate energy supply. I paid approximately $3,600 to have power routed to my house from about ¼ mile away. I had to obtain easement rights for the utility company across two properties. I had to clear the path for the cable and fortunately, the distance from the last electrical pole was just far enough away that laying the cable underground actually was less costly than laying poles. Despite the cost I am grateful for having no poles and ugly wires hanging around the property. I had the utility people install the incoming transformer about 125 feet from the house to avoid transformer humming noise.

When I built I wanted very much to use renewable energy, having observed the reality of nasty winter ice storms, especially the northeastern storm of 1998 where many rural occupants were without electrical power for up to six weeks. However, I wired the house such that later I could add a battery backup and inverter system. Through that foresight I could add an alternate energy system without involving the local zoning nazis. The simple trick is to install two breaker boxes. Run the main feed and 240 volt loads into the primary box and then run a 60 or 50 amp breaker to feed a secondary breaker box. Then, excluding energy hogs such as air conditioners, feed all 120 volt loads from the second box. For all but a minority of people, a 50 or 60 amp feed is more than sufficient. With two breaker boxes, a person easily could later reroute the feed to the secondary box through an alternate energy system without involving the zoning nazis. With such a design the system is automatically isolated from the grid, which keeps the utility people out of the picture too. If building a new home, and a person has to suffer a final electrical inspection, simply explain that the two breaker boxes allow later adding an outdoor electrical generator for emergency power outages. Living off grid remains a distant dream and probably will remain that way.

With that same mentality at play, I have my 240 volt deep well pump powered through an autotransformer such that I run the pump from my 120 volt breaker box. If someday necessary, the autotransformer allows me to run the pump from an external 120 volt power source, such as a gas or propane generator, or a battery-based inverter system.

I built the home with an excess of receptacles because I learned through the years of moving often and renting that most houses have too few and then one has to play the extension cord game. I wanted to forever avoid that and today I use no extension cords. When I installed the wiring I did not concern myself with whether a circuit run should use 14 or 12 gauge wire. I installed 12 gauge everywhere except for the smoke detectors. The 12 gauge wire cost more over the counter to buy, but that way I could expand a circuit later if I wanted — which I have done.

After the final building inspection, I pulled all the power-wasting GFCIs and replaced them with standard receptacles. Living off grid means learning about “ghost loads” that uselessly consume energy. A modern electrical breaker system will provide sufficient safety for overloads and electrical shorts. I have no motivation to shower while using a hair dryer anyway. In a similar note, an inexpensive power strip solves the problem of those wasteful black box AC-DC converters too.

Heating with wood requires learning ways to heat both with wood and an alternate fuel. I heat with wood and propane and I have two boilers installed. I bought the wood-burning boiler used for the great price $300. A new wood-burning boiler would have set me back a couple of grand. After moving into the house, to fine-tune my design I had to make some piping and wiring adjustments. I now can pipe the two boilers in series or parallel. When I’m home I heat almost entirely with wood although as I age I notice that the novelty and “romance” of heating with wood long ago lost appeal.

[Image: Photo taken by author of firewood stack.]Do not underestimate the amount of physical labor involved with heating with wood. On a dollar basis, I could pay for propane instead of cutting wood and the return on my time would be more efficient. But I am stubborn and prefer wood. I cut approximately 6 to 7 full cords every year. (A full cord is approximately 4' x 4' x 8'.) Bear in mind that heating with wood requires labor indoors too. I have to continually watch the furnace to keep the fire stoked and although I located my furnace room in the basement in a separate room, there is continual cleaning required in that area to remove the dust, wood, and other residue. Oh, don’t forget that annual chimney sweeping and emptying the ash pan every other day. Of course, there are wood-burning models that can be placed outside, but that can be a disadvantage for some people too.

The wood-burning fire box is approximately 22 inches long and 16 inches wide. Although I could stoke the box with wood that large, I am not one of those guys with Popeye forearms and the leverage for holding such a log would be too much for my skinny frame to bear. Also, large logs tend to smolder rather than burn. I cut my wood to 14½ inch lengths. Generally I split anything wider than 5 inches or so, simply to reduce the overall weight of each piece. That is a good length and size for me to stack my rows and count my stock, and is a reasonable size such that I do not burn my hands when adding logs to the fire box. However, I do use welding gloves often enough to add logs to the fire. I do not like throwing logs into the fire box because that adds structural wear-and-tear to the grates and the fire bricks crack easily.

Originally I brought my wood to a splitting area next to my wood shed. But I tired of the mess and began splitting my firewood right in the woods. The splitting area also is located directly in the sunlight and heat. Splitting in the woods provides much appreciated shade and cover.

After felling a tree I cut the tree stump close to the ground and then use that remaining stump for a splitting pad. I use an 8-pound splitting wedge. The mess now remains in the woods. Although I have borrowed a hydraulic splitter, the past few years I have chosen to split all of my wood by hand. Therefore I tend to avoid trees that are knotty or too large in diameter. Splitting large diameter trees is a doable, however. The trick is to begin splitting the edges rather than down the middle as with smaller diameter wood. As the diameter shrinks the piece eventually is small enough to split in the middle. With diameters up to about 8 inches I split directly in the middle. With larger sizes I split in three pieces. That is, I split at about one-third off-center and then split the larger remaining piece down the middle. Sometimes I split the larger diameter wood into four pieces.

Heating with wood means dealing with critters. Obvious critters are those in the woods where the heating supply begins. I never have had any close calls with wildlife although a black bear once came quite close before we noticed each other (the chain saw had been off while I was hauling wood to the truck). The biggest danger in the woods are deer droppings, white washing from above, porcupines, skunks, and the infamous wood tick. Fortunately porcupines are shy and skunks tend to be nocturnal. Yet there is nothing like the crawl of a wood tick on the back of one’s neck. Critters also means mice, voles, and squirrels in the wood stack where they love to build winter nests. Every winter as I deplete my wood supply I find nests somewhere in the wood stack. Therefore, build a wood shed away from the house, which is a good safety idea too in case of a fire. Oh, critters also means occasional winter flies indoors because they lay eggs in the wood.

Some people might wonder whether 6 to 7 full cords is a lot or too little. That depends. Bear in mind that I am located north of the 45th parallel. That means the number of cold days outnumber the warm days. I burn fires in the summer, sometimes for heat, sometimes to draw some of the moisture from the basement from the summer humidity. A few summers ago this area experienced one of the coolest summers in years and I burned a wood fire approximately twice a week for heat.

Also, my office is located in the basement. Although finished and carpeted, and the framing walls are insulated, those cement walls and floor are nonetheless huge heat sinks. I never again would build my office in a basement, but that is all hindsight.

[Image: Photo taken by author of home in winter.]I burn a mixture of hard wood and “gopher” wood. “Gopher” wood is soft woods and the name is derived from the joke that when burning soft woods a person stokes the fire and then has to “go fer some more” wood because of the faster burn rate. I burn whatever I find in my woods and often that means a lot of dead wood. Dead wood is much drier than green wood allowed to dry for six months and like soft woods, therefore burns faster. Soft woods around here includes primarily popple and basswood. I don’t purposely fell those kinds of trees, but if a wind storm knocks one down, or I discover such a dead tree, I burn the wood. Overall I’d say my stock usually is 65% hard woods and 35% soft woods.

I know some people who refuse to burn anything but hard woods, but that is demanding on the forest supply because generally new trees must always be felled. I know some people who burn only soft woods because that wood is easier to cut and split. There are no right or wrong answers, only what works best for each person.

With that all said, my unscientific observation is that 6 to 7 full cords is darn good in this area. I know people who burn approximately 10 full cords with their older homes. Also, when I burn 6 to 7 full cords I am not using the propane furnace. Many people burn wood as a supplement to their existing furnace and they naturally would burn much less wood.

Lastly, generally, heating with wood is inefficient, especially with older furnaces. Unlike a modern gas or oil fired furnace, there is no nice or easy way to start and stop the wood burning process. Regulating a wood fire is a challenge. Therefore heat does escape up the chimney. The fire box in my wood-burning boiler does contain a deflector to help retain some of the heat but allow the smoke to move out. Still, not terribly efficient.

I use a temperature switch snagged from a discarded water heater to act as a safety switch to prevent the water in the boiler jacket converting to steam. With respect to a hydronic heating system, this is an aspect of heating with wood that most people might forget. Without the direct ability to stop the burn process, there must be a way to dump the heat. When the switch closes all three zone valves open to dump heat and relieve system pressure. Thus, in a typical winter day when the fire is roaring, the system dumps several times to the zones until the fire starts to subside and then is more easy to control. That continual dumping means the house usually is warmer than I would maintain with just the propane boiler. But I don’t mind because my middle-aged bones prefer extra warmth rather than a lot of layered clothing. Regardless, heating with wood is not as efficient as a modern furnace and that is something to consider in any gulching project.

Modern wood burners — the convection (scorched air) type — do come packaged with controls to help better regulate the draft and burn rate. I probably could add similar controls to my old furnace, but is the additional cost and complexity worth the effort? Probably not. To help slow the burn rate I sometimes partially close the stove pipe damper, but I don’t burn that way all the time. In addition to the type of wood burned, a hot fire is best to minimize creosote build-up. I sweep my chimney only once per year because I do not have a creosote problem. I also seldom burn evergreens because the “pitchy” wood is a source of creosote.

The house is new construction with 6 inch exterior walls. The attic has R-49 equivalent and the exterior walls R-19. All interior walls (4 inch) are insulated, though more for sound-proofing than to retain heat. The floor joists are insulated too. Any return on investment with additional insulation would be beyond the point of diminishing returns.

Having a deep well for the water supply means needing a filtering system. By basic health standards my water is wonderfully clean and safe, but like many water wells, provides hard water. Filtering also is necessary because of basic sediments in the water. A conditioning system might be ideal for many people, but might not be affordable. I use a passive whole-house filtering system with T01 cartridge filters. I need to replace the filters approximately every two months. I also use ice-maker filters: one for the ice-maker in the fridge and one for under the kitchen sink for a separate water dispenser faucet. The double-filtering provides me some of the finest tasting and clean water I have experienced.

One unintended benefit I appreciate is that I plumbed my domestic water piping with plastic — CPVC. Although I can solder electronic parts easily, I am uncomfortable with soldering copper pipe. I can solder pipe, but I never had an opportunity to master that skill. I therefore built my house with plastic supply pipes to avoid the problems of soldering copper. The unintended benefit, however, is that unlike copper, the plastic does not interact with the hard water and sediment. My pipes remain unclogged. However, the filtering is not perfect. I do need to routinely swipe the toilet bowls lightly with the scrub brush because the water there simply lays on top the bowl.

A similar trick I learned is that I added a ¼ cup of dishwater soap to my hydronic heating water. Recently I had to repair a faulty zone valve, and when I removed the valve I inspected the piping. Clean. Another one of those modifications I made after moving into the house was that I rerouted my heating system supply piping through my filtering system. Between the soap and the filter I never should have to worry about clogged heating pipes.

I had the deep well drilled before I started excavating and building. Although unused in my situation at that time, such a choice potentially provides water before a person starts building. If planning to gulch in stages, then drill the well early. Add a temporary hand-pump. Then water is available while using the land for camping trips and when building.

For northern and mountainous climates be sure to have the means to plow snow. A snow plow was one of my first investments when building my house, although winter was not scheduled to arrive for two months. I wanted to take no chances. But plowing snow is something that must be learned, just like many tasks. Through the first few seasons I tried several plowing patterns before I decided how to plow my 500 foot driveway and large turn-about area next to the house. I quickly learned that the slightest grade in the land (my driveway has a gradual upward grade from the main road to the house) can cause pick-up truck wheels to spin endlessly the moment snow is crystallized into a thin sheet of ice. Never underestimate how the slightest patch of ice can render a 4,000 pound vehicle motionless.

Some wonderful tools for living in an isolated area are a come-along, a towing strap, and steel cables. Pulleys are handy too if available. Those tools have helped me several times from escaping those tiny crystallized thin sheets of ice while plowing snow or that occasional stubborn tree that won’t fall after cutting.

[Image: Photo taken by author of heavy snow fall.]Do not underestimate how easily fluffy snow eventually packs. Those snow banks created during the first few plowings of the season should be pushed as far away as possible. Once those snow banks solidify they are not moving without heavy duty earth moving equipment. Provide lots of room for those snow banks to grow because they will. Expect those packed snow banks to be the last areas of snow to melt when spring is in full swing.

Think twice about foregoing any snow plowing merely because spring is knocking on the door. Any unplowed snow that is not removed will turn into mush with warm weather. That mush quickly converts into unmovable ice with one cold night of winter returning. Traditional vehicles are not designed to travel through such a mess.

Some people use a separate vehicle to plow snow. If you do not use your snow plowing vehicle daily, then always charge the battery after plowing. Snow plowing is especially tough on a truck or jeep battery. I plow only my driveway and never get to ramp the engine, hence the need to recharge. On some vehicle models, possibly expect to replace the alternator occasionally. If I traveled daily in addition to using my truck to plow, then I would have no need to charge the battery on a special basis.

People who think they can treat a truck or jeep like the nonsense they witness on television commercials will soon learn otherwise. Although I have some trails rough-graded around the property, my usual speed remains approximately 2 miles per hour. Rough-grading is only that — rough grading. That type of grading allows me to maneuver my truck around the woods without hanging the truck but that is all. Any speed faster than my usual snail’s pace results in a banged head and aching kidneys and bladder, not to mention unwanted repair bills and spilled wood and tools.

I was fortunate in the way I designed my house, but after I built I decided I wanted the option to add gas-powered appliances. I have yet to add any such appliance, but when designing a new home consider building for both electrical and gas-powered appliances. For example, when drawing the electrical plans, to power a modern kitchen range, add a 120 volt receptacle in addition to the now-traditional 240 volt receptacle. The 120 volt receptacle allows for adding a gas-powered range that uses a simple electrical spark to ignite the gas. Then be sure to add the necessary gas piping. Likewise for a clothes dryer. Usually I air-dry my clothes laundry, but in the dead of winter occasionally I use the electric clothes dryer on a low heat or air-only setting. Nonetheless, I have the gas piping and 120 volt receptacles there to run a gas-powered dryer if needed or wanted. The extra cost for building for both is nominal but allows much greater freedom in choice down the road.

As I age I notice I no longer move with the same energy and motivation as I once did in my youth. I have learned that this need not embarrass me. I also have learned that any task requiring extended physical labor is well balanced with regular rest breaks. Rest breaks are good. They not only allow my body to recover, but provide my mind an opportunity to wander and ponder and for my eyes to observe.

Humans are unusual creatures with their ability to think in the abstract. After finishing a hard chore or task requiring physical labor, a psychologically rewarding activity is drinking a glass of cold lemonade or iced tea. Or in the cooler months, a cup of hot tea or perhaps a cup of tomato soup.

[Image: Photo taken by author of driveway.]Consider your recreational needs. I watch little television, but my rural location allows me only three options: 1) No TV, 2) watching a few channels with an exterior antenna mounted on a tower, and 3) a satellite receiver. I chose option number two and I have no regrets. And if for whatever reason I someday changed my mind and wanted satellite reception, the tower is already there.

Similarly, consider how you use the internet. Until only a few months ago, I survived with an awful dial-up connection. I learned a lot of bandwidth-saving tricks to surf the web with dial-up. One alternative in a rural area is a satellite dish, but there are latency issues with satellite, as well as weather considerations, not to mention the additional cost. Through that period with dial-up, I satisfied certain computer needs with a “broadband buddy” who lived in a city. Either I visited him to use his broadband connection to download large files or ISO images, or had him save files to his spare hard-drive for when he visited me.

Satellite reception also needs a clear shot to the sky. When I built this house I cut as few trees as possible. I had no idea how my needs or wants would change through the years and I preferred not to cut trees rather than go hog-crazy and later regret my decision. I could not have installed satellite internet or TV for the first few years even if I had wanted to because the trees would have blocked the reception path — even with a tower. Fortunately, I played those cards correctly. Through the past 10 years I have indeed cut additional trees near the house, primarily because the trees grew and eventually blocked much needed sunlight. Although I still do not have any satellite reception, I am glad I cut those trees gradually rather than in one fell swoop.

In hindsight, because such a thought never entered my mind when I first bought the property 20 years ago, the JBTs (jack-booted thugs) have a low impact here. I can say with certainty that road traffic enforcement is not a primary means of parasitical fiscal survival around here. I seldom see people being pulled aside in this area. Then again, I usually head to town at a blistering 45 mph and in an old town with narrow roads, moving at 20 mph or so is prudent. Being a rural area, crime is low too. Occasionally there is a drug bust that makes the front page of the local gossiper newspaper, but nothing that I ever worry about. I seldom see any cop cars passing through around here. Just lucky, but in the future if I had to relocate and rebuild, I would keep the JBT element in mind.

If discovering a location where the local political nazis have only a nominal impact, consider performing much of the labor and acting as your own general contractor when building. The experience is rewarding and many useful skills are acquired. A book that helped me through the process was The Complete Guide to Contracting Your Home by Dave McGuerty and Kent Lester. When I signed my construction loan, the bank officer was not interested in seeing the property. The building inspector at that time was one of those old timers who valued pragmatism more than codes and the only time he visited my house was at the end of the project for the final sign-off. Interestingly, when I applied for the building permit, I naively asked him how much I had to complete on the house to receive an occupancy permit. He responded, “Why? Are you planning on living in the basement for a few years while you build?” I replied that the possibility existed. He exhaled and said, “Well, my son has been living in his basement for 10 years. Don’t worry about it.”

Interestingly, the house never was final-inspected by the electrical inspector. When the building inspector arrived, he asked me how long I had lived in the house. I said three months. He asked, “No fires?” and then chuckled as though the question was absurd. I said nope and he said, “Okay, I’ll close the file.” FWIW, I never had a mechanical or plumbing inspection either. I did most of the plumbing in the house and the building inspector told me he could have cared less if I wanted to swim in my own sh-t. (Yes, that is what he said.) I avoided a mechanical inspection simply by telling the heating contractor that I’d arrange all inspections.

If avoiding the local nazis is impossible or impractical, usually a person can nonetheless perform most of the labor anyway — as long as the nazis get to inspect the place. The trick then is to hire people to help “under your supervision.” That means do not contract people officially. Although I did 95% of the wiring in my house, I hired an electrician to walk through the house with me to ensure I had not done anything stupid or blatantly anti-code or unsafe. He also possessed the tools I needed to perform a handful of tasks such as tube benders to run some conduit for the furnace wiring. Despite the modern checkbook and credit card society, raw cash remains a wonderful way to encourage people to help without talking or signing contracts.

Do know that some things cannot be avoided. For example, when receiving electrical power from the grid, the electrical utility people will refuse to connect the house unless there is a sign-off by the electrical inspector for the service entrance to the house.

[Image: Photo taken by author of driveway.]I’m almost 7 miles from the closest town. Not exactly a stroll, especially when hauling groceries or supplies. If I was preparing for a SHTF situation, I think being a mite closer would be beneficial. Then again, perhaps not.

In a sense, gulching includes preparing for SHTF events. SHTF scenarios are difficult to predict and how humans might respond is just as challenging. Preparing for typical unexpected natural disasters and interruptions, such as power outages or ice storms is, to me, only common sense. Additional preps might include being without a means of financial support for extended periods, which a debt-free lifestyle helps.

Preparing for SHTF events is all about perceived risk versus perceived benefit. Human psychology and emotions play a significant role in any related preparations. Preparing for utter collapse is impossible because there are too many unknowns and variables. All human social systems are based upon confidence. Collapse occurs and civilizations disintegrate when that confidence disappears. As my best friend once said, in such a climate there will be no place for any rational person to hide. People will shoot first and won’t bother asking questions later. Rational thinking and reason will not apply in any such environment so preparation is difficult at best. A stockpile of bullets and several shelves of food supplies is of limited use when grossly outnumbered by lunatics and desperate people.

Any human caused collapse will provide plenty of warning and time to prepare because the human social system is so huge and contains much inertia. A naturally occurring catastrophe, say an asteroid collision or the Yellowstone region exploding, will be impossible to prepare for. In other words, there are natural limits to preparing for such a collapse. Because humans individually act in a linear manner and time is a limited resource, there are natural limits to preparing for any unexpected event. Each person must individually decide the risk versus benefit equation. There is no right or wrong answer.

Surviving financially in a remote rural area is challenging. Do not underestimate the challenge of putting beans on the table while living in a remote location. Low real estate taxes and cost of living usually means an economically depressed area. They seem to go hand-in-hand.

If there were fewer nazis and parasites in this world, which meant no real estate tax and similar extortions, I would get along just fine working at the local hardware store or something similar. Then again, all of us would find survival far easier and palatable and the entire topic of gulching might never have arisen. I truly detest our modern world and the flawed presumptions and equations that now drive the social system. But we don’t live in such a world, so keep that in mind when selecting a gulch location.

Be as debt-free as possible all the time. These days I am not so fortunate financially, but I am glad I am debt-free. I empathize much with people who want to find their gulch but cannot afford to. There is no way I could repeat this story if I had to start from scratch today.

Conclusions

[Image: Photo taken by author of a fawn.]I never wonder what the night sky looks like because I need only step outside and look up. My neighbors include white tail deer, black bear, coyotes, raccoons, porcupines, fishers, squirrels, and skunks. I especially enjoy visits from hermit thrushes, barred owls, and chipmunks. Garter and pine snakes are around but rarely seen. Sometimes, deer are a dime a dozen. Every summer there are new fawns nearby. When I am in the woods cutting firewood I often have to watch where I step. Thankfully, those mushy spots are only reconstituted grass and nowhere near as smelly as dog-doo!

Sometimes I hear coyotes yipping and I’ve seen a few near the house. They spook easily and run away when challenged. There are wolves and turkeys in the area. Although I once saw turkeys near the house, I have yet to see wolves. There are plenty of chipmunks and one summer I befriended one enough to regularly get within a foot or so. You would be amazed to see how they can stuff their cheeks! Maybe one day I’ll see if I can get one to sit in my shirt pocket.

[Image: Photo taken by author of bald eagles.]Birds are plenty and I’ve recorded 44 different species. Since living in my present home I have played neighbor to a family of ravens. They can be quite comical at times with their calls and antics.

Bears are less frequent, but even when I don’t see them I know they have passed through by the signs they leave in the area. Not to fear, however, they are traditional black bears, and by nature are more intimidated by humans than vice-versa. On a few occasions I have been quite close to a bear, and all but one bear ran away as quickly as possible. The one that didn’t spook had an attitude problem, but that was the exception and had many folks in the area concerned. One time my nose was three inches from a bear’s nose, separated only by a window. I grinned down the bear à la Davy Crockett, and the bear turned and ran! Who says a person can’t have fun in the boonies?

[Image: Photo taken by author of lilacs.]I used to enjoy feeding songbirds in the summer, but the bears destroyed the feeders and ate the seed, so I surrendered. Additionally, the feeders act as a magnet for bears once they learn of the food source. Bears are fun to watch but can do a lot of damage if encouraged to stick around. Even a small black bear possesses tremendous strength. I once had a bird feeder mounted on a ten-foot two-inch galvanized steel pole and a bear bent the pole like a piece of straw. When walking in the woods I have seen cherry tree branches snapped in two from bears seeking the fruit.

Autumns are filled with glorious colors. Winters with snow and a full moon on a cloudless night are inspiring. A full fog rolling through the woods is surreal. Summers reading a book or taking a nap within the screened deck are lazy and pleasant. Sounds all rather wonderful and romantic, huh?

[Image: Photo taken by author of autumn.]Now that I am in my middle years I’m unsure if I would want to repeat this story or whether I even possess the energy, but of course, my experience and since-acquired skills would make a second similar project go smoother. Nonetheless I do not want to glamorize this story — there was a lot of physical and mental work involved. Considering my utter lack of practical experience before starting my adventure, I am amazed that these days I routinely perform all handyman work around the property as well as cut 6 to 7 full cords of firewood every year. The skills I have learned the past 10 years, as well as the change in my philosophy, reveals a man quite different than the one I once saw in the mirror. Yet, sadly, often I find little joy or tranquility in my accomplishments because I live in a world surrounded by willfully ignorant idiots, nazis, charlatans, and parasites who would not think twice about stealing and depriving me of all I have accomplished. Often I wonder if the effort was worth the result, but I harbor no regrets about the process. Should I die tonight I know that for 10 years I enjoyed a quiet and peaceable life.

I need to start a wood fire. I shoveled and plowed snow this morning but now, late afternoon has arrived, and my middle-aged bones notice a slight chill in the room. Thanks for stopping by and listening for a while. I hoped I helped you some with my ramblings.

Finis.

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