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The first thing we did when we moved from Vancouver to an off-grid retirement homestead in the mountains near Kamloops was to think of a nickname for ourselves – to get in front of our story before somebody else did.
Almost everyone in our hamlet straddling the Thompson River has one. Some are flattering. Others aren’t. We were afraid of being dubbed “the fools on the hill,” though we realized that, to our new neighbours and old friends in the city, we probably fit that description.
We have made many of the same mistakes made by others who built their dream homes, yurts and straw-bale cabins in the area: We spent more building the house than we could ever sell it for, we underestimated the cost of drilling a well in a desert, and failed to appreciate the difficulty of building roads through a rock farm. We paid too much for everything, and bought equipment that we really didn’t need to raise farm animals that became family pets.
Daisy, our miniature “test” goat, is allowed in the house on movie nights, and happily curls up on the couch, munching on carrots and watching Humphrey Bogart. We gave up our plans to raise goats to sell for meat after hearing that first endearing little bleat.
As for building a solar-powered house, barn and cabin in the bush … well, we are still married. The long and windy road to an occupancy permit was littered with the stories of wannabe country squires who ran out of money before they had a chance to live the rural lifestyle they fantasized about. (More than a few have ended up back in the city, living in a basement suite, scraping by on a pension.)
Like them, we had cashed in our Vancouver-area real-estate chips to live large in the country. Our community had become overrun with wealthy yuppies, our old house was overshadowed by new mansions. We felt it was time to move on, taking with us our three elderly horses and three big dogs.
For the cost of a studio apartment in a scary part of the city, we bought 160 acres of forest and open meadows with staggering views of the river valley below.
While most of our sixtysomething friends moved to condos close to hospitals, and confined their travel to cruises and all-inclusive resorts, we cut and split firewood, chipped ice from water buckets in the barn, put chains on the truck tires and learned to use a shotgun.
My friends in Vancouver, whom I visit regularly, shiver at my somewhat exaggerated tales of fending off cougars and coyotes, and snowshoe jaunts in minus-20 degree weather.
But the physical benefits of our new lifestyle were marked: We both lost weight, tossed blood-pressure medication in the garbage, and slept better than we had in years. The psychological and social changes during our first year “up country” were harder to measure but equally profound.
In our urban life, we rarely experienced physical discomfort: When we were cold, we fired up the furnace. When things broke, we hired someone to fix them. On the mountain, we were on our own. The plumbers we called to fix frozen pumps or burst pipes that first winter were out of town, enjoying tropical vacations paid for by people like us. We relied heavily on Google, and on each other, to solve our problems. We became a team.
Like many suburbanites, we used to think the world – along with all cultural, political and intellectual activity of any consequence – ended at the outskirts of the city. Until we moved to the other side of the rural-urban political divide, that is.
Our friends from the city, who flocked to visit us our first summer in the wilderness, admired the views from our alpine retreat but assumed that the novelty of our rustic lifestyle would soon fade and that we would come home. Our urban guests, some of whom arrived clutching the necessities of life – cases of Perrier, soya milk, gluten-free snacks – didn’t see the wild beauty of the land we love. Instead, they saw dirt, bugs and danger.
“What do you do up here, anyway?” they would ask.
Well, we read several newspapers a day online, take courses at the local university and are discovering the artisans, winemakers and eccentrics living in the small towns and cities around us. We go to the theatre more often than we did in Vancouver.
We ride our horses on our own trails in the summer and have learned to ski on those trails in the winter. Our circle of friends expanded to include people who are not at all like us.
By the time we headed into our second year on the mountain, we were becoming part of our close-knit community. As word spread of the arrival of a “lawyer from da coast” – our joint nickname – we had several visits from locals seeking counsel, and coffee. When they found out my husband did not practise family or criminal law, however, some were clearly disappointed.
“Corporate law, huh,” one visitor sighed. “What is it you do, exactly?”
Anne Patterson lives in Pritchard, B.C.