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Why I Moved Off the Grid

Maine Narrative Lifestyle
by Emma Thieme Sep 12, 2014

The short answer for why I moved to an off-the-grid cabin in Washington County, Maine — without electricity, running water, refrigeration, a bathroom, or even a driveway to pull my car into — is that it was free. My boyfriend is from here. He was contracted to build a house for a client on the Harrington River. If we fix this cabin up and make it livable, no one will charge us to live here.

The long answer is something I’ve spent all spring and summer trying to define. I’m sure I’ll still be thinking about it this winter, when I’m most likely still here.

Last year I was living in Portland, working at a restaurant and reminiscing about a traveling lifestyle that had since gone stagnant. I moved to Portland because at the time I thought I wanted an apartment with a year lease. I was sick of moving around all the time, using my summers to work 70 hours a week in a Bar Harbor restaurant, just so I could spend my winters growing bored in a warmer climate, not working at all.

When we arrived, we pushed the door open and stepped into a world put on pause.

I thought I wanted to settle down. I should’ve known that after spending six months in the East End Portland apartment I’d wanted — with a whitewashed brick face and a front stoop facing a local coffee shop — I’d be counting down the months until its lease was up.

Every chance I got, I made the four-hour winding drive north to Harrington. I spent my nights camping at McClellan Park on the coast in Milbridge, where a guy named Tom comes around every day at sundown, taps on your tent, and asks you for the nightly fee of 10 bucks, if you have it. Sometimes I’d stay at my friend’s one-room cabin on the river, next to a summer camp where kids come from all over the world to learn about their different cultures and self-sustain together out in the woods. A lot of times I’d just sleep in the back of my boyfriend’s 1983 Volvo 240, waking up at sunrise to go swimming at Spring River Lake.

No matter where I stayed, each time I visited I fell a little more in love with the mentality of Washington County. It’s a place where people still reserve Sunday for visiting one another, popping in for a hot dog or a beer. There are singing circles at the community center on Thursday nights and a dance at the VFW every Friday. Some people have electricity and running water and others don’t, either because they can’t afford it or they know they don’t need it. It’s a community based on congregation, a person accepted whether or not their family dates back generations in the area or they’ve traveled from as far away as England, Germany, or Mexico.

Maybe I was still searching for a place to settle down. It was just different from the city I’d chosen for myself. Washington County was showing me I wasn’t the eating, drinking, woman-about-town I believed myself to be. All I really wanted to do was pick blackberries along the gravel roadside in August, brushing off mosquitoes as I ventured further into the brambles. I wanted to immerse myself in a simple lifestyle that seemed to have disappeared from my own Maine hometown long before I grew up there.

So when I got the chance, I left the city. We first hiked into the cabin in late April, leaving our car in a small parking lot called Bear Apple Lane and walking a quarter mile across a field of yellow growth that promised to be wildflowers come June. It was one of those emerging sunny days, when the sight of sunlight is almost confusing — you don’t know what to wear, you’ve forgotten how to react to the new warmth. Outside of the grey, cedar-shingled cabin was a small overgrown fire pit and a wood shed falling in on itself.

After a lot of work, this mysterious place became our own.

It’s worth mentioning that this cabin had been left uninhabited for nearly 15 years. Three girls were born in its lofted bedroom and were raised feeding its two woodstoves downstairs, reading from the wall-length library and coloring at the kitchen table, which looks out onto the marshland of the Harrington River.

When we arrived, we pushed the door open and stepped into a world put on pause. There were children-sized fleeces left on hooks and rubber boots tipped over in the entryway, a cluster of dolls left on the floor of the loft and a Klutz book of hair braiding — a familiar favorite from my own childhood — open on the kitchen table. The cabin hadn’t seen people since its original family had left, grown up, split up, separated to all different directions across the world. The girls who owned those dolls were close to my age now. One had children of her own, another was getting married, and the youngest was living in Holland.

We spent weeks clearing away the artifacts of their life to make room for our own, organizing it all in a corner under a plastic sheet, so it wouldn’t be destroyed by the demolition. We spent the next few nights sleeping in a tent outside, shivering in the 35-degree night and listening to the barred owls screech. We took out a skylight, overgrown by mushrooms around its edges. We ripped off the roof, which had been leaking for years directly onto a twin mattress. We built a porch supported by tree trunks that looked out onto the river — a structure that seemed like an immediate necessity to us but which they’d never thought to build. We leveled the shed so I could have a place to store my CRF. And we used scrap 4x8s and cedar shingles to build a chicken coop. We burned all the excess in a bonfire out in the field. After a lot of work, this mysterious place became our own.

Now after five months, I look out my kitchen window at seven wolf spiders spinning together. It’s funny the things you decide to find beauty in once you realize they’re not going away. I’ve learned how to cook on a rusted iron woodstove from the early 1800s, how to start an hour early and always keep the smoke down by using smaller pieces of kindling. Now I can see the smoke billowing away from the house, cutting through the morning air like my own personal Milky Way. I wonder still about that long answer I’ve been looking for, the reason I accepted this challenge. Maybe the answer is just that. I knew it would be a challenge. I needed to see something I hadn’t seen, even though I grew up just a couple hours down the road from it.

Out here, I feel more connected to the world than ever. I’m not distracted.

When I visit my friends back in Portland they tell me, “I don’t know how you do it out there.” I tell them that once a week we have to haul water from our neighbor’s well, three seven-liter containers in a garden cart we mail-ordered. I tell them that before I drive to Bar Harbor to bartend every week, I shower outside with a pesticide sprayer filled with two-and-a-half gallons of water. I have to conserve, but it gets good pressure if I pump it up enough. We fitted the head of a garden hose onto the end, so I can change the settings if I want to.

My family wonders if I’m “getting enough stimulation.”

I tell them that out here, I feel more connected to the world than ever. I’m not distracted. I wake up with the news on the radio every morning and fall asleep to its storytelling programs at night; This American Life at 6, followed by the Moth Radio Hour, and finally Snap Judgment.

I know that in order to do my writing work I need to drive 15 miles to the library so I can use the internet. When I’m back home again, I can’t bring that work with me. So I do other things. I build a fire when it’s still light out. I read through the old tattered books from the library. I walk down to the river and watch the tide coming in around the salt hay.

When the sun goes down, we can usually see the moon from our window. And someone always makes a point to comment on the stars.

Each day I spend off the grid, in a cabin that’s no longer abandoned, in a Maine county that hasn’t changed much, that long answer for why I moved out here becomes a little bit clearer.

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