Brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton: The last Q&A-style piece that I posted (featuring Christine de Brabander’s thoughts on business travel) was well received, so I decided to do another. For this piece, I asked Leland Dirks, a self-described “hermit,” what it’s like to live and work ‘off the grid.’
I live in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, about 10 miles outside of a village called Fort Garland, population 300. The county I live in has approximately 3,500 residents. Just to put that into perspective, the office building in which I used to work in Denver had about 50% more people than my entire county.
I grew up on a farm and loved the isolation, the time to read, the few distractions. When I left the farm at the ripe old age of 20, I vowed to never return. I was going to be a city boy, and I was. For the next thirty years, I lived in Denver, San Francisco, and Antwerp, Belgium. I worked for a large telecommunications company as a customer service representative, a supervisor, and a manager. My areas of expertise were technical writing, process design and management, group facilitation, organizational design, and some project management. I consulted for a while to start-up companies.
I lived in a beautiful Victorian house in downtown Denver and traveled all over the country, including a lot of time in the Northwest. My stress level was through the roof, and the many rounds of corporate downsizing and rightsizing made it worse. I finally reached a point where I’d had enough.
So, I started looking for places I wanted to live. The northwest was too expensive, cities had lost their charm for me, and I realized I wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, just like I did when I was growing up. Somewhere in heaven, my mother is laughing at her big city boy.
I knew this area from many camping trips, and when I checked real estate prices, I started looking seriously. In a very short while, I found my perfect five acres, with mountain views, a seasonal stream, quiet, and good solar exposure.
2. So you left Denver and bought a house there?
That would have been too easy. I had a well drilled and a septic system put in, and then I built a ten foot by ten foot shed. One hundred square feet. For the first winter, I lived in that shed with a dog, a cat, and—in spring—a baby chick. I didn’t know a soul who lived within a hundred miles. That was a long, cold winter.
When the snow melted that spring, I started building the house.
3. In what ways are you ‘off the grid’? In what ways are you still deeply connected?
I am off the grid in virtually all ways. All of my electricity comes from the sun (solar panels). My heat is provided by a combination of passive solar and locally harvested wood. My property is in a dead zone as far as cellular service. There are no power, telephone, gas, or water lines that connect me to the world. My sole means of electronic connection to the world is through a satellite Internet connection.
Let me put it another way: The nearest freeway entrance is about fifty miles away. The nearest Home Depot is about a hundred miles away. The nearest Walmart is thirty miles away. When I need a quick run to the grocery store, it’s ten miles. The nearest Target is about 120 miles away. So I’m pretty “off the grid.”
My most important connections with the world are through the Internet, the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx. I got to know them all pretty well when I built this house. The hardware store in town didn’t have a lot of the things I needed, so I joke with the UPS driver that he delivered about half of my house, in pieces.
4. How do you make a living?
I’m a writer. I write mostly fiction, but I also have some non-fiction and poetry out there. My first books were about the building of this place. Other than the concrete work, I did most of it myself, with the help of friends for some of the heavy lifting.
I’m also a photographer and sell some of my photos online.
My needs are meager, which is good, because my income is meager, too.
5. What does it take to live the way you live? What qualities does one need to enjoy it and to thrive?
It takes a love of silence, of nature, and animals. My three closest friends are two dogs and a cat. We talk a lot.
It takes flexibility. You learn to adapt. If you’re missing an ingredient for a recipe, instead of doing a sixty-mile round trip, you learn to substitute. It also takes a fair amount of skill. I helped an uncle with constructing a house when I was eight years old, and I helped some friends do renovation and remodeling, so that all helps. It’s good if you can be your own plumber, electrician, and carpenter, because there aren’t many of those out here.
Planning is a good skill to have. When you make a run into town, you want to pick up everything you need for a while, because a 60-mile round trip eats up most of a day by the time you’ve run errands, and hit all the stores you need.
I think it also takes a love of learning. I do a huge amount of research for projects before undertaking them, and I keep on learning when I make mistakes.
I’ve seen folks move out here in the summer, start building their homes, and by the time winter is halfway over, they’ve gone crazy (sometimes literally) because of the isolation. There are a lot of half-finished houses in the area and a lot of divorces of people who thought building at the end of the world would help make their marriage stronger.
But if you make it through the first winter, they say you’re a permanent resident. The locals treat you differently after that first winter, with more respect, with an understanding that you’re in it for the long haul. Winter temperatures are often in the -20s (Fahrenheit) and the wind chill often drops into the -40s.
A love of reading is also a requirement, I think. If not reading, at least something that brings the rest of the world into your head. Even a hermit needs mental stimulation.
6. Is there anything you miss about your pre-Hermitage life?
I miss fast Internet connections. I miss trying new restaurants. I miss sushi. And I miss being able to jump on light rail to go visit friends. I don’t miss the stress, nor the noise, nor the smells of the city. I kind of miss having a phone, too, but that’s a mixed blessing, when you figure out how much time you can spend talking compared to email or Facebook communications.
7. What do you value most about your current way of life?
I love the time to think, seeing the same landscape go through all four seasons, and the constant meditation. I love being able to go for a four-hour walk with Angelo and Maggie. And The Cat. I love to treat them well, because they’re my co-authors! Angelo, especially, is an amazing companion.
I love waking up just before sunrise, grabbing the camera, and sharing the photos of this beautiful place. I love writing down by the creek or in a grove of trees, sometimes on my iPad, sometimes in a composition notebook with a pen.
Most of all, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of my life: off-grid, yet connected in ways that matter…a hermit, but a sociable one, thanks to the Internet.
Leland Dirks lives and works in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. His books are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble; click here for a complete listing of his fiction and non-fiction titles. He has also published a collection of photos documenting his ‘Valley of Light’; this volume is available in paperback and hardcover, and as an ibook.
Would you be interested in fielding some questions about your work life? If so, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or drop me a message via Facebook, and we can chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with you.