As we drove 60 miles or so of paved but remote roads, headed for Granite, Ore., and eventually Anthony Lakes, I was curious to see what kind of settlement Granite would turn out to be because we know some Salem residents who are preparing to retire there.
On the way, we passed through Sumpter, where the Powder River showed the tell tale signs of placer mining-huge, unnatural piles of round rocks dredged from the river with only a few tufts of weeds and struggling willows growing in between them. Sumpter had a dozen or so lodging places and trinket shops, clearly trying to make a living from its history as an old mining town. The traffic has to be very seasonal as in winter the road isn't plowed beyond Granite a bit further north. Granite had the cold, open, wind-blown look I associate with mining ghost towns in Colorado-not the gussied-up tourist places like Central City or Telluride, tucked into canyons, but truly dead and gone spots where a few foundations and bits of wood are all that remain from a thousand person settlement.
Trying to put myself in the Salem people's shoes, the first thing I thought of was food supply. It's a long drive to anywhere. Trips to town would be infrequent, and fresh vegetables would be hard to come by. Perhaps they'll build a solar greenhouse and grow some of their food; they're already planning to create all their electricity with solar photovoltaic panels.
There's probably plenty of sun in Granite and the land is undoubtedly cheap, but the little settlement, on a steep slope, faces directly southwest into the teeth of winter storms. Not for me. A little too vigorous. A little too much snow. A little too much isolation. But, perhaps I don't understand. Perhaps these folks have the homesteading skills required to make it in such a demanding environment.
Or perhaps they will be part of the pattern described by Charlie Woodward in his presentation, "Solar Electric, the Expectation and the Reality." Charlie lives on the Idaho side of the Grand Tetons. A former USGS geologist, he's lived "off-grid," producing his own electricity for nearly 30 years and designs solar electric systems. His business has grown as Jackson Hole, on the Wyoming side of the Tetons, has gained more and more instant millionaires. In fact, he says, the billionaires are now driving out the millionaires.
People interested in isolated off-grid living fall into three categories, according to Charlie: Those who are already aware of the impact of their lifestyle choices on their consumption of electricity, those who are willing to gain this awareness and modify their habits accordingly, and those who expect life to continue as usual, to be able to flip a switch and get all their customary comforts.
The last category doesn't make it, Charlie says, because maintaining a solar electric system requires not only servicing your battery bank, but checking your storage daily to see if you have enough juice stored up to run the clothes washer at the same time the TV, power drill, and dishwasher are going. Sometimes Charlie successfully dissuades third category people from off-grid living, but sometimes they plunge ahead anyway, destroying their battery banks or calling him at midnight with the cry, "The lights are out!" after running down their system on a series of cloudy days.
Charlie says there's a lot of churning of property in the Teton area. People think they'll love the mountains, but they're not ready for the winter. An October to March winter is enough to put the house on the market the following summer, and another owner falls in love with the place. It's a real estate agent's dream.
But that's Jackson, Wyo., the Tetons, a place famous for beauty, trendy for decades among mountain mavens. Granite has none of that sizzle or sophistication, with barely a general store, not even a gas pump. Several houses in Granite and businesses in Sumpter sported "for sale" signs. I wondered what people were thinking. Did they have a business plan? Did they have any idea of what would unfold? Or did they just see a beautiful place, inexpensive real estate, and just go for it?
The conundrum is this: Modern day homesteaders want inexpensive land, a remote and beautiful home, but all the modern day conveniences at the same time. It looks to me like the rigors of homesteading are just as demanding now as a hundred years ago-only the technology's changed.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco where she has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.