High Altitude, Rural Living in Washington and Colorado

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray And Ed Essex
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Bruce and Carol McElmurray live in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado at an elevation of 9,750′.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State at an elevation of 4200′.

Bruce and Ed, bloggers for The Happy Homesteader at Mother Earth News, have decided to collaborate on a blog about the learning curve one experiences when making a major change in lifestyle by living where they do.


What are some of the less obvious differences between living an urban lifestyle versus a rural homestead lifestyle? Things you didn’t expect or had to learn the hard way?

Bruce: One of the major differences is not having services at your disposal. You need to be more self reliant and be able to do things yourself. Having internet access is a bonus because you can research how to do things yourself.

Ed: Even though we did a lot of research before we moved I don’t think we realized the full depth of what we were going to have to do. Not only did we move from a condo to a homestead but we had to learn how to manage our solar power, raise chickens, grow a large garden, pressure can and many other things. We knew we would be doing those things but it turned out there was more to it than we thought.

Are you glad you made the change?

Bruce: I am very glad that I made the change.

Ed: We love what we are doing even though it is more demanding than our previous condo lifestyle.

Name one thing that turned out to be a pleasant surprise!

Bruce: The most pleasant surprise is the pure air, pure water, healthy living and quiet with no siren’s or city noises. Being able to live in harmony with the animals and realizing they are not as aggressive as I would have imagined. More curious than anything. 

Ed: That our research paid off and we CAN do the things we are doing. We can grow a garden, produce our own power and be successful in this lifestyle, and we can get out to the highway in the winter with 3′ or more of snow. We expected to do these things and more but it is really satisfying to be successful after the fact.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your readers who are contemplating a similar move?

Bruce: My advice is that if you are reliant on services that you might want to think long and hard about contemplating a move like this. Repairman doesn’t always show up when they have to drive 45 miles one way, and services can be limited. Again, you have to be self reliant and at our elevation you may have to wait a long time due to snow or other conditions for service. If you are unable to do things yourself this may not be the lifestyle for you.

Ed: Do your home work! There is so much information out there. Anything can be researched. You don’t have to go into anything blindly. We have people touring our home and property and utility systems all the time so they can see for themselves and hear from us how they work.  You will have to be willing to make changes to your lifestyle.


What are some of the things that you need to consider before moving to such a high altitude?

Bruce: One important thing to consider is that you are not prone to altitude sickness. If you are you need to make sure it is only temporary. It is not good to be sick all the time due to altitude.

Ed: Most people up here have propane appliances. They need to be adjusted for altitude and the supply pipe may have to be increased in size for those appliances. They simply aren’t as efficient at higher altitudes and that needs to be taken into consideration at the design stage.
Also – the more severe weather. Are you prepared to have longer winters, shovel mountains of snow, and drive in the ice and snow for months and spend more resources (time or money) to heat your home?

What are some of the factors you encountered that you did not expect?

Bruce: Two things we did not expect were all the rocks. We can hardly dig a hole in the ground without hitting rocks. Also, that it takes longer to do things like cutting firewood because of the thinner air. If you work like you would at a lower elevation you will be panting and gasping very fast so you really have to pace yourself. Also we knew the snowfall was heavy at our location but it has exceeded our average a few times and we have had up to 6 feet in one storm. It does not always come in equal storms.

Ed: The growing season was even shorter than we thought. The snow and cold stays longer than we expected. It takes a fair amount of fuel to run our tractor, snowplow, and chainsaws etc.

How difficult was it to adjust to living higher up?

Bruce: For us it was not difficult at all. You just slow down and take longer to do tasks. When Carol visits relatives in Florida she says her energy level is almost at superwoman levels having come from the high altitude.

Ed: It only takes about two weeks to adjust your lungs and body to this altitude. Other than that and our appliances it wasn’t a big deal. We are not that high up compared to others. 4200′ is enough to make a difference but not enough to be a problem.


Talk about some of the challenges of living remote?

Bruce: There are numerous challenges. Our nearest incorporated town is 42 miles one way. You need to plan your trips carefully or you will burn a lot of gas making numerous trips. You don’t have immediate access to entertainment, emergency services, and shopping. If these things are a top priority to you it might be time to adjust your attitude or reconsider living remote. Much of what we purchase is on line but we have to drive 8 miles to pick it up.

Ed: Remoteness may be the biggest challenge for some. Think long and hard about this one before you make your move. It can get lonely at times. It can seem as if nobody cares about you anymore. Some people in your circle of friends and family may feel betrayed by your move because you are no longer accessible to them. Be prepared to stay in touch via phone and internet. You will have less human contact than you did before.
More planning is required for everything. You don’t just get in your car and “run” to the store which can be a 100 mile round trip. Tasks need to be combined. If you forget one thing on your list you are done with that project until you go to town again so you need to be very organized.

Some people consider it risky to live so far away from basic services like hospitals, firemen, and law enforcement. How do you deal with those types of issues?

Bruce: Again being self reliant is essential. If we get injured it is a one hour drive to emergency services. Therefore we keep a comprehensive first aid kit on hand for us and our dogs. When we have been injured or need treatment we call ahead so they know we are coming and what to expect. If we have a major health issue we will either get there on time or not. You have to accept that possibility or you will worry yourself sick.

Ed: If you feel the need for instant access to the emergency services, don’t move away from them. I don’t really want to live my life that way so we take an entirely different approach. We minimize our risks. For instance, for $150.00 for three years for both of us we belong to an emergency helicopter/transport service. They will come to our home and pick us up and transport us to a major metropolitan hospital. We are self reliant for protection and have a very good guard dog. I built my house and barn out of non combustible materials so that fire would not be a very big risk.
The odds of our remoteness being the cause of death are so minute, they just aren’t a factor. Most traffic accidents happen within 5 miles of your home. In the city you are on the road every day. We only go out once a week so who is really more at risk? Just a thought on perspective.

Is there anything you regret about living so far out?

Bruce: There is nothing I regret. The advantages so far outweigh the disadvantages that are not even a factor to us.

Ed: I miss family gatherings like birthdays and seeing more of my friends. I miss not being there for my elderly mother when she needs something. Some days I miss the convenience of living next to everything – until I look out the window.

What about the positives of living so far out?

Bruce: Being by yourself much of the time, having a good relationship with your partner is essential. The quiet nights, the darkness, not having to lock your doors at night, having the company of canine companions, fresh air, pure water, healthy living all make this a great lifestyle. Communing with the wild animals and being able to enjoy the outdoors is a large part of life here. Having miles on end to hike, snowshoe, mountain bike and standing on top of the mountain are all positives. The warmth of a wood stove on a cold night. What’s not to like about living like we do?

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray go to www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com.

Ed: Even though I have some regrets, the benefits far outweigh those. The air is cleaner.  You are less involved in family and friend squabbles. We almost always have peace and quiet. We have some distance from our neighbors which is usually a good thing. We have to be more self reliant. You automatically become more intertwined with nature and the weather. You become more independent. We can walk out our back door and into the National Forest where you can hike, hunt, fish, ride horses, and even pan for gold! We can have an outdoor fire most of the year long. I can target practice on my own property. Seeing local wildlife is fun. Mostly, it is the peace and quiet.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and offgridworks.com

Photos By Ed Essex and Bruce McElmurray