Define Your Own Homesteading Experience

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Photo by Fotolia/Olly
Learn how to be the master of your own ship with these easy-living tips.

So the air is full of crud, the water tastes funny and the nine-to-five is a drag. You’re tired of the subway, dog crap in the streets, bumper-to-bumper traffic and plastic TV dinners. Maybe the communes — with all that fresh air, sunshine, love and home-baked bread — are really into something.

But how the hell can you do it? T. Leary’s “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” is a noble sentiment … but it doesn’t lay down much of a blueprint. Is it actually possible to tell the boss to shove it, square your shoulders, and step out a free man … without starving to death?

Sure. It’s easy. The global electronic village is now! Just like McLuhan and Theobald and Bucky Fuller keep telling us. Nobody has to live second-hand anymore. The material scarcity world is dead. Long live free energy. Time and space are now plastic and life is exactly what you make it.

Stated most simply, there are two ways of living: Either play the “game.” Go for the money first and — assuming you get it — buy the kind of life you want. Or, kick out the jams, make your scene right in front, and let the bread take care of itself.

Find Your Land

If you’ve got some money, fine. Your initial choice can be just that much wider. If you don’t have bread, don’t sweat it. That doesn’t cramp your style at all. Besides, you can easily get paid for doing exactly what you want to do anyway. It doesn’t matter if good times to you is a back-to-the-land thing or whether you have eyes for, say, touring with a name rock group. Either one is cool and either one is possible. I’ve done both and other numbers in between. You can, too.

For example, this back-to-nature bit is very big right now and getting bigger. Let’s say you want to get in on the action, but you have little or no money. Well, no matter what “they” say, it can be done. The land is not all taken.

Stretched across the upper half of this continent, as Bradford Angier notes in his book, How To Go Live In The Woods On $10 A Week, are vast areas of unspoiled and practically uninhabited wilderness. It’s country “where meat is still free for the hunting, fish for the catching, fruit and vegetables for the picking, fuel for the cutting, and a home for the fun of building.” Angier speaks from the first-hand experience of homesteading in British Columbia, Canada.

What about that empty land in Alaska and Canada? Is it really free? Well … technically, no. You’re generally supposed to file a homestead or homesite or somesuch claim, pay a fee averaging between $1 and $5 an acre, and enter your name on the tax rolls.

But that’s a drag, so why not do what settlers have always done on the frontier: squat. Some homesteaders I talked to in British Columbia recommend it. Just consult an area map so you won’t blunder onto land that’s already taken, strike off into the bush, pick a spot, and build your cabin. If anybody ever wants to purchase or lease your ground, you — as a squatter — will be given first chance at legal title anyway. Why bother with the red tape now?

By the way, neither Canada nor Alaska is all ice and snow. Less snow falls on the panhandle of Alaska than annually descends on Chicago. Far north gardens are fantastic with washtub-size cabbages, and some wild fruit grows so thickly, it’s considered a nuisance. The Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia’s coast combine an exceedingly mild climate and a one-deer-a-day-per-person legal limit if your thing is living off the land.

If you want out … but not that far, check into the hundreds upon thousands of acres of government land scattered throughout our own western states. You can, in effect, call a chunk of it your own if you have a “legitimate” reason. Roughly translated, that means you intend to exploit the land in some way.

Okay. Play their silly game. In Arizona, for instance, I’ve rambled over mile after mind-boggling mile where you can stake a recognized mining claim by registering with a local office and digging a hole 4-by-6-10 feet deep. Naturally, once you’ve proved your claim in this manner, you’ll want to move right onto the property to keep an eye on it. To hold the ground, you’re required to put in $100 worth of improvements plus a few dollars tax each year.

Again, if that’s too much trouble, just go out in the hills and squat. Thousands of others have.

If you’ve got your heart set on legal title to fertile land that is close to the action of a thriving city . . . that’s possible, too. It won’t be completely free, but you can sometimes pick up an abandoned farm for back taxes. It requires some sleuthing and finagling, however, and the easiest way is just to buy a little family farm that an old couple wants to sell. The Strout and United Farm Agency catalogues — regularly advertised in the classified sections of many magazines and newspapers — always list a number of such farms in all parts of the country. Some can be purchased for as little as $400 down. Newly organized communes and hip young couples with eyes for a rural homestead are snapping them up at an increasing rate.

Set Up Shelter

Once you’ve got your land, what about shelter? It’s up to you, so let your imagination soar!

Leary and hundreds of others are into the aborigine thing these days and live in plains Indian tepees. It makes sense because, unlike white man’s tents, a properly constructed tepee is warm in winter, cool in summer, and able to withstand windstorms that will flatten a frame house. Reginald and Gladys Laubin’s The Indian Tipi will steep you in the rich tradition of this practical shelter and teach you how to build one.

If you prefer something more substantial, you can construct a thoroughly modern ranch house dirt cheap by using just that — dirt. Even a definitive instruction manual, Handbook For Building Homes Of Earth, is free from HUD, Division of International Affairs, Washington, D.C. The basic structure will cost you little more than your labor and, possibly, a few dollars for stabilizing agents. It beats the hell out of a 30-year mortgage or monthly rents of $120-plus.

Then again, if you’re squatting, chances are there’s an abandoned trapper’s or miner’s cabin nearby that you can move into or salvage for a new building. If you put your money down on a farm, you probably picked one with a habitable home and serviceable barns.

Or, as a number of drop-outs are proving, you can live in a structure as modern as tomorrow on a very thin shoestring: by spinning free-span domes from tops hacked out of discarded auto bodies, some of the new pioneers in the Southwest have combined the best and worst of modern technology into a sheltering mutation.

Because the car tops can be obtained free or for as little as $0.25 each, a 30-foot dome can be thrown up for less than $50.

Explore Your Food Options

With land and shelter under your belt, you’ll probably want to turn your attention to food which is several notches above that polyethylene stuff sold at the supermarket. Fresh air, sunshine, and a garden where “fruits and vegetables are free for the picking” go together as naturally as ham and eggs from your own homestead. A subscription to Organic Gardening will give you that proverbial green thumb within a year … and teach you about the chickens, pigs, and cows, too.

If grow-your-own intimidates you, you can still live high harvesting your share of the tons of free-for-the-gathering food that every square mile of rural America offers. The best guides to this bounty are Euell Gibbons’ three books, Stalking The Wild Asparagus, Stalking The Blue-Eyed Scallop and Stalking The Healthful Herbs.

Gibbons regularly eats everything he writes about, and he covers it all from robbing bee trees to picking berries to gathering greens to brewing dandelion wine to making rose petal jam.

Travel Freely

But then, the nature bit may leave you cold. Let’s say you love your apartment in town, you dote upon restaurant chow, and all you really need to make your life complete is travel, new scenes, and far-away places. Fine. You can do that without money, too … and go first class all the way. The auto driveaway offers one increasingly popular method.

If you’re 21 and have a valid driver’s license, you can get from almost any large city to almost any point in the U.S.A. at almost any time by driving a car for someone. AAACON, Auto Driveaway and other services handle all the dirty details and advertise in the “Personal” and “Transportation” classified sections of the larger newspapers.

You may have to juggle your departure date a little to get a car that’s “full gas paid,” but when you do — if you sleep in the car or camp out along the way — the trip will cost you only your food. It’s even possible to get enough expense money to cover everything and leave some cash in your pocket. And remember: You’ll have the private use of a generally expensive personal car. Load it with gear and forget all the hassles that hitchers put up with. I know some pretty big rock names that occasionally transport large quantities of guitars and amps across the country this way. Once I drove a series of three luxury cars from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska, with less than two days of “down” time for changes … and I made money on the trip.

You can also savor the romance of traveling on your thumb … by business and private airplane. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. Go out to any medium-large private airfield on a nice day and station yourself near the flight line, aircraft parking area, or operations office. When you see someone heading for a plane in a business-like manner, ask if he’s going your way. You may pick up a 2,000-mile ride.

“But won’t I need to know a lot about aviation?” No. Pilots love to turn greenhorns on to flying, and a lack of knowledge can be your most endearing quality. If you feel uncomfortable hanging around airports, though, you can take a couple of the $5 introductory flying lessons that Piper and Cessna offer. Otherwise, dress neatly and carry only one very small bag. You’ll get rides.

If air hitching is not your stroke, how would you like to be asked to cruise the South Pacific, the Riviera, or even around the world in a private yacht? Yeah, I know. It’s too good to be true. But it is true.

Go to a yacht harbor. The bigger and plusher and more glamorous, the better. Ala Wai Basin just off Waikiki Beach in Honolulu used to work superbly for me, and friends who’ve thumbed across Europe say the expensive watering spots along the Mediterranean are great. If you’re stuck on Mainland, U.S.A., find the nearest coastal city that has an extensive boat scene and go there.

Hang around the ocean-going ketches, schooners, and yawls of forty feet and bigger. If you’re warm, breathing, and can stand up by yourself, you should get two or three cruise offers a week. A “ride wanted” notice on the harbor bulletin board can start a stampede.

Why? Because a lot of people have made a lot of money lately and much of that bread has been spent on luxury yachts. I mean, other than a Learjet, what else is there for sheer prestige? On the other hand, it takes a crew to sail one of the damn things, and crews are both expensive and hard to get unless … unless someone can be found who wants to go to Rio or Cape Town or Tahiti so bad he’ll help man the vessel for the trip, meals, and $50 on top. And that’s exactly where you come in.

So it is possible to break loose … but where’s the bread going to come from? Can you actually do exactly what you want and still coy the loot? Damn right. In fact, you’re more likely to make vast quantities of cash if you are joyfully in tune with yourself.

Make Money Doing What You Love

This is the electronic information age. Anything you know is a marketable commodity. Go where your fancy leads you. Develop the skills and cultivate the interests you want to have. Then trade that specialized knowledge for the money that others will be eager to force on you.

Bradford Angier dropped out to a remote cabin in the Canadian Rockies . . . and made a small fortune writing about it. My old lady is hung up on English saddle-bred horses. She knows so much about them she can now instruct 10 riding students at a time at $5 each. I dig, of all things, little do-it-yourself one- and two-man airplanes that you build at home, and I make a better-than-average living dealing information about them.

Go where you want to be and pick up the free percentage that’s always there. You’ll soon be considered an authority or a craftsman or — at the very least — a fixture in your chosen field. When the money comes down, you’ll get your share.

And you’ll also get some juicy, unexpected spinoffs. Like a two-month all-expenses-plus-pay tour of Europe with the people you love. I did, anyway, and it happened because I dug folk music when it was big and I spent a lot of time in the coffee houses where it was played. Gradually I came to know — and became very tight with — a number of musicians. Since I was about the only one in the crowd who didn’t perform, guess who was a logical choice when The Bitter End Singers needed a road manager for their European trip? That’s right.

And the moral of the story is simply this: You can get out of the pigeonhole “they” want to keep you in and you can live exactly the dream life you want. Just do it.

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