Firsthand Report: What We Learned Going Back to the Land

Going back to the land was a long held dream for these longtime readers. With planning, inspiration, and hard work, they created a retirement homestead in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado.

| August/September 2010

  • Back to the Land - A-frame house
    This cozy A-frame house enabled Bruce and Carol McElmurray's move back to the land in the mountains of Colorado.
  • Back to the Land - Carol and Bruce
    Carol and Bruce enjoy the peace and the beauty their home affords.
  • Outdoor Smoker
    An outdoor smoker is perfect for preparing dinners to eat at a table made of timber from their lot.
  • Back to the Land - house interior
    A carefully chosen woodstove keeps the McElmurray’s cozy A-frame warm during Colorado winters.
  • Back to the Land - garden boxes
    Rather than trap native wildlife, Bruce built wood and wire fortresses to protect the garden plants.
  • Back to the Land - snowbound house
    More than 200 inches of snow per year means hours of exercise scraping and shoveling!

  • Back to the Land - A-frame house
  • Back to the Land - Carol and Bruce
  • Outdoor Smoker
  • Back to the Land - house interior
  • Back to the Land - garden boxes
  • Back to the Land - snowbound house

For more than 30 years, my wife and I have read MOTHER EARTH NEWS for inspiration. When it became time for us to consider the back-to-the-land home we wanted to retire to, we used everything we had learned from the magazine. To start, we had a contractor build a house shell, 900 square feet within an A-frame model, on a lot we had purchased in the late ’70s. We’ve now lived here full time for more than 12 years, at 9,750 feet above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado.

Preparing for the Dream

When we purchased our land, it was 5 raw acres of heavily wooded mountainside. It was part of a covenant community where very few lived, and was still managed by the developer. We chose this land because it backed up to a large green belt and had dirt roads that the landowners’ association kept plowed in the wintertime. (When buying land, I’d suggest that you carefully investigate any covenants, as you may find out you’re not allowed to do what you had hoped you could do.) We were also excited to have a well and two springs with abundant water, though we probably conserve water more than most people. Our 6-gallon hot water tank is more than sufficient for the two of us. Utility aside, we have a view of three mountains from our deck, the air is fresh and pure, the land virtually unpolluted, and our well water is clear and refreshing. The quiet here is wonderful.

Financially, the planning to accomplish our dream home required much forethought. We kept track of our expenses for a month and then sat down and evaluated what we needed and what could be cut back or cut out completely. We severely limited most eating out and put that money aside. Some other cutbacks even made early retirement more of a possibility.

Planning for Everything

When we were ready, we had the builder construct the enclosed house shell, and over several years we spent our vacations doing the electrical run, plumbing, and finishing inside. At that time, there was no inspection required other than for the electric work. After doing the electrical and plumbing work ourselves, we had a professional electrician and a plumber check our work to make sure it met code and was safe. We were delighted to hear it was done well, as we had simply followed the instructions in a how-to book. There’s an abundance of how-to information available, and if you’re capable of doing it yourself, you can save a lot of money. I would strongly urge anyone to have the work checked by professionals before having inspectors approve the work.

We planned our home to include a small basement, one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen and eating area, plus a living room. We omitted a second bedroom, as we concluded it would be cheaper to put our occasional guests up in the nearest motel or bed-and-breakfast than to build a separate bedroom. At first we were tripping over each other in the smaller quarters, but over time we learned to work around each other quite comfortably — even with our three dogs.

We’ve found we can do very well by going smaller and more compact. Our kitchen is scaled to apartment size, with a Caloric propane stove and cabinets made from wood milled right off our lot, decorated with punched tin decoration. We built a walk-in pantry for non-perishable food storage, and a small freezer in the pantry is sufficient for two people.

We keep our gas expenses low by not making repeated trips to town. To pre-plan is a lifestyle, not simply a matter of convenience. Now, when we make a trip into town, we have several stops and a prepared list to fill. We live 22 miles from the nearest town, Fort Garland, Colo., and the stores often don’t have in stock what we need, so online shopping and waiting for delivery is a new reality for us. Living remotely on a mountain as we do certainly is not for the timid, but proper planning makes it much easier.

Wood for Heat & Building

To prepare for mountain winters, we researched woodstoves, settling on a model from Vermont Castings because of its efficiency and low environmental impact. It has kept us nice and cozy for 13 winters now, although selecting an A-frame home wasn’t a very good choice given we have to climb up on the roof once a year and run a wire brush down 24 feet of chimney. Our advice is to consider how easy it will be to clean your chimney as you get older. One advantage of an A-frame, though, is that it sheds snow easily. (You may also want to think twice about a sleeping loft on the second floor. That spiral staircase gets harder to navigate as you get older. )

We also read in MOTHER EARTH NEWS about portable wood mills, and purchasing a Lucas brand mill was one of our better decisions, as we have many large fir, pine and aspen trees. Cut lumber is ready to use almost immediately, and drying time is minimal. When we needed a new picnic table, I dragged a log down and made nice, 2-inch thick lumber to build one. The total cost was less than $5, and the wood mill has paid for itself many times over. We also built our two-story garage from milled wood, as well as a woodshed, garden boxes, decks, cabinets, and various other things — all for a little sweat labor and the cost of gas. We use the culls for firewood, and virtually nothing goes to waste. We even rake the sawdust onto the driveway to act as soil binder. A sawmill is a good investment if you have timber available.

Mountain Winters

Here in southern Colorado, we get an average of 264 inches of snow a year. For the first few years, we used a walk-behind snow thrower. Our next best purchase was a small Kubota tractor with a snow thrower attachment, which keeps the snow at bay, and a blade keeps our driveway in good condition. A friend gave us a small trailer that we use to haul firewood. A mulching attachment keeps our lot pretty clean of tree limbs.

Over the years, we have added small space heaters in the house. We did the arithmetic early on and discovered it would cost us $70 more to have electricity run to our house than to be off the grid. Going with grid electricity turned out to be a choice we haven’t regretted.

Gardening With Wildlife

Gardening here is a challenge. Fences don’t keep critters out at all. We have plenty of chipmunks, voles, moles and rabbits. I have tried various methods, and have found that the best one is to use my sawmill to mill out enough wood for garden boxes that have hinged tops. Surrounded completely by hardware wire, they keep everything out. Before I found out about garden boxes in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I was all for a moat and minefield around the garden, but fortunately that was never necessary (nor was it allowed by the covenants). We moved into the local wildlife’s environment, so it’s only right that we find a way to grow things without eliminating them.

Because of our short growing season, we have to start plants inside early, and we get them outside into the mulched soil as soon as the ground thaws. A sun screen keeps the seedlings from burning in the intense sun we have at this elevation, and this is the only method I have found that consistently works here. We’ve had success with spinach, lettuce, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, beets, and radishes. We also have a raspberry patch that has survived without any complicated protection. We control insects with diatomaceous earth or fly strips hung in proper locations.

A Little Advice

My final piece of advice, should you choose to live as remotely and as close to the earth as we have chosen to do, is to take time out to enjoy yourself. There’s always a lot of work, but we like to sit in our swing (another product of the wood mill) and look out on the vista of mountains and the birds flitting in and out of the spring water. It’s so peaceful you can hear an aspen leaf fall. We love to snowshoe in the winter and sled down our 100-yard-long driveway. In the summer we hike and take time to enjoy our surroundings. Living like we do is not only educational, as we learn from the wild animals and birds all the time, but is healthy and good for the soul. My wish is for everyone to have the opportunity to experience what we do, and then maybe the world would be a better place, one person at a time.

Downsizing and going back to basics isn’t for everyone, but it sure was for us. Focus on what you want, plan carefully, and go for it.

Sandy Geneva
2/28/2013 12:39:49 AM

Where are the nearest medical facilities?

2/27/2013 1:22:52 PM

Enjoyed your article. On cleaning the woodstove you can get a brush on a reel. I have one called a Viper and I clean my stove bottom up. Works great!

Mary Anne
11/27/2010 4:26:22 PM

Your place is gorgeous! As Colonel Francisco of La Veta said, "paradise enough for me". And gotta love the low impact on the spectacular environment - great job!



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