|A Hard Road to a Great Place||| Print ||
copyright by REX A. EWING
(originally published in Countryside in 2009)
A Colorado Family's 18-year Off-grid Odyssey
Life, it seems, can be just about as hard as you make it, but that doesn't mean the hard way is without its own allure. By taking the steeper, rockier path you will sometimes discover that it leads to an extraordinary place where shallow dreamers and the faint of spirit will never tread.
Lane and Sue Dukart illustrate the point. Since buying their 42-acre parcel of secluded Rocky Mountain land in 1991, they have—usually by choice, though often by compulsion, chance, karma or curious and unforeseen twists of fate —done things the hard way. It's made for a long, arduous trek through the past two decades, but it's earned them a way of life most would find enchanting. And that, Lane and Sue concur, makes it worth every backache, blister, and gray hair.
What is today a thriving homestead beside a usually somnolent creek in a narrow, nameless valley, began 18 years ago when Lane and Sue, then in their twenties and practically tripping over their own exuberance, decided to build a small but cozy cabin on their newly purchased Colorado land. In order to save on rent and be close to the building site—which lies two miles back in on a steep, winding track of rock and gravel—the couple decided to live onsite in a teepee during the cabin's construction. So, with plan in hand and a solid vision for the future (though lacking both construction skills and a building permit), the teepee became their sole residence from April of 1992 until the following January, when Sue gave birth to their first child, a bright-eyed daughter they named Haley.
By then the first phase of the cabin was somewhat livable, though hardly complete, but when Sue and baby came home from the hospital they at least had a metal roof over their heads, walls to stave off the cold winds of winter, and a pot-belly stove to keep them warm. After spending her entire pregnancy in a home with a flap and smoke hole, "Doors and windows were a real religious experience," Sue recalled. Even though she was smiling when she said it, I don't think she was kidding.
Change, which is to say improvements, came slowly and only as needed. Lane added a glassed-in front room to the cabin in '94. During the days Sue worked in town young Haley watched her father work while safely harnessed into a swing that dangled from a cantilevered roof beam. And after their son Finn was born in 1999, Lane added back bedrooms to the cabin while the boy rode in a backpack, accessorized with an infant-sized hard hat and goggles.
Any lifestyle, however prudently practiced and pursued, requires a source of income to be maintained. With a young child it became necessary to pay the future greater heed than when it was just Lane and Sue and a few coveted dreams. Sue's part-time profession as an occupational therapist has always been a steady source of income, but Lane, having a bachelor's degree in art, was anxious to do something with an artistic bent, and the starving-artist role just wasn't in his repertoire. Instead, he found himself drawn to ceramics, or, more specifically, stoneware bells. "I just thought that bells would be different," Lane says, "rare enough to stand out and be noticed." He was right. Today bells, chimes and planters from the Lane Dukart Studio can be found in art galleries and gift shops all across the country.
Of course, as a business grows, so must the facility in which the business is housed. The original studio built in '92 was wholly inadequate by 1997, when Lane—who by then was really getting the hang of trial-and-error learn-by-doing construction techniques—built a bigger one that today remains adequate for his needs.
The Dukarts have always been off the grid in every sense of the word. Propane fires Lane's kiln and a few of the cabin's appliances, but all their electricity was, and is, provided by a small 12-volt solar array mounted high enough up the mountainside to catch a few precious hours of winter sunlight. The original array was a mere 240 watts, comprising four 60-watt panels that fed into a small bank of four golf-cart batteries. A well-seasoned Trace modified-sine-wave inverter provided the 120-volt house current. The system has since been upgraded, though no more than necessary: four more panels have brought the array up to 480 watts, six additional golf-cart batteries help store the extra power, and a newer Trace DR-series inverter now provides the house current. A small gasoline generator picks up the slack.
It's not much, but it's enough. Just as the spring box, kept cool in the creek that runs just in front of the cabin, was refrigeration enough for the first 10 years, before the addition of a propane fridge. And just as the outhouse was enough until Lane installed an indoor toilet a couple of years ago, at about the same time a new propane range replaced the camping stove.
The Dukart theme has always been to keep things simple and manageable, but sometimes things get complicated all by themselves. By 2004 Lane and Sue had begun to feel the consequences of never having pulled a building permit. They had no legal address and therefore no way to purchase insurance for their increasingly valuable homestead. And it was just a matter of time before the county—with its satellite imagery and ubiquitous agents—sniffed them out. Since they had built on a flood plain it was entirely possible the county might even make them tear everything down, unless Lane and Sue acted first and in good faith. So after much deliberation they bit a very hard bullet and turned themselves in.
The process of becoming county and state compliant drew out over a stressful and expensive year, requiring a sizeable loan (the Dukarts' first ever) and countless inspections, hydrology studies and engineering fees. But in the end they were clean and legal with no more bureaucratic monkeys on their backs. And even stinging lessons can be taken philosophically, as Sue demonstrated when she told me she was actually glad they did things they way they did. Why? "Because without involving the county from the beginning we were able to build little by little and at our own pace. Besides," she added with a coy smile, "they never would have let us build so close to the creek if we hadn't already done it."
This summer, as I drove onto Lane and Sue's land, I first spied a sleek Arabian gelding grazing in belly-high grass in one of the few meadows along the steep valley's length. Taking the narrow, winding drive across the timbers spanning the creek I passed a large bear- and deer-proof garden and a rustic tree house that hearkened mightily to my youth, before my eyes rested on a gracefully arched footbridge—pretentiously guarded by Jasmine, the family's golden retriever—that took me back across the creek to the cabin and studio. Before even entering the cabin I was embraced by the artistry and pervasive harmony the place emanates. And I knew immediately that the people who live here have paid their dues.
When asked if he would like to live anywhere else, 10-year-old Finn shakes his head. "Not even in an RV parked outside Disneyland."
Haley, now 16 and in her 17th year of living off the grid, is a bit more circumspect. "Before we had an indoor bathroom I was embarrassed when my friends saw that all we had an outhouse."—Even though, I should add, said outhouse is artistically rendered and tied into a septic system—"But now," She continues, "I'm proud of the fact that we live so well with so little." Would she trade it for anything else? "Maybe a Hobbit hole," she laughs, "but that's about it."
Though conspicuously modest about their accomplishments, the Dukarts are understandably proud of what they've done. "We wanted a place with visual interest that was conducive to the soul. I think we've done it."
So they have. And now, looking back on the past 18 years, it's easy to imagine that the hard way really wasn't all that hard, after all.
Rex Ewing is the author of several books, including Got Sun? Go Solar, Power With Nature, and Crafting Log Homes Solar Style.