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The Beautiful Darkness: The Pleasures of Living Off the Grid

By Kim Robson
My decision to move “off the grid” began when I saw snow fall for the first time in my life, at the age of 33. In November 2003, my husband, Rich, and I were honeymooning at a friend’s A-frame cabin in Idyllwild. I was excited. As a long-time backpacker, I’d harbored a secret wish to live in the mountains someday, and spending my honeymoon in Idyllwild tapped into a lifelong fantasy.

We were sitting inside by the crackling fire when it started to snow. Now, it’s not that I’d never seen snow on the ground before. But until that moment tucked into the woods, I’d never actually seen snowflakes drifting down from the sky. It makes the softest sound in the darkness, one that you can only hear in the quiet outside the city. As I was twirling around outside like a kid, trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue, Rich said what we were both thinking: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could live up here?” Living in the mountains became our goal. Living off the grid would also soon become our reality.

Attracted by the remote beauty of the area and its proximity to San Diego, we found land near Julian that was listed at a fraction of its original value following the devastating 2003 Cedar Fire. The “fire sale” wouldn’t last long, so I sold my condo at 120% profit and we bought two and a quarter blackened acres in the Cuyamaca Mountains for 80% of the asking price. We spent the next year living in a trailer while building a little cabin and commuting to our jobs in San Diego.

Our neighborhood, Cuyamaca Woods, has been almost completely “off the grid” since 1969, which means everyone living here subsists almost entirely without public utility services. There is no electricity other than what we make ourselves through solar power. Water comes from local municipal wells, cooperatively owned and operated by residents. We decided that while it would be a challenge building a house here, it would be well worth the effort to live in such a gorgeous area.

It sounded a lot harder than it really turned out to be. With only four solar panels, eight batteries, and one small backup generator for winter days, all of our electric needs are easily met. An Outback brand inverter and charge controller manages it all. We certainly don’t feel deprived, either. We enjoy all the technology we could want: two computers, a TV, DVD player and a stereo. The heater’s fan uses electricity, and there are six fluorescent lights. The refrigerator, heater, stove, oven, and water heater all run on propane, for which we have a tank. Wastewater runs through a septic tank and returns to the ground via a leach field.

Maintenance is minimal but necessary; the batteries’ water levels must be checked and refilled regularly. Sometimes we have to walk down to the solar shed through the rain or snow to turn on the backup generator. Then walk back again to turn it off. If there’s no appreciable sunlight for a couple of days, we’ll need to run it for an hour or so.  But in Southern California, that happens rarely and only in the winter months. These things aren’t a drag; rather, they provide awareness that has allowed us to understand better our relationship with the world we inhabit.

The advantages of living without public utility services are many. For instance, during a recent power outage that threw most of Southern California into a panic for about 12 hours, our neighborhood was blissfully unaffected with the exception of interrupted Internet access. Frequent utility rate hikes and health concerns about the new “smart meters” are not part of our concerns. Plus, it’s a great feeling, knowing that the sun powers the entire house.

Living on solar power, we automatically think differently about our energy usage. Turning off lights in unoccupied rooms and keeping an outdoor light off unless someone is actually outdoors, are easy things to be aware of. Because they’re electricity hogs, we make do without certain appliances like a coffee maker, toaster, hair drier, or blender, and I can only run the slow cooker on sunny days. Honestly, I don’t really need those things anyway.

I’ve plenty of other chances to listen to the snowfall in the peaceful silence of the mountains. Other night, the lights go off, and I see other types of clouds in the sky: the Milk Way. To be able to sit outside on a balmy night, pointing out constellations, planets, satellites, and meteorites to a loved one, is a rare experience for most urbanites. Living this way has allowed me to see and hear so many parts of this world around me, in the light and in the beautiful darkness.

Did You Know?

An estimated 1.7 billion people live off electrical grids worldwide. It’s estimated that about 250,000 American families were living off-grid as of late 2007. More and more resources are becoming available to help people make the leap. For more information about off-grid living, click here.

Scientists agree: darkness is critical to good health. Even a small amount of light inhibits melatonin production. In addition to helping us sleep, melatonin helps our immune systems fight cancer. Plants and animals need darkness, too. Bright cities have been known to throw migrating birds off-course. For more about the benefits of melatonin, click here.

Electricity is hardly “clean.” In the U.S., about 45% of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Natural gas accounts for 24%, and Nuclear energy powers 19% of U.S. households. Only six percent is generated by Hydroelectricity, and the remaining six percent comes from Solar, Wind, Geothermal, or Biomass. This handy calculator from the EPA can tell you, based on your zip code, where your electricity comes from. For more tables, click here.

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at http//:kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally. We all have to share this planet together; let’s figure out the best ways possible!

For more information about living off the grid check out this web site:

The 12 Best States to Live Off The Grid [VIDEO INFOGRAPHIC]

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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