As much as I love doing new things and going off the beaten path of my own life, it’s almost paradoxical how much trouble I have with failure – or even trying something new that I might not excel at.
So in some ways it is surprising that I would find myself not only as a new parent but also five months later moving to a yurt in the woods. There, I didn’t know how to do most things I took for granted. I didn’t know how to fetch water, make a fire, cook on said fire, wash dishes without indoor plumbing, deal with human waste, compost, live without refrigeration, heat with wood, get wood to heat with, trim lamp wicks, and on and on. Everything we did was new.
But do it I did, and looking back I did it by strategically burning a bridge. Any time I want to try something new that I’m really unsure of and that I might give up on when it gets difficult, I make it so there’s no easy way back. I go on long bike trips where the only way home is to ride to the destination, I immigrate to another country. Or in this case, I quit my job, had our car “voluntarily repossessed” (read: go to the bank and give them the keys), gave away everything except for what we could fit in 12 boxes, and gave our notice on our rental. I suppose we could have turned around and gone back but it would’ve been harder than going forward. And forward we went.
For a month we lived in a 30 foot rented RV, me, Sage, Daegan, and eight cats, in the front lawn of a friend’s house on whose land we would eventually build our yurt, but then the time came for us to build the yurt. And lucky for us we had lots of help – as we did every step of the way – from folks who’d been there before.
When we first moved in to the yurt, it was simply an empty circular room with a few shelves, a dresser, and a bed in it. We owned a gas cooktop but had nowhere to cook on it.
Dry goods and canned goods stayed inside like this:
We’d put cold things in to a cooler buried and sometimes added ice to. In the summer we’d cover it with a blanket to keep the sun off of it. Until a small rattlesnake thought that that was a great place to hang out and would get upset and rattle when we’d come to get a package of tofu.
Our stove looked like this:
And though we don’t have any pictures of it, our sink was behind us – a couple of dishpans on the ground with some blankets to sit on. I was glad to be the cook because that meant I didn’t usually do the dishes – for some reason biting ants liked to hang out near the sink and plague whomever did the dishes.
It was really hard work and we made a lot of mistakes. Sometimes the fire wouldn’t be hot enough and dinner would take forever, other times it would be too hot and the rice would boil over all the water and then burn what was left. But my bridge had been burned. We needed to eat, I was the cook, and so I would get more wood and start again. After some time, though, I got fairly good. And something I noticed also: the food I used to cook in suburbia – curries, refried beans, and even pasta sauces, tasted a world better cooked over an open fire. And a morning spent sitting around the fire with my family drinking coffee while I cooked pancakes or chili beans and homemade tortillas was a hell of a lot better than a bagel grabbed from the store on the way to work.
Needless to say we were happy when Sage designed a website for a nearby organic farm where one of the owners was also a cabinetmaker. So instead of cash we got a kitchen and we could move inside:
This is one of my favourite kitchens I have ever had to this day. There was six linear feet of counter space, drawers and cabinets underneath. Outside the frame on the left was a sink. There was, of course, no plumbing, but we did have a big jug of water with a spigot on the bottom that we put up on blocks above it to gravity feed water. The drain originally went in to a bucket under the sink that we’d take outside and dump but then one day I found some hose and some hose clamps and routed the grey water down the hill from us. Astute readers will notice that there’s actually a camp stove sitting on top of that gas cooktop. This was before we connected it. Originally we thought we might hire someone to come out to do it but then I decided I was probably competent enough to do so simple an installation and so I went to the propane company, got a length of tubing already prepped. One end I connected to the stove, and the other I ran to a small, gas grill-sized propane tank outside the yurt.
It worked a treat and cooking became so easy. No longer would I have to make a fire and get it stable before starting dinner, I could just turn on the gas, strike a match and be cooking right away. And as the cold autumn nights set in the cool mornings were made a little better by its presence. Just the heat from using a stove to make pancakes and coffee was enough to take the morning chill off and coax Sage out from under the warm covers.
But one thing we never got particularly good at was remembering to buy propane. And though a bottle might last a month and we had two bottles so in theory we could always have a full one and one connected, we only went to town once a week or so and always seemed to forget the bottle. But fortunately I had my experience. I could go back to my ‘outdoor kitchen’.
And then one day a big challenge came. In the Missouri Ozarks one thing is for sure: the weather is unpredictable and can sometimes be severe. Summer heat is ridiculous, we’ve had cold snaps that brought us down to -20F. And though we often were in drought conditions when we lived there, when we did get a thunderstorm, it could be, as they called it on the radio, “a gullywasher.” Rain would come down at 1-2″ per hour. My readers in India need only imagine a typical monsoon rain to know what to expect. When this would happen we had to jump in to action. I would get up on a wobbly ladder, getting soaked to the skin to adjust the awnings on the four windows such that they would direct the water from the roof in to 5 gallon buckets. This wouldn’t be good for drinking but would be perfectly fine for washing us or our dishes.
One especially hot summer day the sky darkened and thunder boomed closer and closer. As the rain started to fall, I adjusted the awnings and placed my buckets. It was going to be a big one. The sky darkened enough that we needed to light our lamps in mid day to be able to read. Meanwhile, as the sky opened, we realized it was time for lunch.
I went over to the kitchen. Today’s lunch would be something we’ve since taken to calling yurt curry. (The original recipe was called “Bangalore Phaal” but seems to be a strange adaptation made by someone we found on the Internet – very spicy with garam masala, pepper, Mexican chili powder, and Thai Red Curry paste along with tomatoes and fresh jalapenos with tofu as a protein). We would serve it with short grain brown rice. A nice hearty dish for a rainy day.
I turned on the burner and lit my match. The flame flared up briefly and then slowly went out. We were out of propane and true to form we had no more. If we wanted lunch I would be cooking outside. In the downpour.
With rain coming down more strongly than in any shower I’ve owned, I stripped down to only my shorts. Anything more would just be uncomfortable. I went to the fire pit. It was already a puddle. I used a stick to get as much out as possible and then put a piece of tin under the salvaged oven rack we used as a cooking grate to keep the rain from directly hitting the fire. Then I went back inside and got some newspapers, crumpled them up and ran out to keep them as dry and stuffed them under the tin. I went back in and got a couple of candles and broke them up. Wax is pretty flammable and I needed all the heat I could get.
Small kindling was a problem – every stick in the woods was wet. I would have to rely on the paper and wax to get a good fire going. But lucky for me, under the yurt was a small cache of small dry logs to use once it got going. And the wax did the trick. Before long there was a roaring fire even as the water streamed down my face and plastered my long hair to my head.
Now it was time, I ran in to the house and got the pots I’d prepared for lunch. The rice was easy and I tossed it right on the fire with a lid to protect it. The curry was a little harder as I needed to add things at different times. I kept the lid on most of the time and would quickly toss things in and then top it up. In between dealing with things on the fire I would make my way under the awning to get a break from the driving rain and chat with Sage who was inside, warm and dry.
Before long, I was able to join them. I grabbed a few pot holders and carried the pots in and put them on the dead stove. Then I grabbed a towel and dried off and cleaned the mud off of myself – the rain had been so hard that it splashed it all the way up to my knees. Now warm and dry I enjoyed my lunch with everyone with a little extra satisfaction. Somehow I had left behind my incompetence and it felt really good.
A few years later Sage, Daegan, and I are at home, now in our small cottage in the nearby town. We’d moved away from the yurt after two years. We’re watching Cast Away with Tom Hanks and as one particular scene played I started to tear up.
I know exactly how he felt.