Lost in the Woods

This is an essay my girlfriend Ali wrote after an eventful visit to Serenity Valley this past winter. I thought it was a very powerful piece of writing, so I asked her to share it here on this blog. –Ryo


Ali in the woods

You draw us into the wilderness of our own hearts

In the quest for truth.

Enthrall us with your serenade of love:

That, turning away from shame and self deception,

We become lovers of all the world

And join the choirs of your hymn

That soothes and heals this planet.

Music of the Spheres,

One Who Touches Our Innermost Being

You are the Lyric of Love’s Song Unknown

Song of Sophia

Mary Kathleen Speedle Schmitt


I went up into the mountains to face my demons. Of course I also went to be with him, to spend time with him where he lives, not the apartment he rents in Menlo Park, but where he really lives. In the hut he built with his own hands surrounded by acre upon acre of wide open land;, trees and rocks and snow and bones, wild land, free land.

The last time I’d been there it was summer and the days were beautiful. I’d wake before him and do my morning yoga practice in the open space below the loft where he was sleeping. Then, energized and inspired, I’d grab my drum and head out into the woods and create sound. Using my voice, my hands and my sacred drum, I’d unleash from deep within the awe and the longing and the sadness too, but all of it was beautiful, or at least that’s how I remember those first days spent in Serenity Valley. When I’d return from drumming, he would be close to waking and we’d slowly move through our morning routine. He’d go outside and tend to the solar panels, check on the garden, yawn, stretch and feel the sun on his skin. Inside I’d be humming and boiling water and brainstorming on how to organize this tiny space. We’d have breakfast and then go about the day, which would be filled with chores in and around the huts, interspersed with meaningful leisure time. During my first five days with Ryo in the woods, we put in a sink and a kitchen shelf and planted butternut squash (named Fuzzy Wuzzy) and melon (Meloney) in the garden. When we weren’t working we took walks through the woods, I played the guitar while sitting on stumps beneath the fiery afternoon sun, and Ryo taught me how to use a gun at the shooting range he constructed nearby. Throughout the day, I’d tidy up the hut while he worked on the computer. We’d lay in the hammock if there was even a hint of a breeze, or retreat up to the loft to rest when it was too hot to do anything else. In the evening we’d make dinner together and eat by the glow of the solar powered lights inside the cabin, or take our food outside, feasting on fire roasted sweet potatoes, onions and squash and get lost in the changing colors of the sky as the sun settled herself down behind the mountains for the night.

There were some struggles; there was a healthy colony of mosquitoes in and around the cabin and their population was most concentrated up in the loft, which made sleeping comfortably somewhat of a challenge. I ran into the expected, minor frustrations of living away from the modern comforts I was accustomed to but for the most part it was like a dream. Ryo and I had recently grown closer and this was the first time we’d spent five consecutive days and nights together, as well as away from any other human beings.

There was a peace and rightness about life in Serenity Valley that made it easy to imagine raising children there together, away from all of the toxic, mind-numbing, soul-sapping influences of urban life. I was learning new things, like how to work in a garden, use a jigsaw and shoot a rifle. I felt closer to Ryo than ever before, and closer to myself because I was living close to the land. There was no pavement between my feet and the soft, red earth. My voice, this voice that I so often censor and stifle because I’m afraid of being misunderstood or judged or rejected or laughed at, this voice got a little taste of freedom out in the woods. Trees don’t have the capacity to misunderstand or reject you. When they laugh it is in delight at the sounds you are making, never because they don’t like you or think you are foolish or because they are afraid of what you are saying. There were no billboards or commercials poisoning my mind, planting seeds that whatever anxiety or sadness or insecurity I felt would disappear the moment I bought something: a beverage, a pill, cosmetics, clothing, electronic gadgets, so much stuff sold to separate us from our stuff. Instead, when my stuff came up, my anxiety or sadness or insecurity, I had Mother Earth, the sacred woods, to give it to in the form of song, drum, dance, walking there, sitting there, crying there, breathing there. Then, when I’d gotten it out of my system, I could go back to enjoying being me and appreciate once more the rays of light filtering in through the trees and the sight of Ryo, clad only in his khaki shorts and camo hat, up on a ladder fixing something on the hut. It was life in its simplest form, uncluttered by problems that have nothing to do with living and everything to do with trying to escape.

That was seven months ago. In the space between that trip to Serenity Valley and this most recent one, I did a lot of trying to escape; from anxiety, uncertainty, responsibility, pain. Modern life offers so many ways to do this, every one of us gets caught up in it at some point, in some form or another. So I decided to cast off some of my demons while I was up there; I’d stop drinking coffee and eating sugar. I knew these two substances had way more control over my mind and mood than I wanted and I was determined to take back that control. I thought that being out in nature, and far away from the alluring traps of coffee houses and convenient stores, I’d be able to purge myself of these two detrimental proclivities and hopefully leave the woods feeling more balanced and in control of my life. I thought that the change of scenery would also lend me a new perspective on things that I had been struggling with: confusion over which path I should be on, frustration that I keep going in circles and making the same mistakes, exhaustion over swinging back and forth between confidence and insecurity. I figured I’d feel a little uncomfortable during my first day without coffee or sugar but I expected to recover quickly, aided by the magic of the woods, the way that being in nature always smoothes out the jaggedness of my fluctuations and cravings.

Of course, things did not go as I had planned.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that it was winter and I am less tolerant of cold than heat, so I spent less time outdoors than I had when I was there during the summer. Perhaps it had to do with the lack of space. During my first trip, we’d moved the stove out of the cabin so that I had more room to do yoga and move around and with the much needed (and appreciated!) stove inside this time, there was barely room for my mat. Perhaps it was purely neurochemical. Without the caffeine and sugar my body was accustomed to, my serotonin and endorphin levels plummeted. I felt irritable, depressed, groggy, very impatient with the hardships of a simple life and with my own mental murkiness. I frequently went into the woods, found a sympathetic log to sit on and cried. I tried to be proactive about dealing with my emotions. I kept up with my yoga practice, I journaled a lot, I exercised, I sawed wood, and I rested when I felt exhausted. These things definitely helped to take the edge off, temporarily, but the edge would quickly return. Like a thin layer of dust on a shelf, the moment I had completely wiped it away, new specks would start to accumulate, making it harder to breathe, and to see what was beneath the dust. I didn’t sing, I didn’t chant, I didn’t talk a whole lot about what was going on. Ironically, my voice felt even more constrained in Serenity Valley than it had back in San Francisco. Nothing I had been hoping for, based on my previous experience that summer, was happening for me and I was growing more despondent and frustrated by the hour.

We’d arrived Thursday evening and were planning to head out early on Monday. By that last morning my nerves were frayed. I awoke feeling anxious and angry and not really knowing why. Okay, I thought, Yoga will help, I’ll go do my practice and then I’ll feel better.

The previous morning I hadn’t started the fire before doing yoga and by the time I’d cooled down after my practice and got it going I was extremely cold. It took my fingers and toes a good forty five minutes to warm up. I remembered this and I was pissed. I just want to do yoga, goddammit I don’t want to have to start this fucking fire first. I grabbed some logs from outside and some smaller sticks for kindling and balled up some magazine paper. I cleaned out the grill and placed the paper, twigs and wood into the fireplace and grabbed the matches. I rubbed the head of the match the way that Ryo had showed me, to warm it up, and then struck it against the box and attempted to light the fire. It wouldn’t light. I’d only done this a couple of times on my own and I was irritated and groggy so it seemed really hard to get it going. I went through half a dozen matches and moved things around angrily and made some frustrated grunts. That woke Ryo and he peeked his head over the edge of the loft and asked if I had enough paper in the stove.

Never mind!” I muttered, “It’s not that cold.” With that I pulled on my boots, coat, hat and my stretchy pink gloves and left the hut. The frustration had become rage inside my body and it had reached its peak. I knew I was on the edge of a major explosion, and I am not the type of person who has major explosions. My skin was crawling, my jaw was clenched, my heart hurt from the anger. I only had one thought in my mind. Run.

I began to go in the direction I normally go, into a part of the property I nicknamed “Skinny Tree Forest,” in honor of an imaginary land my sister and I had created as kids. Then I immediately turned to the left and headed south, into a part of the woods I didn’t know as well. I didn’t run very far, my lungs and heart hurt and the pain was sharp and it stopped me. The hut was still within my sightline when I stopped running and I was still pulsating with fury that was about so much more than not lighting the fire. I sat down on a rock and had a good cry. Or maybe it was a bad cry, I’d had a few of those over the past couple of days, the kind that go on too long so that rather than purge the toxic emotion, the cry just exacerbates it and gives one a splitting headache and a swollen face. Whichever kind of cry it was, it stopped when I saw something move in the brush a short distance away from me. The something was gray and about the size of a large rabbit or a fox. My attention was immediately refocused on that spot, on the fact that there was another living being near me, a mammal, with red blood coursing through its veins just like mine, a being I had never met and would probably never encounter again. Then I began to look at what was around me. Snow had fallen during the night, coating all of the branches of the trees, the skinny and spindly and the thick and sturdy, with white dust, and some of it was sparkling in the bits of sun that were peaking through the clouds. This is amazing. Its absolutely beautiful and alive and every bit of it is conscious.

I felt pulled to the spot where I’d seen the animal, although I was sure it was gone by now. I stood, kneeled and crouched in that area that was an open circle and felt like sacred ground. Something about that moment was different than any other moment since we‘d arrived. After days feeling foggy minded, frustrated and lethargic, I was suddenly pulsating with energy. The woods had breathed life into me and I was delighted by all there was to see and feel there. I felt soothed by this circle of wood, earth and snow around and beneath me, and by the soft, muted sun above me.

My focus shifted from my own misery and was redirected out to the living, breathing woods and what it was telling me. Stories I knew I’d never be able to relay, wisdom I couldn’t translate into words. It showed me the folly of being caught up in misery by revealing itself to me and making me feel how connected to it, all of it, the land, the snow, the air, the trees, I really am.

I noticed two tall pine trees a short distance away. They were standing very close together, almost touching at the bottom and spaced further apart at the top so that they formed a “V.” I felt my body moving towards them.

As I approached them, they told me, in the space of one breath, their story. The pine trees were like Ryo and I, so close to one another yet unable to touch, never fully merging into one tree but growing strong and tall, side by side. Even though they seemed to move away from one another as they grew taller, there really was nothing either one of them was closer too, other than the dirt that gave birth to their roots. And they complemented each other. The tree to the left was wider and slightly taller and appeared to be stronger while the tree to the right seemed more intricate and delicate, gentler, more feminine. I stood between the two trees, my back against the stronger one and my gaze fixed on the softer one. I got lost in her patterns and the layering of her bark, at least as intricate as my own mind, and I was comforted by the sturdiness of the one I was leaning on. I gave these two together-trees my loneliness, my gaping, bleeding sense of separate-ness, and they took it, breathed it in as I breathed it out, and I felt the serenity this valley is named for. As a child, I’d befriended the trees on the playground when I felt like I didn’t fit in with the other kids. I’d created in them entities who mirrored my struggles and gave me what I needed. As a child, I’d imagined, or created, or perhaps received, solace. Where does projecting end and receiving begin? Are they really two separate poles or is give interspersed with take, create interwoven with consume?

I looked back from the direction I’d come from and my eyes saw the brown siding of the hut peeking between the trees. Another constellation of trees drew me further in, or maybe it was one tree that caught my eye, or perhaps just a single branch, bent like a wise old woman’s finger, beckoning me nearer. I moved away from the together-trees and did some more exploring, some more imagining, some more listening. The next time I looked back towards where I’d come from, I couldn’t see Ryo’s cabin anymore, nor could I pick out the two together-trees or the brush where I’d seen the gray or white rabbit.

I knew, generally, which direction I’d come from, or at least I thought I did. There were trees and branches and clusters of dead bushes and snow all around me and none of it looked familiar or at all distinguishable from the rest. I had lost my way and that I wasn’t sure how to get back.

I set off in the direction I thought the hut was hiding and tried to find my footprints in the snow. That should be easy, just follow my footprints back the way I had come. When I tried to do this, the prints just led me back in a circle to the spot where I discovered I was lost. I don’t know how to account for this.

For a moment I thought I spotted the hut again, but I quickly saw that it was dead leaves peeking through trees. I realized what I had thought was the hut the last time I’d looked probably was not, and I was further away than I initially thought. I felt the panic that had been gathering around my edges all of a sudden go deep into my center. I’m lost!

I had heard more times than I could recall that the best thing to do when you’re lost is to stay put, avoid getting more lost, and wait for someone to find you. The woods are very extensive, they go on for miles, it would not be hard to get very far away from Ryo’s property without realizing it. I knew I’d gotten myself into a pickle, a potentially very dangerous pickle, and I also knew that I couldn’t stay still for too long in the cold. I decided to head back in the direction I thought I had come from, even though I couldn‘t find my footprints. I had lost all sense of direction and I could not figure out which way I had actually come from.

I was not equipped to be out there. Running into the woods in a moment of blind and overwhelming frustration might very well be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I was so angry at myself. I had been safe. Nothing had actually been wrong that couldn’t have been fixed right there in that hut. In a matter of moments I mindlessly forfeited my security and my power and put myself, and by extension Ryo, into a state of extreme vulnerability. He prides himself on being self sufficient, on doing what he’s doing without needing any help, certainly without needing anyone to come in and rescue him, or his emotionally unbalanced girlfriend. What would it mean for him, and for our relationship, if he had to call for help to find me? So bitter was the remorse I felt for the situation I’d created, and biting like the cold that began to cut into my skin if I stayed still too long. This desperate, pathetic longing to be able to just undo it all hampered my sensibilities. It had been over an hour since I’d run into the woods and I was wandering aimlessly, getting myself more lost, maybe, I couldn’t even tell anymore.

It was as though the woods had swallowed me. I’d come up against the edge of my self and fallen over and no trace of me was left. I walked and I walked and I walked. Before long I found myself in very unfamiliar terrain. I found a stump to sit down and as I did the desire to just give up overtook me. I’d gone past the flesh and bone of hopelessness and I was into the marrow now. I don’t know where I am. Who is going to help me? How will I ever get out?

In the midst of the hysterical chatter of my mind, a voice came into my head that distinctly different than my own. It was the voice of a wise yogi who left this Earth years ago after bringing hope and healing to many. I’d never felt much of a personal connection to this particular guru although I’d trained with yogis who very nearly worshipped him. There’s a lot of controversy around this man, some say he’s a saint, some say he’s a criminal. I don’t claim to know the truth about him but I know what he meant to me in that moment. My brain chose him to offer guidance because he is known for not putting up with anybody’s crap and not sugar coating anything or coddling anyone, and I knew that self pity would get me absolutely nowhere in my current situation. So, from somewhere deep within my mind, or maybe even slightly beyond it, I heard Yogi Bhajan’s voice.

You create your own hell. Now walk in it.

The first line was not new information. I’ve long understood there to be no separate hell below or heaven above, it’s all here on earth, its all our individual and collective creation. I knew, during the months before this trip to the mountains, that I was making myself miserable by not doing my practice, by reaching for sweets to alleviate anxiety and coffee to give me the energy I was wasting by swallowing down the things I needed to say. I was allowing my emotions to control me rather than just give them a little attention and love and move past them. Ending up exactly where I was in that moment was the natural manifestation of everything I’d been creating in my head. My tangible, physical situation had become an extension of my mind. I’ve felt lost for awhile now and I’d been avoiding dealing with it. I was doing everything in my power not to confront the massive uncertainty surrounding where my life is going, how I’ll get there, if I’ll be all right. Before I knew it I’d forgotten my power to choose a path that will lead me where I want to go. This mental action needed to find a much larger form or else I’d keep running around in the same small circles, getting smaller and smaller, decaying, rotting, forgetting. Losing my way forced me to look at how I had abandoned the way I know to keep myself healthy and strong.

Things were going unsaid between Ryo and I. I’d been secretly wanting him to be exactly who I needed him to be so that I could feel safe being myself. My uncertainty and insecurity about who I am in his eyes, in his mind and in his heart had led me to build walls of silence and avoidance between us. I’d been feeling powerless in my life and this contributed to the persistent, irrational desire to have him take care of things for me. To take care of me. I felt like I needed him to make me to speak when I couldn‘t (which, of course, he never would), to teach me everything I don’t know (which, of course, he never could) and, when its too hard for me to learn things, to do them for me. What this desire says about me as an individual, as a woman, was too much to confront and so I ran from it. I ran right into woods where I couldn‘t run from it anymore. It was all here now, bigger than me, bigger than us, as big as the woods and I had no idea how big they really were.

Now walk in it.

I have experienced the concept of karma, and I know, logically and intuitively, that we have to deal with the messes we make. Either we clean them up or we drown in them. I know that no one is going to do any of this for me. But for awhile now, I’ve been wanting someone to. This fantasy of the knight-in- shining-armor or the prince on the white horse with the castle in the clouds takes on many forms. Ryo can do a lot of things that I can’t, at a very crucial level, he knows how to survive out here and I don’t. I’m able to have experiences with him that I can’t have on my own and I think that this activated the damsel-in-distress/helpless maiden stereotype that I was fed as a child watching Disney movies and listening to fairy tales. If he is strong, that must mean I’m weak. If I can’t do something and he can then he is more diligent, more creative, smarter, better than me and I’d better do anything I can to keep him. I’d better hide how deficient I am and not tell him when I feel weak or else he will find out he’s too good for me and leave.

But maybe one tree isn’t stronger than the other. Perhaps the tree I’d been leaning against was actually no stronger than the one I was facing. If I had stopped looking at what I thought was me and leaned against my own image for a moment, what might I have seen in the tree I’d had my back to? That he is vulnerable too, that he makes mistakes too, that he has doubts and insecurities too? If I had simply turned around and allowed that which was holding my gaze to hold my body, would I have felt my own strength supporting me? Would I have found my way back to the hut then?

You created your own hell. Now walk in it.

Hell. My hell, was entirely psychological. Nothing was happening to my body. I got a fabulous workout and a couple blisters on my toes. I knew enough to keep moving so that my fingers and toes didn’t get cold and to eat just enough snow to stay hydrated but not take in too many potential pollutants. My hell was in my mind. Everything I hate about myself, everything I hide from myself and from others was there to meet me in the woods, it was all out in the open and couldn’t possibly be hidden anymore. I fucked up so bad this time. There is no good way out of this. The best case scenario is that Ryo will be able to find me, and then he’ll certainly break up with me. This time I went too far. He couldn’t possibly be with me after having to clean up a mess this big.


I called out for Ryo. I yelled his name into the trees and they swallowed my voice, the same way they’d swallowed me.

I walked and I walked and I walked. After about an hour and a half of wandering through the woods, I found a dirt road, covered in snow, not driven on in at least several days, and certainly not the one we had driven in on. I followed it down a steep incline and then stopped because it seemed, from the view of the mountains in the distance, that I was getting further away from where I knew the hut was. I turned around and went up the road instead and when I got to the road there was a fence and beyond the fence were railroad tracks. Technically, I was out of the woods, but I still had no idea where I was.

I remembered that Ryo had mentioned walking all the way down to the fence and the railroad tracks on occasion so I knew I couldn’t be that far from his cabin. I decided to walk along the fence and call out for him, thinking that if he was still near home, and not off someplace else looking for me, then he would be able to hear me and come find me. I would periodically walk a short distance into the woods, keeping the fence in sight, to call out. I climbed a tree, trying to spot the hut from way up high but it was all branches, snow and dead leaves. I’d debated climbing trees at intervals but decided against it since my boots were in bad condition and I knew it was unwise to risk falling and injuring myself.

I walked along the fence for awhile and then came to a point where it turned, and then kept going and going and going. I was pretty sure that the side of the fence I’d started out at was due south of the hut but I couldn’t be certain. I walked back to the road again, down a little ways, a little further then before, and then back up again, back to the fence, walking, calling, hoping I’d be found, fearing I would not. In between moments of franticness or determination or hopelessness, I’d crouch down close to the earth, and I’d pray.

Hail Goddess, Full of Grace

Blessed are you and blessed are all the fruits of your womb

For you are the Mother of Us All

Hear Us Now

And In All Our Need

Oh Blessed Be, Oh Blessed Be


This prayer is a liberated version of the “Hail Mary,” a Catholic prayer I knew as a child. The meter is the same, the words are more inclusive. It was a gateway that led me to speak directly to Her, to say how scared I was and to ask for the strength and wisdom that had one missing inside of me.

No Divine Force From Beyond, no God, or Goddess, was going to intervene. It was the act of calling out to Her that saved me. Since childhood, whenever I’ve needed help or been really scared I’ve always asked God to save me, even after I stopped believing in him. This time, it was not the Father Above, but the Mother Within, whose presence I invoked. Even though I felt like I was entreating a loving, compassionate mothergoddess far beyond me, what I actually did was call upon the my own power, the power of the creative feminine, She Who Knows the Way.

But I wavered a lot too, I tried to invoke her, invoke my own power, but my mind kept telling me it was hopeless to try to find my way out on my own, that I was lost and would always be lost out there. In addition to squatting near the earth and calling on the Goddess, I prayed to Ryo as well. Crouching in the snow I spoke to him, as though he were right in front of me, and told him I needed his help.

Come to the fence. You have to come to the fence, this is the only way because I cannot get home on my own. Ryo, come to the fence, come to the fence by the railroad tracks.

I affirmed again and again, that I needed him to save me, that I couldn’t do it on my own. And I kept going back and forth between the fence and the road, between Hail Goddess and Ryo Please Find Me. My experience walking the fence went in waves. I’d get a burst of confidence, of trust in my self, or trust in the Self-from-which-All-Selves-Spring. I’d decide to head one way and keep going, as far as I could, see what was there. But I’d get only so far and then turn around and head back in the direction I’d come from. I was stuck.

Hear us now and in all our need…

My voice started to loosen in the woods near that fence. Praying and yelling out to Ryo again and again began to open me up, to bring me so fully into my experience of needing him and everything that means. Thinking he can do it better than me (drive the car, cut the onions, start the fire, build our home), or knowing that, in many cases, he actually can do something better than I can, somehow morphed into my needing him to do it all for me. This need is the gaping wound of self mistrust. The only way to begin to heal such a wound is to be thrown into a situation where you have to trust yourself in order to survive.

At one point, after calling for Ryo, I just had to scream. I screamed loud, not to be found or even to be heard, but to let loose the anger, the childish frustration and remorse, the deep, dark fear about my own survival. So much raw emotion came out in that scream, emotion that has no label or category or flavor, that was neither anger nor joy, grief nor bliss, simply the intense experience of being human. It was human emotion unfiltered by mind, uncluttered by chemical modifiers and not held down by reason or fear. Such pure emotion has enormous transformative power. When it was kept inside it stayed stuck in the form of fear and shame but the moment it found voice it became my power again. Life let loose when I screamed and in that moment I was free.

I remembered Ryo talking about a road leading to the neighbor’s property, and now and again, during my fence walking, I had thought I recalled him saying that dirt road started at the fence. But I quickly wrote off this memory as fantasy, as something I was making up because I wanted to believe I could get home. Suddenly, it seemed ridiculous not to at least try it, to take that road down as far as it would go and if it led me nowhere, I could always come back to the fence. Ryo had showed me his neighbor’s property the other day and I had wondered, at the time, why he had done this. The neighbors weren’t there and I thought there were probably more interesting spots in the woods to visit that a chunk of land with some trailers, a guardian angel statue and a bright orange fireplace.

I began walking back down that snow covered road, seeing all the familiar landmarks; the overturned tree stump that looked like a piece of machinery from the distance, the point where the road bent to give a better view of the mountains in the north. This time I went past the point I’d gone before and started to see different trees, different piles of snow and sticks, a different angle of the sky above. I kept walking and I started feeling a cheerful. The little voice inside me warned not to get my hopes up, to brace myself for disappointment and a long, steep climb back up to the fence. The big voice inside me said, Screw the little voice, we’re going the right way, you‘re going to get home.

After a bit, I came upon an enormous water tank, far bigger than the 305 gallon one we’d strapped to the roof of the car and drove from Redding to the hut a few days before. Near the water tank were posted private property signs. I knew I was on somebody’s land now, but I didn’t know whose.

I kept walking and soon I saw some trailers. Are these the ones I saw yesterday? Probably not, but could they be? I couldn’t be sure. I kept walking. Then a beam of light hit my eye, blinding me for a fraction of a moment as a streak of sun emerged from behind a thick wall of clouds and landed right on that bright orange fireplace. That was when I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I wasn’t lost anymore.

Ali and the fireplace

Ali and the orange fire place that showed her way home…

From there I took off towards the dirt road that leads up to Ryo’s land. I flew so fast that I missed the guardian angel figurine but I don’t think she missed me. She was there as I turned onto that familiar red dirt road and saw the tracks of the car and the chain and lock I’d unfastened to let us onto the land a few days ago. Then I saw our footprints in the snow. Shivers scurried up my spine and my chest began to feel warm and wide. Seeing our footprints was almost like seeing Ryo himself, it was a physical sign that we were both alive and had been walking together, and would be soon again. I started running and calling out for Ryo, unaware that he had just been calling out to me, I guess we were still too far apart to hear one another. He was about to set out a second time to look for me as I dragged myself up the final stretch of hill and we saw one another at last. I ran towards the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and the warmest arms I’ve ever known. I’d made my way back, back to Ryo, but not rescued by him. I had brought me home.

Through this experience, I was able to put a chink in Prince Charming’s armor. The learned helplessness and lack of self trust that many women learn at an early age has not been entirely vanquished. The helpless maiden is still a part of me and maybe she lives in all of us for a reason. She is often who we believe we have to be in order to be loved, cared for and protected by our fathers, and later on our lovers. She is part of our heritage, she is who our grandmothers had to be to survive patriarchal oppression and she is still the only acceptable female form for millions of women around the world. We are them and they are us and until we are all free, that image of the feminine will remain within us. But there are other archetypes that live in all of us too. During my three and a half hours wandering in the woods I struggled to find my own strength. And through the action of walking through my creation, my hell, as it were, and through the act of deciding to find my own way back I embodied Diana, the fierce warrior princess, confident, capable, self-sufficient and strong, goddess of the trees, huntress of the elusive love within.

I learned that self reliance is a state of mind before it becomes an action. Running into the woods was a reckless and dangerous thing to do and if I had known how to compute my direction from the angle of the sun, if I’d been able to find my footprints, if I’d brought a GPS or a whistle or a map of the area then I would have found my way back sooner. If I’d continued to wander aimlessly I might have gone much further away from the area and not found my way out (or have been found) before night fell, and then my chances for survival would have been slim. In this particular situation, I had all of the information I needed to get back home stored in my memory and I was never that far away. I remained lost because I believed I was lost and that my mistakes doomed me to suffer. As soon as I decided to use what I information I had, and to risk being wrong, and to forget about feeling helpless for a minute, I found my own way out of those woods.

I was fortunate. The risks out there are very real. But so are the risks in here. Every self defeating thought we give our attention to paves the way for disaster. Its only a matter of time before we create the negativity we perpetuate in our minds. This experience was a wake up call. I was reminded how lucky I am to be alive, and that I have a responsibility to walk my path and not let fear keep me stuck in one place for too long.

The morning after I found my way out of the woods, back at home in San Francisco in the warmth and safety of my own bed, I awoke with the words of mystic poet Rumi running through my head. “People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”


I apologize for the long hiatus on this blog… There are a couple of reasons for the long silence. The first reason is that when I got from Japan back in mid-June, I felt like I should write a post wrapping up my experiences there, yet somehow I couldn’t quite find the words so I kept putting it off. So, I’m giving up (for now), and will simply point you at this talk I did at Google’s Tokyo office that does a decent job of summarizing my experiences. The second reason for the long silence is that I’ve been seeing someone else… I mean, I’ve been blogging elsewhere. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

When I got back to my property in June, I was obviously anxious to see what state my property and huts would be in after such a long absence. Out here in the country, anything can happen. Fortunately, nothing did happen, and I found my property more or less as I’d left it. Of course, it was warmer, as temperatures were still dipping below freezing when I left for Japan. From what I heard, Spring this year was wetter and longer than most years, and my property was particularly lush and green even in late June. Wild grasses seemed thicker and taller this year than in past years, and they covered up my normally rocky ground to give my clearings a more meadowy look.

I’m not doing a whole lot on/with my property this year. I pretty much have everything I need/want to live comfortably, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve achieved my goal of establishing “minimalist comfort.” I did, however, plant a small garden again, though I missed planting season so I’m not sure how productive it will be. When I got back in June, I was surprised to see my strawberry plants sprouting out through the pine needles I’d covered them with for the winter. They’ve since continued to grow, so I planted a few more strawberry plants. They seem like the only plants that thrive on my property, through the cold winters and hot summers. Maybe I’ll just give up on growing other vegetables and have a strawberry patch…

One thing I may try to do this year, if I can afford it, is to set up a rain catchment system. I was skeptical about rain/snow harvesting before, but after spending a winter up here (including a month during which I lived off of snowmelt), I’ve been convinced that it’s worth doing. I’d like to start with a 300 gallon tank, which I could probably fill up with run-off from Hut 2.0’s roof, and would go a long ways towards keeping my strawberry patch watered next year.

Other than that, I’ve been focusing a lot of my attention and energy on my new project: Bootstrap Solar. In short, I’ve been developing an affordable yet powerful solar power pack for powering smart phones, iPads, and other small devices. The project was inspired by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan back in March, when I realized how crucial yet difficult it was to keep phones charged in a disaster (or, even in ordinary times if you spend a lot of time away from power sockets). I’m hoping to start selling them in kit form as early as next month, if I can raise enough funds. In any case, I’ll probably occasionally cross-post here as well, but follow BootstrapSolar.com for regular updates.

Anyway, that’s it for today. I’ll try to post again… hopefully sooner next time.

Home Again

Shortly after Project 31 ended on the 19th, I headed to the city. Having spent a month alone in the woods, I thought I’d have a good time. I thought I’d appreciate the creature comforts, the infinite electricity supply, the alawys-on (and unlimited) internet connection, the magically appearing clean water, heat at the flick of a switch, places where people cook and serve you food, close proximity to friends…

The first night in the city, I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how loud the city is at night. The constant traffic, the early morning garbage trucks, the beeping car alarms, distant sirens, fog horns, people yelling, dogs barking. It also doesn’t get dark in the city. Streetlight streamed in through the window, casting an unnatural orange glow, penetrating my eyelids. And even the heating was overbearing. On the numerous occasions that my shallow slumber was interrupted, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, feeling clammy and icky.

After a few days, I got homesick. So I came home.

To my own house. My own bed. To silence, darkness, and minimal heating. I switched off my MiFi and left it in the car. I turned off my inverter — my battery array hasn’t fully recovered anyway. And I lit some candles, and settled in with a hot mug of tea and a book.

When I started Project 31, I secretly hoped that I’d be miserable. If I were miserable, I’d know that I should head back to the city. I could give up this crazy life, give myself credit for having tried, and return to a normal life. Have a normal job, live in a normal place, and fill my days doing normal things. I’d be convinced that normal is good. I could be happy with normal, if I could only be convinced that it’s good.

But, it’s not. At least, not for me. So, here I am again. Back on Serenity Valley.

March 11, the day of the earthquake in Japan, was the 2nd anniversary of this blog and also of my quitting Google. At the time, I thought my adventures would last a year, maybe 18 months tops. I didn’t yet know that I’d buy land, but even after I bought land, I’d only initially planned on staying here for a month or two.

Here we are now, two years later. What was once a bare patch of dirt, rocks, shrubs and trees is now my home. And I’m starting to realize that I may never go back to my previous life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back. Living a normal life is so much easier. The story’s practically written for you. You do what you’re told, and everything hums along. If you get confused, there are people who can help you. The people around you are living more or less parallel lives, facing more or less the same problems. The problems you face have solutions, and often well documented ones at that. There are concrete goals, and objective metrics to tell you how you’re doing.

But when you step off the reservation, you’re on your own. There’s no script to follow. Nobody to tell you where to go, what to do, or even what to strive for. All there is, is a vastness stretching out to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond the hazy horizon, your future awaits. It waits for no one, but you. You don’t know where it is, nor what’s there. But you approach it, one step at a time. One step. At a time.

People asked what’s next. Here’s the list of possibilities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Volunteer in Japan (mostly, I’m hoping that All Hands will start a project)
  • Start a Garden 2.0
  • Start a beehive
  • Raise chickens
  • Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Alaska (or Mongolia…)
  • Volunteer at a WWOOF farm
  • Volunteer with the local fire station
  • Volunteer with the Forest Service somewhere nearby
  • Get a job
  • Go back to school

I have a couple of other smaller projects in mind too, but those are the major ones I’ve come up with so far. I’ll probably end up doing some combination of the above, though some of them fit better together than others. I’m also planning on finishing the book in the next couple of months as well.

Anyway, welcome to Year 3. Let’s see and find out what this year has in store for us.

Project 31 Debrief

Around noon today, I officially concluded my 31 days of Project 31. I’m still here, though I’m no longer strictly adhering to the rules I’d setup for my month-long challenge. One of the first things I did was to start up my car, just to make sure the battery still had enough juice (I hadn’t bothered charging it during Project 31). It started up just fine, so I know I can get out any time I feel like it. About the only other change is that I’m back to drinking tap water I previously hauled in from town. I’m out of clean snowmelt, and I’m not entirely certain the months-old water I’ve been drinking for the last few days is actually all that clean.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be writing a few posts about Project 31, but in this post, I’ll report on how things ended up in terms of water, food, fuel, etc, etc.

I succeeded in meeting my goal of only using water I’ve harvested on my property. The weather was very cooperative, and despite weeks of completely dry weather leading up to Project 31, I got a nice snow storm on Day 0. All told, I got probably about 24 inches of snow during the first half of Project 31, so I was able to harvest plenty of snowmelt by packing snow into a pot and melting it on my wood stove every night. Most of the snow on the ground had disappeared by last week, but I had enough filtered snowmelt stored to last me up until 2-3 days ago, when I switched to my “backup” source: water from a bin I’ve had out for months. My stomach got a little upset yesterday, and I’m suspicious of the water. While snowmelt is unlikely to harbor biological contaminants, the water in that bin has been exposed to the elements for months, so it’s possible it might’ve picked up some bugs. The water I drank had been filtered previously and placed in an unmarked container, so it wasn’t until after I drank the water that I remember where it’d come from. In the future, I think I should be a little more careful about marking potentially contaminated water so I don’t forget to boil it first.

My food stores did remarkably well, and most things lasted far longer than I’d expected. I still have some fresh vegetables left (some potatoes, one red cabbage, a butternut squash, about a pound of brussels sprouts) , and ate the last of my fresh meat for dinner tonight. The only losses to spoilage were one zucchini, one sweet potato, and bits of a couple of tomatoes (most of which remained salvageable). So, considering how I didn’t use any refrigeration other than a couple of coolers, that’s not too bad. Of course, average temperatures of around or below freezing certainly helped keep things fresh.

I’m also happy with the variety of food I had. Even though I haven’t eaten out in a month, I’m not really craving anything, which is a bit surprising. I guess cravings, whether we know it or not, may often be triggered externally. For example, next time I go out to the city and see signs for all kinds of restaurants, I might suddenly crave fried chicken, or sushi, or chinese food, or greasy diner food, or…. But, here, away from such temptations, I’m perfectly happy with what I have/had.

In terms of quantity, as I’d initially predicted, I ended up with a surplus. I hardly touched any of the non-perishable foods, I still have a dozen eggs, a loaf of bred, a small stack of tortillas, most of a 2-pound block of cheese, an entire block of salted pork, and the vegetables I mentioned earlier. Overall, though, I’m glad I had an overabundance of fresh ingredients because the threat of spoilage compelled me to cook and eat fresh cooked meals. I wish I’d brought less meat, especially since I had so many eggs, and I think I could’ve done without bread. I was able to bake scones, so I’m pretty sure I would’ve been able to bake other bread-like substances as well, if I had to.

I started off with just my 100W solar panel, then setup the 45W panels part way in. For the most part, that was enough power, and my battery array generally stayed well above 12V, usually in the 12.3-12.6 range. That all changed in the last week, when I started spending a lot more time on my laptop to follow the news from Japan and keep in touch with my family. It’s also been mostly overcast this past week, so with those two factors combined, my power deficit skyrocketed. I decided not bother conserving power too much because I knew Project 31 was almost over, and estimated that I had enough reserve power in my battery arrays. My estimation was off by a day, and my battery array got down to 11V last night, at which point my inverter shut down. Mostly, that just meant I had to stop using my laptop, and to some degree, that was a quality of life improvement. I lit candles, switched to battery-powered lights, listened to music on my battery-powered iPod speakers, and read a book instead of obsessing over the news.

At this point, I think there are two ways to think about this power outage on my last day. Most people will probably say that I ran out of power. The other way to think about it is that I used too much power. The solution changes depending on which perspective you take. If I ran out of power, then I need more power (i.e. add more generating capacity). But if I’d used too much power, the solution is to simply use less. I’ve considered getting something like an iPad, which would use less power than a laptop. Ironically, though, for the price of an iPad, I could buy another 200 Watts of solar panels. The third option is to buy neither, continue to use my laptop, but to use it less. So, actually, there are 3 options: increase efficiency (buy an iPad), increase energy supply (buy more PV), reduce consumption (read more books).

Gasoline – Didn’t use a drop. Yay!

Propane – Used about 2.5lb, so a little more than my goal of 2lb.

Heating – Only burned wood from my property. I ran out of chopped wood in the last week, but had plenty of wood in 2-3ft lengths stashed under my hut that I had to cut to 6-8″ lengths. It’s been too wet for the last couple of weeks to harvest more wood, though there were a few days in the middle when I was able to shore up my supplies. Using my cordless saw to chop wood became a problem towards the end though, when I started running low on power. I’ll definitely be getting a bow saw, as many readers suggested.

Hut 2.1 proved to provide adequate shelter during this very wintery month. During Project 31, there were 3 winter storms, with snow accumulation up to 16 inches, temperatures down to -10F, and winds gusting up to 45mph. Through it all, Hut 2.1 kept me warm, dry and happy, and that’s about all you could ask for from a home.

Improvements made during Project 31 include the raised insulated floor, the kitchen, and a desk. The only major project I didn’t get around to was the kitchen sink. I’d originally planned on putting a bathroom inside Hut 2.1, but decided that I’d rather have more open space in the hut than a bathroom. The outdoor composting toilet suffices for now, though I might put a roof over it so I don’t have to do my business in the snow.

I was somewhat ambivalent towards having an internet connection for most of Project 31. On the one hand, it allowed me to update my blog and upload pictures. I also occasionally chatted with friends, and I think that was enough to keep me from getting lonely. On the other hand, I ended up spending way more time on my laptop than I would’ve liked. I read far fewer books, and probably spent less time outside than I would’ve otherwise.

During this past week, though, I’m glad I had an internet connection, even if I used it to follow news a bit more obsessively than was probably necessary. If I were out here without access to information, I probably still would’ve heard about the earthquake and the nuclear disaster, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to date, and I know that would’ve driven me nuts. I’m also glad I was able to stay in touch with my family. I can’t think of another time when I exchanged as many emails and Skype calls with my family as I did this past week.

Over all, I think I’ll keep the internet connection, and try to find other ways to moderate/regulate my usage. So, this is an open problem for now.

Personal hygiene is overrated. I took a shower once during Project 31, when it got warm and I got a little sweaty. But, other than that, I haven’t really had the desire to bathe. I don’t know of any other animal that bathes obsessively like humans do, and frankly, I don’t think it’s actually healthy. In my experience, there are 3 parts of your body you need to keep clean: your feet, your hands, and your mouth. If left alone, your feet can practically rot away, dirty hands could be a problem if you use them to eat or prepare food, and you’ll lose your teeth if you don’t brush and floss regularly. But just about everything else takes care of itself.

Other thoughts
… will be posted in another post. My laptop is almost out of power, so I’m just going to post this.

Journal: March13, 2011

Project 31 ends on the 19th, so I guess I have less than a week left. I haven’t really been keeping track. Life just has fallen into a kind of steady rhythm, and time definitely has taken on a new feel. Or, perhaps, its presence seems to have somehow become diluted. It feels less linear, less like a progression, less defined, more… natural, from lack of a better word. Time feels less significant, less meaningful, not in the sense that it is less valuable, but more in the sense that it seems to have shed more baggage to become more it, and less artificial. I don’t keep track of the date, or day of week anymore. In my world, there’s today, yesterday, the day before that. There’s “about a week ago.” There’s tomorrow. Words like “Sunday” or artificial constructs like “March 13, 2011” still register somewhere (namely on my electronic devices), yet mean little to me, possibly because those words only hold meaning in the context of a larger society, of which I am not entirely a part of. Being physically isolated from the rest of mankind, I might as well be an alien lurking in the woods, observing the human species through a looking glass that is the internet…

Since finishing my kitchen, I haven’t really had any major construction projects. As some of you may have already seen on my Flickr stream, I’ve been putting the new kitchen to good use with new culinary adventures. One night, I made some tonkatsu, or Japanese fried cutlets, which turned out quite nicely — crispy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside. I used the wood stove to warm up a pan of oil, but used the gas stove to do the actual frying. I’ve also made a couple of batches of cranberry and chocolate chip scones on my wood stove, and those have turned out quite nicely too. In lieu of an oven, I simply placed my flat 11″ cast iron skillet on the stovetop, then covered it with another cast iron 11″ deep dish pan to trap the heat in. Other than taking a little extra time to “bake”, it’s worked out nicely both times I used this method. I might try baking some cookies, biscuits and bread rolls this way too.

My food supply is holding up nicely, though my vegetable selection has narrowed significantly. Just in the past week, I’ve finished the last of the mixed greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, and avocados. I lost one zucchini to mold (it was in a box in Hut 2.1), and parts of my tomatoes had started to go moldy, but I just cut those bits off and used the rest. Still remaining in my stockpile are potatoes, onions, red and green cabbage, butternut squash, kabocha squash, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and possibly a carrot or two. I’ve used most of my fresh meat, though I still have a pound of pork tenderloin left, as well as most of the cured/salted meats and more than a dozen eggs. In the grains department, I still have a loaf and a half of bread, one bagel, 15-20 tortillas, and tons of rice, so no shortages there either. All in all, I probably have enough food to last me a few more weeks, and if anything, I may need to start pigging out more before things go bad…

Despite the rain, water flow in the seasonal creek that I wrote about last week has slowed considerably. Upstream where the creek enters my property, there’s probably still a fifth of a gallon per second or so of water, but downstream, that seems to slow to a trickle, possibly because the ground’s soaking up the water as it flows. I suspect the stream really only runs when there’s a large amount of snowmelt, but anything short of sustained torrential rains probably simply get soaked up in the ground instead.

I’ve also started writing a book. It’s not the next Great American Novel, nor is it Walden 2.0, but rather a practical book that bundles all the knowledge I’ve acquired in my land-dwelling adventures so far. The hope is to produce a guidebook for those who want to do something similar to what I’m doing. Since my knowledge is wider than it is deep, it’s not meant to be the ultimate source of truth in any one narrow topic area, but covers a wide range of topics, from buying land, to different approaches to securing food, water, electricity, as well as a survey of various building options. So, the general positioning is, “If you want to live in the woods, here are things you need to think about, and here are some possible solutions.” I’m guessing it’ll be a fairly short book, maybe 100 pages or so, and my current plan is to sell it on Kindle (and possibly Apple iBooks) for $3-5, though there also may be a limited print run, and possibly a free web-based version as well. My knowledge is still admittedly limited, but I figure I know enough to share, and that I could learn more in the process of organizing everything into a book. With an eBook format, I could easily make iterative improvements as I learn more or receive feedback, and try to create a virtuous cycle of sharing, gaining, and re-sharing knowledge.

As I head into the last several days of Project 31, I’m also considering my next steps. I was tentatively considering applying for jobs again, but since the earthquake, I’ve also been strongly considering going to Japan to volunteer in the disaster. To be completely honest, I wish I could be there now. After all, being self-sufficient where there’s no infrastructure is kind of a specialty of mine, so I’m pretty sure I could help without getting in the way. With all those international teams on the ground, I’m sure they could use someone who speaks English and Japanese fluently, especially since the elderly populations in the worst hit rural areas won’t be able to speak even a fragment of English, and I doubt many of the foreign rescuers would speak any Japanese either. On the other hand, it seems logistically difficult to get to the disaster zone with sufficient supplies and without official support (or funding). So I’m telling myself that the recovery effort would be long, and that there’d be plenty to do even if I waited until after the initial rescue and relief phases. That doesn’t make it any easier to sit here idly, though…


A couple of days ago, I decided to hop over the fence separating my property from public lands to the west, to go walk to Lassen National Forest, which starts just half a mile down a forest service road. On the way, I planned on checking out a pond that’s located a couple hundred yards from the barbed wire fence. As I approached the fence, though, I heard a whisper. I undid my hood to uncover my ears. There was no mistaking the sound — the sound of trickling water!

I scrambled downhill towards the bottom of the ravine where I knew the sound must emanate from. The whisper turned into the full-on susurration of gushing water.

The seasonal stream was running!

Even though I’d always suspected the presence of a seasonal stream there, the sights and sounds stirred palpable excitement. Water! Gallons and gallons of water, gushing right through my property! The sudden appearance of this body of water made it seem that much more magical.

Though, in reality, the stream’s appearance could hardly be attributed to magic. In fact, the pond that I had been planning on visiting sits upstream from this creek, and is the very reason I suddenly started receiving water. The pond is actually the result of a large earthen berm that blocks that stream. When the water level rises high enough, the dam is flanked, releasing any additional water downstream towards my property.

The timing of its release is also unsurprising. It had snowed almost 2 feet over the past few weeks, but recent warm weather accompanied by rain had caused all that snow to suddenly start melting and rush downhill. When the pond filled up, the overflow started trickling through my property. Once all the snow is gone, probably in the next month or so, the stream will also stop running. But during that short window, snow melt from hundreds of acres of land will rush through that narrow gully on my land.

Exiting my property to the north, the creek eventually joins other tiny streams heading towards Pit River, which meanders west across the mountains to empty into Lake Shasta, to then continue south down the Sacramento River, eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean where it would evaporate, condense into clouds that get blown back east, and fall as rain and snow on these same mountains to repeat the cycle.

On the way, some of it may be diverted to irrigate the rice fields and orchards in the Central Valley. So the next time you eat California-grown rice, or olives, or almonds, or perhaps fruits, you may be eating a tiny bit of that snow-melt I saw flowing through Serenity Valley.

Living here, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for water. Water is life. People talk about the “gold standard”, but I think there should be a “water standard.” Water is what makes life possible. No water, no life.

And until recently, I mostly thought of Serenity Valley as an inhospitably dry place. Indeed, from late Spring until mid-Autumn, there’s hardly any rain. In the summer, it’s typical for there to be zero precipitation for months. Last year, I had to haul water in to irrigate my tiny garden, and even that wasn’t enough.

But, lo! When I saw all that water gushing through my property, I felt like I’d struck gold. Nay, I felt like I’d struck life. If I can contain even a tiny fraction of the water, life can flourish on Serenity Valley. I can grow a much bigger garden, and even grow fruit trees. I can raise livestock. I may even be able to raise fish! It’s so dry here in the summer that things don’t even compost very well, but water changes that too. The soil isn’t great, but, as long as there’s water, I could build it up.

When I bought this land, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of homesteading here. Now that I’ve been contemplating that option, I was starting to doubt the suitability of this land for sustaining life. That changed the instant I heard that stream. Sure, there are much easier places to homestead, where growing seasons are longer, or summers aren’t so dry, or the soil is better. But with all that water, I think it’s at least theoretically possible to turn this land into a productive little farm. It wouldn’t be easy. It’d be an uphill battle all the way. But it just might be possible, and that’s pretty darn exciting.

As new possibilities blossomed in my imagination, I continued with my walk to Lassen National Forest as planned. I was tempted to spend more time around the new creek, but reasoned that it would still be running for at least a week or two.


The next day, having slept off my aquatic euphoria, I turned to more practical considerations. I started by walking the entire length of the creek, following it all the way through my property and out. The goal was to get an idea of the creek’s path, and to gain a better grasp of the terrain surrounding the stream. For the water to be usable during the dry season I would need to collect it, either with a dam of my own, or by diverting the water to a cistern. My hope was to spot potential sites for one or the other.

After entering my property from the west, a few hundred yards north of the south-west corner, the creek rushes down the steep ravine that I mentioned before, at a east-northeasterly orientation. The ravine eventually opens up to a bigger valley, the one I think of as actual Serenity Valley, which slopes gently down almost due north. The creek gradually wanders to the east, flowing out my property lines, then continues north parallel to my eastern border, eventually pooling in a flat area near the paved road, before disappearing into a large duct under the road just yards from the peg marking my north-eastern corner.

As I walked the length of the creek, it became obvious that damming a considerable quantity of water would quickly become a monstrous logistical and engineering feat, probably beyond my budget or skills. A more practical and practicable solution seemed to be to set up a small dam, maybe just a foot or two high in a natural bottleneck, to raise the water level just enough to make water collection easier. From there, some of the flow could be diverted by a series of pipes to a cistern located in a reasonably flat and clear area about 100-150 yards away. The terrain would allow the cistern to be located at a slightly lower elevation, and could be fed by gravity.

But, is there enough water?

As I observed the creek, I tried to make a rough estimate of its flow rate. To do so, I found a natural funnel where the stream was constrained between some large boulders, then imagined the jet of water being further narrowed, and pictured the water filling a gallon jug. It seemed like there was enough water flowing to fill a gallon jug in about a second. To be conservative, let’s call it half a gallon a second. That’s 30 gallons per minute, 1800 gallons per hour, or 43,200 gallons per day. If the creek were to run for 20 days, a total 864,000 gallons would flow through. (Incidentally, this method of approximation is called a Fermi estimate and is often employed by scientists and engineers to make ballpark estimates that often yield results in the right order of magnitude.)

So, even if I over-estimated or under-estimated by 100%, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of gallons on the lower end, and well over a million on the high-end. It seems that diverting 10-20,000 gallons would hardly do any harm, yet would provide me with enough water to irrigate a large garden, raise a couple of heads of cattle, with maybe even enough left for a small fish pond.

But, would that be legal?

My natural inclination towards such questions would be to ask, “Does it harm anyone?” If not, who cares? After all, diverting 0.5-5% of a tiny seasonal creek seems pretty harmless. Being a seasonal creek that only exists for a few weeks a year, there’s no native fish or other wildlife I need to worry about. I’m not dumping toxins downstream. So, it seemed like it’d be something so harmless as to not even warrant regulation in the first place.

But then, this is California. And this is water we’re talking about. I decided to begrudgingly research the legal ramifications, half expecting to find that what I wanted to do would be bound tightly in red tape.

As it turns out, California laws regarding Water Rights apparently include an exception for crazy (or reasonable) people like me. On the FAQ page of the California Water Board’s website, I found the following:

There is one exception to the requirement that you have a water right. You do not need a water right if you take and use a small amount of water only for domestic purposes or use a small amount of water for commercial livestock watering purposes. However, you are required to register your use with the Division of Water Rights, notify the California Department of Fish and Game, and agree to follow conditions the Department of Fish and Game may set to protect fish and wildlife. The maximum use allowed under such a registration is 4,500 gallons per day for immediate use or 10 acre-feet per year for storage in a pond or reservoir.

Furthermore, “domestic use” is defined as:

… indoor household uses, watering of non-commercial stock used for the household, and irrigation of one-half acre or less of household land, such as a garden.

So, as it turns out, what I want to do is legal, and only requires registration. Though, the registration form asks for the estimated water usage in acre-feet, and since one acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, 10,000 gallons would be about 0.03 acre-feet, or a mere 0.3% of the 10 acre-feet that is allowed under this provision. To be honest, I feel like making a state worker (and someone from the DFG) process my registration for such a minuscule amount of water would cost the state of California more than it’s really worth…

One remaining open question is the cistern. My first thought was, of course, a DIY approach. A 10,000 gallon cistern could measure 15x15ft filled to a depth of 6ft (7.48 gallons fit in 1 cubic foot), and a 15x15x7ft box with 6″ walls would require about 41 yards of cement at a cost of probably $5000-7000 (though there’s also the question of how I’d get a cement truck out there). Even if reinforced with rebar, 6″ walls may not be sufficient, so that may be a low estimate. After doing some research, it seems above-ground plastic tanks may actually be more cost effective. They seem to be priced around $0.50/gallon (+shipping) or lower, and come in varying shapes and sizes so I could start with a small tank and add more. Being fully enclosed, evaporation wouldn’t be an issue either, and the bigger ones have man-holes for cleaning (the water is pretty murky, so I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of sedimentation).

Another related idea I had was to set up a micro-hydroelectric generator to run a pump, and lift the water to a higher elevation that way. About the only good that would do is to open up more possible locations for the cistern. But using the creek to generate power wouldn’t be practical for much else, since it probably only runs for a few weeks out of the year, and the creek is about 300 yards from my camp. Re-capturing energy when water is released from the cistern might be feasible, though it’s just as likely that water from the cistern would need to eventually be pumped higher since most likely locations for gardens are located higher up on my property.

All in all, preliminary indications are promising. If water-flow I’m seeing now is fairly typical, diverting about 10,000 gallons seems both legal and practicable. Tentatively, I may try to setup a small test this summer, and see how it does next spring. I could start with a cistern or tank in the 1000-2500 gallon range, and scale-up if that works out. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if Serenity Valley is to see a transformation into Serenity Valley Farm –still a big if, mind you– it’s going to take years, if at all.

Journal: March 6th, 2011

I think today is Day 18 or something. Anyway, I would’ve thought that by now I’d be tired of being alone in the woods and be ready to pack up and go back to the city. No such luck. As time goes by, things only seem to get better.

Yesterday was my best day yet. It was all rainy outside so I spent the better part of the afternoon indoors… doing some shooting. Several days ago, I set up a target stand about 50 yards from my cabin. There’s a big match coming up in April, and since I haven’t shot much in the past year, I wanted to get as much practice in as I can. Being able to step outside and shoot significantly lowers the barrier. But it’s indescribable how happy it made me to be able to shoot without even stepping foot outside, from my own home. For me, if this isn’t a dream come true, I don’t know what is.

Then, later in the afternoon, in another burst of motivated productivity, I set up my kitchen in Hut 2.1. Up until last night, my gas stove, most cooking implements, and spices were still in Hut 1.0 where I did much of my cooking. Some meals were cooked entirely on the wood stove, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to run back and forth between the two huts carrying pots and pans. Also, since I only fire up the stove at night, breakfast and mid-day snacks were all prepared in Hut 1.0. It was a bit of a hassle, but given that I’ve been using Hut 1.0 for food storage as well, it wasn’t too bad.

Having cooked two dinners in Hut 2.1 now, it’s unbelievable how convenient it is to have my kitchen all in one place. The Hut 2.1 kitchen also just generally has a nicer layout, with the gas stove against the far wall, a prep counter to the right, and the wood stove right behind me. I can seamlessly switch between the gas stove and wood stove, and even use both at the same time. The Hut 2.1 kitchen also has more “storage shelves” (in reality, semi-structural 2x4s), though I’m also thinking of adding another set of shelves to the left of the gas stove. All that’s left to do is to set up the sink, and I’d have myself one sweet kitchen.

So, shooting and setting up an awesome kitchen were great, but I think part of what made the day particularly joyful for me was that it was a day in which I did all the things I love doing. Shooting was one, and the construction work I did was the other. While doing the construction work, though, I also had loud music playing, to which I’d occasionally sing and dance along (if flailing with a circular saw in hand counts as such), and that turned out to be incredibly uplifting.

The things I did that brought me so much joy are also things I have a hard time doing in the city. I used to have to drive 45 minutes to go shoot. I couldn’t listen to loud music any time I wanted. I couldn’t use a circular saw and hammer nails late into the evening. And being incredibly shy about such things, I don’t generally dance or sing if I know there are humans nearby. So, between prohibitions and inhibitions, when around people, I am unable to do the things I love, and be the person I want to be. No wonder I felt like a caged animal when I lived in the city. But, here, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can step outside (or stay inside) and shoot my rifle. I can play music, music I like, as loud as I want without anyone even hearing. I can use my power tools and hammer nails at 11pm if I want to. I can sing badly and loudly if I want to. Nobody cares. And because nobody cares, I don’t care. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling.

It’s what freedom feels like.

For my “mid-term report”, I’ve been trying to summarize thoughts buzzing around my mind, but unfortunately those thoughts are buzzing too quickly to be captured in any coherent manner. From what I can gather, however, many of the thoughts have to do with my relationship to people. I’ve known for a long time that I’m introverted, but the depth of my introversion is only becoming clear to me, having spent almost 3 weeks in physical isolation. Based on how liberated I feel in my isolation, I am only starting to understand how conflicted my relationship with fellow humans really is.

With ample time on my hands and mind, I also find myself contemplating big questions, like, “What the point of life?” I find that being here and doing what I’m doing renders some previous answers obsolete. If the point of life is for me to realize dreams, I’ve done that (and this isn’t the first). If the point of life is for me to be happy, I’ve done that. So, what’s next? One thing I’m starting realize is that attaining happiness for oneself isn’t a goal; it’s a stepping stone.

An image that comes to mind is of safety briefings on air planes, where they say that if you’re traveling with a child, you should put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping your kid. The hidden implication I always saw in that message was: save yourself first, then others. Maybe happiness is like that. There are a lot of people sacrificing their own happiness for others, but that seems contrived. If you can’t be happy yourself, how can you help others attain happiness? Now that I have my secret lair, my fortress, perhaps what’s next is for me to engage the world again. After all, what’s the point of a refuge if I don’t occasionally venture out and find something to retreat from?

Update on Food

I think today is day 15 of Project 31, which means I’ve been up here over two weeks now including the two days that preceded Day Zero. I’ll be posting a mid-term report in the next couple of days, but today, I’m going to devote a whole post to the topic of food.

First, the final list of food I ended up buying for Project 31 (see the original shopping list):

6lb organic russet potatoes
2lb sweet potatoes
2lb yellow onions
2lb sweet onions
6 bananas 
2lb organic carrots
2 granny smith apples
1lb green beans
20oz mushrooms
2lb zucchini
2lb greens (mustard, turnip, collards, spinach)
2 celery hearts
2 avocados
1 head cauliflower
3lb brussel sprouts
3 stalks of leek
2 tomatoes
3lb oranges
1 butternut squash
1 kabocha squash
2 lemons
1lb asparagus
1.2oz freeze dried blueberries
1lb mixed nuts
8oz dried cranberries
1lb prunes
4 cans diced tomatoes
3 cans tomato paste
1 can mustard greens
1 can cranberry sauce
1 can carrots
1 can pickled beats
1 can green beans
1 can spinach
1qt sauerkraut 
1 jar cherries

36 eggs
1lb smoked Gouda cheese
2lb cheddar cheese
2lb plain yogurt
2.25lb pork tenderloin
1.6lb chicken breast
2.2lb pork shoulders
2lb turkey ham
12oz salted pork
12oz bacon
24oz chicken sausages
2 cans clams
1 can shrimp
1 can salmon
2 cans anchovies
1 can pickled herring
3 cans teriyaki-flavored fish
2lb butter

2 loaves bread
15lb medium grain "sticky" rice
80 tortillas
1lb dry black beans
2lb dry split peas
6 bagels
5lb flour

2qts soy milk
4 bottles root beer
26oz dry milk
750ml rum (for cooking)

Dry goods/misc:
2lb sugar
12oz chocolate chips
1 jar green curry
12oz honey
box of crackers
2 boxes toaster pastries (healthier version of PopTarts)
1 bar chocolate
1 box fruit bars
7 ready to eat curry pouches
1 jar organic mayo
1 jar olives
3 cans soup
1 can turkey chili
2 cans Chef Boyardee
1.5qt vegetable oil
1 jar Nutella
1 pack dried somen (Japanese vermicelli noodles)
1 pack dried yakisoba (Japanese chow-mein)

I might’ve missed a couple of things, but that’s most of it. That list also only includes food I bought immediately prior to Project 31, but doesn’t include the larger list of foodstuffs I already had here and have been consuming. For instance, on Day Zero, I had half a dozen eggs and most of a loaf of bread still left over from January. There’s also things like instant coffee and other powdered drinks, as well as spices. So, for the most part, I’ve found that I have pretty much everything I need or want, and about the only things I noticed missing are ginger root, and cooking wine (red and white).

With that said, if it seems like a rather long list, well, it probably is. As I said elsewhere, my goal wasn’t to just buy the cheapest food to sustain me for a month, but to have a decent variety and mix of fresh and preserved (or preservable) ingredients. My desire to have fresh foods also introduced a level of uncertainty, since I wasn’t sure how long fresh vegetables and meats would last, and it also meant I had to buy a decent quantity of less perishable foods in case the fresh stuff didn’t last as long as I’d anticipated. For instance, in addition to 6.5lb of fresh meat, I also got about 5lb of various cured and salted meats (bacon, sausages, etc) which have longer shelf-lives, which were in turned backed up with assorted canned protein. With vegetables, I mixed in hardier vegetables like winter squashes and potatoes with vegetables that I knew wouldn’t last long (mixed greens, for instance), and also got canned vegetables as backup. So, that necessarily meant that I had to get more food than I’d strictly need, mostly for the sake of fault-tolerance. After all, I’d rather have too much food, than too little.

So far, my food stores have survived better than I’d feared, mostly thanks to the colder-than-average temperatures of the past couple of weeks. Vegetables left in Hut 1.0 or in coolers outside froze, and stayed that way, helping to keep them preserved. Though, it turns out the best place to have stored my veggies might’ve been in Hut 2.1, where temperatures generally stayed above freezing. I have a cardboard box on the floor which has so far stored the potatoes, onions, 1 head of cabbage, lemons, apples, avocados, tomatoes, asparagus, zucchini, leeks, and winter squashes. All of those veggies are still there (except for the leeks which I used to make potato leek soup last week), and it’s all still good. I didn’t put all my veggies in Hut 2.1 because, I was concerned that they would spoil sooner in the warmer temperatures. In reality, most of the heat rises, leaving the floor at an optimal temperature. The frozen veggies in Hut 1.0 and the coolers outside, on the other hand, may spoil unless it gets colder again and stay frozen (past couple of nights have been mostly above freezing).

It also seems clear at this point that I have too much meat. As of this morning, I had consumed a grand total of 6 slices of turkey sandwich meat (leftovers from January), 2 slices of bacon, 2 chicken breasts (1lb total), and 1lb of boneless pork ribs. That’s a little over 2lb of meat in 16 days, and I started with over 11lb of fresh and cured/salted meats. My total fresh meat supply is still far less than the 18lb of meat the average American consumes in a month, but it turns out, as long as I have eggs (of which I’ve so far consumed 22), I don’t need to eat a whole lot of meat.

Part of the reason I haven’t been eating meat is because it’s a hassle to prepare in terms of sanitation. After handling and cutting meat, I have to worry about sanitizing the cutting surface, the utensils, my hands, and without a proper sink, that can all be annoying.

In general, reducing meat consumption is a rarely cited yet highly effective way to lower our environmental footprint. Meat is problematic in all sorts of ways, whether it’s the waste run-off from industrial feedlots, the increase in methane (a greenhouse gas) cows fart out when they’re on grain-based diets, or the increase in grain production required to feed them. This last point, the increase in grain demand/production, itself has a high environmental cost in terms of water and land usage, pollution of water and soil through agri-chemicals, as well as energy used to grow, process and transport the grain. Let’s also not forget the fact that humans in poorer countries may be competing with cows and pigs in richer countries for the same wheat and corn, contributing to higher grain prices, which in turn lead to malnutrition and hunger, or even political unrest.

With all that said, not all meats are equal. Grain-fed beef is the worst offender no matter how you look at it (and the reason I’ve largely removed beef from my diet, excepting grass-fed beef and the occasional lapse), pork is slightly better, with poultry being the most efficient. It takes 2lb of grain to get a pound of chicken, while it takes seven pounds of grain to get a pound of beef (I believe pork is about 3-4lb for 1lb). Naturally, scale also matters. A person who eats a couple of pounds of beef a month will still have a lower footprint than someone who eats 20lb of chicken, though, having cut out beef, I can say that replacing beef with more efficient options like pork and chicken isn’t hard. If you crave a burger, try a turkey burger instead — they’re healthier, and better for the environment. The ultimate, of course, is to become vegetarian or vegan. For me, though, that’s too much of a sacrifice, and when it comes to sustainability, making sure your acts of sustainability are themselves sustainable is also important. After all, my cutting out beef and sticking with it has done far more for the environment, than if I’d tried to become vegetarian but reverted to old habits after a couple of weeks.

Speaking of grains, I also over-bought on bread. When I started Project 31, I still had most of a loaf of bread left over from January, and I’m still working on that loaf (which is still perfectly good, by the way). I’ve been mostly eating tortillas and rice, and have only made a few sandwiches this whole time. This also might be a seasonal preference. I know I eat a lot of sandwiches in the summer, since sandwiches don’t require cooking, but now that I have the wood stove and use it every night, cooking a pot of rice on it makes more sense. Though, I also might try and improvise an oven and bake bread using the stove… We’ll see how that goes.

Over all, I think this might just be the healthiest diet I’ve kept in a long time. I’m cooking most of my meals, and as you can see from the list, I have very little junk food. My diet has been rich in vegetables, low in meat, pretty low in sugar, and probably lower in sodium than when I eat out a lot. I also eat when I want to eat, what I want to eat, as much (or as little) as I want to eat, which I think is healthier too. Note that “as much as I want to eat” doesn’t mean I eat until I’m over-stuffed; it means I eat until I’m full, instead of eating until my heaping plate is empty. I also generally only eat two meals a day, with snacks of varying sizes thrown in between, which I think helps regulate my own caloric intake to match what my actual needs are.

For the most part, I’m not worried about my food supply, though my vegetable selection will likely dwindle in the next week or so. A bout of warm weather could exacerbate that problem as well. Though, I’m pretty sure I’ll come out of the 31 days with plenty of food left over, so I’m more worried about letting food go to waste than not having enough (which is why I made a giant pot of vegetable soup seen in the photo above, and used another pound of pork to make chili verde also in the photo to the left).

Journal: February 25th, 2011

I woke up to about a foot of snow this morning; I’d finally gotten that snow storm I’d been hoping for. I have a lot of things outside that I use on a regular basis, like my ice chest, the solar panels, the toilet, and everything had to be dug out before use. Oh, yeah, including toilet paper (which I leave next to the toilet in a ziplock bag). I made myself some banana pancakes for breakfast, and then decided to spend the day frolicking in the snow. Except, there was one problem. I have this nice pair of Sorel snow boots that a reader donated to me (thanks Ed!), but the snow was so deep, even just around my camp, that snow would get in from the top of the boots. Obviously, that’s what gaiters are for, except, I don’t have any. So, I decided to make some! I grabbed a couple of plastic shopping bags, cut one of the handle-loops off each bag, cut a hole in the bottom of the bags, then stuck my booted legs through the bottom holes, and stuck each foot in the remaining handle-loops (to keep the gaiters from hitching up). Then I wrapped some duct tape around the ankles and above the boots, and voila! Ghetto gaiters! I’m proud to say, despite barreling through thigh-deep snow drifts, hardly any snow got into my boots. Unfortunately, the gaiters proved to be only good for one-time use, since I had to cut through the duct tape to get them off… But, I’ve got plenty more plastic bags, if needed.

Later in the afternoon, in a bout of unusual productivity, I finished the rest of the work on the floor. The temperature is supposed to drop down to the single digits (-13C or below) tomorrow, so having an insulated floor will certainly be nice. In fact, it’s about 15F (-9C) tonight, but it’s about 65F up in the loft, and warm enough downstairs that I’m just wearing a t-shirt and a thin hoodie. I’m pretty sure that, when the floor was uninsulated, I had to keep the stove burning a lot hotter to keep the inside temperature 50F above outside temperatures, and it was certainly much colder downstairs. Now, I can even sit on the floor without freezing my butt off. Yay insulation.

A couple of readers pointed out that the way I decided to do my raised floor would be suboptimal, due to thermal bridging. This is indeed true. Those 2x4s will conduct heat out through the original floor, somewhat degrading my floor’s insulation. On the other hand, one of the reasons I decided to do what I did, was because I wanted to try using recycled cellulose insulation instead of polyisocynurate or polystyrene rigid insulation boards. Recycled cellulose, I think, is much more environmentally friendly, not just in terms of the environmental impact during production, but also when it comes time for disposal.

When it comes to houses, most people think about the cost of construction/production, as well as costs incurred while living in it (in terms of heating, air conditioning, and perhaps maintenance). But, people rarely talk about deconstruction, probably because most people expect to be out-lived by their houses, and therefore never really need to deal with the inevitable demise of their dwellings.

In my case, however, Hut 2.1 has an intended service life of 5 years, and is explicitly not designed to last long. There are a couple of reasons for such a short lifespan. First, and foremost, Hut 2.1 is as much an experiment and learning exercise as it is a home. I assumed from the beginning that it would be far from perfect, and therefore, that I would likely be building its replacement in the near future. Secondly, I consider this property itself to be an experiment. Once I’ve learned what I could learn from it, it’s conceivable that I’ll want to sell it, and buy property elsewhere. And if I were to sell this property, I may need to get rid of my structures because, let’s face it, most people don’t want tiny huts — at least, not these huts. (And since someone will inevitable suggest that perhaps I should’ve built something that other people would want, I’ll respond by saying that, building something other people would want instead of what I want defies the whole purpose of building your own home.)

So, even while designing and building my Huts, I’ve been thinking about demolition at the same time, and have concluded that using organic combustible materials as much as possible would simplify this issue. The plan, basically, is to remove any materials that can be reused (windows, for instance), and then to burn the rest. The less plastic there is, the less toxic fumes will be released during combustion. In the case of Hut 2.1, I’ll probably remove the roofing and strip off the exterior polyiso insulation before torching it, and the rest is basically just wood (including the “cellulose” insulation I just put in my floors) and a marginal quantity of unnatural materials like Tyvek and spray-foam insulation. This is also the reason I’ve avoided fiberglass; that stuff doesn’t burn and takes a long time to degrade, while I don’t want to leave behind anything that isn’t bio- (or naturally) degradable.