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Learning Life Skills from the Mountain

Updated on October 8, 2014

Lessons learned from a remote lifestyle

As a friend liked to say, "you don't live in a remote place, you just live down a long, bad road!"

For about 30 years, I lived in the mountains of eastern Washington, off the grid and 'remote' by modern definition of the word. I moved twice in that time, to other places on the same mountain. The closest I lived to 'civilization' was 5 miles off the pavement, and once I hit the pavement, 8 miles in either of two directions to the nearest towns. I like to say that I 'grew up' there, because I learned some basic life skills/attitudes that are still with me today.

If I wanted to go to a movie, it was another 25 miles further down the highway, as was Walmart (yuck) and my favorite lumber store. Closer to home, there were few choices of where to shop. Local is always best but sometimes no one local makes or sells what you need. My friends were often 10 miles away as the crow flies but 30 miles or more 'as the roads wind'. Then, I found the internet.

Besides starting an online knitting business, I discovered online gaming and forums, fun and interaction without burning fossil fuels. And of course, online shopping opportunities. I would order yarn (or whatever else I needed), have it delivered to our food coop, and plan a day in town around whatever day I had to go pick it up.

I could go on and on about life in the hills, off the grid, and so on, and I will in future lenses. But here I want to talk about some basic life skills, understandings, and habits I picked up along the way that have become an integral part of who I am. I've moved on to living in the suburbs and then various rural areas that were and are much more accessible than where I spent those 30 years. However, I can boil down what I learned into 5 basic principles. Read on and enjoy.

Photo Credit I have no images of my own from these years, thanks to the wildfire that came through and burned the shed where my photos were stored. This photo captured some of the essence of my life back then - in particular the log home, the solar panels on the hill to the left, and the dirt road/driveway.

recycling yarn
recycling yarn

1. Frugality

making do with what you have and reusing.

What do we really need? Food, water, clothing and shelter depend on the climate where you live. A lean-to might work for some, while an igloo would be more appropriate for others. We dug or drilled our own wells; it used to be that you could drink water from rivers and creeks in this country. Designer clothes and castles are for those who don't understand that the earth's resources are finite, and "having" shouldn't be dependent on others "not having".

We also need companionship, some sort of social existence. On the mountain, we were a small community of neighbors within a larger, looser community of those who shared a few common interests, such as a volunteer fire department and a road up the mountain.

Learning how to make what you need from something you already have is an art. Instead of needing to buy new tools and materials, I try using what I have on hand. A tool lasts forever, materials get used up. I learned to reduce my needs, reuse, and construct creatively.

I bought clothing at thrift stores once a year, mended, revamped, adjusted. I could turn a wool blanket into a coat, a sheepskin into a vest, a deerskin into moccasins or a shirt. I spun, knit, and wove. I bought a treadle sewing machine and a spinning head. I could remove the sewing machine from its base, attach the spinning head, and voila, my sewing machine was a spinning wheel.

I still knit but most of the rest is in my past. However, making do with thrift store purchases and 'hand-me-downs' is a way of life. I buy yarn and knit gifts as well as new, unique fashions, accessories and home decor items for myself and my home. When we don't have money to buy lumber, we use poles from down trees in the woods around us. We're starting a first-year garden and we're finding plants to landscape with from local free sources. We can bag up our own finished compost for free at a local recycling place that collects yard waste. We buy mostly seeds, not plants.

The photo is of an afghan I bought "as is" that I'm taking apart to reuse the yarn. I paid $3 for a LOT of yarn that way.

How to reduce the amount of plastic in landfills

Plastic water bottles are everywhere. My local recycling center has singled them out as one of the worst offenders in our throwaway culture. This excellent thermos is a replacement so you can start doing without plastic.

Klean Kanteen Wide Insulated Bottle with Stainless Steel Loop Cap
Klean Kanteen Wide Insulated Bottle with Stainless Steel Loop Cap

The reviews of this bottle are excellent -- "still going strong after 4 years"; "the original cap and the cafe cap both work great". I also like that this bottle fits in your car beverage holder. Sturdy, plastic-free, and a great price.

home at the edge of the forest
home at the edge of the forest

Budgeting as a Part of Frugality

Living on a Fixed Income as a Senior Citizen

My early life lessons learned in frugality are paying off. Now I am almost a senior citizen, partners with a man the same age. He has a retirement income and also is developing a small photography business. I have my income from writing and knitting.

After realizing that renting in the city wouldn't work on a fixed income thanks to rents always going up, he has bought a small home. Here we live on a mostly fixed income, and my frugal ways have benefited us even in these first 7 months. What with moving expenses and an initial delay in his SS, money has been very tight. We've begun a small vegetable garden (with raised beds and fencing) and planted a few trees thanks to wood gleaned from down trees in the forest for bed construction and a rudimentary fence, and free trees from our local FreeCycle group for eventual privacy. We've also gotten free lumber and a free wood door with glass panes from the same group.

I'm making fertilizer for the garden from the wild nettles (which also supplemented our diet before they started flowering) and we got soil from the forest, supplemented by free composted yard waste from the local waste collection depot. The most vulnerable part of our finances is our food budget, since it is the only place where there is much flexibility at all, so a garden is essential.

We carefully budget for food, buying in bulk at Costco once a month and setting aside cash for perishables and gasoline for the rest of the month. The last week of our monthly food budget is always tight. Our idea of "going out" is going to a farmers market, the library, or beachcombing. Occasionally we go to a local cafe for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat.

I bake at home a lot -- sourdough bread, cookies, banana bread -- using what we have on hand, what needs to be eaten, what we've bought in bulk, such as flour and rice. We eat simply but well -- barbecues, homemade soups from homemade broth, gourmet ethnic foods. Deer wander through our yard; birds call out from the forest all day and into the evening. Sitting on our deck with a cup of tea at dusk is a favorite pastime. Life is oh so sweet, in a simple uncomplicated way.

Photo Credit: Meridian West Designs -- The photo shows our crude but functional homemade raised bed, fence of scavenged poles and fishing line (!), and homemade gates. A funky but spunky beginning!

jar covered with decorative knitting
jar covered with decorative knitting

More about Frugality

recycling with style and grace

I realize that, over the years, I have developed a style that sometimes sacrifices beauty for practicality. Now that my life includes another who insists on neat, tidy, and his version of attractive which is much more...attractive than mine, I am modifying my standards and practices.

I will use recycled yarn to decorate a plastic grow pot that formerly was sufficient in itself. I will not leave garden hoses lying in the yard simply because it's easier to leave them there than roll them up, only to take them out again tomorrow. No, I'll not be yarn bombing our garden hoses any time soon.

I'll look for baskets and bowls at the thrift stores to store things in rather than cardboard boxes and plastic bags. I'll make reusable shopping bags. I'll make things out of old t-shirts that look beautiful, not just wear them until they are rags (who's going to see me in the garden or scrubbing the bathtub? there's someone who WILL see me.)

Living with another person has made me more aware of all the opportunities I have to add beauty to life. Instead of just sticking those pretty flowers in an old jar, decorate the jar. I expand as a creative, frugal, recycling artist.

I took this picture of the knitted and felted pencil holder that I made. I put old batteries and coins in the bottom of it for extra stability but it still was a bit floppy. In the past I would have just said forget it and used a jar instead. Now I'm thinking I will find the perfect jar to place inside the decorative knit piece. This jar is too tall and you can still see the jar. You get the idea.

grow your own - can your own
grow your own - can your own

2. Creativity

The DIY lifestyle

I grew a garden and canned and dried what I harvested. During harvest season I picked fruit at u-pick orchards, sometimes for free. It was a joy to cook and bake from scratch - raw materials such as beans, rice, whole wheat (I ground my own flour sometimes), and flour are much cheaper than buying canned, packaged, and already baked. As I stated above, I spun, knit, wove, and sewed. I tanned hides, peeled logs for construction, created products to sell from our own homegrown businesses.

I'm always thinking up ways to make what we need. I just took sourdough bread out of the oven - I made my own sourdough starter. And I love finding Squidoo lenses and other websites that show me how to make things from what I have on hand.

Photo Credit

barn raising
barn raising

3. Sharing

Sharing is more than charity, it fulfills the soul's need for interaction

I shared child raising, gardening, water source development, and animal raising with my neighbors. We home schooled our kids together. We worked and played together. We built our homes together, built fences together, built a community root cellar, and maintained our roads and vehicles together. We shared an outdoor summer kitchen.

I also began volunteering in a nearby town. I served on a School/Community Development Partnership committee and learned incredibly powerful leadership skills which I transferred to a community center that I started, and later a farmers market as well. I learned that community is the best insurance policy. My neighbors and I on the mountain survived a wildfire that burned down several dozen homes and the community center was the Red Cross headquarters as well as the central focus of community efforts to support all in need. Needless to say, perhaps - the community's efforts were more productive than the Red Cross, despite the best intentions of the wonderful RC volunteers who joined us.

While my life in service may seem exemplary, it was not much different than what many people in that area did, and had done for generations - and are still doing. Rural lifestyles are so often written off in our society because they are boring, unglamorous, and out of pace with the modern world as seen from the outside. I learned that when the shit hits the fan, there's nothing like a small rural community to pick up the pieces and help everyone put their lives back together.

Photo Credit

barter fair
barter fair

4. Bartering

We started a tradition back then that is still in existence today - barter fairs. What started out as a small gathering of a few dozen families in the 70's is now a huge fair that attracts thousands from all across America. How did this begin? We all new each other and fall was a great time to get together, share food and make music, and trade our crafts and harvest bounties.

Now with the whole world reeling from economic devastation brought about by a greedy few, more people than ever can benefit from a barter system amongst people who are consciously working to live in a sustainable, self-sufficient way. All of these words are open for individual interpretation - sustainable, self-sufficient, organic, humane, conscious - but intent and attempt are honorable steps.

I participate in my local online FreeCycle community, support local farmers, and advocate for alternative ways to conduct our everyday lives that are more conscious, considerate, and conservative.

Photo Credit


5. Conserving

I love to share Wendell Berry's essay on "Conserving Communities". He outlines how to recognize and honor our own community's singular identity, and then conserve it. He includes flora and fauna as well as humans and their activities in this concept of community - everything we do must take into consideration all aspects of community and its well-being. In case you aren't familiar with Berry, he's an eloquent farmer/poet/essayist.

On the personal level, my biggest lessons in conserving came from being off the grid. A life lived with solar and wind power meant a whole new vocabulary for me - solar panels, solar cells, solar trackers, adapters, meters, batteries, wind generators, inverters, wiring, diodes...the list goes on. Fortunate for me that I lived with a technician that understood all this; however, I was expected to try to keep up!

The concept of conserving was an everyday, ongoing, never-ending part of life. Wasting power was the ultimate disgrace. Unplugging, turning off, using only as much as necessary, the endless search for the most efficient appliance, tool, light bulb, EVERYTHING.

I'm still haunted by ghosts - the phrase "phantom power load" is etched in my brain. What are phantom loads? They are all the things that are still "on" even after you've turned them off. We measured phantom loads with meters. When found, things that put phantom loads on our system were unplugged, either after every use or at night. All those things that leave little LED lights on. You can find them easily by turning off all your lights before going to bed.

In my house now, sometimes they give me insomnia. I can't sleep so I get up. I lie down on the couch when I think I might be able to fall asleep but the microwave clock, stove clock, power strips, DVD players, stereos, computers that are "sleeping", etc. etc. all have these little lights. The iPhones are plugged in, recharging.

And I'm living in the country now, relatively-speaking. In the towns and cities around the world, so many more lights are left on all night long. So many that we can't see the stars.

What other aspects of conserving are imbedded in me? I hate throwing away food. The only way this feels good to me is if I have a compost pile. It's the same with "throwing away garbage" of any sort. We will be going to a monthly pickup of trash instead of bi-weekly because we hardly even have one small bag, the rest we recycle or compost.

There is always more that can be done, but don't compare yourself to others and worry about not doing enough. All you have to do is something, and do it today. One step at a time.

Photo Credit

Making ends meet - or how you walk lighter on this beautiful earth

Each of us does something to be more self-sufficient, waste less, reuse, reduce our consumption, and many other things that both make the earth a bit greener and make our money go further.

What do you do that helps you leave fewer footprints?

See results

Thanks for visiting - I'd like to hear your reactions to what I've shared

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Its so interesting.. thanks for sharing all this.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      4 years ago from Colorado

      Mountains sure do teach. I'm still in school taking their classes. Appreciated what you learned and shared. I can relate.

    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 

      6 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      One of my favourite movie quotes is from the film "La Belle Verte". The whole village spends a day hiking up the mountain to have a communal meeting. A child asks: "why do we always have to go up there to have our meetings?" and someone answers him: "Because he who climbs up a mountain is wiser than before he climbed". Nature teaches us so much.

    • KandDMarketing profile image


      6 years ago

      What a wonderful lens! My wife and I strive for much the same here on our farm in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri. Your story is an inspiration!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      The mountain has been a good, wise teacher. I enjoyed reading this.

    • Kathryn Beach profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Wallace 

      6 years ago from Greenbank, WA, USA

      @IMKZRNU2: None of our doors had locks; neighbors knocked and came on in.

    • Kathryn Beach profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Wallace 

      6 years ago from Greenbank, WA, USA

      @hntrssthmpsn: the magic of semi-solitude, you've captured the feeling!

    • Kathryn Beach profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Wallace 

      6 years ago from Greenbank, WA, USA

      @kristalulabelle: You are too kind, thank you so much for warming my heart.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 

      6 years ago

      Living close to Nature is precious, and mountains are my personal friends as I spent my best moments of my life hiking in spectacular scenery.on Europe's and America's Mountains.

      Great lens I like the concept!

    • IMKZRNU2 profile image


      6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      We live in a rural community where I can still leave my house unlocked and I know my neighbors yet I am not too far from a small town to get what I need or about an hour away from the "big" city. Conservation is a way of life at my house. Nice lens and thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Kathryn Beach profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Wallace 

      6 years ago from Greenbank, WA, USA

      @artbyrodriguez: I appreciate the suggestion and I'll take you up on it. Thanks.

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 

      6 years ago from Albany New York

      I lived in the country on 40 acres for ten years. As I got older I welcomed moving back into town. Lovely lens. One little critique...a custom bio for each of your lenses is important. This one could mention lessons from the mountain and remote living. Nice work.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      In many ways you are a kindred soul. We live in a mountainous rural area, too, recycle everything we can, spend very little (I also shop at the thrift store for clothes and buy the $5 canvas shoes at Rite Aid), have a wood stove for heat, our own well and septic, and oldest child is a wind turbine maintenance mechanic. Just last night I was talking on the telephone with a friend about how we can foresee that barter and village type living will be the new economy. When the "powers that be" see that we do not need them any more, they will shift their authority, don't you think? Thanks for this lovely lens!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image


      6 years ago

      Having lived in remote areas my entire life, I just recently moved inside the city limits of Santa Cruz, onto a nice suburban street surrounded by "city folk." There are benefits (for the first time in my life, I can pick up a phone and have a stranger bring food to my house!) but all in all, I think I'll be headed back up the mountain shortly. This lens has reminded me of the magic of semi-solitude :)

    • kristalulabelle profile image


      6 years ago from Wisconsin

      I found your lens truly fascinating. I can honestly say that I didn't skim one it word for word until the end and now I want more... :) I'll have to take a look at what else you've got for me! Thank you for the terrific lens!

    • Kathryn Beach profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Wallace 

      6 years ago from Greenbank, WA, USA

      @kerbev: I was young and adventurous, and ready to live differently when I left. I can't fault it for the wisdom I gained, however. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • kerbev profile image


      6 years ago from Upstate, NY

      I don't think I would want to live more then 10 minutes from a grocery store.


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