Off-Grid Explorations Part 1- The Valley of Dreams
This summer I decided to go and see for myself what all this off-grid living is really about. Do I really have what it takes to live the simple life and am I really prepared for such a change? I went to visit ex-city boys Max and Nick on Freedom Farm to find out.
This summer, Life put me to the test.
After so much talk in my post ‘An Off-Grid Life With 14k- Is It Possible?’ about toilet amenities when living off-grid on a small budget, it could be said that I was pretty cocky about being able to deal with a back to basics lifestyle.
“We have been crapping in fields for millennia”, I wrote back in May. “What’s the problem? All of a sudden we are so prim and proper that only a nice cosy toilet seat will do? Come on! Get a grip”
“Ah-ha”, Life must have thought. “So you think you have what it takes to leave the modern comforts of the city and go back to the simple life, do you? Let’s see!”.
Welcome to Freedom Farm!
The challenge began as soon as we arrived at our first volunteering destination, Freedom Farm. After a good 7 hour drive from Madrid to the Eastern province of Teruel with very few breaks, you can imagine what one of my first questions was upon arrival:
“Sooo… where’s the loo?”
To which one of our hosts, Max, laughingly exclaimed, “You’re looking at it!”, whilst gesturing to the forested mountains that surrounded us, a big smile on his face.
And so began our first off-grid volunteering adventure of the summer…
As my mum would say, start at you mean to go on!
Wwoofing- the Unofficial Way
My first introduction to Max and Nick came about when Max commented on the ‘Off-grid life with 14k’ article that I had shared on social media:
We’ve been living our dream for 18 months now, yes we shit in a field and yes we read by candlelight but so what!? We don’t have to go to work, we don’t have a boss telling us what to do, and we live in total union with nature. 1 ex-computer programmer and 1 ex-academic = 0 practical skills but we grow our own food and raise our own animals. You can do it!
An ex-computer programmer and an ex-academic? Living off-grid in the mountains of Spain? That is quite a change and I was curious to know more.
So this August we arranged to go and visit them in their valley in the mountains of Aragon, an autonomous region of Spain. We took a tent and an open mind and prepared ourselves to get stuck in!
“I’ll get you milking some goats”, Max warned us beforehand.
From the city streets of Madrid, it was hard to believe that in a few days time I would be waking up at the crack of dawn to milk goats- the contrast was just too hard to imagine! But sure enough, true to his word, from the first morning Max had us milking the goats as the sun rose over the hills.
And then, time for the morning cuppa- Yorkshire tea, milk, no sugar. The Britishness in me rejoiced! Off-grid life may change your lifestyle completely but it seems that some creature comforts can remain!
Wonderful hosts that they were, Max and Nick wanted us to learn at least one new skill before we left. And considering our dreams of going into permaculture, they had just the job for us- making hugel mounds.
This is a permaculture technique whereby a mound is constructed with decaying wood and debris and other compostable biomass, very much like a raised bed except it requires no digging. When the time comes that you are ready to plant, you just make some little holes in the top and in they go!
First, we put down old logs to create the shape, followed by hay, then composted manure and fresh goat poo from the pen. Next, we tucked it all in tight with the remaining logs to make sure that the mound didn’t wilt, and hey presto, you´ve got yourself some hugel mounds!
The idea is that the logs retain water and the hay, the compost and manure improve the soil fertility. The decaying matter also helps soil warming and makes sure the plants have a lot of nutritious soil to bury their roots into, making for some lush and happy plants!
By the time we had finished in the garden, it was time for breakfast. Max is an amazing cook and rustled us up some homemade bread, home-grown tomato salad and goats cheese- and yes you guessed it! From the same milk that we got this morning!
Veggie Patch Influencer
Over breakfast, we chatted about the work that they have done so far in the garden how it had slowly developed over time.
They explained that the fact that the hugel mounds require no digging is very important because the ground where they live is so hard and compacted that digging would be a huge amount of effort. In fact, in the beginning, some of their new off-grid friends laughed at them for suggesting that they were going to make a huerto or veggie garden on their land.
“But look, the ground is so hard!” they said. “It’s dead, nothing can grow here! Hahaha you crazy boys! Hahaha!”
Yet two years later when Max’s huerto is flourishing beautifully, the neighbours are finally starting to take notice. They come over and ask him to show them around and little by little, more and more of them have started to follow his lead and make their own veggie patches.
In fact, the same person who had originally laughed at them told me, “Oh you should have seen the garden in spring, it was so green and lush. So Beautiful!”
And now, this person even has their own huerto going!
It seems like Max and Nick are planting more than just seeds in the hugel mounds.
By having faith in their dreams and by not being swayed by nay-sayers, they found a way around the problem of compacted soil and have made their vision of permaculture and growing their own food a reality.
It also is a good example of the permaculture principle ‘The problem is the solution’.
If you can’t dig down, then climb up!
It also makes me reflect upon my previous conversation with Sardinian organic farmer Gian Marco and his philosophy of ‘passivism’. By being patient with their newfound neighbours and not trying to convince them of their plan, they instead chose to lead by example, and take a chance.
A decision that has benefited not only them but their neighbours too.
The Idyll of the Valley
However, it was more than just their garden that was beautiful.
Their house and their land were also a sight to behold. There was row after row of terraces with olive and almond trees, wild rosemary and thyme and a pine forest that wrapped around from left to right, encasing them in what felt like a cosy protective cocoon.
Their house was a small mas- the local name for the small stone buildings that people used to use to stay the night in when they were tending to their fields. Around 45 metres squared, Max and Nick called it their tiny house; everything they need and nothing more.
Behind the house, Max had the vegetable garden. Despite the fact we visited at the tail end of the growing season there was still a lot of tomatoes to be harvested, not to mention aubergine, beetroot and red pepper.
To the left of the veggie garden, Nick had the goats and the chickens. Whilst it was Max that milked the goats every morning (at 5.30 am!), it was Nick who was in charge of the feeding, mucking out and general maintenance of the coop and the pen.
And no description of their place would be complete without the dogs! In total, they had six- three that they had brought with them from the UK, one that they had rescued and two puppies that were a happy accident, aptly nicknamed ‘the children’. Being in such an isolated spot (they are 30 minutes drive from the nearest village) at the end of a long dirt track, the dogs provide them with a lot of company, fun and entertainment.
The Back Story
Over the course of our stay, I was able to find out a lot about Max and Nick and their story. And one guess what my first question was: “So how did one ex-academic and one ex-computer programmer end up in these mountains in Spain, living such an alternative lifestyle?”.
Their answer was pretty straightforward. Having lived in the UK for many years, they were feeling fed up and stuck in a rut. They were trapped in the day to day grind of normal life and feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. That, combined with a few health issues, had them feeling pretty low.
Then one day, they had an idea: Why don’t we jack it all in and move to Spain?
And within 6 months they had done just that! They decided they wanted to live a different kind of life, go back to the land and live simply. So they found an online estate agent, booked a flight, went to visit some fincas or plots of land, saw one they liked, bought it…
And 6 months later, they were living on it! Freedom Farm was born!
“Yep, we just packed our stuff up one day, put it in the car and drove off!”.
So from one day to the next, they went from young city-living professionals to simple life back-to-the-landers. What a radical change!
However, it wasn’t easy once they arrived. Their small mas didn’t have a roof and was yet to be made habitable on the inside. But it wasn’t enough to put them off! The solution? They camped in a carp tent whilst the house was being rebuilt.
And here comes the most impressive/crazy/amazing part of their story:
They camped for 4 months!
Maybe you are thinking that that isn’t such a long time. Maybe you yourself have had many camping trips and they weren’t so uncomfortable. Four months could be doable.
And maybe it would be on a normal kind of campsite, with hot running water, showers, drinking water, electricity and perhaps a cafe or pub a short walk away.
But Max and Nick had none of those things. No water, no electricity, no toilets.
Now I understood why Max was laughing when he pointed to the forest- he was already well acquainted with it!
“Really, 4 months?” I said.
“Yeah”, said Max. “We didn´t have a shower for a whole year”.
What?! No shower for a whole year?
“No. We washed of course in a bucket but no shower”.
“Bloody hell”, I thought. Is that what I am in for too if I pursue my dream of going back to the land with limited funds?
The next week gave me a taste of what it would be like.
We washed with collected rainwater in a small basin overlooking the mountains and the valley. We used the excuse of going to the loo to explore the forest. We washed our clothes by hand and hung them out to dry on the trees.
And then when all the work was done we made a cup of herbal tea using the wild rosemary and thyme that surrounded our tent and drank it whilst gazing at one of the most amazing night skies I have ever seen and went to bed to the sound of crickets lulling us to sleep.
“This ain’t too bad”, I thought. “Maybe I could do this radical back to basics thing after all”.
The Reality of The Simple Life
However, 5 days later when the romanticism had worn off I wasn’t so sure!
The wild rosemary and thyme that had made the air smell so sweet and had made such delicious tea, spiked and scratched my legs as I worked, making them itch like hell. Whilst natural beauty was abundant all around, so were the mosquitos that seemed to smell my fresh campo blood a mile off. The hens singing their “cook-a-doodle-do” at 4 o’clock in the morning that had seemed so wholesome in the beginning, turned into a delicious dream of chicken curry when we were exhausted and wanted a few more hours sleep.
In short, I realised that this kind of life takes some stamina! Idyllic photos may look lovely but they don´t capture the physical sensations of insects bites, wasps and hay fever.
And Max and Nick agreed.
Max even told us a story about one night when they were still camping, he got up to visit the loo (a.k.a forest) and in the process got attacked by some mysterious insects that began to swarm all over his legs.
He couldn’t work for a week the swelling on his legs was so bad.
Nick also told us how on their first-night camping on the finca, it was so cold in the small carp tent that at 3 am he gave up trying to sleep and went outside to make a fire and wait for the sun to rise, all the while thinking “What have we done?“.
But it’s always the stories of things going wrong or things not going to plan that make the best stories, right?! It’s only in the challenges that an experience really becomes worthwhile and a story becomes a good story!
Having seen what they have created together, I have to say, I am full of admiration for them. They may not have got off to an easy start, a start that was so much more difficult than they had originally expected when they first set off from the U.K, but the fact is that they are out there now, living their dream, growing their own food and making their own goat cheese. They are there and they are really doing it!
However, both of them agree that if they had to do it all again, they most definitely wouldn’t do it the same way!
From the modern conveniences of the city, they couldn’t really imagine what they were letting themselves in for before they left. One thing that they said that they would definitely do differently is taking the time to visit different projects to get a better idea of what the simple life is all about, so they would have been more prepared.
But for them, it was a now or never moment, and thanks to their courage, bravery or outright stupidity, now they are there, living a healthier and happy life. They have created something that otherwise wouldn’t have been created.
No Electricity = No Internet
In fact, everything they have learnt so far, they have had to learn it the old fashioned way of our pre-internet ancestors: by doing.
It was only recently (2 years after first arriving) that they were able to buy solar panels and therefore have running water, a fridge, lights and the internet! So no ‘How to milk goat’ Youtube tutorials or asking questions on Facebook groups.
They had to learn by sitting there and trying, day after day until they finally managed to get the hang out of it, which must have taken immense amounts of patience and perseverance.
I think that they are incredibly gutsy for taking on such a challenge!
And now, Max does the milking in less than 5 minutes (which, after my experience milking them, is quite an accomplishment!) and Nick also takes care of them like he has been doing it all his life. They have even been through the birthing of baby goats various times, an experience which they say has really brought them closer to the circle of life.
The funny thing for me was that these stories sounded like the kind that an outdoorsy, rugged type might have. You know, the strong, bearded mountain type, someone who has lived most of their life outdoors, braving all weather conditions and full of survival skills.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth! (although Max does have a beard!).
Nick still looks like an intelligent computer programmer (they told me that this is still people’s first guess when they ask what he does) and Max is still the bohemian academic, wearing colourful clothes and sandals.
And I loved this about them because it breaks the stereotype of country bumpkin or tough explorer, mountain person. And if anything, this juxtaposition makes their story even more inspiring. As Max originally said, if they can do it, so can anyone else!
Adding more fuel to their transformation is the fact that for years they used to be very strict vegans. However, they began to feel that maybe this wasn’t as eco-friendly and healthy as they had previously thought, due to all the processed foods, plastic packaging and soya production that a lot of alternative food entails. And feeling that maybe life off-grid in Spain may not be so vegan-friendly they began introducing a little meat into their diet.
And now raise their own goats for their milk and eat the eggs that their chickens lay.
Speaking of chickens, I know they use their eggs but I wonder if they eat the chickens too?
“Not yet!”, grins Max. “But I’m looking forward to it!”.
Not a scrap of vegan left!
Life from a different perspective
Whilst any vegans reading this may not be so approving, what I can see is that I things can look quite different once you return to the way of life of our ancestors. The goats and chicken provide manure for the vegetable garden, the goats give their milk whilst the chicken give their eggs and their meat when the time comes.
And all of this makes Max and Nick more self-sufficient, helps them consume less and reduces their carbon footprint. It allows them to plant, grow and acquire knowledge that they are able to pass on to others. And more importantly, it gives them the connection to the Earth and the cycle of life and death that the majority of us in the Western world connect to only at funerals.
I think it takes a lot of courage for people who have previously been quite rigid in their beliefs and way of life to change their minds and do things differently.
It’s normal that our values and perspective change as our experiences of life change and I think it takes a brave person to make such a radical u-turn and embrace it regardless of what other people may think.
As someone who tends to follow a vegetarian diet, all this gives me some food for thought. Once I am living in the countryside, what will my choice be?
Later on in our stay, I discovered something else that I previously hadn’t considered about life in the campo.
Whilst you may think that living in such an isolated spot would automatically assure its safety, the opposite is actually the case.
Twice Max has been confronted by a pick-up truck of men driving up to the house. Each time he was alone because Nick had taken the car into the village, making the house look empty. And each time the dogs were instrumental in causing enough intimidation that the men didn´t even get out of the car and instead turned around a drove off.
Max and Nick believe that they were probably after the solar panels that they’d just had installed. I dread to think what could have happened if the dogs hadn’t been there circling the pickup, growling and barking.
And the reality is that in those parts, it is quite common for people who live off-grid to worry about having their solar panels stolen or their house burgled whilst they are away.
Being in such an isolated spot makes it easier for someone to really take their time and rob everything- Max told me one case of them even taking the kitchen sink!
This was news to me because I had up until then had the romantic idea of nice country folk living together in peace and harmony (which is also the case since Max and Nick have many friends in the area that often pop by and help out).
But Max does warn me, “it’s like the Wild West out here!”.
Crikey! My earlier cockiness was beginning to give way to apprehension and trepidation. Maybe those original voices from the off-grid Facebook group warning me that campo life wasn’t as easy as it looked had had a point after all…
Sage Advice for Back to the Landers
This got me thinking about the original conversation that I’d had with Max over social media when we were still getting to know each other.
“Your project sounds amazing!” I said.
“Amazing and oh boy does it make us suffer sometimes” he replied.
“Really? How so?”, I asked, wondering what could be so awful about living off-grid in the Spanish countryside.
“More work than you can ever imagine. Having come from a ‘normal’ city life you just cannot conceptualise how much work there is, how many things can break in one day, how many pains you can accumulate at once. And just how much you are relying on it all going smoothly. Then one thing breaks (like the car or your hand) and the whole thing starts going sideways really quick”.
“Sounds like it’s not been an easy ride”, I said.
“Haha no but it’s like that for everyone. You just got to hold on really tight and ride the wave. I do love it though.”
“So it’s worth all the hard work?”, I wondered.
“Oh god yes! We live in paradise, it’s like a David Attenborough documentary 24/7”.
Sensing that these comments could prove to be useful to others in some future blog post, I asked him if he minded me using them in a future article. He said that he didn’t mind of course, but did go on to say:
“Great idea! Though a year into your own project, you may come to wish that you had spent that time learning how to change a 4×4 tyre in the rain and in the dark, or how to build a pizza oven out of mud or something”.
Hmmmm, interesting point..
“From the moment you decide to do ‘this’ you have to be completely fully committed like this is your baby now and if something doesn’t feed you or your baby it’s out the window!”.
Hmmmmm. More sage advice…
Although this blog is already my baby- will I be able to manage another one once we do actually do take the leap and start our own project, I wonder?
Then he had to get back to work. “I’m probably neglecting some poor animal somewhere. Speak soon!”
I learnt so much after our short stay with Max and Nick at Freedom Farm. They certainly opened my eyes to some of the realities of living off-grid that you can’t really understand until you go and experience it yourself. And although some of those tough realities maybe don’t inspire the same feeling of confidence as maybe the aspiring back-to-the-lander may like, it does help to manage our expectations a little and keep our feet on the ground.
That said, if they had kept their feet on the ground and been sensible, they may have never taken the leap of faith in the first place! So maybe we need both a mix of measured sensibility and courageous ballsiness in equal measure for us to make the leap but in such a way that allows us to be sufficiently prepared.
This experience has also made me painfully aware of how used to the luxuries of modern life in the Western world I am. Even something so simple as having an ice-cold drink on a hot day- before I had no idea of what a luxury that really is.
Max and Nick were so excited to hand us a cold glass of water whilst we were working in the heat.
“We still can’t believe we have a fridge!” they said, their faces like happy children.
Up until this point I hadn’t really considered some of these small details of not having an endless supply of electricity and fridge to store cold drinks. I had already made plan for how we were going to deal with the possible lack of fridge when we finally make the move: Dig a hole in the earth, put a cool box in it, cover it with some wood and a carpet and hey presto, you have yourself a fridge! (Right?)
But I must say, working outside in the 38-degree heat of Spanish summertime, a warm drink of water would really not be so delicious!
This experience has also really made me realise how unused to the elements we really are. The modern world shelters us from the Earth and her natural rhythms and I can’t help but wonder how much we have weakened ourselves as a species as a consequence.
Max and Nick found this out for themselves. After two years of living in this way, they feel so much healthier, so much so that even their friends and family have begun to notice. They also don’t suffer as much from insect bites, as if their bodies have become more resistant to them. And despite living the way they do- close to the elements all year round- they actually get sick less than they did when they had a comfortable, centrally heated flat in the city!
If there is one over-arching feeling that this experience at Freedom Farm with Max and Nick has left me with it is that no matter how stuck in a rut you are, or how few skills you have, transformation is always possible. We can change our lives in the most radical of ways, it’s just that most of the time we don’t have the courage or the imagination to do so.
Who would have thought that two radical vegan city boys could transform into simple life back-to-the-landers who raise their own livestock and grow their own food?
The odds must have looked very unlikely when they initially hatched the idea!
But through hard work, perseverance and self-belief in two years they have now created a healthier and happier life for themselves and a space that they can share with others.
I don’t know if I have the same stamina that they have- one week ‘crapping in a field’ was enough to have me dreaming of my comfortable bathroom in Madrid!
But then again, maybe when you want something badly enough, when your dream is strong enough, the impossible becomes possible.
A huge thank you to Max and Nick for hosting us and sharing the space you have created with us. You have inspired me and I hope you will go on to inspire many more through this article! You can follow their journey on their blog https://freedomfarmers.wordpress.com/ or on Instagram @thefreedomfarm18.
If you would like to visit Freedom Farm as a volunteer, feel free to email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They also offer their land to wild campers for anyone who would like to visit as a guest. Well worth the experience I would say!