Cooking in the Cabin

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You’d think that spending more time cooking hearty, nourishing meals would go along with our new hippie-crunchy existence of getting back to nature by living in a small, off the grid cabin. I wish that were the case. Since Jim and I have moved into the cabin we have mastered the art of one dish meals. Anything more than this becomes an excuse for take-out! While I would gladly eat the same meal for months at a time (case in point, my year of stir-fry during college), Jim has different expectations. Because of this, we are always on the hunt for new, simple meals as our current list of 3-4 options is easily exhausted. 

Last night we tried a new experiment: white bean and kale soup cooked on the wood stove! 

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YUM!

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The wood stove did a great job! We had to switch the pot on and off of the trivet a few times in order to get the temperature right, but I have to admit, it was really fun to cook by candlelight and to make the most of the heat from the wood stove. The holidays have, as usual, been as much filled with cheer as overwhelm, a festively-wrapped package of connection and detachment tied up in a bow. Cooking soup over a wood stove helped pull me back down to earth. 

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Coming home

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A flight delay last night rejected our efforts to avoid coming home to the cabin late at night after a long weekend away. Jim and I arrived around midnight last night. Our “driveway” ( I use the term loosely) was covered in 8-inches of snow, a sparkling white blanket, which dictated that we park the cars and hike in. I inwardly thanked Jim for reminding me to stow my winter boots in my car as my super cute riding boots that I had sported throughout DC would have been just as effective in the snow as the wheels on my rolling suitcase…fortunately, Jim offered to carry it down the driveway for me. Husbands are a helpful addition to cabin living.

After enjoying a short hike down the driveway, we arrived at the cabin, and Jim set to work making a fire. I surveyed the damage. My first observation was that my warm winter slippers had frozen to the floor! As I pried them free, Jim noted that the indoor thermometer had surrendered to the cold, refusing to inform us of how frigid our little cabin had become while we were away. Today, we learned that the temperature had been somewhere around -15 degrees.

Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to carry a couple of loads of firewood inside before we left, which meant that the fire started up without too much difficulty. We stood, huddled around the wood stove, refusing to venture more than a few feet away. Rather than making the trip up the ladder to bed (we were not brave enough to travel that far from the fire) we decided to set up camp on the futon in the living room. We pulled out our sleeping bags and wrapped ourselves in cocoons, standing close to the fire to try to warm the down. We amassed a pile of all the blankets we could find and dove (as gracefully as is possible for sleeping bag mummies) beneath.

As we lay on our futon, unable to snuggle due to the absurdly puffy mass of blanketry, watching the steam of one another’s breath pass in and out in the only-slightly-less-glacial air temperatures, we laughed at the ridiculousness of our situation, and agreed that we had missed our little cabin while we were away. It was good to be home.

I miss the cabin!

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Jim and I recently took a short trip to Washington, DC- for work and for play. We stayed in a nice hotel, complete with electricity, indoor plumbing, and a shower…yeah, we know how to class it up! I have to admit that less than 5-minutes after check-in, I had turned on every light in the room, and was enjoying a long, hot shower! To me, few pleasures compare to REALLY hot water…especially that which is delivered without being heated in a tea kettle or carried gallon by gallon up a ladder. Non-gravity-fed showers are also pretty cool 🙂

However, I have to admit that as the end of our first evening in the city drew to a close, I found myself turning to Jim and exclaiming, “I miss the cabin!”

We have spent a few weekends away from the cabin since we moved in this past summer. Each time I arrive in a “normal” house, re-entering the 21st century, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Lights turn on at the flick of a switch. Heat pours out of radiators and, unlike our small wood stove, continues to offer warmth long after you’ve fallen asleep at night. Gallons of water are heated and delivered with the turning of a faucet.

And then the shock wears off.

Perhaps I’m just a “grass is always greener” kind of person, perpetually unsatisfied with the present moment, constantly seeking happiness around the next bend. Those who know me well are likely to be nodding their heads in agreement. But that’s not the whole story.

I will someday have a home with electricity, water, and indoor plumbing. I envision myself spending the first week taking long showers, running around turning on all of the lights I possibly can, and maybe even charging into the bathroom completely unnecessarily to flush the indoor toilet, just because I can. And yet, as has been the case each time we have left the cabin to enjoy a weekend of modern conveniences, after a short period of time the gratitude I feel for these amenities will dissipate and transform to a sense of expectation. When we loose power in a snowstorm, I will find myself begrudgingly lighting a candle, cursing the falling snow. When the water heater inevitably malfunctions, I will resent the absence of a hot shower.

In the cabin, there are few expectations. The water neither carries itself indoors, nor heats itself. Electric is available only after a trip outside to start up the generator, which is used sparingly to conserve gasoline. Indoor plumbing is not in my near future. When nature calls, I must venture out into nature. And yet, when I put forth the effort required to meet my basic needs in the absence of 21st century conveniences, I am consistently met with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

Overcoming these small challenges on a daily basis keeps me in check. I appreciate what I have in such a different way when I have to work for it. Heat is not an expectation. It is an art form  (especially for me, as the act of building a fire in a wood stove is an area where I lack mastery). When I work for what I have in my physical surroundings, I notice that I approach other challenges (emotional, interpersonal, etc.) with more curiosity and less angst. My mother recently reminded me that the way Jim and I live in the cabin is the way all of us lived just 100 years ago. We launched ourselves into a culture of instant gratification, and never looked back.

At the risk of sounding hypocritical or pretentious, I acknowledge that I am writing this from my MacBook Air. My iPhone sits beside me. Both are wifi connected. I am far from a cavewoman. I thoroughly enjoyed my long, hot showers this past weekend. Yet, I hope that when I am lucky enough to have a home with electricity, plumbing, heat, and hot water, I will find a way to balance my love of the convenient with an appreciation of the value of good, hard effort and gratitude for the gifts that surround me.

Prepping

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Bring on the snow! We are the most dangerous kind of preppers- the procrastinators. In June, when we first moved into the cabin, Jim and I promised each other that we would buy our firewood during the summer. We would buy it at the discounted summer rate, and have it stacked by September. This is our third year burning firewood for heat, and for the third consecutive year we spent summer basking in the warmth of the sun, failing to consider any plan for firewood until well after the first season’s snow. 

By this time, anyone who sells firewood in the area has sold out for the year. As has been the case for the past three years, we once again find ourselves entertaining these North Country firewood suppliers who chuckle scornfully at us for beginning to look for our firewood stock months after everyone else in our area has had it delivered, stacked, and seasoned. 

Fortunately, a neighbor of ours came through. We got a great deal on a pile of log length wood, which has been occupying space in his driveway since his lot was cleared years ago. All other options exhausted, Jim and I agree to take on the task of cutting up the logs into pieces that can be loaded onto our trailer and deposited into a dauntingly large pile on our frozen lawn. Another neighbor gives us the name of a local man who rents out HOMEMADE log splitters for just $40 per day (he apologizes to Jim when he calls to reserve the splitter- apparently he used to charge $35, but has had to increase his prices recently to account for rising costs of gasoline, etc.). Jim’s initial plan was to hand split our firewood, but given that I am useless with a maul (the huge axe-like tool that one uses to split firewood), he is coerced into putting down the cash for the rental of a splitter. Here it is in action!

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All in a day’s work…

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Jim spent the day chainsawing logs into manageable lengths, which meant that I was the de facto operator of the log splitter. One of my proudest moments occurred when the owner of the splitter arrived to pick it up at the end of the day. In our usual pattern of procrastination (and completely overestimating our abilities) I was forcing our last few logs through the splitter when the owner came to take it away. He was so impressed with my abilities that he offered me a job! In truth, the job was hypothetical, but a compliment from the man who built the splitter (“aftah runnin’ em for 100 years”) is not something I take lightly 🙂

Day two was spent stacking the split logs. Jim carried the logs to the cabin in a wheelbarrow, and I set to work stacking. Our dogs love firewood stacking, as they stealthily steal away logs that look particularly appealing for chewing. I’m sure we have a small supply of half-chewed firewood stowed away in the woods nearby…given our tendencies toward procrastination, this is probably not a bad thing. Maybe our dogs are simply trying to guarantee that some burnable logs will be set aside to keep them warm for next year. 

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There is A LOT more stacking to be done. Hopefully we will get to it before ski season. If not, we may have to deal with some of our firewood remaining unstacked…just don’t tell the locals!

A DAY IN THE LIFE

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Summer in the cabin was easy. The sun arrived before 5am and stuck around until after 9 at night. The long days meant that there was plenty of time to get things done without needing to run the generator (also known as “the truck”) or wear a headlamp for light. 

Now that winter has arrived, we are certainly glad to have had the summer daylight while it lasted. We have worked out a semblance of routine in the past months that would have been much more difficult to establish in December. The days are now short, and the truck and headlamps are in high demand.

My (Jim’s) day typically starts around 6am as I roll out of a warm and cozy bed into a cabin that has dropped to a cool 50 degrees overnight. I release Roland (our 3-year-old hound) from his overnight jail so that he can bound across the room and leap onto the covers for a few minutes of warmth with Kelly. I then head downstairs (actually an attic ladder) and put a kettle of water on the propane cook top (a coleman stove attached to a propane tank- camping equipment turned kitchen range).

While the water is warming, I start the truck and switch over the mini fridge from battery power to outlet and plug the battery charger into the wall.

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Once everything is switched over I get the fire going to take the chill off. An advantage of living in a 16 X 24ft cabin is that it is quick to warm up in the morning.

By this point the water is close to boiling so it is time to haul the water jug upstairs to the bucket that holds shower water. That’s right, in the cabin with no running water, we have a shower. There is a small pump that operates off of 4 D batteries. It sucks water through a plastic tube that connects to a coil of copper tube. This runs above two propane burners, heating the water. The heated water then goes to a valve that will either allow it to pour back into the storage tub to loop the water in hopes of raising the temperature, or flow down into the shower stall on the first floor.

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 Typically, I get the pump going before I head downstairs in the morning to allow it to cycle for a few minutes to raise the temperature. The water that has been boiling in the kettle is then added to the tub to provide a boost of warmth. When it is only 50 degrees indoors, this little boost in water temperature makes all the difference. This system allows for a 10 to 15 minute hot shower that only uses about 5 gallons of water.

While one of us showers, the other puts water back on the stove for coffee and monitors the level in the tub upstairs to make sure we don’t run dry. Since there are no controls downstairs in the shower stall, when the person showering is done, they call upstairs to have the heat and water shut off.

After all of this, the rest of the morning is pretty relaxing. Kelly and I listen to the radio (NPR because we like to be informed) and enjoy coffee and breakfast.

When it is time to go about the day, we turn off the truck and switch the refrigerator back to battery power. I make sure the woodstove is loaded and head out.

Whenever I leave the cabin, I grab at least one of the water jugs and occasionally a gas can. I fill up on water at a neighbor’s house (thanks, Josh, Matthew, and Kathy!) and carry it from the car to the cabin to fill our drinking water jug (a Home Depot container with a spout). Carrying in all of your water really makes you appreciate how much water you go through in a day.  

The evenings are similar to the mornings in that once it is dark (4:15pm at this point) I turn on the truck, plug in the fridge, and charge the battery. I typically spend some time chopping wood and filling the wood storage box on the deck to make sure we have enough of a supply. Dinners are one pot/one plate meals that are easy to clean up since doing dishes is a challenge.

Because we only have power when the truck is running, we typically turn off the engine after dinner and hang out by candle and lantern light. This is one of the best parts of living in the cabin. We get to read, listen to the radio, talk, plan hiking trips, and play card games. Even though we will be getting power on the building lot at some point, we hope to continue spending our evenings by candles. There is no better way to wrap up the day.

Welcome to the cabin!

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It’s the first of December in northern New Hampshire. As we arrived home from a Thanksgiving weekend out of town, we were greeted by a blanket of fresh snow on the earth. As we schlepped our belongings in from the car, we discovered the indoor temperature to be drastically cooler than that outside! I (Kelly) propped the front door open to allow the (warmer!) outdoor air to come in while Jim set to work building a fire. A few moments later, as we sat huddled around the wood stove in slippers, hats, and mittens, attempting to thaw the brick of ice that had formed in our bucket of drinking water while we were away, it dawned upon us that it would be fun to have a record of this experience. And so the saga begins…

In actuality, the saga began on June 28th, 2013. This was the day when we exchanged our first home for a 5-acre parcel of land with a 16 X 24-foot cabin. Included was a wood stove, a sink and tile shower (we will tell you about the shower system later) that both empty into the ground through a single PVC drain pipe, a generator, and some hooks on the walls from which to hang hurricane lanterns. No running water. No electric. No septic (gasp!). 

Our plans were ambitious. We quickly set to work (with support from my father who has been a builder for more than 35 years) with plans to build a new home. My father drafted a set of building plans, and Jim and I hired a contractor. We would live in the cabin during the building process, but would soon be accompanied by the utilities that would be brought in to the new home as it was built. With the hopes of having our new home framed and closed off to the weather by the time the snow fell, and a move-in date of the Spring of 2014, we were set to begin.

Life had other plans in store for us. As I’ve said, it is now December first. With the house site cleared, and only the footings of a foundation in place, we have abandoned our building plans, hoping to resume sometime in the Spring. And so, here we are. Despite our parents’ gentle nudging, we have neglected to “just rent an apartment for the winter.” We have layered up in all of our warmest outdoor clothing, and have settled in to watch the snow fall. Cheers!

And fingers crossed…