This past winter I embarked on a dream of mine to live in the mountains in an off grid yurt. For 4 months I lived in the Coconino National Forest which is a 1.856-million acre United StatesNational Forest located in northern Arizona in the vicinity of Flagstaff. Originally established in 1898 as the “San Francisco Mountains National Forest Reserve” I would defiantly rank this adventure experience right up there with my best adventures. It was not only life changing but it also found the answer to that simple question. “What would it be like” A question that I am often compelled to find the answer to when applied to certain dreams. This however was a much deferent type of journey than journeys past. In stead of passing by landscapes and constantly moving towards that elusive horizon like my run across America in 2010 or my bike around America in 2011. My 2012 mountain yurt experience was one that watched the mountains move instead of I. Experiencing the Neighboring Coyotes constant prowl for food or the winds kick up and clouds roll in before a big snow storm.
Yurt Construction… I built the Yurt myself from scratch for $700. I came up with the money by selling my Mac Book Air Laptop Computer. The Yurt took about 2 weeks to build during this time I lived out of the back up my 2000 Ford Ranger. Living out of the truck was an experience in and of its self. I quickly found my top priority was finding a way to stay warm at night. I spent $150 on a propane heater that I quickly fell in love with. The first week or so I was very skeptical of the Mr. Heater thinking that I may die of carbon monoxide poising in my sleep but slowing began to trust it and found the back of the truck a pretty cozy place to spend the night. The hardest part of building the yurt was building the insulated circle platform that would become the yurt floor. After I got the lattice all tied together the rest of it went up pretty fast. As winter quickly approached the construction of my yurt was coming to an end as well as my quest to summit all of the area’s major mountain peaks. I putting on a few finishing touches on the Yurt which included a custom log counter and end table both made from Aspen with hand tools.
Winter… I woke up and scraped some frost off the window in the door and peaked out. A blanket of white snow covered the tall ponderosa pine forest. It was so cold in the Yurt I slept with my snowsuit and winter coat on. My failed attempt at installing a home-made barrel stove forced me to resort to plan B. Since the vinyl of the yurt was literally only two separate peaces it majority of it was air tight, However the crack between wall and the roof let in way to much air. After stuffing the cracks with clothes, plastic bags and basically anything else that did not have a practical use I decided I just needed to spend some money on insolation and a bigger propane heater. I did and the results were amazing. My goal was to be able walk around my yurt in my normal clothes on a cold winter night and be worm. It work. Since heat rises I bought reflective bubble wrap insolation and covered the roof placing it in between the rafters and the roof vinyl. I also bought pink insolation to replace the clothes in the cracks. Along with my new Big Buddy Mr. Heater these upgrades made the 200 square foot yurt into a warm winter hut.
Here is where I spent most of my work day. It was a 30ft rental yurt with a nice wood stove.
This was that farthest yurt out on the trail system, named morning-glory. It had a great view of San Francisco Peaks and was a favorite among them more advanced skiers or outdoors men. It was 3 mile and a 1000ft elevation gain to reach.
Work… Along with the snow came the opening of the Flagstaff Nordic Ski Center that I would be working at for the winter. The Nordic Center was located about 15 miles out of flagstaff in the national forest. The 40 miles of groomed ski trails through the national forest would soon feel like my personal winter playground. One of the groomed trails passed by my front door not more than 10 yards away. This Nordic Ski Center is unique in the fact that it provides skiers with an over night option. 5 yurts and 4 cabins scattered the mountain side giving guessed the option to pack up some gear and head out to one of the remote off grid geta ways. Although the pay was only $9 per hour I would consider this a dream job. Since no one lived out there it was part of the agreement that I keep and eye on things at night. On a typical day I would walk over to the lodge about an hour before anyone got there and start the fires. The whole lodge was off grid and used wood as its main source of heat. Next I would put all the ski boots away that were on the drying rack from the prevues day. Maybe shovel and restock the wood piles or cut kindling. Around 10am people who had spent the night out in the yurts or cabins would start skiing in. We offered a gear shuttle service which ment a co-worker or I riding out on the snowmobile to pick up their gear. Often times we would clean the yurts while we were out there to save trips. I really enjoyed these days as it basically ment driving a snowmobile around in the mountains all day. Most of the yurts has amazing views of the San Francisco Peaks. I would describe the position as a mountain man house keeper and I loved it. The other half of the job was renting out ski gear to people excited to try out the trails. Since most of the people who rented were first time skiers from Phoenix it was a joy to introduce them to the sport. One of my favorite perks of working at a place like this is the type of people who it attracts both as guest and as employes. Most of my co workers were guides in the Grand Canyon in the Summer ether by rafts or hiking. Two of them had were planning major hikes in the spring. One the continental divide trail and the other the pacific crest trail.
Cooking one night over my out-door wood grill.
I really enjoyed being out there. Living in a yurt feels like you are living with nature like you are part of it. You can hear it and feel it. With out electricity you need to find new ways to do things. You need to plan ahead. It forces you to slow down and enjoy your surroundings. To go out skiing or snowshoeing on a daily basis instead of sitting inside all winter and watching TV or something. I have now moved back to Wisconsin to work my second season at the DC Adventure Center but have passed on the Yurt dream to my co-worker Dan who is currently living in the yurt down in the valley. Dan is a backpacking guide in the Grand Canyon and although he spends most of his days on the trail. When he does have off he calls the Yurt home. Thanks to those who helped make this dream a reality. It was an adventure.
Here is a wonderful article that Amy Siewert wrote up in M magazine about running across america solo and unsupported 2,960 miles, bike riding around america 9,000 miles plus and life in between. All in the name of adventure and clean water for the thirsty. I just got back from Haiti. After spending a week drilling a small hand pump well for a village outside Cape Haitien I can confidently say that what Living Water is doing is simply amazing. Every mile, every cold night, every lonely moment was worth it a thousand fold. Read the online digital version of the article HERE
photography by Dan Bishop
Pictures of our Trip to Haiti can be viewed HERE or HERE (check back for blog write up)
Kate had some homework to finish up so Josh and I ran 13 miles to Bloomfield. The run went fast with Josh. The Solomon Ruins seemed like a good stopping point. It was pretty cold and windy. Kate and Josh were both a bit disappointed that it was 65 degrees in Wisconsin and no more than 50 here. When Kate showed up with the car it took some creativity to get Ruby in the back seat. The car was already packed with things from my older brother, Ben’s, move back to Wisconsin, now that his four years in the Marine Corps is up. Room was sparce to say the least, however it was entertaining watching Josh try to fit in the back seat of the sardine packed vehicle. The short run was nice, and I was super excited to take some time off and forget about the road ahead and running in general. Our plans for the next two days were non-existent, but it didn’t matter to me. I had two days off, a car and two of my favorite people in it. Life was good.
Pastor Billy in Shiprock was super cool. Last night he took me out to get a burger at McDonalds. After a 41 mile run the #10, a large milk shake, chicken wrap and two large powerades did the trick. I stayed in an old trailer that was next to the church. They used it as the Sunday school room and also for youth group meetings. There was no sleeping furniture so I chose a small room at the end that looked happy. The kid’s art work hung on the walls explaining why they liked attending church. I put in a Veggie Tales tape and fell asleep on the floor listening to silly songs with Larry.
In the morning, the Pastor picked me up and we went over to his friend’s house where I took a shower. We then headed back to McDonalds for breakfast. I was to meet with a couple people there, one whom was the director of foreign missions. I told her all about the run and the mission of Living Water International. I met three different pastors during my time at McDonalds. It must have been some kind of pastor hangout.
I don’t know if it was yesterday’s McDonald food, the 41 miles or the fact that my fiance’ Kate and brother Josh were coming to visit, but I was not in the running mood. I stopped in Kirtland to make an attempt at returning a wallet I found 40 miles back. Nobody in town knew where the street was on the drivers license and the road didn’t show up on the GPS. After a couple hours I decided I would have to figure out something else. Before leaving town I made one more effort and asked a group of guys working on an irrigation pond. One tall man took interest in the situation and we found out he actually knew the 20 year old. We made some calls and eventually got the wallet back to its owner. It had been stolen from her
locker at work two months ago and how it ended up on the shoulder of the road next to the Arizona border, will always be a mystery. I trudged on to Farmington to not so patiently wait the arrival of Kate and Josh
I ended up staying with a very nice couple in Red Mesa who both work as nurses in the clinic. Tom had some good stories of when he rode mountain bikes around South America for a year with some friends after college. Around noon I headed out hoping to cross into New Mexico but had no set plans on where I would stay. Wispy white clouds marbled the bright blue sky. I was only twenty or so miles from the four corners monument and I could clearly see the mountains of Colorado to the north. I stopped at the Teec Nos Pos trading post for an ice cream sandwich and sat in the shade returning zombie like stares from tour bus enthusiast heading to the four corners. It felt both exciting and exhausting to start a new state. I’m not one to believe in superstitions, but it was a little strange how a black cat chased me across the border meowing like I stole his only can of Weruva Paw Lickin’ Chicken. When I got to Beclabito I called the Pastor from Shiprock around 5:00 pm. He was getting ready for the Wednesday night service but had a trailer I could stay in if I could make it.
It was 16 more miles to Shiprock and with the sun getting low, I was feeling ambitious. Unfortunately the desert put on an epic sunset and that of course distracted me for a half hour or so. The moon hung like a hammock in the sky. The wispy clouds turned into colorful brush strokes and left me smiling in the dark. With four miles left to go, the darkness turned my peaceful run into blinding headlights and uncertain footing. The air was cold now and my short sleeve shirt and shorts where no longer ideal running gear. Something charged straight at me from behind and the sudden approach caused me to spin around in order to protect myself. It was a wild horse apparently attracted to the blinking lights that littered Ruby’s frame. The horse ran next to me for a mile or more. His heavy hooves beating against the helpless ground. The powerful breaths from his nostrils made his efforts visible in the moonlight. We ran through the night trying to understanding each others motives. I have always loved running at night. There is something about the darkness that completely closes you in the moment. All your other senses are magnified and you feel completely in touch with your body as it slices through the night. I felt the horse and I sharing the same deep passion for freedom and life. In that moment we weren’t running to get anywhere, or for any reason. We were running just to run, and to us that made perfect sense.
I actually slept pretty well in the shower room and headed over to the main office in the morning. Breakfast was waiting in the cafeteria. Mr. James Brown was in a meeting and I realized it was 9 am not 8 am due to the time change. Fortunately the people in the cafeteria were nice enough to box up and save a breakfast for me. After eating my rubber keash and cereal I was finally on the road. I tend to move slowly when I don’t have set housing and no particular city to reach. Today was one of those days. An old dictionary lay on the side of the road and I ripped out a page from the H section. I read the whole thing. Reading a random page from the dictionary is kind of like run camping. When run camping you never know where you’re going to end up: a wild life refuge, a fancy hotel, a shower room etc. Even though the words are alphabetized, you still get some random meanings from the funny looking Heron bird to Herodias. The story goes that Herodias was married to King Herod’s brother before King Herod married her. John the Baptist told them this was wrong and that made Herodias have some sort of grudge against the guy. Long story short, John’s head ends up on a plate. You can read about it in the book of Matthew or the H section of the dictionary.
There have been an increasing amount of horses along the road. I don’t know if they are wild or not but they usually appear to be. They often run in groups, and it’s quite a sight to see them thundering along over the wide open ranges with painted mountains as their back drop. From watching the black stallion movies, I always thought it was a bit ridiculous that a group of horses would have a leader but sure enough if you sit there and watch them you can usually pick out the head horse. I still can’t believe how far you can see out here in the West. This place is huge! It’s a far cry from the tight knit north-woods of Wisconsin.
I didn’t think there was anything in Red Mesa, but apparently a four corners area clinic serving the Navajo People had sprung up due to some government influence. I almost got to stay in an EMT holding room, but the right papers were not signed in time and I found myself in the parking lot of a closed clinic at night talking to security. Fortunately they were very helpful and set out to ask a few people that lived in the Government housing if I could stay with them.
3/15 The Marriott Inn was pure luxury. I laid with the overstuffed pillows an hour or two longer than usual. I crossed the desert valley that surrounded Kayenta and continued on my north eastern route. Snow capped mountains began to reveal themselves behind the red rock formations. Traffic was better, in part because it was a week day, but also the towns are getting smaller. A Navajo woman led her sheep across the patchy vegetation and dirt. Scenes like these are helping me grasp how big and diverse America is. There is a good chance the white collar worker from California will never meet the Navajo Shepherd one state over, yet we all come together as one nation. A man zoomed by with a jacked up truck and a trailer full of four wheelers and yelled, “ride a horse”. I gave him creative points at first, but of course it was the only subject I thought about for the next five miles. I decided Ruby was better than any horse. She rarely misbehaves, never asks for food or water and is always right in-front of me no matter how fast or slow I’m traveling.
Mr. James Brown was my contact in Dinnehotso. I found him at work in his office. He was the principal of the Dinnehotso Boarding School which has an enrollment of 160 Kids. About 26 students still live on the grounds during the week which left a whole building open for me. They use the building as a storage facility now and it was full of random items: desks, computers, books etc. I was lucky to find an old mattress that seemed to be the victim of an angry child. I dragged it into the shower room where the heater was located and set up my indoor camp. This area gets some crazy dust storms which is easy to observe by the amount of dirt under the window sills. As I wrote in my journal I started to regret moving in by the heater. I was wearing nothing but my running shorts and was sweating more than on a noon day run. I eventually realized what I was using for a reading light was actually the heat lamp for the showers.
The Orr’s had reserved a room for me at the Tsegi Inn and also paid for a burger at the restaurant. My original plan was to take today off, but it was only 10 miles to Kayenta so I decided to see what it had to offer. It turned out to be a good move. I met the pastor of the Assembly of God church along the way. By the third time he stopped me, he had reserved a hotel and arranged to pick me up for their sunday night service. I ate that 10 miler for lunch and was off my legs before they even knew they weren’t experiencing a day off. As I trotted into Kayenta I could see the unique rock formations of Monument Valley to the North. I was retracing the foot steps of an American legend, Forest Gump. Monument Valley is the famous last shot where Forest stops and says, “I’m pretty tired now I think I’ll go home.” After I got settled in, Pastor Billie came to pick me up for church. The church only had 4 members when he started two years ago and today the congregation has increased to 85. About twelve of the members were there for the night service. They sang half of their hymn’s in Navajo and I began to doubt that mouthing, “watermelon” would be successful for the Navajo language. There where two long florescent lights above the pulpit and one flickered the entire service until it finally went out in the middle of a lady’s special song. Pastor Billie called me up to introduce myself and talk about the run and Living Water International. My opening line was, “You know some musicians pay a lot of money for lighting effects like that.” Anyway, my joke didn’t go over well but I recovered with the rest of my talk. Afterwards we sat around the wood stove they used to heat the building, ate fry bread and other goodies. The Navajo people are kind, proud and generous. I was grateful for their hospitality.
I almost used this picture for the cover of my book. Didn't quite work but its still one of my favorite shots and unknown places of the trip.
3/13 I stayed with Kent and Irene Orr in Red Lake. They proved to be very helpful on a stretch I had anticipated to be incredibly difficult. Kent helped me patch up Ruby’s right tire and for the time being it seems to be as good as new. It was 49 miles to Kayenta and I had every intention of covering the distance in one day. Unfortunately my body disagreed with me. The stories I will wait to share later in life seem to be adding up. However, I will say that the constant mix of different foods and the extreme mileage leaves certain pastimes uncomfortable and messy. If you are ever traveling up highway 160 through Red Lake do me a favor and don’t look behind the left foot of the elephant feet rock formation. By my fifth stop I was getting good at anticipating the sudden eruptions and took a small amount of joy and satisfaction in the fact that I was no longer completely ruining my running gear. Despite my muscles and insides completely hating the days activities my eyes were fascinated on the extraordinary new landscape. Patches of pure white snow lay on the cliffs equally revealing the vibrant red rocks.
I reached Tsegi Canyon an hour before sunset and was able to enjoy the suns rays finding holes in the breaking clouds as they shone down on the truly beautiful painted canyon. An old sheep dog slowly walked up and sat down next to me. I found comfort in his innocent approach and enjoyed the company. We sat together appreciating the unique moment when you can watch God’s beauty unfold.
3/12 After a great continental breakfast, Grandma and Grandpa drove me back to Gray Mountain. It’s hard to believe how fast the terrain changes in this area. Flagstaff mountains used to be volcanic and these people’s financial success is due to their large amounts of cinder. They have red and black cinder for making cinder blocks. Supposedly the black cider is more expensive due to its strength.
Now that I was a good distance from the mountains, these trees stuck out of the desert like a rare two-story house in this area. I had housing in Tuba City, 33 miles or more ahead of me. The road was busy since it was the only main highway through the area. I felt safe as long as the cars kept a wide shoulder. Randomly every couple of miles, the shoulder would appear and disappear Without the shoulder it felt like I didn’t belong and nearly every car passed too close for comfort. Over the past month a little mustache has sprouted beneath my nostrils. At first I picked up the habit of sticking out my bottom lip and rhythmically puffing air through it as I ran. Today I noticed my habit has changed to slowly parting the hair down the dead center with my tongue and carefully placing each half on its appropriate side.
Tuba City is considered the painted desert and the Navajo Indians have occupied it for some time now. Every five to ten miles I would see a booth set up on the side of the road with a lady trying to sell her crafts. They make beautiful jewelry and of course I stopped at every booth. Not to buy but to talk. Ten miles to Tuba City I turned the corner to find my answer as to why this city is considered the painted desert. Bright red jagged rocks stretched out in front of me. The dark blacktop against the overly saturated landscape of rocks and sky was a breathtaking view. It was one stretch of land I did not mind running through.