Off the Grid

Neither Missing Nor Vanished;
Some Simply Choose to Drop Out

Many healthy, mentally stable and highly functional people have thought of it at least once. The pressures of contemporary life, the longing to have a fresh start, the need to flee debtors, blah blah blah, the fact is, if there was guarantee that we could get away with it, we’d probably try it too. Many did and came back.
Technically, Daniel Suelo, Brendon Grimshaw and the people who Eric Valli has been photographing for years, have little in common besides having made a conscious decision to no longer be part of society. And to create one of their own, either alone, or with a bunch of like-minded strangers, in some secluded corner of the world.
We’re not talking about people who vanished from the face of the earth here. In fact, apart from the now proverbial Japanese soldier who hid in the jungle and didn’t know that the war had ended decades before, or the complicated world of Witness Protection Programs, it turns out that it’s very hard for anyone to voluntarily disappear. Foul play is usually involved, but not always proven.
That seems to have been the case with Cambridge evolutionary biologist Margie Profet, who disappeared in 2002. Or former Marine Noah ­Pippin, who vanished inside Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, two years ago and is presumed dead. Or Christopher McCandless, a case made famous by Jan Krakauer’s Into the Wild account, who died while hiking in Alaska in the early 1990s.
While Profet’s life may have been taken, Pippin and McCandless both seem to have been aware of the likelihood of dying in the wilderness without the proper survival equipment. The fact that they went anyway showed some troubling inner willfulness to walk away from everything. Still many choose a different path.
It used to be that, whenever people were fed up of following the conventions of living in society, they would enlist in the Foreign Legion. Or go to Africa. Or brave the hardships of being a pioneer in Alaska or some other place in need of able hands to build or rebuild. In other words, the alternative was to blend in, to be welcomed to help out, without having to answer questions about the past.
Somehow, the dissatisfaction has reached a new high (or low) these days, and many don’t want to contribute to the world as it is. It may be an admission of hopelessness, that nothing one does will ever change anything anyway. Or an empowering feeling of writing a new social contract, either alone or in group, where the usual rules don’t necessarily apply.
Let’s face it, whether one thinks that there’s a lot to be done to improve the world, or there are no longer places to conquer and to be challenged by, it’s within the individual that lies the deeper proposition: how will I be able to insert myself in this reality? Many simply can’t find an acceptable ‘angle’ to do it, and decide that they’ve just had about enough of it all.

When Daniel Suelo left the comforts of modern life behind and move to the Moab desert, in Utah, 12 years ago, he was down to $30 to his name and no interest in keeping either. He left the money and last name in a phone booth and started an experiment in living off the grid. What he didn’t give up, though, was his right to live by his own principles.
Major among them is his refusal to use money. And granted, living in a cave, foraging for food in nature and in dumpsters, with the occasional Samaritan handout, there really seems to be no need for hard cash. And he’s doing fine, according to friend Mark Sundeen, who’s documenting his life. In the process, he now has a blog and a sort of advocacy against the pull of currency over our lives.
Suelo’s harsh desert life may be incomprehensible to some people, if not downright physically impossible, but even without having to live the life of a hermit, many identify with him. That’s the case of 70-year old German Heidemarie Schwermer, who’s been living without money for over 16 years, but in a city full of billionaires and homeless people.
But whereas Schwermer has two children of her own and a barter business of sorts, Suelo has been alone in the wilderness for all these years. That can be the real challenge, after all sensible rhetoric runs its course and it’s just a man with his thoughts and body needs. For some, once that threshold of hardship is crossed, going back to society becomes an impractical alternative.

If Suelo’s idealistic proposition is to do away with currency, Brendon Grimshaw‘s been busy planting thousands of trees and reintroducing a native species of giant tortoise into the island he bought 60 years ago. But his acerbic lifestyle does resembles Suelo’s: he’s been living alone on the small land for all these years, and you’d better not mention what kind of CDs he’d planned on taking there.
For in six decades, he and an assistant, single-handedly restored the Moyenne Island in the Indian Ocean to its ancient splendor, with all those trees, the turtles, the wildlife and the flora. One thing the island doesn’t have is electricity and running water. But again, Grimshaw seems to be doing just fine and looks much younger than his 86 years of age.
You may puzzle over his motivations at your own risk, but whatever they are, they compelled the man to dedicate himself to a cause that, in some ways, is much more important than personal comforts. How many people can live their lives so radically like that and still not being called an eccentric, a loser or a plain insane soul?

And then there are Eric Valli‘s pictures of two separate groups of people, living in the far, but beautiful corners of the America most of us only know by photographs. These hardy souls, who seem to have a passing kinship with the 1960s counterculture communities, have taken a step even further, not quite settling down in one place but extra careful to what they do with it anyway.
Valli’s images capture their life style as unadorned as possible in the presence of a stranger in their midst. Their determined faces also betray a certain wariness, perhaps about how hard must be to purposely avoid any trappings of living in the mainstream of society, all the while keeping their dignity and idealism intact.
Pictures can be deceiving, we all know. And it’s easy to attribute attitudes and assume a background that may explain how come it came to this for these two particular groups. But one can’t help but think that there must be one behind it, a trigger that ignited such a radical departure from what most of us are told from birth, from highly civilized societies to the most primitive.

The puzzle in this case is to figure out when the rupture occurred, when seeking your equals and immersing gregariously into the commonality of living along many, became an avoidable notion. Have other conventions of civilized life also become obsolete? Have them been replaced by others, even more radical rules of cohabitation?
Only them could tell you but they probably won’t. What it’s clear is that it takes only a few decisions, and a certain resolve to stick by them, for anyone to renounce social bounds, and reverse to a more primeval way of life. Again, in order to reach that side, you may have to burn the bridges you’ve just crossed. It looks like they have. And there’s probably no return after that.
(*) Originally published on May 8, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Off the Grid

  1. Colltales says:

    I need to check Galapagos Affair out; haven’t seen it. Into the Wild remains one of the most satisfying movies about the theme. It’s not only living off the grid but a not completely understood feeling that some of us have of simply dropping it all off and no longer being accountable for anything. I don’t blame those who refuse to partake this terrible world, at least not if they simply can’t function in it. I feel compassion towards them and intrigues me to wonder when does the rupture becomes final, and for all sense and purpose, there’s no more a way back from it. A lot of great human beings may have been out there, given it all up, and I feel we, as a species, will be missing a great deal without them. Thanks Russel.


  2. Two movies that I have watched this year which related to the grid are “The Galapagos Affair” and “Transcendence.” “The Galapagos Affair” was based on a true story; such movies are among my favorites. “Transcendence” starred Morgan Freeman and Johnny Depp, two of my favorite actors. “Transcendence” probably is at the top of my list of movies watched this year; it came out in 2014.

    Liked by 1 person

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