What would it be like to celebrate Thanksgiving in a small yurt, 3 miles from the road to town, without a car, surrounded by snowdrifts? And why would anyone choose to do that? Erin McKittrick and her husband, 'Hig" Higman, could tell you.
McKittrick presented her latest book, “Small Feet, Big Land” at Queen Anne Book Co. a couple of weeks ago, in which she chronicled her family’s trek across remote sections of Alaska, including the little-explored Malaspina Glacier. She described hauling heavy packs and children for hundreds of miles, sleep-depriving wind- and rainstorms, bear encounters and, all too often, wet socks in the morning.
When not trekking, the family lives in a yurt in Seldovia, Alaska, where they use an outhouse (even with a zillion feet of snow on the ground) and snowshoe 3-plus miles to and from town.
As McKittrick and Higman described their life in Seldovia and McKittrick read passages from her book, I could feel a collective squirming of the audience: What inspires someone to choose such a life? Why would someone intentionally choose discomfort and inconvenience?
A tall, redheaded woman in the audience commented on this notion, giving voice to what we were all thinking. “But how,” she challenged us, “are the inconveniences of Erin and Hig’s life any worse than obstacles we endure in the city?” She cited traffic, diesel exhaust, congestion, lack of clean air and long lines as examples.
McKittrick smiled at a kindred spirit and showed us pictures of their home. There were kids playing with Legos, parents working on laptops and cooking, birthday parties and story time.
“We have beds. We have a kitchen. The rain runs off our roof. We are dry and warm,” McKittrick said. It’s a matter of what you want from your life and what you are willing to sacrifice to get it.
We work hard to have the life we have chosen in the city. We sit in traffic during rush hour, settle for evenings and weekends as the time we spend with our families and accept our meagerly doled-out vacation time for rest and play. It is our norm, and most of us don’t consider it as a choice or as something we could change. But there is always another way if you want it.
Cost vs. benefit
When my husband and I set out on our first summer of sailboat cruising up the Northwest coast, people thought we were nuts. Our boat was tiny, we had an 18-month-old daughter and we were newbies to this coast.
“How will you handle being in such a small space,” friends asked. “What will you do with your baby all day?”
Puttering up Puget Sound that sunny August morning, I pondered our sanity. Within a week I was convinced and transformed.
We learned to be satisfied with the things at hand. A flattened six-pack case made the perfect trivet. Meals were created without buying extra ingredients. Looking for eagles and starfish soon replaced “Sesame Street.”
Disconnecting from our city lives enabled us to connect with one another, with nature and with our deeper selves — none of which would have happened if we had listened to those who tried to talk “sense” into us.
When we sold our house on Queen Anne and moved onto our sailboat, a similar scenario occurred. Five years into it, we have found that stuff we put up with on the boat (tight quarters, long walk down the dock, less belongings, challenging storage) is no more difficult than what we put up with in our land dwelling (plumbing problems, roof replacement, rats, gardening, upkeep).
As McKittrick and Higman explained, it’s a cost-vs.-benefit choice. They choose a life where their children can grow up immersed in nature, learning about the world in a way few kids do.
McKittrick spoke about trekking “with some ungodly amount of stuff and/or children on my back, wandering hundreds or thousands of miles across the Alaskan wilderness with my husband and two children.” Why? Because, she said, “along the way, I learn things — from people and from observations — about topics from climate change to fishing traditions, to how to handle two kids in a tent in a blizzard.”
City kids grow up exposed to other things — positive things. But we pay to give them that, as well.
We make our choices, and we live with them. If we remain open, we can learn from each other. The more we expose ourselves to the choices of others and the less we allow ourselves to compare and dismiss, the bigger and more interesting our world will become.
Wet socks and natural beauty, or interminable traffic and a big, warm house — you decide!
IRENE HOPKINS lives happily, with dry socks, on a small boat in Ballard. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.