Off the Grid
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROSS HECOX
HE WAS RAISED IN THE HIGH-DESERT environs outside Jiggs, Nevada, worked in cow camps throughout the West, served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and then became one of the most recognized voices in cowboy poetry. But Bruce Douglas Mitchell, widely known as "Waddie," spent so much time on the road, moving from outfit to outfit, show to show, that he never had a place he could call home until two years ago.
"The only home I really knew was the one I grew up in," Waddie explains. "On the ranches I worked, I had houses I stayed in, but they weren't homes. I'd be there for a while, then go to summer cow camp or out on the wagon. Now that I have my own home, it's a whole different feeling. I find myself wanting to spend more time there than on the road."
The cowboy poet and a founder of the Working Ranch Cowboys Association typically spends 200 days per year traveling to cowboy poetry gatherings, ranch rodeos and other special events. When he married his wife, Lisa Hackett, in 1997, the couple wanted a home central to Waddie's travels. At the time, Waddie was raising five kids outside Elko, in a home he bought sight-unseen because it was conveniently located along school-bus routes. Lisa, the daughter of comedian Buddy Hackett and an entertainment entrepreneur, was the product of a Beverly Hills, California, upbringing, and split her time between her home in California and her cabin in Montana.
The couple's definition of a home was opposite in every way imaginable, but the things they both agreed on were the desire for plenty of open space and a self-sustaining, eco-friendly environment. Both of these elements coincided with Lisa's love for nature and balance, and Waddie's cowboy values.
IN 1998, THE COUPLE PURCHASED 720 remote acres in the rolling hills between Elko and Jiggs. A steep, winding road careens through the cedar, juniper and sage, to an open spot with uninterrupted views of the Ruby Mountains to the east.
"When I looked at the property, I was sold on the views and the fact that nobody could get close to me," Waddie says. "We can't see or hear other humans."
Before settling down, Waddie never gave any thought to owning a home. Reflecting on the ranches on which he's worked—the 7S, TS, IL, Circle A, 2U and Bar Slash Bar—the buckaroo finds the livestock and the land in those places more memorable than his housing.
"Some of the cabins I stayed in were primitive, mud-covered log cabins without running water," he remembers. "The only electricity I had was the static on my wool blanket."
But when it came to making plans for his own home, Waddie designed his dream dwelling—a rustic, 5,000-square-foot, log-sided lodge in tune with the land, operating off renewable energy rather than the public utility grid.
"I'm just a cowboy and I've always lived self-sufficiently, so it seemed like the natural thing to do," Waddie says. "We weren't radical about it, but it seemed like if we were going to build from scratch, it would be more economical in the long run to generate our own power than have it brought in. Plus, I don't believe in depending on someone else for something I can harness myself or from nature."
After a decade of planning, the Mitchells began constructing their self-sustaining home in May 2006. Some of their most valuable research came from the California-based Solar Living Institute, which offers education on every aspect of self-sufficient living, from making bio-fuels to constructing green homes and producing alternative energy. The campus also has a retail business called Real Goods, where the Mitchells purchased many of their solar supplies.
"We considered constructing an earth shelter or a home made from straw, adobe or SIPS [structural insulated panels]," Waddie says. "For our needs, however, it was more economical per square foot to build a pole-barn structure."
Serving as general contractor, Waddie took one year off from his poetry to build the home. He strategically nestled the house site against hills to the north and west to take advantage of natural windbreaks and maximize eastern views. The first thing he bought was a generator to operate his power tools. Construction began with a steel-sided barn to house the solar and water systems.
To the south of the steel structure, 100 feet from the home site, he installed 24 102-watt, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity. The panels are attached to a 48-volt battery system inside the building. An inverter transforms the low-voltage DC power stored in batteries to 120-volt AC power that passes through circuit breakers, which power lights and appliances inside the home. The seven-kilowatt system provides 7,000 watts of electricity for eight hours.
To conserve electricity, the couple uses 11-watt or less light bulbs and has energy-efficient appliances.
Radiant heating makes the floors wonderfully toasty, eliminates allergens circulated through air vents, and is easily powered with renewable energy, minimizing fossil-fuel use. The heating system is made up of a network of pipes beneath the floor, in which antifreeze-infused water heated by a propane boiler circulates, warming the floor and walls. The heavy insulation that keeps the heat in during the winter also cools the house in the summer. Ceiling fans throughout the house help circulate cool air. Design-wise, there aren't any unattractive radiators or vents to interfere with furniture layout.
Fireplaces and wood stoves serve as backup heating sources.
Another measure the Mitchells took to minimize their carbon footprint was installing on-demand water heaters, a tellullar phone box to convert cellular signal to radio signal, which operates with standard wireless home phones, satellite internet and TV service, and a gas-powered cook stove they recycled from a ranch in Wyoming. They considered installing recycled countertops and bamboo flooring, but it wasn't practical for their needs. Instead, they opted for vinyl flooring that doesn't contract or expand with the radiant heat, and composite countertops made from recycled crushed stone.
The couple worked with the county building department to ensure the home met code and could be hooked to the grid later on if desired. Their self-sufficient home employed new technology with which some inspectors weren't familiar, and it turned out that the Mitchells' biggest challenge was finding experts who could help them integrate multiple alternative-energy systems so they'd all work in unison and at maximum capacity.
"Most PV applications are for grid-fed houses turning the meters back," Lisa explains. "We wanted to store our electricity and invert it for use, not feed it back to homes tied to the grid."
The Mitchells did their homework and sought advice from many torchbearers of green design. They moved into their home nearly one year after construction began. As with any new home, there was an adjustment period. Add living off the grid several miles from the nearest help and the learning curve grows exponentially.
Their first winter in the home was baptized by brutal snowstorms. The couple had initially installed only four batteries, which proved insufficient to operate the home under such extreme conditions.
"The thing about solar," Waddie says, "is that in the winter, when the days are shortest and you produce the least amount of energy, that's when you need the most."
To rectify the situation Waddie doubled his storage capacity by installing four more batteries and is building a small wind farm to generate more energy.
The couple estimates that installing their entire alternative-energy system cost about $60,000, which was equivalent to the cost of putting up unsightly power poles on their property and running conventional electricity to their home.
"Plus, we'd have to pay utility bills every month," Waddie adds. "Once we get all the systems in place, then we'll go through a payback period and actually start saving money."
HAD THE MITCHELLS STUCK to their original plan for a 1,700-square-foot home, their energy needs probably would have been met with their initial battery investment. But as he became a grandfather, Waddie saw the need for more space. The 5,000-square-foot ranch-style home has three bedroom suites with full baths; two additional bathrooms; two offices; a large living room with adjacent bar, library, den, open kitchen and dining room; a covered front porch; and an enclosed back porch with a hot tub.
Having been a homeowner most of her adult life, Lisa let Waddie have the reins when designing their home. He factored in wide hallways, towering doorways and a spacious floor plan for easy traffic flow from room to room.
Of all the spaces in the home, the library is most important to Waddie. A mere nook off the living room, the library houses Waddie's recliner, a reading lamp and an end table. Its perimeter is lined from floor to ceiling with a vast collection of books, ranging from classical and cowboy poetry, to literature, novels, biographies and historical references.
"I'd never had access to my entire book collection until we moved into this house," he says. "I calculated how many linear feet of space I needed to fit all my books, but still had to give away half."
Beside the library, Waddie built another alcove reminiscent of an Old West-style saloon, with rich red, velvet-like walls and a Victorian-style mirror along the back wall. Across the room is the den with a home-theater system where Waddie and Lisa relax and watch TV.
Entertaining friends and family is a big part of the Mitchells' lifestyle, especially during the holidays and the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January, so it was important to have plenty of space for jam sessions in the living room, a dining room large enough for a 12-person table, and guest suites so visitors can have all the privacy and comforts of home or a hotel.
Lisa and Waddie both have offices on one end of the house. Painted light blue and illuminated with diffused window light, Lisa's office is as serene as the California coast. By contrast, Waddie's office, equipped with a recording studio, is painted in earth tones and deep shades of green, as is the rest of the home.
"I left Lisa in charge of the color palette," Waddie says. "When she went to the paint store, she showed up with rabbit brush, juniper bark and branches, and straw. She wanted to match colors found in nature."
To further blend the home's interior into the landscape, Lisa had river-rock mosaics installed at each door, which serve as natural, utilitarian doormats. Rough-cut timbers and juniper posts harvested from their property serve as support beams and give the home a rustic feel. Though Waddie wanted the interior to suggest a log cabin or lodge, he wasn't shy about using Victorian and contemporary décor, as well as items from the American West—cowboy gear, Western art and photography, and Native American artifacts, for example. Nowhere else will you see rare pieces of taxidermy and trophy mounts intermingled with a framed poem and illustration by Will James, Claude Dallas' tapaderos and Hollywood memorabilia. Each piece is a conversation starter, from which Waddie can weave a colorful tale.
WALKING AROUND HIS HIDDEN OASIS, Waddie is like a kid showing off the toys in his playhouse. He can't help but smile at how well things have come together.
"We're living 100 times better than we ever thought we would off the grid," he says. "Things are definitely starting to operate efficiently and we're starting to have some time to do some living here instead of all work. But all our work and reasoning behind this lifestyle is justified each Thanksgiving when I see my mother, my kids and my grandkids sitting at one dinner table."
Self-sustained living is an ongoing endeavor. Waddie still plans to build a packed-earth barn and corrals for his horses. That's when he says he'll be fully content living as an off-the-grid cowboy.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. For more on Waddie Mitchell's poetry, visit westernjubilee.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.