Out my bedroom window

The blackout curtains in my bedroom can’t completely hide a beautiful day.

This video was shot as part of Your Views, an international collaborative video project.  There were very specific rules to follow- some sort of curtain, 10 seconds before the reveal, no arms or hands in the frame.  Anyone can submit- check out the project at Your Views.


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The Adventurer’s Club

We were pretty much broke when the three of us left Iowa for Massachusetts. I had accepted my first college-level teaching job in August 1994 and Julie and Jake joined me the following January. We lived in a large townhouse-style apartment with a postage stamp sized yard. However, within one hour’s drive we had parks, a mountain, and the ocean to explore. We were the three musketeers and every activity became an adventure. We took to calling ourselves The Adventurer’s Club, even making buttons we’d wear on our outings (yes, Jake, we became one of THOSE families very early on).

It’s been more than 20 years since we started our travels and we’re still finding new challenges. The most recent trip was to Norway, where I presented at an academic conference. Traveling abroad is often an overwhelming experience. The sensory overload of meeting new people, deciphering foreign languages, navigating different customs and seeing so much surprising beauty can exhaust you. The best thing to do is to sit back and let the kaleidoscope swirl.

The train trip from Oslo to Bergen is known as one of the most beautiful rides in the world. Thanks to a screw up stateside, we had paid tickets but no assigned seats. We decided to board in Oslo anyway, hoping we wouldn’t be thrown off at the first stop. Passing through first class we noticed that the family car had open space and flip down jump seats, a perfect place for the three of us to hide out. It didn’t take long to spot other renegades-the guy from Canada and the couple from the US who had Eurorail passes but no seat assignments. With seven hours ahead of us, the conductor, who grudgingly took pity on everyone, let us stay. As it turned out, we ended up with the best seats on the train. The Adventurer’s Club wins again.

My son Jake created this video that perfectly captures the beauty of Norway and the excitement of travel.

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Sharing light

In July, sunset on Cape Cod comes early- usually a little after 8pm.  For ambitious residency artists who are spending the week with no electricity, writing is probably the obvious activity to do at night. For me, reading was my go-to nighttime activity.  I find that in my normal life, back in the world, I have very little time for enjoyment reading.  But during my time in Thalassa it felt like I had unlimited time for reading.

When you’re living off the grid, with no electricity, you are definitely looking for the easiest solutions to everyday needs.  Thalassa came equipped with three kerosene lamps but the night we lit them, the smoke alarm kept going off.  I was very happy that I had insisted we bring our Luci lanterns with us to the dunes.

A couple years ago my friend Deb gave me a Luci solar lantern for a birthday present.  She knew I loved to camp, loved the tiny house movement and that I was keen on learning how to live off the grid.  The Luci lantern was a revelation- a small, waterproof, inflatable LED lantern that could be charged by sunlight and would shine all night with a beautiful, consistent white light.  I loved the Luci so much that I bought two more for camping and regularly give them as gifts to my outdoorsy friends and relatives.


Last weekend we camped in French Creek State Park (PA).  We were only about an hour northwest of Philadelphia yet, by 8pm the sky was dark as ink. A million stars filled the night.  At the trailer’s door a Luci lantern marked the way while inside, it illuminated the space with an inviting glow.  By 9pm I was in for the night.  A book awaited my attention.


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Twirling seals- Cape Cod National Seashore

There are hundreds of seals on a sandbar just off the beach.  Every morning they sing a beautiful and haunting song.  As we walk the beach, a few sentries follow us everywhere – they are fascinated by Julie’s twirling skirt.

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To flush or not to flush….

Let’s be honest, one of the most challenging aspects of living off the grid is the issue of toilets.  The old outhouse had its day but was inconvenient, smelly and still required that sewage waste be periodically pumped out and disposed of.  It seems most tiny house folks solve the challenge of toilets by using composting toilets.

You can spend a little or a lot of money on manufactured composting toilets but some tiny housers go very simple- they use a bucket/seat combo and compost the waste.  There are a number of simple bucket type toilets available for around $20.  The question is, what are you using as the composting starter?  Many people recommend using sawdust or peat moss as the key ingredient- starting with a scoop at the bottom and adding a scoop or handful after each use.  This works well is you have a steady source of sawdust (a neighborhood DIY carpenter?) or plenty of muscles to haul around bags of peat.  But neither of these solutions will work in the middle of the National Seashore.  The folks at Peaked Hill Trust have come up with a great solution to this composting challenge- popcorn.

During the week we spent in the Thalassa shack we used a composting outhouse located just over a dune from the shack.  A large plastic container of popped popcorn was kept inside the outhouse and we were instructed to drop in a handful of popcorn after every use.  Before we left at the end of our week we popped enough corn to refill the container. It was surprising how little popcorn was used and how efficiently it worked.  So, to all your composting toilet aficionadi, I invite you to take the popcorn challenge.

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Paradise in 360 ˚

Paradise in 360 ˚

It was 17 ˚ F in February but I was already looking ahead to summer. Back then, in the dead of winter, I was researching summer artist residencies where I hoped to use my tiny trailer as part of the living and working experience. Many people don’t know that the National Park Service has an amazing artist-in-residence program with sites available across the US.


The program includes a variety of locations and all sorts of accommodations, ranging from isolated cabins off the grid to posh studios. I applied to a few east coast opportunities in national parks that I hoped would allow me to continue my media work and travel writing about tiny living.


Walking the dune road


I was born and raised in the Midwest but made a career move out east in 1994. For five years I lived in Leominster, MA and the close proximity to Cape Cod allowed me to fall in love with the unique landscape and seascape of the area. Since my move to Philadelphia in 1999, my family and I have continued to return to the Cape- to hike the Breakwater, bike the dunes and walk the beach at Race Point. It was, then, with particular wonder and pleasure that I discovered a number of residency opportunities on Cape Cod’s National Seashore.

The National Seashore is an unusual place of beauty- a desert dune environment at the tip of Massachusetts, a state packed solid with forests, rivers and mountains. The formation of the dunes is actually an environmental disaster. The forested cape was clear-cut by the early European colonizers leaving a thin layer of topsoil vulnerable to erosion, which led to the eventual destruction of the area eco system. But the earth fought back and found a unique way to survive. The National Seashore, stretching between Wellfleet and Provincetown is a starkly beautiful landscape of desert dunes, sea grass and scrub pines. It is also the location of a number of shacks built out of scrap wood in the early part of the 20th century by ambitious artists. In 1961 the dunes were designated the Cape Cod National Seashore and the dune shacks became the property of the National Park Service. Since that time, artists and dune dwellers fought to keep the shacks intact and available for use, even securing the shacks a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Peaked Hill Trust Residency Program is one of three non-profit organizations offering residencies in the shacks. A chosen artist, writer or scientist will be given the opportunity to live pretty much off the grid in a dune shack for one or two weeks from summer through fall.

I was fortunate enough to be chosen to participate this summer and am now living in Thalassa, the smallest of the shacks. At 9’ by 12’, it is the size of a small bedroom but includes a bed, a small kitchen arrangement and a table for eating and working.

the kitchenn_540

The kitchen from the bed

With no electricity or plumbing, my wife Julie and I are faring pretty well. We are using a solar shower to keep some of the sand at bay. There is a composting out house and we haul up our water every morning from a pump by the dune road.


Julie at the table

But, as the two photos show, we are in the middle of 360 degrees of exquisite beauty and loving every minute.


Panoramic view of the dunes. Provincetown is in the distance.


Yesterday a whale spouted off in the distance as a herd of hundreds of seals sang their morning song. Welcome to paradise.


Panoramic view of the ocean from our shack

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The notion of the hometown carries with it a longing, for both escape and return. When we were young we baby boomers chafed at the bit to leave our hometowns and all they represented- limitations, stasis, boredom. We wanted to be free from expectations so that we could find our own paths and discover ourselves. It sometimes comes as a surprise when, later in our lives, we actually long to return to our hometowns.


Home is a slippery concept, colored by nostalgia, where a plate of mashed potatoes and a jello salad could actually fix what was ailing you. I have been living on the east coast for over 20 years now but have returned to my Midwestern hometown nearly every summer. No matter the travel schedule, there always seems to be time to drive around the old neighborhood- past the park that is unrecognizable from its 1975 incarnation, through the side streets I roamed with my posse of tomboy girlfriends, by the old family homestead, long ago sold to strangers who have created their own family memories in my house.

It didn’t take much to transform a city like Waterloo, Iowa into a hometown. It seems I only needed a few small triggers to turn fluid memories into something solid. Retracing the well-worn circuits of my youthful past I head down Washington Lane. Mama Nick’s is just off to the right- still the best pizza in town. I take a left at East Mitchell Avenue and find that the sand pits where I spent long July days baking in the sun have been bulldozed into a ‘recreation area’. Later, rolling down Ridgeway, I turn to cut through West High’s back parking lot where the kids known as the crispy critters would converge to smoke between classes. Then it was a dirt lot, now a swath of concrete. I didn’t imagine it.  This place, my hometown. Not exactly the same, but still here.   Just like me.

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I have a summer ritual. It’s not a secret thing, something you know you should keep to yourself so I can share it here – Summer doesn’t officially begin until I start reading Dandelion Wine.

The first time I read Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine I was in high school – stuck in a study hall I didn’t need, surrounded by kids I didn’t know, the sort of circumstance that pushes you to read anything you find in the back of a grubby school desk. I don’t know who left that worn copy behind but I wish I could thank them.

Reading it will take a month worth of beach days under a flapping umbrella, a handful of camping mornings waiting for the coffee to boil, a few rainy afternoons in the back room where the steady drumming of raindrops makes you so sleepy you drop off in the middle of a page.

The book will be carted around in canvas bags lined with sand.   It will bounce around behind the driver’s seat of the truck. It will hover on the edge of a blanket where Speck will try to snag it in his jaws so he can hide under the picnic table and chew in peace. But, by August’s end I will finish the book. I will smooth the bent page corners, tuck the tattered paper jacket around the cover’s edge and place it back on the bottom shelf of the bookcase until next June, when Solstice arrives to remind me.

“I mustn’t forget I’m alive, I know I’m alive. I mustn’t forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that. “ – Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury


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Turtle shell trailer

Last week I slept out in my driveway.  I hadn’t done this sort of thing since I was in junior high and my buddy Sara and I thought it would be fun to sleep on lawn chairs in my parent’s driveway.  Of course, this being June we got eaten alive by Iowa’s state bird, the mosquito. But, we did last the whole night and spent many other summer nights out under the stars.

Today we leave on the maiden voyage of the trailer I built last summer. I say summer because I started in June and thought I would finish by August. August came and went but fall camping is the best sort of camping so I wasn’t concerned. However, it was only days before Thanksgiving when I hung the door and added the lock.  With snowflakes swirling, it was too late to give the trailer a run.

So now, after nearly a year of planning, building and tweaking, the trailer is ready for its christening.  I now officially dub thee Turtle Shell Trailer.



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Shiny Things

Floating on the surface…flowing under water…

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