At the shot of gun, thousands of optimists and opportunists – in wagons, on horse or on foot – raced to stake a claim and build a life.
In northeast Oklahoma County, in a grove of post and blackjack oaks, mulberries and poke bushes, Rob Elliott and Cynthia Wilson are homesteading five acres in the tradition of the Sooner forbears.
“I’ve developed a lot of state pride,” Elliott said. “I think there’s a lot of pioneering spirit here in this state and I think that what we’re doing speaks to that spirit.”
What they are doing goes by a few names, including homesteading or living off the grid. Wilson calls it “living outside.”
“It’s got a double meaning,” Elliott said. “It’s living outside the box, but it’s also ... minimalist. We want to live outside in nature to the greatest extent possible, while still protecting ourselves from things like wild animals and insects, scorpions, cold, hot, rain, hail, all those things. So that’s our design philosophy – given all those bases are covered, what’s the smallest and simplest structure we can be in?”
Living outside A year ago, Elliott and Wilson moved to this plot between Oklahoma City and Spencer. They brought all their possessions and a large tent.
“We had our bed in the middle and all our stuff in piles around it and there was really no other space in there,” Elliott said.
Wilson said she’d always loved nature. As a child, she felt most comfortable at camp or reading outside.
“We also knew that we wanted to do something for the community,” she said. “We wanted to have a space where people could go and feel compassion and love and understanding and maybe grow things, undertake some large art project — just be a place of refuge.”
“I lived in Peru for two years in a very rural community, very off the grid,” Elliott said. “I realized we could live more simply, but I wanted to use age-old wisdom and knowledge and also the latest greatest technology of today — mix those together in a creative way to live well, but simply and very low-impact.”
From that first large tent, Elliott and Wilson moved into a six-sided yurt built of insulated foam board. Later they built a 400-square-foot pole barn – a slanted steel roof on poles, enclosed on three sides – that sheltered a smaller tent.
More recently, they completed a 200-square-foot living area, dug three feet into the ground and situated under the back end of the pole barn. The walls are sprayed with polyurethane foam, giving the interior the look of an igloo.
“We call it the ice cave,” Wilson said. “It’s actually pretty calming. You can just come here and chill out.”
Dug into the earth, the single room can maintain a relatively constant temperature in all seasons. A fan and vent, yet to be installed, will add airflow.
“This is designed for temperature extremes,” Elliott said. “If it’s too hot or too cold to be outside, we can be in here.”
The ice cave contains a bed, along with piles of books and other possessions. The front portion of the pole barn, outside the cave, serves as closet, living room and kitchen. The structure is open to the south to collect passive solar heat during the winter.
“The environment is a big thing,” Elliott said, “but I think it’s not the only reason to do what we’re doing. I think it’s a more wholesome way of being. I’ve never thought so hard in my life, and everything is problem-solving — real-world problem-solving.
“A friend of mine said, ‘The idea of living simply is just a myth because living out here is anything but simple.’ But it is wholesome and authentic and fun.”
Back to the garden
Beyond the pole barn is an experiment in hugelkultur, a German gardening method using raised beds.
The brush cleared around the living area was piled together and covered with top soil from the dugout ice cave. As the wood decomposes, it will release nutrients into the garden for years.
So far, the hugelkultur bed contains mostly uncultivated poke and stray gaillardia. The couple looked sheepishly at each other when asked what they ate.
“That’s our dirty little secret,” Elliott said.
“We eat out a lot,” Wilson said.
“That’s the one thing: Neither one of us like to cook …. sometimes we do raw, but that’s not always completely satisfying.”
“We want to be able to grow our own food,” Wilson said. “Will we be able to do that completely? Not incredibly likely. Even if we were doing 50 percent, I’d be pretty satisfied with that.”
They planted some greens and lettuces this year, but not a large garden.
“Next year, we’ll do better,” Elliott said. “This year, we were just so focused on our basic shelter and just now got it under control.”
When they do cook, they use a small, twig-burning rocket stove. They draw water from a neighbor’s well, but plan on harvesting rainwater from the roof of the pole barn, perhaps as much as 5,000 gallons a year. Secondhand solar panels, once installed, might run a modest refrigerator and hot plate, and charge laptop and cell phone batteries.
Until then, Wilson charges her phone while at her full-time job at Camp Fire USA; Elliott uses the Internet and electrical outlets at the local library.
Rather than being reclusive or isolationist, the couple is quick to talk about the social aspect of their experiment. They praise neighbors who offer their water wells and advice on gardening, construction and wild pigs.
“It’s a reminder of how we used to survive as a society and a civilization,” Wilson said. “It’s a collaborative effort; it’s never just you and your partner. It reminds me of pioneer days; you’re dependent on one another, not just for basic necessities, but emotionally and psychologically.”
Eventually, they hope to invite guests to stay on their homestead to experience life as it is lived by many people around the world.
“People can come out here and learn that this is how someone in rural Latin America or Africa lives day to day,” Elliott said. “I think that would be a really great educational experience and build up a lot of empathy and understanding.”
The couple describes the homesteading experience — living close to nature, building a simple shelter and reducing possessions — as nothing short of transformative.
“We hold onto stuff, to things, to ideas and patterns we have in our lives, but it’s like a snake. You shed that skin and become something new,” Wilson said. “I look at the world differently than I did a year ago when we moved here. It’s a new world for sure.”