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Going Back to the Land
By Catherine Winter
July 8, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

A couple of decades ago, a lot of frustrated urbanites lit out for the country. They planned to build their own homes, grow their own tomatoes, maybe raise some chickens. People called it the "back to the land" movement. A lot of folks found a year or two of country living was enough, and they went back to running water, central heat, and neighborhood grocery stores. But Minnesota's north woods is still full of back-to-the-landers, making bark baskets, raising rabbits, and chopping firewood.

SPRING COMES LATE TO MINNESOTA'S NORTHEASTERN TIP. In March, when the rest of the state is thawing, snow is still thick in the woods outside Grand Marais, where Mark and Julie Adams live. A dirt road leads into their property, to a clearing dotted with rusted old trucks, a barn, a shed, and a cabin.

In the cabin, cinder blocks piled to make steps lead down to a room dimly lit by kerosene lamps and heated by a barrel stove. Mark Adams, a big, bearded man with glasses, gets enthusiastic good night kisses from his little daughters, and then his wife, Julie, takes them off to bed.

Adams has lived here for 25 years. He says his family's rustic life has advantages. They don't worry about losing power in a storm. And no plumbing means no frozen pipes.

Adams: The simpler you keep it, the less likely something's gonna break. The more complicated it is, the more of a problem it is if it breaks. If you've got a septic system and it fails, you've got a big mess. If you've got an outhouse, I don't know how it would fail, unless it filled up, but you'd just dig another one.
Adams says when he moved here in 1973, his parents thought he was crazy.
Adams: They're sort of scratchin' their heads that they spent their lives tryin' to get away from outhouses and kerosene lights and now, what the heck, the kid they sent to college is living with an outhouse and kerosene light. But on the other hand, you know, had some really fun times with 'em in the kitchen around the cookstove and they went back to their childhood and started discussing family recipes for scrapple and headcheese and whatnot.
Adams pieces together a living here by logging, firefighting, building bridges, and planting trees. He says his back-to-basics life sometimes makes him a valuable employee.
Adams: One of the things on my resume is a primitive-skills-and-tools specialist. You can't use a chainsaw in the BWCA. You can't use a backhoe in the BWCA. So when you've got wilderness areas you've gotta have somebody around able to take care of those and use so-called primitive tools. To me, a cross-cut saw is not a primitive tool. Now a rock, that's a primitive tool. But it's amazing what you can do with a rock.
Most winters, Adams is a horse logger. He uses horses to pull trees out of the forest. Early in the morning, he and his logging partner, Cindy Imsdahl, hitch two big draft horses to a wooden sled laden with chainsaws, poles, chains, and other equipment. Adams believes working close to the land and animals keeps him connected to reality. He thinks some tourists from the city don't have that connection.
Adams: People are so used to Disney that they can't tell reality from non-reality. I had six or eight occasions where people said, "Are those real horses?" So I said, "No, it's a hologram, but don't step in the hologram behind 'em. It sticks to yer boots."
Adams and Imsdahl climb on the sled, and the horses yank it into motion. As they rumble through the woods, Adams points out bobcat tracks in the snow.
Adams: Beats rush hour on '94.

Imsdahl: Yeah, this is the way to go to work.
Cindy Imsdahl is a relative newcomer to the northwoods. She once worked for Merrill Lynch in New York City's finance district. She left a desk job in St. Paul to come here. She and her daughter are living with the Adamses until she can buy 40 acres of her own. She says she dreamed of coming here for 20 years, and she has no desire to return to her office cubicle.
Imsdahl: The peacefulness, not hearing the refrigerator running - I still lay at night and listen to the wolves or the coyotes - just the quiet, not listening to police sirens or the neighbor's radio. It's so precious, I could never give it up.
Imsdahl is learning to use a chainsaw and a pike pole - a long pole with a hook. She and Adams use the poles to push and pull big logs into a pile.
Imsdahl: That's one thing, I'm probably in the best shape I've been in most of my life and didn't have to pay any gym fees.
Imsdahl confesses one thing she does miss: bathing regularly. Weekly trips to the showers at the municipal pool aren't quite the same.

For a midmorning break, Adams and Imsdahl head to the cabin where Mark's wife, Julie, watches the girls. One of the kids dashes into the kitchen and pees in the "honey bucket," which someone will have to empty later. Julie Adams says raising kids without running water or electricity isn't so difficult.

Julie Adams: It's not like I don't have a laundromat to go to do the diapers. If I had to haul buckets that would be different. Without TV and stuff, they get an interesting concept of life. Cedar Rose is 15 months old and she's really into books already.
Julie uses a sewing machine with a foot pedal to patch a pair of Mark's jeans. She's also made him gaiters for logging, and a pack to take when he fights forest fires. She makes hats and mukluks for the children.
Julie Adams: If the economy collapses, people are gonna need to know these things. Mark says get poor early and avoid the rush and I guess I agree; it's good to know how to do certain things before you need 'em.
Months later, in the heat of summer, Adams is logging again. He and his teenage son, Brock, are sweaty and smell of chainsaw oil. Brock's been helping his dad log since he was about six. He grew up in the woods, but he spent the past year going to high school in Minneapolis.
Brock Adams: It was definitely different. I'd never seen that many people in one spot at one time. Like fishermen's picnic here. There was like 300 kids in my class. That was nuts.
Brock stows some of the logging gear in the back of a pickup truck. He says classes in Minneapolis were easy after his years of homeschooling, and he thought some of his big-city classmates acted silly.
Brock Adams: I'm used to working up here in a lot of serious situations. Fairly serious anyway, and they weren't. They always wanted to get in fights about stupid stuff. About anything, really. None of 'em seemed to want to be in school. They didn't want to learn anything. That was the other weird part.
Brock says having TV and electricity was no big treat, and the central heat was dry, not like a woodstove, but he did enjoy running water. Today, he and his dad will go swimming to clean up before dinner.

Dinner at the Adams' cabin tonight is roadkill. A few weeks ago an 18-wheeler hit a moose on the highway. Some of it became mooseburgers at a town picnic, and some went to members of the town board, including Julie Adams.

Julie Adams: It's moose steaks. It was a little tough. It was a tough old moose so we cooked it, and then we're gonna make stroganoff.
The stroganoff comes out beautiful, in thick, dark gravy, and it's quite delicious. Some friends are visiting, and Julie and Cindy bring platter after platter of food outside - a salad, vegetables, a rhubarb pie. Everyone sits in the afternoon sun to eat. The grownups joke and tell stories. Some of the kids head down to the barn to see a batch of kittens. Mark Adams says this is a good life. But it isn't really "the simple life."
Adams: That's one of the fallacies, that this is a simpler lifestyle. It's every bit as complicated. It's just they're different complications. You pay attention to small things, listen to crickets because they're gonna tell you what the weather's gonna be. You watch what the birds are doing.
In the Adamses life, "different complications" also mean someone has to haul water from a spring to make dinner and cut wood for the cookstove. It means never vacuuming the house. It means trying to keep the milk from spoiling by getting ice from town for the cooler. Adams knows many urban people fantasize about a life in the woods. But he says it's not for everyone. Living simply can be pretty complicated.