Almanack Contributor Justin A Levine

Having grown up in the southern Adirondacks, Justin has always been at home in the mountains of New York. After graduating from Paul Smiths College, he began his career in the environmental field working for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. After a brief five year detour to Florida, Justin returned to the Adirondacks to live off the grid in a small cabin with no running water or electricity.

Justin continues to work and play in the outdoors, and maintains a blog about living off grid, hiking, and being outside in the Adirondacks called Middle of the Trail.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cabin Life: Living With Wildlife

There’s a soft, wet blanket of snow covering everything. It’s also eerily quiet. The last two mornings I’ve been woken by a yellow-bellied sapsucker banging on the metal roof of the wood shed. And the morning before that, Pico woke me up barking at the turkeys that were walking by. Today, the birds are silent. The rabbits that are all over out here are brown on top and white on the bottom.

It’s an interesting sight as they sprint down the road in view of my headlights, then dart off into the woods. All winter, I saw lots of rabbit tracks, but no actual animals. Now that there is no snow and they are that awkward combination of colors, I see them all the time. Their winter camouflage obviously works well. » Continue Reading.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cabin Life: The Woods Offer Time to Think

With no TV or internet to distract me, I spend a lot of time thinking. Just thinking. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how crippled I used to be by my depression. I also think a lot about the sea change in my own personality and life since I sought out treatment. My therapist in Jacksonville was good, she was no Freud or anything like that, but I didn’t really need someone to tell me that all my problems were somehow related to sex. A cigar is just a cigar. I needed someone to unload my problems on.

During our first session, she asked what I wanted out of the therapy. I told her I wanted to say what was making me angry (always a strong byproduct of my depression) and that I needed an independent person to tell me when I was right to be upset and when I was being a baby. I can’t begin to describe the weight that was lifted as I gained some perspective on my feelings.

I heard an interview with a famous person the other day, and she said that her depression was never gone, but it felt like a train that was coming, and all you could do was hop on and hope that you survived the ride. I couldn’t agree more. It’s not that I don’t get depressed anymore or that a couple years of therapy was a magic pill. But the lows are a lot more shallow and the train is easier to hold on to.

I’ve always found solace in nature, which is why I’ve basically spent my life outdoors. The sounds, smells, and colors of the woods are very soothing, and I can honestly say that I have never been depressed during a hike or camping trip. Going through therapy and addressing my issues led me to the conclusion that if I was happiest outside, then I needed to spend as much time in nature as I could. Hence my leaving Florida to come back to the Adirondacks.

It’s my way of making my lifestyle my therapy. The other major thing I learned in therapy was that I was really exceedingly normal. I am open to discussing my problems because I think that many people suffer day to day from mental demons or whatever you want to call it, and I hope that others can buck the stigma of needing to talk to a therapist. It took me about five sessions to realize that I had nothing to be ashamed of. But as I sat in the waiting room twice a week, I saw dozens of people come in and immediately put their eyes to the ground out of shame. I noticed it because I was one of them for a while. And how silly, to be ashamed of seeing a therapist when you know for an absolute fact that I am also there to see a therapist.

As I sit here writing this, the snow is falling again, and there’s about an inch on the ground. It started raining around four this morning, and changed to snow sometime after I fell back to sleep. The new porch roof did well in the rain, and the new floor makes the porch feel much, much larger. It’s a gray and dreary day, cold, windy and wet. And I couldn’t be happier.

Justin Levine is living off the grid in a cabin in the Adirondacks with his dog Pico and blogging at Middle of the Trail.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cabin Life: Horseshoes and History

I found an old set of horseshoes in the lower field the other day. It has been a nice addition to recreational life out here at the cabin. I had some friends over to play, and according to Adirondack rules, each participant had a beer in one hand. No setting it down to throw, no cheating with non-alcoholic “beer.” And of course, upgrading to whiskey or tequila gets a nod of approval from the fellow participants.

Even though I am very secluded out here, I’ve found so many pieces of evidence of the continued presence of humans that it’s hard not to think about how others have lived on this particular piece of land. I only found the horseshoes because one of the stakes had a faded orange flag on it. When I went to investigate, I found the shoes, and it took a little while to find the other stake because the field is overgrown.
» Continue Reading.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cabin Life: Starting Spring Projects

The afternoon sunlight slants against the birdfeeders, giving them a golden glow. It’s hard to believe that it’s almost seven at night, when it was not that long ago that the sun was going down at about four-thirty.

During the really dark parts of the winter, it was hard not to go to sleep at six PM. With only candles and oil lamps, night was difficult to fight off, and more often than not, I fell asleep on the couch with a book on my chest and my headlamp still on. Now that it’s light so late in the afternoon, I am actually having a hard time filling the days. Not that I’m just sitting around doing nothing, but I feel like I should be working until six or seven. It is nice to take a break and realize that it’s dinner time, though.

The wood I cut over the winter is drying nicely, the deer have been coming back to the yard, and luckily there hasn’t been any sign of bears. The chickadees have been using the feeders less and less, but the squirrels are still hitting them pretty regularly. My focus has definitely shifted from cold weather preparation and existence to outdoor projects. The compost bin is complete, and so is a small cold-frame I put together from scrap around the property. The leaky porch roof now has a rather large hole in it (my fault) and is in dire need of repair, so that’s the next big project. I’ll probably have to move a generator from Amy’s house up to the cabin to charge batteries and run a saw for the roof project. It’s weird to think that other than charging my phone in the car, this will be the first time that I’ll have electricity at the cabin.

October to April with no power at the house seems like a long time. But it went by pretty quickly. I did go through a lot of 9-volt batteries powering the clock radio. I also burned about three shoe-boxes worth of candles, as well as a gallon or so of lamp oil. I’ve burned about four cords of wood, but the stove won’t needed much longer. The two and a half gallons of gas I bought for the chainsaw is just about gone, and I finally added a gallon of gas to the four wheeler. I really wish that the four wheeler would start in the cold, but now that it is running, I’ve been having a lot of fun just driving it around.

Unfortunately, Pico can’t come along on these rides, because he’s continually trying to bite the tires, and that’s no good. The bugs are out, but nothing is biting yet. A friend of mine saw some mosquitoes, but he said “they were too stupid to bite me.” Let’s hope they stay that dumb all summer.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cabin Life: Spring is Here

The yellow-bellied sap sucker. My all time favorite name for an animal. I’ve seen two of them in the last week. This March was definitely a weird one as far as weather goes. Record breaking high temperatures led to several shirtless days outside and a sun burn on my back. It was about this time last year that I left Jacksonville and headed back up here. The year didn’t turn out any where near what I had planned, but that’s alright.

Now, I am completely absorbed with the amount of birds that have been popping up around here. I saw two grouse walk through the yard a little while ago, and there were a bunch of robins that passed through a few days ago. I’ve even seen a few geese flying by along with a bunch of others that I can’t identify. » Continue Reading.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cabin Life: An Experiment in Self-Reliance

Pico and I went snowshoeing for probably the last time today. I wanted to get out before all the snow is gone, and I think there’ll be enough left to ski on tomorrow. But the snow is going fast, almost as fast as it came. In the last two weeks, I’ve gotten about two feet of snow out at the cabin. The plow guy had to come three times in four days, after having been out here only three times in the last three months. But now it’s about fifty degrees, and the forecast calls for warm for the rest of the week. It’s starting to look like winter might really be over.

I missed this part of the Adirondack spring last year, as I was still living in Florida. I missed opening the windows and letting that clean-smelling breeze roll through the house. I missed seeing people’s super white arms emerging from t-shirts for the first time in months. I just plain missed the change in the seasons.

Jacksonville, FL is far enough north that there is kind of a “winter,” where it does get cold for a couple of months. The palm trees stay green and you might need a hat and gloves in the morning, but that’s about all you get out of the change of seasons. There’s really only two seasons: Hot, and not as hot. The lady bugs have been proliferating around and on the big window. I keep catching glimpses of them out of the corner of my eye, and thinking that someone is coming up the driveway, but that’s not really all that likely. Now that it’s warm, the snow is melting, and there are brown patches of dead grass peeking out, I can’t help but feel some sort of satisfaction. Back in October, I thought that living off the grid for the winter would be a huge challenge.

It has been. But not one that has broken or defeated me.

If anything, I am stronger, both mentally and physically, than when I moved out here. This winter was an experiment in self-reliance. Not that I haven’t gotten help along the way, but being way out here is something that you have to experience to truly understand. And really, isn’t life all about the experience?

Justin Levine is living off the grid in a cabin in the Adirondacks with his dog Pico and blogging at Middle of the Trail.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cabin Life: People Here Look Out For Each Other

A rusty screen door in the wind. That was the sound I heard earlier outside. But the sound was coming from the woods, far from any door, or even any human-built structure. I wondered what it was, but the big MagLite didn’t provide any insight, and the most likely culprit was some tree creaking in the breeze.

The snow has started again, and it looks like the next couple of days will be spent shoveling and digging out. I really don’t mind. It’s good exercise, outside, with tangible benefits. I’ve always loved running the snow-blower and driving a plow truck, and shoveling is something that I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for.

Two storms ago, I shoveled an area big enough to park a few cars in. The plow guy was impressed, and that’s a pretty big compliment. One thing that I’ve always loved about living in the Adirondacks is that people come together when they really need to. When there’s no emergency or major event going on, I’m sure that neighbors have their regular squabbles, but when the fit hits the shan, people here look out for each other.

A few weeks ago, my plow guy got stuck in the driveway and it took us a while to dig out his truck. The next plow was on him as thanks. The time after that, we had a big storm, and he hadn’t heard from me, so he came up to plow the driveway and make sure I wasn’t stuck in here. He said he was glad when he didn’t see my truck. It was the same thing last spring. There were massive floods all over the North Country and my first three days of work were spent filling sand bags. We dropped them off all over town, to the city hall, motels along the lake, and at people’s houses. Most of the day, it was just a bunch of us state workers who had gotten corralled into the job. But soon after school got out each day, a stream of parents and kids would come into the town garage and ask what needed to be done. They brought us food and coffee, as well as fresh hands and arms. Filling, tying and loading a couple hundred thousand sand bags gets tiring.

But you know what, it’s not just in times of hardship that the people come together up here. Winter Carnival is one of the greatest parties you could imagine. An entire town celebrating the successful fight against cabin fever with a parade, concerts, and yes, even a Women’s Frying Pan Toss. Carnival is great.

The feeling this type of camaraderie creates is one of belonging to a community. Whatever their petty differences, people do what they can to help each other out, and in the process forget about the nonsense that most of us consume our lives with. If I had a neighbor and heard a creaky door sound day after day, I’d probably get upset after a while, and would eventually sneak over there and hit the hinges with WD-40. But since the sound was coming from a tree, I’ll just let it go. Having such a simple existence in this cabin has made letting the stupid things go a lot easier.

Justin Levine is living off the grid in a cabin in the Adirondacks with his dog Pico and blogging at Middle of the Trail.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cabin Life: Logging by Hand

Logging by hand has to be one of the most pointless and inefficient activities I have engaged in so far. I have been “cleaning the woods” as it were, dragging out large limbs and cutting dead trees to get wood for next year’s firewood supply. This year’s supply is large, but the quality of the wood is not that good.

When we moved here in the fall, my then-roommate and I didn’t have the money to buy firewood, and since we had fifty acres at our disposal, we figured we could cut, haul, and split our own wood. Luckily, we found a pile of logs that had been cut three years ago. It was mostly soft wood like white pine, spruce, and poplar (aspen), but it was free and dry. » Continue Reading.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cabin Life: The Decision to Live ‘Off The Grid’

There’s a half dozen black capped chickadees hanging around the cabin now. They finally found the bird feeders, though the blue jays have been scarce. One of the jays was hanging out in an apple tree this morning, but I haven’t seen them at the feeders in a few days.

I was recently asked why I decided to live off the grid. Long story short: It’s free and I can’t afford to pay rent. But when I really think about it, this has been a long time coming.

The idea of being self sufficient has always appealed to me. I just couldn’t afford to buy a piece of land to do this on, and until this winter, I had never been lucky enough to have someone just offer to let me live in a place for free. When Amy asked if I wanted to stay out here, I didn’t even think about it. I just said yes.

I’ve usually moved around a lot, mainly because I get restless, and the grass is always greener somewhere else. In 2006, when I moved to Florida, I was in desperate need of a change. I had battled depression most of my life, and Jacksonville seemed like a good escape. Eventually, I manned up and sought help for my depression. And part of my therapist’s plan was to help me realize that I could do what I want with my life and not be afraid of the consequences. After all, it was my life to screw up.

The more I thought about this new, happier phase, the more I knew that I couldn’t keep living in Florida. I gave up two jobs, health insurance, vacation time, a pension, lots of friends, and agreed to a long-distance relationship all to move back to the mountains and work a seasonal job with no benefits so that I could hike and play with my dog Pico. I knew that I would be broke and I didn’t care.

I think that’s why I am adjusting so well to living off the grid; because I’ve been mentally preparing for it for years. And now that I’m actually doing it, I couldn’t be happier. Sure, I’m broke, single, and have to ask friends if I can take a quick shower at their houses (They always say yes!) but what could be better than having an adventure like this? When I look back twenty years from now, I know that this time will have been a major turning point in my life.

The experience I’m having is already shaping the future me. I’m making plans for a cabin of my own, looking for land, and reading and taking classes on farming, homesteading, food preservation and draft horse handling. I’m not shy of hard work, and when I can afford some land, I plan on building a log cabin and living off the grid. But, since I’m not the Unabomber, I will also have solar panels, running water and indoor plumbing. Plus I’m pretty sure the Unabomber didn’t have a blog.

Justin Levine is living off the grid in a cabin in the Adirondacks with his dog Pico and blogging at Middle of the Trail.

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