This chapter focuses on survivalist instincts that arise within rural poverty. Sometimes the education that is most vital does not come from school or books, but in the knowledge of nature and how to use it. This chapter describes the process of adapting to natural hardships in remote locations, as well as learning new skills such as pumping water so that I could construct a garden out of piles of trash.
My standard answer to poverty is to travel elsewhere. When an economy goes bust it motivates me to leave. When it is a boom economy I will stay and work. Unfortunately, I spent most of my days busted in poverty and it has become the norm. I have become poverty minded. Nothing is permanent in terms of employment and home. I visualize my life only a short term in advance. My approach to personal finance, diet, and goal planning are shaped with the idea that everything I accumulate will soon be lost. Inevitably, I become economically busted once again. Debt shaped me. It has become a defining part of my identity. Therefore, this latest migration was an experiment to break my mindset of poverty. I wanted to look at the patterns that perpetuate my debt. I will learn to survive using lessons from a rural Wyoming ghost town. While residing in the desolate Poverty Flat, I will experiment with my insolvency and learn how to cope with it differently. I would shed this skin of white trash or, at least, kill myself trying.
When George Beard agreed to allow me to live on his 75-acre ranch he asked of me to make one promise: Since this was sacred land, I must consent to live with the natural elements of this territory. After I made a verbal commitment to George Beard he set me up in his spare trailer home. In the trailer I planned a strict diet, a boycott of U.S. news media, and to limit my spending of money. No credit card or checking account could save me because I ripped them all to shreds five years ago. I lived on a cash only basis. This was it; and the clock of my $250 was ticking. The deal is that I would work for room and board. No money could exchange hands. I was here to write about poverty and to learn from it, he was extending the opportunity because he needed help with ranch projects. He left me five gallons of tap water concealed inside a clean gasoline container and left me alone for one week.
The first rule he wanted me to understand was water. I had to teach myself about water without faucets or pipes. If I used my drinking water to wash I would run out early and thirst for days. I could not drink river water because the Giardia bacteria was present. The lack of potable water made me appreciate my thirst. The simple solution was to consume drinking water moderately and to wash only with river water. Unfortunately, I arrived in winter and a foot of snow immediately dropped around my 1955 Biltmore trailer. The water froze inside the gasoline container. If I needed water I had to hike in the snow to the nearest icy river. Then I carried two 5 gallon buckets of water up the mountain to my trailer. Initially, I carried each bucket individually, but remembered watching Thai women use a wooden pole to balance twice the amount. I picked up a thick tree branch from the ground and wedged between the two buckets so I could lift a well balanced load. The ice cold water splashed all over me, but I tweaked the new system unit I got it right. This work was still strenuous enough that I tried to limit trips to the river. I had to use water sparingly, make it last longer. To make this happen I bathed with great thought. The river was biting cold, so I learned to wash with another method. At first I started a fire to warm water, then quickly bathed by the warmth of the flame, but when the wind blew and snow fell, my reluctant dual with nature was lost. The next method was boiling water inside my trailer on the stove, since I had the luxury of electricity. This worked, but I still had to ration heated water. I had to find a balance between water uses. Boiled water was recycled for washing dishes. Rinse water was used to shave. Bowls and pots were reused in mechanical stages. Eventually, I developed an efficient system and planned ahead. I gathered and rationed water like millions of impoverished families do around the world.
George Beard returned at the end of the week with more drinking water. I was also given heat in my trailer. I refrained from turning the heater on earlier because I wanted to test how well I could adapt to the cold. Many transients freeze to death during the winter. The first winter snow of each year always triggers instinctive panic, because that cold demands that I find reliable shelter for the next thee months. This time I refused heat because I wanted to test my threshold for cold. I wanted to face my fear of freezing to death. This knowledge would save money on future heat bills. I used extra blankets and tried to meditate the pain of cold away. Some days I never left the blanket and shivered throughout the night. The cold chill made me thankful for heat. As my trailer finally warmed, and I survived the test, George Beard suggested, “Water is more valuable than gold. When money is spent it is gone, but water returns if you learn to take care of it. You must learn how to save and ration water”.
In spring the next step was to irrigate water. If I wanted to use water efficiently I had to connect pipes together and pump it uphill from the river to my trailer. I had to engineer water from point “A” to point “B”. Being from a large city I took such information for granted. Water pipes are hidden inside walls or buried underground. Plumbers are hired to make repairs. Urban folks are dependent on others to bring them water and couldn’t survive if they had to gather it themselves. That spring George Beard and I fixed leaky water pipes and salvaged cracked valves. Each day included a new plumbing lesson. George Beard reminded me about many things that relate to water: gravity, weight, pressure, drainage, slope, and the impact of air. I calculated the relationships of each element with water. I learned to communicate about fixtures and valves. I was investing time in plumbing skills and even teaching myself about science. Ultimately, I was learning to manage water.
In early summer I decided to built my own water tank. I wanted to store my own water instead of filling buckets from George Beard’s supply. I found a sixty year old steel tank and sanded off the rust while George Beard sealed the cracks. I spent one week building a platform from large boulders and wood. We lifted the water tank to the platform. It was a resurrection of an agricultural past – and it still worked. Afterward, we designed a system that delivered water to my Biltmore trailer. We had to teach ourselves to pump water to two tanks on the same water line. My water tank was located on a lower slope than George Beard’s tank, so water flowed to his first while the water pressure in mine equalized. When he watered his garden the H2O in my tank didn’t rise or lower, but when I turned on my valve at the same time, from below, my tank overflowed in seconds from all the gravitational pressure. The suction stole all his water from above in seconds. I still don’t understand the physics behind this liquid explosion, but it was a lesson in coordination. I had to find a balance between two interconnected systems. I studied the relationship between water tanks and how one has impact on another.
In mid-summer the next step was to build a garden to water. Since I had no money to spare I constructed one from scraps. On every ranch are piles of trash: wood, cement blocks, plastic pipes, porcelain, and squares of metal. City slickers make fun of this rural garbage, but I know that it serves the purpose of repairs and building material. I dug a long rectangular hole four feet deep and installed chicken wire that I found. I wanted to block gophers from invading my garden – a common problem on Poverty Flat. Rusty fence posts and old rebar were liberated to build a fence which. I wrapped with steel from a 1950s wading pool for children. The swinging gate was made from an old radiator. With the leftover metal debris I designed a protective shield for water pump valves that was so large I could sip tea while sitting inside it. Without spending a penny I created a garden out of trash. I salvaged what others call junk and made something useful from it. I found new respect for items with age.
The final step was taking care of something other than myself. I had to water my garden daily, pull weeds, scare away insects, and make improvements as I went. The garden depended on me to survive. I routinely took care of the type of vegetables my grandma once grew: turnips, beets, carrots, cabbage, radish, Swiss chard, squash, and tomatoes. As a child I remember the joy of pulling carrots from the ground and drinking water from her well, but her property had long since been paved over. Gardening was a daily process of caring for something. It depended on me for its survival. This direct responsibility reminded me of raising cats before migrating to Wyoming for the first time many years ago, before beginning a long journey toward education and debt. As I watered my garden – built from trash – I realized that this rural education could lift me from my poverty. The ranch was a school in which I learned to save things, plan in advance, manage limited resources, understand relationships, establish routines, and view myself as connected to the well-being of something other than myself. All of these could prevent me from returning to the streets. I evolved from gathering river water in winter, to installing irrigation pipes in spring, to delivering of water into a summer garden. I improved my condition one step at a time. Water is more valuable than gold because it is also a teacher.
After the first pumping of water into my hand-built garden we held a graduation ceremony. George Beard offered me a swig from a bottle of old Scotch that he acquired from his rebellious relative Thomas Bullock. It is not easy to find this precious elixir without transportation in remote Wyoming. He congratulated me on my ability to use a garden as a classroom. In celebration, George Beard surprised me with my first drive off the ranch. He took me to a hidden town in nearby Utah which was populated by a communal Mormon community. The forested community had no grocery store, shop, or restaurant. Its land was communally owned and individuals could only inherit family houses. The water responsibility was shared and hand dug ditches circulated water to each household. Once a year all house owner are required to provide labor. Irrigation ditches are cleared and fire hazards eliminated. A fine is charged to those that don’t attend the work gathering. I labored as a representative of George Beard. My job was hauling tree trunks off a mountainside and cutting away debris so the water could flow freely once again. At the end of the workday he finally invited me inside his family house. It was sacred property.
The exterior of this dilapidated house could easily be mistaken for a worthless shanty, however internally it was an accidental museum of American history. Every item in George Beard’s property was antique. There were pre-electric ice boxes, coal stoves, Depression-era furniture, 1950s women’s clothing, and old magazines from the 1960s. Each item gained value because of its rarity and age. Even household trash can become valuable when time is factored in. My urban mind imagined how much I could sell each item for in the city. All my debt could be cured. However, this museum was preserved for future generations. The family sold none of the contents inside. Everything was designated for private reuse by family members during the next couple of generations. It is hard for me to imagine saving when all my material possessions fit into less than two suitcases. I threw everything away before it became a burden to carry. My freedom comes with limiting things that I pack so that I can move more easily, but George Beard’s freedom came with the knowledge that stockpiled relics insured security. They were resources to be used later. This hidden town reminded me that my mindset perpetuated my poverty. I had little sense of community. I was approaching life alone when there were alternative groups to discover. I fiercely struggled to remain independent even if my connection to others prevented my drifting. All in all my experience at the remote ranch was a boom in knowledge at a time of economic bust.