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Thomas J. Elpel and Josephine Jewett.

Grandma Josie and Me
Autobiography of Thomas J. Elpel

      There are two sides to my personality, the ambitious side that is driven to stand out and make a difference in the world, and the private side, which is shy, introverted, and socially awkward. This autobiography is more about my private side, and the influence of the most important person in my life - my grandmother.

Time Capsule
      I had the rare opportunity as a child to spend hundreds of hours with my Grandmother, Josie Jewett. Together we explored the hills and meadows near Virginia City, Montana, collecting herbs, looking for arrowheads, and watching wildlife. Grandma Josie taught me about native plants and their uses, igniting a passion for nature that has inspired me ever since. She also sparked my interest in survival skills.

      I was born in Los Altos, California in 1967 to Edwin and Jeanette Elpel, the youngest of six kids. As a child, our family traveled back to Montana every summer to be close to the extended family. We spent most of that time with Grandma Josie. She lived three miles outside of Virginia City, in a house along Granite Creek, or "Granny Creek," as we called it. Grandma Josie didn't own a TV. I don't believe she even owned a radio, or if she did, the reception was so poor up the canyon that she never listened to it. But she did have a phonograph and she played the oldies - the real oldies. I was raised on Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash.

Maverick wood cooking stove.       Grandma Josie cooked on an antique, wood-fired cookstove. Every day she chopped and hauled firewood, cut fine kindling, filled the woodbox, and started the fire to cook. The cookstove didn't hold a fire for long, so every meal began with the ritual of crumpling newspaper, laying in the kindling, and lighting the match. She didn't use a little kindling ax; she used a full-size, three-pound ax to split the finest kindling.

      Grandma Josie also made tea. She did not heat the water in a cup in a microwave. She didn't own a microwave. Nor did she use tea bags. She made real tea. She made tea that started with our walks though the meadows and the woods along Granite Creek. The walks were important to her, probably more important than anything else, and I cannot recall more than a few rare occasions that she didn't go walking. Along the way, we often picked herbs for tea - herbs such as peppermint, yarrow, blue violets, red clover, or rose hips. We brought these herbs home and dried them in racks, then stored them in cans in the pantry. She had an amazing collection of herbs, and I don't think she ever started the kitchen fire in the morning without also making a pot of herbal tea. I grew up on Grandma's tea.

      She also baked bread. Every few days she would work up a batch of whole wheat bread. She mixed up the dough, let it rise, punched it down, kneaded it some more, let it rise again, and then baked it in that old wood cookstove. She was cunning, too. She made a game out of "swiping the heel" at dinner. Most kids would choose not to eat the heel off a loaf of bread, but in Grandma's house it was a matter of glory to get the heel, or to innocently distract someone and swipe it off their plate.

      More than anything, Grandma Josie was fun to be around. She smiled. She laughed. And she appreciated every day. Sure, she had her off days, too, dealing with adult things. But no dark cloud could keep her from appreciating the world around her. She appreciated every day as if the world were totally new. She didn't dismiss the robins or the magpies because she had seen them before. She watched them as if she were watching the daily news. The world around her was alive, and she was alive with it.

Josephine Jewett with wood cook stove.


      I was updating my information today and transferring information from old notebooks I gathered back in the 1980's. The notebooks have many old pics, some of them with color fading away as the old 35mm pics did. While updating Josie's page and researching the Internet, I came accross your bio on the Web World Portal.
      What you had written about your grandma Josie was of particular interest to me. I only met her once, Aug 10, 1982, but I'll tell you, she left an everlasting memory and I have thought of her many times over the last 30 years. I had a relationship with my maternal grandfather similar to your relationship with Josie, he was my rock.
      You mentioned Josie's old cook stove in your biography, and I thought you may enjoy this picture I took from our meeting those 30 years ago. When I asked to take her picture, she said, "Take it in front of my stove, it's my pride and joy, I can make eight loaves of bread all at the same time in this stove." She really was quite a remarkable lady!

Best regards,
Jim C.

      My father died of cancer in 1979 at the age of forty-eight. He was the bread-winner for the family, doing advanced electronics work for the government, and he was the reason we were living in what later became known as the Silicon Valley. Dad died in December, and the following summer we packed up and moved to Montana, arriving a month or so after Mount Saint Helens blew her top in Washington and dusted Montana with volcanic ash.

      I still harbor a twinge of guilt about my father's death, because I really, really wanted to move to Montana, and that wouldn't have happened had he lived. His death was hard on me in many ways. I was twelve years old at the time, and I didn't know how to grieve. I didn't know how I was supposed to feel. I didn't know how I was supposed to act. I'm not sure that I've ever learned.

      We spent that summer of 1980 in Virginia City, then moved to Bozeman, about seventy miles away, where I attended junior high and high school. I didn't mind school. It wasn't difficult, and I didn't hate it like some kids do. I just didn't have the necessary social skills to build new friendships. I begged to go to Grandma's house every chance I could, which was about every other weekend through the school year, and much of the summers, too. I often told my mom that I wanted to go to "my other home." I was too young to understand how deeply that hurt her.

Thomas J. Elpel, teenager.       I was also really spoiled. Sometimes my mother drove me out to Grandma's house, but often Grandma drove into town to get me herself. There were two mountain passes between one place and the other, so it wasn't a small trip, especially in winter. And then there was my Aunt Dixie. She had worked as a bush pilot in Alaska for a long time, and even built her own airplanes. She moved to Bozeman for a time and was building her career as an artist, but kept up with the flying for fun. She occasionally offered to fly me over to Grandma's house. I'm not sure it was any faster, because we had to drive half an hour to Bozeman's Gallatin Field, do a check on her little airplane, start 'er up, taxi down the runway, and fly over the mountains to Grandma's house. But Grandma didn't have an airstrip at her house, so Dixie would buzz the house and wave her wings to Grandma. Grandma would hop in her pickup truck and drive twenty miles to Sheridan to pick us up at the airstrip. On more than one occasion, she made the trip for nothing when other people buzzed down the canyon in an airplane.

      Although my dad taught me my first edible plant as a child, a mustard, it was Grandma Josie who really fired my passion for botany, wildflowers, medicinal herbs, and edible plants. I was surprised to discover that she did not know the names and uses for all of them. But we often gathered new flowers on our walks and brought them home to identify. She had a pile of color-picture books for identification, and being a kid, I had all the time in the world to page through those books to find a match. Then I would study up on the edible or medicinal uses of each plant. Anything that I couldn't identify myself, I brought to the herbarium at Montana State University in Bozeman. A botanist there, usually my grandmother's friend, Alma, would key out the flower and give me a botanical name for it, which I would then use to look the plant up in my books.

Grandmother, Josie Jewett.       Grandma also sparked my interest in wilderness survival skills. She was passionate about self-sufficiency in any form - wilderness survival skills, Indian lore, pioneer lore, plus the homesteading skills she relied on every day - drying fruit or making fruit leather, raising chickens and eggs, canning vegetables, and butchering the deer that my Uncle Joe shot for her. She didn't necessarily do a lot of wilderness skills herself, but she had Larry Olsen's Outdoor Survival Skills book, showing the basic skills for shelter-building, starting a fire without matches, hunting and trapping, and edible plants.

      In junior high I discovered Tom Brown's first books, The Tracker and The Search, about his experiences growing up under the tutelage of a displaced Apache Indian named Stalking Wolf. I inhaled those books as everything that I wanted to learn and do. I read most of Tom Brown's other books almost immediately as they were published. I also acquired Richard Grave's Bushcraft and Ellsworth Jaeger's Wildwood Wisdom.

      As much as I might sound like a country kid, I still had my urban roots. I was fascinated by wilderness skills, but didn't seem to have the ability to succeed at those skills on my own. I observed that my country cousins were much more capable than I. They grew up hunting and fishing with their parents all year long - living in the country, cutting firewood, fixing trucks, riding motorcycles and shooting guns. I was never interested in the latter things, being too loud and unnatural to my sensibilities, but my cousins definitely knew how to use their hands. I wanted to practice wilderness survival skills, yet didn't have enough experience with a knife to do anything proficiently. More than that, I had a philosophical bent, and struggled to give the outside world my full attention.

BOSS, Boulder Outdoor Survival School class, 1984.       My first serious immersion into survival skills came in 1984, at the age of sixteen, when I participated in a 26-day, 250-mile walkabout in the desert canyons of southern Utah with Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). I learned numerous skills, such as how to start a fire with flint and steel or bow and drill, how to make cordage from plant fibers, and how to make a hot coal bed to sleep warm in any kind of weather with just a wool blanket and a poncho. These skills, and others I was exposed to during the trip, gave me a foundation to build on, and I started to learn, slowly, on my own.

      The following year, Grandma Josie and I flew out to New Jersey and attended the week-long Standard Class at Tom Brown's Tracker School. Unfortunately, I felt as though I was being read to. The physical skills were basic, and I'd already had that experience at BOSS. Plus, I'd practically memorized all of Tom Brown's books. I constantly practiced the observation skills and fox-walking I learned from Brown's books. I was proud while jumping hurdles in gym class to overhear one girl say to another, "He runs like a deer." Although I loved Tom Brown's books, I didn't feel like I learned anything at his school, and I never went back for another class.

      Grandma Josie moved from Granite Creek to the little town of Pony, at the other end of the Tobacco Root Mountains in 1985, and I followed her there. I also met my mother's cousin Melvin Beattie at a family reunion. He was a generation older than me, but shared a lot of similar interests. He grew up trapping and later taught himself how to braintan hides. He also knew how to start a bowdrill fire and many other skills. He invited me to his home in Helena and taught me how to tan hides.

      Grandma Josie was more than patient with me with all of my buckets of stinking deer hides sitting in the bathtub when it was too cold to keep them outside. Teenagers have a way of being oblivious to the obvious, and my entire family indulged my hobbies to the nth degree. I converted the little garage at Grandma's house into a hide tanning workshop where I could scrape deer hides, brain them, and stretch them dry in front of a little wood stove. I had hides and deer hair everywhere, but like most wilderness skills, I really wasn't particularly good at it because I was always in my head thinking about other things. It wasn't skill or talent that helped me to succeed in the many things that I've done, but sheer persistence and repetition.

Josephine Jewett petting a deer.       Overall, it was a pretty ideal way to grow up. I never had to deal with the crap other teenagers go through. I was seldom bored, and I never hung out at the mall. I wasn't rebellious, and I had zero interest in partying or drinking beer. I never desired to try smoking cigarettes, marijuana, or anything else except my braintanned hides. Peer pressure wasn't an issue, because I seldom hung out with my peers. Instead, I went home after school and practiced my skills. Like Grandma Josie, I went on walks every day. In the farm fields and woods around Bozeman, I was learning plants, stalking wildlife, and practicing my tracking skills. I had a grass-thatched hut hidden along a ditch by one farm field. Out the other direction, I had a full-blown campsite with a debris hut and fire pit just fifty-yards from the popular Sourdough Trail. And whenever the opportunity presented itself, I went to Pony to hang out with Grandma Josie.

      Grandma's house was the ideal base from which to go stalking deer in the pasture, or to take off on a walkabout into the mountains to freeze and starve and otherwise practice my survival skills. But more than anything, it was home. Grandma and I played card games almost daily, usually casino, and my aunts, uncles, and great aunts and uncles would often come over to play pinochle. Oddly, Grandma didn't really need to go anywhere, because the world came to her. She had a constant parade of guests to her home, many of whom she had never met before, and some from as far away as Europe. She just had the kind of personality that people gravitated to, even though she otherwise lived alone and up the holler on the edge of town.

      Grandma liked to play practical jokes. In addition to her game of swiping the heel, she also liked to give an extra thrust when guests asked for the butter. She would make sure the butter was warm and soft before dinner, then nonchalantly cram the butter plate into the fingers of whomever asked for it. Sometimes she would make a special salad, replacing the olives with deer droppings for someone at the table. She teased with a "Tee hee - I got you!"

Wedding day with wife in new wheelbarrow wedding present. Marriage
      I didn't date much in junior high and high school, because I was too shy and socially inept to have a girlfriend. I met Renee because we both sat at the same lunch table for social misfits who didn't have anyone else to sit with. We were both in the art room a lot too. I asked her to go on a hike with me, but she turned me down. But later, Renee gave me a candy cane, so I asked her to go for a walk with me, and she said, "Okay." I didn't realize there was a difference, but to Renee, hiking didn't sound like much fun, while walking sounded all right. In 1988, two years out of high school, we walked 500 miles together across Montana, starting in Pony, and ending at Fort Union on the North Dakota border. We were married in the Pony Park the following summer.

      Renee and I bought a five-acre parcel in Pony, just two blocks distance from Grandma Josie's house. We moved into a tent and started building our own passive solar stone and log home. We worked with troubled teens in wilderness therapy programs, commuting to Idaho, Utah, or Arizona for three-week trips. Then we came home and spent our income on building materials, as described in my article, Building a House on Limited Means. Living in a tent and cooking over the campfire wasn't a bad way to live - especially being just two blocks away from Grandma's house, a hot meal, and a plate of chocolate chip cookies!

Thomas J. Elpel with wall tent while building a house.       Our path was astonishingly easy. Most young people go to college and become deeply indebted to get a piece of paper that says they know something. Then they get a job and eventually a house and a mortgage, putting pennies away into equity while spending everything else just to stay afloat. We didn't make much money, but we put ninety-five percent of our income into our home, resulting in a somewhat energy-efficient home without a mortgage while still in our twenties. Like my grandmother, we installed a wood-fired cookstove in the kitchen. I ran hot water pipes through our cookstove, so that we generate all of our hot water between a solar water heater and the wood cookstove.

      Renee and I made a pretty good team. I was the dreamer and the doer with the grand visions in life. She was the realist, the one who questioned my pie-in-the-sky ideas and forced me to reprocess and reprocess until I got it right. I was the dynamo with the energy to start an impossibly big project and the willpower to finish it. She was the practical one who made sure we attended to basic necessities, like food and warmth and sleep. In many ways, it was the ideal marriage, and we always said that we led a charmed life. We were best friends, and we hung out with each other 24/7. Our social life consisted of our extended families, and neither of us had much in the way of outside friendships. We hung out at Grandma's house, played cards, and went for walks together.

Slipform stone forms on stone wall.       We had the kind of fairy tale marriage that everyone dreams of. Sweethearts since high school, we lived our dreams and succeeded. We didn't make a lot of money, but we had few expenses, and we were free to do whatever we wanted with our lives. I wanted to write books, and I wanted to change the world.

      I've only been employed for eleven months of my life, at least in the sense of receiving a W-2 form from an employer. That consisted of three months building deck rails on apartments with my brother in the Seattle area, plus eight months leading troubled teenagers on wilderness survival trips. Renee worked considerably more, working with troubled teens for a nearly three years, supplemented by part-time work in her mother's picture-framing shop. She kept us fed while I sat in front of the computer and glacially launched my writing career. We also launched a hobby-business, Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School, LLC for teaching wilderness survival skills.

Primitive pit shelter. Changing the World
      I suppose that changing the world is an unlikely goal for an introverted, socially awkward guy who likes to tan hides and sleep in holes in the ground. I don't know if I watched too much of the evening news with Walter Chronkite, or what, but I've been driven since childhood to make a difference in the world. I was particularly drawn to the people-versus-nature issues, which were portrayed on the news as a trade-off between jobs versus the environment. The news broadcasters always made it sound like we had to sacrifice one for the other.

      Although seemingly unrelated on the surface, the issue of jobs and the environment is directly connected with my wilderness survival hobby. Wilderness survival is all about making a living and trying not to destroy the natural world in the process, which is the issue we all face on a daily basis. How can we survive and meet our needs for shelter, warmth, water, food, and clothing in a sustainable way? Based on the belief that there must be a way for people to live in harmony with nature, I started at the bottom, and worked my way up from the Stone Age.

      While practicing my wilderness skills on the one hand - learning to build shelters, start fires by rubbing sticks together, and forage for something to eat - I was also researching topics like alternative housing, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture, not to mention processing whatever topics were in the news. The biggest obstacle to practicing my wilderness skills has always been this consuming interest. Unlike Grandma Josie, who was totally enraptured by her surroundings every day, I tended to be in my head, processing things like energy-efficient house designs, holistic ranch management, using swamp filters to treat city sewage water, balancing the federal deficit, rethinking foreign policy and wildlands issues. This was my personal life as a teenager and has been ever since.

      I didn't realize it at the time, but Grandma Josie taught me the most important lessons about creating a sustainable civilization. Born in 1914, she was a teenager when the Great Depression hit. Like a lot of people from that era, she grew up with a powerful conservation ethic. She didn't believe in wasting anything. She saved coffee grounds for plant food. After boiling potatoes, she poured the potato water into a pitcher and let it cool before watering the house plants. She collected egg shells in a tin can in the warming oven of the cookstove, then crushed them and fed them back to her chickens to make new eggshells. She composted anything organic and talked up the virtues of manure fertilizer, teaching me the different applications for chicken manure versus horse manure and sheep manure.

      Grandma re-used containers, using Cool Whip tubs in place of Tupperware. She made her own chokecherry wine, re-using the same bottles each year. Grandma believed in repairing the old, rather than buying new. I don't believe she would have ever bought a new car, even if she had the money. She liked to refinish old furniture. And although we hauled plenty of garbage to the dump, we probably hauled more back. We were always digging through the trash looking for treasures. And although it wasn't exactly legal, we picked up roadkill deer along the highway and butchered them, keeping the best meat for ourselves, while giving the rest to the dogs.

      We could learn a lot from Grandma Josie. As Americans, we have imperiled our successes through careless waste. We have lost our best topsoil - washed out to sea, or blown away in the wind - compromising our long-term ability to feed ourselves or the world. We've drained some of our best underground aquifers to boost production today, leaving none for tomorrow. We've poisoned other aquifers with pesticides and other industrial toxins. We've depleted worldwide oil reserves driving inefficient cars, leading to spiking oil prices and global warming which now threatens developing countries with social-political implosion and numerous species with extinction. Our leaders in Washington have spent money so foolishly that we are in debt $65,000 for every man, woman, child, and newborn baby.

Bolting end logs for stone and log home.       The challenge to changing the world is that one must a) know what to change it to, b) map out a plan to get there, and c) have the resources and the ability to pull it off. I would have gone to college and taken classes to get a degree in world-changing, if it were an option: "Thomas J. Elpel, World-Changer, Ph.D." It has a nice ring to it. But the reality is that there is no place to get such a degree, except to create one's own. So how does a socially awkward guy go about changing the world, while living "up the creek without a paddle," as Grandma Josie often described her lifestyle?

      Creating a sustainable civilization is actually the easy part, as I quickly learned in my research as a teenager and young adult. The problem is that we humans tend to be our own worst enemy, greatly complicating relatively simple issues. For example, cooking food over an open campfire in undeveloped countries can become a major environmental disaster, as firewood, dung, and eventually even green matter are stripped from the landscape for use as fuel. A deteriorating environment ultimately leads to starvation and more rape and pillage of the landscape to survive. A simple technology like an energy efficient mud stove can reduce firewood consumption enough to avoid the disaster in the first place. Better yet, with modest financial aid, a $15 reflective solar cooker can virtually eliminate the need for firewood at all.

      We face basically the same kind of issues in the industrial world, just on a bigger scale. After high school, young people typically seek a college education to get a good paying job. They graduate deeply in debt and in need of employment to make payments, so they buy a house and take on a mortgage, utility bills, maintainance costs, insurance, and they buy a car to get back and forth from work. The lifestyle necessitates regular stops for fast food, because there isn't enough free time to grow or prepare wholesome food at home. In other words, expenses do not necessitate employment. It is employment that necessitates ever more expenses until the individual becomes enslaved to debt until retirement. Ultimately, people have no choice but to take a job raping and pillaging the world (although it may look more benign, like an office job), in order to pay the bills so that they can get to work to pay the bills. They become so poor living in an expensive, inefficient house that they cannot afford even a basic upgrade, such as boosting attic insulation to reduce energy consumption and ultimately save money.

Finished slip form stone and log home.       To me, building our own low-cost, stone and log home seemed like a logical first step in my quest to change the world. In part, I wanted to demonstrate that it is still possible to live the American Dream - to own one's home without a mortgage, as described in my book Living Homes. I also wanted to demonstrate that going greeen - making the effort to live sustainably - could be the path to the prosperity we all seek. I'm not suggesting that everyone should build their own home. There are already enough second and third homes sitting empty to house another country. Rather, it was more of a proof of concept, that it is profitable to live a sustainable lifestyle.

      Building our own home also made practical sense, given that a) we needed a place to live, b) I couldn't change the world living in a tent, c) I couldn't change the world if I were stuck paying down a mortgage for the next twenty or thirty years, and d) getting a job and working the rest of my life to pay bills sounded more like the American Nightmare than the American Dream. Although it took a few years longer than I hoped - given our lack of skills or money - building our own home ultimately gave me the freedom to pursue my lifelong vision of attempting to change the world. Perhaps, most importantly, I knew that I would always need a quiet place to return to - a place that felt like Grandma Josie's home - to rejuvinate as needed while attempting to make a difference in the world.

Thomas J. Elpel and family. Instant Family
      I'm not sure if it was our background in wilderness therapy work, or the desire to make a positive difference in the world, or maybe just the fact that we hadn't got pregnant yet, but Renee and I signed up for foster/adoptive training classes and did a brief stint with foster care. Hearing of our background with teenagers, the social worker naturally lined us up with a sixteen-year-old, Gary, who had been bounced through more homes than I could count. We had Gary for six months, and he was a good kid, although we didn't get anything else done except hang out with him until we exhausted each other.

      After that, Renee and I wanted to do something permanent, and so we talked with our social worker about adoption. Babies are high in demand and short in supply, but we expressed an interest in possibly adopting a sibling group. Days later, on June 17th, 1996, we met our kids, Felicia (almost 7), Cassie (almost 6), and Donny (18 months), for the first time. Two weeks later they moved in with us, and life was never the same again!

      In parenting, it was my dream to give my kids the same kind of childhood opportunities I had, and more. I was very blessed to have had a unique childhood, and I felt greatly priveledged to spend so much time with my grandmother. I wanted to give our kids a similar upbringing. I felt like I had some pretty unique and special skills to offer. I wanted to raise them in the real world, connected with nature. I dreamed of going on walks together, of exploring the meadows, hills, and woods, of tracking, building our survival skills together, of being united as a family. I dreamed of being able to provide a safe enclave like the one I had, a place where they would never have to face the dark side of our society. And I dreamed of making herbal tea for my family every day, just like Grandma Josie did.

      We did go on a lot of walks and camping trips. As the kids remember it, "We went camping ALL the time." We went car camping a lot, since it was the practical thing to do with young children. We also bought a canoe, making it possible to do some extended wilderness adventures, but without killer hikes. We had little money, typically $10,000 to $15,000 a year, yet we went on some amazing adventures, a few of which I journaled, including a two-week canoe trip down the Green River in southern Utah one year, and a two-week canoe trip on the Upper Missouri River the following year. We did a lot to introduce the kids to nature and primitive skills and I took my young kids on some real survival camping trips, too. Edwin was born to us on the first day of 2001, and our family was complete. But I never mastered the art of making a pot of tea every day like Grandma did.

Thomas J. Elpel with son Edwin in children's backpack.       The funny thing about my relationship with Grandma Josie is that I often felt it was unfair that I didn't have a mentor like Tom Brown had in Stalking Wolf. In his stories, Brown tells of Stalking Wolf mentoring him in tracking, nature awareness, and survival skills, and it seemed unfair to me that I didn't have anyone like that in my life. I failed to recognize the mentor I had in Grandma Josie. Sure, she knew some edible and medicinal plants and inspired my interest that led to researching and writing my best-selling book Botany in a Day, but she didn't teach all that stuff to me. I had to figure it out on my own. And yes, she inspired my interest in wilderness survival skills, and even atttended a survival course with me, but she didn't teach me those skills. I had to take classes or go out in the woods and figure it out on my own to learn the skills that I wrote about in Participating in Nature. And yes, she was totally enraptured with nature every day, but I was the one who was studying and practicing nature observation techniques.

      Strangely, I was in constant competition with Grandma, trying to appreciate nature more than she did. But while I focussed on the competition, she was just appreciating nature! I was unable to recognize how skillfully Grandma Josie mentored me until I was I old enough to see it in a different light. She didn't have to know all of those skills herself to inspire my interests and encourage me to figure it out on my own, which is exactly what mentoring is all about. And what other grandmother would particpate in a wilderness survival class with her grandson?

Thomas J. Elpel with daughters, all in buckskin clothing.       As a parent, I struggled to provide the same level of mentorship to my own kids. Probably the biggest obstacle was my writing career, my tendency to be deep in my thoughts all the time - at the keyboard, at the dinner table, and even while walking and being attuned to nature on a parallel level. Being introverted, I didn't necessarily point out the things I noticed; I assumed that anyone with me could see or hear just as well as I could. And so I often appeared to be distant and in my head while walking with the family. What I mentored most was spending thousands of hours in front of the computer screen, writing my books.

      As a person with a somewhat public persona, people make a lot of assumptions about my life, and one of the most common assumptions is that my spouse and kids are clones of myself. Because I know a bunch of skills, people often assumed that Renee knew the same skills and could identify any plant or answer any question on hide tanning, shelter-building, or any other survival skill. And people are often shocked to hear that the Elpel kids spend hours and hours on the Internet or in front of the television playing video games.

      I think that young, naive parents also fall into this assumption trap, thinking they can mold their kids like clay. I certainly liked to imagine a future when our kids would be big enough and skilled enough that our whole family could go on fantastic survival adventures together, like our own little tribe. But the reality is that kids and spouses own their own lives and follow their own paths. And the more we try to encourage them to follow in our own footsteps, the more likely they are to forge a path in the opposite direction.

      Renee and I sometimes worried about an open mine shaft on the hill a block or so behind the house. The shaft dropped twenty feet straight down, and with loose rock all around it, it seemed like a potential disaster spot for curious kids. We debated the problem, "Should we not tell them about it and risk them finding it on their own? Or should we tell them it is there and risk them hiking up the hill to check it out?" As a professional wanderer, I knew every nook and cranny for miles around and assumed it would be the same for our kids. But our children were social butterflies. They wandered downtown, not out-of-town, and they never did find the mineshaft behind the house.

Josephine Jewett with great grand child.       We went on many incredible hikes with our family, yet it wasn't like me eagerly tagging along with Grandma Josie. The kids had a good time once they hit the trail, but the resistance cost was high and grew higher as the kids got bigger. It was not unlike the resistance my siblings and I put up every Sunday when my mother and father dragged us off to church. Nature was my church, and the higher the cost to get outdoors, the fewer walks we went on. I often wished I had Grandma Josie's ability to radiate such an infectious enthusiasm and appreciation for nature.

      Grandma was devious in her approach to mentoring. In retrospect, I would have to call it bribery. She always brought along a bag of treats, usually cookies or candy bars. Every walk became a friendly competition, even when it was just the two of us, "Who can see the first wildlife? Who can find the first flower?" Maybe that's where my competitive spirit originated, trying to appreciate nature more than Grandma. But I also have to wonder if my entire love for nature is rooted in a conditioned response to chocolate!

      Felicia and Cassie were old enough to get to know Great Grandma Josie while she was still our neighbor down the hill, and I was glad for that. But age took its toll on Grandma, and she was not so self-reliant as before. She moved away from Pony, first to live with my aunt, and later into a residential care facility. I remember being thankful that I had a young, demanding family, because I was too crazy busy to dwell upon this loss in my life. It was hard to believe that Grandma wouldn't be there any more, and I didn't know how to deal with that. Fortunately, I was so busy that I gradually grew accustomed to her absence. I felt like I had moved on in my life by the time she passed away in 2004. I do regret not spending more time with her in those final years.

Thomas J. Elpel in buckskins with canoe. Stepping Out
      It would be much easier to change the world if someone just handed it over and said, "Here, fix it." But unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately - it doesn't work that way. Yes, I have great dreams for making a difference in the world. But those dreams are worthless without a plan to implement them.

      I realize that there are many ways to make a difference in the world, that even something as simple as volunteering at the local school can make a critical difference in someone's life and help the next generation along. But someone has to address the big pictures issues as well, and why not me? It has been my consuming passion since childhood. The challenge is, and always has been, how does an introverted, not-particularly charismatic guy without name recognition or money go about changing the world?

      In human culture, ideas take on a life of their own, in which they emerge, spread from person to person, evolve, or drop out of favor and disappear. These bits of infomation can be thought of as "memes," much like the genes in evolutionary biology. A successful meme can rapidly spread through human culture, changing perceptions and altering behaviors.

      A meme could also be thought of as analogous to a fragment of computer code. In this sense, changing the world is a matter of finding the appropriate lines of code and inserting them in the appropriate place in the program to output an ecologically-sustainable civilization with peace and prosperity for all. Identifying those memes and figuring out what to do with them has been the driving impetus behind my writing career.

Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. by Thomas J. Elpel.       Unfortunately, there is a big difference between identifying those memes and expressing them in an intelligeable way. The challenge was doubly difficult for me, as a guy who struggled emotionally and didn't know how to express myself, even before my father died. I did not start writing books because it came easy to me. I started writing because I could slow down the chaos inside and process and reprocess it until I could make the words express what I understood in my heart. It took ten years of staring at a mostly-blank computer screen before I successfully launched my writing carreer. It was not uncommon for me to spend an entire day writing and rewriting a paragraph, only to throw it all out at the end. But writing about simple topics like wilderness survival helped improve my ability to tackle the more challenging topics, like creating a sustainable civilization. There is much more to write, and I feel I am just beginning.

      In many ways, changing the world is really all about creating the perfect meme. Insert the right words into our collective cultural consciousness and it could alter the trajectory of our society, averting disaster and putting us on a sustainable path. But even the best meme is worthless if nobody ever hears of it. To be successful at saving the planet, it is necessary to get up and yell, "Hey everybody - check out this meme!" More problematic is that it requires some serious self-promotion to convince people to listen to the speil. And that self-promotion doesn't come naturally to an introvert.

      The thing that annoys me about extroverts is that they don't necessarily care what the meme is, they just want to be the center of attention. Maybe they have a core belief that the government should help people, or that government should be smaller, and people should help themselves, but beyond that there is often little substance. Extroverts have the outward confidence to act like they know what they are doing, even when they don't have a clue. Call it extrovert syndrome, they just want to rally the troops and say, "Follow me!" and march our whole species right over the nearest cliff.

      In trying to find the path to create a sustainable civilization, I had to consider the probability that the answers might not always match my beliefs. Thus, I learned to adopt the motto, "Question everything, especially one's own deepest convictions." This kind of self-doubt is great for finding unexpected answers, but it is a distinct handicap when it comes to getting attention in a world of extroverts who speak with confidence on subjects they know nothing about. It is also a handicap to be terrified of being on camera - even when there is nobody else around and I am the one running it.

Art of Nothing: Canoe Camping on a song and a paddle. by Thomas J. Elpel.       I started producing videos because I knew I would have to face the camera if I ever wanted to make any substantial difference in the world. And though that may sound like a recipe for some lousy videos, I think I've done okay, all things considered. My stone masonry and wilderness survival videos are certainly not Hollywood productions, but they are not too bad for the home-made set. By any reasonable measure, I did not have an emotional self, which I packaged away after my father died, substituting logic and reason to negotiate my path in life. There was no "I" to stand up in front of the camera. On the other hand, I was used to playing the observer and looking at things from the outside, so I understood the basics of directing. I could see the video in its final, edited form, even while being the person on camera. And being in front of the camera, struggling not to be a stiff like Al Gore, was the first step for me in regaining my emotional self.

      I wonder if the reason I liked being around Grandma Josie so much was because I felt safe with her. On the one hand, she was very social and always thrilled to have a house full of company. She was warm and fun to be around. She made anybody feel at home. On the other hand, she was otherwise a quiet personality like myself, and she seemed quite comfortable living alone. Going to Grandma's house was like stepping out of time, where the only things that really mattered were hauling firewood, walking the dogs, cooking a good meal, and listening to Johnny Cash. As a person who succeeded in life by keeping my emotions in check, it was a pretty safe place to be.

      Grandma Josie believed in self-sufficiency and lauded the make-do, can-do attitude. She repreatedly told me of the long lineage of builders and carpenters in our family. I think she was as excited about our house and we were. She knew how to be a good cheerleader.

Slipform stone and log home with solar panels.       To me, being a do-it-yourselfer was more a matter of necessity than desire. Not willing to get a job working for someone else, we didn't have the income to hire any help. I learned all about house-building, plumbing, and wiring as a matter of necessity and survival. I took a similar approach to launching my writing career. I wrote the text, did most of my own photography, page layout work, and ultimately started my own publishing company, HOPS Press, LLC. I directed, filmed, and edited my early videos. I taught myself HTML by tearing apart someone else's website and tinkering with the code until I understood how it worked.

      It is hard enough to try and come up with a plan to change the world, harder still to implement it, especially being a nobody on a shoestring budget, lacking a rolodex of friends with connections. I had to overcome telephone terror just to get started in business. There was a time when I fretted over simple business calls and rehearsed for hours in my mind before I dialed the phone. I overcame it through sheer will power - by making myself do it.

Granny's Country Store in Silver Star, MT.       By 1999 I had made a small, but self-sufficient income from my publishing business. By 2002 we were doing pretty dang good, by our standards, anyway, and without a mortgage or many other expenses, we installed a 2,500-watt grid-tied photovoltaic system, which continues to produce as much electricity as we consume. We had a fledgling Internet bookstore based in our house, and in 2003 we decided to expand onto Main Street.

      The bookstore evolved from my publishing business. I was living in the middle of nowhere, trying to promote my books. At primitive skills gatherings I met other authors with related titles, and so we swapped inventory and sold each other's books, mutually increasing our exposure. I started selling books online that were related to my own books. I also strived to make our website the best source of information on the web for several related topics, which was more easily accomplished when the Internet was new. We were storing boxes of books in the family room and packing them in the office. Finally, we decided it was time to get the business out of the house, and we started looking at real estate.

      We looked around and fell in love with Granny's Country Store in Silver Star. The 45-mile drive was a bit of a problem, but there was an apartment built into the store, so we didn't have to commute every day. Renee had long dreamed of running a general store. I dreamed of making a few billion dollars like Ted Turner and using that money to change the world.

      The store included a small contract with the postal service to sort the mail and run the community post office. And so, after all our efforts to avoid a mortage or regular employment, we bought ourselves a mortgage and a job. And instead of having the business in our home, we soon found our home in the business, with Renee and I and our four kids sharing the one-bedroom apartment attached to the store. We home-schooled the kids that first year and transferred them to the local school the following year. We largely abandoned our sustainable home in Pony, which sat there sustaining itself. The solar water heater produced hot water. The photovoltaic panels ran the meter backwards. My brother, having built a house next door, kept the chickens fed, and so there were always fresh eggs. I came home every week or two, usually alone, to work in my home office and water the trees.

      Running the store brought two very shy and introverted people out into a life on Main Street. Granted, there are only thirty-some people in all of Silver Star, and that many more in the out-lying suburbs, but Granny's is the heart of the town. It is the place that everyone comes to get their mail, buy some milk, or obtain a livestock shipping permit. It is the one place in town where neighbors could bump into each other and talk for half an hour before moving on. It helped to force us both out of our hermit shells. Although the store was named after the granny that we bought it from, I liked to imagine that it was named after my own Grandma Josie.

      At first we worked ten times as hard to make as much as we did before, but we gradually built up the business, until we had a flourishing enterprise, shipping books, videos, primitive fire kits and more to addresses all over the world.

      I wonder sometimes if we intuitively sense our future as children and act it out in some way. As a child, Renee pretended to sort the mail, using the vertical slots in the stairway railing as "mailboxes" to put the mail. I once set up a "rock shop" in my grandmother's yard, when she still lived miles from the nearest possible customer. While I didn't sell any rocks, I do remember sitting there processing ideas and dreams for successful commerce. And through Granny's Country Store I finally got to sell rocks, collecting and shipping chert for "flint" rocks for flint and steel fire-starting.

Barn style, slipform stone masonry home in Silver Star, MT with lilac hedge.       On the side, I continued writing books and producing videos. Being right along the Jefferson River helped focus and shape the vision for the budding nonprofit organization, Jefferson River Canoe Trail. I also wanted to do more teaching. We started offering internships through Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School, LLC, using a trailerhouse next door to the store as student housing. In the fall of 2004, after brainstorming ideas with the students, I launched Green University® LLC, to expand to a blend of wilderness survival skills, alternative home-building, sustainable living, and green business development. The following spring, we tore down and recycled the trailerhouse, and started building a passive solar, super-insulated stone house for the Immersion Program, using mostly recycled materials.

      Although I have some ideas on mass-producing high-efficiency, alternative homes, this wasn't an appropriate site for it, and the methods we used turned out to be more labor-intensive than our home in Pony. I spent most of the next five years working with my students to build the stone house, in between various writing projects, wilderness trips, running the business, and trying to be Dad. I dreamed of getting into politics and changing the world. I'd been working on building my resume since I was about ten years old.

      One consequence of not having an emotional self was that I had become accustomed to experiencing life from an outside perspective. I was hyper-aware of my resume and how things appeared to other people. While I love my house, and it is definitely built to suit my personality, I'm also aware that it is a marketable asset. It looks good on the cover of my book. It would look good on any poltical brochure that I might one day create. So would my wife and kids.

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction. by Thomas J. Elpel.       It wasn't that I saw my wife and kids as assets, but rather that it was impossible for me not to be aware of appearances. Any new political candidate puts a photo of their spouse and kids right up front, ticking off how many years the candidate has been successfully married and served as a good parent. It's that American-as-apple-pie image that we all want, much like the Kennedy's and the Obama's. Its not just policies that we vote for when we go to the polls; we also vote for that warm, fuzzy picture of living happily ever after. The desire to find one's magical love and live happily ever after is deeply rooted in our culture. It was that, more than anything else, that I wanted to market in politics. In a culture of broken families, I wanted to show that with a holistic approach to life, it is possible to have everything - a happy, healthy family, an energy-efficient home without a mortgage, and the freedom to pursue one's dreams in life.

      I needed my family on my resume, and I felt like I could pull together a reasonable campaign to run for governor of Montana. It seemed achievable, even with no prior political experience, since Montana is a small state with barely a million people. Running for governor here is about the equivalent of running for mayor of a mid-sized city. And our Governor Schweitzer never held any other office before, either. The only problem was that a) Renee objected to being an item on my resume, and b) my emotional self couldn't stay corked up any longer.

Barn style, slipform stone masonry home and garage in Silver Star, MT. The End of Everything
      If anyone ever collected bets on our marriage, most people, including those who knew us best, would have bet on Renee and I staying together forever. We didn't fight in public and we rarely argued in private. We didn't go to bars and drink or smoke. We didn't need friends; we had each other. We worked together in business. We were partners as parents. We made our dreams come true.

      It is easy to point fingers at the obvious things, like buying the store. Instead of working together, Renee ran the day-to-day operations of the store and post office, aided by my sister Jeanne. I worked with the students to build the house for Green University® LLC. We were both busy and we developed separate lives.

      You could point a finger at my political ambitions, since I spent twenty years trying to convince Renee that I could get into politics and make a difference. But she didn't want to live a public life and spent twenty years telling me I was delusional. I never won her support, and she never convinced me that I couldn't do it. It wasn't a heated argument, just a long-term point of contention, both of us believing the other would eventually come around.

      On the surface, my relationship with my children also seemed like a contributing factor. It is ironic, because I love kids, and the highlight of my year is always taking the local school kids out on field trips and overnight camping trips. I thought I had a lot to offer as a father, and my kids meant the world to me. I had anticipated that they would have the same exuberance to pursue nature skills with me that I had had to pursue these skills with Grandma Josie. As a self-employed, work-at-home Dad, I was literally always there for my family. But my kids were not interested in the same things I was. That's not unusual. In fact, it is completely normal. They just wanted to hang out with their friends and do what everyone else did.

      Unfortunately, not getting out in nature as a family meant that I didn't get out either. Somebody had to watch the kids, but I didn't know how to cross the bridge from the world I knew into the world that everyone else considers normal. And Renee didn't know how to raise kids any way other than how she grew up. She brought the kids to town to be with her family and do town things, while I stayed home, cleaned the house, wrote books, and slowly built up a network of friends, students, and anyone else that was interested in going out on walkabouts and survival treks. I gradually became an alien in my own family, an outsider with nothing left to hold on to.

Thomas at the beach.       But the root cause of our separation was in our emotional connection, or lack of it. Renee was perfectly comfortable sitting together talking on the couch. I liked talking too, and we talked far more than most couples do. But I also wanted to pounce on her, to wrestle and play and have pillow fights. I wanted to run through the woods, climb trees, and go on wild adventures together. Trying to express my needs only caused more problems than it solved. And so, our marriage was sustainable as long as I could set aside my emotions and not need anything, just as I had done ever since my father died. It wasn't a bad price to pay. I could weigh the good and bad of our relationship and calculate that my marriage was better than most. By any reasonable measure, Renee was a better catch than most men could ever hope for. She was dedicated, loyal, reliable, and beautiful. We just didn't know how to emotionally connect.

      I always joked that, "Renee is my best critic. I know that my writing is getting good when she doesn't hate it any more." She helped me become a writer by forcing me to try and satisfy her perfectionist attitude. But, as is often the case with humor, the truth cut deeply. I hungered for her approval and she hungered for mine. I think our marriage was sustainable as long as I had Grandma Josie for a cheerleader. Without Grandma, it was just a matter of time. And as Renee commented early in our marriage, she knew she could never be Grandma Josie.

      One thing that continued to hold our marriage together was the "shalt not's" that were imprinted in me on those weekly trips to church as a child and greatly reinforced at home: "Thou shalt not drink or smoke or swear. Thou shalt not have sex out of wedlock. Once married, thou shalt not divorce, nor ever consider it." I didn't. I didn't even drink my first beer until I was thirty-six and then only because I was doing legitimate research on local microbrews for the store. Those shalt nots were part of my root programming. Getting divorced never even crossed my mind. I stubbornly held onto the belief that we could ultimately resolve our differences.

      As a teenager and young adult, I was accustomed to being told how mature I was. I didn't do all that stupid stuff that other young men do. I was thoughtful and responsible, and I was doing something with my life. But my maturity was partly an illusion, the result of not having an emotional self. In an sense, I was still twelve years old, and I maintained the innocence of childhood by taking it with me. Although we lived and worked on Main Street, it was a bubble of my own universe thrust out into the world. I never let the barrier fall between me and the dark and dirty world outside.

Purple Morning Glory flower.


      Thank you for your autobiography, your honest sharing helped me immensely understand some things about myself and my life....and release a big store of pent up emotions! Thanks to your sharing I now see why I was experiencing years of panic attacks before I walked out of (what everyone thought was a great) marriage of 17 years.

Brightest of blessings,
Suz - Australia

      Realistically, my marriage ended when a woman walked in the store trying to hawk a buffalo robe. I don't remember the woman or her name, but I'd always wanted a buffalo robe. I dreamed of snuggling up with Renee and wrapping the warm hide around us. Delighted to finally have a buffalo robe, I eagerly brought it home and spread it out on the bed. That's when I acknowledged that Renee would hate it and throw it on the floor, which she did. I realized that I had been married to my idea of Renee. I had spent our entire marriage engaged in fantasy about what our relationship could be like, but it hadn't happened yet, and never would. Our marriage had been sustainable as long as I believed we would one day resolve our differences. It just took me twenty-one years to admit defeat.

      In all probability, I could have held my marriage together if I had won Renee's support for my political career or bent my family to fit my little universe. But my marriage didn't have the emotional bond it needed to survive on its own, and I was unprepared to parent kids in the modern world. I dreamed of being a close-knit family. I dreamed of family picnics, camping trips and card games, and not needing outside friendships because we had each other. I dreamed of giving my family the same ideal little universe that I grew up in. But my kids did not want to be sequestered in the same protective bubble that I knew as a youth. Alienated in my own family and no longer able to see a path ahead, my world came unraveled. More than anything, I felt alone, desperately alone, and I could not suppress my emotional self any longer.

      My universe exploded, and I lost everything I had ever worked for, believed in, and cared about. There was no way to hold my world together by staying. There was no way to hold it together by leaving. Try as I might to stay calm and rational as I always had, my life imploded into three years of chronic anxiety and recurring panic attacks. The thought of staying with Renee and feeling alone and unable to pursue my dreams triggered panic attacks. The thought of leaving her and losing everything I'd worked for also gave me panic attacks. I aged twenty years. Marriage counseling helped us to work through many of our mutual wounds, but there was no way to bridge the deeper emotional chasm that we had never learned to cross in the first place. The funny thing is that, being accustomed to supressing my emotions, I didn't look any different when I was having a panic attack than I did at any other time. I felt like I was screaming out in pain, and yet nobody could hear me. Nobody seriously tried to understand and hear me - except for Katie.

      From an outside perspective, it looked like I walked away from a pretty ideal marriage and left my wife of twenty-one years for a younger woman. To our friends and extended family members - to anyone who knew our family at all - the undoing of our marriage and family appeared to be my fault. I don't believe anyone will ever understand how desperately I wanted to stay married. Had I wanted out of it, I would have done it long before my life descended into a hell hole of panic attacks.

Thomas J. Elpel backpacking. Out of the Ashes
      I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about Katie the first time I saw her. It was obvious that we had some interests in common, given that we were both at a primitive skills rendezvous and we both wore buckskin clothes. But more than that, I gravitated to her cheerful spirit and infectious smile. She radiated an energy that I understood. I wanted desperately to talk to her, but I how could I?

      In our society we expect monogamy in our relationships, not just in bed, but in all facets of friendship. If we are in a relationship, then we are not usually allowed to fraternize with additional members of the opposite sex. We demand that one person be our everything. I am not sure that is ultimately sustainable.

      Realistically, it was illogical to think Katie would want to have anything to do with me anyway. I was substantially older than she, not to mention married and the father of four kids! And ethically speaking, she was too young. The shalt not's of my base programming forbid me from talking to her about my situation. I didn't. But I thought about her all year long. Logic dictated that I was delusional to imagine any kind of a relationship with Katie, even as friends, but the little fantasy was the only thing that kept me going through the third year of panic attacks, while Renee and I struggled to resolve our issues.

Katie and her horse Flint.       Somehow, I was incapable of speaking the D-word. My programming would not allow me to ask for or demand a divorce. Holding my marriage together all those years required sequestering my emotions so thoroughly that I operated exclusively from second- and third-person perspectives. There was no first-person, emotional self. "I" did not exist. There was no "me" to stand up and speak on my behalf. I would have stuck it out in my marriage even if it ultimately killed me. There were times when I almost blacked out from stress.

      Eleven months after I first met Katie, I participated in a month-long Stone Age living project, partly to get back to my roots and improve my wilderness skills, but also because I had a hunch that Katie might be there. And she was. She came with her boyfriend, who happened to be more age-appropriate, and a lot more handsome than me. But I had a chance to get to know her just a little bit, to learn that she was sixteen years younger than me, and we shared a lot of interests. The attention she gave her boyfriend was exactly the kind of attention I'd always hungered for in my marriage, and she not only slept in a buffalo robe - she tanned it herself. She told a story of beating up a college professor because he slept with her best friend, and I was totally hooked. As one who was constantly stuck in my own head, I craved the intensity of play and battle with my mate. I was starved for a chance to be with someone who allowed me to be myself.

      Katie left the Stone Age project after only a week, but we met again at a primitive skills rendezvous a month later. She was breaking up with her boyfriend, and I was desperate to talk to her, but how could I possibly explain myself? At a loss for words, I just sat next to her while she weaved a basket. I felt strangely calmed in her presence, as if I had just arrived home after a long, long journey.

Katie in buckskins wading in lake.       Katie and I emailed back and forth over the course of the winter. Technically, we were just friends, and she wasn't remotely interested in anything more. She understood that I needed someone to talk to. She listened deeply to my situation at home and encouraged me to carry on. I wanted to come see her, but she told me not to come. Twice. I just didn't have anywhere else to go. I was drawn to her on raw instinct. I knew deep down that she was the only person who could help me.

      I drove out to Katie's place in the spring, five hundred miles away from home, with nowhere to go and nothing to return home to. Thirty miles away from her house in central Washington, I called and left a message. I didn't know what I would do if she didn't return my call, or if she told me to leave and go home. I considered driving back east to walk the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to run away and start my life anew.

      Fortunately, Katie returned my call and allowed me to come to her home, albeit, reluctantly. She understood that I needed help, and she responded with compassion. Besides, her hired help failed to show up, so she needed a dumb bloke to help build her corral. I stayed for a week. We built the corral. We talked. She listened to me when no one else would. She believed in me when no one else did. And then she sent me home to fix my marriage. It seemed like a death sentence. But Katie gave me a hug and sent me on my way, and it was that hug that helped carry me through.

Katie with mule, Ike.       When I arrived home, Renee told me she wanted a divorce. In a way, I made her demand the divorce, because my internal programming - and the lack of a first-person self - made it impossible for me to ask for it myself.

      Days later, Katie expressed that she might be interested in me, and from there began a whole new relationship - and a rather jarring adjustment for my family. There also began a turning point for me to regain all that I had lost. In the ashes of my failed marriage and family, Katie was the angel who helped me carry onward. She gave me strength to deal with the issues at home. She helped me believe in myself again. Coincidentally, Renee's friend Matt moved in with her about the same time, so we both jumped into completely new relationships!

      I have been very fortunate in my divorce, because Renee and I already owned two houses and two businesses and two cars, and the kids were well accustomed to migrating back and forth between the two properties. Renee moved into what was the Green University® LLC student house, and I kept the original property in Pony. In actuality, she had never really been comfortable in Pony anyway. It was my town, filled with my relatives, and she never reached out to make friends. She was depressed in our marriage. And, as I later learned, she had been dreaming of getting divorced back when we first bought the store. She has certainly been happier in her new life than she ever was with me.

      As is common for people coming out of a long relationship, I jumped into a relationship that - on the surface at least - seemed like the polar opposite of what I came from. Renee never wanted anyone to know we existed; Katie liked being the center of attention and enjoyed singing karoake to cowboys at the bar. And where I had tried to create a protective bubble around my life, Katie was a bit of a party animal. But while acting like a social butterfly on the outside, she was also very comfortable on her own. Like me, she grew up wandering around in the woods by herself.

      There was nothing logical about my relationship with Katie. And yet, there was a strange chemistry between us, and it is hard to imagine ever encountering anything like it again. We had everything and nothing in common. Oddly, Katie always dreamed of having a big greenhouse and a sunroom and cooking on a wood-fired cookstove. In a strange way, it seemed as if we belonged together. It wasn't until she started drying fruit leather and canning chicken and venison for the cellar that I realized just how familiar she seemed. In her personality and her interests, she is in many ways like Grandma Josie.

Thomas J. Elpel and Katie in buckskins.       I feel eternally grateful to Katie. She believed in me when everyone else abandoned me. She reached out to me when I was in pain. She gave me a hug when I needed healing. She gave back my life after I had lost everything. For the first time in my life, or at least since my father died, I was allowed the freedom of being myself and having an emotional life. Katie let me experience play, laughter, love, joy, sorrow, grief, loss, and tears. She saved my life and gave me the ability to stand on my own two feet and say, "I exist. I am an emotional human being with needs of my own."

      Over time, I would prove that I am a good and competent father. My sons flourished at home and at school. My adult daughters gradually thawed towards me. I have grown to cherish my role as Dad, and I enjoy being a happy home-maker. I kept my business alive and growing through the trials and turmoil of divorce. And I still try every day to make a positive difference in the world.

      Katie and I progressed to become friends and partners. We found great joy in our life together, and we proved ourselves to be an amazing team. I helped her achieve her dreams and goals, and she helped me achieve mine. More than anything, being with Katie filled me with gratitude. Life is short, and relationships are shorter, and one never knows what tomorrow will bring. But in the three years we had together, I learned to love life again. As I often told her, "Thank you for this moment in time." Katie gave my life back to me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

      Looking back, the torturous route that took me here seems like a blessing. Sometimes it seems as if the Universe has a plan, and sometimes the hardest part is learning to let go to trust that the Universe knows what it is doing. As I once posted on my Facebook page:

      "The Universe knows what it is doing. We can move with it or we can fight against it, but we cannot change it.

      "We might think we know better. We can cite duty, logic, should's, should not's, and find a million reasons why we know better. But what we think or believe is irrelevant. If we resist, the Universe pushes us forward. If we resist more, the Universe pushes harder. If we are deeply entrenched in our beliefs and vision of the way things "should" be, the Universe resorts to nukes. One way or another, we are forced to look at what we don't want to see, only to discover that the Universe knew what it was doing all along.

Thomas J. Elpel in buckskin vest.       "It is only when we learn to trust the Universe that we can leap out of an airplane on intuition alone, knowing with full faith and confidence that we will arrive exactly where we are supposed to be, even if it is unlikely as landing on an island in the middle of the ocean."

      As for my political aspirations and my dream of changing the world, it is hard to say where that will go. It is hard to imagine putting my resume back together after breaking apart my marriage and my family. In many ways, I am starting all over in business, building new facilities for Green University® LLC and our kids' programs. But whenever I have a chance to do my own thing, I am right back where I've always been, trying to make a difference, trying to change the world.

      In a convoluted way, it may have even been helpful to lose everything I had ever worked for, believed in, or cared about. I spent my entire life trying to be ultra-careful to do everything right, trying to avoid making any mistakes. I had a great attachment to my self-image and how everything I said or did might appear on my resume. In a sense, I lived in fear. But seeing my marriage, my family, and my dreams blow up in my face ultimately released me to just be myself. And in that freedom, I feel a new sense of fearlessness to walk my own path, wherever it might lead.

Hi Thomas,

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction. by Thomas J. Elpel.       My name is Ian and I am reaching out to you through cyberspace, hoping this email will reach you, hoping to make a connection with a kindered spirit, hoping to find some guidance along the way, having just read (and been touched by) your personal statement on your website. I had ordered (and mostly read) Living Homes over a year ago, in the hopes of someday creating, or at least helping to create, my own stone home on a permaculture, off-grid homestead, and attempting to carve out a simpler, more grounded life in the woods of Maine (my home state). This was and continues to be the dream.

      However, "life is something that happens when you're busy making other plans", and my current life couldn't be further away from that dream. Like yourself, I had strong idealist roots, wanting to change the world, but the path I chose was to work in the trenches of the New York City public school system. I am a dean and counselor at a small high school in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attempting to teach empathy, peaceful conflict resolution, and the power of love in the midst insanity. As I become more and more burnt out on this experience, I long for a reconnection to nature, to my true spirit, and to find other paths to changing the world. I relate to your expressed feelings of being scattered and torn in many directions. There are so many issues to be addressed, where to begin?!

      I know that the answer lays somewhere between the practical and the mystical, the concrete world of policy/politics and the abstract world of philosophy. I believe that a revolution in green economies, from natural building, to production of alternative energies is the way. While I feel well versed in the macro, conceptual, philosophical world, like many a modern man, I am completely alienated from practical, primal, and essential skills, from building my own shelter to growing my own food. I long to acquire these skills and to meld them with my intellectual, social self, and ultimately, to bring this marriage to fruition in work that can help change the world. We human beings are due for a paradigm shift and I want to be a part of making it happen. It appears as though you are on a similar journey. I would love to connect with you in some way in the future, even if only for an exchange of ideas.

All the best,


      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

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