Off the Grid

Welcome to Slab City

Can we talk about this nonsense phrase for a minute? You quit a job and take off in a VW Bus for a year and for some reason or other folks will say you’ve gone off the grid. It’s a weird and often thoughtless turn of phrase that I want to clear up in this post because we have never claimed to live off the grid. In actuality, what Miracle and I are doing is pretty much the opposite of what that phrase is meant to convey. I want to do two things in this post: 

  1. Define off the grid
  2. Define what we are doing in relation to that phrase

What does off the grid mean? When we say it, are we even sure what the grid is? Is the grid defined as traditional employment? Is it having a permanent residence / billing address? Is the grid being able to be physically located? Is it the use of technology like cell phones and computers? I don’t think it is any of those things. We don’t consider freelancers or people who work from home as off the grid. My late snowbird grandmother who lived several months at a mobile home park in Florida every year was never considered off the grid. Our technophobic friends aren’t considered off the grid for refusing to pay for a cell phone or choosing to conduct business on a landline phone. 

Off the grid is something a little more primal. Think Slab City—the commune of broke down trailers in the south California desert—where there is no formal system of government, no real rule of law, no property rights, no anything. It’s at once a libertarian and an anarchist and a communist’s wet dream. But it’s also awful. Miracle and I went last year and drove through. It’s dirty and bizarre and lots of people talk about the violence and petty crimes of living in a place like that. That is probably as close to off the grid as you can actually get and still have community. Because the grid really means society—the complex network of services, public agencies, private businesses, and technologies we use to survive as a collective group. (I should note that Slab City is a fun little side trip to stop and see. It’s like performance and installation art.)

Every day most folks navigate these systems to make money and to exchange that money for goods and services. They wake up and decide to play along with the first construct—time. Yeah, the grid begins with the system of latitude and longitude, where you are located and we can all agree that, yes, right now we are in EST or CST or wherever/whenever. We jump into our cars and obey these laws—another set of systems. We go to jobs which are a major part of the grid. We run off a massive power grid the entire time—gas stations and electrical outlets, radio waves, internet, cell phone towers. We partake in the economic grid and push money (mostly imaginary) in and out of our bank accounts. We go into a literal grid-like neighborhoods and go to our assigned box where we eat the traditional nighttime meal and go to bed. 

That’s the grid, folks. 

Just because Miracle and I aren’t traditionally employed does not mean that we aren’t playing along with the economic grid or we are somehow the homo sacer of modern American society. We spend money and make money. We navigate the roads and conform to the local laws and customs. We are as embedded with our technologies, maybe even more so than ever. What we are doing, if we start to define the grid accurately, is moving across the grid. 

Our time on the road has allowed us to see what the grid looks like—where there are holes and pratfalls, where the grid becomes sparse, where it could be built better, where people fall through. I’ve complained about internet access as part of the grid in past posts. That’s an experience I would have never had if we hadn’t decided to start navigating the grid of our non-interstate road system. 

We’ve seen parks and businesses (many of the latter through Harvest Hosts) and we’ve certainly used an increasing amount of technology as the grid becomes immensely complex as we move across it. So, no, we are not off the grid. I’d say that we have been more immeshed with the grid and all its complexity. 

Us, totally on the grid using GPS maps, a state park campground, cell phones, and a licensed dog.

2 thoughts on “Off the Grid

  1. Well written and very true. “Off the grid” used to be used to describe your dwelling if it was completely self sufficient without electrical service, piped water, hard wired phone service and so on. Lately, the term seems to be used to describe someone who doesn’t live in a traditional box.

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