We bought the piece of land nine years ago as refuge from our urban lives. A green and wild world in the Catskill Mountains of New York. We got it for a good price because we are off the grid. No electrical poles for a half-mile in either direction. We have a mobile home the size of an average New York City apartment, so we feel comfortable within its confines.
We installed a solar system last summer and then we yearned for more connections. Namely, phone and internet. We don’t get a strong enough signal to use our cellphones. Year by year, the signal inched tantalizingly closer to us. The first year, we could sometimes make a call if we stood next to a chicken coop about a half mile up the road. It depended on the weather. Now the signal is just a quarter of a mile away. Our next door neighbor has two bars on an elevated spot on her land so we tried climbing ladders in different spots in our meadow. We even went into the forest and climbed to the top of an abandoned deer stand. Nada.
We are friends with a couple who live nearby and are also off the grid. They are fully connected with a landline and DSL. They became our advisors. They’d asked the phone company to put a box on the nearest pole and ran telephone cable for a half mile to their solar powered cabin. And it worked.
In our town the phone company is independent and has been in existence since the late 1800’s. They understand rural folk, unorthodox situations and the desire for connectivity. The planner came and walked with me to the closest pole. That pole is on the land of our neighbor to the north about a quarter of a mile away from our mobile home. “Yes, we can put the box here”, he said, “but the cable is your responsibility in every way”. Our neighbor said “Yes, we will help you and you can connect using our pole, but we don’t want to see your cable, make sure you tap it down through the forest”. It is important to be neighborly in the backwoods. One hand washes the other. And people like to help.
Our neighbors Martha and Richard, the architects of this thing gave us their left over telephone cable along with instructions about how to connect the pieces. The cable had been salvaged from a dumpster and it was in pieces, wrapped in a coil. It was like a ball of yarn to be unraveled and laid out along the roadside. Then we had to run each piece through the woods and splice them together. Each spliced connection had to be housed in a waterproof casing. We were instructed to go to the electrical store in the next biggest town to find the waterproof housing. It was just me and Oona since our resident male (Frank) was out of town. Electrical store + do it yourselfers + females = Offensive Macho Bullshit. I started out by being polite and humble – more flies with honey and all that. Oona, from her experience with male shopkeepers in feed stores, said “Ma, they don’t respect humble, you have to be assertive”. So I countered with “I’m the customer and I’m explaining to you what I need”. It worked. The grumpy guy went to the back and emerged with pieces of plastic that would serve as the waterproof enclosures for our spliced cables.
On a brilliantly sunny afternoon we began the work of unspooling the roll of cable along the roadside so that we could connect the pieces and run it through the woods from our mobile home to our neighbor’s telephone pole. David and Lily, our upstairs neighbors in the Loisaida homestead and our 15 minutes away neighbor in upstate New York, stopped by and volunteered to help. Thankfully David took some photos because I was yelled at twice for stopping work to take photos for the blog.
I was nervous. I’d been working from home at the town library for the use of the wireless. I had the schedule of the hours of operation for the libraries in three neighboring towns. I kept a folding lawn chair in the car trunk after having sat for half a morning with my laptop on the stone steps of a closed library connecting to the wireless leaking from the building’s interior. I was on conference calls in the library’s parking lot, running away from the knots of laughing kids heading over from the town pool. It was stressful to duplicate the connectivity that one has in an office in New York City while being off the gird in the backwoods of New York State.
The nice guy from the independent phone company that is over one hundred years old arrived on a bright morning after a night of violent thunderstorms to hook us up. I kept waiting for him to tell me that what we were doing was not possible – crazy in fact. But he waded calmly with me through waist high blackberry brambles to reach my neighbor’s telephone pole to add a box for our phone and internet. When we returned to our mobile home and he asked me where I would like to put the phone jack, my heart soared. I watched as he expertly drilled and connected and pulled a modem out of a box. I handed him the plain black phone I’d bought that requires no electricity. And then it rang.