Hawaii Family Lives Off the Grid Maire Sanford and David Lahti moved to Hawaii from Seattle, hoping to live a quieter life. They found one, but financial constraints have led them to live more simply and ecologically than they imagined, in an off-the-grid tent home.
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Hawaii Family Lives Off the Grid

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Hawaii Family Lives Off the Grid

Hawaii Family Lives Off the Grid

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

We return to our series Climate Connections. For a year we're teaming up with National Geographic to look at the ways climate changes people and people change the climate.

BRAND: Maybe you're already taking some steps to reduce your carbon footprint, as they say.

COHEN: You've switched to those low-energy light bulbs.

BRAND: You separate your paper and plastic.

COHEN: Maybe you even have a compost pile out back.

BRAND: Well, that's good. But I'm pretty sure you can't hold a fuel-efficient candle to Maire Sanford.

Ms. MAIRE SANFORD: I'm going to be 49 in June. I never thought at this age that I was going to be living in a tent. You know, it's not something that you expect in your life.

BRAND: Did you catch that? A tent. Maire lives in a tent. She and her family live entirely off the grid, on their land, on the big island of Hawaii.

(Soundbite of car)

BRAND: I left the highway and drove forever on a gravel road to find out what it's really like to live literally so close to the earth.

(Soundbite of rooster)

BRAND: It's beautiful here. Hi, I'm Madeleine.

Ms. SANFORD: Nice to meet you. I'm Maire. Aloha.

BRAND: Hi, Maire. Aloha. Look at that rooster. He's a fine beast.

Ms. SANFORD: That's Elvis.

BRAND: Elvis shares this spread with another rooster, a half-dozen hens, several cats, a dog and three humans: Maire: her 15-year-old son, Liam; and her husband, David.

Mr. DAVID SANFORD: When we got here, this was rocks and weeds.

Ms. SANFORD: And I don't know if you've ever, you know, bought a house or anything and you walk in and you know, yes, this is the one. And it was that way with this land. It's just - it embraced us and it just felt like it was supposed to be home.

BRAND: Okay. I can see that. It is pretty here. No, it's gorgeous here. It's like a real-life version of the Whole Foods produce section.

Ms. SANFORD: We have bananas, oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruit...

BRAND: There are several structures on the property, some more permanent than others. We walk up to where David and Maire sleep. From the outside, it looks like a regular camping tent.

Ms. SANFORD: You can take a look. It's a little cluttered.

BRAND: You know, it's kind of a surprise. I thought a tent would mean sleeping bags on the floor, but there's a Tatami mat, there's a double bed. Actually, you have clothes on hangers.

Ms. SANFORD: It's rustic, but it's not totally uncivilized.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So civilized, in fact, that they take daily showers with fancy shampoos - lots of them.

Ms. SANFORD: No, you know, I still have to have my girly things and my luxuries. And you know, it's nice to have a variety of products like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And you know I'm starting to think, hey, I could do this.

So when you bathe, you take a - something to...

Mr. SANFORD: Yeah. (Unintelligible)

BRAND: ...catch the water here.

Mr. SANFORD: A big pot, like a (unintelligible)

BRAND: A big pot.

Mr. SANFORD: You fill that up, take it over and put it on the gas stove, fire it up, heat it up, and then that goes to the bathhouse and then we mix that with the drinking water that we get from town into the bag itself. So you get the water at a tolerable temperature. So you have nice hot shower outside.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SANFORD: Rainwater is great for your hair and skin so, you know, it's a good thing. People probably will pay a lot of money for rainwater shampoo or something. You know, we...

BRAND: How long does it take to do the whole process?

Ms. SANFORD: To go from here to...

BRAND: Half-hour?

Ms. SANFORD: Yeah. Half-hour at the most.

BRAND: A half-hour to take a five-minute shower? Okay. I'm starting to think I can't do this. And frankly, Maire and David didn't think they'd be doing all this either, nearly four years later. That was not the original plan, Maire says, when they fled Seattle for an easier and cheaper way of life.

Ms. SANFORD: I think what surprised us is the money situation is the hardest. Jobs over here pay pitiful wages. I work at two part-time jobs, neither of which offers healthcare insurance. So I have no healthcare coverage. And I ended up in a hospital last September with pneumonia. I probably would have died if I hadn't gotten to the hospital. I was really, really sick. You know, I got hit with a $12,000 hospital bill and no way to pay that. And you know, we thought we'd be in a house before now and we're not. So that's probably the hardest thing, is the money. I think that was the biggest shock.

BRAND: Sure they could move into town and rent an apartment and things would be easier, but Maire says they see themselves as part of something bigger.

Ms. SANFORD: I think we're here to care for this place and to be stewards of this place and keep this land as close to its natural form as possible. We don't want to see this land bulldozed and, you know, made into housing developments. So we're doing our little part to try to keep a part of the earth as natural as we can.

BRAND: To see pictures of Maire's land, Maire, David and their rooster, Elvis, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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