It takes a drive and a hike to keep in touch with my off-the-grid friend

03/15/2014 1:00 PM

03/15/2014 6:57 PM

Visiting my friend Carole Brown is always a two-way surprise party: Carole lives without a phone or computer, so she never knows I’m coming, and I never know if she’s going to be home.

That wouldn’t be a big deal if she were a neighbor in my adopted rural town of Matfield Green, Kan., in the Flint Hills.

But Carole lives on remote rangeland several miles outside of town.

So by the time I bump my low-slung Ford Focus across rock roads and over open pasture, hike down a hillside and hopscotch over mossy rocks to cross the creek to where I’m close enough that she can hear me holler, I’ve got 30 minutes invested.

But even when she’s not there, it’s OK. There are worse ways to pass half an hour.

In fact, it was reporting a

story

about Carole and her off-the-grid lifestyle in 2012 that caused me to fall head-over-heels in love with the vast big-sky, tallgrass prairie and transplant myself into the heart of it.

Part of the appeal is the absolute alone-ness. You can drive the back roads for an hour and not lay eyes on another vehicle or human. So if Carole is home, it’s like the population of the land for as far as I can see just doubled, and I feel the relief early settlers must have felt when they laid eyes upon the person they had journeyed some distance to see.

Last weekend, I was in luck.

As I approached the straw bale cabin I could see Carole propped inside a picture window, reading. I called her name, which set the dogs barking. She stepped out to greet me then ushered me in out of the cold wind.

I hadn’t been inside the 200-square-foot dwelling with adobe walls and floor since summer. The furnishings and household items were familiar: a battery of pots and pans hanging overhead, built-in shelves cradling scores of books, an antique wood stove with a pan of water for hand-washing and a pot of chili warming on top.

But everything looked brighter than I remembered, as if someone had flipped on a light switch, only there wasn’t one.

The azure-painted counters in the kitchen nook gleamed, and watery yellow sunshine spilled in through a high window made of 120-odd Coke bottles.

It occurred to me that the crystalline glow was caused by an absence rather than a presence — the absence of leaves on the surrounding trees that cloak the cabin in shade come July and, especially, the absence of the pervasive dust of high summer.

Without those filters, the colors and light of Carole’s cozy abode and her hip-length golden hair were truer and sharper.

As we chatted about books we had read and our gardening endeavors and an upcoming jam at a roadhouse, it occurred to me that my heightened sense of delight in our klatsch was also born of absence — the absence of constant cellphone and social media contact with Carole imbues our face-to-face visits with a saturated richness.

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