My family recently made the move out of our little corner of the Georgia woods and into full-fledged civilization: neighbors close enough to see and interact with, roads made of pavement instead of dirt, and some sort of conspiratorial organization that operates in the shadows but seems to exert a great deal of influence over every house on my cul-de-sac. I’ve heard them referred to as the “H.O.A.,” and I have to assume it stands for something nefarious like “Harbingers Of Armageddon.” Whoever they are, they seem particularly picky about lawn maintenance (or at least pickier than I’d assume a secret cabal would be).
This sort of living brings with it a certain kind of inverse claustrophobia. These modern-construction McMansions (as many of us call the spacious houses filling development communities all around the country) offer a great deal of interior space for the dollar, giving my wife, daughter, and me ample opportunities to lay claim to nooks and crannies in the finished basement and throughout an upstairs much larger that that to which we’ve grown accustomed. But then, as you step outside into the carefully groomed environment that is our H.O.A.-controlled neighborhood, I feel the metaphorical (and sometimes even the physical) walls closing in on me. I could throw a football into two different neighbors’ bedroom windows from my front yard. I can count on one hand the number of intentionally positioned trees in my field of view. I can see the faces of strangers whose bedrooms lie only dozens of feet from where I sleep.
As pleasant and sprawling as my friends and neighbors seem to find our little planned community, to me, it feels suffocating. Like Charles Bukowski once so eloquently wrote, “I don’t hate people, I just feel better when they aren’t around.” Fortunately, the people in my home that really matter (my wife and daughter) love this new way of living, the convenience of local shopping, and the nearby parks full of other kids, making the discomfort of suburban living my cross to bear alone (I do tend to be a whiny child about things like this).
Whereas I used to spend my evening hours outside on my porch, watching the sway of the trees like the world’s highest-def nature documentary, I now retreat to the relative seclusion of my large office and adjoining multi-purpose room in our basement. There I can ignore our bustling surroundings and busy-body neighbors and find increasingly complex ways to covet the lost simplicity of country living, such as by watching documentaries about men like Dick Proenneke.
For those who may not be familiar with that name, Richard “Dick” Proenneke was a self-educated “naturalist” who chose to give up modern living in the late 1960s and build a life for himself in the remote wilderness surrounding Twin Lakes, Alaska. Proenneke had made a name for himself as a heavy equipment operator and diesel mechanic in the years prior, but as he set out to live what we would now call an entirely “off-grid” lifestyle, it was his skills as a carpenter—developed during his service to the United States Navy—that he leaned on while constructing the modest cabin that would become his home for decades to come.
An accomplished nature photographer, Proenneke was already in his fifties when he set out to build his own home and start anew in the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness, but as you can clearly see in the footage of Proenneke’s labor, he was a hard man with an even harder work ethic. His cabin, built almost entirely out of materials he harvested from the area and using many tools he made himself, still stands to this day as an example of what a man can make with his own two hands, if only he’s willing to work hard and be patient.
Much of Proenneke’s cabin was built using little more than handsaws, an extremely sharp ax, and wooden mallets. He even fashioned the hinges on the doors out of wood. He used store-bought concrete for his fireplace and waterproof liners in his roof construction, but little else that nature herself couldn’t provide. Proenneke didn’t fancy himself a “prepper” in the modern sense: In his mind, what he was doing wasn’t survival, it was living. And that, perhaps more than any of the man’s impressive technical skill, is what makes him such an important teacher for people in the modern world with an affinity for a natural simplicity or a drive to feel capable and self-reliant in the traditional sense.
For some of us, there’s a certain romance to the idea of forgoing life’s conveniences, relinquishing our constant modern connectivity, and retreating into the simplicity of survival. Like service members who return from combat deployments and whisper to one another in confidence that some deep part of them misses the fight: It’s not the excitement or the possibility of dying that draws these wary few back toward conflict, it’s the allure of knowing. In war, you know who the enemy is, you know what you’re supposed to do, and you know what the stakes are. Here in the real world, everything comes in shades of gray, every question has a dozen possible answers, and a hundred people seem to have a say in even the most trivial concerns—like how far from the curb you park your garbage cans.
Soldiers miss the simplicity of a world that wants them dead. Outdoorsmen feel a similar calling. Out there in the wild, where survival is the only concern, there’s little time for triviality and even less time for opinion by consensus. There’s only doing what needs to be done, and a guilt-free conscience following a hard day’s work.
Today’s preppers, survivalists, outdoorsmen, and suburban househusbands like me can all learn a thing or two from the exploits of a Navy carpenter-turned-diesel mechanic who shed the weight of social obligation and set out to forge his own path in the dense Alaskan bush. We may not all be able or willing to take our need for space to the same extreme, but the lesson remains: Dick Proenekke, who passed away in April of 2003, was not superhuman, nor was he a genetic anomaly of a man who had tailored his life to living off the land. He was a normal guy with a dream and the work ethic to see it through.
And that’s something to which we can all aspire.
Feature Image: Dick Proenneke at his cabin in 1985. NPS photo taken by Richard Proenneke and donated by Raymond Proenneke