Nature has always been an intimate friend, embracing me with a serene peacefulness that is both profound and spiritual. Having lived in a big city as a small child, feeling confined and uneasy in the concrete chaos, my family’s relocation to a rural community of 700 people, surrounded by farms, fields, forests, ponds and streams, was like being reborn. I found the natural world around me soothing and fascinating. My time in scouts (in the 1960s) taught me the skills to feel at home in the wild, and later, reading Thoreau’s Walden and Emerson’s Self-Reliance crystallized an intention to one day live simply, immersed in nature.
Influenced by my childhood experiences, I moved to Steamboat Springs in the 1970s to be near the mountains and skiing. There, I stumbled upon a dilapidated log cabin built in the 1800s that was buried under the snow. It turned out to be the original homestead cabin in that area. Tunneling inside, I found it dark and dank, reeking of numerous animals-in-residence. Thoreau’s Walden experience inspired me to make the cabin habitable, although I wasn’t certain that I could. I tracked down the landowner whose property the cabin sat on and received permission to refurbish it and live there rent free as long as I wished.
I developed a renovation plan, a list of materials and a budget, striving to be economical and environmentally conscious, using recycled and reclaimed materials as often as possible. Searching near and far, I found the needed items at thrift shops, construction sites, barns, abandoned outbuildings, dumpsters and the county landfill.
A stout roof was my top priority. A prior occupant had repaired it with lodgepole to withstand the weight of accumulating snow, 30 feet in a typical winter. I added additional roof joists and weight-bearing posts to the porch area. The local sawmill provided cheap beetle-kill roof decking that I finished with roofing material purchased in bulk rolls. I relished my “roof time,” savoring the breathtaking views of my surroundings: snowcapped mountains, lush green valleys and rivers swollen with spring runoff.
The cabin’s logs were old and gnarled, yet solid, a history of the old West scrawled in their textures. They needed only insulation and concrete grout to seal them. Reclaimed windows and homemade doors finished the exter-ior, while an assortment of reclaimed materials created a functional yet homey interior.
Inside I built simple counters and shelving. The indoor plumbing consisted of water hauled from town, a sink that drained into a bucket, and eco-friendly soap for washing. The cabin’s recycled furnishings came cheaply, and I found a small refrigerator and a propane stove/oven in a dusty barn.
My woodstove could burn unattended through the night, casting a soft, orange glow, keeping me cozy during the long, cold winters. A neighbor down the valley ran electrical wire to the cabin, providing enough power for two lamps, a tiny stereo and the refrigerator. Outside, a simple outhouse over a sunken, weather-sealed 55-gallon container sufficed as “the facilities.”
The cabin refurbishing took months, but scavenged materials made the expense minimal, the woodstove being the most costly item.
I lived in the cabin with my dog, Eightball, for nearly five years. Sometimes my experiences with nature were far from pleasant, especially those involving a startled skunk spraying under the cabin, a monstrous swarm of invading yellow jackets, cloth-eating mice, an ill-tempered bull, weeklong blizzards and minus-50˚ F winter nights.
Yet my reward was a delicious solitude, one in which I could ponder and observe, read, write and paint without distraction, embraced by nature, finding my own spirituality and personal truths. The time I spent there was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
After a decade in Steamboat, Rick Abrams vowed never to live in snow again and wandered the planet in search of tropical climes. But the Rocky Mountains beckoned, and he now lives near Boulder and works as a business financial consultant.
Text and photos: Richard Abrams