United Shades of America: What’s it really like to live off the grid?

tiny house
Natalie’s Tiny House that W. Kamau Bell visits in the lastest United Shades of America

This week CNN’s United Shades of America went off the grid – from a paranoid isolationist prepper to nice sweet potato beer makers who want to live a more pared-down sustainable life.

Host W. Kamau Bell visited Asheville, North Carolina, and parts of Tennessee, to experience the 0ff-grid lifestyle, and discovered a hotbed of preppers, patriots and peace-loving minimalists who are happy to do with less consumerism.

To live off the grid means different things to different people, and Kamau covers the gamut.  One woman, Natalie, invites Kamau to her tiny home where he ponders if the Kama Sutra positions can be achieved in her low ceiling bedroom.

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TV Critics April Neale and Ernie Estrella hash over the episode, and what it really means to live off the grid.

Ernie Estrella: What a sweet little surprise this was, they definitely picked out all of the wackiest images to market this episode and get you thinking we’d be seeing angry gun-toting wackos who refuse to be a part of society and are cultivating the next unibomber, but that wasn’t the case at all.

I found many of the people to be reasonable, relatively advanced educated people who simply wanted to pare their life down.

April, what were your first impressions going in and how were those changed by the end?

April Neale: You know, there’s always moments that make you scratch your head. Yes to your point, we went from cuckoo gun nutter to reasonable people to nice hippie types wanting to leave less of a blight on mother Earth by being minimal in their lifestyle.

Bravo to the minimalists who take and use only what they need. But what about these paranoid perhaps racially motivated isolationists who are so bored out of their skull they need to shoot at fences with an automatic rifle?

You could see the fear fighting bemusement on Kamau’s face in that scene with the machine gun. But I understand the lifestyle proponents who just totally dig not paying ‘the man’ his due, if you get me.

You have to have a level of intelligence and know how to do this to make living off the grid a success.

EE: Yeah, there’s a new acronym for “POC” it’s Preppers of Color, except… it does not exist.

Kamau is definitely out of his element, but in Asheville, NC, a surprisingly progressive and open-minded place in the south, it appears Kamau couldn’t find any preppers of color.

People of color apparently love the grid, myself included. Did you notice that, too?

AN: Hey now, I am down with the grid too! I do not have that Caucasian DNA that makes me want to coupon, can vegetables and hoard, own guns or an ATV for that matter. And I am pretty white.

You really never hear of anyone outside of the Caucasian community that goes off to the mountain or wherever. The Outsiders proves my point here.

EE: Coming from the Great Lakes and moving out to the west coast, I learned that because of the prohibitive property costs, I had to adapt to my own tiny home movement of a different nature.

Mostly because square footage is so costly and we had so much stuff accumulated that we had to, but certainly not to the level of Natalie, who ran her own prepper store and lived in a house without running water that was 400 square feet.

There are people living in teardrop campers who are retired and seeing the world and are self-sustained with the bare minimum and still living a quality of life that makes them happy.

AN: You get to an age where you realize that your stuff is just stuff…and the things that don’t curl your toes anymore you simply need to part with is just good to do.

I’ve always bought into that and jettison as things lose their importance. Could I live in a tiny camper with my man? No way! A bit of space is the luxury I need.

But if you can pull it off…well, bravo. People who were in this episode towards the end, their things all had importance to their survival, and their accumulations all served very distinct purposes.

I think that in some respects, this episode was also about shedding a consumerist lifestyle as much as it was “living off the grid”.

EE: That’s a great point, April. Kamau eventually graduates to a proper patriot/prepper and visits John, the masked prepper who clearly doesn’t want to live amongst the rest of civilization.

He exercised his second amendment rights and looked civilized enough and didn’t point any specific fingers, but was at the very least, anti-government given the NSA breaches.

The one thing I didn’t see in this segment though was what this guy did for a living, if anything. I had this feeling that this guy was still connected to the world, and was because he had electricity through solar energy.

What do you think, is this a guy just trying to avoid paying taxes? I say that jokingly because we don’t know if Kamau asked that but here’s a guy who feels like his “freedom” is being threatened enough to live to a certain extreme, but there’s a fine line here that I think this could be the first step towards the deep end if these folks don’t check in with people in society every now and then. Will John’s story end well?

AN: No! Energetically if you fear something you draw it to you subconsciously. Paranoid people invent bogeymen and wind up tragically causing great harm from their unfounded fears.

What is it that they fear? Fear of a black planet? That ‘government is bad’ chatter changes when their Social Security checks stop showing up!

This minuteman mentality makes me wonder who exactly they think is going to go door to door collecting all these guns.

I think you’re on to something, these people definitely hate paying taxes for sure. John will need civilization when he strokes out or has a prostate the size of an orange and cannot pee anymore!

Or when he gets bored and runs out of ammo, will he stop somewhere for some delicious food in a nice cozy restaurant?

A lot of these preppers are just paranoid religious zealots and I am glad they sequester themselves away from the rest of us.

EE: Now, Tod was another level. Here’s a highly educated guy, who decides to detach from society altogether but I can see being so moved by how wasteful we are that he would want to go to this extreme but I am not sure how much of a difference he makes all of those years.

Being on Kamau’s show is probably the most impact he’ll make.

I felt bad for Kamau at this part. I mean roughing it wasn’t that bad but the eating bit was hilarious. When the words “Bear Juice” came up, I cringed. There’s no telling how long this guy has had this stuff or the acorn paste he had in that bucket.

Kamau’s brave…or his producer is sadistic or has some serious blackmail material.

AN: The producer is a sadist! And Kamau gets props for putting that dirty bucket acorn paste in his mouth.

Tod f**ked up what could have ben a tasty duck egg, done over easy-style dinner with that bear meat and juice!

I also loved when Kamau said ‘I am off to see Tod with one D’ — that was really funny. Tod needs a woman.

She’d gussy up that sad bastard inn, for sure. I bet Kamau lost weight during this episode. Bear meat, Acorn paste. I would have said ‘I gave up bear for Lent’. Duck eggs are delicious. I cannot speak for bear.

Tod’s potted bear meat and juice to enhance farm fresh eggs does not look appetising

EE: I had different game jerky but that jar, holy hell was that awful to look at. How old was it?

I wondered if Tod ever had a woman in his love shack. When it gets dark at night, there’s no need for any alcohol, well, maybe for whoever he’s able to lure there. That’s a long hike to ecstasy.

Lastly, we have The Farm, which the big story to me was that we had this large community dwindle down when people probably got sick of eating tofu, making tofu, and hearing women suffering through natural births.

But I was fascinated by how this now group of 150 have been able to create an industry for themselves.

They pay taxes on their money so they’re not that far off the grid. They’ve just managed to live disconnected, really.

They have their own craft brewery, so they’re not bad folk, but I wondered where they go when they have a more serious illness.

How do they get treatment? How sophisticated is that clinic of theirs? I wanted Kamau to go even deeper here.

AN: Isn’t this the commune where Rose McGowan was born? Again – more skinny hipster types who needed a shave, some red meat and some Hops.

Funny that no matter how dire the situation is, mankind figures out how to brew some alcohol.

I prefer how the Beekman boys do it, with herds of goats. They make incredible smelling goat milk soaps, skincare and yummy preserves from their “farm.”

I like that farm better than this hippie hangout. And when serious illness strikes taxpayers foot the bill for ambulances and emergency care because they probably don’t have any health care they are paying into.

They’re not bad people, but they have one foot in and one foot out of civilization. People need preventative checkups and baseline bloodwork checks to monitor their important indicators of health and potential disease. Will they get it at this place? I doubt it.

EE: Lastly, I wondered how far off the grid you could go? Like Natalie, I’d still want to be connected to some of the creature comforts we’ve been able to enjoy and 400 square feet is completely doable for one person but a family of four? I’d go nuts.

I just know I couldn’t live like the others, at least in living off the land like that. In the apocalypse, I’m probably one of the first to go, I’ll admit it.

I love my electronics and the stuff I collect. I’ll gladly take some of the chemicals in my food, though I always wished there were less and I’m definitely against the likes of Monsanto and try to budget for organic, within reason.

But I’m anything but consistent. I get some of my produce from local farms baskets but I could shed some of that stuff you talked about earlier.

I don’t mind the government being up all in my business. There are some minimalist habits and lifestyle choices that I think we could all take in, a little, but for now, I’ll observe and applaud them…from afar.

AA: Not enough off the grid to eat goddamned bear meat! I do my part as best I can. I drive an electric car, and shop at amazing thrift and resale places for fun finds.

I garden and grow vegetables and fruits and have for years. I sell and give away items constantly to keep my home unjunked.

My whole style is minimalist and not high maintenance. I need every square inch of my home to not kill my loved ones.

If I could change anything, I would have a little hen house and get my own fresh eggs, like my cousin Kim Gregory has this for her organic bakery in Beverly, MA.

But this episode of being off the grid convinced me I am a city girl at heart and would be depressed living so remotely.

But I just cannot quite cross the Rubicon of not getting my pedi and wax on. I need to hear nature AND noise of humanity to feel connected.

And have access to my nearby Thai restaurant!

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