Mendocino

Mendocino

WORDS: ANNIE ELFSTROM
PHOTOS: ALANNA HALE

About a year ago, I put myself on a timeout from life and moved to an isolated off the grid yurt on what was once a 12,000-acre sheep ranch in Northern California’s Mendocino County. I had been ineffectively dealing with the gnawing anxiety and low level thrum of depression that comes (gratis!) with your standard-issue late twenties life crisis, and instead of dealing with it like the grown up I aspire to be, I quit my job and ran away to the woods.


The original plan was to hide out for a couple months with the somewhat ambiguous goal of “sorting my head out.” I figured I’d sit in the yurt and through sheer willpower, I’d think myself out of my own head. In retrospect, it makes a lot less sense than it did at the time.

I arrived fresh from the city in mid-winter; depressed, faintly heartbroken and scared of the dark. The yurt, or yurts as it were, (there are three round buildings on the property) sit amongst steeply rolling, oat straw-covered hills that are home to an impressive population of lizards, rabbits, deer and wild boar as well as the coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bears who eat them. The air smells good; in the winter it’s all wet and mossy, soft squishy smells of mud, damp leaves and wood burning stove smoke while in the summer the fearsome heat turns it all crackly dry and the world smells of dust and hay. The property is three miles up a private, and at times questionable, dirt road with a few scattered houses tucked into the hills off of it. Most of them spend most of the year unoccupied and the few, wonderful year-round neighbors I do have, I can neither see nor hear. At night, there is one manmade light visible in the distance. The world here is very quiet and absurdly, almost stupidly, beautiful.

After a few weeks alone in it all, I adopted a puppy; a sweet little black and white country mutt who eats grass likes a horse, has the face of a seal, and the coloring of a cow. After solemnly vowing to be best friends till one of us died, I named him Bunny. After that, I got on with living life in the middle of nowhere by myself.


Keeping the basics of life running smoothly off the grid takes effort. On the modern conveniences spectrum, the yurts sit somewhere between rustic cabin and camping. Many of the things I’ve always taken for granted; AC electricity, reliable refrigeration, heat, the internet, or a freezer, are either difficult to get, not very good or simply not available. A 30-year-old solar panel creates just enough power to keep a few dim 12-volt light bulbs going for a few hours each night. Keeping food fresh involves an infuriating dance between a malfunctioning 1930s propane-powered fridge, a 1990s cooler and a dozen or so ice packs. In the winter, heat comes from a wood burning stove, a sweater or jumping jacks. For someone used to cranking the heat to eleven just to wear cutoffs in winter (global warming and gas bills be damned) this marks, I am ashamed to admit, a big change.

Outside of these more technical, workaday differences, the biggest change from city life is the isolation; much of life up here is a solo swim in a vast ocean of time. Before I made friends there were times when I didn’t see another person for days on end. It is a strange and challenging thing to spend so much time alone. Before the move, I was terrified that all the alone time would drive me crazy– and fast– but in one of the biggest surprises of my life, I’ve found that I love it. There is something almost profound in the freedom of being a girl alone in the woods with a dog that feels like something close to magic.


I don’t know what’s in store for me next. I think I had thought of this whole thing as a way of proving myself to myself, a trial of sorts that would naturally come to an end. I had visions of a triumphant return to “real life” with a great tan and an aura of that unnerving new age calm that’s a total pain in the ass to be around. And while that still could happen, the truth of the matter is I think I may have found, if not happiness, something very close, like contentment.


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