Off the Grid
STORY BY JENNIFER DENISON • PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROSS HECOX
HE WAS RAISED IN THE HIGH-DESERT environs outside Jiggs, Nevada, worked in cow camps throughout the West, served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and then became one of the most recognized voices in cowboy poetry. But Bruce Douglas Mitchell, widely known as "Waddie," spent so much time on the road, moving from outfit to outfit, show to show, that he never had a place he could call home until two years ago.
"The only home I really knew was the one I grew up in," Waddie explains. "On the ranches I worked, I had houses I stayed in, but they weren't homes. I'd be there for a while, then go to summer cow camp or out on the wagon. Now that I have my own home, it's a whole different feeling. I find myself wanting to spend more time there than on the road."
The cowboy poet and a founder of the Working Ranch Cowboys Association typically spends 200 days per year traveling to cowboy poetry gatherings, ranch rodeos and other special events. When he married his wife, Lisa Hackett, in 1997, the couple wanted a home central to Waddie's travels. At the time, Waddie was raising five kids outside Elko, in a home he bought sight-unseen because it was conveniently located along school-bus routes. Lisa, the daughter of comedian Buddy Hackett and an entertainment entrepreneur, was the product of a Beverly Hills, California, upbringing, and split her time between her home in California and her cabin in Montana.
The couple's definition of a home was opposite in every way imaginable, but the things they both agreed on were the desire for plenty of open space and a self-sustaining, eco-friendly environment. Both of these elements coincided with Lisa's love for nature and balance, and Waddie's cowboy values.
IN 1998, THE COUPLE PURCHASED 720 remote acres in the rolling hills between Elko and Jiggs. A steep, winding road careens through the cedar, juniper and sage, to an open spot with uninterrupted views of the Ruby Mountains to the east.
"When I looked at the property, I was sold on the views and the fact that nobody could get close to me," Waddie says. "We can't see or hear other humans."
Before settling down, Waddie never gave any thought to owning a home. Reflecting on the ranches on which he's worked—the 7S, TS, IL, Circle A, 2U and Bar Slash Bar—the buckaroo finds the livestock and the land in those places more memorable than his housing.
"Some of the cabins I stayed in were primitive, mud-covered log cabins without running water," he remembers. "The only electricity I had was the static on my wool blanket."
But when it came to making plans for his own home, Waddie designed his dream dwelling—a rustic, 5,000-square-foot, log-sided lodge in tune with the land, operating off renewable energy rather than the public utility grid.
"I'm just a cowboy and I've always lived self-sufficiently, so it seemed like the natural thing to do," Waddie says. "We weren't radical about it, but it seemed like if we were going to build from scratch, it would be more economical in the long run to generate our own power than have it brought in. Plus, I don't believe in depending on someone else for something I can harness myself or from nature."
After a decade of planning, the Mitchells began constructing their self-sustaining home in May 2006. Some of their most valuable research came from the California-based Solar Living Institute, which offers education on every aspect of self-sufficient living, from making bio-fuels to constructing green homes and producing alternative energy. The campus also has a retail business called Real Goods, where the Mitchells purchased many of their solar supplies.
"We considered constructing an earth shelter or a home made from straw, adobe or SIPS [structural insulated panels]," Waddie says. "For our needs, however, it was more economical per square foot to build a pole-barn structure."
Serving as general contractor, Waddie took one year off from his poetry to build the home. He strategically nestled the house site against hills to the north and west to take advantage of natural windbreaks and maximize eastern views. The first thing he bought was a generator to operate his power tools. Construction began with a steel-sided barn to house the solar and water systems.