Things that aren’t necessities but may as well be

I have a book that a reader sent me a year or two ago – and I apologize but I don’t remember who sent it – It’s about a guy who took it into his head to semi-retire into the Alaskan outback, near or above the Arctic circle. You know, just go out there and build a cabin and live.

Now, that’s more-or-less the plot of Into the Wild, and I think we know how that story turned out. But this older guy, Richard Proenneke, wasn’t some overindulged and suicidally starry-eyed kid. He was an old Alaska hand and actually knew what he was doing. He built a cabin that was a literal work of art – after he got old and retired from retiring, it became a tourist attraction for really hardy tourists. It makes the Secret Lair look like a particularly disreputable shed. And he made nearly every part of it from native wood or stone or bone – hell, he carved wooden door hinges.

Every single thing he had that he couldn’t make himself had to be flown in on a little bush plane and it could only happen a few months out of the year, so space and weight were real factors. And I was looking at the photographs reproduced in the book – Proenneke was a photographer, and my only complaint about the book is there aren’t enough photographs – and in one shot of the cabin’s interior I saw…a roll of paper towels.

And I had me a chuckle. Now, here’s a package of six paper towel rolls, which I just bought today…
It doesn’t weigh hardly anything, of course, but it’s bulky as hell. I suppose you could open the package and distribute the rolls around the plane, but my point is that if it needs to come by bush plane, you’d have to really want that roll of paper towels. Seems like there are more important things to which you could devote that plane space.

Except maybe there aren’t. When I was first alone out here, experimenting with ways to make due with virtually no income and really studying the difference between a want and a need, I learned that the line between the two is not always clear. Some commodities, while of course you can get along without them in the sense that you won’t actually die, are themselves so useful that it almost doesn’t matter. It’s not a question of life and death, it’s a question of quality of life. Indoor plumbing: Have I ever wasted a moment wishing I hadn’t devoted all that precious Lair space to an indoor toilet? Nope, not so much as a millisecond. To the best of my knowledge, and leaving poisonous spiders out of it, nobody ever died from using an outhouse as I originally planned. But a flush toilet is just such a massive improvement that, if you’ve got the water pressure, only an idiot would decide not to go ahead and dig for a septic system. Electricity’s the same way: Not a necessity of life, but look at all the things it makes possible.

Those are big things. There’s a myriad of little ones, like paper towels. It’s good to pay attention and learn what those things are, because it’s the little things that mark the difference between living and just surviving.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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16 Responses to Things that aren’t necessities but may as well be

  1. MamaLiberty says:

    Exactly! And we each have our own (and changing) ideas about which things make that difference. I’ve been experiencing an unusual string of equipment failures here. Some are actually serious, but some are simply things that make doing other stuff much more possible.

    Coffee, the way I like it, is one of those essentials. Had to drag out an old drip coffee maker this morning when the one I’d been using died. Glad then that I don’t always throw things away. I’ll have to get a new one eventually, of course, but for now I’m set. 🙂

    You would not want to have to deal with me in the morning if I didn’t have the coffee I like… 🙂

  2. Ben says:

    Even a coffeemaker isn’t a real necessity ML. If that coffeemaker breaks, just make “cowboy coffee”. Simply boil water in whatever you’ve got, (an old bean can will do) and then add coffee and possibly eggshells. For a more robust flavor, use yesterday’s socks to strain out the grounds. 😉

  3. MJR says:

    There is also a great film about this guy that he shot himself as he was building his log cabin. he was just so damned competent.

    I have to go with ML on coffee being an essential. If I don’t have my cuppa joe in the morning I am one of the most ugly people on the planet. I even have a plan b for power outages that involves how to make coffee without electricity. Strong as iron, black as coal that’s the way to have it. I’ve even been known to make four demi-tasses of espresso, put that in a mug add cream and sugar then head off to work. Warning this technique is not for the faint of heart.

  4. Joel says:

    Even a coffeemaker isn’t a real necessity ML.

    Oh, dem’s fightin’ words. Especially first thing in the morning, before I’ve had my coffee. Don’t be dissin’ my french press.

  5. MamaLiberty says:

    Well, you may be kidding, Ben… but that’s just the point. My coffee is not negotiable. I don’t like it made any other way than the drip machine, and not all of them are created equal either. That’s just one of those things that spells quality of life for me.

    I’ve drunk my share of “cowboy” coffee through all the years of hunting and trail riding. I’ve had seriously bad coffee in every nursing station and office I’ve been required to inhabit over even more years. I despise it all. 🙂 I won’t drink coffee in a restaurant either. Bad coffee is simply not worth the water it’s made with.

    And now that I’ve retired from both nursing and horse events, I’ll have the coffee I like – or none at all. 🙂

  6. Kentucky says:

    “Towels” is not the paper product I’d consider a necessity.


  7. Ben says:

    Kentucky says:“Towels” is not the paper product I’d consider a necessity.”

    It will do in an emergency.

  8. Joel says:

    Youch. 😥 Also, don’t flush it.

  9. coloradohermit says:

    I suppose I could live without coffee, but you’d never know it. To backup the drip coffee maker, there’s another drip machine, a Farberware electric percolator, a stovetop non-electric percolator and 3 French presses. Coffee has the biggest shelf in the pantry all to itself.

    There’s also things like baggies and tin foil. Totally unnecessary but life would be so much more complicated without them. I figure that having lived off grid on solar power for 20 years makes up for my wasteful non conservational habits. ;-}

  10. Wolfman says:

    I use the heck out of paper towels. I’ve oft remarked that paper towels are on the list of simple things I’ll miss most, come the end of times. Anything I do with paper towels I can do with cloth, but I’ll go through a LOT of laundry if I don’t change my ways. Especially handling meat, and while cooking.

  11. Howard says:

    My old Revereware drip pot makes great off grid coffee. Better than any electric I’ve tried.

  12. Zelda says:

    Still have my first edition many decades old copy of One Man’s Wilderness, hadn’t thought about what happened to the author or the cabin over time. Reading it really was a life changing experience. So many interesting and useful things come up on this blog, one reason why I read it every day.

  13. abnormalist says:

    They also did a wonderful PBS documentary on this including many of the original super 8 films he took. Absolutely wonderful

    That man redefines what “hard” really is

  14. R says:

    Haven’t read Proenneke book but the documentary made with his film and narration has been standard PBS pledge drive fare in my city for many years. For what it’s worth his cabin near Lake Clark isn’t much further North than Anchorage and is well South of the Arctic Circle.

  15. Joel says:

    Hey, it’s been a while since I read the book. 🙂

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