So there we all were the other day, sitting around at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed, making ourselves homesick for the foods we grew up with. (Edible food, I might add; not the Hog Trough concoctions that wandering native Hardyvillians probably get nostalgic about as they sit around in cafes in Paris or Greenwich Village trying to accustom themselves to real cuisine.) Suddenly, Bob-the-Nerd quit waxing nostalgic about Cabot Vermont White Cheddar Cheese, pulled up the calendar on his laptop computer and said:
Since polite SuperAsian Bob isn't normally inclined toward such language, that got everybody's attention.
"What &^%$#@!*()&^?" I asked.
"Christmas &^%$#@!*()&^," Bob groaned. "It's almost here."
"Uh ... yeah," Marty Harbibi said with his usual tact. "It usually is, in December. What, did you think it was time for St. Swithin's Day?"
"Don't get sarcastic," Bob said, clattering his way through some more keys as he headed for eBay and Amazon.com. "I have to shop! And fast!"
Which reminded me, more than a little belatedly: Me, too.
And what about you? If you tell me you're one of those sorts who has all the Christmas shopping done by October with the gifts already wrapped and under the bed ... well, just don't tell me, okay? Not if you want to stay on my good side.
As it happens, this year I have a better than usual excuse for not being up on my Christmas shopping. I've been toiling away at friends' brand-new backcountry homestead a ways south of Hardyville. This toil involves: digging ditches, getting water lines and electric lines laid, puzzling over the vagaries of what's supposed to be a functioning off-grid power system, freezing my buns off, sweating my brains out, getting dirty, hunting for the right size wrench, cussing at drills whose cords aren't quiiiiite long enough to reach where they need to go, and occasionally trying to find a left-handed flatchenhammer and instead making a three hour round trip to the nearest real town and coming home with a right-handed floobiewhatsis by mistake and having to turn right around and go back to look for a ambidextral thingamawhosis.
Ah, the simple life.
But. Although it's kept me from getting my shopping done, or even kept me from noticing what time of year it is (except that it's freezing-buns-off time; that I know), this backcountry toiling has equipped me brilliantly for making up a Christmas list for any newbie or soon-to-be homesteader you might happen to know.
Keep in mind, this list doesn't even pretend to be comprehensive. There are about 6,984,236 things every new homesteader needs, starting with a mint for coining money and the patience of a particularly martyr-oriented saint, the kind who still looks saintly even when pierced with several hundred arrows. That said, here are a few things I'd consider giving to the new homesteader.
Ryobi's "The Works" 18-volt cordless toolkit. Every homestead needs a good set of cordless electric tools for work in those far-away places. Don't tell me; I know that the words "Ryobi" and "good" don't necessarily belong in the same sentence. But for $300 (or less at Wal-Mart or eBay), getting a jigsaw, chainsaw, reciprocating saw, circular saw, wet-dry hand-vac, flashlight, drill, drill bits, measuring device with laser pointer, a blade-and-file set, two batteries, a recharger, and a cool duffel bag ... well, it ain't bad. So maybe the tools aren't DeWalt quality (and Some, like the chainsaw, are strictly light duty). But then, $ 300 isn't a DeWalt price, either. I'll take the Ryobi to get started, while I spend the rest of my money on all the other stuff a homestead needs.
Good quality hand tools. The macho boss of our local homestead says everybody off-grid and far from the hardware store also needs good quality sledgehammers (at least three sizes), shovels and spades (ditto -- and with different lengths of handles), picks, axes, hoes, mauls, and maybe a post-hole digger would come handy, too (he says, having just dug a 3-foot deep pit for his solar-panel mount using everything from picks and shovels to a Tupperware bowl for the final scooping.
Backwoods Home's "Whole Shebang." You've got The Works. Now you (I mean, your deserving homesteader friend, because after all we are not buying selfishly for our selves here, now are we?) need "The Whole Shebang" to help you ... I mean your friend ... do the right thing with all those tools. The aforesaid shebang is nearly everything that BHM has ever published -- 11 print anthologies and 12 CD-ROM anthologies. And it's all only $207.80 or three payments of $69 each. Pretty good, considering that the full price would be $414.80. Invaluable, should you need a quick reminder of how to make venison jerky, what to feed an orphan goat, why the country's getting so messed up (John Silveira will tell you, complete with unknown history), or how to turn an old Cadillac into a chicken coop (or is it turn an old chicken coop into a Cadillac, I'm not sure). You can also get the shebang free with your lifetime subscription to the magazine Then keep the subscription and give the free shebang as a gift and look like a hero.
Xantrex inverter from Sunelco. Now, if I really liked my homesteader friends and had a ton of money to spare, I'd make sure they had a Xantrex (formerly Trace) inverter or inverter-charger to turn DC into AC power for their off-grid energy system. These high-tech wonders come in a variety of varieties, starting at $860 and going considerably up from there. But when you care enough to send the very best – and you don't want your poor friends caught in the middle of nowhere without a useable microwave oven or toaster -- Xantrex is really it. And Sunelco is pretty wonderful, too.
A subscription to Netflix or Blockbuster Online. In the "gifts that keep on giving" category, a subscription to one of these DVD-rental services is great. There is absolutely nothing to do after 6:00 p.m. in the cold dark backcountry (unless, of course, you're out fixing an emergency power outage or trying to locate and repair a burst water pipe). On one recent Friday evening, all three restaurants in the town near our desert homestead were closed, without explanation. Becoming a connoisseur of DVD movies is a real winner in these circumstances. A basic Netflix subscription is $17.99 per month. Blockbuster is just $17.49 and also offers games. But Blockbuster is Evil because of its in-store (not online) policy of insisting on having customers' social security numbers. So I'd personally go Netflix. Both companies let you keep three DVDs out at a time, both pay postage on every rental, and both let a busy backwoods homesteader keep the discs out for as long as they want.
A DVD player. If your friends don't already have one.
Old-fashioned games and toys from Lehman's Non-Electric catalog. Well, maybe there is something to do in the middle of nowhere, without functioning electricity, in the dark of December. You could play jacks or dominoes, tootle on the harmonica, float little steam-powered boats, spin an old-style circus top, or try to unknot some really hard wrought-iron puzzles (sort of the 19th-century Rubik's Cube)-- all courtesy of the friendly folks at Lehman's, who specialize in items that don't require electrical power. Frankly, I'm not sure how the kids of the Game Boy and Halo II generation will like these toys. But they'll sure make the older grownups on that homestead feel nostalgic.
Alternate-power flashlights. We live and die by the flashlight around here --and not only when we're out trying to locate the source of that strange yowling sound at midnight. Unfortunately battery-powered flashlights die quickly when put to this much use. So the backwoods homesteader on your gift list might appreciate Lehman's hand-pumped flashlight ($9.95) or Lehman's hand-cranked flashlight ($49.95). Frankly, I'm not sure why hand-cranking is worth five times what hand-pumping is. Maybe it's because the hand-crank model is cool black and red, very high-tech and looks as if it might have a Jetson's cold-fusion power unit in it.
How-to books. And videos. Always a good bet. Consider these for your homesteader friend:
From the Head for the Hills section of the Loompanics Unlimited catalog, one of my all-time-favorite books, Brian Kelling's Travel-Trailer Homesteading Under $5,000 ($10). It really tells you how to do it, power, septic systems, land and all.
In the BHM Bookstore: Anita Evangelista's How to Live Without Electricity and Like It ($17.95). Evangelista tells you how to do everything from pump water to cool your house to refrigerate your groceries without electricity. I wouldn't like living that way one bit (and wouldn't be able to earn my living, computerless). But she knows what she's talking about, for those who are so inclined. Or for those who want backup when the home-generated electricity fails.
For us plugged-in types, there's Loompanics's The Haggler's Handbook with 125 negotiating strategies, from sweet to dirty tricks ($7.95) or How to Haggle ($15), written by a professional pawnbroker. Since building a country homestead means striking good bargains, haggling skills can be handy.
Or how about Loompanics' Privacy section, where they have things like the video Hidden Doorways. If you've ever wanted a way to stash stuff and still get quick access to it, and if you (I mean your friend) are building your own structures on a homestead, this video shows you how to create hidden panels and doors with common hardware-store materials ($9.95)
Paladin Press also has two new titles this year appropriate for backcountry do-it-yourselfers. If you know of a backwoods homestead that's a little too close to where vandals and burglars may roam, consider giving Affordable Security ($39). Though not brilliantly written, it's a comprehensive guide to protecting anyone's home, business, or automobile. Then there's The Workbench AR-15 Project: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Own Legal AR-15 without Paperwork. (And yes, it's legal, unless you live in one of those weird People's Republic states.)
Leaving the fringe world of Loomanics and Paladin and returning to the BHM bookstore, there's David and Jeanie Stiles' Rustic Retreats ($23.95), my favorite of many Stiles books on creating sheds, treehouses, huts, etc. Whether your friend needs a garden shed, a temporary shelter, a small barn, a boathouse, or a playplace for the kids, the Stiles' always have something creative and informative to offer.
For the most serious, serious do-it-yourselfers (and for anyone who wants a good chuckle), there are the works from Lindsay Books and its cousin company, Gingery Books. I mean, this stuff is really hardcore. It's for people who might like to build their own two-cylinder Stirling Engine or build an entire metal foundry from scratch. But these folks don't take themselves too seriously, either. Their catalog includes a selection of reprints of absolutely ancient how-to books, including one on how to embalm a corpse, should the need ever arise. (Or actually, not arise, but just lie there.)
And do we dare forget? -- a copy of The Freedom Outlaw's Handbook, new this year from yours truly (but filled with wisdom both new and updated from the now-out-of-print 101 Things To Do 'Til the Revolution). And it introduces the new concept of three kinds of freedom fighters -- one to fit every personal style. At just $24, which includes shipping, even I think it's a bargain.
Shooter's gear. When you're not reading, building, or repairing something around the old homestead, chances are, you're shooting. Anything, anything, anything from Dillon Precision can be counted on to be of the highest quality, with the most outstanding service. But if I may put in a plug for one item that many target shooters covet but few buy for themselves, I'll pump for a pair of Dillon-Peltor battery-operated "ears" ($135) aka the Dillon HP1 Hearing Protector. Unlike cheap shooters' earmuffs that muffle everything ("Huh? What did you say?"), these gems allow a shooter to hear speech and other normal sounds loud and clear (with separate volume controls for both ears), but selectively muffle big, loud, sudden bangs. I wish I had a pair myself.
A floating survival rifle. Like this camo-patterned Henry in .22LR ($189). Personally, if I were expecting my rifle to go swimming off down a river, I'd want it to be fluorescent pink or something so I could find it. And these rifles do come in a wild assortment of colors. I've always liked the idea of these little rifles whose barrels and works come off and tuck inside their plastic stock. Not essential to the homestead, but a good gimmick -- that could conceivably save a life someday.
MRE's. Since nearly every backcountry homesteader is at least a somewhat-survivalist, consider a gift of MRE's -- the high-luxury item of food preparedness. You can gift your friend with cheese with bacon spread, almond pound cake, chicken in Thai sauce, ham & shrimp jumbalaya, and almost anything else you can think of, including a substantial line of vegetarian dishes. A case of 12 full meals runs $75, but you can buy individual items for as little as $1.50. Many people planning food storage don't include MREs because these prepared items seem like such an indulgence. But on those days when a storm has wiped out all your power, your energy, and maybe even a wall or two of your house, having ready-made meals in a packet can be a godsend.
Good wool socks. And long underwear. It sounds silly. And these are certainly not glamorous gifts. But a pair of really, really good wool socks (which might run $12 or so) will be appreciated years after fancier items have been put away in the back of a drawer. And anybody who's ever spent all day digging a ditch in a piercing wind knows the value of long johns. So swallow your pride and give something just-plain useful.
Mulled wine. And finally, if you don't have a lot of money, and if you're looking for an excuse to visit your homesteading friends one of these freezy winter days, make up a big crock-pot of mulled wine and take it over. It'll warm your friends' heart, your belly, and the holidays.