Homestead’s end: starting to sell our house in Vermont and what it means

After lunch Ceredwyn, Hestia, and I walked around the house.  It was unusually warm for this time of year, 39°F or about 4℃.   The skies were gray, and some mist rose up from surviving snowpiles.  It felt a bit like March as we tromped along the little ponds, the minor woodpiles, the front flower plot, the driveway’s stone wall, the major wood storage, the hot tub.

Walking with us was a realtor.

pink-sunsetYes, we are starting the process of selling our house.

There are two reasons for this major step, the first being our youngest son is aiming for college next fall.  In around eight or nine months Ceredwyn and I will be the only humans in the house, and have a lot more freedom to move.

The biggest reason, of course, and one familiar to readers of this blog, is that broadband here is horrendous and not getting better.  This is frustrating, at best, for our personal lives, making entertainment, education, culture, and family connections difficult.  More importantly there’s an important chunk of our work that we can’t do from our house or town: downloading major files.  Conducting audio- and videoconferences: it’s no longer quaint to have to turn the camera off to preserve sound quality.  Producing and publishing audio and video projects: podcasts, Future Trends Forum live sessions and recordings, more video sent to YouTube.  That’s a growing proportion of our work – heck, of many professions – and other such needs are coming on line fast, like VR and AR production.

After nearly a year of intensive research and networking, following more than a decade of community work, we cannot escape the conclusion that Vermont is just not interested in expanding rural broadband.  The state does not consider broadband to be a utility.  The outgoing governor, Peter Shumlin, quietly gave up on the universal connectivity goal.  The incoming governor, Phil Scott, has said openly and clearly that he will not pursue that goal.  For the private sector, businesses have been upfront about resisting rural expansion for business reasons.  So unless a solution appears on the Green Mountains over the next few months, we’re getting ready to exit.

sledding-hill-in-autumn

Down the sledding hill in autumn.

This is a heartbreaking decision for Ceredwyn and I.  We’ve lived here almost twenty years.   Vermont is the best state we’ve ever lived in. Our two children grew up in Ripton.  We have many deep roots in the community, from serving on school and community TV boards to riding with the fire department to building up a local highspeed network to working on the local historical society and fighting to protect our post office and more.  I run the town blog. We have many terrific friends here.  Our hearts are in this place.

But Vermont is not interested in keeping us here, neither our family nor our business.  That is now quite clear.  So we have to make peace with heartache, which will probably take the rest of our lives, and start packing.

That’s why we’re starting the house selling process and taking our business with us.  Over the next three months we’ll do a lot of interior preparation work.  Once the snow and ice fade we’ll turn the the house’s exterior.  Late May is our rough market debut schedule.

Where will we go?  Well, our options are actually quite broad, since we won’t have children in local schools, and Bryan Alexander Consulting is now an international business.  Our work occurs online or with clients, so we only need basic office speed (AND BROADBAND).  Our current desiderata include:

  1. Blazing fast internet.
  2. Good to plentiful local/regional higher education.
  3. Ready access to a good or major airport.

Beyond that… we’re flexible and exploring.  Extended family needs might take us to southeast Michigan or central Virginia.  Two potential urban locations in Vermont are actually in our sights.   We’re open to suggestions.

There’s a larger point to this decision beyond our family’s particulars.  We bought and organized our house as homesteaders.

goat in the snow

We wanted to be a self-sufficient as possible.  To that end we raised animals (ducks, chickens, goats, turkeys), planted and grew crops (corn, beans of all kinds, various berries, potatoes, carrots, etc.), and planted and tended fruit trees.  We’ve built up the soil through extensive composting.  We heated the house entirely by wood, some of which we logged ourselves.  Water came from a well.  We faced challenges ranging from the hilarious to the brutal, including week-long power outages, temperatures below -35 F, and bear incursions.  We learned… easily a PhD worth of what it takes to live sustainably on the Earth outside of cities and suburbs.  Much more than I can outline in a single blog post.

And we can’t do it any longer without broadband internet.  We can’t homestead and also provide an income for our selves, and do the work we love, without that essential technical infrastructure.

wood-piles-inside-tentThis digital gap is a hard limit for anyone going back to the land, excluding the small and shrinking group of purists and others who do without the digital world. If this gap persists, there will be fewer Helen and Scott Nearings in the future.  The pool of deep, practical knowledge involved in living on the land will shrink.

More importantly, this connectivity chasm is also a hideous cramp fastened onto rural America, because the biggest digital divide is now between city and country.  We are not solving the problem, and the nation isn’t really concerned about it, based on recent politics and cultural currents, even thought this election arguably turned massively on the urban-rural divide.  If I’m right about this,  the city-country gap is just going to widen, with consequences for culture, economics, families, and America as a modern nation.

The problem is especially acute in Vermont.  Like the Rust Belt, like the rest of upper New England, we’re aging.  Vermont’s median age is about 43, nearly a decade past the nation’s.  The younger, most technology-reliant populations are tending to move to cities, emptying out the graying countryside.  How we will sustain a population increasingly consisting of retirees with a shrinking pool of younger workers is an open question.  Our poor infrastructure and lack of interest in technology means Japan’s solution – robotics – is not on the table.

In general, American states and businesses are no longer interested in extending the 21st century to rural folk.  Think about what that means, what a terrible division we’re witnessing.  We’re quietly and passively erecting digital walls potentially as vast and ugly as Trump’s desired Mexican barrier, but without any civic outrage, concern, or even awareness.  I shudder to think of the consequences.

Perhaps Ceredwyn and I can find a rural location steeped in broadband goodness.  We’re looking, and, as I said above, open to suggestions.  Otherwise we’ll close the homesteading chapter of our lives together and explore cities and towns.

Any suggestions or thoughts for our big shift, dear readers?  We’re listening and reading, while making our preparations.

Pearl Lee Road in snow

Our road in winter.

 

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33 Responses to Homestead’s end: starting to sell our house in Vermont and what it means

  1. I have no useful suggestions, alas, about where next – but I hope it’s somewhere not too far from me.
    This post leaves me sad and embittered about what looks like the enforced end of a noble experiment.
    Wishing you a safe winter and productive next step in the adventure.

    Like

  2. Joshua Kim says:

    Bryan….it is beyond heartbreaking that our public policy and governance is so broken that our nation can’t find a way to extend a basic service like broadband to all of our citizens. Anyone who lives in Vermont, or indeed any rural area where fast internet is not accessible, should be very worried about the choice that your family is being forced to make.

    Since you asked – I’d like to be the first to suggest a destination. The Upper Valley of NH and VT! http://www.uppervalleychamber.com/uvtowns.html We have fast broadband, good transportation links to airports, and a wonderful mix of the amenities of living in or near a small college town.

    You and Ceredwyn would be a wonderful addition to our community. If we were smart, we’d offer you the same tax breaks that the big corporations get to re-locate to the Upper Valley.

    As always, thank you for helping us to understand the world through your work and through your choices.

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  3. Rebecca Brackmann says:

    My mom lives outside of Steelville, MO. Her house is 18 miles from the nearest town, at the end of a 1.5-mile gravel road, and she has faster DSL than I do (greatly vexing my husband, who works in high-performance computing). Her internet is provided by the little local phone company, Steelville Telephone Exchange, which put a DSLAM at the end of the road for mom and her handful of neighbors.
    I think nearby St. James also has really good service in its area (as well as one hell of a good winery).
    Email if you want to know more! Good luck on your next adventure.

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  4. I assume you’ve at least priced the various internet-via-satellite options? At least theoretically there are solutions that even do traffic both directions; I don’t know the cost or the limitations.

    And I assume you’ve priced getting commercial-grade direct internet fiber to your house? I assume that’s available, but you live remotely enough that the per-mile price puts it out of reach?

    Similarly, I assume you’ve talked to the phone company about the possibility of putting a DSLAM (DSL network point) in your neighborhood if you (or perhaps you and your neighbors) threw down for some of the infrastructure cost? Tens of thousands total, I think, but perhaps cheaper ultimately than moving?

    Sorry; perhaps you’ve looked at all of these. I realize that your point is that the state isn’t making it an infrastructure improvement goal, but perhaps it’s worth your while to look at the very narrow solutions that most people wouldn’t consider.

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    • Bryan et al.,

      Please belay my questions. I now saw your list of internet woes in posts over the last few months. Sounds like you’ve beaten the bushes looking for technical solutions.

      It sounds like you DO have broadband, but it sounds like the telco just isn’t keeping the infrastructure maintained, and don’t seem to care.

      Wow–that’s awful. That really really sucks. It sounds like what needs to happen is a bond issue or basically creating a co-op telco, but that takes organization and time. Oy. It sounds like they’re stretched beyond the breaking point, but there isn’t money to actually upgrade to fix things, and they don’t think there’s will or money to actually make it right.

      I’m urban enough (town of 10k) that it’s not quite a major problem for us. When the phone company became intolerable (very simiilar to your situation) I switched to the cable company, which is slightly more tolerable. I now regret not telling the phone company in detail why I dumped them when I had a chance.

      I sympathise, but I don’t think I have anything useful to offer. Every time you have an outage, though, I would definitely call the elected representatives, explain to their staff what you’re experiencing, point out that it’s an effective monopoly, and explain that that’s why you (and your tax footprint) are leaving the state.

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      • Answers belayed, Craig.

        Is it broadband? 2 up, .7 down is below the FCC standards.

        We built a co-op. The problem in making is fast enough is raising enough capital to buy the pipe and new equipment, plus funding the network team to do the job without going insane. Too small a town, and lacks enough rich people, unlike Middlebury.

        We’re been calling elected officials at both the state and federal level. Some have stopped replying; the rest are apologetic.

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  5. CogDog says:

    I too am sad, weighing with happy memories of visits with you and Ceredwyn and cats and Hestia in Ripton. When you do as much as you did there, it’s more than a house and a land, your sweat and soul are in the soil.

    It’s hard to imagine you not in a rural setting, not with an axe on your shoulder, not with am eye towards a surrounding forest.

    I’ll be selfish and suggest you move to Strawberry or at least somewhere out west- New England had their chance!. There’s a place down the street for sale 😉 I am optimistic for a rural home for you; for the broadband (and I would look for cable, not DSL). I like very much Durango, CO, there is a college, airport, winter, and a bit of tech scene. Will think of others.

    Come west!

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  6. In Eugene, Oregon you can have every single one of your boxes ticked–except that it is so far away from your established system of heart connections. I know I will never move east, so I can understand that looking this far afield is probably out of the question. But we have higher ed galore, broadband, airport to the world, and a huge organic back to the land population–it is truly the Eden at the End of the Oregon Trail. Same in the towns outside of Seattle–like out on the San Juan Islands.
    Closely with you!

    Like

  7. brittongm says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It makes me sad, honestly, that it is infrastructure that’s causing you to leave the place you love. This, in turn, degrades the local economy, the tax base, and ultimately the community. No one is richer for this–except the community you decide to join. They will be lucky to have you.

    Like

  8. Sally Brett says:

    Sad analysis and a bit scary trend. Thinking of all of you because as you do clearly recognize, this is not just a change of houses.

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  9. Bryan – You might add to your list of considerations the near availability of top-flight health care. Being in the Greater Boston area has been a literal life saver for me and many others. Massachusetts is expensive, but its health care program will survive the dismantling of Obamacare.

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  10. Steven Kaye says:

    I’ve pointed to it before, but http://www.bestplaces.net is good for comparing cost of living, schools, etc.

    Agreed that cable or fiber is preferable to DSL, having experienced all three. Especially with stories of telcos letting copper rot.

    I should have visited a lot more, post-departure to the Western Lands. I’ve lived lots of places, but my brief visits to yours is one of the only ones that felt like a home. And you’ll take that with you, wherever you wind up.

    Like

  11. Dick Thodal says:

    I can’t help thinking about things like crystal radio and sneakernets. Low tech workarounds are frustrating but work often enough to pursue for those of us who like such things. Also compression is getting better.

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  12. billmckibben says:

    I so hope you decide not to leave–you’re key parts of this community. The broadband is really tough; I deal with it every day trying to do my work. In recompense, we have things the city and suburb never will: big forest, high mountain, snow hurrying out of the sky as it hits the edge of the ridge. Mostly we’re just selfish–any town would be overjoyed to have you two. thanks for being good neighbors

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  15. This post leaves me sad. 😦

    Like

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