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Opting Out


(Photo: Henrik Larsson/Shutterstock)

Opting Out: An Introduction

• March 31, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Henrik Larsson/Shutterstock)

We’re telling stories all week about people who opt out of society on some level—homesteaders, back-to-the-landers, anti-government survivalists.

Ever since I moved to the Yukon Territory, in northern Canada, four and a half years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices we make about our participation in society. More specifically, I’ve thought about the people who choose not to participate in all aspects of modern communal life—the people who opt out.

Opting out can be as simple as deciding to make a big batch of jam or to pickle your own vegetables, or as complex as creating a detailed action plan for a potential apocalypse.

Here in the Yukon, and in my regular travels to Alaska, I’ve met people who opt out of the most basic shared infrastructure of city living—plumbing and the power grid—by living in cabins with no running water, an outhouse for a toilet, and a limited supply of electricity provided by a solar panel or a generator. I’ve met people who hunt all of their own meat and sew their own parkas, eschewing the big Walmart store down by the river. I’ve met people who, like the Fairbanks militia leader whose dramatic story is at the heart of this project, believe that the government is a menace rather than a service or a safety net, and who are willing to take action to defend themselves against that threat.

Of course, opting out is not something that’s limited to the wild north, or to extreme cases like militiaman Schaeffer Cox. It can be as simple as deciding to make a big batch of jam or to pickle your own vegetables, or as complex as creating a detailed action plan for a potential apocalypse. It can be an all-encompassing lifestyle choice, or a series of small, occasional choices—a commitment renewed with every new DIY project a person takes on.

Throughout this week, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about the various ways in which people choose to opt out of society. I’ll talk to the authors of a pair of very different recent books about people who opt out, and I’ll take a look at a literary tradition spawned by writers who flee to the wilderness. I’ve started with the story of Schaeffer Cox, the charismatic young Alaskan leader brought down by a mole inside his own militia. I hope you’ll choose to stick around for the rest.


Did a popular young political leader plot to commit mass murder in Alaska?


  • wilderness-304/01: Preparing for the End of the World

    “You’ll need to get your beans, bullets, and Band-Aids squared away, pronto. Most important, you’ll need to be prepared to hunker down.”


Eva Holland spoke with Tom Kizzia about his new book on the 17-person family that settled down in the ghost town of McCarthy, Alaska.


Emily Matchar on her new book and how women are reviving some of the traditional skills and crafts of their grandmothers.


Eva Holland follows the evolution of “homesteading,” from historic government policy to part-time lifestyle of self-sufficiency.


“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength.”


Eva Holland
Eva Holland is a freelance writer based in Canada's Yukon Territory. Her work was recently listed among the notable selections in The Best American Essays 2013 and The Best American Sports Writing 2013.

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