All photographs by Rachel Bujalski, Institute
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Garth Bowles and his dog try to catch a rattlesnake in front of the tepee. Concealed by miles of desert, his 640-acre property acts as a sanctuary and retreat for spiritual seekers, healers, and travelers passing through. Living completely off the grid, Bowles gets water from underground wells, and solar panels power his two refrigerators, lights, CD player, and stove. Because he welcomes visitors with open arms, he openly accepts donations for food and calls himself the Make-Do King because, he says, “If I don’t have something, I make it do.”
All photographs by Rachel Bujalski, Institute

Getting in Touch With Nature, Staying in Step With the World

When Rachel Bujalski moved out of her apartment and into a boat in Los Angeles, she had no idea that two years later, on her 28th birthday, she would be hoisting herself 80 feet up a redwood tree in Arcata, California. Yet there she was, photographing a man using a compostable toilet in a tree house, all in the name of documenting alternative lifestyles.

It started in February 2014, when Bujalski, a freelance photojournalist in Los Angeles, became overwhelmed with rent prices. She found out through some friends that she could live on a boat in Marina Del Ray for only $400 a month. Realizing she could live cheaply and simply and be more equipped financially to do projects she enjoyed, Bujalski took the leap. “It got me thinking about alternative living and how you can really be creative and do what you want every day,” she said in a phone interview.

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Carbohydrate, an alias this tree-sitter gave himself, sips a cup of tea from the wooden platform he built in a 220-foot giant redwood tree in Trinidad, California. Tied by climbing rope to the 14-foot-diameter trunk, his goal, along with that of other tree-sitters, is to stop logging companies from clear-cutting the forests. Nestled deep in the trees, tree-sitters cook, eat, sleep, use the bathroom, connect to the Internet, and keep entertained on platforms as small as four feet by eight feet for weeks to years at a time.

Bujalski sensed in herself and in her generation a restlessness and desire to break free from the nine-to-five routine. Her newfound lifestyle was the inspiration for her documentary project “Connected off the Grid,” which focuses on the dichotomy of choosing to live off the grid—on a boat, in a tree house, or without reliance on utilities such as electricity or running water—but staying connected with the technology that is an integral part of our lives.

“I was fascinated by technology being this other home for us,” she said. When she moved to her boat in 2013, she sought a similar balance. “I feel lucky to be on the water and have my laptop right here.

“We’ve gone so far over in our generation that we forget what it feels like to be fully disconnected. Now it’s so cool because we have that choice to connect and disconnect … It’s just another challenge for humans to find that complete balance.”

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Delfin, a 49-foot full-teak Porpoise Ketch that’s home to a family of four, sits in the middle of Morro Bay until it’s ready to set sail. Adelaide, ten, shares her thoughts with her mother about the family’s lifestyle switch from land to water. “We can sail around the world; people can’t take their houses and float around the world—they have to stay put. And when we’ve finished the Delfin we just leave for Mexico or the Caribbean whenever we wish.”

Bujalski began photographing other people who lived on neighboring boats in her marina and, curious to see how others were adapting to off-grid living, she set out on a two-month journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping in about 17 communities and towns along the way.

She found some of her subjects and their off-grid communities through Instagram and Facebook. “Being on social media was necessary,” she says. People messaged her directions and tips on who to contact during her trip.

Posting photos throughout her trip on Instagram also helped Bujalski raise awareness of her work in the photo community. “It really brought awareness to the project, and people were able to see what I was doing and call me with places to go next … It was kind of like I had a constant friend guiding me with a device and comments.”

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Bri Joy, a full-time traveler, lives in her Chevy van with her partner, Breanna Shannon, in Big Sur, California.

Bujalski’s objective was twofold: to learn from people who were fulfilling the lifestyle she aspired to have and to share stories of why people choose to straddle the world of simplicity and connectedness. “I put myself in their shoes and I was able to talk to them and say ‘I’m interested because I’m doing it too.’”

Initially Bujalski wasn’t expecting subjects to open up to her as much as they did. “Once I was superhonest and up-front and said [that] this is what I’m passionate about, I think they were proud to show me how they were making it work.”

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John Benedict, an astrologer and body masseur, studies an astrological chart on the laptop he plugs into his friend’s storage shed, which he uses as a place to cook and get electricity in Topanga Canyon, California. Benedict has lived out of his Volkswagen Vanagon for over 25 years to avoid unnecessary monthly living expenses. Reducing his possessions to fit in his van and only turning on his flip phone to listen for voicemail, Benedict is able to lead a very minimal, inexpensive lifestyle that he says keeps him closer to nature and his community.

Once she earned their trust, it was important for Bujalski to live with her subjects to document their daily lives. “They knew why I was there the whole time, so I would just grab my camera and shoot and intertwine it with the conversation,” she say.

But it wasn’t always so easy. After spending about a week in Joshua Tree, California, where Bujalski began her trip, she got a tip from a commenter on Instagram: Visit a man named Garth Bowles, who lives in a permanent tepee—self-titled “Garth’s Boulder Gardens”—in the nearby desert.

Though he was located only 12 miles from Joshua Tree, it took Bujalski two hours to find him. She describes meeting Bowles as one of the most memorable experiences of her trip. “Following your intuition and letting go—that’s when the best moments happened.”

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Bri Joy and Breanna Shannon water the garden they built on the top of their green Chevy van in Big Sur, California.

After three days with Bowles, she still hadn’t been invited inside his tepee, so she stuck around. “That’s my thing, like, I really need to see what the inside of your house looks like,” she recalls saying. “So finally he trusted me enough, and he goes, I’ll show you inside. And inside it looked like a Christmas tree.”

It was adorned, floor to ceiling, with Christmas ornaments and garlands and hundreds of feathers from the peacocks he used to have in the desert, as well as jewels and gold jewelry hanging from the ceiling. Bujalski said it “felt like you stepped into another world from the desert landscape.”

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The interior of Bowles’s tepee

Bowles started going through a box of jewels he had collected over the years. He started putting on his jewels and leafing through photo albums, telling Bujalski his life story. “I just sat there soaking it in,” she says. “I couldn’t believe after three days he was telling me all this.”

But earning Bowles’s trust was just the beginning. Listening to Bujalski’s voice over the phone, you can picture her eyes glistening and her smile widening as she tells the story.

“The best moment was when he was going through all the jewels in the box and there was a small ruby [and] gold ring. He said, ‘Does this fit you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘It’s yours. You can have it.’ And so I’ve been wearing that ring every day since, and that was at day six of my trip.”

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Pam Chapman—an artist, mother, builder, and the director of her community’s organic market—sits outside her self-built minimalistic home. Living off the grid the way she likes requires her to make outside treks either up the path to bathe in her bathhouse or down a wooded path to her compost toilet. Since she doesn’t own a refrigerator, she keeps all her meats and cheeses outside to keep them cold. To read at night, she uses a small light by her bed that’s charged with stored sunlight from her solar panels.

Having this experience and being able to share it with subjects turned friends deepened the connection she made with the people she met. “Collecting these little things that people give you and just to have this great feeling of friendship—it was probably one of my favorite moments.”

Throughout her trip, Bujalski juggled her two identities as a photojournalist and an aspiring off-gridder. “I think the camera was just an excuse to explore what truly interests me, and I think now that I know that, it comes out in my photos … As a photographer, it’s the most exciting career because it’s just about loving and exploring life to the fullest, and your camera gets to capture that.”

Rachel Bujalski continues to document people living off the grid, as well as to search for ways to simplify her own life. You can follow her journey on Instagram.