Bill Campbell takes a break from daily chores at his Bolton homestead, which is powered by solar energy. Unlike many people who have pursued an off-the-grid lifestyle for several years then returned to metropolitan areas, Campbell has been committed to sustainable living for a quarter-century.
Three miles past the end of the paved portion of Padanarum Road, Bill Campbell has lived for 23 years off the grid in a passive solar home, pursuing a lifestyle that avoids materialism, savoring the rhythm of nature in the Adirondacks.
While dozens of others have adopted such a sustainable lifestyle for several years and then returned to civilization, Campbell has pursued his close connection with nature for a generation or so.
Wearing his trademark grin, Bill Campbell recently stood in the yard of his passive-solar home, gazing past his vegetable garden towards Tongue Mountain. Not far away was his biodiesel distilling equipment, which he puts to use in producing fuel for heat and to power his vehicles.
“I’m very happy,” he said, playing with his dog amid four solar panels in his yard. These and six others on the roof of his home provide several thousand watts to provide power for lights and a few efficient household appliance.
“To tell the truth, I’m the happiest person I know,” he continued.
Campbell inspected his garden, reviewing plans to rotate his crops, which sustain him and his son Liam throughout the year.
Most years, the produce he grows organically — kale, mustard greens, tomatoes, carrots, squash potatoes and beets — provide most of the food they need in season as well as through the winter. He also has apple trees and blueberry bushes that are productive.
But nature is not always cooperative. Last year, the lower Adirondacks experienced a drought which prompted Campbell to construct a supplementary irrigation system for his garden. In response, Campbell harnessed nature’s power to provide water needed for a bountiful harvest.
With the help of friend Dave Cummings, Campbell devised a ram pump which employs the kinetic energy of falling water to transfer water, ounce by ounce, from a brook 150 yards away uphill to his house. Without employing electricity or fuel, the system fills a 250-gallon tank at his house overnight. From there, it’s distributed to his garden as needed.
A former motorcycle mechanic and motorfreight broker, Campbell moved to rural Bolton at age 33 to delve into nature and overcome its challenges — rather than buying into materialism and enduring a dull, spirit-robbing routine, he said as he stuck heritage tomato seeds into containers of soil.
“Television tells you what you want, then people devote their lives doing something they don’t want to do — to make the money to buy stuff they don’t need, and it’s not making them happy,” he said. “Our modern culture is so different from where we evolved.”
Campbell said he’s found his alternative lifestyle over the last two decades to be deeply fulfilling.
“So many people don’t really know what makes them happy,” he said. “But I know what it is for me — I love nature and I like to build stuff.”
A tour of his home and premises offered clues to his self-sustainable existence. Campbell’s basement provides much of the evidence.
Near the cellar stairway is a panel with a charge controller and an electrical inverter, to convert direct current from the solar panels into alternating current that charges the 10 golf-cart batteries sitting on the concrete floor. The setup provides 2,400 watts, enough to fulfill the household’s routine needs.
To the left is a 1,500-gallon plastic agricultural tank holding an ample supply of water, which drains off the roof into a collection system, and runs through a sand filter.
Water from the vessel is pumped into a 275-gallon tank in the attic. From there, the water is gravity-fed to the kitchen and bathroom.
Nearby, there’s a biodiesel-powered generator which can serve as a backup and recharge the batteries to provide household power when there’s a series of overcast days in the winter. Campbell modified the generator, manufactured in India, so its liquid cooling system — along with a heat exchanger on the exhaust pipe — feeds a cast-iron radiator that provides heat for the home as well as supplemental power.
Resembling an antique contraption, the primitive but efficient generator engine sits on truck tires and a concrete slab, so when it chugs along, it won’t shake the house.
Recovering this heat from the generator reduces his fuel requirements — he only burns two cords of wood per year to heat his house, which is oriented so the winter’s sun provides considerable warmth.
Campbell produces his own biodiesel from cooking oil, obtained at restaurants, which he treats with methanol and lye to produce his clean-burning, ecological fuel. He uses some of this biodiesel, which environmentalists consider “carbon neutral,” to power his diesel-powered vehicles.
In one corner of his basement, Campbell has a ultra-efficient freezer, as well as a well-insulated cold room where he stashes vegetables to last him through the winter.
Nearby, there are plastic bins where he raises thousands of worms flourishing in compost that the creatures feed on, producing castings. “Tea” drained from the bins serve as a potent organic garden fertilizer, he said.
“To a gardener, tea from the castings is like gold,” he said. “The worms do all the work for you, and they’re happy to do it — they’re not even unionized.”
Much of the remainder of his basement is filled with a variety of partially-completed projects, from crafting bongo drums to building a canoe.
Campbell’s big venture for the near future is finishing off his barn, which he envisions as incorporating a bunkhouse and music and arts studio loft. The upper level features walls of straw bales, which provide substantial insulation.
Campbell glanced at his barn and offered his thoughts about its construction.
“I was rebelling against ‘plumb and level when I built this,” he said. “People generally live in these square, flat spaces, but I get a much better feeling when I live in something curvy and wavy, like nature.”
The floor of his home’s living/dining area is constructed of hardwood planks, with random segments of red and black stripes providing an artsy pattern. Campbell explained that the design was a result of salvaging the hardwood boards from a high school’s basketball gym floor that was being replaced.
Campbell’s house features an open floor plan with a lengthy loft that serves as a master bedroom. A second bedroom and the bathroom are on the first floor.
“People ask how long it took to build my house, and I tell them ‘I don’t know, it’s not done yet,’” he said.
In the 1980s, Campbell was residing in Connecticut. Having lived for years in a metropolitan area, Campbell was ready for a change, he said. Weary of the routine of a 40-hour workweek and seeking a rural lifestyle, he ventured to the lower Adirondacks, looking for a farmhouse to rehabilitate. Instead, a local Realtor steered him to a plot of vacant land, and he wandered over it, Campbell recalled.
“Walking around the property, I got lost — and I realized that if I could get lost on my own land, this was perfect for me,’ he said.
Looking forward to a self-sustaining lifestyle, Campbell started building his new home. Obtaining 6-by-12 pine beams from a local sawmill, he and a few other men framed the house, starting the construction project that he’d never consider entirely complete.
Bearing testimony to the stimulating life he’s led for decades, Campbell’s house is filled with not only an array of musical instruments, but artful decorations including Japanese lamps, fanciful kites hanging from the ceiling, plus abstract paintings and theatrical masks on the walls. A lamp featuring a tin lampshade dangles from a sinuous, debarked tree branch. There’s a colorful hammock suspended from the rafters.
“This serves as my guest accommodations,” he said of the South American hammock that lowers in front of his fireplace via several pulleys.
Campbell said he gains satisfaction from knowing his lifestyle has minimal impact on the environment, unlike the consumerism that grips Western culture. The prevailing national U.S. economy depends on people buying more and more goods, which stresses the environment and depletes natural resources, he said.
“There are really important reasons to simplify our lives,” he said. “It’s not on people’s radar, but if you look at the science, you know we really have to change.”
With no mortgage, no car payments, no utility bill and a minimal food bill, Campbell can live on a minimal income, and spend much of his time doing what he enjoys, he said. This can mean helping build a neighbor’s straw-bale house, assisting a neighbor who’s logging with a mule team, crafting a canoe, or taking a leisurely walk in the woods.
To pay taxes and other unavoidable expenses, Campbell opens and closes camps for summer visitors, and takes on odd jobs, including light construction. He also attends to duties around the house, which includes tending to the organic vegetables in his garden, working on the house, and pursuing various projects. He also sings and plays guitar for the local band Blue Moon.
“When your expenses are low, you don’t need much income, and you can focus your life on what’s really rewarding,” he said.
In contrast, most citizens in our society spend long hours at job that are monotonous or unfulfilling, to make money that gets spent on material goods that don’t bring true satisfaction, he said.
“We’re sold a bill of goods that to be happy we have to work all week at a job to buy lots of stuff, then people go home depressed and watch television to try to recover,” he said.