Off grid in western Maine, a dream come true for Tom Smith. (Paula W. Kane)

REGION — Tom’s first experiences in Maine were family visits to his grandparents’ home in Madison, his mom’s hometown. Over the years, these visits developed in him a desire to come back, which has grown along with him into adulthood.

Born and raised in a small town (population around 12,000) in Massachusetts, Tom followed a pretty typical path.

“My whole life, I was always pushing to get to what’s next,” Tom confided.

“I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school. Then I couldn’t wait to join the Marine Corps … get married … start a family … get out of the Corps …”

In the Marines, Tom was part of an expeditionary force, making “small deployments to different places.” It seemed like he was deployed all the time and that was not going to change. His son, who was only three months old when he left, was now almost 1. Within a month of this realization, he decided to finish out his contract and leave the Corps.

The little family moved back to Massachusetts. Tom picked up some part-time jobs and started going to school to become a police officer.

However, some time into that training, Tom decided he really wanted to be a firefighter and first responder. Already working part-time as a firefighter, he also became a paramedic, working within the regional emergency medical services system.

“In a small town, you’re connected to everybody – every single person,” he said, “which can be good or bad. You’re there when anybody needs you, but it gets touchy when things don’t go well.”

In his line of work, Tom responded to “a few very significant incidents in a very short time,” incidents which involved children and close, personal friends.

“I couldn’t continue doing that job in that town,” he stated.

Over the past two and a half years, he and his family had already been preparing for their ultimate goal moving to Maine, “always the western mountain area.”

Expanding his search all the way from here to Moosehead, Tom spent “countless hours” on Craigslist and other real estate sites “looking at where I wanted to be … SOON.”

Must-haves included land on top of a hill, plenty of privacy, and a fixture onsite, but unfinished.

“I found this property on Craigslist and called the owner … met him up here the next weekend on the property. He was very much like myself and we clicked right off.”

A serendipitous encounter to say the least. The seller was looking for “just the right person … it was meant to be.” Tom and his wife bought the property.

Once the deal was sealed, the schedule for moving to Maine got jumped ahead and the Smiths, including their two sons, had several family decisions to make, some tricky logistics to work out. Tom retired from the fire department. The couple kept the house in Massachusetts, with the plan to alternate weekends between Mrs. Smith and the younger son coming to visit Dad in Maine and Dad going home for a couple days with the family in Massachusetts.

Tom and Mrs. Tom have two sons. The elder is 21 and serving in the Marine Reserves, training to be a plumber. The younger is a junior in high school with aspirations to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. He’s also the captain of his school’s wrestling team. Wrestling is a passion this young man has pursued since he was only 6, and one which he may have come by from his uncle, Tom’s brother-in-law, a wrestling coach. Very busy with school and team, he sometimes stays behind with his aunt and uncle when Mom heads north.

Next step: “Having to get myself ready to go through the winter.”

Tom secured a job up here in September and prepared to winterize the place on his new property. But, as we all know, winter came in October. All of a sudden it became “very urgent” to get things done.

Tom had the firewood down and cut up, but it still had to be made ready. Another top priority was the construction of some small sheds, one in which to keep a snowmobile. He cut a site for his new barn, which would be needed to house some big equipment for clearing the road to the site. He hired a local contractor who “leveled the pad” and they built a 30-foot by 48-foot  barn in two weeks. Good thing, because two weeks into October, there was four inches of snow on the ground.

“It was a huge project to transport all the materials to the site. My father and friends were instrumental.”

The barn is 20 feet to the peak, and the roof has a steep pitch – another good choice considering the snow that fell this winter. It’s big enough inside to easily park Tom’s truck and his tractor, and a 9-foot-wide snowblower.

Though a self-proclaimed “slow-learner,” Tom did eventually figure out, after “multiple times,” that if there was anything more than 10 inches of snow, he needed to park his truck at the foot of the hill and bring the tractor down to clear the drive.

He has been “happy to hear from a lot of local people” that this winter was not the norm, even for a Maine winter.

“That has given me a feeling of confidence. If I made it through this year, I’ll be all set – maybe with fewer mistakes …”

“It’s been a steep learning curve, but I’ve done pretty good,” Tom declared.

“My neighbor was a tremendous help and resource … It’s a little neighborhood, just four year-round residents. It’s nice to know there’s someone to turn to when you need help and then can return the favor … It’s all part of the adventure.”

Referring to his home down-country, Tom thinks living in the same place for a long time can make one “almost stagnant,” hesitant to step out of one’s comfort zone. He was comfortable working on his firetruck, but learning the ins and outs of the big equipment he’s now operating also adds to the adventure of starting life in Maine.

Though not able to fully retire yet, Tom’s adventure is leading to his own farm “off the grid.” He plans to have a garden, raise some animals, make his fences with his own cedar posts, and become “not necessarily self-sufficient,” but as close to as possible. He wants to simplify life.

The new/old place is solar-powered with two panels hooked and two more to install as soon as weather allows. Though there’s no well yet, he does have running water fed from a storage tank.

“There’s a good spring in town,” he explained.

“I carry water in. One hundred gallons of water will get through a week easily. And every system has at least one backup.”

In fact, he has four different methods of lighting and three for heating.

A “beautiful wood cook stove” came with the house, but Tom found that the heat from a fire in that would only last four hours and it was either very hot or very cold. He sold the old cookstove and used the money to buy a soapstone stove, which takes up less space and heats more evenly. Tom has found that now it never gets below 60 in the house “even during a 12-hour work day” when he’s not home to replenish the wood.

(Note: Soapstone is natural metamorphic rock that can withstand extreme heat and is an excellent material for wood stoves. The composition of soapstone is remarkably stable and is able to hold up against direct flames and dramatic shifts in temperature.)

“A lot of what I’ve figured out has been by trial and error,” Tom shared.

For example, two 12- to 18-inch snowstorms quickly taught him that he would have to cut a lot more small trees away from the edge of his mile and a half long driveway. The weight of the snow caused the trees adjacent to his drive to bend right over, completely blocking the way through to the main road.

Another time, while cutting down trees from the drive to the barn, he got a splinter in his index finger. No big deal – except that he went ice-fishing later, which means he was reaching into the shiner bucket for his bait and that led to a pretty severe infection.

“I almost lost my finger,” Tom admitted.

He did have to have surgery to remove the splinter. By then, the infection had traveled up his arm. But he did not spend one night in the hospital.

“I kept looking at the weather. I knew if I can’t get home tonight, I won’t get home the rest of the winter!”

By the way, Tom is not all alone on the top of that hill. His faithful friend, a 100-pound black German shepherd, goes with him everywhere – even to work once a week, where he sleeps under his master’s desk.

The Smiths have three dogs in all. The other two, both much older than this one, are at home with the family in Massachusetts. The one with Tom was meant to be for his youngest son’s birthday, but, as predicted at the time, the young fellow wasn’t quite ready for the responsibility.

“What I expected would happen happened,” Tom said.

“He’s my dog now … And we’ve really enjoyed it up here. Right up to fall we were taking our baths in the river.”

And, a bright side of winter, they’ve been ice-fishing and snowshoeing.

“I’m lucky to have a boss who took me in as a friend. He taught me the hunting and fishing laws and provided me with opportunities … even shared some holes.”

This part of Tom’s adventure served to bring back some fond memories of his grandfather, who always took him hunting and fishing.

“My grandfather would take a week off and off we went,” he reminisced.

Now Tom is making new memories with his son, who caught “a monster togue” on one ice-fishing expedition. And Tom caught his first salmon through the ice this year, “unfortunately, not a keeper,” but he did get to keep his first togue.

So, from his small hometown in Massachusetts, Tom has come to make a new home for his family in a smaller town in Maine, where, despite the many challenges, he looks forward to enjoying a simpler life through which he can pursue his dream of “working to live, not living to work.”