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Living Happily Off the Grid on Mill Mountain

Here’s Doug Cole and his two companions. He gathers water in the two plastic containers he’s holding.

Among the rich rewards of hiking our region’s hundreds of trails is running into interesting people and stopping for a–socially distanced–chat. My buddy Susan and I were combing over Mill Mountain yesterday and stopped to talk to a man of about 45 and his two unleashed dogs, both well behaved.

As it turns out, Doug Cole lives on the mountain and has for 10 years. He lives in a tee-pee. No electricity, gas, driveway, lawn, TV, laptop, commode, stove, shower, air conditioner, or even a fan. He’s off the grid. His drinking and bathing water come from a cool, nearby stream.

Doug, a native of Massachusetts who likes to quote Thoreau, found business success in Florida before the financial disaster of 2008 took its toll on his business and his marriage. He escaped to Salem, then Roanoke where he had no luck finding work. He wound up houseless.  But, being a resourceful sort, he was not homeless. And for the past 10 years, he’s lived the life of “total freedom,” as he describes it.

He’s a smart, talky, pleasant man, full of stories (“the mountain bikers are taking over the Mill Mountain trails, roaring through, creating dangers for walkers” he complains). He works irregularly just over the mountain from where we ran into him, gardening for well-to-do people in South Roanoke. “I have plenty of money,” he says, leaving the impression that “plenty” for him and “plenty” for me have different meanings.

He looks healthy and his two dogs appear to be well-fed and happy. He seems to be living his dream and I hope to god that the constabulary in Roanoke will just leave him the hell alone. He’s hurting nobody, living the way he wants.

By admin

Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On Advisory Board of New River Voice.