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The Durt Family Elliot, Matthew and Uma in the woodsThe Durt Family Elliot, Matthew and Uma in the woods

Off the Grid

The Journey Begins

What happens when you leave your old family life behind and set out to build your new normal from scratch? The Durt Family: Elliot, Matthew and their two-year-old daughter, Uma, are about to find out. When the pandemic shed light on all the ways their old life wasn’t serving them, Elliot and Matthew started to dream of something better. In a new monthly column for Maisonette, Elliot chronicles the realization of that dream: a journey they’re calling their wandering and wondering retreat: in which “two gay city boys” take to the woods with their toddler in tow, in search of meaning, quiet and a fresh start off the grid.
Written By
Elliot Durt

The first time I saw all of our earthly belongings squeezed into our Subaru Crosstrek, I felt relief; “Phew! It all fits!” It was 7:30 am, and we were loading everything up, including our two-year-old daughter Uma, and we weren’t sure when or if we would ever return. My husband, Matthew, took the driver’s seat, and we drove eight hours from Omaha, Nebraska to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The second time I saw all of our earthly belongings in our Subaru Crosstrek, it was the morning we drove up the mountain road to our very first camp site, and this time I felt something a little different: hesitation. “Wow, are we seriously doing this?” I asked out loud. Matthew and I are just two gay city boys. Are we really equipped to be living in a tent indefinitely? We ambitiously, albeit naively, drove on. As we lost sight of town, any remaining cell signal was lost as well. The road, if you can call it that, was more like a dirt path covered in rocks that might be better described as small boulders. Despite the whiplash, I tried to make sense of the crude map I had taken a screenshot of from the Forest Service website, but I wasn’t sure if I was reading it correctly. We were heading into unknown territory, and I was realizing quickly that this was a feeling I would have to grow used to, on many levels. Eventually, the countless ‘NO TRESPASSING’ signs subsided, and we came upon what appeared to be an abandoned firepit and a proper place for a tent. As I stepped out of our car, the clouds were dense, the wind had a chill, and it all felt a bit more ominous than I imagined. I was equipped with both bear mace and the realization that our family dream was finally coming true. We had officially begun what we are calling a wandering retreat. Our vision? To become storytellers. To become spiritual seekers. To become students of the world. To create a new start for our family.

The Durt Family next to their Subaru; Elliot helping Uma over a rockThe Durt Family next to their Subaru; Elliot helping Uma over a rock

Now, before I venture any further into our future, I think it’s appropriate to tell you a little bit about our past. Matthew and I first met in the summer of 2012 when he asked me to be the hairstylist for a short film he was directing. We immediately fell in love and moved in with each other upon the release of the film. At that time, we were reckless wannabe artists who took deep pride in our bohemian lifestyle, with grandiose dreams of destroying the life we knew and reimagining a newer one, a better one. Within a year of meeting, we took a sabbatical from our jobs and spent six months backpacking through Europe, bouncing from city to city, unsure of what we were looking for or running from. But it didn’t matter then. That was our early twenties. It felt appropriate to do rambunctious and rebellious things.

Flash forward to our thirties and things look… different. We’re married now. We have a child. Our romantic and poetic desires to change the world slowly dissipated, and we unconsciously slipped more and more into the routines of a “normal” life. I worked evenings and weekends as a hairstylist, Matthew worked during the day as a teacher, directing plays in the evenings, Uma went to childcare, we meal prepped and mowed on the weekends, maintained a regular gym routine (well, usually), and we tried to always give each other a kiss as we ran out the door. Evenings were spent feet up, watching mindless TV usually (okay, always), and it all felt fine. Busy, no time to question. Fine.

"So here I am. On top of a mountain. Analyzing poop piles, wondering if it’s from a bear or a really large rabbit, cursing myself for not googling this information well before we lost connection. It’s in this moment, I find myself asking the same question so many of our friends and family members have thrown at us: “Why?"

And then, in March of 2020, our world, the entire world, abruptly stopped. We sat inside our little house and awkwardly danced with the same fears that all families did as the pandemic swept across the news headlines: How will our health be impacted? How long will we be out of work? And will everything ever go back to normal? That last question was one my husband and I grappled with a lot, and we soon found ourselves asking each other: “Do we actually want to return to the pace and the life we were living? Was our ‘normal’ serving us?”  We decided: it wasn’t. We realized we thrived being together, and we were never really together before, and when we were together, we were exhausted and tired, and we realized how much we enjoyed being with our daughter. And then we determined that we weren’t ever going to return to that life again. And we started to dream. And we dreamt big, just like when we were young, deeply in love with each other and the potential of things. And then we started to plan our escape: we sell our house, we rid ourselves of our stuff, we rent a room from a friend for a year to save money, we get through one more school year, and then we drive off and never return.

And that’s exactly what we did. So here I am. On top of a mountain. Analyzing poop piles, wondering if it’s from a bear or a really large rabbit, cursing myself for not googling this information well before we lost connection. It’s in this moment, I find myself asking the same question so many of our friends and family members have thrown at us: “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Matthew in front of a mountain with Uma in a hiking pack; Elliot looking over a lake with Uma in a hiking packMatthew in front of a mountain with Uma in a hiking pack; Elliot looking over a lake with Uma in a hiking pack

I don’t really know if I have an answer to that, but I suppose any quest deserves a mission statement, and I’ve found that saying, “We are trying to remain wide open to let destiny guide us,” is just a bit too vague.  So, allow me to attempt to articulate what we are dreaming up. We are calling this first chapter a wandering and wondering retreat. A time to hide away, to unlearn and detach from old identities, patterns, habits, and societal expectations that no longer serve us. A time to slow down and to truly be present with ourselves and our daughter. A time to retreat to the wild, to read, reflect, and reimagine. A time to begin asking questions, seeking out answers: is there a better way of living and loving? Is it possible to live a life that is rich in true meaning and full of purpose? A life that is less superficial and more holy? And whatever we discover, we want to share. We want to tell our story. We want to make meaning. And maybe, if we can, we want to participate in the cultural and global shift, the collective imagining of a new paradigm.

But for today, I am here, at our first campsite, at the beginning of our journey as untethered drifters, stripped bare, so curious and ready. We wake to the first light of dawn, the sun still hidden behind the mountain. For the first time in a while, I notice my breath; I can see it rising in the damp air. I can’t tell if there has been a shift in my daughter or if I am just now bearing witness to it. There is a sparkle in her eye. And I see it in my husband’s as well. Maybe there is one in mine. I feel it, but I don’t have a mirror to see it. Just a few days in these woods, and I already feel so far away from the world we once knew. Perhaps it’s because we are at the same elevation as the clouds, giving me the illusion we are living in the heavens, but I can feel myself tapping into a childlike euphoria, a dreamlike state. We circumnavigate crystal clear glacial lakes where the stillness seems to quiet our minds with ease. We follow streams to mountain peaks where the wind through the aspen trees and the murmur of the water seem to whisper secrets that we are just beginning to understand. And I can’t help but feel like we are exactly where we are supposed to be.