It's a notion that many people have lost sight of living in Colorado today: The notion of self-sufficiency, by working the land, of living independently from the systems of modernity. The importance of working with our hands, in touch with nature, and instilling the values of physical labor in our children fades away with the conveniences of a modern and shrinking world.
But this notion is not lost on Rob Trotter.
Living off the grid, generating his own electricity, and raising grass-fed beef, Trotter embodies the spirit of independence that pioneered the West and plotted ranches throughout the mountains. Indeed, Trotter is a proud steward of his land.
That spirit of independence and hard work were certainly not lost on the pioneers who first homesteaded this isolated piece of land along Gypsum Creek. They settled into this canyon to carve a life among the rugged beauty of red rock, scrub pine and willow beds. The original cabin partially stands to this day, its roof caved in a shamble of logs as nostalgic tribute to a bygone lifestyle. In fact, all the original structures still stand, built throughout the century, on what is now TNT Ranch — the home of Rob and Linda Trotter.
TNT Ranch covers 381 acres, 11 miles south of Gypsum. The property stretches along a gorgeous run of water, up the canyon wall and across the mesa above. There are half a dozen or so structures on the property: the primary family residence, a second home where Rob's parents live in the summer, a small bunkhouse, a barn-slash-workshop, a couple sheds and — get this — a full-size ice rink perched above the river, completely lit for nighttime play.
Of course, before they could build their home and make the move to raise a family at this outpost, they had to figure out one minor little detail about the property: There was no electricity.
"My parents [Bette and Larry] bought this land as a recreation property for the extended family," says Trotter. "We all worked diligently together to build the TNT Ranch into what it is today. We did not originally intend on living here." That was in 1992, when the family lived in the oh-so-suburban enclave of Singletree in Edwards. As the years passed and they continued to visit and enjoy the land, they realized a change of heart.
"We recognized the benefits of living this way," says Trotter, a passionate outdoorsman who was drawn to the romantic notion of owning a ranch and having land to work and play and share with family. "It just happened."
Ten years later, in 2002, the Trotters would move the old bunkhouse 200 feet to the east and build their primary residence — a 4,600 square-foot log home with huge picture windows and a wraparound deck overlooking the river below.
They designed the house with the idea of bringing the outside, in. Towering windows allow views from riverbed to blue sky. Multiple doors off the deck enter the kitchen and exit the dining room, encouraging foot traffic to flow through the home in and out of doors as one large living space. An open patio door in the living room allows the steady sound of the rushing river to fill the house. The kitchen is purposefully large and open, with an extra-long stone island that serves as the heart of the home. "Life happens in the kitchen, so we wanted to make it open and inviting," Trotter explains.
Large log beams jut into the living space and frame the vaulted ceiling. A stone hearth dominates the living room and, in every aspect, the house sings mountain living. Though large, the house is by no means ostentatious. The spaces are open and connected; it is warm, light and bathed in the love of family. It's a simple layout, really, with four bedrooms and roomy living spaces naturally connected to the beauty outdoors.
The Trotters designed the home to be rustic, to match the older structures around the property, and while it is stately, it remains understated. The home ultimately realizes its design with a connection to the past and a harmony with the nature around.
So that's all well and good today, but how were the Trotters to power the various structures and provide a safe, modern home for their immediate and extended families? While power lines installed decades before bypassed the land, there was no power to their property leaving it — like it was in 1890 — completely off the grid.
"It wasn't about being green in 1992, it was just about ... 'what's the best way to power this property?'" Trotter recalls. "I knew about solar, but it became apparent that the turbine was the way to go."
That turbine is a small hydroelectric power generator housed in a shed over a stream that feeds into Gypsum Creek. It's a simple water-wheel device that powers the entire property by turning a flowing stream into electricity. The turbine cost $30,000, installed, and they haven't paid an electrical bill since.
"We needed to make it work, and hydroelectric was the right answer," Trotter says. "The more I understood it, the cooler it was."
At any given time, Trotter is producing 10 kilowatts of energy with his small turbine. Knowing this, he measures what his family needs against that number and adjusts accordingly. He knows, for example, that a hair dryer uses 1,500 watts, and that leaves the household with another 8,500 watts for everything else. Gauging their electrical draw is an easy practice that has become second nature for him.
Trotter uses four small electrical space heaters in the house to generate heat. He switches them off during peak electrical hours — morning and evening — to accommodate the increased draw by his family when the lights, television and toaster oven are on. When the kids go to school, he flips the heaters on again to use the energy being created and keep the house toasty warm. It's easy for him to adjust the amount of power the turbine generates — up to 15 kW — to accommodate extended family visits, for example. The 10 kW output is simply the amount that Trotter has settled on to meet his family's daily living needs. A voltage regulator in the basement beeps if the household exceeds the energy being generated.
To demonstrate how it all works together, Trotter intentionally causes a power drain, turning on all the space heaters, all the lights and the microwave oven. "I can hear the fridge, too," he says. "That's 300 watts right there."
Soon, the audible level of the microwave oven weakens, and the voltage regulator beeps to signal the excess usage. Trotter then turns off one space heater, the beeping stops and the microwave kicks back up to normal power.
"Living like this clues you in to what you're using," he says. "You learn how to be more efficient."
The turbine has no battery or generator backup. It is an extremely reliable and simple mechanism that requires minimal upkeep. Trotter greases the bearings each month, and if it does happen to break down, he can fix it within two hours. The turbine is fed by an 8-inch diameter pipe that runs 170 feet up the small stream, always staying full to maintain the right amount of water pressure on the wheel. To adjust the power level, Trotter simply changes out a nozzle at the end of this pipe that affects the pressure and therefore the energy production.
"It's more reliable than the grid," he states.
Inside his house, a manually controlled Fireplace Xtrodinair generates enough heat to keep both levels very warm, and propane-powered radiant heating in the floors offers a backup plan for especially cold winter nights. The lower level of the home maintains a steady and comfortable temperature with no direct heat source, as the air downstairs is capped by warmer air upstairs. All in all, it's a brilliantly simple — and natural — system for heating the house in winter and generating the appropriate amount of electricity year-round.
And let's not forget the ice rink. Trotter built the full-size rink by hand, using water from Gypsum Creek that freezes into a smooth sheet of ice for four months and then melts right back into the creek each spring. Just like his electrical usage, the skating rink is non-consumptive. He maintains the rink himself, cleaning the ice with a small tractor and resurfacing it with a hose from the river, and skates with his three children every day after school. The rink is fully lit for night play, with 72 lights that Trotter wired in by extension cords. Each bulb is a 23-watt fluorescent (equivalent to a traditional 150-watt bulb).
So, when all the lights are on the rink, he is using 1,656 of his 10,000 watts (72 lights x 23 W each = 1,656 W), and he can have the lights, computer, television and any other amenity powered on inside the house at the same time. Truly, and in Trotter's own words, "This is a really special situation."
What is perhaps most remarkable about the Trotters' story is how unremarkable it is. That is to say, living off the grid in no way implies a Spartan lifestyle, with fur pelts and steel traps hanging from the walls. There has been no Y2K paranoia or eco-mania. Quite the contrary.
Like all of their neighbors on upper Gypsum Creek, the Trotters live a very modern, very comfortable lifestyle. They work from a home office; they watch satellite TV; they plan evenings around the kids' sports. They simply choose to generate their own power.
"Why pay for electricity if I can make it for free?" Trotter poses. "And then it becomes green and renewable ... and that's good too."
Indeed, the community of seven families living off-grid in the area — a few by hydro and a few by solar power — could plug in to the power lines that run atop the mesa. But it would be extremely expensive to do so, and, what would be the point? "The only reason we would plug in would be to sell our excess energy back to the grid," Trotter says, estimating he could earn $1,000 per month by doing so. But that would be contrary to the spirit of the thing.
"People [on the grid] aren't held accountable, other than their bill at the end of the month," he explains. "People don't need to care."
Trotter describes how power plants around the U.S. generate enormous amounts of energy to meet people's needs at peak hours of the day. The rest — what is produced during the slower times — is wasted. It is an extremely inefficient, indulgent and vulnerable system that he would like to see society evolve away from. "Frankly, the grid is one of America's biggest weaknesses," he states.
Not that every home can operate on a small hydroelectric turbine placed in the backyard. There are certain circumstances that make it possible — not the least of which of course, is property with a creek or river running through it. To utilize hydroelectric power, a landowner needs to understand the water supply, water tables and water rights. Because it is non-consumptive, there can be multiple turbines on the same creek, and water rights would not typically be a concern because no water is being taken away. However, if another landowner upstream were permitted to pull water for, say, irrigation, then it would affect properties downstream. For the general population in Colorado, solar power is a more reliable option.
Trotter also raises 32 head of grass-fed Scottish Highlander cattle that he sells as organic beef. He speaks to the notion of working the land with one's hands. "It's one of the things missing [in society today] ... stewarding the land, whether it's a small home garden or raising cows," he says. "It connects you to nature. You appreciate the food you eat and the farmers who produce it."
He insists that his children work the ranch with him for this very reason. "It's important for my kids to be grounded," he says. "To see what it is to work the land. This is a terrific environment to raise children and terrific morals to instill in them."
It's this spirit of independence that flames his passion for living this way — producing his own energy and raising his own food. It's the same spirit that settled on this land more than a century ago. Indeed, it's the spirit of the West. "It's a labor of love," Trotter states. "After this, I'm going to clean the ice rink [for skating] and feed five bails to the cows."
All this, and Rob Trotter is nearly 90 percent blind.
The Trotters never envisioned themselves as ranchers and did not set out to be green, live off-grid or lead any sort of alternative lifestyle. They simply fell in love with the land and found a way to make it work. "We're not fanatical greenies," he laughs. "But it's a very positive feeling to be independent."
"We came here for the beauty and recreation, and we solved the power equation with the turbine," he says. "Now that we solved it, we love it. We realize how much of a good thing this is."