Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life

John Coffer is out of step with modern life - and that is just the way he likes it. Carol Crooker talks with John about his journey to contentment.

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by Carol Crooker | 2008-04-09 23:48:00-06

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PODCAST SPONSOR

This Podcast is sponsored by Big Agnes, makers of award-winning sleeping bags, pads and tents, offering innovative lightweight solutions for backpacking. Named after a peak in The Mt Zirkel Wilderness, Big Agnes is a small company located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Spend a night with Big Agnes and you'll never want to sleep inside again. Visit us at BigAgnes.com.

Photos of John Coffer, his home, and his work

*Black and white photographs are of tintypes from the exhibit John Coffer: The Daily Tintype which is on display at the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York City from March 27 to April 26, 2008.

Click an image to view the slideshow

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 1
John Coffer’s log cabin is not wired for electricity. He hand washes his laundry and hangs it to dry outside all year round.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 2
A 19th century style tintype photograph of 19th century style winter underwear.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 3
John’s life is a mix of the old (mostly) with a bit of the new here and there. Here, a milk cow studies the solar panel that gives juice to the electric wire fencing her in.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 4
John has just finished coaxing a gallon of the freshest milk from Bossy.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 5
This tintype of a horse dragging a sledge of hay has color added by hand for effect.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 6
John poses in front of his wood cook stove while beans cook for supper. He charges the battery to his right with solar power and runs things like a radio tuned to NPR from it.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 7
This array of machinery, including a plow and manure spreader, are all horse drawn.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 8
John feeds sorghum cane into a horse powered grinder to make feed for the cows.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 9
The open air classroom where John teaches tintype and other old-time photography techniques to students from all over the world each summer.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 10
Tintype photography involves messy and caustic chemicals.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 11
A menacing scarecrow stands sentry over the remains of a small corn field.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 12
A wood pile representing hours of manual labor shrinks as it is whittled down stick by stick to feed the stove for warmth and hot meals throughout the winter.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 13
A dapper snowman in black and white.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 14
John cans vegetables he grows in his garden, maple syrup, and venison from deer shot with his muzzle loader rifle.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 15
A tintype self portrait.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 16
A farmer’s chores are never done, especially a farmer who lives the old ways.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 17
John thinks of his oxen as pets. He keeps more than he needs of these huge beasts and provides a nice home for them when they grow too old for labor.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 18
Most of the heavy farm work such as plowing and hauling wood is done by horses.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 19
The 19th century style traveling darkroom wagon John used on the road for seven years props up twenty-first century bicycles he uses for town visits.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 20
Making a tintype photograph of the hay stack.*

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 21
The boards for this shed were cut by a local Mennonite saw mill. Note the platform on the roof that offers a different perspective for taking photographs.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 22
A stop sign for horse drawn wagons.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 23
John built this one room cabin from trees he cleared from his land. The window under the eaves lets light into the sleeping loft.

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life - 24
John comes back out into the cold to tackle some more chores.

As a young man, John Coffer lived in Florida in a two-bedroom condo and worked for a photography studio. He owned a sports car for fun and a van for hauling. He was living the American Dream, and he was miserable. Then he chose to change everything. He converted his modern possessions into a new life for himself. At the age of 26, with $125 in his pocket, he set off in the garb and with the gear of a traveling 19th century photographer. His horse pulled a darkroom wagon through small towns, and they camped in fields along the side of the road at night. John cooked over a campfire and read by kerosene lantern. He supported himself and his horse taking 19th century style photographs of civil war reenactors and average citizens.

After seven years on the road, John settled on land in the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York in 1985. He cleared trees, built a one-room log cabin and dug a well. Today he is still living a largely 19th century life but allows in some 21st century anachronisms. He works the land with horses and occasionally oxen, but uses solar powered panels to charge his electric fencing for the animal enclosures and has a laptop and website to promote his business: photography.

He uses a 21st century digital camera, but only to record each one-of-a-kind 19th century style photograph. John was largely responsible for the modern re-emergence of wet-plate colloidian tintype which has become a popular technique for many of today's old-time photo buffs. People from all over the world come to John’s farm each summer to study this style of photography. John's photographs have been displayed in numerous art galleries. His exhibit, John Coffer: The Daily Tintype, includes photos from his farm for each day in 2007. The photographs are on display at the Gerald Peters gallery in New York City from March 27 to April 26, 2008. The black and white photos seen here show samples from the exhibit.

John is living life on his own terms. He declared his independence from conventional choices at 26, freeing himself to live in the ways best suited to his unique personality. Making choices that were right for him, regardless of how unconventional, has brought him contentment and even fame. Lightweight backpackers are already accustomed to making gear choices that seem odd to others. John's story may inspire you to create an authentic life for yourself in the front country - even if that life appears to veer from the path to the American Dream.

You can learn more about John Coffer and his work at his website http://www.johncoffer.com.


Citation

"Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life," by Carol Crooker. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/podcast_making_unconventional_choices_better_life.html, 2008-04-09 23:48:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life


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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/09/2008 09:51:07 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life

Frank Perkins
(fperkins)

Locale: North East
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/09/2008 18:45:11 MDT Print View

Hrm... how does he connect to the internet to update his webpage?

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Internet connection on 04/09/2008 19:14:33 MDT Print View

He rides his bike or horse and wagon to the library.

Steve .
(pappekak) - F

Locale: Tralfamadore
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/09/2008 20:33:59 MDT Print View

Great podcast. The ad took a bit away from it though.

Adam Killian
(bonius)

Locale: Appalachia
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/10/2008 08:32:59 MDT Print View

Nice interview, but I have to agree about the ad.

It's very intrusive, especially since this is members-only content. I've already payed for the content once, and now I've got to sit through advertising, too?


Update: It looks like this is no longer member-only content, so I guess the advertising is somewhat justified.

Edited by bonius on 04/10/2008 14:32:26 MDT.

Bob Bankhead
(wandering_bob) - MLife

Locale: Oregon, USA
Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/10/2008 10:41:03 MDT Print View

GET BACK ON TRACK.

First we get Green Waste, then Affluenza, and now this photography fluff........and we have to listen to advertising at both the beginning and end of the podcast?

I must agree with Adam - this is NOT what I paid for. I dropped my print subscription when it became painfully obvious that it was impossible to keep on a quarterly (or any regular) schedule. If this new trend at BPL continues, I'll have to think long and hard about renewing my Premium Membership.

If the need for revenue is so important, up the subscription prices and stay true to your mission.

Edited by wandering_bob on 04/10/2008 10:42:01 MDT.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/10/2008 12:29:59 MDT Print View

Read Carol's text and visited John Coffer's website. I will listen to the audio later.

I'm impressed with John Coffer. Although he lives the unconventional lifestyle he desires, John works hard the way Americans did in a time past. I'm sure he doesn't need a membership at the gym.

I also liked his entrepreneurship. John offers a unique service (special photo classes) and receives a nice reward based on the class prices. He figured out how to live the way he wants by creating a business model that works for him.

Two other things I liked about John:
1) If you want to contact him, then write him a letter. No email. No phone. No PDA. What a refreshing thought!

2) His beasts of burden (oxen) get to chill after they get too old. He thinks of them as pets. People that are good to their animals are the best people.

Sure the feature is not about gear, but I enjoyed it and I have not even heard it yet - so go figure : )

EDIT: After listening. He did mention that he did not have to belong to a gym as I thought. I like his quote: "If you're good at being weird, be weird and do it well." That I do proudly relate to. One last thing, I must decline the offer to twice spend the night with Big Agnes because I am faithfully married, but I'm sure she's quite charming. : )

Edited by gmatthews on 04/10/2008 19:07:38 MDT.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/10/2008 12:34:28 MDT Print View

Well, I'm glad y'all chose to not keep this a members only podcast as it was earlier this morning.

While this sort of living is definitely rustic, simple it is not? I admire the truely minimalistic approach of full-time RVer's/Vandwellers who live in very small spaces allowed by the use of modern technology. Some started that lifestyle due to necessity, but many do chose to live this way. Check out cheaprvliving.com.

Our current-day ultralight backpacking definitely relys on more modern fabrics to keep weight down and maintain a satisfactory safety margin.

Peter Fogel
(pgfogel) - F

Locale: Western Slope, Colorado
Podcast: Unconventional choices on 04/10/2008 15:32:01 MDT Print View

I stumbled upon this website a bit ago quite by chance. It was the name which attracted my interest. "Backpacking Light". Backpacking=journey,[path]. Light=less encumbered,[simplicity]. Is this not the place where one who is seeking the simple path comes to? If it is not, I am here in error and will continue my journey elsewhere. If indeed it is, please, I implore all of you who seek, keep your minds open to all that you do not yet comprehend. I tell you truely, only rewards will befall you if you make this your practice always.

I say to you, "It Is Life Itself That Is The Journey", is it not so? The more open your mind, the more wonderous your Journey.


Peter

Kronos Master of Fate
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
"Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life" on 04/10/2008 19:01:32 MDT Print View

I agree whole heartily with Bob. Get back on track. And how about updating those first core principal articles. Lots of work to be done. Best get cracking or...

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/10/2008 21:46:19 MDT Print View

Light-weight backpacking has taught me a LOT of life lessons. One of 'em is I do fine without too much extraneous stuff. This is something that I really believe in, way beyond my time camping.

I have found that the less I have, the happier I am.

That's sorta lofty, and it's hard to live up to those words. I could do a lot better. I mean, I have more than one expensive titanium spoon. Yes, I'm a hypocrite.

It was really interesting to listen to a podcast about a guy living his truth, I enjoyed it. Strangely, it had a similar tone to Andy Skurkas last podcast. A person out there on the edge, beyond what most of us would ever consider, and being thoughtful and content about it. I need that reminder in my life.

peace,
M!

Ben Cameron
(blackwood) - F
Blah blah blah advertising on 04/10/2008 23:01:07 MDT Print View

I'll add my voice to the chorus of opposition to audio ad's. Trying to have your cake and eat it too with 2 online business models comes across as rather greedy. Not good if you want to maintain a strong community. Even if you continue with ad's, and i'm not suggesting you should at all, then reduce words to no more than say 10 rather than the over long blah blah blah. Also, the ads levels are too high, its irritatingly loud.

Miles Barger
(milesbarger) - F - M

Locale: West Virginia
Thoughts on 04/11/2008 00:56:59 MDT Print View

Content
-----------------
I understand the arguments that this is off topic. Strictly speaking, this is true. However, startling individuality, a desire to live closer to nature, and the strength to set out alone on a journey whose goals and rewards are under- or completely unappreciated by the mainstream are ideas at the core of my interest in this community. I was inspired by this content and thank you for it.

Ads
--------
Again, I understand the arguments against the ads. Before passing any judgement, I'd like to hear BPL's reasoning.

Edited by milesbarger on 04/11/2008 00:58:10 MDT.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/11/2008 03:29:14 MDT Print View

nm

Edited by jshann on 04/14/2008 09:55:49 MDT.

Ryan Gardner
(splproductions) - F - M

Locale: Salt Lake City, UT
Ads... on 04/11/2008 12:57:17 MDT Print View

I listened to some of the podcast and then skipped through a bit towards then end. Was then only advertising there at the beginning and at the end (for Big Agnes)? Or was there some in the middle?

Edited by splproductions on 04/11/2008 13:18:11 MDT.

Franco Darioli
(Franco) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/11/2008 20:48:15 MDT Print View

Sorry nothing to do with the rest of the thread but I liked this comment from George :

"People that are good to their animals are the best people."
I would like to add that they are usually (always ?) at least contented people if not happy. And I don't mean the people that let dogs lick their faces and give them a purple rinse...
Franco

Joe Kuster
(slacklinejoe) - MLife

Locale: Flatirons
Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/11/2008 21:26:05 MDT Print View

While I can see the value of a certain percentage of stuff that is far from BPL's core being mentioned some of these articles I'm a bit concerned that this is what is getting prioritized.

I can think of dozens of core gear reviews, articles, BPL Print or Online features that we've been told are forthcoming and should be released any moment. Most of us realize you have limited resources but many of us are concerned about the trade offs.

Really though, was using your limited staff's time and your money on this more important than things like making gear reviews that we've been promised are forthcoming for years, web features that would really, really add value to the site or even just a steady release date for the printed magazine.

I see the value in some of the "life lessons" & off-topic type of stuff but the ratio's been pretty high lately. If this was a user submitted article that wasn't paid for then sure, by all means, but I'm not sure I'd take this feature over some of the more core stuff we've been asking for.

Edited by slacklinejoe on 04/11/2008 21:27:17 MDT.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Podcast: Making Unconventional Choices for a Better Life on 04/12/2008 02:16:48 MDT Print View

I used to be one of the ones who complained about the tangent articles here at BPL (but mostly I was concerned about the lack of forthcoming articles). Recently, however, I've begun to think that the BPL staff, and especially Ryan, is making the right step in including articles that may seem to step away from the whole UL discussion. The reason I say this is that quite a few members have now been here a long time (I've been here since its inception in 2001). Many of the articles and questions that newcomers ask are beginning to get repeated over and over and there has be something new for the long-term members to read, also. In addition, there is a real community here now, people who come to this site sometimes just to interact with others whom they've come to get to know, some of whom are now friends in real life (there are a few people here whom I've befriended). I think the BPL staff recognizes this and is actively trying to support it.

I am very happy with the direction that BPL has been going lately; it seems much more balanced, offering articles about UL gear and techniques, but also offering alternative stories for those who want ideas that branch off from UL and those who want to follow up on how the UL movement has influenced their lives over the long term.

I found the podcast here to be very interesting and a good template to base my own development with the whole going light philosophy, especially since going UL I have taken it into my everyday life and am seeking ways of incorporating it into my lifestyle. It may even be a very opportune development for all of us in our need for learning if as the news seems to be suggesting, our whole economy and world habitat goes into convulsions in the near future. If it is true, we're going to have to re-learn how to live simply anyway. Might as well learn it gently and with preparation.

Edited by butuki on 04/12/2008 02:17:32 MDT.

David Wills
(willspower3) - F
Ad Nauseum among other things on 04/12/2008 16:04:01 MDT Print View

Being a marketing major, i realize truly how perverse ads can be, and quite frankly am disgusted by the people that find new ways to throw their products at me. I give 3 cheers to BPL for finding another! I wonder how long it will be until we all become immune (numb?) to ads everywhere...

The content was very nice otherwise, but looking at the pictures, this guy has a lot of stuff and stuff to do. I grew up on a horse stable, and if not managed exquisitely, these things cost way more trouble and money than they are worth. I like the title "a farmers work is never done" under one of the pics, because there is always something in need of repair. I would much prefer to put my time into pursuits other than repairing a barn and feeding mules and to not have the benefit of what horses and cows can do. I guess I would personally want a more "walden" type lifestyle (aka- lazy) if I was going to live in the woods. Its all personal preference though, and I'm really glad he is enjoying himself and setting a good example for others.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Ad Nauseum among other things on 04/12/2008 17:40:03 MDT Print View

>>> Being a marketing major

C'mon D,

The 5 P's my man! It's not evil. It's the way things work here on our glistening, blue planet. Here's some major advice for you and any other students: (1) Life ain't fair (2) Work will *not* be fun (3) it is all one big bizarre bazaar - so you better get used to it (4) be for free people and free markets (5) obey your parents - they are always right, and (6) never believe forum advice : )