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They quit petroleum, electricity, and money — and found happiness

Ethan Hughes led a goat across the river as he and his family took the goats for a walk to munch on pine needles and ferns in the woods.
Ethan Hughes led a goat across the river as he and his family took the goats for a walk to munch on pine needles and ferns in the woods. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

BELFAST, Maine — On the table in front of them is the lunch they’ve prepared, which includes chili made from road-kill deer, an egg-and-goat-cheese frittata from the goats and chickens in their yard, beets they received in a trade with their Amish neighbors, and some greens they stored through the winter in a root cellar made out of a broken refrigerator buried in the ground.

Ethan Hughes reaches across the small kitchen table and places his hand in the palm of his wife, Sarah Wilcox Hughes, and they prepare to sing, for they always sing to their food.

Everything in front of them and around them on this 10-acre plot of land in rural Maine they call the Possibility Alliance represents a very deliberate choice about how to live, which is defined by what they have chosen to live without — electricity, petroleum, and, as much as possible, money.

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It is an experiment in choices, and it began on a foggy night in 1984 on Cape Ann, when Ethan was a 13-year-old in Gloucester and the first choice on this journey was made for him.

That night, his father was driving home from a school function — he was an adviser to the senior class at the high school — when he noticed a light on in a friend’s house. He parked his car, and as he went to cross the street to say a quick hello, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Etta joined hands with her sister, Isla, and their mother, Sarah as they sang before eating dinner together.
Etta joined hands with her sister, Isla, and their mother, Sarah as they sang before eating dinner together. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

“A few days later, I walked back into the middle school, and it was like, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Ethan recalls. “We could die at any moment. Like, what are we doing?”

He says he began to question everything and “went down the rabbit hole of things that nobody tells you about our culture.” The first thing he questioned was the thing that had just devastated his life: the automobile.

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He studied up on the dangers and made his first big choice: He would simply stop riding in them.

It created logistical headaches, but he bicycled most everywhere and says he began to feel more connected to the world around him. “You give up something small,” he says, “for something larger.”

During his college years at the University of Vermont, where he studied environmental science, he spent a semester in Ecuador, living with a seminomadic tribe in the rain forest. That led to his next revelation.

“They were completely removed from modernity, but their life felt superior. There was no homelessness. They had a storytelling night. There was laughter and playfulness. Everyone was integrated. . . . People in their 80s were totally functional and necessary.”

As he moved through his 20s and the stresses of coming of age, he made the decision, somewhat spontaneously, to try to abandon money. This notion arose when he suddenly found himself in possession of a bunch of it, after his grandfather died and he was surprised to learn that each person in the family would inherit about $100,000.

“My first response was, ‘I don’t need it,’ ” he recalls. So he paid off some school loans and gave the rest away. That felt so good he eventually gave away everything else, save for his bicycle and what he could fit into two saddlebags. “It was scary,” he says, “but I felt free because nothing owned me anymore.”

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Quitting cars was one thing. Quitting money was something else, and some people around him worried he might be losing his mind. His girlfriend, a medical student, left him, and he went to live in a hut in an Oregon forest. Six months later, he met Sarah Wilcox, who was just finishing an apprenticeship on an organic farm nearby.

Sarah Hughes folded a pile of laundry fresh off the clothesline.
Sarah Hughes folded a pile of laundry fresh off the clothesline.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Sarah had grown up in Houston, and, in high school, had dreams of doing something big, like international relations. But during her first year of college, she had her own epiphany. “I just did a 180 degree turn where I wanted to just change the way I lived on the earth.”

So when she met Ethan, she was not put off by his petroleum- and mostly-money-free existence. Instead, she wanted to take it a step further. “Let’s live without electricity,” Sarah proposed. Ethan was smitten.

“What was so magical about it was that it wasn’t so much a moral decision,” Ethan says. “It was an act of beauty.”

And so theirs would be a candle-lit life.

“At night, it’s like you’re walking through a children’s novel,” she whispers, as if sharing a happy secret.

After a long day Etta rested her head on the kitchen table as she and Isla played a card game by candlelight.
After a long day Etta rested her head on the kitchen table as she and Isla played a card game by candlelight. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

They got married, spent a few years leading what they called “superhero rides” — picture a bunch of people in superhero costumes on bicycles, roaming the country, looking to do good deeds and asking nothing in return — and then went to Europe to live and work on permaculture farms that had been functioning as self-sustaining communities for hundreds of years.

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When they returned from Europe, they moved to northeast Missouri and began an experiment they called the Possibility Alliance. They purchased a 100-acre plot of land with loans from friends. Among them was a teacher in Chelsea. When Ethan had dispersed his inheritance, he had given her money to start a community garden. Now, the giving went the other way: When the teacher sold her house, which had tripled in value, she donated a large chunk of the seed money for their experiment.

Ethan Hughes chopped firewood barefoot.
Ethan Hughes chopped firewood barefoot. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

The thing they were trying to create is tricky to explain succinctly. It was to be a self-sustaining farm that was also an educational facility and a community attempting to function outside of capitalism while offering and receiving offerings of food, knowledge, and living space, all for free. They held classes, such as a weeklong immersion in what life is like without fossil fuels, and storytelling nights. They sang around the campfire. Above all, they lived simply.

Ethan and Sarah opened the experiment to anyone who was interested in experiencing what they were up to — come stay for a day, or forever — and thought they might attract one or two hundred people each year. They were wrong. When they hit 1,500 visitors one year, they had to institute a waiting list.

Ethan and Sarah Hughes say they know their children, Etta (left) and Isla, may want to make different choices about how they live.
Ethan and Sarah Hughes say they know their children, Etta (left) and Isla, may want to make different choices about how they live.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

For 11 years, they cultivated the land and grew the project, and their cash expenses for all of it ran less than $9,000 a year. But there was always an issue in the background: They never felt totally welcome in conservative Macon County. In their town of La Plata, they were known derisively as “the bike people.”

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Their thoughts increasingly turned to Maine, where living close to the land is more the norm than an oddity. Ethan had dreams in which friends appeared and told him to move to Maine. Plus, Ethan, who is 48, suffered from chronic Lyme disease. He felt better when he was near the ocean.

So they sold the Missouri property to friends at well below market value, donated the $120,000 they earned in the sale to Native American communities to repurchase tribal land, and last June bought the property in Belfast, Maine, about 2 miles from the coast, with a $100,000 no-interest loan from friends who believed in their project. The land contained a small home with an outhouse and electricity-generating solar panels. One of the first things they did was have the solar panels removed, which wildly confused the workers who came to take them.

Isla set the table for lunch, a meal that was cooked in a solar oven.
Isla set the table for lunch, a meal that was cooked in a solar oven.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Their first year in Maine was a struggle and a revelation. A Maine winter is far different from a Missouri winter, but they were able to can and store enough food to make it to spring, and a wood stove with an innovative heat-exchanger kept the house warm, cooked their food, and supplied hot water for showers. They made it through the long cold months with a cord-and-a-half of wood, all cut from the property. Their only bill was for a landline phone.

As summer neared, version 2.0 of the Possibility Alliance moved into full swing. On a recent day, there was activity everywhere. A group was weaving a wattle fence around the garden. A man was teaching people how to use a scythe to clear the tall grass around two solar ovens. In a field, a group of children from a home-schooling collective were singing songs. And Isla, Ethan and Sarah’s 7-year-old daughter, was leading Ethan off into the woods to collect some usnea, a kind of lichen commonly called “old man’s beard,” to create a tincture for a cut on her mother’s hand.

Everything happens in the moment, without much of a plan, which is something Ethan emphasizes. “We don’t have it figured out,” he says. “People that come to live with us see that we don’t know what we’re doing — we’re just going for it. We’re imperfect. We don’t have the answers. But we’re trying instead of denying.”

Still, it makes some people uneasy. Ethan and Sarah say they know there are people rooting for them to fail because, Ethan says, “If experiments work, it’s a mirror that feels uncomfortable.”

Isla peeked into the hen house for eggs as she took care of the chickens.
Isla peeked into the hen house for eggs as she took care of the chickens.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Ethan’s mother, a retired ER nurse, used to express concerns, especially about Isla and her 11-year-old sister, Etta, but he says she has come around. “She sees that the children are happy, and I’m happier,” Ethan says, “and what more could she want for us?”

And there are many who try to pick at the imperfections of the experiment, as if catching them in a lie, Sarah says. One is that the girls carpool to a home-schooling collective three days a week. It’s 20 miles away, so bicycling is not a realistic option. Sarah, who is 42, goes with them one day a week to work as a teacher in a trade for their schooling.

Ethan and Sarah know, also, that their children might wish to make different choices about how to live and do not shy from the subject. They gave Isla and Etta the option of going to public school or to a Montessori school, but both chose to go back to their home-schooling collective.

Etta, who will soon be 12, said she has come to understand how out of the ordinary her family’s way of life is but finds it hard to describe how she feels about it.

“It’s the only life I’ve ever known,” she says.

Ethan Hughes read to his daughter Etta, 11, at the family's permaculture homestead in Belfast, Maine.
Ethan Hughes read to his daughter Etta, 11, at the family's permaculture homestead in Belfast, Maine. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

It is a life that will continue to quietly shift and evolve. Each winter, Ethan and Sarah sit down and reassess, asking themselves if their plan is working, if they’re happier. So far, the answer has been a resounding yes.

They say they have found their vocation in helping their visitors, and themselves, to answer a simple but daunting question: What do you want to do?

“How do we find the gift each person has?” Ethan says. “If they don’t find it and they’re the only ones that can bring it into the world, it’s wasted.”

It’s all heavy stuff. But the Hughes family moves through it lightly, enjoying the simple pleasure of simple pleasures.

“We’re not saying this is what everyone should do,” Ethan says. “We’re saying this is what our hearts told us to do, and we’re here to help you find what your heart is telling you to do.”

The Possibility Alliance can be reached at 207-338-5719. It does not have a website.


Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.