Chad Nicolz, Artist & Cyclist, at his tiny house in Indianola, Washington
To get to Chad Nikolz’s Swordfern Village you meander through the damp, moss-covered forests along Washington state’s remote Olympic peninsula, to the small coastal town of Indianola. Down a dirt road, shaded by a canopy of giant cedar, spruce and fir trees, sits Nikolz’s off-grid village that he has been building and expanding ever since he planted roots here in 2011.
Chad is the first to admit that he has always marched to the beat of his own drum, trying to find his own path in life, rather than conforming to societal norms. After a long career traveling on the pro cycling circuit, Chad was weary and unsure what route to take next. He was in his thirties, many of his friends were already married, established in their careers, and had families and mortgages. He didn’t want to work for anyone else or be tethered by routine; he had already started several small business ventures, designing and selling cycling eyewear and apparel that he sold on tour and online. These businesses earned him enough money to pay for his daily essentials, so he planned to ride his bicycle from Seattle to Mexico, selling shirts and eyewear along the way. He hoped this trip would help him find a new purpose and direction in life.
Before leaving, he decided to visit a cyclist friend at his place on the Olympic Peninsula. His friend grew up in the intentional community of Wiseacres. After retiring from the road, Chad’s friend built a tiny house with his partner on a small plot of land, under a canopy of trees, just a short walk through the forest to the water’s edge. In these quiet woods Chad felt instantly at peace, for the first time in a long time. The Indianola and Wise Acres’ communities welcomed him with open arms and what was only supposed to be a quick visit extended several weeks. At the end of Chad’s trip, his friend, who by then had outgrown the little house, asked him if he would like to buy it. Without much hesitation, Chad agreed, realizing that this was the path he was destined to take.
After moving in, Chad immediately got to work building Swordfern Village: he constructed a second small dwelling, formed trails, cleaned up debris and made repairs to the existing cabin. He logs long hours working at the Wiseacres farm in exchange for fresh produce, and runs a Sunday brunch club with one of the founding members of the community. He recently began sharing his way of life with others by renting his two little off-grid dwellings on AirBnB. Renting at Swordfern Village has helped offset his mortgage, but making money is his secondary motivation. His primary goal is to help inspire others to be more self-sufficient, environmentally conscious and to live with less. Today, Swordfern Village is a popular weekend retreat for Seattle urbanites looking to unplug, experience off-grid living, and spend time away from the confines of the city.
For Chad, planting roots was not something he ever thought he’d do, but living simply in this village that he’s built, surrounded by nature and a community that looks out for one another, he says he has finally found home.
Q & A
What inspired you to move rurally and start Swordfern Village?
I can look back and see reasons; a kid who loved building forts, a teenager who loved laying in his mother's garden, a lonely man in the city who wished to explore the woods with friends, see food grow, and get in touch with what I actually need to be healthy and happy. When I left the city, 5 years ago, I wasn't headed for Indianola, I wasn't intending to start a village of tiny cabins, I was running away. I felt broken and confused, angry and frustrated. I'd loaded most my possessions into a storage unit, put the rest on my bicycle, and was heading to Mexico and beyond. I had a video camera with me, and a plan to create a documentary featuring a series of short interviews asking strangers, "What makes you happy? What are you living for?" Before I left, I had a dream in which a friend's cabin in Indianola asked me to visit. Which was weird. So I visited on my way out of town. I decided to stay for a bit, moved into a tent, and started asking myself those questions. Now I "own" the cabin, and the land it sits upon. She looks after me, and let's me look after her. Together, we're building a school that holds space for people (especially city people) to ask those questions, and experience their answers.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Easy. The hardest part for me was all the attention. Neighbors wanted to talk, ask questions and patiently wait for answers, invite me to gatherings, cooperate on projects... It felt like a lot of attention all of a sudden. Like, I suddenly needed to explain myself every time I stepped outside. Perhaps I was used to the short, punctuated, exchanges of the city. Perhaps I was used to always thinking I was really busy. Perhaps I didn't think people actually cared. Perhaps I was used to always moving. And perhaps stopping to hear someone talk about something that didn't feel relevant to my busyness was excruciating. But, it seems that muscle has been growing.
The "choice" wasn't hard. I knew I wished to heal. And the space out here in the woods and beaches of Indianola allowed me to hear and feel in ways I wasn't in the city. Not to say it's not there too. And not to say I don't absolutely love the city. I love to visit! And when I do, I feel so sensitive, so aware, so available, and so present for the subtleties that exist below the hum and rumble of urban life.
What surprised you most about this new chapter? Did it meet your expectations?
I'm surprised by the abundance. There is so much food! So many building materials and tools! Stuff just laying around, looking for someone to bring it together. Most humans love to acquire stuff, and stuff loves to be used. I was used to a different formula; Work this long, receive that pay, buy that thing, do that activity. Repeat.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Yes! I love visiting my family and friends. I love being anonymous, at times. I love being able to access so much stuff 24-hours-a-day. Urban life is in me. But today, I'm helping to build Swordfern Village. In a future tomorrow, I'd like to repack my bag and continue heading South.
What do you appreciate the most about life in Swordfern Village?
I love the quiet, within it I can hear so much! I love the community. My neighbors and I KNOW we're in this together. I also love the responsibility. When trees fall, I move them. When I'm out of water, I go to the source. When I'm cold, I chop and burn wood. When I'm hungry, I go to the garden... All that said, ironically, my favorite part sometimes flips, and becomes the hardest part.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Awesome! Have no fear. You are courageous. Whatever you're feeling is worth listening to. Besides, if you're dreaming of leaving, you may have already left. Allow your body to catch up with your heart. We're out here. We're just like you. Trust that we have your back.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to build their own off-grid tiny house?
Moving into my tiny home blew my mind. It broke my understanding of The Formula: The reason for high school was a good college, the reason for college was good job, the reason for a good job was to afford a house, the reason for a house was to hold a family, and the reason for a family was to be happy, or something... I forget. Build a tiny home (or buy one for less money than an old car or a really nice bicycle), let go of all those steps between you and happiness. And know that happiness is perhaps not in the house, job, or family at all. It's not in the tiny home, either. But letting go of that old formula will allow a lot of new space to be filled. You'll free up a lot of energy. And if you're courageous enough to let go, I bet you'll fill that space responsibly, and find happiness within.
You live adjacent to the multi-generational intentional community of Wiseacres. How has being a part of that community helped shape your experience?
I remember choosing this space as my home. The main reason, at least in my mind, was that there were people here learning and teaching what I wished to know. Or perhaps remember. The influence of Wiseacres directly informs the space I'm holding. I don't wish to create another Wiseacres. But I am creating Swordfern Village, a place for people to visit, reference, and access, as they build their homes and communities with intention.
What are the benefits of living in an intentional community? Are there any drawbacks?
My favorite benefit is our shared meals. We meet for dinner every Monday night. Different teams cook on different weeks. Sharing regular meals is an amazing tool! It's no secret that being a human has everything to do with food. Our culture develops around food. Despite our grievances, we meet, over food.
The drawback is again the gift. It's easy to avoid an apartment or condo community, sign out of an online community, or build a big fence between you and your house community. There's been a steep learning curve for me out here, around this intentional community. People know they are responsible. And they let you know.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I've always wondered about the tree that falls with no one around to hear... I draw a lot of inspiration from my visiting guests, friends, and neighbors. My audience. As if Swordfern Village is an art gallery. My medium is the rocks, logs, earth, structures... As I assemble Swordfern Village, I often feel like I'm unearthing something that's already there. I work with Mother Nature. And usually, I feel more like her tool, and less like the artist.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Absolutely. Everything has changed. And everything is changing. I'm just another dude with a hammer and a shovel. I'll come and go. But I get this chance to play. That's always been the case. But out here, in the forest, that feels really clear.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
How about yesterday? I let myself wake up whenever, which has become daybreak lately (I'm hanging around a lot of farmers these days). I leave my tiny cabin and walk a short trail to my neighborhood Common House (it's kinda our version of a cafe/community center). I walk really, really slow. So many birds, so many plants, the wind is delicious. I make coffee at the Common House and do my online stuff for the day. I've been enjoying living telephone and intent free. I'm running a popular BnB out here at Swordfern Village, so answering emails and sending messages to guests usually takes a few hours each day. Afterwards, I head to the neighborhood garden for that day's veggies and swing by a friend's kitchen who bakes bread for everyone each week.
Guests at the BnB check out at 11am, so now it's time to head back and start cleaning the room for the next guest. As I clean, I also dip in and out of other projects, stacking this, drilling that... Until 4pm-ish when that night's guest arrives. After greeting them I leave and walk a short trail to the beach. I've been "on task" all day, so now, with the day's main chores done, I kinda wander the area. I've got a new friend who's just started working at the farm up the street and my favorite thing to do is be in her kitchen while she bakes. So, I grab her some fresh eggs from another friend with chickens and drop them off. At 6pm I head back to the Common House for Weds night dinner. Each Mon and Weds night, for 25 years, neighbors have gathered over dinner. We're organized in teams, and once every 3 months, it's your turn to cook. After dinner there's a monthly, voluntary meeting called VizBiz where we discuss neighborhood Visions and Business. We mostly talk about updating the road, the upcoming Summer party, and the rebuilding of a foot bridge.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
My entire existence is pretty far removed from what I dared to approach in my earlier life. Build a home?!! Be responsible for a garden?!!! Capture my water, my power, my heat?!! Create my own income?!!! Pay a mortgage?!!! I feel deeply empowered and able to focus on more important things... Like being available to my friends and family.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
I'm being a little redundant, but my relationship to the land I call Swordfern Village is wild. I can be broken down and wasted, hardly able to walk home, and as I step onto this land, I'm filled with ideas and energy. I'm like a kid, bouncing from toy-to-toy, sunset comes so soon.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
YOU are responsible. Not the power company, not your boss, not your mom, not your neighbor. When I'm irresponsible, I feel it immediately. My neighbor let's me know, or I run out of water, or my roof leaks. This life is mine, and I know it.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
To be here. It's cliche. But the absolute truth. I've been running for so long. My whole life. But now I know I home. And not because I found the perfect place, but because I quit waiting and made a decision. I choose to be home, and everyday, I recreate it.