What It Was Like to Grow Up Completely Off the Grid

"I think that because I lived deep in the wilderness for so many years, that just going for a hike for a day, or a camping trip, or whatever, just feels kind of fake to me."

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Cea Sunrise Person knows a lot about being in the middle of nowhere. She spent the first nine years of her life off the grid, hundreds of miles away from civilization, with a camp of hippies who had sworn off society, led by her grandfather and grandmother. Her earliest childhood memories are of the Kootenay Plains, a region of land in the Alberta backcountry in Canada where she grew up learning how to tan leather, hunt, build fires and shelters. She didn’t have a meal in a restaurant until she was five years old. It wasn’t until Cea published two books about her life, North of Normal, and Nearly Normal did she see that her childhood was “more than abnormal — it hadn’t been right.”

Cea looks back on her childhood with an unbelievable sense of calm. She became a model at the age of 13. In the first three decades of her life, in addition to living in the far-flung wilderness, she spent time in Europe, in New York, and on the West Coast. Now, with a few children of her own, she sees where and how her upbringing affected her: “I definitely recognize some of the triggers from my childhood.” But she also says she tries not to let her past run her life. In her own words, here’s how Cea’s upbringing shaped who she is today. 

The Kootenay Plains is where had our very first tipi camp. I lived there from the age of one to five. It was an absolutely beautiful, amazing place. I actually have a friend who I knew when I was young. I didn’t remember him, but he read my book and he got in touch with me. He was so determined to find it that he hiked and found our very spot and took pictures of it. It’s so cool, because I have this picture of me running through a meadow when I was four. I can put that photo right beside the picture that he took next to it and it’s exactly the same spot. It hasn’t changed.

It was amazing, of course, to be brought up in an environment where there was no pollution, no peer pressure, no rules. I was really the only child in a world of adults. I learned to be self-sufficient and to take care of myself from an early age. I didn’t have a lot of toys, so I would just take sticks and tie little pieces of leather around them for bridles and I’d ride them all over the field. They were my stick horses. It taught me what it was to follow your dreams, and to be determined and to chase after what you want until you get it. That served me well as an adult.

There were other children around, but they were transient. They’d come into our life for a couple of weeks and then they’d be gone. When my mom hooked up with a new boyfriend, she and I left the wilderness with him. We continued to live off the grid, but it was an existence on the road and a life of crime: living and squatting in cottages and under odd canvas shelters. That’s when I started to notice other children and that they were very different from me, and I was very different from them. It was a harsh awakening.

I remember going into a diner when I was about five or six and eating a hamburger with fries, and thinking it was the best thing ever. My family was fanatical about health food. We ate game and brown rice and fruits and vegetables. For me to eat something like that was just crazy.

It was difficult when we first left the wilderness, but it was much more difficult later when I actually moved into the city at the age of nine. I had never been in the city before. I was living once again in a tipi camp with my grandparents in the Yukon, very off the grid. Going from that to life in the big city — or what was for me a big city at the time — was a very harsh transition for me. I was very fearful of my new environment. I was entering the public school system, for the first time, in grade four. [I looked] around at them and realized I was a total outsider.

My grandfather spoke very negatively about any kind of urban life. Cars were dangerous and pollution and crime were terrifying. All of these things he used to tell me, that he used to talk about, I was just sure were going to happen to me.

I didn’t recognize [how selfish my grandparents were] until my teens. When we’re young, we don’t question things as much. We have the family we have and we go along with whatever’s happening. After I moved to the city when I was 13 and my grandfather came to visit, I looked at him and realized how self-centered he was. It made me start to question what was I doing out there. Did anybody really not think that this would be a bad idea, raising a child in this environment? But the answer was, they just didn’t care, because they were just going to live their dream and do what they wanted. I just happened to be along for the ride.

Modeling, for me, was something that I could start doing young so that I could make money to get away from my family. By then it was just driving me nuts, they were just so crazy. It was a means to an end for me.

I did have contact with my grandfather, all through my teens and 20s and until he died. But it was sporadic. I had the feeling that he lost a lot of interest in me as soon as I moved away from the wilderness. I’d gone to the dark side in his mind. I know there was a part of him that was proud of me for making my own way, but it was also horrifying to him because I was embodying consumerism and everything that he had dedicated his life to avoiding.

I think that because I lived deep in the wilderness for so many years, that just going for a hike for a day, or a camping trip, or whatever, just feels kind of fake to me. I don’t mean for that to sound arrogant at all. It just doesn’t feel real. I still have all the stresses and worries of what’s going on at home and nature just doesn’t take me away from that. It reminds me of the way I used to live and it reminds me that there’s no replacing that with a day in the woods.

Every now and then, I have that fantasy. Let’s take the kids and go and live somewhere for a couple months and just do it and see how it goes. But it’s not very practical, and it’s not a driving force for me. I am happy where I am.

— As Told To Lizzy Francis

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