What I Learned When I Rented My Parents’ Former Home as an Airbnb

They’d tried to escape the future by building a home off the grid. But the future found them anyway.

A view of the compound of structures from the southeast, including the big house, the little house, hoop house, garden, windmill, and barn.
September 2005 (Photographs by Thad Russell)

About the author: Thad Russell is a photographer who lives with his wife and two children in Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Two summers ago, my siblings and I found my late parents’ former house in northern Vermont listed on Airbnb. Once we got over our shock—“Wait! That’s our house!”—we immediately made reservations to rent it for a family vacation. The new owners had known my parents and generously waived our rental fee upon realizing who we were. The online description—“rustic retreat”—brought back memories of countless family gatherings of summers past: taking long walks, swimming in the lake, eating local corn and blueberry pie. I remembered hanging out together on the deck that extended into my parents’ gentle, south-sloping meadow like a pier, appreciating the peaceful view of hay fields, spruce trees, mountains, and an ever-changing sky.

I looked forward to the reunion for months. And yet, as I drove with my wife and young children along winding mountain roads that I knew by heart, I was surprised by the emotions stirring inside me. I began to realize something that should have been obvious. This special, idealized place that I was so excited to return to wasn’t a repository of just happy memories, but of difficult ones too. My parents had been concerned about the political and environmental trends in America. Their place in Vermont was meant to be a political statement in the form of a modern-day frontier house—hand-built, off the grid, and completely DIY. In other words, it was very difficult to live in and maintain. Now that many of their worries about climate change and political unrest have become reality, I understand the prescience of their vision and the virtues of the life they were designing. I also realized something even more important, however, when I rented their home as an Airbnb: No matter how hard you try to escape the future, the future will find you anyway.

A random pile of tools and building materials in my father's very disorganized barn.
May 2015

In the 1990s, my parents sold our family home in suburban Boston and moved to a virgin piece of pasture in Vermont’s rural and remote Northeast Kingdom in order to build a house—and a life—from scratch. They wanted to slow down, to live simply and more in concert with nature and its seasonal rhythms. My siblings, their spouses, and I not only supported this new chapter but were actively involved every step of the way. Though we all had careers, homes, and lives in other places, we would parachute in every August to help pour a foundation, build a timber frame, side a barn, or mow a field. This collective labor gave us a sense of investment in the property—“sweat equity”—and senses of accomplishment, pride, and joy in its growing compound of rough-hewn structures. We finished the “little house” (which is actually tiny) in time for my sister’s wedding one August, and we finished the “big house” (which is actually quite little) in time for my brother’s wedding six years (to the day) later.

This property was the realization of a long-held dream. My father was an MIT-trained architect and builder with his own brand of rugged modernism. His houses were shrines to their specific surroundings, made out of locally sourced wood, stone, and glass. After spending a lifetime building homes for others, he wanted to finally build one for himself and his family.

But he wasn’t trying to construct a well-appointed vacation home, and my parents weren’t hoping to retire comfortably to the country. They were hoping that their modest compound could be a refuge, a place separate and protected from the evil and disease of the modern world, a place to which we could all retreat when the long-prophesied and always-imminent economic and ecological disaster of Man’s own making finally came home to roost. With its solar panels, windmill, vegetable garden, root cellar, and well, it was designed to be a self-sufficient place apart, a lifeboat of sorts.

Though my parents’ organic, less-is-more lifestyle was supposed to be simple, it was never easy. Their life was intentional and incredibly labor-intensive, marked by hard work and discomfort. Their property became an unrelenting taskmaster. Many projects never got completed. Some just didn’t work. The sun didn’t always shine. The wind didn’t always blow. Batteries failed. The bespoke, high-efficiency refrigerator didn’t actually keep food cold. The well was contaminated with surface water from a nearby cow pasture and never produced reliably potable water. My parents’ self-imposed restrictions on energy usage—my father designed an aggressively frugal system that used only one-20th the amount of electricity of an average American family—seemed arbitrary, impossibly difficult, and puritanical; a dishwasher or clothes dryer was out of the question.

They—and we—argued a lot about how they lived, and the choices they had made. I thought theirs should be a model home, an equally attractive, non-fossil-fuel alternative that others could easily emulate so that we could collectively save the planet. My father thought it should be more of a laboratory that embraced cutting-edge experimentation, took risks, and courted failure. He thought it should be difficult by design so as to attract only zealots, purists, and true believers.

My wife and son checking out the barn during our family reunion trip. August 2019, left. A picture of my mother at age twelve. May 2015
August 2019; May 2015

My mother sometimes complained about the ways the house didn’t work and she felt burdened by the endless list of domestic chores that seemed to fall disproportionately on her, but she nonetheless embraced this new life with passion and conviction. Why? For starters, she loved my dad and believed in his genius and vision. She was also a longtime political and environmental activist. Lastly, thanks to her strong Protestant work ethic and her progressive Christian faith, she always believed that wisdom and virtue came from labor, sacrifice, and struggle. I think she loved this new, difficult chapter of her life, not despite the challenges but because of them. It made her feel more alive, more connected to her husband and to herself, her planet, and her God.

One particularly hot and restless night in the summer of 2003, while sleeping in my parents’ barn, I awoke with a scary premonition: Things here were not going to end well. My parents were not going to live forever, and I had a feeling that their path ahead might be far more difficult and treacherous than any of us were prepared for. A few months later, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The next three years were consumed by her illness, including her weekly drives across the state for radiation and chemotherapy. The August after she died, we had a memorial service for her under a tent in the exact same spot in the meadow where my sister and brother had each been married years earlier.

My father lived for eight more years, but his heart was never the same. First it was broken, and then, eventually, it began to fail. What he could do—and wanted to do—shrank considerably. For the first time ever, he stopped planting a garden. “What’s the point?” he said. Mail piled up. Bills went unpaid. Phone calls went unanswered. Dirt and dust collected everywhere. Necessary and long-overdue house maintenance was put off indefinitely. He would spend hours and days sitting and staring, at the clouds in the summer and at the wood fire in the winter. The house he built with his own hands became a waiting room, a purgatory clad in native spruce. One day in November 2013, he couldn’t get out of bed. I was visiting at the time, having driven north from Rhode Island after receiving a call from a concerned neighbor. I remember the ambulance in the front yard, parked on top of my mother’s perennial garden and EMTs dressed in Carhartt overalls taking my dad away on a gurney.

My father died the following August; two months later, we mixed my parents’ ashes and spread them in the meadow as friends and family looked on.

After my father’s death, my siblings and I debated whether to keep the Vermont property. I always thought we would. But the more we talked, the more I realized it was going to be financially and logistically impossible. The buildings were not in great shape. Managing their restoration and preservation was going to be complicated and expensive, and was going to take time, energy, and money that none of us had. Moreover, the property was hard to reach. We also realized that we weren’t simply inheriting a house or a piece of land, but a way of life, a philosophy, a set of values that we all respected but didn’t fully subscribe to. No, we all decided, it wasn’t right—or perhaps the right time—for any of us. With heavy hearts, we decided to let it go.

Sunflowers (after the first hard frost). They're dead. Taken in my parents' garden early one morning. October 2005.
October 2005

Fast-forward to the summer before last, five years after my father’s death: We were returning to our family homestead, but this time as Airbnb guests. As we approached the house from the long dirt driveway, everything was at once familiar and surprisingly different. I instantly noticed all of the improvements: a new metal roof, new wood siding, and a completely rebuilt breezeway connecting the two houses; lush new landscaping featuring exotic flora and brilliant orange poppies that reminded me of California; a new well, professionally dug, with (I learned later) sweet, cold—and E. coli–free—artesian water.

The interior was stunning and immaculate. Everything seemed carefully and painstakingly finished, no more exposed electrical wires or pipes. A new floor was made out of spotted maple, and a fresh coat of satin varnish covered all the wood surfaces. The decor was modern and sparse—chairs made out of soft Italian leather and German stainless-steel appliances, including a dishwasher and a dryer. To my eyes, the house had never looked better and had never been more beautiful, more finished, more realized. The future looked good on this house. My appreciation was complicated, however, tinged with envy and regret. Why couldn’t this beautifully designed and now brilliantly realized house still be ours?

I also couldn’t help but notice what was no longer there: the vegetable garden; the windmill; the woodshed, wood stoves, and Finnish oven; the solar electric system. The house is now on the grid and comfortably heated with gas, its massive propane storage tank elegantly concealed underground. Sure, the house still looks groovy, but it’s now hippie house lite, like tie-dyes and distressed bell-bottoms one buys at the Gap. It has the counterculture aesthetic but all the dirt, difficulty, and rebelliousness have been removed. As my father might say, “What’s the point?”

But I have come to realize that the new owners have actually been the perfect stewards of our old property. Their careful and systematic restoration has removed the dust, decay, and dysfunction while preserving the essential design and rustic charm. I also realize that it is their house now, not ours, and maybe that’s a good thing. The burden of the property, its deferred maintenance and challenging memories, was too much, and is too much for me still.

My brother, mother and father hanging out before dinner one summer evening. August 2001.
The author’s brother, mother, and father. August 2001

Now, two years—and a world of difference—later, I find myself thinking about that piece of pasture in northern Vermont and my family’s 25-year adventure there. We are living through such scary and turbulent times. We are simultaneously in the throes of a resurgent global pandemic and a rapidly emerging climate crisis. Viral death tolls, huge heat domes, megadroughts, and 1,000-year floods mark our daily news. As I write this, dozens of massive western fires burn uncontained, their smoke turning even eastern skies an eerie and unhealthy shade of ocher. The world is changing in ways that many people find hard to believe and hard to endure, but that my parents essentially anticipated. They were preparing for this future; they saw it coming and tried so hard to protect their family—and themselves—from the pain and suffering that they feared it might bring. Now that that future is here, I realize we can’t really escape it. The future always catches up with us, and no matter where we are or where we go, we are all survivalists now.