Emma’s Note: Emma Walsh here, managing editor of the Diary.
This is our final installment of this special evening series, where we revisit one of Bill’s past essays… and see what lessons we can learn…
As longtime Diary readers know, Bill has always promoted the idea of owning what he calls a “bolthole” – somewhere you can escape to when a crisis hits and the going gets tough.
Luckily, over the years, he has found a few locations that fit the bill. And this year, unknown to him when he made plans for his annual visit to his ranch in remote Argentina, the going was about to get very tough indeed…
When we got on the plane to Salta, Argentina, on March 12, 2020, we only intended to stay a few weeks. We visit Gualfin, our ranch in Northwestern Argentina, once a year… just to make sure things are running smoothly.
It is a remote place, five hours from Salta city on a dirt road. Because it is so far from civilization, we always imagined that it would make a good refuge… a “bolthole”… for when things got really tough.
A serious war, maybe… a global computer or internet breakdown… fuel shortages… riots…
We had no way of knowing what catastrophe was coming down the pike. But we knew that, sooner or later, something would.
Our worry was that, in a crisis, we wouldn’t be able to get here. Airlines would stop flying. Borders would be closed. Credit cards would be useless.
As it turned out, we were right about a number of things. But we were amazingly lucky.
The international flights into Argentina stopped the day after we got here. We rushed to the ranch and were told that we could not leave for two weeks.
That was just fine. We had nowhere to go, anyway.
So there we were… and still are as we write this, more than six months later… stuck right where we want to be stuck – in our own “bolthole.”
The Place at the End
We’ve never felt trapped here. “Gualfin,” which means “the place at the end,” is huge.
We can get on our horses and ride in almost any direction, all day long, and still not leave the property. And, since it is so far from everything, it is largely self-sufficient.
Cattle, sheep, chickens, and goats provide meat, cheese, eggs, and milk. There’s a fruit orchard – with apples, pears, plums, and peaches. The locals grow potatoes, onions, tomatoes, salads, and corn.
And we have a vineyard, where we produce up to 10,000 bottles of wine a year. Most of it is sold immediately, but we always save a few cases.
Imagine our delight on discovering more than 200 bottles of our Tacana malbec waiting for us in the storeroom when we arrived.
Working our way through the Tacana malbec
Wishing for the End of the World
There are many different ways to think of a “bolthole.” You can regard it as a purely utilitarian investment, like a fire extinguisher.
Perhaps it is a basement somewhere… reinforced and stocked with provisions. Or maybe it is a remote farmhouse – again, prepared for Armageddon.
Our view of it is a little different, though perhaps less useful.
We want a bolthole where we WANT to be… a place so nice that we almost wish for the end of the world so we can enjoy it.
It doesn’t have to be lavish, expensive, or deluxe. In fact, it shouldn’t be. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself. And you don’t want complicated or sophisticated infrastructure.
Keep it simple. You won’t be able to depend on technicians or fragile networks.
And aim for autonomy. When civilization walks backward, you need to be able to take care of yourself.
Simpler and Cheaper
Here at the ranch, we have our own power plant – solar, of course. It works fine and gives us all the electricity we need.
You can build any size of solar system you want. The simplest and least expensive is a solar fence charger, hooked up to a few DC outlets. Cost: about $200 and up.
We also use the sun to heat our hot water.
Down here, the sun shines almost every day, so the solar hot water rarely disappoints us. In cloudier places, you might want to back it up with a gas heater.
We put in a commercial-grade hot water heater, but you can also make your own much cheaper.
As an experiment, we made a stainless steel tank, about 6 inches thick and 3 feet wide by 3 feet high. Painted black, it heats up water fairly well… enough for a shower… with no moving parts.
As for heat, again, the sun is probably the easiest and cheapest solution, depending on where you are.
Another approach to heating – if you have wood available – is a good fireplace or wood stove. Today’s small, tight, wood-burning stoves are efficient and inexpensive. You can get them for less than $100… or more than $1,000.
Pleasure and Personal Growth
There’s something very comforting about knowing that you have your utilities covered – with no bills to worry about.
But that’s the nice thing about a bolthole…
It protects you from all the risks, nuisances, and expenses of your normal life, leaving you free for pleasure and personal growth.
Of course, these may not be the pleasures you are used to… or even the ones you were looking forward to… but they can be unexpectedly rewarding.
A bolthole should be a place where you do the things you always wanted to do – if only you had the time.
Planting and tending your own garden, for example. It is much more satisfying to eat your own tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers than those you buy in the store.
Or preserving your own food. The temptation is always to throw it in the freezer. But what if the electricity goes out… and stays out?
When we were young, we canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, too. It is not difficult. And there are plenty of people on the internet ready to show you how.
You could build your own solar greenhouse.
You may also find yourself cutting your own firewood. Yes, it is a chore. But few things are more agreeable than spending a day cutting, splitting, and piling up firewood… and then, in the evening, looking with pride on your carefully laid stack.
You can also read a book. (Be ambitious about it. Read the Bible or all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.) Or you could write a book.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. Or the piano…
A friend’s abandoned antique grand piano ended up in our living room
Here, we practice the piano every day, as Elizabeth discreetly takes a long walk…
The list of things that you might do – if you had time – is as long as you want to make it. And that’s what a bolthole is for…
It’s a place where you are safe… and where you can put that forced “idleness” and obligatory confinement to good use.
Taking a well-earned siesta
Editor’s Note: Emma Walsh, Bill’s managing editor, here again. The pandemic economy is driving people to live in rural and remote areas. But having the perfect “bolthole” to escape to is just one of the ways Bill recommends you prepare for a crisis.
When it comes to protecting your wealth, he believes the right asset allocation strategy will have a bigger impact on your total returns than stock selection in the next ten years. And his strategy will leave you with more free time to write the next Booker Prize winner or master Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.