More About the Author
Thomas J. Elpel had the rare opportunity as a child to spend hundreds of hours with his grandmother Josie Jewett. Together they explored the hills and meadows near Virginia City, Montana, collecting herbs, looking for arrowheads and watching wildlife. Grandma Josie helped Tom to learn about native plants and their uses, igniting a passion for nature that has inspired him ever since. She also sparked his interest in survival skills.
Tom was born in Los Altos, California in 1967 to Edwin and Jeanette Elpel. Every summer the family traveled back to Montana to be close to the extended family. They spent much of that time with Grandma Josie. Tom's father died in 1979, and the following summer the family moved permanently back to Montana. Tom attended junior high and high school in Bozeman, Montana.
"All I ever wanted to do as a kid was to go to Grandma's house," Tom said. "When she moved from Virginia City to Pony, I followed her. Renee and I eventually bought land just a couple blocks from her place."
Tom's first serious exposure to wilderness survival skills began at the age of 16, when he went on a 26-day, 250-mile walkabout in the desert canyons of southern Utah with Boulder Outdoor Survival School. The following year he and Grandma Josie went together to Tom Brown's Tracker School in New Jersey. From there Tom spent thousands of hours practicing and developing survival skills in his "backyard" in the Rocky Mountains.
Tom met his sweetheart Renee in high school, where they both spent a lot of time in the art room. He asked her to go on a hike with him, and she said "no." But later Tom asked her again to go for a walk, and she said "okay." To Renee there was a big difference between a hike and a walk. Hiking didn't sound like much fun to her, but walking sounded good. In 1988, two years out of high school, they walked 500 miles together across Montana, starting in Pony, and ending at Fort Union on the North Dakota border. They were married in the Pony Park the following summer.
The couple bought a five-acre parcel in Pony, just two blocks distance from Grandma Josie's house. They moved into a tent and started building their dream home of stone and log. They both worked with troubled teens in wilderness therapy programs, so they commuted to Idaho, Utah, or Arizona for three-week trips, then came home to spend their money on building materials. (Be sure to read Tom's article Building a House on Limited Means for more details.)
Tom's desire to make a difference in the world started early, partly the result from watching too much news with Walter Chronkite as a child. By the time he entered junior high he was on a mission to change the world. Friends in high school said he would grow out of his idealism and learn to accept the world as it was, but so far that hasn't happened. (He hasn't exactly changed the world either, but he insists he is still working on it.)
In an effort to tackle the issues of making a living while making the world a better place, Tom wrote his first book (more of a booklet) in 1991, which evolved over the years into Direct Pointing to Real Wealth. He has always written about subjects he wanted to learn and developed professionalism by writing, reflecting, revising, and republishing. He typically publishes four or five draft editions in comb-bound format before printing with a conventional paperback binding for the mass market. Along the way he started his own publishing company, HOPS Press, LLC, and created a successful internet bookstore.
In 1991 Tom also founded Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (HOPS) and has been giving classes on everything from Stone-Age living to stone masonry ever since. His basic philosophy is that the wilderness survival skills are useful to connect with nature, but you shouldn't run away from the problems of modern society. Instead, we need to apply the lessons and spirit of living close to nature towards the quest to solve our worldly problems.
"Experts and lay persons alike bemoan the difficulty of creating a sustainable lifestyle, but it really isn't that hard." Tom said. "Renee and I had less money and less skills than a lot of people, but we built an energy-efficient passive solar home, and we now generate our own electricity with solar panels. Sustainability isn't that difficult, you just have to stay focused on the goal."
Tom and Renee Elpel adopted three children, Felicia, Cassie, and Donny in 1996. Edwin was born to them in 2001. The family has been on many great adventures together, exploring the world by canoe, by car, or occasionally by bus and train. Tom has continued to passionately pursue his writing career no matter what other distractions there might be, learning to focus even through a parade of kids marching back and forth through his office.
In 2001 Tom founded Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association (originally named 3Rivers Park) to help sustain Montana's traditions of open space and open access along the Jefferson River segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
The publishing business and internet bookstore took over Tom and Renee's house room by room, until they bought Granny's Country Store in 2003. Although the store is an hour away from Pony, there is a house built into the store, so they migrate back and forth between the two places. The property at Granny's Country Store included enough room to launch Green University, LLC, which is Tom's latest endeavor to make real and lasting change in the world.
Tom's grandmother died in 2004 at the age of 89. Her love for nature continues to inspire Tom every day. Although he is insanely busy, getting out into nature remains a high priority, and he continues to hone his wilderness survival and awareness skills.