DEEP IN THE WEST VIRGINIA WILDERNESS — Former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett lives tucked away on an off-the-grid swath of West Virginia woodland that serves as an implicit indictment of the inside-the-Beltway life he and so many others have led — a life reliant on the federal government.
At first glance, Bartlett is following a conventional post-politics path. After the 10-term congressman lost his bid for re-election in 2012, he began consulting for the defense industry, advising firms on how to pitch federal agencies, a part-time job that brings him to Washington occasionally.
Out here, in an area so remote that written directions instruct visitors only to “go to the top of the mountain and turn right,” Bartlett, 87, practices a kind of self-reliance that so many fellow Republicans preach but don’t practice.
Four thousand feet above sea level in the heart of a misty Appalachia, his compound provides its own food, water and electricity — connected to the rest of the world only by a gravel road. It’s the kind of self-sufficient lifestyle he says all Americans have a “patriotic duty” to live.
“If everyone is dependent on the government and the government isn’t able to take care of you,” Bartlett said, “it’s going to be rather chaotic.”
Media outlets have dubbed Bartlett a survivalist. But the Image this label conjures — that of a gun-toting hoarder — is not really apt. He’s more of an octogenarian hippie.
About Roscoe BartlettPolitical career: First elected to U.S. House from Maryland's 6th District in 1994; defeated in 2012 re-election bid by Democrat John Delaney; Republican; was a member of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress.
Personal: Born 1926, Moorland, Ky. He and his wife, Ellen, have 10 children.
Education: Doctorate (1952) and master's (1948) in human physiology, University of Maryland; bachelor's in theology and biology, Columbia Union College, 1947.
Bartlett owns no guns. Nor does he hoard gasoline and canned goods in a bunker awaiting the collapse of society. He drives a Prius, and has kind words for Al Gore's thoughts on climate change. He doesn't drink or smoke. He's a vegetarian who raises his own organic vegetables, including potatoes, zucchini, squash and spinach. He even wears hipster glasses from a brand called Geek Eyewear.
Bartlett often elicited eye rolls from colleagues for speaking about issues like peak oil, solar storms and the threat of an electromagnetic pulse that could paralyze our technology-dependent society -- all issues on which Congress spends far too little time, he says.
But Bartlett is also someone who has a doctorate in physiology, who taught at Howard University College of Medicine and who worked for the Navy Applied Physics Lab and then IBM. He holds 19 military patents, some of which contributed to the invention of closed-circuit rebreathers used by Navy special operations forces and firefighters.
Bartlett finally lost his congressional seat last year after Maryland Democrats extended his rural western district all the way to Montgomery County in the Washington suburbs, making it practically impossible for a conservative Republican to win election.
After he lost his seat, Bartlett’s wife wrote in the family journal: “Roscoe lost. Wonderful.”
“She finally had her husband back,” the former congressman explained.
Back at his Washington office, Bartlett donned a too-large suit and leaned awkwardly over a conference table, explaining a new ballistic material he’s promoting. He often went off on tangents, unconcerned that what he said might be considered controversial.
At the end of a circuitous description of life after Congress, for instance, he lapsed into a non sequitur, announcing his skepticism of evolution.
Bartlett also suggested Missouri Republican Todd Akin may have had a point when he made the career-ending claim that victims of “legitimate rape” couldn’t get pregnant. “He shouldn’t have said it, politically,” the former lawmaker adds, but “there is potentially some truth to what he said.”
Bartlett is a product of another era, a man who still refers to Asian-Americans as “Orientals” in a town hypersensitive to ever-evolving social norms. But at his verdant wilderness retreat, there are other distractions. Walking along a dirt path, Bartlett interrupts his own thoughts on foreign policy. “That is some handsome moss,” he says.
The distractions are more innocuous out here in the isolated woodlands, among them a pair of majestic white swans he brought to a one-acre lake he made himself. Here, his tangents involve new plastic piping he’s raving about, or a novel way to install wood flooring.
Despite his age — he’s now a great-grandfather — Bartlett works outdoors 10 to 12 hours a day, walking around in overalls, hauling one-ton batteries on a truck and digging holes with a shovel. He might run for Congress again when he’s 100, he jokes. “I’m not even close to being ready to die.”
The man who owned his own construction companies for a dozen years is now finishing work on a log cabin, the fifth lakeside building he’s erected on his land.
“I don’t chase women, I don’t play golf. For 32 years, we’ve been coming down here … beyond the grid,” Bartlett said.
Out here on his secluded property — which doesn’t even have an address — the anxieties and distractions of life in official Washington dissipate like the vapor trails of passing jets, the only evidence that the world outside continues to function.
“If I look up, and there are still contrails in the sky,” he said, “all is well.”