Pinch me – am I dreaming? (A journey from there to here)

Sometimes I’ve wondered how much who we are as children – when left to our own devices of imagination and “play” – how much it may influence who we really are and become? Just like other young mammals “play” at what their survival skills will later have to be when they are grown – stalking, pouncing, running, jumping.
It is a thought that just interests me largely because of how my own life has been shaping itself.

When I was a kid I played outside A LOT. For a couple of years when I was very young, my family rented a house from some folks who were cattle ranchers and there were cow pastures surrounding each side of our house’s yard. My family would take care of their cows and horses and other animals when they would go out of town. Having a “secret hideout” inside of an old abandoned shed barn, going swimming in cow troughs in my skivvies, jumping out of hay lofts, playing with tonka trucks in a dirt hole in the front yard, watching my dad shoot with a bow and arrows at a target he drew on the side of the old barn – those are the sorts of thing that shaped my early years.

After a couple years out there, my family moved into town so that my parents could be closer to their jobs. Despite being at the junction of about 5 or 6 cross roads and a busy intersection, the house we rented had a good amount of outside play space because it sat on a huge wooded hillside. Well, I say wooded, but it was probably more Kudzu vine at that point than woods. My sisters and I would pretend we were explorers, and go outside and bushwhack trails around the hillside, through the kudzu. I would play “naturalist” and climb up in trees to take field notes about the back yard birds, learning all of their calls, distinct markings, and even some of the regulars character traits. My sisters and I built a “native american hut” using sticks and weaving kudzu into them, and then pretended we were a tribe.

When staying indoors to play, often times the set up of my toys involved creating villages and homesteads for them – be that for barbies, playmobile, lego people, plastic animals, you name it. I remember my sisters and I covered nearly my entire bedroom floor with an elaborate “frontier”/rancher town for our playmobile, which we were enjoying playing with so much that we left it constructed all over the floor for nearly a solid month.
My “characters” in these scenarios always took care of animals, always had a garden and knew about plants, always lived in things like cabins (built from Lincoln Logs), or tipis, or farm houses, always knew about camping and rugged outdoor life.

Maybe it was because my parents took us camping and hiking as kids?
Maybe its because we lived those couple of years near the ranch property (at which we even woke up one morning to my parents outside trying to herd the whole head of cattle back into their pasture because they had escaped! My mom was way up the street with an empty lego bucket, hitting it with a wooden spoon, trying to make enough noise and have it sound like a feed bucket, to coax them back down the road! lol)
Maybe its because we grew up watching nature documentaries, and movies that were set in frontier lands like White Fang, and Call of the Wild?
I’m sure its all of the above and then some…
I just find it interesting, looking back, at how much the foundation was laid in my own life from as far back as kindergarten age even, setting me on the fervent path of desire to live off of, and harmoniously with, the land on a homestead.

14 years ago, I dont even remember how I managed to, but I stumbled across this website:

http://www.greenhomebuilding.com/index.htm

It was a defining moment in my life.
The site has remained virtually the same since then, but it is still one of the top repositories of information I have ever found for green building methods.
Initially – sitting around, a highly introverted, homebody, home schooled teenager, with no clue what to make of her life – my experience from this website stirred little more than creative design inspiration and a faint notion of building with earth bags. But reading and learning and researching more over the years, quickly saw the dream evolve into more than just an eco-conscious dwelling, but a vision for an entire sustainable homestead. The more I’ve learned about the many possibilities which could be created from such a way of life (via permaculture etc…), the more cemented I’ve become in the fact that this is something I MUST do! It is my one main, primary, most personally meaningful and persistent life goal. If I never did anything at all with my desire to build with earthen materials, and/or to produce good healthy food from good healthy soil, to gain this type of knowledge, and then (most importantly!) to be able to lovingly and thoroughly share it with others, I feel I will have just been wasting all of my time in life.

For many years I struggled with the question “but how?”…

Where does one start with such dreams?

14 years ago, despite the aforementioned website, there weren’t a ton of readily accessible avenues to get involved in this sort of thing anywhere near me, in order to learn more hands-on. At least, not that I was aware of, knew how to find, could afford, or would even go to because it was too far from home etc… More times than I could count, I found myself thinking “if only I could find someone or some place that would just let me become an apprentice or intern of some sort, so that I could learn these things in exchange for me offering them help in their endeavors?!”
Well, maybe now I’ll have the chance to craft that place and opportunity for someone else?

In 2005 I moved away from my home state and beloved Appalachian mountains, to follow my heart and go live with my best friend (now husband) in the midwest. He – also being a very ecologically conscious person, and a personality accustomed to dancing to the beat of his own drum so to speak – was all on board for a green building homestead. He himself had already been crafting a homestead vision in his own mind involving tipis and yurts. But we both had a ways to grow yet. For starters, we werent long out of highschool, we werent earning much at our jobs, didnt really know what we could make of ourselves. We lacked a distinct direction too, because he grew up in Colorado and envisioned going back to the Rockies, while I still envisioned heading back east.

Neither of us came from very financially stable families. All throughout growing up we learned a lot of what not to do, but less about what to do that actually works. To play it as safely as possible, our big goal at first was to just do nothing but focus on saving. The trouble with this idea was that we didnt budget for anything else – then something would come up (like major car repairs for our old beater cars, which happened A LOT the first 2 years we were together) and it would drain the savings all back out again. Nevertheless, this led to our second goal, which was to not purchase any land or anything else major, until the day that we could buy it out right and maintain our personal records of being 100% debt free.

In 2011, as a delayed honeymoon of sorts, we wanted to explore the country, and maybe even find THE place that would inspire us to put down roots and call our forever home, then move there, and get on with continuing the work towards the dream of land and home.
The road trip was a learning experience in a myriad of ways which would require an entirely separate blog post unto itself. Relevant to this story however, at the end of the traveling, there were places we liked along the way, but no one place that seemed undeniably IT. We had ideas to go off of, even some wonderful examples of what is possible, which we garnered from WWOOFing on a small family homestead in West Virginia, and visiting some long time acquaintances/pen-pals of mine in Montana, in the passive solar cabin they built themselves decades ago.

But still, we had no solid direction. We were also out of money. So we headed to my parent’s house to regroup, have a roof over our head, find whatever work we could find, save up again, and figure out our next move. We wintered over there, but after 6 months of little luck bringing much financially in, my husband got an offer to go back to his old job in Missouri because “they could really use the help.” He hated that job for so many reasons, not at all unjustifiably so. I thought he was crazy to consider going back. I also felt like I had cemented into myself that I would never go to Missouri again, it almost felt like a defeat somehow to go back after talking about leaving it for so many years and finally managing to do so. He promised that the plan would be to just go back and live cheaply while banking as much as he could in just a short 6 months busy summer season on the job, and then we would b-line it straight to Colorado a.s.a.p. once a 6 month lease was up. We both really love Colorado so that’s where we decided we should wander to next and then see where life would take us from there.

Well, life never even took us to Colorado. Within months of landing in the midwest again, some family crises that were unpredictable and outside of our control, necessitated us suddenly ending up with two relatives as our dependents. This brought absolutely all dreams and planning to a temporary screeching halt. We felt like we were floundering and flying blind. All we could do was be there for them, and our own lives got put on hold. My husband once again felt trapped and stuck in the soul-sucking job because the funds were necessary to support the extra additions to the household. I climbed the totem poll at my job purely for the sake of trying to ease some of the financial pressure.

I dont want to think about what would have happened had I been the kind of person to just lie down in this rut that our life had jumped tracks in to. Instead, to make up for the setback and the stuck feeling, I reached out to try and make my living there count for something more, because I am a firm stock holder in the idea that every experience can be a learning experience, and serves a purpose for that reason (if not immediately noticeable, then somewhere on down the road of life at least).
So one thing I did was get involved with a Saint Louis Food Not Bombs group that was(is) doing wonderful aid work – getting donated foods, clothes, toys, household goods and personal hygiene items to people in need, and helping each other out and building community to boot. We were even doing our best to get a community garden up and running in order to grow more food for our food share events. The wonderful inspiration from the people introducing me to, and sharing in this experience with me, gave me more ideas for my future – to not just be as self sufficient as possible in growing food stuffs, but hopefully to produce enough extra to donate to people in need. It is also from some of these folks that I first learned about the garden/farming model known as “Forest Gardening”/Food Forest, which drastically began reshaping and refining the wonderful possibilities in my mind of what we could accomplish on land once obtaining it.

Another influential experience was in 2013, with my birthday approaching, I decided that I would ask a gift of my family “can you please all chip in together and help pay my way to do some sort of natural building workshop?” So I started searching around online for the options that existed out there for such specialty educational endeavors. There are a good number of them… more now than I could ever find years and years prior when I had looked around for such. Still, many of them were either across the country, or out of the country all together. Or they were prohibitively expensive and/or not very comprehensive at the same time – so you’d feel like you paid a lot but get little time and experience for the money.
Then I found this place:

http://ashevillage.org/

To think that the very same year I moved out of my home state, this place was just getting started up in what would have been virtually my back yard! Now here I was just learning of their existence 8 years later?! Well, better late than never! It was perfect – it was relatively affordable for the decent length of time covered in the workshop, and it rather efficiently addressed many subject materials in that amount of time, so you really got a lot for your investment… My husband, parents, and sisters all chipped in together to make this happen for me. – The experience was far and away the happiest moment of my life – outside of the time when I finally met my long time best friend (now husband) in person for the first time and planned from that moment on to make our lives together.

After the first evening of the workshop, (which was basically just a welcome meet up and orientation), when I got in the car to head back to my parent’s place for the night, I just started crying and crying with tears of joy. A few days later, during a lunch break from workshop classes, I was sitting in an open-air tea shop in down town Asheville thinking that it seemed to me the place had gotten even more awesome since I had left it years before. All that time spent scouring internet data, and even traveling around the country, looking for just the right mix of everything to make a place home and start working towards acquiring land… it seems to me that I was coming full circle, in my mind – ending up back around Asheville would actually fulfill all the points of the-place-to-be I’d been searching for.

As it was, during the few extra years spent on layover in the midwest, various life experiences caused me to evaluate my trajectory more. I began to realize I no longer wanted to move westward, for a couple of reasons: For starters, my husband and I already knew it was not the wisest place to make a land purchase and try to homestead it on a shoestring budget, because it is so much more arid. It is both hard to get water rights with your property there, next to impossible really (this even includes for rights to rain and snow water catchment by the way!), but you’re also basically just fighting nature more in general as well. Disclaimer: Though I know it is entirely possible to build up ecologically conscious and sustainable permaculture oasis in desert climates, it is not exactly ideal. Or basically, our thinking was, if we dont HAVE to do it that way, then why bother?
Moreover, years were slipping by us in the midwest, and I started to feel like if we were just going to be killing more time in Colorado before eventually buying land somewhere else, why go through that extra financial and time consuming step?

I had begun searching online listings for property, both with and without structures on them, from the moment my natural building workshop at Ashevillage had ended. I went with a realtor to look at some land parcels when the workshop was over, before I headed back to Missouri.
We figured that if ever there was something worth taking out a loan and going in to debt for, it should at least be going towards something very important, such as a main life goal. If we waited until we could find and purchase just the right place and be able to pay for it out of pocket, it could mean waiting till we were retired, or possibly even older than that. Then we’d be getting on in years to the point that it would be hard, perchance physically impossible, to start something like a homestead-from-scratch at that point. So if we could find something sooner, we were willing to compromise enough to follow the classic American dream pattern of mortgage if it meant getting on with our lives how we want to really live them, how we’d already been wanting to, trying to, for years.

When we came to visit family a few months later, in January 2014, we also went to look at more properties and we found one we liked. We were all set and ready to start motions toward purchase of this land, but since it was all a brand new learning curve for us, one thing we didn’t realize was that purchase of raw land automatically requires 20+% down payment cash in hand – because as far as lending agents are concerned, raw land is less valuable than real estate with houses and consequently make for a “riskier” loan. This fact disqualified us from considering most of the types of parcels we were looking at and desiring. Long term affordability wasnt the problem, having such a big chunk of change up front just to get it going was the problem.

I shifted focus to looking for acreage that had livable structures on it already. This wasnt all bad, because although it always had a higher price tag for the listing compared to raw land, it would at least give us somewhere to live on a property before we could get around to building anything else. It also would mean established wells, electric, septic systems etc… were already in place as needed. I had my parents be eyes for us, and look at some places on our behalf while we were still out in Missouri. Meanwhile, my husband and I worked on trying to get transfers with our employment to be able to move.

When the transfers came through we had to act fast. Finding a place to live in one state while you’re living in another is difficult, doing it when you’re on a time constraint is even trickier. Then, with the addition of a mother in law and multiple pets in tow, we were basically just crossing our fingers and hoping the universe would toss us a bone. We were trying to move somewhere known for its notoriously expensive rent costs, and it is doubly hard to find pet-friendly rentals, let alone where they wont nickel and dime you to death in pet fees.
So I got the notion to call my old land lord up from when I’d lived in Asheville 9 years ago… all that time I’d kept his number in my phone, so I decided to make use of it. It took him a moment to remember who I was but he was happy about it when he did, and when i told him we had a tall order for him – to have a place available for us, 2 bedroom, to house 3 people and multiple pets, to not pay more in rent than we already were in Missouri, on short notice because we’d need to move in less than a month – he just so happened to have had a 2 bedroom place open up in a building he owned. He was willing to rent it for less than we were even paying in Missouri, and also not charge us a cent for the pets.
I guess the universe had spoken!

We did it. We made the move east. We were able to secure transfers and so we up and left the status quo we’d been parked in the past 2 years – finally moved in a direction more definitively with an aim for our bigger goals in site. Now we would be at least in the bio-region we wanted to homestead in, and would have our feet on the ground to do more of our own property searching.
But the situation got trickier when it turned out the job James, my husband, transferred in with from Missouri just went from bad to worse. He had to get out of there, for both physical and mental well being. So he finally made the big leap to get out of the field he had been working in for 7 years, and it was a breath of fresh air to do so, for sure! But the household took nearly a 30k per-year pay cut when this change happened.

We were making do, so it was more important for him to get out of that line of work than it was to worry about the money. We figured this sudden change would put the house buying/homestead notion on the back burner for another few years again though.
For a couple of months, I let it go. I started putting in some volunteer hours up at Ashevillage and getting my homestead/garden/skills-building fix via their lovely instructors.

But then winter, and feeling stuck indoors so much, and getting sick more than once, all contributed to a cabin fever to the point that I went back to persistently browsing real estate listings and dreaming of the big dreams again.
Then, so as not to completely be wasting my time, I decided to have a sit down chat with a loan originator agent my landlord recommended to me, to just try and get an idea of what was even possible given the financial situation we found ourselves in at this time. It is a lot harder to reasonably plan and shoot for a goal if you dont even know the current parameters you’re in and working with currently. So after this chat about financials, what I learned was that there were still parameters we could shoot for in trying to purchase a place, if we wanted. If we found one that could meet our desires and fit into the range we would be approved for. We also found out that even though James jobs were only part time status, and thus could not count as “income” towards loan approval, apparently I make enough to still qualify in a certain range.

Armed with these new details, I refined my realtor listing search results to smaller list prices and other regions in the surrounding area which I maybe had not previously considered. Then I started doing drivebys of properties I had bookmarked. I would get out of work around 2 or 3 and promptly plan out a route and start driving by properties, to see them, and to get a feel for the surrounding areas. Multiple places seemed promising, but would always either involve some sort of compromise – such as: “Well, I guess we could just settle on less land. A lot can still be done on 1 acre if you’re smart and strategic about it.” – Or would prove to be a bad choice once seeing in person, because the listing, for the sake of marketing, would have misrepresented the house or region, and once driving by there would always be something that would be a deal breaker – Neighbors who collected rusty old junk piling up everywhere, a cell tower or huge power line easement right in your back yard, being further away from Asheville and work than I had thought it would be – and it just not being practical, being closer (i.e. spitting distance) to neighbor’s houses than would be preferable etc…
Narrowing the price range availability of our searches was proving to have greatly narrowed our margin of finding just the right place for us. It was looking like we may either have to compromise further on what we were and werent willing to accept in order to get a property, or we were just going to have to resign the search until we earned more money and could qualify for a higher price range on housing loans.

One day I did a drive by on the place that was to become ours. It was just on the outer perimeter of what we considered an “acceptable” driving distance from Asheville/work… Meaning we’d not want to be any further out for sure, and even to settle on the 30 minute drive would mean this property would have to REALLY stand out to us to make it worth it.
The beautiful, idyllic farm valley the house sits within was great. The pictures of the property on the webpage of the listing were also nice. But since the house sits up on a private hill, and I didnt know whether it was still currently occupied or not, I couldnt go drive all the way up and get out to walk around and really scope out the lay of the land. I just added this one to the list of others to be worth going back to with our landlord/realtor and actually doing a formal showing of the place.

A week or so later we went out with our realtor to look at a few places. One was passable, but less land than we’d hoped for, and a house that needed major cleaning and fixing up beyond what the listing’s photos had made it appear to be. The next place we looked at was gorgeous and wonderful, but so far away, up a very pitted dirt road, nestled into the foot of a mountain in a dark woodland setting – so it would make a great get-away, but not ideal for trying to garden, farm, or hold down any job all the way back in town. The final one we looked at was such a major fixer-upper our realtor was trying to convince us that we could just get a special kind of loan for doing rehab work and it would finance the cost of redoing the house and making it livable and legally up to code again… but it was just too much work to have to imagine and think about that, wouldn’t have been worth it, especially again for the smaller acreage and the proximity of the neighbors feeling like they were all up in your business or you in theirs.

So the following week I told our realtor about this one and asked if he could take us to see it a.s.a.p. When we got here, the owner was here doing some yard maintenance. He had lit a fire in the woodstove to make the house cozy and show off that feature. He had made a list on a whiteboard on the refrigerator, of all of the plant species (both fruit bearing and hardwoods) that he had identified on the property. Plus he drew out a map of the property overlay and boundaries. Room by room we were in love because it just felt and looked so cozy. Beautiful picture window in the living room office area looking out into the trees in front of the house and down the hill to the road and surrounding farm pastures below. Wood panel floor and walls to give it a cabin appeal. Huge walk in closets. Nice, big, sunny windows over the kitchen sink looking out to the rest of the property. We liked the house, then we walked up the hill to look at the rest of the land itself, something I had not been able to assess on my little drive by previously. This was the make it or break it point really. Turns out the property is gorgeous. The owner gave us a tour around the whole perimeter of the property, pointing out fruit trees and native hard woods along the way and talking about other things he had going on and/or had in mind for the property just to inspire us. This place was great! We were looking at it in the dead of winter and it was still beautiful.

Its funny actually, A few days prior I had written down a list of desirables in our property search, to hand over to our realtor, so he would have it all to keep in mind when helping us hunt for a place. He gave me a lecture about how there will always end up being “compromise” when home buying, one just has to discover where they draw the line. He was insinuating that we may not find anything that met all the points on this decently long list I handed him.
Well, before he had even had really any chance to go over the list thoroughly and make use of it, here we were already looking at a place that literally synced up with all but 1 criteria on the list. (The one thing it didnt hit was having an extra living space – like in a finished basement, or apt. over a garage – to turn into a place for my mother in law. But honestly, something like that can easily be built or added on, so it was the least “necessary” thing out of the entire list I had made on what to look for, and certainly not a deal breaker.)

But there’s water access on the property in the form of a creek, plus 2 private wells. There’s already established and producing fruit trees, grape vines, and berry bushes. There’s already a fenced garden plot. There’s already an outbuilding/shed/barn. There are neighbors so you dont feel completely isolated in the boonies, say, if you were to have an emergency…. Yet its private enough to not feel like anyone is constantly looking in on your business and making you feel exposed (something I always felt and disliked in apartment complexes). Its rural and rugged, but not so much so that its difficult to get to. There’s no zoning at all, which means free reign to build and farm as we please. The previous owner took loving care and pride in the place – enough for us to feel confident in the condition of the investment. He has been super kind and helpful in the whole process of selling it off. He has more than once expressed how happy he is that the property is going to people who have such similar visions for the place as he had always hoped to get around to doing with the property himself but just never fully did.

Now that we have the place its still kind of hard to believe.

I’ve continually realized more and more ways it turned out to line up with desires I’d had and envisioned for a dream homestead, things I never even put on a list for a realtor but had just daydreamed and just kept quietly in the back of my mind… things like:

I love North Carolina’s foggy, moist, fern, rhododendron and mossy covered mountains – but that kind of flora and the soil it grows within isnt very conducive to farming/gardening… I thought about how it would be awesome to end up with property that was able to have both areas supporting plants like that, as well as good growing farm soil areas too. Well… we got it!
I thought about how it would be nice to have property that was a combination of both woodland area and cleared open glade or pasture. We got it!
I thought about how beautiful pastoral scenery is to me when it is gently rolling. We got it!
I thought about how, though 1 acre could be workable, or 10 acres might be nice, really 5 would be just about right. We got it!
I learned when volunteering with Ashevillage, how handy it is that if your property incorporates a hill, then to put the gardens and/or have the woods for collecting firewood, be up hill from your house so that you dont have to haul firewood and gardening stuff up hill to your home, but rather can collect what you need, and haul the load downhill to the house. That worked out here for us too!

Even stranger is the fact that this house had been on the market the entire time I’d been looking for properties for sale in the region since August 2013. They had just put it on the market in June of that year. I didnt look into it further at the time because the price range it fell in to at the time, and in which I was looking at the time due to James higher paying job, presented enough other options that this one just slipped under my radar. I think it did so largely because I saw it was located in the same city as the infamous paper mill, and that immediately was putting it out of my wheelhouse. But when I found out my supervisor at work lived in this township, in a little off-grid cabin by a creek, and would go on and on about how wonderful and peaceful and beautiful it was out there, it opened my mind to thinking that maybe there are areas one can live in the region and not be negatively affected by the mill? I guess it could be worth checking out. Then, when our price range got narrowed, and my searches got minimal and more desperate, here was this same property, still for sale almost 2 years later, and significantly dropped in price from its original listing! Its as if it had just been waiting for us the whole time.

I wanted to share all of this because I hope it may inspire others to not only slowly, steadily, doggedly, pursue their dreams if that’s what it takes to manifest them. But to also realize that sometimes, even when you might think something impossible, if you do a little research, lay a little groundwork, and then are willing to take a big leap, you’ll find you’re in a better position than you thought you’d be in order to actually achieve what you’re striving for.

There are so many ways this all clicked into place for us, ways I can see even more clearly now looking back over the years. But there are equally so many ways it could and would not have happened, especially if we had just given up on the very notion of this way of life and gone in a totally different direction.

There is no one right way to do anything. I’ve been an advocate for the buddhist concept of “the middle path” for some time. The idea that, in seeking balance, in going about one’s daily life, one can and should seek out the middle ground rather than gravitating toward extremes. We dont live in a world of absolutes and all-or-nothings.
So that is what we have done, tried to carve out our way and stay centered and grounded at the same time – and in our case, our middle way did not come with college degrees, it did not come with big careers, it did not come with holding down high income jobs, it did not come with having to overly compromise on any ideals or goals or dreams, it certainly did not come easily, but we’ve still made goals turn into reality… and this is just a big start to a whole new chapter of proceeding in a life built on intentional living.
I certainly hope that, in the very least, it helps others see how they can be, do, and have dreams come to fruition in their own lives as well.

– e.

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