Descent Into The Long Winter
At dark-thirty on New Year’s Day, we made the last, treacherous slide down the long, winding, icy driveway with the final load of our possessions and animals. Seven people, three horses, a cow and calf, and FIFTEEN dogs arrived. This included a brand-new litter born to a nervous first-time mom, who proceeded to nip the landlady our first day there. Not an auspicious beginning (Side note: At this point in our homesteading adventures, I will be the first to admit we were not the most responsible animal owners. We were so excited to start our farm life that we rushed in unprepared and overdid the large animal and multiple dog thing. This is probably our biggest regret, and fortunately, we have grown and learned a lot since then. Before we left Kentucky, we made sure that all our livestock were rehomed with people who were able to care for them properly).
The next day, Mike was in the laundry room installing the washing machine. Suddenly we hear “Get a bucket, quick!” The plumbing was very old and brittle because the house had been sitting vacant for many years, unheated. The main 2″ PVC pipe had shattered. There stood Mike, unsuccessfully attempting to stem back the deluge with his hands, while icy water sprayed him from head to toe. Having just moved in, it took a frantic couple of minutes to locate the water main and shut it off. In the meantime, we fashioned a pitiful bucket brigade, which was no match against the frigid waterfall. By the time our mop-up operation was done, that laundry room floor had never been cleaner.
That driveway. 1/5 mile of rocky, muddy, serpentine twists and turns going down a 30-degree grade. At this time, I was a stay-at-home Gram-Gram, and my three adult kids were working in Stanton. Most nights when they came home, they had to park at the top of the driveway and slide down on foot. It became a game of driveway roulette: “It’s not supposed to ice tonight; should we risk driving down the driveway? Will we get out tomorrow?”
One night the kids gambled and lost. We were trapped there for days, while Mike, Jenny, and Justin were out on their hands and knees, chipping the ice in the driveway, putting gravel in the sunny spots, and praying for enough melt to get the truck out.
Jenny and Justin did not succumb to the flu that January, but the rest of us went down like a ton of bricks. We turned Mike and Jen’s bedroom into a sickroom, and Mike, the kids and I lived there for over a week, sleeping and trying to take care of one another. It was far and away the worst flu we have ever experienced. To this day Mike says, “I finally understood that you could possibly die from the flu, because I felt THAT sick.”
We suffered a week or so of near-constant catatonic sleep. This was punctuated frequently by rib-cracking coughing episodes during which we got to watch a partial episode of Calliou before passing out again. Finally, Mike and I felt ready to attempt some real food. Having the recent expenses of moving and the adults missing days due to ice storms, there was really nothing to eat.
That night, Jenny came home with all the ingredients to make a huge pot of chili, which would feed us for a couple days. While I love to cook, I long ago abdicated the chili creation to Jenny; while mine is fine, hers is epic. We all came downstairs to finally enjoy a few bites of some delicious food together as a family, and then go back to sleep.
We had not been able to buy a refrigerator yet, so the big shelving unit in the huge screened in back porch became “Jackie’s Fridge” for the winter. The massive pot of leftover chili was placed there, with happiness and anticipation that we had some real food to look forward to. Fast-forward to morning. Apparently, the door from the kitchen to the back porch had not quite been closed all the way, a fact which was quickly discovered by our insatiable mama dog, Alice. We woke up to a very satisfied dog and a nearly empty pot of chili.
The rest of that winter passed rather uneventfully, and we settled into a grey, depressing routine. Mike, Jen, and Justin worked every day, and I stayed home with the kids. We had no dryer, so a spare bedroom was converted into a makeshift drying room, with clothesline, a fan, and a dehumidifier. It actually worked quite well; laundry dried quickly, albeit stiffly. This massive house had electric heat and sat right on top of an underground lake, so we were cold all the time. I spent my days trying to clean this depressing, moldy house; I baked a lot of bread and scoured Jackie’s Fridge for leftovers I could fashion into some kind of healthy soup or stew for dinner.
The One Bright Spot
For all its drawbacks, this new house had one huge plus: We moved right next to Jimmy and Bonnie! On cold, boring winter afternoons the kids and I would bundle up and walk through the woods to go visit Bonnie and her daughter. The kids would play, and Bonnie and I would visit and chat by their cozy wood-burner in their adorable cabin.
One afternoon in the early spring, the kids and I got ready to make the trek to Jimmy and Bonnie’s place. Alice had a habit of wanting to follow us there and then starting trouble with their dogs. Alice’s puppies were bigger now and she didn’t mind leaving them for a while. After repeated warnings to get back home, it was apparent that Alice was determined to accompany us. So I put her on the lead that was wrapped around the corner porch post, surrounded by her pups, and away we went.
After a lovely afternoon of visiting our friends, we headed back home. As we came out of the woods onto the driveway, I looked down at the house. Something was very, very, wrong. Alice was nowhere to be seen. And even more importantly, the corner of the porch roof was falling down! In her zeal to come with us, Alice had pulled so hard on the lead that she had managed to pull the entire supporting post down. Alice was a strong, beefy dog. And Alice was cowering under the porch, safe and unharmed.
I brought the dogs safely in the house and waited for the other adults to come home. Fortunately, they were able to fix everything in short order and nothing was damaged.
The Search for a New Home
Spring and summer at Jackie’s house were not all that terrible. We spent a lot of time visiting our friends on the mountain and swimming in the local rivers. Justin and Jenny explored caves, much to the chagrin of the rest of the family. It was in the woods behind Jackie’s house where Jenny, the kids, and I spent a glorious afternoon picking morels for the first time. When it became unbearably hot, we lined an old waterbed frame with a tarp and made a refreshing, chest-high sitting pool. Many hours were spent there relaxing with some frosty beers (We had finally bought a fridge). Downside: Frogs like to lay eggs in pools. The first time we discovered this was quite an experience. The frog “slime” tends to lie in the bottom of the pool, so you don’t really notice it until you get in and start moving the water around. Suddenly you’re wondering why the water is literally slimy. It’s a pretty big yuck factor. So we took to just dumping the water frequently and refilling the pool every day.
While Jackie’s house was fairly survivable when the weather was pleasant, we all knew that there was no way we wanted to spend another miserable winter there. The fact that we were sitting on a giant sinkhole over an underground lake was not comforting. In the few months we were there, we watched the shape of the stream in the backyard changing as parts of it sunk. And so began the search for another new place on the mountain…