Tag Archives: appalachia

The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 3, part 1: Ice Follies

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.

Slip-Sliding Away

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.

Flu Fun
Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

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
Photo by Athena on Pexels.com

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…

Next: The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 4, part 1: A Deal Too Good To Be True

The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 2, part 2: Our Circle Widens

Justin and Jenny loved to go caving!

The Cast of Characters:

Jimmy and Bonnie

We all enjoyed living at Sam’s house. We really wanted to buy the house and 100 acres he offered to sell, but there was always only enough money to survive. So during the time we were there, we lived paycheck-to-paycheck and started settling into the community.

It took some time, but we made friends with a couple of the locals: Jimmy and Bonnie were two of the few mountain people that didn’t seem to have an automatic dislike of outsiders. They lived with their little girl down a long, treacherous driveway in an old mechanics’ garage that Jimmy had converted into a beautiful little cabin.

Jimmy did odd jobs to make a living, but mostly, Jimmy grew pot. He had his spots in the woods that nobody knew about, and every spring he would go out “farming.” The income from his fall harvest would always get his family through the winter, but just barely. Jimmy was also able to get ahold of some of the finest mountain moonshine ever distilled. One summer, the helicopters found and destroyed his growing crop. It was financially devastating for them.

For all their illegalities and questionable business practices, Jimmy and Bonnie were actually the two most honest, kind, and hospitable locals we met. My grandkids played with their daughter, and we spent many fun days at their place: Fishing for catfish in their stocked pond, visiting outside amongst the free-ranging chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, and one incredible birthday blowout with a bunch of locals and the most incredible food, including fried snapping turtle. Jimmy and Bonnie were able to “grease the skids” with some of the other locals, and we felt a bit more welcomed by the community. Mind you, we would always be outsiders, but the locals finally started lowering their guard with us a bit.

With the exception of Jimmy and Bonnie, all of our other close relationships on the mountain were formed with other outsiders.

The Hippies

Shere and Wanderer and Bird and Jason all lived together in a too-small, run-down homestead on the mountain. Shere home-birthed her second son in a kiddie pool in their living room and was a miracle worker with herbs and natural remedies. Her husband Wanderer was a deep thinker, and we had many incredible conversations together. Bird was (and is) a beautiful Soul who simply radiates Love to all. Jason was, well, Jason. After we left Kentucky, we heard he had gotten involved in some heavy drugs and kind of drifted away. We all spent many winter evenings huddled in the old camper (macabrely dubbed “the tornado shelter”) behind Sam’s house deep in philosophical and esoteric conversations. These lovely young people were true “woods hippies”, and they opened our eyes to new ways of thinking about things, especially spiritual things. Fortunately or unfortunately, people and situations change, and all four have gone their separate ways. I am blessed to still have regular contact with the young ladies through social media, and enjoy watching them both become even more incredible humans.


Phil was an unconventional entrepreneur who had long ago left his Northeast Jewish roots. Before he settled down in a cozy little cabin with his two young daughters and their mom, he made bank weaving hats and baskets for tourists on the beaches in Hawaii.

Phil was the homesteader we were aspiring to be. He always had several irons in the fire, always figuring out ways to make money. While we were there, he converted an old schoolbus into a mobile BBQ restaurant, and today he owns his own place in the Red River Gorge.

Phil built beautiful raised beds for his vegetables, and even made a huge walk-through frame for his squash, loofa, and moonflowers. I spent many summer afternoons weeding his tomatoes (weeding is therapeutic for me; I’m weird).

We enjoyed many summer days at his farm and had awesome conversations. Phil always had great ideas


One day this short little dark-haired lady strolled up our driveway and introduced herself. She told us her name was Betsy, and she had left her home up north and came to Kentucky to go to school. She had recently rented out Victor’s little cabin and was our new neighbor. We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that continues to this day.

Betsy was brilliant. She was able to talk intelligently and animatedly about nearly any subject. I am normally a very reserved person and have a hard time opening up to people, especially strangers. But Betsy was different. From the moment I met her I was able to completely be myself and not hide behind my usual “polite” mask.

Betsy was all alone in Kentucky, healing from some family issues, and basically trying to figure out where to go with her life. Big existential questions she needed to sort out. It was such a blessing for us to be able to be her stand-in family for awhile.

Betsy was also the only other person I could ever tolerate in my kitchen. Together we would cook up scrumptious meals, laughing like idiots. Then in the evenings, we would all gather on the huge front porch with some of Justin’s home-made blackberry wine (it didn’t last long!), smelling the honeysuckles that hung in the trees next to the porch, having most excellent conversations, and laughing. Always laughing!

The school thing never got off the ground for Betsy, and eventually she decided to go back north to her family to try to work things out. Our family is still close to her; she and her family even crashed here at our current homestead in Missouri for a couple months while life evened out for them.

Betsy was one of the best things to happen to us in Kentucky, and we all wish nothing but happiness and contentment for her.

Next: The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 2, Part 3: Losing Everything

The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 2, Part 1: Sam’s House

Our temporary reprieve: Sam’s house

A Blessed Rescue

Obviously, from the day we arrived at the war zone that was the Jones’ mountain hideaway, the search was on to find a new residence. We had a number of things working against this being an easy undertaking, chief being we were outsiders.

The Appalachian mountain people tend to be very clannish. Many have been trapped in a loop of incomprehensible poverty and physical isolation for generations, and they have an almost innate, deep-rooted mistrust of strangers. So all our queries about local rentals were fruitless.

By the time I actually started my job, we had settled into a weary routine: I worked, Jenny continued cleaning and organizing the disaster of a house and stomping our dirty clothes in the bathtub, using a washboard for scrubbing. Justin spent all his daylight hours burning the still-huge piles of trash in the front yard, and Mike spent his days solving the crisis of the day and trying to make sure we had heat and water.

On my days off, a couple of us would pile into the PT Cruiser and drive all over Furnace Mountain, looking for a “for rent” sign. Mountain people don’t advertise, though. It’s all done through word of mouth.

There was a vacant house down Mountain View Cemetery Road. The house looked promising. The farm was a bit unkempt, but huge. Best of all, it wasn’t a garbage dump

Several weeks of desperate searching yielded nothing as promising as this! Mike was out driving past the vacant farm one day and noticed the neighbor across the street had come to his little cabin for the weekend. Mike stopped to see if he could get the owner’s contact information and Victor gave him Sam’s number.

Mike immediately called Sam and explained our situation, and the danger our family was in. Thankfully, Sam, not being a “local,” had compassion for us. He went out of his way to accommodate our needs and get us out of there. I honestly don’t know how we would have survived if it hadn’t been for Sam’s arrival in our lives right then.

After the phone call, Mike took me to show me our new house. We had only seen it from the road. The house itself was on a long, steep driveway.

It was even more beautiful up close. We walked up onto the huge front porch with incredible views, and peeked into the window.

I remember looking in and my knees buckling. I just started crying. The inside was magnificent! Wooden beams, hardwood floors, a gorgeous new soapstone wood burner, French doors leading to a master suite, and a kitchen! With running water, heat, lights, and a PANTRY!! Our nightmare was almost over.

Because I had just started my job, there wasn’t enough money for the 750.00 rent and the security. Sam let me give him the rent money and an expensive, sentimental item of mine that he would hold until I could make up the difference. One hurdle overcome.

But how were we going to move our stuff? There was no money left for a U-Haul, and we certainly couldn’t move two truckloads of stuff with a PT Cruiser.

Sam to the rescue once again! He actually came with a truck and trailer while I was at work one day and they made trips all day long. We finally felt safe!

Settling In

It was April, springtime and the mountain forest was dotted with the delicate little purple flowers of the redbud. I fell in love with those trees, and I am happy that redbuds are prolific here in Missouri as well.

We experienced several challenges in the year-and-a-half we were at Sam’s place, but most of our time at the 250-acre farm was fun and productive.

I gardened and canned. We had some chickens, then lost them all due to some new chicks with coccidiosis. Learned a hard lesson about keeping new livestock separate from the established flock. Raised up and butchered a little goat our Hippie friends had gifted us. My job was going well. I joined the open heart team in the operating room, and got to see some awesome surgeries. Lots of heart, lung, and kidney transplants. The rest of my family wasn’t able to work, because there were simply no jobs nearby. It really wasn’t worth the gas money and wear and tear on the vehicle for a part time, minimum wage job.

The Horses

So there we were, on this big 250-acre farm with a barn and fencing, in horse country. I might mention here that Mike has next-level negotiating skills, which have truly served us well over the years. Stanton, at the base of Furnace Mountain, was a tiny town: Grocery store, gas stations, a few small businesses. They also had a horse farm that bred and trained high-quality Rocky Mountain Horses.

So Mike went down to talk to the owner, and convinced him to let Mike and Justin take care of the grounds in exchange for horses at the end of the summer.

So for several months, Mike and Justin weed-wacked fence lines. Fence Lines covered in poison ivy. They spent the whole summer in misery and blisters.

Then one day I came home from work and there in the small fenced enclosure by the house were three lovely ladies: Cadillac, Cheeka, and Chill. Cadillac was a beautiful Palomino, with a smooth ride and lovely, patient disposition. Cheeka was a feisty, big Rocky Mountain horse with an attitude and an affinity for nipping. Chill was chill. She was a sweet, calm old mare at the end of her career.

We enjoyed riding those horses around the 250 acres, and spent a lot of time that summer exploring the property. That winter, we noticed that Chill was tiring easily and not her normal, happy self. We figured it would probably be her last winter, as she was pretty old. Our prediction about that turned out to be correct, but that wasn’t the reason for her lethargy.

One snowy night as I came home from work, my sons told me to stay in the car and they took me over to the barn. They said something was wrong with Chill. Of course, I was expecting the worst. We pulled up to the barn in the dark, and who should trot over to the fence but Chill, with her adorable little colt Chillin’ traipsing behind her! He was the sweetest little chestnut color. Apparently, some unauthorized shenanigans had taken place at the horse farm before Chill came to us! We sure enjoyed watching that little guy grow up.

Next: The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 2, part 2: Our Circle Widens