Best Laid Plans

(This year marks the 250th anniversary of Daniel Boone’s first trip to Kentucky from North Carolina. The trip was filled with adversity. It reminded me of our own journey—especially since our path was similar to Boone’s except in reverse.)

Two hundred and twelve years after Daniel Boone left western North Carolina for his first foray into Kentucky, our family of two adults and two young children made its way from Kentucky to a new life in western North Carolina. Our adventures weren’t nearly such a hardship as the Boone band’s, but plenty hard, nonetheless.

Our plan was simple: camp out on our newly purchased land while we hand built—all by ourselves—our forever home. Reality was a little more complicated. For one thing, we had no jobs. For another, we had almost no money. Our budget was shoestring for sure.

For the younger campers, the best part of our earliest days of adventure revolved around the campfire.

 

The excitement of tent-camping in the wild far outweighed the inconvenience of having neither water nor electricity. We cooked over a campfire. A rhododendron thicket was the perfect spot for a pit toilet. We drove to a roadside spring to collect water. We hiked to a creek in the woods when we were desperate for an all-over, if frigid, bath. The return hike uphill sweated off our clean.

Daily thunderstorms sent us to the relative safety of our steamy car. Soppy sleeping bags regularly sent us to a laundromat in town. The effort of camping precluded any progress on building. We had to make alternative plans.

Instead of building our house, we built a very temporary shelter. It was all of 8′x12′, barely large enough to hold two cots and a double sleeping bag. The plywood floor kept us off the ground. We wrapped the lumber framework with inexpensive clear plastic for make-do walls and roof. Instead of a door, we had an opening covered with a tarp.

Our “kitchen” is outside on left end of shed. The doorway is also on the left end. Look carefully and you can see a suitcase and canned goods lined up along our front “wall.”

During the day our shed, as we called our new quarters, was a stifling greenhouse. Mountain nights were a different matter. We wrapped ourselves in sweaters under our blankets. Then the rains came, and the winds, in the form of an inland hurricane. Our  “walls” were decimated. The black plastic “roof” caved in. We were forced to invest in slightly sturdier materials.

It was a mess!

Finally, we could complete our building plans, which meant we could have a temporary power pole installed. Electricity made it ever so much easier to build, though the only power tools we had were a drill and a couple of circular saws. Nonetheless, progress was slow with two novices working on our first significant building project, learning as we went.

As the nights turned colder, we used a space heater to keep relatively warm, but with no door, much of the heat escaped. December’s bitter cold found us huddled over the heater more often than pounding nails.

Finally, it became too much. At 1:00 pm on December 20th, when the temperature dipped to five degrees and was heading lower and our water containers and canned goods were frozen solid, we faced the inevitable and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in town until warmer weather descended.

The state of things when the weather got the better of us.

In spite of the cold, we managed to get some work done on the house throughout the winter. Four months later when we returned to our mountain place, we moved into our home, a structure that barely qualified as a shell. Loose plywood covered the floor joists. Blackboard sheathing was the extent of our walls—no siding, no insulation, no drywall. Our plan called for lots of south-facing windows, but we had no windows. Once again, we used plastic to protect us from critters and the elements. A construction site heater warmed us during our morning bathing and dressing routines. We still had no running water and what little electricity we had access to still came from the temporary pole. Of course, we didn’t have a phone.

Except for the plastic we installed over the window openings, this is how the house looked when we moved in.

It would be another year before we got those modern conveniences and many more until our house was what most folks would consider properly finished. But we persevered.

Other than a coat of paint on the window trim (see where we’d started, upper right) and vent openings below windows, this was as finished as our house got until thirty or so years later when it got a total facelift–standard windows, horizontal siding, awnings, and more.

Almost forty years later, our daughter says our years of living in the wild brought our family closer together and notes that her somewhat unusual childhood always makes for a good conversation starter. Our son, wanting his own children to experience the kind of life he had as a kid, has begun a homebuilding venture of his own. The Gnome and I are still here, still working on our dream home. We are here to stay.It was an undertaking of our own choosing, born of youthful enthusiasm and sheer ignorance. Had we known what we were getting into, we might still be in Kentucky today. But we’d have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

(To read more about our homebuilding adventure, check out the nine-part series beginning here. Unrelated posts are interspersed, but you can scroll past those if you choose.)

Real Family Values

Real Family Values

A few years back, my colleagues and I shared an offsite holiday potluck lunch and departmental meeting. The newest member of our team offered his home as our gathering spot. In addition to his work with us, he designed sustainable houses, his own among them, and he was as eager to show it off as we were to see it.

Clearly, our first order of business was to tour his lovely home. The last room we visited belonged to his pre-school-aged son. One of our group, the mother of a child just three years older, slowly looked around the room. She seemed puzzled, maybe even troubled.

We discovered the source of her distress when she said, “Where are his toys? Doesn’t he have any toys?” Indeed, the room was almost spartan. It held a few books, a clothes chest, and a junior bed complete with a large, lime-green, leaf shaped canopy that seemed to turn the bed into a sort of cocoon. Her entire house, on the other hand, was overflowing with toys from gift-happy aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Our host explained that their previous home had been cluttered with both toys and other belongings. When they moved, they made a conscious decision to rid themselves of as many “things” as possible. With an impressionable young child to raise, they wanted to model a new ethic—one of simplicity, one of sustainability, one where experiential activities trumped sedentary ones. No more television, no more oversized, nonbiodegradable toys to trip over and litter the place. Instead, they had chosen to live a life where doing replaced being.

Not long after that day, my colleague told me that as the weekend neared, his little boy had come to him and eagerly asked, “What adventure are we going on Saturday, Daddy?” That’s the way he saw his life. It’s the way his parents had presented it: a life of adventure. He knew he could look forward to one every weekend.

Their adventures consisted of simple things—watching the university’s new wind turbine go up, checking out a crane at work during the construction of a classroom building, ambling through a street festival, spending a morning at a you-pick blueberry farm.

Over the years I’ve watched this family with appreciation and admiration. In the early years, I was privy to tales of weekend activities as soon as they’d occurred. In fact, I’d encountered the boy and his mother even before the father came to work with us. The Gnome and I were on a walking trail and she was with another mother, their children in tow. The son was only two at the time, but he was on a balance bike, a two-wheeled pedal-less bicycle. He was getting started early.

Now from afar, I usually get my accounts via social media. There were pizza-making sleepovers. There were kid-friendly street festivals. As the boy grew, so did the adventures. Snowy days meant not only sledding and snowball fights, but igloo building. The family built mini-bike trails on the back of their property for the boy to ride. They put in a kid-size zip line. They went backpacking. They engaged in cosplay—Halloween’s an adventure extraordinaire.

When the boy was old enough, he joined the Cub Scouts—they’re all about adventure. It wasn’t long before Dad became the group’s leader.

The boy is ten now. These days father and son can be found mountain biking. Mom joins in on scouting activities and weekend camping trips. They visit state and national parks. They go to the beach where they build complex castles and bury each other in the sand. They fly kites. They canoe. Evenings at home may find the three of them playing strategy games with friends.

It’s kind of funny when you think about it. This family is doing something revolutionary in the world of giant, expensive (though often cheaply made and short-lived) toys and games: they’ve gone old school. They’re doing it the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did it—making do with what they have, turning everyday things into exciting experiences. Finding fun in simple things. In the process, they’re teaching values, building a rich childhood, creating a close-knit family life.

And the thing is, it isn’t hard; it doesn’t have to take money. It may take a little imagination. It may take a few hard discussions with the grown-ups, mostly grandparents, who want to shower the kiddies with love via tangible gifts. It certainly takes time. But isn’t it worth it?