“A map told you one astonishing thing: no matter where you were, there was a way to get somewhere else, lines led there, crossing and recrossing, you just had to figure it out.”
- A Garden of Earthly Delights, by Joyce Carol Oates
The Everglades was AMAZING. It was $16/night for camping, which is more than we'd like to pay, but we were happily surprised by hot showers even though the website says they're cold water only. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – like a hot shower, especially since the Florida weather was getting uncomfortably cool. Luckily, it wasn’t too cold for us to camp right on the Florida Bay, where the sun put on some incredible shows for us. We saw lots of birds and lots of gators. Neither of us had ever seen a gator before, so we were excited, but we never dreamed of the gator orgy we were about to witness! There were too many to count, literally, and we got up close and personal with one gator that had decided to take a nap right next to a walking path. We took a bunch of mini-hikes in the Park and tried to see as much as we could before heading out. On our drive out, we almost drove off the road several times because Amy was gator hunting - they were everywhere, sunning themselves along the water. It was quite an experience.
The weather, however, was not really a positive contributing factor to our Florida experience. We caught some sun on a beach in Naples, then headed to Starbucks for a hefty dose of wireless to regroup and plan our next few days. We did some holiday shopping as we watched some mean looking dark clouds roll in for a brutal downpour. Next thing we knew, the sun was going down and we still didn’t know where we were going to sleep! Unfortunately, there weren’t any Water Management Districts nearby, so we searched furiously for budget-friendly camping locations. This search made us really hate Florida. Everything was $25, $30, $36 per night. We started considering staying in the Budget Inn next door to Starbucks.
We finally discovered the Upper Hillsborough Wildlife Management Area, which was close enough, but information was ridiculously hard to find. We finally found a PDF document that detailed its camping guidelines, and found that we could camp there as part of family hunting weekend. We arrived way past dark and the place was PACKED with giant family-size tents and RV’s and these enormous vehicles made of tractor tires with old car seats propped on platforms ten feet off the ground (I imagine they drive these around for hunting? who knows). We found a spot that may or may not have been in the middle of a road, pitched our tent, and hunkered down to sleep.
Determined to not pitch our tent in the dark another night, we did our research early (or at least earlier) and found another Wildlife Management Area about a half hour away. We arrived there at about 3pm, proud of ourselves for arriving with so much daylight to spare! We were greeted by a locked gate. No problem, I said, we’ll just unlock it like we did at Allapatah Flats. Except these gates were secured with at least four padlocks each. But the PDF file said camping was permitted during all of November and December! Upon further inspection, we discovered that camping was permitted, but only on designated camping weekends. Well, shit. Back to square one.
Thank god for wireless tethering. I got back online and searched for other options, and found the Green Swamp West Unit Wildlife Management Area. It was another half hour of driving, but we could still make it before the sun went down. The website said we had to register and wait two weeks to get a permit in the mail, but we figured we could just register later and if anyone asked, we would explain our situation. No one said a word to us at Allapatah Flats, so we figured we’d be fine. We drove deep into the country, down a very bumpy dirt road, past a ton of orange trees, and finally arrived….at yet another locked gate. It was just not our day! We made a few phone calls and, after Amy got someone’s cell number and all but cried and begged to be allowed to camp, we had the combination to the lock and permission to camp.
We found a nice spot in the equestrian area, complete with horse troughs, and I pitched the tent while Amy gathered firewood. It got cold quick once the sun went down, and we packed on the layers and huddled around the fire. We made a tasty dinner over the fire – pasta with alfredo sauce and fresh broccoli – and basically sat in the fire to stay warm. As I was washing our dishes (there was non-potable water for the horses so we just had to boil it), we got a call from Amy’s Aunt Shelly inviting us to stay with her family for a bit (she also told us we were insane for camping in the cold and that we ought to leave right then and come sleep in a warm bed). We opted to stick around, and thanks to the fire, our wonderful sleeping pads and tent, and a lot of layers and blankets, we stayed (relatively) warm.
The next morning we packed up as quick as we could and headed to Kissimmee for that warm bed Aunt Shelly promised us. Uncle Brad (and the two dachshunds, Angus and Cocoa) greeted us, and then we accidentally stayed for a week. Oops! We spent tons of time watching movies, geeking out with Uncle Brad, and staying warm. Uncle Brad took us to see manatees, which were beautiful and serene and strange. Being outside in the unseasonable cold made us extra grateful for Shelly and Brad’s hospitality.
Soon enough, it was time to head North to share Christmastime with the Scofields, back in Chattanooga, which was beginning to feel like home. Granny’s old bed up on the mountain, in her little empty house, became our very comfortable, cushy base camp. We had a wonderful time with the fam (even my dad the Grinch!), though my baby brother found out his osteomyelitis (bone infection) had returned in his ankle, so he and my parents had to rush back to Minnesota to begin a course of heavy antibiotics. Even with that added stressor, we had the nicest Christmas in my memory, ever (plus it snowed!). Christmas Eve was Appetizer Night à la Amy, and Christmas dinner was a meatfest – turkey and lamb and ham! How wondaful to eat and enjoy with dear family…
Then back in the Honda Fit for another long day of driving, back south to New Orleans. What a circuitous route! (It only gets better.) Cousin Richard graciously offered to let us and our friends stay at his country home aka camp aka man-cave aka 80-foot trailer plus game room. We’re talking three bedrooms, two baths, pool table, ping pong table, HD projection entertainment system… Amazing! Megan and Lauren drove out from their new home in Austin, TX (Megan’s sister Casey also came down for NYE), and Dawne and Colleen flew in from Philly. We spent New Year’s Eve in the French Quarter, in the midst of the madness, where we introduced our friends to beignets at Café du Monde (a powdered sugar fight ensued), walked down Bourbon Street (HUGE ASS BEERS were calling our names, though we favored the gin and gingers we’d brought from home in water bottles), and then watched the fireworks from the levee (arguably the best fireworks show ever). We spent a lot of time watching movies on the projector, honing our skillz on the pool table, walking around the quarter, and eating biegnets and shrimp po-boys. We also shot guns with Richard and his Uncle Danny, who treated us all like family.
What a trip! BACK IN THE CAR, back up North, a day-long stop in Chattanooga for rest and family time, but this time we returned to our point of origin, good old Philadelphia. Long story short:
left some stuff in attic of our house
landlords = criminals (see this)
criminals ≠ mortgage payers
house = foreclosed
foreclosed = looming eviction
looming eviction = stuff in attic cannot stay
Hang out for maybe a week in Philly, rent a van and move all the stuff up to upstate NY with Amy’s family, then back to Philly for a few days, then another marathon drive to Texas for our Western leg of the trip.
We’ve been living in Philly (rent-free in our foreclosed house) with our beloved roommates for about a month now, and we’re finding reasons to stay longer. Oopsies.
More on Philly soon!
We arrived at Allapattah Flats long after the sun had gone down on 12/7/2010, and drove down the pitted road through an eerie, empty space. Our headlights woke up a cow, who in its startled state struggled to stretch its legs and amble away from the car. We opened lots of gates, found a fire ring, and pitched the tent in the dark. Before succumbing to sleep, we sent a text to my mom telling her where we were, just in case we were either murdered or eaten alive by some giant beast.
We woke up to the troubling sound of what seemed like a woman screaming – we rushed out of the tent to investigate and found only cows. As soon as they saw us they stopped screaming (and I thought cows said MOO!), and as soon as we turned our backs (I tried to video the noise) it began again. We thought a cow was hurt or something, but the other cows seemed profoundly unaffected so we figured everything was okay.
The beauty of the area was incredible – so vast, peaceful (save the screaming cows), and wild. We took a walk and marveled at the views and the number of cows. There were hundreds of cows that, when they noticed us, stopped what they were doing and just stared. They were beautiful. We especially liked the cattle egrets who seemed to be best friends with the cows, the baby cows, and a giant overturned tree in the middle of a field. There was also lots of cow poop. We decided we want to work with cows, and to stay another night. It’s really impossible for me to describe – just look at the pictures.
We headed to the nearest bookstore (30 minutes away) and made ourselves comfortable at Border’s, where Amy found a book dedicated to camping in Florida! It’s been a huge help in our planning process, and illuminated the wonders of the Water Management Areas. As we drove back to Allapattah Flats, we watched the giant orange sun sink behind the trees; by the time we got to the WMA, the sun had sunk but the sky was still illuminated. We cooked some dinner on the camp stove and settled into our tent for a game of 500 Rummy (an old favorite of Amy’s that proved that she is good at cards and I am a sore loser) and a bottle of wine (we fell asleep before we could finish even half of it).
We woke up early the next morning, packed up camp, organized the car, and headed out to Everglades National Park!
After Cumberland Island, it’s hard to be impressed.
We were excited to get to the warmer weather in Florida, but once we got cell signal again and checked the forecast, we were dismayed to discover that the lows were below freezing! We had planned to spend several days camping down the Atlantic Coast (Amy had her heart set on seeing an Atlantic sunrise, as we still have never caught one from the beginning), but decided that it was just too cold. So I got in the driver’s seat and drove, and drove, and drove, stopping just twice and arriving in Homestead, FL – just about as far south as you can go without leaving civilization – at around 8pm. Florida seemed to be a wasteland, a sprawling strip of endless glitz and consumerism. Amy also hates ornamental palm trees. But we had heard so much about the springs, and really needed the warm(er) weather! We did some research and found Everglades Hostel, which offers bunk beds for $25/person but tent camping on the grounds for $18/night, so we headed on over. Turned out it was $18/person, but we were (thankfully) able to talk them down to $25 for the night. Florida is expensive! The hostel was nice – we took mental notes on how to create warm, inviting spaces – but there was a lot of traffic noise from the nearby interstate. Don’t worry – we slept like babies.
The next morning we packed up and headed towards Miami, which brought us unbelievable traffic and lots of palm trees, but no warm weather. We had tacos in Homestead, then found a nice little tea café with a silly name (SpecialTEA), where we contacted a classmate from Bryn Mawr, Sara Mantin, who lives in Miami. She got right back to us and offered us a bed, hot showers, the works – so we were 100% more relaxed and sat in SpecialTEA’s lime green couches for several hours, posting pictures and updating our blogs. We had a wonderful evening with Sara and her boyfriend, complete with homemade ziti and fresh salad, an episode of 30 Rock, and plentiful jokes, then had a blissful night’s sleep in a very comfortable bed.
I took my car out to Ken’s Alignment Factory the next morning because it was pulling hard to the right. Ken and his assistant spent two hours troubleshooting how to get the best drive quality without buying new tires – I bought cheap tires and so one is messed up and the two up front are unevenly worn from the alignment being off – and only charged me $50 for the alignment. If you’re in Miami and need an alignment, go see Ken!
The one night at Sara Mantin’s didn’t mean that we could lie back and relax, however, so we were back to the drawing board on next steps (though Sara did offer to let us stay another night – we just wanted to get back on the road). The drawing board is s-t-r-e-s-s-f-u-l and has been the source of many t-e-n-s-e moments between Amy and me. However, Amy discovered Florida Water Management Areas, which are pieces of land dedicated solely to conserving the natural water resources of Florida. We wiki’d aquifers and springs and the like, and discovered that WMA’s are F-R-E-E!! You have to do a little legwork and maybe make a few calls, but they are an incredible alternative to state and national parks, not only because they are free but because they are often all but deserted, gorgeous and empty and private. I’m getting ahead of myself again. We called Dave, the biologist at Allapatah Flats, just a little ways away from Miami, and got permission to camp there. We got dinner at a Nicaraguan place we found on Yelp (another instance of intense regret for not knowing Spanish), and then we were off yet again…
We left Salamander Springs on 12/2 and headed for Savannah, having heard tales of the breathtaking beauty of the city (Amy has also wanted to visit since reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). We checked in and took hot showers (incredible water pressure!) at Fort McAllister State Park then met up with Eyal, Daniel, Hank, Dotan, and Duphna in downtown Savannah, where we had a late lunch. As soon as we sat down, the waiter asked if we’d been around a campfire. “We live at a campfire!” Daniel answered. What a bunch of smelly misfits we were! Luckily, the waiter was very accommodating (even to Duphna’s requests for vegan items) and nice. After stuffing our faces, we headed out to Tybee Island for the sunset. We almost missed it, but it was so cold on the water that we only spent about twenty minutes basking in the sun’s resting glow. It was a quick visit with the Salamander Springs crew, so we said goodbye and headed back into Savannah. Upon Yelp’s recommendation, we spent several hours at Sentient Bean looking at our pictures and planning our next moves.
This trip requires an immense amount of research and planning, and I don’t know what we’d do without wireless tethering through my phone. Not only do we have to research and contact WWOOF farms – we also have to research camping adventures, which would be easy if we had a million dollar budget; however, $35/person/night for tent camping is just not going to fly for us. And doesn’t it seem just a little bit insane to charge $70 for two people to set up a tent, pack out their trash, and maybe take a shower? There is often a distinction between “full service” and “primitive” camping, the latter providing no amenities, often no potable water. We prefer primitive camping, if you can imagine, as it is usually more remote (more beautiful) and more affordable – though not necessarily. We called one campground in southern Florida that was said online to have free primitive sites, but when we called, the guy said it used to be free, but now it’s $28/night/person. Seriously?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We had a chilly night in the tent at Fort McAllister, but were grateful for the “full service” – power outlets at every site and a broken dryer. I set up shop at a picnic table with my computer while Amy took a hike to check out For McAllister’s primitive camping area, which was 1.5 miles from the parking lot. We decided we didn’t feel like breaking down camp and then putting it right back up again, so we ate the cost ($20) to stay at the full-service site for another night. That was silly, but we were feeling lazy.
We didn’t get up and out of the park till afternoon, but we managed to squeeze in everything we wanted: a nice lunch-time visit to Bonaventure Cemetary, a drive around the town, a walk around Forsyth Park, take-out from delicious French café Papillote, where their authentic French accents literally made me cry out of nostalgia (trip to France in our future??), window-shopping on Broughton Street, a visit to River Street, where we had samples of delicious hot pralines at River Street Sweets.
Savannah is beautiful, with its old buildings, beautiful houses, and incredible live oaks. We were satisfied. Then we realized we’d neglected our laundry duties and all the laundromats in Savannah had closed. After furiously searching on my phone and driving around to see what we could find (our clothes were really dirty and we had several days more of camping), I called a Marriott Hotel and desperately explained our plight, and the clerk graciously told us it would be no problem, just to be sure not to tell anyone we weren’t guests. When I walked past the front desk and the woman I spoke to wasn’t there, I felt bashful walking past and into the guest laundry room. But we got it all done, albeit at 11pm – way past country midnight! Needless to say, we crashed when we got back to Fort McAllister and got a good night’s sleep.
The next day (12/4) we were up at dawn to pack up and head out to Cumberland Island, a National Seashore and barrier island just off the coast of Georgia and about two hours south of Savannah. We lugged our heavy packs onto the ferry, which took us on a cold 45-minute ride to the island. After a quick orientation with a park ranger, we headed off to begin our 3.5-mile hike to the nearest primitive campsite, for which we paid a whopping $4/night/person. Our first steps off the sandy beach and into the maritime forest made us literally, audibly gasp. We immediately knew we were going to love Cumberland Island. The hike to camp was down a narrow path through the enormous, beautiful live oaks and palms, and several armadillos scratching around in the brush. We were tired after the hike and frustrated by the weight of our packs – we haven’t quite figured out ultralight backpacking!
As we stumbled into the camping area, we again literally, audibly gasped: the sites were shaded by the gently swaying live oaks and divided by the oaks’ horizontal branch growth that reaches almost fifty feet in some places. We set up camp (we’re getting good at this – it takes about 15 minutes to pitch the tent, inflate our sleeping pads, and get everything set up for sleep), gathered downed wood from the forest, then headed out to the beach, which is about a 10-minute walk from camp. The transition from the maritime forest to the beach is dramatic – one minute you’re walking under the shade of the dense canopy, pine needles underfoot, and the next you’re on bright white sand surrounded by succulent plants and palms and WILD HORSES! We had heard word that there were wild horses on the island, but we didn’t expect to see them at all – so we were in awe when two beautiful horses were standing on the beach like it was no big deal. We took our shoes off and got our feets wet – the water was cold – then lied in the sand in the sun, feeling like we were the only people on the entire island. As the sun sank, we put our socks and shoes back on and huddled up to stay warm while we watched the waves coming in, reflecting the gorgeous purple and pink sky…
We hiked through the dunes by the light of our headlamps and made a fire at our campsite, which kept us warm as we cooked dinner – pasta with alfredo sauce and lentil soup (together) and broccoli – over our little stove. We had a few fresh dates for dessert, then got out our sleeping bags and curled up, staring at the stars as our fire died down, in the hammock we had stretched between two giant live oaks. Next thing we knew it was 3am and our fire was gone – we hightailed it to our tent and passed out.
We woke the next morning just after sunrise, made eggs scrambled with lentil soup for breakfast, and got a pack together for a long hike. As I was doing our dishes and cleaning up our site, Amy was off in the forest gathering wood for the night’s fire. We heard horses neighing, so I joined her in the forest collecting firewood and following the calls of the horses. They were getting farther away, though, so we contented ourselves with the task at hand. Suddenly we were confronted with the marvel of a wild, untamed, strapping horse wandering through the forest. We couldn’t believe our luck! We returned to camp with armfuls of wood, inspired and awe-struck by the beauty of the island we were experiencing.
We hiked back out to the beach, where we walked for about two miles, stopping every few feet to pick up a shell, starfish, horseshoe crab, and more. The only evidence that there were other people on the beach were footprints – there was no one in sight. I could’ve stayed on that beach looking for shells and watching the waves forever, but Amy kept us on task and moving forward. We cut back into the forest and hiked down towards the Dungeness Ruins, which are the buildings left by the Carnegie family when they owned the island. We stopped on the freezing, windy Cumberland Sound beach for lunch (tuna sandwiches and baked beans) and then on to see the ruins. The history of the island is pretty incredible – check it out here. We also saw a baby deer who ran to meet her mama, then SIX WILD HORSES grazing together.
The hike back from the ruins was pretty brutal – we hiked about ten miles in all – and I was a bit of a whiner. But we made it back and hiked the last two miles on the beach, where we caught the sunset, gorgeous as ever. We got back to camp at dusk, built a fire, and made pasta alfredo for dinner. We ran out of fuel so had to cook on the fire, which was HOT and resulted in dropping the pot as we drained the pasta – and spilling all of it on the ground. No worries – we just picked it up and ate it! (Mom, don’t despair – we threw the really dirty parts into the fire.) We fell asleep in the cozy hammock for a while, buried the coals of our fire, then put our aching bodies to rest in our roomy orange tent.
We woke up before sunrise and packed everything up in under twenty minutes, munching on Clif bars and bananas for breakfast. We took a brisk walk on the beach, catching the tail end of the sunrise and delighting in the sanderlings, which are little birds that run in and out of the waves and sometimes hop on one foot. It was high tide and we were skipping over the water as it came in, so we cut in to the forest for the rest of our walk towards the Sea Camp dock to catch the 10:15 ferry. We made it with time to spare, and loaded up for the icy ride back to the mainland.
What an incredible island! We could’ve spent an entire week there. As with everything, we must move on……
[I began writing this on 11/30 and just finished it up - postdated!]
Time flies, and we have seen and experienced so much! We arrived on 11/22 to Salamander Springs, an intentional living homestead owned by an incredible woman named Debbie. Her warmth, welcome, compassion, generosity, and infectious enthusiasm have sparked many conversations between me and Amy about what all those adjectives, specifically “warmth,” mean. What is it to be warm? What makes Southerners famous for their hospitality, also known as warmth? What about certain people makes them seem cold? Body language has something to do with it – Debbie is full of hugs – and so do easy laughter and smiles, which are bountiful at Salamander Springs, the first WWOOF host we’ve visited where we’ve felt immediately at home on the very first night.
Google Navigation got us a bit turned around on our last few turns, as it seems the country folk took delight in completely making up their address numbering system; as we pulled past the run-down ranch houses and trailers, we weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into. We eventually found the mailbox labeled “178” and turned down the bumpy, rocky drive. Amy directed the Honda Fit carefully over the pits and ruts as I peered around every curve, hoping to see some sort of civilization in the middle of the woods. We finally spotted a big garden, some solar panels, and, a bit farther, Eyal and Daniel, two of the long-term residents of Salamander Springs.
Eyal is an Israeli who grew up on a kibbutz, where he learned the virtues of communal living and togetherness (he says his kibbutz has since been privatized, and it’s not the same). He came to Debbie as a WWOOFer, and liked it so much that he stayed – and spent all of the inheritance he got from his great aunt to buy a parcel of land adjacent to Salamander Springs, all at age 23. He has a great smile with eyes that squinch up, he’s whip-smart, and ask him a question about trees and I’ll bet you a chunk of money he knows the answer. Eyal just spent two months in Israel, and brought two friends back with him: Duphna, whom he met in the Israeli army, and Dotan, whom he grew up with on the kibbutz.
Daniel worked on a nearby farm but moved to Salamander Springs because he loved it so much. He has been living here off-and-on for over two years (he works seasonal jobs in Alaska for money), and, just like everyone here, is quick to smile, easy to laugh, and very intelligent. (Gina also visits often from the farm next door, and she matches this description as well.)
After a tour of the land from Eyal, we settled in around the fire with Eyal, Daniel, Duphna, and Dotan. I don’t remember what we talked about, but there was a lot of laughter and a lot of warmth. We stayed for two more nights (in a little studio made of carpet and cement that sits on the edge of Debbie’s land) before leaving for Thanksgiving in Chattanooga, but we felt at home by the time we left. Sitting with Granny in her new apartment, we talked about what it is to be warm. She said warmth comes from a genuine pleasure in people, and I think that’s a pretty good refinement. I think that, at least up North, warmth is underappreciated; I’m going to try to work on my own warmth, especially as mine can tend to be selective!
We arrived in Chattanooga on Thanksgiving at around 2pm, and after hugs and kisses threw our laundry in the washer and took blissfully hot showers. We devoured what Aunt Liz said was the best Thanksgiving dinner she’s ever cooked (lucky us), took a walk with Ariel, Irv, and Liz and Elliott (the dog) through Chattanooga and UTC (cuzn Mattie stayed back with Grandmama), then accidentally stayed until Monday morning! Being with family is so lovely – even though we were excited to get back to Salamander Springs, it seemed virtually impossible to leave Chattanooga: our warm, cushy bed on the mountain, endless conversation with Granny, playing with baby kitty Toulouse, spending hours just chillin with Auntie and Ariel…
But willpower and wanderlust prevailed, and we headed back to Salamander Springs on Monday morning. We were greeted by Hank, an 18-year-old WWOOFer from Massachusetts who has been traveling in a minivan since he graduated from high school, having deferred a year from Hampshire College. He reminds me a bit of my brothers, and it’s refreshing to meet someone so young who has a good enough handle on himself to do something like WWOOF alone – I’m not sure I could do it myself. He’s a good kid, and I’m glad to have met him.
The next day, another pair of WWOOFers arrived, Shannon and Anders. They WWOOFed in South America (Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, primarily) for 6 months last year, then worked a while till they had enough money to set out again, this time in the US. They hit a lot of the same areas as us, and will take a similar southerly route, just a few weeks behind us. Anders is from Vermont and went to Evergreen College for visual arts, and is a quietly sarcastic dude. Shannon majored in book-making at Evergreen and is from Scranton, PA. We hope to keep in touch with them in case our paths cross and to get advice on South America if that becomes a reality!
We are meeting so many amazing people. Before leaving Philly, we worried that we would never meet people like our friends again; though it will indubitably be completely impossible to replicate the beautiful final year we had in Philadelphia, we’re learning that good people, while they may be harder to find, are certainly out there. Almost every single person we’ve met on this trip has been interesting, interestED (which is perhaps more important), smart, engaging, warm……..
And, as expected and intended, all these wonderful people are helping us call into question what we need. The distinction between need and want is obvious, but when you really get to thinking, more and more things begin to shift into the want category.
Salamander Springs is 100% off the grid. Water for drinking and cooking comes from one small spring whose slow bubbling feeds the creek that flows through the land and provides more crystal clear, ice cold water than anyone could ever use. Rainwater collects in barrels for dishes, hand washing, etc., and solar panels provide power to pump water from a pond up to the living area when needed. Showers are solar bags hung in the garden (the runoff waters the plants). There are also a few solar panels and two batteries that store power for the outdoor kitchen, where there’s an extension cord with outlets for a light, a boom box, and phone chargers. All cooking is done over a fire in a firepit, with wood foraged from the forest.
All of this may sound dramatic to you, and maybe it is. Life is very different from what we’re used to, with showers that spurt gallon upon gallon of scalding hot water over our bodies and lights that blaze through the night and antibacterial gel in every bathroom. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have plans to (eventually) set up shop somewhere 100% off-grid. That kind of thing should be more of a slow process, I think, starting with eco-consciousness and ending wherever is comfortable. I don’t think everyone should cancel their electricity and install solar panels and windmills (if only because it is so prohibitively expensive to set up alternative power systems, even though they pay for themselves over time). But it is quite an experience to live off the grid, and one that most certainly has me calling into question my values of comfort and convenience. This questioning was highlighted by the fact that we had a brief break from off-grid living when we visited Chattanooga, which really emphasized the stark differences between the two ways of life, demonstrated best, perhaps, when we were cleaning up after Thanksgiving dinner and Amy stopped Aunt Liz from tossing the turkey carcass in the garbage; we froze it, and when we got back to Salamander Springs cooked it over the fire into one of the most delicious turkey soups I’ve ever eaten.
Most of our work at Salamander Springs was in Debbie’s garden, which is transitioning from older practices like double-digging (a way of digging garden beds that aerates the soil) to permaculture, according to which conventional agriculture is catastrophic to the land and ecologies. According to good old Wikipedia:
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecologies.” It is “sustainable land use design…based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants. The ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles are all part of the picture….Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Within a Permaculture system, work is minimised, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and environments are restored. Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions.
This approach is entirely different from that of modern, conventional, large-scale agriculture. Most modern farms are mono-crops, which means they focus on one crop (corn, beef, etc.) and nothing else. That is just not natural – a forest is home to a thousand different plants and trees and animals and bugs, not just one type or a few types of trees. But in order to sustain the practices and the high-level production of our society, we continue to run the land into the ground, as it were. We are systematically poisoning and killing the earth that sustains us. In his book Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Robert Manning explains that one of the preconditions of agriculture is catastrophe. He writes:
I do not mean catastrophe in the human sense; hard times and starvation were not the necessities that mothered the invention of agriculture. In fact, something quite the opposite happened. I mean catastrophe in the biological sense—a natural disaster, or something like one, that resets the biological clock to zero by wiping out an evolved suite of plant life, as happens after volcanoes, floods and fires. There is no evidence that volcanoes played a significant role, but the creation of agriculture was very much dependent on fire and flood. Agriculture sprouted in the wake of such catastrophes, not just in the Middle East but worldwide. Many domesticated plants are predisposed to grow in flood plains, where periodic inundation provides natural tillage that wipes out competitors. And the slash-and-burn methods (or the more politically correct euphemism “swidden agriculture”) is nothing more than artificially induced catastrophe….This close relationship with disturbance, be it fire or flood, meant that agriculture could take its cue and its candidate species from naturally disturbed sites; but to ratchet up farming would require a significant level of human disturbance.
I don’t mean to rant, and I admit to knowing very little about all this stuff, but it’s definitely got me thinking!
We are in the car, driving from Chattanooga back to Liberty, TN. We arrived at Little Short Mountain last Sunday (Halloween); on our way there from Asheville, I got a text from my mom saying my Granny had just signed a lease to move into the apartment next door to my Aunt Liz, and that she would need help moving. I literally screeched in excitement – I had been trying to figure a way to stop through Chattanooga, and this would mean I could see Granny and Auntie and my mom and cousin Richard, both of whom were schlepping down and up, respectively, specifically to help out! How perfect.
So after about week in Liberty (more on that soon), we headed south on Friday evening to Signal Mountain to surprise my family a day early. As Granny is 86 and pretty sentimental, she has a lot of stuff – so there was a lot of her saying “I have nothing! You’ve taken everything from me!” as my mom gently suggested that she part with certain things – but the move went very smoothly. Amy and my mom are tireless workers and master organizers, so they took charge while I alternately made myself useful and kept Granny company as her anxiety levels rose, watching as the life that has been contained by her little house on the mountain for fifteen years was dismantled piece by piece. We took a lot of stuff in bags by car, but on Sunday morning a moving truck came and they had moved all the old lady’s stuff by mid-afternoon. The apartment is very nice, with hardwood floors and nice windows, not fifty feet from Aunt Liz’s house. It’s really a perfect arrangement, and I’m so happy that Granny was able to rent it! They are also right on the river and minutes from downtown, which is beautiful.
So we built some Ikea bookshelves, helped her unpack, made coconut cupcakes (a team effort between Ariel, Amy and I) and gumbo (thanks to Ricky for teaching me how!), and spent a lot of time just hanging around with the family. It’s amazing how Amy just fits right in with them – she is very similar to them in a lot of ways, especially to my mom – and it makes me so happy to be all together. I am so lucky to have a family who not only accepts Amy into the family but genuinely loves and enjoys her! They make me feel so warm and fuzzy… :)
In other news, I’ve stopped taking my happy pills. I’ve been taking them for five years, and each time I’ve tried to go off has been a bit of a disaster resulting in my being really mean and making Amy cry a lot (I never had any serious withdrawal like tunnel vision or anything scary like that, but it was basically emotional hell). So stopping wasn’t really a conscious decision – it started with my forgetting to take them due to a lack of routine, and then I realized one day that I hadn’t taken one in over a week and everything seemed to be fine. I guess now’s the best time, since I have so few worries and stressors and am really doing whatever I want to do when I want to do it… I’ve been overwhelmingly happy, mostly, but am also experiencing the emotional roller coaster of real life for the first time in years – I’ve been remembering my dreams again, and crying over little things. Really, I have emotions again; I was never emotionless, but antidepressants just leveled me out in a way that all but eliminated simple things like crying at movies. We watched two episodes of House last night and they both made me cry. This is new! But it’s good.
We did get the bad news from Karen that our friends at 4940 Cedar are probably going to have to leave by January, which means not only that we’re going to have to get up to Philly to move our stuff, but also that we need to seriously think about where the cats are going to stay. Nicole reports that that both boycat and kitty sleep with her every night, and we couldn’t have asked for a better (long-term) kitty-sitter! But Nicole also wants to travel in India and go out to see her family in California and do other fun stuff….so we stayed up last night naming everyone we know who might be able to keep them, but it’s hard because everyone’s catted up and/or allergic and/or too transient to make that kind of commitment. They are our BABIES though! I cried over that too. But we’ll figure it out……..
Anyway, enough of the gushy shit. Allow me to rewind and recount last week’s experiences. When we arrived at Little Short Mountain, a ridge top in Liberty, TN, we stumbled into the wrong house where a shirtless, middle aged guy named Jai who was vacuuming his apartment over the barn directed us to the right place, which is just up the road. We were greeted by the scent of rosemary from the roasted potatoes our host, Krista, was making, and I immediately fell in love with Prince, the teenaged kitty Krista had just adopted from a neighboring farm the day before. He barely left my arms all evening – a kitty is one of the most wonderful things in the world! We met Billy, who owns the house and 300+ acres of land on the ridgetop, fixed up the potatoes, then headed out to a potluck birthday party. The party was in a beautiful house that a couple had just finished building, nested into a hill and beautifully done with mosaics and art and even a delicious-smelling lemon tree. There are three queer communities in the area: Short Mountain Sanctuary, Ida, and Little Short Mountain. The Sanctuary was first established in 1981. We haven’t visited, but hear it’s kind of like our Philly house times a million – bigger in every way, in people and kitchen and scope. Right now it’s primarily gay men, but it’s open to women, too, and apparently used to be much more mixed. Basically, there are a ton of homos who all live in the Liberty area, which is certainly not a particularly liberal place. But country people don’t want to hear about anyone’s sex life, Billy tells us – they just want to sit on their porches and talk about farming and the weather – so as long as you don’t go around advertising it, things are generally pretty cool. The fine line between tolerance and acceptance, between hiding yourself and letting private matters remain private, is something to think about…
The party was interesting – we were surrounded by more men than we’re used to, and definitely more trannies – but it was good for us: we spent so much time being the hosts, meeting people on our own turf on Cedar Ave., and forgot a little bit what it’s like to meet new people in a setting like that. We were so socially comfortable in Philly – we had so many friends, and we definitely ran mad deep, as they say – we were never outsiders, always had the upper hand. That year helped my social confidence so much though, and this experience is so much better (and easier) because of it.
It’s always so hard to gauge someone after the first night – we’re starting to learn that the first night is always going to be awkward and a little bit strange, even as we often forget just how awkward and strange the very idea of our trip and WWOOFing is! It’s also hard for us to gauge whether people like us – we like to think that we are not only hard workers but also good company – but sometimes it’s just hard to tell. Our host, Krista, is so wonderful. Amy keeps asking “do you think she really likes us??” because we like her so much! She is just a very kind person, and we love working with her. We usually milk the goats at 7am, eat breakfast, work in the garden for several hours, eat lunch, take care of any other tasks, then chill out for the rest of the day until we milk the goat at around 6:30 and then eat dinner. Amy’s been cooking up a storm! We even made butternut squash and sweet potato gnocchi in a browned butter and sage sauce – soo delicious. The squash came from the garden, and we have salad with greens, peppers, and tomatoes from the garden at least once a day. It feels so amazing to eat something that you’ve just picked! Our work in the garden has been mostly preparing for the winter – planting garlic, turning beds over for cover crops, sorrowfully tearing out tomato plants and basil, setting up the hoop houses over the winter greens, etc. I do love getting my hands dirty, so it’s been great. Other highlights: tossing the compost to the chickens and watching them rush over to see what we’ve given them, sitting in the hay with the three baby goats who are so sweet and serene, eating the last few raspberries off the prickly bushes (and eating a few delightfully tender strawberries), picking all the tomatoes off the vines before composting them, filling buckets and buckets overflowing with green tomatoes for frying, cuddling with little baby Prince, and spending time with other Short Mountain fixtures like Simmer, River, and Jai.
We are just pulling in to Gunter Lane, passing the gorgeous horses, the woods in blissful peak foliage, the stinky boy goats, Myrna the big white dog who watches over the goats, the gardens…it’s a nice place. We can’t wait to get back to work!
We stayed an extra day at Prodigal Farm to help prepare for a wine and cheese tasting event they were holding on Wednesday evening – we learned how to move electric fencing and cleaned the dairy to make it spotless – and then headed out at around 1pm on Wednesday. We had a beautiful drive out west to Asheville, where we parked our car downtown and walked around for a bit, spent a while in Malaprops Bookstore, then met our couchsurfing host, Linda, at Jack of the Wood for Old Time Music night and delicious eats. Exhausted, we headed out to Leicester to Linda’s house and passed out in the guest room.
Thursday morning we were up early but hung around the house recovering from the very busy week we had with Dave and Kat. Amy took a practice GRE test, and I lazed about, took a nap, and looked at all of the little things Linda has in her house (see photos!). We Yelped a bunch of restaurants and decided on 12 Bones Smokehouse, which reminded us of Philly’s John’s Roast Pork in its down-home vibe, clientele, and limited hours. We had a feast: blueberry chipotle ribs, chopped brisket, cornbread, “damn good corn puddin,” smoked potato salad, mashed sweet potatoes, baked beans, and sweet tea (needless to say, we had excellent leftovers).
We were in the River Arts District, so we decided to walk around a bit and see what all the hoop-la was about. There were a ton of art studios and cool-looking buildings, but we decided to spend our time poking around a few old, abandoned buildings that were accessible but pretty sketchy. We climbed through a hole in the chain-link fence, navigated the sagging, collapsing floors, and checked out the inside of a big warehouse type place where there was a lot of graffiti, trash, and some couches (see photos). There was also a building that had burned down, which housed a lot of massive machinery, all made in Chattanooga TN. After over 300 snapshots and at least an hour, it was 4pm and we still hadn’t done much exploring.
We headed to West Asheville, which we’d heard was kind of the hip/green/young, and stopped in to Izzy’s Coffee Den for a much-needed caffeine boost. While I was fixing my coffee (which was delicious), Amy struck up a conversation with two locals. One of the guys was kind of weird and went outside, but the other, Dustin, delighted in correcting Amy’s pronunciation of Leicester (the locals say LESS-ter) and then started telling us about Asheville Vaudeville, a sort of variety show that happens monthly, then invited us to go visit a friend. We politely declined, but after talking to him for a bit, he invited us again.
We don’t usually take strange men up on such offers, but we figured hey, we’re on a cross-country farming adventure – why not? So we got in the fit and followed him to his friend Will’s house. Will is a bougie bus boy at Grove Park Inn, the fanciest hotel in Asheville, and Dustin works at a gas station. Dustin is also Canadian. They’re smart, funny guys, and we sat outside on the back deck just talking and laughing. The sun was setting and we could see it through the trees, and Will suggested that we take a 10-minute hike up a mountain where there’s a clearing and you can see all of Asheville from it. Will had some things to take care of, so he gave us directions; Amy created a tiny spot for Dustin to squeeze into, and we drove up to the mountain. That hike was not ten minutes – let me tell you. We could see the Asheville lights through the trees, but once got to the top, there were a lot of towers and industrial-looking things. Dustin said Will just talked it up a lot, and our expectations of a spectacular view were too high. So we walked back down the mountain in the dark, disappointed but invigorated by the hike.
Turns out it was the wrong mountain, but it was fun anyway. We headed back to pass out at Linda’s. (When we told Linda the story of Dustin, all she said was, “sounds like Asheville!”)
The next morning we were up bright and early: Linda hooked us up with a job! A guy she met at a contra dance had sent her a text asking if she knew anyone who might be interested in planting trees on his family farm for $100/day, and we jumped at the opportunity to make a few dollas. We drove out to East Flat Rock NC to meet Richard and his brother Greg. Turns out they live in DC, but the family collectively owns about 100 acres and Richard decided to figure out a way to make a profit off of the land. He did two years of research on the highest yield, lowest maintenance approaches and decided to plant tree seeds to sell to nurseries as 3-foot saplings (after about a year of growth). The seeds cost a fraction of a penny, and the saplings bring anywhere from $2 to $5 each. So they clear-cut part of the forest, bought a bunch of seeds, and found ten people willing to work. The best part about Richard is that he knows he doesn’t know everything (hello Socrates), so we rolled with it together as we figured out how to string lines demarcating rows, best practices for planting each type of seed, etc. One of the seed types was this little tiny feathery thing that just has to be placed on top of the ground (not buried), but also flies away with the slightest breeze. They look like dandruff flakes to me. It was hard work, but we worked Friday and Saturday planting about 20,000 trees (seriously) and walked away with four $100 bills in our pockets! Richard and Greg are also great guys – they gave us a tour of their property on Saturday evening after we’d finished working, and we hung out with them for a few hours.
Aside from the money and getting to know Richard and Greg, we also made a new friend! Alex planted trees with us too, and we ended up talking to her a lot as we labored over the teeny tiny seeds. We met up with her and girlfriend for pizza at Asheville Brewing Company. She has a bunch of odd jobs in and around Asheville, but focuses mainly on her music – she is in a band called the Alex Krug Trio. Alex sings and her girlfriend, Ashley, plays the fiddle – there’s also an upright bassist. We haven’t heard their music yet, but we may see them play in Atlanta!
Speaking of, we’ve decided to splurge and bought tickets to see Iron and Wine on 11/16 in Atlanta! We’ve only seen him once before, when we decided at the last minute to drive three hours (both ways) to a show, and it was well worth it. It was the most religious experience I have ever had – it was just him up on the stage, with his big beard, wearing light khakis and a white shirt, and his absolutely gorgeous voice – it was ethereal. So, it wasn’t much of a jump for us to plan our route around seeing him again. PLUS – The Weepies are playing at the same venue the day after! Can’t pass up a chance to see them…
So, back to the recap: after having dinner with Alex and Ashley, Alex offered to let us stay at her place the following night. Linda was planning a party so we didn’t want to impose, and Alex apparently lives in a giant mansion with 12 housemates in West Asheville and there’s a pool house we could use for the night. We thanked her and Ashley for the offer, their hospitality, their warmth, their openness. Turns out we were not only invited to Linda’s party (a potluck and pie-making extravaganza), but she also let us stay another night! How lovely. We spent the next morning with her and her boyfriend, Tim, an entomologist who studies katydids, drinking tea and talking about the world. We had a wonderful time and it was hard to leave! But Linda told us the back way to I-40 and we had some absolutely gorgeous bucolic views…
Now we’re sitting at the kitchen table at Little Short Mountain with Krista, our host, eating salad and bruschetta. We picked arugula and tatsoi and cherry tomatoes and sungold tomatoes and red bell peppers from the garden, and added roasted beets and carrots and olive oil and balsamic! So delicious and satisfying after a morning in the garden. Little Short Mountain is a queer collective – they own some land on top of a ridge on Short Mountain where several people live, and they have a farm (primarily for meat) down the road. We’re helping Krista out with her garden, which is beautiful and thriving late into the season. She also has a cat – she adopted him on Saturday night from a farm (he wandered in and needed a home) and he is the sweetest cat in the world (aside from Kitty, of course). He is sooooo laid-back. He just got neutered today and we’re babysitting him tonight! So excited :)
Amy’s been cooking up a storm – french onion soup with homemade baguette last night, butternut squash soup and homemade garlic knots tonight! What a wonderful girl to keep around. She keeps me busy with dishes, so I should get to that. This afternoon we’re going to laze around, probably take a walk down to the valley, split some wood, milk some goats (they have seven, three milkers, one mama, and three babies (triplets!)), eat some delicious food, and cuddle with the kitty.
What a life.
We spent 10/4 to 10/11 at Circle Acres in Siler City, NC.
1. The residents of Circle Acres are self-described “punks who everyone thinks are hippies”; they like wild foraging, natural/alternative construction, eating wild game and road kill, dumpstering, kick-downs (the punk version of donations, I think), and lots more.
2. The folks at Circle Acres are great. Danielle, Noel, Gray, Kristin, Trace, and Julia – thank you. They genuinely appreciated our work and trusted us to work on a project for which beginners’ mistakes could not be cleaned up at a later date. We were literally building the exterior walls of the house that Danielle and Noel will be living in – beginners’ mistakes could lead to the walls rotting or leaking or plain falling down. The gravity of our work was stressful, but it was also extremely rewarding. Each work day we woke up knowing that our hours would be dedicated to building Danielle’s house. A little bit of us will be held forever in those walls. Danielle often invites friends to help her out, relishing the idea that almost forty people have put their time and sweat and tender feet into the building of this house. It was a really cool experience.
3. Cobbing is hard work! We spent 5 to 8 hours a day mixing and building, and we went to bed exhausted. Good thing it was fun, thanks to the infectious enthusiasm of Danielle.
4. Pittsboro, NC is a cool little town. We ate at Virlie’s Diner twice, and loved the local feel, cheap prices, and sweet tea. We ended up tipping almost 50% both times because our bills were so small. City folk! We also loved the Chatham Marketplace Co-op, where we found not only free wireless but also the best coconut gelato we have ever tasted – and we have tasted a lot of coconut gelato – made in Durham by a company called Dolce Uno. Our previous favorite, Ciao Bella, pales in comparison.
5. Showers are really important to us, especially when doing dirty work like cobbing. We were at Circle Acres for a full week and showered only once – we made good use of the hose and lots of baby wipes. We could’ve used the solar shower, but that consists of a five gallon bag filled with water, set out in the sun for it to get warm, and then hung on a hook inside a semi-private structure. The bag has a hose with an on/off valve; the hooks for the bags are about six feet from the ground, so the water trickles out at hip level. Also, we use far more than five gallons of water for an average shower, both in duration and in water pressure, so using a solar shower requires that you turn the water on only when absolutely necessary – i.e., spending most of your wash time with the water off. So, lukewarm water with awkward bending to get your head wet with washing and rinsing with very little water does not a happy Caitlin make. It’s not as bad as I’ve made it out to be, but it was just a hassle.
Needless to say, the first thing we did upon our arrival at our next farm, Blue Heron Farm, was hop into the shower (we enjoyed blissfully hot showers in the mosaic-tiled shower at Blue Heron from 10/11 until 10/17). Our host, Tony, said in his email that he would be home in the late afternoon and that we could just hang out and relax until he arrived. After our immensely refreshing showers, we lazed around Tony’s house for a while, until William, who was living in the little cabin just outside, greeted us. William just bursts with energy, and he walked us around the wooded property, pointing out houses and landmarks with an infectious excitement. All the houses at Blue Heron are either naturally built or naturally inspired – everything from straw-bale to passive solar to traditional building with cob. We were really excited to see completed natural buildings fresh from our cob experience, as it was sometimes hard for us to imagine what Danielle’s house will look like when it’s finished and all the rough (lumpy) edges are smoothed over.
Tony is immediately, disarmingly welcoming and warm. After showing us our cabin, where he actually lived for a while several years ago, he began to tell us about school – he’s going to NC State for a Bachelor’s in Botany. He said we could actually help him with an assignment he had for his Psychology of Education course: he had to interview someone about diversity in education, and since we are homos, we fit the umbrella of “diversity.” It’s strange – I’ve never thought of myself as belonging under that umbrella. We must have talked for two hours or more, divulging details about our lives that are usually saved for close friends. There’s just something about him that makes you feel at ease… We set up a little mattress in the cabin loft and passed out.
We spent our week at Blue Heron always occupied and always wishing we didn’t have to leave. Some things we did:
1. Hung out with Tony in the house cooking, talking, reading, sometimes as Tony identified grasses under his dissecting scope, muttering botanical terms under his breath. He appreciated our company even as he was working, and we were happy to sit in the cozy house reading The Sun, a magazine we first saw at San Ysidro Farms that’s an ad-free literary magazine with lots of interesting articles and stories. It’s hard to characterize Tony – he’s in his early forties, an outdoorsy-looking type, open and eager to know people and stories and nature, just….wonderful. His house is also wonderful – Amy walked into the kitchen on our first day and said “this is my kitchen.” It’s the primary living space, the center of the downstairs, with open cabinets and tons of shelving and pigment-infused concrete counters. And lots and lots of mason jars filled with all kinds of things (home-canned tomato juice, chrysanthemum tea, barley, rye, etc.) and at least thirty small dropper bottles of medicinal tinctures (he teaches a course at the local community college on medicinal and edible plants).
2. Talked to Jasper, Tony’s six-year-old son, who is one of the few children in the world whose company I actually enjoy. He went to Montessori school for kindergarten and first grade, but is now home-schooled, partially because he just couldn’t stand how much noise the students made. We took him into Pittsboro to pick up leaf compost, and as we shoveled leaves into the pickup, he told us how much he likes hearing the birds at Blue Heron, and how he doesn’t like hearing the air brakes of the trucks, and the screeching belts, and the beep-beep of machines in reverse. He also gave us pointers on how to load the compost, and helped us pack it down into the bed (by stomping on it) when we were finished. He also built a motorized K’nex sports car, and when he was unsatisfied with its speed, built an aerodynamic spoiler; he said it really did speed it up, and loved the word aerodynamic. This little kid is a riot. He’s so smart, and so at ease in himself and around others. Amy asked multiple times if we could take him home with us, like a puppy.
3. Spent time with Hannah, Jasper’s mother and Tony’s ex-wife, and Link, Hannah’s husband. Tony and Hannah split up relatively amicably a few years ago, and now Hannah and Link live just down the path from Tony’s house. I don’t know any details, but Hannah and Tony seem to get along well and surely do the co-parenting thing incredibly well – Jasper’s wonderfulness has clearly been carefully cultivated. Link is also an interesting guy – we especially enjoyed hearing him talk about Piedmont Biofuels, the bio-diesel plant in Pittsboro where he works. And Hannah makes goat-milk-based soaps, which she sells in a store in Pittsboro, right next to Virilie’s Diner. Small world.
4. Cooked and cleaned and talked with Barbara, the 87-year-old matriarch of the Blue Heron community. She is what you’d call a firecracker. For instance: “Men are such shits, aren’t they? I wish I could be a lesbian, but I just love men too damn much….” This coming from an 87-year-old mouth is absolutely hilarious. She just had a shoulder replacement (her fifth joint replacement – she says she is “becoming a bionic woman”) so needed our help getting the house ready for a guest. She is so smart and interesting and warm.
5. Dug potatoes out in the field for Ed, Tony’s next-door neighbor. It was our first experience with tractor-based farming, and I can’t say it left a good impression. Ed had gone down the rows and loosened the soil to make finding the potatoes easier, but it buried the green tops of the plants, making potato discovery harder than it seems it should be. Amy harvested potatoes at Mill Creek Farm in Philadelphia, and she said you just found the above-ground potato plant and dug there, where you’d find a bunch of potatoes. Instead, just dug haphazardly, sometimes finding five big potatoes in one spot and other times finding none. I thought potato harvesting would be like a treasure hunt, so maybe my expectations were just unrealistic! But we harvested a bushel full, and were rewarded by delicious chicken tacos at Ed’s house with his wife, Karen, and two kids. They, too, are incredibly warm and welcoming, which became a theme at Blue Heron…
6. Weeded and mulched Tony’s beds behind his house, where he’s growing blueberries. He showed us a wild weed called burdock, which is chock full of good stuff but tastes kind of plant-y and tangy. Good to know, though, both for consumption and to know what not to dig up. Weeding can be scary when you don’t know what’s what! We pulled up a lot of grass and prickly night shade, then spread the rich, dark leaf compost over the beds. It’s amazing how much better the beds looked after we finished our work!
7. Talked with community members and observed the goings-on at the Farm, which has been a collective for about 15 years. It has about 15 members, who collectively own the land and share consensus-based decision-making power, plus non-member residents.
Now we’re in the car, driving up to Charlottesville, VA – in typical Amy & Caitlin fashion, we are driving four hours to go see a show. But it’s the Avett Brothers! Amy bought the tickets months ago, and upon urging from Tony, Ed, and Karen, we decided to go for it. We’re staying in a hostel a half mile from the venue called Alexander House, the only hostel in Charlottesville.
Update: totally worth the drive for the show. We’re now at the hostel and are excited that we get a double bed instead of a twin! Getting ready to post this and a bunch of pictures!
Oh man, so much to report!
San Ysidro Farms was an incredible experience – Michael and Kaitlin and all their animals were so generous and welcoming and warm. We got a pretty good sense of the town of Fredericksburg, met a bunch of their friends, and were so sorry to leave…but there is always so much ahead of us!
We drove out to Shenandoah Valley National Park on Saturday. We got a late start and didn’t arrive till around 5pm. Without any cell service at all, we couldn’t contact Nicole and Mariko, whom we were meeting, until Amy spotted Mariko’s painted Volvo stationwagon, complete with note explaining where they were! We caw’d on a trail until we found each other. We found a campgrounds, gathered some wood, fuddled through fire-making, and got to cookin. Nicole (+ Mariko) never fails to surprise me: I always think she’s combining all sorts of weird things, but then it turns out being delicious. Cuisine for the evening was Bavarian beers, Fantiago (fontina and asiago) cheese, and grapes for appetizers and a stew made with quinoa and bell peppers and asparagus and turkey sausage and onions and beer and wine and I don’t know what else, PLUS fingerling potatoes simmered over the fire in beer and wine and olive oil, PLUS apple pie warmed over the fire for dessert. We pictched our tents right off the Appalachian trail in the dark, played a few rounds of Taboo huddled together for warmth, then went to our separate tents and shivered until we fell asleep (who knew it was cold in the mountains?).
The next day Amy and I got up early, got a fire started, and got to work. Amy made egg and cheese sandwiches, oatmeal with apples, and some other deliciousness that I can’t remember while I broke down our campsite. We took a hike up to Mary’s Rock, a peak that boasts panoramic views of the valley. It was a rough hike, as I’m woefully out of shape, but I’m so glad I pushed through – the views were incredible! From the top, we said goodbye to Nicole and Mariko, then Amy and I pushed even further and climbed up to the highest point on Mary’s Rock, which involved some scrambling and holding onto ledges and I thought I might die a few times… But again, it was worth it! The hike down the trail was easy (aside from a few rolled ankles) in comparison. Walking on flat ground felt really weird once we were done.
We picked up dinner from a nearby grocery store and then drove up to Philly – we just couldn’t’ stay away! It was so wonderful to see everyone – especially Kitty! Amy says I’m projecting, but I think Kitty was pretty ecstatic to see us. We cuddled under the covers J The next day we had lunch with Karen and Nicole at our favorite Dim Sum place in Chinatown, said our goodbyes and headed back down south. And, because we couldn’t stay away, we crashed at San Ysidro Farms! It was wonderful to see them again, but the next day we set off for Siler City, NC to visit Circle Acres.
We pulled up the very long drive and were greeted by Trace, who was cutting wood. It was getting too dark for a tour of the farm, so we sat around the cob stove where Gray’s venison stew was cooking. It was delicious – my first foray into the world of venison. We met everyone in the dark – headlamps don’t really provide ample facial illumination – so we weren’t quite sure who everyone was. Gray told us to be up around when the sun comes up, and we were off to set up our sleeping quarters in the loft of the neighbor’s barn. There’s a mattress up there, so we piled on the blankets and hunkered down. I didn’t sleep much until around two, but after I took a walk around the farm and claimed the side of the bed that is rightfully mine (we were backwards), I slept like a baby.
The next morning, we jumped right into helping with Danielle’s cob house. Cob is a mixture of clay, finely ground gravel, and sand; it’s surprisingly hard once it dries, and it an affordable, earth-friendly, natural form of construction. We had studied Danielle’s blog, earthenacres.wordpress.com, which documents the building of her home, which began in January. It’s really amazing how fast it’s taken shape, and how passionately Danielle has designed and built the home for her and her husband, Noel.
So, Gray gave us a very short crash course in cob mixing and let us do our thing. See photos. Basically, you take 1 ½ buckets of gravel, ½ bucket of sand, and 1 ½ buckets of clay and put it all on a tarp. You roll the 3 ingredients back and forth on the tarp until they’re very well mixed, then you add some water, take your shoes off, and start squishing the mixture with your feet. The clay is full of quartz, so it hurts! You try and pick all the quartz out as you find it, but there’s always more, itching to poke your tender soles. Once the water is mixed in, you roll the gook back and forth on the tarp, then add more water, squish with your feet, roll around, add more water, etc – until it all sticks together and looks like a burrito (or a doobie, as Gray pointed out). THEN you stomp on it, add some straw, roll it back and forth, stomp on it, add more straw – until it looks like a burrito again. Then you put it into buckets and lay it by the house under a tarp. If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of this process. At all. The cob is really rough from all the gravel and it tears up my hands and feet, and the buckets are SO HEAVY!
But once Danielle got home, we got to actually use the cob to build her house. Again, we got a very short crash course in how to add cob to the structure, and then we went at it. I was so nervous – I was building someone’s house! What if I did something wrong and the whole thing crumbled? Danielle didn’t seem to be worried. Basically, you slop the cob on and squish it down, making sure you’re keeping the walls of the house straight. Easier said than done, of course – and hard to explain!
Today we were up before everyone (much to my chagrin – I have such a hard time getting out of bed!) and made ourselves breakfast. Danielle made sweet potatoes with cumin and cinnamon, which we happily sampled, then we got to cobbing. Amy and I figured out a system where she does the mixing and I fetch the materials, water, and do the bucket hauling. She is a champion cob mixer and I don’t mind the grunt work. Five visitors arrived, one of whom lived on the farm last winter, and all helped with the cob process. When we were done, I had all kinds of clay and slip all over – especially in my hair – so we decided to brave the outdoor solar shower. I had filled up two bags last night, to warm in today’s sun, but apparently I left them open so all the water leaked out. So we had very cold showers in the sun. It was definitely an experience! Hopefully I’ll be able to have a few more before the week is over…it seems that most people at Circle Acres don’t care much for them :)
There have been lots of visitors in the past few days, and all of them have been wonderful. We got to meet two of Danielle’s coworkers, one of whom brought her 2nd grader son, Orion, who is one of the coolest little kids I’ve ever met. The other coworker is Julia, who WWOOFed at Circle Acres and then decided to move to the area. They work at Celebrity Dairy and make goat cheese together. Danielle says she gets lots of free goat cheese, but we have yet to benefit….
So far, Circle Acres has been a really cool experience. The work is HARD but really worth it, everyone is really interesting, and it’s cool to see how a small collective works (I think there are seven people who live on the farm full-time).
After our showers, we drove out to Pittsboro, the nearest real town (the coffee shop in Siler City closes at 5pm), to the Chatham Market Co-Op grocery store and café. It’s a cool little place, and we even ran into Gray. So funny how small these worlds are…
We emailed four more farms to figure out where we’re going next week, took care of some business, and updated our blogs. We’re hoping to make it to at least one day of the Shakori Hills Festival this weekend, which is right down the road from Circle Cares – we emailed the volunteer coordinator to see if we can join the clean-up crew in exchange for free tickets, so we’ll see….
The café is closed and Amy’s waiting in the car for me, so I should wrap up. More soon!
“this is so kentucky.”
so says our host, michael, as he unloads a garden hose he tore up with the tractor – we’ve been trying to make zip-lines for the dogs off and on all day, and amy’s had the idea to use a long length of hose instead of connecting cables together. my idea was to use a pulley as a slide mechanism; i have to say that this method works the best.
the ultimate hick, michael explains, is either in kentucky or alabama. nevermind his southern twang, of course. this is SO kentucky.
the zip-lines are lines of extension cord, garden hose, and cables tied between trees and posts. the dogs get clipped to the lines via long leashes or cables or baling twine – whatever’s around – so that they can roam relatively freely when they’re outside tied up, and not get twisted around each other, or trees, or anything else. this required a good bit of ingenuity, creativity, problem-solving, sawing down trees and shrubs, bee-killing (we discovered a hive), and collecting a lot of random stuff lying around the farm that we enlisted for the project. when we finished, michael thanked us, saying “what we did is really cool and important,” though he wished it had been for something more farm-y, like the chickens or the cows. nonetheless, we did it. now we just have to see whether the system is “obie-proof” – obie is the dog who is most misbehaved and most likely to get himself tangled up.
the rain started on saturday night, and it drizzled off and on all day yesterday and into today. it's amy’s birthday, so we’re out and about to celebrate. we had thai for lunch (surprisingly good, given the small town) and now are sitting in hyperion espresso café to use the wireless. they make their mochas with chocolate milk here. we saw river and another friend of the farm, kirkwood (who stopped by the farm with his dog, quigley)in town – it’s a small town…
anyway, i think we’re going to go see a movie sometime soon, then head back to the farm. we've emailed several farms in north carolina for out next few stops, as well as some people from couchsurfing to stay with in the norfolk / virginia beach area. we may also see karen at some point if her rugby team makes it there!
it's stressful to not have a plan…clearly, it’s part of the deal to be extremely flexible and almost entirely without agenda, but to have no idea where we’re sleeping in a few days is pretty nerve-wracking. when i think about it rationally, though, we can always stay longer at san ysidro (where we are now) or just go camping somewheres.
lastly, now that we have real wifi (as opposed to wireless tethered through my phone), i think i can finally post all these pictures! here goes :)
Location: San Ysidro Farms, Fredericksburg, VA
Summary of the past ~3500 miles
Origin: Philadelphia, PA
Stops: Hudson, NY à Poconos, PA à Philadelphia, PA à Hudson, NY à Toledo, OH à Saint Paul / Minneapolis, MN à Madison, WI à Chicago, IL à Streetsboro, PA à Endicott, NY à Hudson, NY à New Haven, CT àPhiladelphia, PA à Fredericksburg, VA
1. Do not ring the late check-in bell at the KOA campgrounds near Erie, PA. No one will come.
2. Do not set out on a year-long camp-heavy trip with a 22-year-old tent without first testing the rain fly. Your tent will get wet.
3. Stare at the blue sky for as long as possible every morning.
4. Learn to make a proper fire.
5. Avoid major highways for prettier views, small-town feels, and fewer trucks.
6. Watch the sun set over the mountains.
7. Don’t forget the camera.
8. Always set off fireworks with Rachael, who loves swords.
9. Tony’s fried white eggplant picked fresh in Columbia County is tres delicious.
10. My parents’ house in Saint Paul is a haven for decompression.
11. Chicago is a beautiful city.
12. Always visit Yali and Tariq because they’re wonderful.
13. Do lots of research on everything (especially tents).
14. Kitty is the best kitty evar.
15. Never leave Philadelphia because it’s so perfect. (Oops)
1. Remember the lessons.
2. Keep in touch with EVERYONE.
3. Visit Scott Longe’s Okeekanokee (sp?) Farm in a year when we know lots (a little bit?) more about everything.
4. Plan for New Years in New Orleans with Rachael, Ashlee, Caera Vo, Nicole, Erica, and others.
5. Convince Nicole to buy a motorcycle (with sidecar) so she can join us on the road.
6. Convince everyone we love to quit their jobs and join us on the road.
7. Take lots of pictures.
8. Go hang gliding.
Day 1 at San Ysidro. Favorite moment so far: when River (roommate) showed up at the house and yelled HEY, ARE YOU GUYS SQUATTERS? and then offered us a smoke (politely declined).
Dogs – Nema, Obie, and Rodeo
Horses – Romeo and Uh-Oh
Cat – James
Lots of photos :)
Greetings from the midwest! We had a lovely week in saint paul with my family, completed by cuddlepuddles with the giant dog Bella, cider donuts from pine hill orchard in gorgeous white bear lake, and incredibly beautiful views of some of the 10,000 lakes the state claims. We spent a lot of time at the house with the fam, especially mi madre, and paid a visit to see jess rosenberg in minneapolis. We stopped by Rack Attack to get a roof rack and cargo box, too, which is excellent because we always have way more stuff than we think. Giant thanks to dad!!
We left minnesota earlier than we'd like, but we've got big things ahead of us! We stopped in to the university of wisconsin at madison to check out the campus, which is nestled between lakes mendota and monona. It's giant, so it was hard to get a feel for the campus, but we got good vibes. Our favorite part was when we stumbled upon the marching band rehearsal playing "my girl," interrupted every few bars by the director. Once he let them play they had so much fun! That's something that we missed out on at bryn mawr, though amy pointed out that she would probably have dated a marching bander so we wouldn't be here together. Thanks amy.
Highlight in wisconsin was a truck stop that sold Cheezghetti and had fish mounted on the walls with an identification aid AND had an arcade and sold fudge and other treasures.
Next stop was cheecago. We got in at about 8:30 (the traffic was pretty brutal), checked into the Hostel International, and set out to see what we could see. It was a beautiful night, just a little bit chilly. We walked through a really cool sculpture installation by some polish woman - massive legs walking around - called Agora. We walked along a park, and it felt so good to move around after a day in the car. We were exhausted, but we push each other to push through and get out into the world instead of giving and doing what's easiest (sleep). We did give in and hop a cab to a restaurant we found on Yelp.
We had in an incredible dinner ar The Purple Pig, home of fine cheese, swine and wine or some such. We ordered four petit plats, all delicious. My favorite was artichoke hearts with fingerling potatoes, asiago cheese, and salami toscana. Close second was the burrata served with raw beets, arugala, sungold tomatoes, and vinaigrette. Deeeelicious. Dessert, ricotta with chocolate chips served warm inside a brioche bun, was incredible. AND I had a tasty belgian wheat beer I'd never tried before. Mmmmmscrumptious!
We walked across a bridge and took in the water and the chicago skyline. I loved the chicago tribune building. We hopped a cab back to the hostel and passed out (we had to pay for two beds in different rooms, which was sad, but they were relatively comfy and only a little bit creaky).
I slept till 9:30, when amy woke me up after an idyllic run along lake michigan. I stumbled out of my top bunk for free breakfast (we had bowls of raisin bran - the pickins was slim) and got out of the hostel at around 11. We met a cool lady named Ru, who was in chicago interviewing for a job writing for Pitchfork.
We took lakeshore drive to northwestern. Along the drive I decided another goal of mine is to go sailboating. Amy says it's a luxury sport but I say we gotta find rich friends. Anybody out der?
I visited northwestern when I was in high school and only remembered a massively hideous orange building. Memory fails me yet again. We didn't see any orange building but we did see lots of pretty ones. Lunch at Bat 17, another yelp find: split an allagash white and a teriyaki chicken sandwich with grilled pineapple and onions on brioche. There was complimentary starbucks coffee AND an incredible bathroom (see photo), so we left happy.
Now we're on the road to somewhere in ohio, where we will camp for our first time on the trip. I'm hoping to sneak into Findley State Park, but Amy's not too keen on that idea. Typical :)