I lost my job. What a soul-destroying phrase, yet it's more than common these days.
It was late October when the neuropathy hit the outer two fingers of my left hand. It was getting to the point that I couldn't type anymore. That's what made up 90 percent of my job. I abandoned my credit card debt to soak up a thousand a month before I HAD to quit. I wondered if AFLAC would provide for me if I paid into them, but they turned out to be fair-weather friends-- their pre-existing condition riders would screw me.
Since I had worked for an academically involved business I had a semi-pension from IMRF (Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund) good for a few hundred a month disability. I'm only 52 so the government was really shitty about paying for anything else.
I wanted to move out of the area because (a) It was too damned cold around Chicago to guts out a winter without income, and (b) I wanted to finish out my life away from cities and towns.
You want more reasons to move? How about I'm tired of walking around my car every morning to see if anybody flatted my tires, ripped off my battery or just shredded my top for the hell of it. I gave up trying to keep a radio in my jeep 4 years ago. How about I'm tired of being ready to throw down against every punk in the neighborhood with a hardon against fat old guys every time I carry in my groceries from the car--about a football field's distance from my apartment. "Hey, whatcha got in the bag?"
I threw a dart at a map of the south-east quarter of the US. I was trying for the Southern Smokies and did pretty good. I hit Boone, North Carolina, home of the Appalachian State University.
I called my sister who lived a bit further South than where I was 'aiming' for--Jacksonville Florida. She had a well-paying office job in a rather large corporation and her second husband had settled down and stopped job-hopping. I needed a mail cut-out for IMRF to contact and mail to without Citibank catching wind of where I was. She agreed to the mail cut-out deal and would put the property in her name if I paid for it. I set the wheels in motion to get a 'used' social security number and a license under a different name. Her only condition --so far-- was that she look the place over with me to see if I was cutting off more than I could chew.
I got a hitch put on my old jeep and started packing an 8x14 foot covered trailer with all the odd reenacting crap I'd thrown together over the years. I got the springs boosted on the jeep.
At the same time I put out some feelers towards finding an old homestead with a few acres and some trees that could be had on the cheap. Boone itself turned out to be pretty large--It had a golf course for Christ's sake! I wanted to be off the grid, off city water and out of sight.
I needed to motivate myself. I had to get my head into moving and self-sufficiency. I still had my set of Foxfire books and planned on getting my money's worth from them. I bought a few books on native American food plants and hunter-gatherer practices--some books by Mark Baker and a few others about early American woods runners were useful. Ragnar Benson has some books on living off the grid, trapping and poaching (hunting for the table). They're good reads.
I needed to lose weight and build strength. I bought two .22 revolvers, two .22 rifles and another .22 mag (WMR) rifle. I bought ammunition for both every weekend. I walked a lot.
I started a shopping list-- which I promptly threw away. I really didn't know what I needed until I saw the place.
What did I want? That I could quote my requirements from memory-- I wanted a semi-accessible place up in a draw with a little flat land but mostly trees. Fire road or jeep-accessible was fine. If it butted up to a national forest, more better. I wanted a well and an outhouse. I wanted a medium-sized cabin with a fireplace that I could cook from, with a raised hearth and a sturdy swinging arm to hang a kettle up.
I already had a power saw and a sturdy electric drill. With a little generator and a can of gas or six I could build a lean-to off the cabin to keep firewood dry and an out-building. I would need a smoke-house to cure and smoke any game I took as well.
Come April I took a few days off to follow up on some properties in person. I loaded up the jeep with sheepskins, blankets, tarps, rope and tent stakes. I expected to sleep rough on this trip. I threw in my camp kitchen for the hell of it--it had a propane stove and lamp as well as 40 pounds of canned goods in it.
I think I hit gold in the place I found. The previous owner had died in bed with no known family. His greatly grand pappy had homesteaded in the mountains. Nobody wanted the place because it was off-grid for everything and it was too expensive to bring in utilities. I bought it off the county for $3500.00 cash money, $180.00 a year taxes due on June 1. The county clerk agreed to write in the current year's taxes as forgiven.
Sam and I drove out to the property to see just what we had. The old owner had died several years ago and the place needed some TLC immediately. I took many pictures of the place as we wandered through it, documenting the neglect. It was a squared-beam log cabin with three rooms in a row, the middle one being the largest and the others set up as bedrooms or storage. There were two windows per room and two doors in the main cabin. The square-faced logs were weathered a silvery gray. The ends showed that each log was cut into a form of tongue and groove to dig into the log above and below it like a V-shaped mortise and tenon running the length of the beams. There were stairs up to a trap door that led to a loft. There was some nice timber, some mason jars, pottery and a big old three-legged pot with a hole in the bottom up there. That kettle must have held forty gallons easily. How the hell did they get it up there?
Out back, the well was sweet. The outhouse and well house had fallen in. The foundation of the cabin seemed fine. Both the front and back porches had fallen apart. There was a small stream a couple hundred yards from the cabin. I may be able to put in a cold house. We set up our bedding in one of the side bedrooms.
The property was only about 35 acres with about five tillable. Sue found several small orchards-- pear, apple, pecan, peach and walnut trees that badly needed pruning. There was a small swamp in a draw that had cattails growing in it. I found the crumbling door to an old, old root cellar twenty feet out behind the kitchen door. It was built into a shelf in the ground as the land climbed up the draw. I cleaned it out. The shelves had collapsed and made a mess of everything. It was very well made of dry-laid stone. I needed a couple of wheelbarrows of sand to replace what was there for potatoes and such. I left it open to the sun to dry out.
I'd rebuild the doors when I got the wood. The smokehouse would go in then, too.
I hadn't expected to get this lucky this soon, so I had left most of my stuff back home. However I had brought my contractor's extension cords, drill, saw, fasteners and general hand tools to work with. I found a generator for sale cheaper than what I could have bought it for up north. Three 5-gallon Jerry cans of gas and I was good to go. Good thing, too-I was about broke.
The first thing I did was to get a disposable phone, order 40 sheets of half-inch plywood, two rolls of roofing felt, three flats of shingles, a truck-load of 20' 2x6's, a box of roofing nails and a bucket of roofing tar delivered as far up the road as they could get. I was surprised that they made it to the back door. (The damned phone wouldn't work until I was four miles down my driveway.) Good thing I had canned goods-- the wallet was dry.
I found a local welder that would set me up with a barbecue made out of a 25 gallon drum cut in half the hard way, hinged and with a handle and L-brackets inside welded so that it would support two pieces of expanded mesh for a grilling surface and some 1/8 inch rod welded together to support the fire, also held up by some L-brackets. I could add a firebox and chimney later if I wanted to get fancy. I had him weld it to a steel hand truck. I'd roll the whole shebang up onto cinder blocks to use it. I arranged to pick it up when I got back, around April first. He said no problem--he sold them mostly that way all the time and could find a buyer if I backed out.
As soon as I had lumber I re-dug the outhouse and re-built it. The soil had laid for so long that it was just fertilizer. I mounded it up and covered it with a tarp to use later. Do you know the secret to not getting splinters from a new outhouse seat? Buy one at K-mart and nail it down!
The well house got the same treatment, just no night soil or seat and add a cap and a windlass.
I scrubbed the cabin out to the walls with Lysol and whitewashed everything that wasn't stone. Twice. It took over a week for me to re-roof the place, but it was nice and tight when I was done. There wasn't any water damage to speak of, but there would have been if I hadn't done something.
The fireplace passed first inspection and drew well when I lit a fire. It had a nicely sized firebox but the irons and traverse needed replacing. We burned whatever was solid enough to use from the front and back porches for firewood. Thank god payday rolled around and I had direct deposit or I would have had to walk home.
.... There is more of this story ...