January 1, 2018
And this is 2018! It’s hard to believe that another year has passed but here we are and I love the quiet way we started out the New Year although I do feel for the kids back in Staunton, struggling to keep the animals fed and watered in the extreme cold. Gabino works three, twelve-hour days at Target distribution. On the four days he is off, it’s relatively easy for him to make sure that all is taken care of at the house in Staunton. On the days he is away for 13 plus hours, the responsibility is left to Alissa. When the weather was nicer, it wasn’t a big deal, because all the chores could be completed in thirty minutes or less. However, now it’s a lot harder. The ice in the watering troughs was so thick that she couldn’t break it. The hose was frozen even though it had been drained. Fortunately, the hose bib itself was not frozen and she was able to use five-gallon buckets to haul water to the three Herefords, a young bull calf, and a Herford x angus calf that we have in a back field that don’t have access to the fountains. The horses and goats also have to have water. In addition, the fountains had frozen up and she had to bust the ice on them. This is a good experience for Alissa and Gabino and will help them know whether they really want to try to farm for themselves in the future. However, I can’t help but feel badly that they have to deal with the animals in the extreme conditions, knowing full well how hard it can be. Meanwhile, in Laurel Fork, we are trying to keep the old farmhouse warm. The propane furnace is running a lot to keep up with the 9 degrees we have outside right now and we have a fire in the fireplace. I am thinking that getting that woodstove in the basement to supplement needs to be done sooner rather than later. We are warm and safe but it’s just a whole lot different than the toasty, draft free, well insulated house in Staunton heated entirely by our wood boiler. There we can combat the psychological affects of the cold by simply turning up the temperature in the house and being toasty warm because we always have plenty of wood to burn and it really doesn’t cost that much more to heat the house when it’s colder outside. We found out real fast that we aren’t going to be able to leave the washing machine in mud room/enclosed back porch area where the former owners put the hook ups when they renovated. We figured it wouldn’t work and found out today without a doubt it won’t. So, we will be moving the washing machine to the basement sometime in the next few days where it won’t freeze up. We did leave the house for a while today and attended an auction at our favorite auction house in Galax. Our friend, Al, was up with his son Eli and went to the auction with us but we all left early. We knew the prices would be high on things and didn’t expect to be able to buy anything. We ran by the grocery store while we were out as well. We try to plan it so we don’t have to make a special trip for groceries since it is about forty minutes round trip for us to get to the nearest real grocery store. (There are places closer like Dollar General and a gas station/general store but the selection is very limited other than basic necessities and the prices are generally high.) Mike and I talked about how quiet New Year’s Eve was here with no traffic, no sirens, and no fireworks. The only sound we heard when we stepped outside was the creek and a screech owl. It was perfect.
January 3, 2018
This cold snap has shown us just how ill prepared we are here in this old farmhouse for these type of conditions, at least under the standards that we are use to living. No matter how much the propane boiler system runs, it just can’t keep up with the cold. We have been working diligently to seal off any place we feel a draft…..windows, doors, and such. We have hung blankets over the exterior doors we don’t use and stuffed insulation around the basement door. We never made it above 65 degrees in the house until yesterday after I spent the afternoon canning apples in the kitchen, cooking our supper in the oven in cast iron skillets, and keeping a roaring fire going in the bedroom all day. We actually had the temperature up to just over 70 degrees in the main part of the house last night when we went to sleep. It was about 85 in our bedroom and we laughed about it being “summertime” in our room. As the fire burned down during the night and the temperature dropped again outside, the house cooled back down to around 65 in spite of the furnace working overtime. I got up around 4:30 and stoked the fire, put some more wood on it, and got it blazing again. It’s toasty in our bedroom again at around 70 degrees, but cool in the rest of the house. Still, there are no complaints on my part. We are safe and warm, although a bit cool from time to time. We will just have to keep plugging away and see how we can be more efficient and conserve heat here in this old house. The extreme cold has kept us from working a lot outside but we have had plenty to do inside. We moved the frozen washing machine from the enclosed porch to the basement and Mike got it set up. That was a job but I couldn’t help much other than moral support. We find that what we need in Staunton is usually in Laurel Fork and what we need in Laurel Fork is usually in Staunton. That was true again yesterday as we did not have a hand cart to move the machine. Mike put it on a rug and he pushed it across the floor to the steps that lead downstairs. I was worried that the machine would not make the turn at the landing but Mike said it would just fit. He moved it down the steps, one step at a time. It wasn’t easy getting it turned at the landing, but eventually, he got it, and finished taking it down the second set of steps. After it thawed, it seemed to be no worse for the adventure. We got this machine off Craigslist for a bargain. It’s an old agitating, top loader washer and I love it. I will never return to a front loader again. The front loaders simply don’t get close clean, take forever to run, and I don’t like the fact that I can’t let clothes soak. When your clothes get as dirty as ours do, an agitating washer is the only way to go. I was happy that the old machine still worked once we got it thawed and moved because it’s getting harder and harder to find those old agitating washers. The kids have been having a time of it back home. The water froze at the hose bib and the tractor wouldn’t start. Gabino is going out multiple times a day to break the ice so the cattle and mini horses and goats can drink. He needed to put another round bale in the feeder but had a hard time getting the tractor started but eventually was successful. They are going through a lot of wood to keep the boiler going and the house warm, but they are comfortable and doing well. We are so fortunate that they agreed to move into the house and keep things going for us there. Folks like to come to their own conclusions and make up what they don’t know and there have been some assumptions that the kids had financial difficulties and had to move in with us. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The kids graciously agreed to move because it benefited us. They rent out the home that they own and they pay us rent for living in our home in Staunton. The situation benefits us all as I provide child care when Alissa is working and going to school and she doesn’t have to drag them out to go to a sitter as they can just stay in their routines at home. We all give and we all receive the benefits from our multi-generational arrangement. Of course, it also provides it own sets of challenges, but I feel that mostly it provides benefits to all three generations living in the home. Without their help, we would not be able to make such a smooth transition to our SW Virginia home. Their involvement means that we can work here on getting the outbuildings and fencing in place before moving the animals which is a real blessing.
January 5, 2018
We, like much of North America right now, are just trying to stay one step ahead of the cold weather and also deal with the unexpected situations that arise because of the extreme temperatures. Maybe they aren’t so unexpected, because we just expect cold weather to be difficult, but they are the problems we hope we can avoid and sometimes are not able to do so. We really can’t complain, and we are not, because we realize how blessed we are to have safety from the brutal cold and to have all our physical needs met. We did anticipate the issue with our washer being out on the enclosed porch but had hoped that we wouldn’t have to move it. We were not too surprised when we did. What I didn’t anticipate was my refrigerator/freezer going out that also sits on the enclosed back porch. I am assuming it may run properly if moved to a warmer area of the house but it is old and could have just decided that it was done. Knock on wood, my vintage refrigerator in the kitchen is still going strong. I have to defrost it every six to eight weeks, but it just keeps on keeping on. Everything I had in my refrigerator freezer on the porch was thawed out and slimy and everything in refrigerator compartment was frozen. I had to throw out a lot of food and that makes me sick. I wish that I had hogs or chickens here in Laurel Fork to fee it to, but instead, I will just have to dump it in the compost pile and let the birds and wild animals feast on it. My only consolation is that in this cold weather, maybe they will feel like they are being especially blessed. I think Mike was up most of the night trying to keep the fire going in the fireplace. We found that by shutting off the areas of the house we are not using, covering up doors and windows that were leaking or radiating cold air, and by keeping the fire going along with the propane boiler system, we can mostly keep the house around 68 degrees. At night, when we sleep, we lose ground and the temperature drops down in the house so that it takes us until late morning to get the temperature back up to a comfortable level again. With single digit temps last night and the wind chill below zero (with each gust driving that cold into this old farm house) I am sure it took constant tending to the fire to keep the house comfortable last night so that we didn’t lose too much ground. Once I got up at daybreak, I took over tending the fire and have been letting Mike get a few hours sleep. He has been the one going out and cutting the dead wood around the house, splitting it and bringing it in so that we have it to use. He doesn’t seem to mind and has been really sweet about it. I have to smile because the original plan was that we would just use the propane so that it wouldn’t be necessary for him to cut wood. We do miss our outdoor wood boiler in Staunton that works so efficiently and is so economical to operate. Putting one in at the farmhouse in Laurel Fork was not an option because we are not here all the time to keep it running and a wood boiler has to be constantly tended. If one is going to not use the wood boiler, then all the pipes must be drained each time it is left and with our traveling back and forth so much, it just wasn’t practical to put in a wood boiler as our primary source of heat. We will be looking into options for wood heat in the house. The fireplace has burned well. The flue draws well and the fire burns well. We think there is probably another fire place in the living room (the currently used fireplace being in the bedroom) that backs up to the one we are using. We are pretty sure the folks who renovated the farm house covered it up and put gas logs there. We may try to uncover that fireplace and put an insert in there eventually. We also will probably look into installing a wood stove in the basement or, at the very minimum, put in a wood cookstove. I have dreamed of having another wood cookstove every since I had to leave mine in Alaska. A wood cookstove in the basement will not heat the house but it will go a long way to help. And of course, a big issue is simply just finding the drafts and filling them as well as insulating everywhere we can find to insulate. Mike really doesn’t like cold weather and he is use to having a well-insulated and well heated house. I’m just so proud of how he has tackled the things that arise with the old farm house and together we just move forward. My entire life I have mostly looked at the things that arise as an adventure. I think my grandparents instilled that attitude within me. They were the ones who moved to Alaska the first time when I was just five or six years old. Their stories were full of adventures and it didn’t take me long to understand that their approach was what made life either an adventure or an obstacle. Their influence or their genes (or both) instilled in me that attitude and that quest for seeing each situation as a scene from a story that could be written as a tragedy or an adventure. The circumstances remain but how the story is written depends on us. I am forever indebted to my maternal grandparents for their influence in my life.
Our little mountain farm is eerily quiet this morning. I am just not use to having no cattle around and today is the first day that the farm is vacant of anything but the wild animals and birds that make it their home. The neighboring farm has had beef cattle on this property for a number of years, and we made arrangements with them to have the cattle out by the end of 2017 so that we could work on fencing and move our own cattle here in the summer of 2018. As the year came to an end, the neighboring farmer’s son in law who actually owns the cattle approached Mike about just buying the small herd. They came to an arrangement on the price and Mike agreed to buy them, but we didn’t intend to keep them on the property in Laurel Fork. Mike’s nephew has been wanting to get some additional cattle and decided that he would buy the herd and put them with our combined cattle on the home place in Verona. Yesterday the wind was blowing something fierce and the wind chills were below zero but it was the only day that Matt and his friend could make the drive from Staunton to pick up the cattle, so they arranged for the neighbor to corral the herd. I did not bother to go out in the bitter cold as there were four men who were perfectly capable of getting the cattle loaded. I did hear later that the first of the cattle went on the trailer with ease but the second group and the second trailer didn’t go so well. There is a high-strung Angus cow in the herd and she got all worked up and they had quite a time with her. She was one of those cows who can be quite dangerous when she feels pushed in a corner. They eventually got her loaded and the cattle made there way back to Verona without incident. For now, I will just have to enjoy the mules across the road and wait for my cattle to be moved later in the year.
January 6, 2018
Our time here in Laurel Fork for this trip is winding down. When we return to Staunton tomorrow, we will have had seven full, uninterrupted days here at our South West Virginia home. We have had to deal with the cold and have found the house to not be as winter worthy as we would have liked, and have spent a lot of time bringing in wood and tending to the fire, but it has still been an amazing week. When we began looking for a little place just to spend an occasional weekend, I wanted what I termed “an artists retreat” where I could lose myself in reading and writing without distractions. This week our home here has been just that. Our already poor cell phone service has proved to be even more incompetent. Our limited internet service has been even more limited. The quiet has been welcomed. I took advantage of both the fire and the slower pace to play with my cast iron dutch oven yesterday by cooking a blackberry cobbler on the open hearth. That was fun. It had been a few years since I had last used it on a campfire when we were camping along the river at the back of the property where Mike’s mom lives. I’m definitely out of practice and the fire wasn’t ideal because I needed less flame to offer the best cooking scenario but Mike kept insisting on adding more wood to the fire because he wanted to keep the temperature up in the house (which I completely understand) so I just did the best I could with the current situation. If I had been able to set the dutch oven actually over the coals and then heap some coals on top, I would have had a more even cooking scenario. Since I couldn’t do that, I put the dutch oven in front of the fire where there was plenty of heat and rotated the dutch oven from time to time so that it would cook evenly. I was pleased with the final results. I only had a small part right around one edge where the crust got a little extra done and the rest of the cobbler was perfect. I removed it from the heat towards the end and kept the lid on so that the cobbler continued cooking and got done in the middle. I was happy with the slightly browned crust on top and the consistency of the cobbler. It was nice to know that I still can cook on an open hearth, even it was something simple like a cobbler. I guess we will venture off the property today and go to our favorite auction. I’m not much interested in going today but Mike has been sticking around here for days and probably needs to see some other faces other than mine, so I guess we will go. I would still much rather stay here, keep the fires burning, read books and write but I will probably enjoy the outing just as much as him once I get started.
January 7, 2018
We are headed back to Staunton and to the routine that we have kept since last March of the back and forth between our two homes. Christmas gave us a bit of a break from the routine but it’s time to gear up and finish up. I have mixed emotions because this next semester for Alissa is the end for her as far as her Master’s Degree is concerned and it’s the end for me of almost five years of watching grandchildren. Of course, I will watch them in the future, but the plan is that it will not be weekly and will not be on a routine schedule. I have been so blessed to have this time with my grands. It has been incredibly hard with three the same age and a 5 day a week schedule in the beginning when they were infants, but I am so thankful for the time we had together. I am looking forward to not being tied down to a weekly routine of child care after May, but there is so much I will miss about being able to spend so much time with our Little People. The next five months bring a lot more transition for us and for the farm. I just have to keep reminding myself to take one day at a time and enjoy each day without being anxious, fearful, apprehensive or even allowing eagerness and anticipation for what comes next to rob me of today.
We ended up not going anywhere on Saturday and that suited us both just fine. It was just so incredibly cold and we couldn’t justify going out in the extreme cold to travel 40 minutes one way to sit in a drafty, cold building to attend an auction. Instead we just worked to keep the fire burning and the temperature up in the house. When I look back on this past week, our week was consumed with just trying to stay warm in the drafty farm house, but it was an adventure and a time we will never forget. This morning it was two below zero outside when I got up but by afternoon it was in the 20’s. It felt so much warmer compared to the single digits and wind chills below zero that we have been experiencing.
We made our way down the mountain roads to Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church this morning. It always feels like we are coming home when we walk in the door. I hope we never lose that feeling. There were only 18 of us there this morning. Some of the older people just didn’t try to get out in the cold and I can’t blame them. There was a carry in meal after the service and I brought along food and we stayed for that. Never have I been anywhere that I actually wanted to stay for carry in meals, but I love visiting with the people there after church and getting to know them. After the meal, we worked to take down the decorations in the church left from Christmas and get them put away. Some of the larger decorations were carried to a door at the back of the kitchen and when we went through, it was basically an unfinished storage area that had been dug out under the front part of the church. There at the front, we could see the foundation of the rock church sitting on a huge boulder, not visible above ground, but massive and visible from our vantage point underground. It was just amazing to behold.
When everyone else left and it was just Mike and I and Allen and Ginny Childress, we stood for several hours in the kitchen and talked sharing all kinds of stories and experiences with one another. It was such a nice time of sharing and I especially enjoyed the stories that Allen told about his grandfather, Bob Childress, the man about whom the book was written that I mention so much in my journals, THE MAN WHO MOVED A MOUNTAIN. I asked Allen if the book was an accurate depiction of his grandfather and the events that took place and he thoughtfully shook his head yes. He said, “It’s hard to believe that things changed so much in such a short period of time, but they did.” Allen told us how the church had been built in 1929 completely by volunteers, how everyone in the community had come together, how people had brought field stones they gathered to build the church, and how the scaffolding was built strong enough and wide enough that a wheel barrow full of rocks going on way could pass a wheel barrow coming back for more rocks. He said two young boys per wheel barrow would move the stones, one at the front pulling and one at the back pushing an estimated weight of 400 pounds per trip. In one year’s time, the church was built from the ground up. Just an amazing testament to what a group of people can do when they all have the same dream and a testament to the man whose example and encouragement brought these people together.