As I sit here at the kitchen door, holding Maddie (my African Grey parrot ) on my lap, with Baby Girl (our Boston Terrier) standing, looking out between my legs, with my fresh-ground coffee percolating on my wood fire just outside on the deck, it’s easy to picture life on our twelve-acre homestead as a peaceful, serene existence. That is, after all, why we chose this life out here. As Maddie gets anxious to start her day with Max (my bronze-breasted turkey that she grew up with), and my coffee finishes perking, reality settles back down on me and the day comes into focus. Still, I have very few complaints, if any. I absolutely love life on our homestead, even with all of the day-to-day challenges and setbacks we face, I would never go back to the saturated life we had before. The traffic, asphalt, honking horns, street lights, squealing tires and brakes, long lines, fast food, convenience (?) stores, chemical additives, dehydration, rehydration, chlorine, fluoride, fluorocarbons, GMO, pasteurized, homogenized, bleached, enriched, PPO, MHC, oleo, margarine, can we pray, can we pledge, can we bless, looters, scooters, shooters, ENOUGH!
Right now, however, we are facing our biggest challenge so far in our three-year adventure. Nearly three months ago, I awoke one Thursday morning to begin our usual routine. I arose to go to the bathroom, took one step and fell right to the ground instead. Now, if you were to talk with my husband, he would probably tell you I am just a little bullheaded. So, I tried with everything in me to get back up to the edge of that bed, but it was not happening. In hindsight it was probably very funny to watch, but, God bless my husband, he never once laughed. Finally, I gave in and asked that he help get me up to the bed. Never mind the boring details and fast forward a bit, today I am at home, in a wheelchair, with a diagnosis of advanced Multiple Sclerosis. Seems as though there have been some missed diagnoses over the past 15-20 years. Testing and medication still in the works, I am not claiming the wheelchair to be a permanent fixture just yet. It is, however, here today, and it will undeniably be a part of our long-term future.
So, just what does one who is trying to live a self-sustaining, off-grid lifestyle on a twelve-acre homestead in the country in west Tennessee do when they find themselves on wheels rather than legs? Great question. My first answer is PRAY, a lot. No joking there. Folks around these parts are always saying “God will never give me more than I can handle, but sometimes I think He gets me confused with someone else”. Well, I know that is a joke, but it’s also a half-truth, so I pray. Every day. Then, get to work.
We are fortunate to have been blessed with some of the most fabulous neighbors in the world, and, while I was in and out of the hospital for the first couple of months, we were able to stay in a friend’s spare bedroom. Tennessee experienced a horrible summer where we had two months with the heat index near or above 105°F and humidity levels of 98-100%. That does not mix well with MS and they had air conditioning, so their offer was literally a lifesaver for me. During that same time, neighbors nearby took care of our chickens, ducks, goose, turkey, and rabbits. They even dispatched some of them when the time came that we knew we would not be returning soon. Other neighbors made sure that our cats were safe and well-nourished. How can we not feel blessed?
When it was time to pack up and come home, we found that one of our neighbors had constructed a temporary ramp so I had access to the cabin, and that made things easier for my husband to handle. A lot less strain on his back is a wonderful gift. Plus, there isn’t a soul who knows us who doesn’t know how much we love and live in the great outdoors. A ramp allowing me access to my yard is absolutely a life-giving blessing for me. Not one of these generous, kind, true, rural Americans ever asked for anything in return. We have found our little corner of west Tennessee to be overflowing with marvelous souls such as these.
We have been home for a little over a week now and we are getting everything rearranged for “wheelability” (my new word for wheelchair accessibility). The self-sufficient lifestyle, in and of itself, is unique and requires specific tools and equipment, space considerations, and time commitment. Having MS (or any other debilitating disease) and being confined to a wheel chair, only serves to compound those differences. Every single day we make new adjustments and run across something else that we have to develop a creative solution for. It’s almost like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without the picture on the box to use for reference. Believe me when I tell you, it’s a ten-thousand-piece round-puzzle at that!
Like a lot of true, modern homesteaders, we began our journey with very little. Not much more than a dream in our hearts and a partially laid -out plan on paper, a few tools, and a real-estate agent searching for the impossible piece of property. (That is a whole other story in itself.) With that hope of getting a piece of property that felt right, we thought, from there, we could whittle it into our vision of home. Comforting, warm, inviting, warm, rustic, warm, charming, warm, relaxing, warm, and us. I’m sure you get the idea.
We found almost twelve acres, surrounded on three sides by year-round spring-fed creeks. The fourth side is the access road which dead-ends into our tiny community. The nearest town is actually a village of something like 400 people. It was darn near perfect.
So, back to that day… when we left for the emergency room (40 miles away), the morning of the fall, we had no idea we would not be home for a while, so I didn’t do any long-term closing of our cabin. We merely walked out and locked the door as if we were running to town and back. Coming home two and a half months later meant walking into stale food, moldy bread, a well-composted compost toilet, a sink full of growing dishes and general housetosis from a closed, hot, humid, small, dark cabin. As much as I hate to admit it, my home was nasty. I felt as though I had walked onto that show “Hoarders” after they had cleaned out most of the stuff and only the yuck was left. I had to start at the doorway and clean my way in.
The first big hurdle for me hit that very first day. After two hours of cleaning, I was toast. (Another blessing of MS is severe and chronic fatigue. I am struggling with learning my limits and balancing them with my OCD so i am driving my husband bonkers.) I have never been much good at taking naps, but in the last year or so, I have become quite proficient. I might even qualify at the pro level by now. I even have the pleasure of experiencing what we now term my “lost days”. Days where I sleep right on through. My husband used to try to wake me thinking I needed fluids or nourishment. Sometimes he would succeed. I would go right back to sleep and have no recollection of this when I did wake on my own. Plus, when I wake the following day I am totally unaware that I have slept for that long. I think I am waking at the normal time on a normal day so, for me, I have sincerely “lost” an entire day’s time. I actually quit driving a few months before “the chair” because I could pull up to a stoplight and fall dead asleep right there. I was afraid I would start falling asleep when I wasn’t at a stop. Then what?
Well, it has taken me the better part of our time thus far to get through the majority of my kitchen. I have rearranged cabinets so that heavier items or frequently-used items are at my arm level. That way, I don’t have to reach high or low and risk falling out of my chair, or worse, tipping it over. We moved furniture around so that there is space to move the wheelchair wherever I need to go. (I am so happy I made the choice to use pieces of primitive furniture rather than traditional kitchen-cabinetry.) The biggest thing we were able to do is switch out my kitchen sink so that I had one I could roll under that was also the perfect height. What a blessing that is! One inconvenience about living in a small cabin is that we had to move the table that used to be centered in my kitchen as a work island. One end is now butted up against a wall, next to a cabinet, so I don’t have access to as much of the surface as I previously had. It actually does, however, place it closer to my wood cookstove so I don’t have to try to transport hot dishes on my lap while pushing my chair from station to station, so it’s a more-than-fair trade.
We still have a long way to go. Access to livestock, gardens, wood, hunting, and other areas is currently something beyond my reach. There are very few resources available to help a person with handibilities in designing an off-grid lifestyle outside of an urban setting. So, we are going to take it a step at a time and when we succeed, we will show you how we did it. When we fail, we will show you how and why not to do it that way. Then we will keep trying until we get it right. Will it be difficult? Absolutely, but it wasn’t exactly easy before this chair. Can it be done? Without a doubt!
Our next project is to build a new milk-stand for the goats. We need to make the height just right for my chair so that when I am milking, bathing, trimming hooves, etc., I can access the critters without having to overreach and put either myself, or the goats, at risk. One of the teenage girls in the neighborhood is in Agriculture classes at school, and belongs to the local 4H and FFA clubs. She is going to help me with the goats as a project for extra credit, so I am pretty happy that I won’t be alone when working down there. My husband has his own chores to keep after and they do not include babysitting me all day. With Christine around we will both feel a bit more secure.
That just brings us to another concern though. We have to get some two-way radios for communication so that I can always contact him in case of an urgent situation. Our budget isn’t exactly flexible so we have to rework some things to come up with the money for a nice, reliable set as this is a crucial item.
We are starting this epic journey with our two elderly dogs, Buddha (a fifteen-year-old pug) and Baby Girl (a twelve-year-old Boston Terrier); our three rescue cats: Treasure, Cali, and Stash; our goose and turkey introduced above, two Gold-Laced Wyandotte banties (my husband calls them both Denzel even though they are hens); and 5 goats: AJ (a Pygmy goat my neighbor’s son named after himself), Jim (a Nubian billy my neighbor’s son named after my husband), Elsie and Brown Betty (currently-pregnant Nubian does), and Fawn (a six-month-old kid). The goats were all rescues from a private residence where they were actually being starved and uncared for, so we are currently nursing them back to health. We had a second kid but it was so malnourished that it passed within two days after bringing it home, even with hand-feeding and individual care. I can’t bear to see animals treated in this manner. I just don’t understand what goes on in a person’s mind that makes them feel this is okay!
We do have some fun challenges ahead of us; we lost the whole summer of woodcutting so we are well behind on our stock. We use wood for heat, cooking, and hot water. Again we are fortunate in neighbors as an elderly gentleman a bit down the way has a sawmill. When he squares off logs he is left with all of the naturally rounded sides and has offered us about ten cord of this, already seasoned, for wood for this winter. It will be more than sufficient even if we experience the bad weather the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting. All we need do is tote it down here, cut it to length, and split it. Since we have a gas-powered splitter, I believe I may be able to help some. I used to enjoy splitting wood by hand, using the power splitter only on the bad knots, but now I can’t really do that. Kind of sad because hand-splitting wood is a great way to reduce stress and get a great upper-body workout at the same time. Being in this chair, I can tell you, makes putting on weight easy. It’s like I am a calorie magnet.
Another fairly urgent matter is resurfacing our deck and putting up a permanent ramp. In west Tennessee, or any high-humidity location, no wooden surface lasts, treated or otherwise, because of the moisture in the air during the spring, summer, and into fall. Being gone nearly three months during the outrageous weather this summer, and failing to treat our deck, left it wide open for rapid deterioration, and that’s exactly what we got. Since we have to replace the surface anyway, it gives us the perfect opportunity to raise it to threshold-height and get rid of the last step up. That is an unexpected benefit so we, again, can’t complain too much.
The most enjoyable part of autumn, for me, has always been the preparations for hunting season. Unfortunately, I have to tell you that this year I am somewhat more apprehensive than excited. This will be a totally different experience. Every weekend is going to find us at our friend’s range. It will be like learning to shoot all over again.
While we do raise a good portion of our proteins, we also try to hunt for at least half of them. I am responsible for helping bring in my share of that meat, so it is critical that I learn how to shoot from a relatively inflexible, immobile position. It’s directly opposite any previous form of hunting I have done in the past. I love new challenges and learning new ways of doing things. I just truly pray this doesn’t affect our protein supply this year with the predictions of record-breaking harsh conditions.
With all that we have to do to prepare for winter, there are sure to be lots of opportunities for gut-wrenching laughter here on our fantastic adventure. We’ll learn what it takes to be a Homesteader on Wheels and we’re looking forward to all we’re going to experience along the way.