Nestled in the foothills of Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains lies a secluded and peaceful valley. Wind your way along the country road and meander beside the peaceful creeks and branches. You’ll find yourself drifting back in time to a state of mind that can only be found by being in places like this. As you travel down the one lane road that leads through this farming community you’ll see hillsides scattered with horses, cattle, goats, deer, and wild turkey. If you look close enough you can also see the remnants of several old homesteads and fallen barns. It’s these bits of history that offer a window to the past, a place in time when life moved slower, family stayed closer, and land provided everything you needed to live a simple healthy life.
One spring day in 1996 , the path we were traveling on led us to this country road and way of life. We followed it back to the end of the road and found an old abandoned homestead, a dilapidated house, a couple leaning barns, and 85 acres of wild and overgrown hills and forest, and somehow fell in love. We took a deep breath, sold everything we had, made a giant leap and began blowing life back into the hollow as well as in to us.
These pages are windows into the early years of our adventures here. They cover a time period from 1996 through early 2000. “Go with us” as we say here in the sunny south.
It was so fortunate and and just plain lucky for the both of us that we were raised and lived a large part of our young lives in the country. These are the roots that somehow stayed alive within our souls and eventually began blossoming along the path that we are traveling on today. When we married at 23 and 25 we were like most young couples starting off. We already had accumulated lots of debt and material things that weren’t worth much. We lived in an apartment in a rough section of the city, had full time jobs but were slowly falling into that spiral of only being able to pay our monthly interest payments and weren’t making enough to qualify for a home loan.
We often went backpacking or drove across the hills of the Nashville Basin to the Cumberland Mountains out to the log cabin, Center Hill Lake and hill top farm that I was raised on. It was here that I plugged back in to life and returned to that center, that place where I could still dream.
We also took many trips down to visit Sharon’s parents on their small farm in Alabama. With each visit I started evolving and my clothes would change to overalls, a cowboy hat and boots. We helped them out in their garden and became so enthused about the fresh vegetables that we harvested and ate. We both knew all about the ins and outs of gardening from childhood days but for some reason it was completely new, intriguing and different now. With each visit we began finding a new appreciation for food and the importance of some of the simple but most important elements in life. We became sponges for information on growing things and old farm trades and techniques. Slowly this knowledge began watering our childhood roots and the thirst to learn more.
The first book that became life altering for the both of us was Financial Peace, by Dave Ramsey. My father gave it to us as a Christmas gift and it came at just the right time. We read it together and outloud and when we closed the last page we decided to make some major changes in our life. We pulled out all our credit cards and had plastic surgery using scissors and vowed to each other to never borrow someone else’s money again, except maybe one day to buy a house. Our first goal was to start living below our means and save up a little emergency fund. In the past it was always those bumps in the road that would set us up for a spiral and the need to put a payment or repair on a credit card.
It was hard at first and it did take some adjustment. We had a few rough patches in our early years of marriage as we struggled to live our life in this new way. However, within six months we could see our debt slowly going down, and our savings account with our emergency almost funded. This gave us the excitement and energy to commit to the plan and within another twelve months we paid off a few more loans, bought our first used old boat (just fast enough to pull us skiing) with cash and decided to start looking for our first little house to buy.
A few months of eating beans and rice later, we bought three acres of land in the rolling forests of Kingston Springs, just outside of Nashville with a little frame house that had lots of windows, vaulted ceilings, cedar siding and a deck to enjoy our little secluded piece of paradise. It was here that all the seeds we gathered finally began taking hold. We spent all of our spare time in the woods, making hiking trails, listening to the creek, getting in touch with nature and solitude. It was here that we both starting reading great “mind food” type books such as Celestine Prophesy by James Redfield and others like the Road Less Traveled and The Dragon Doesn’t Live Here Any More and started becoming attuned to an inner side of ourselves, coincidences, energy, a historical point of view, and other insights that gave a whole new meaning to living and our perceptions. We became aware of life, found a better understanding of who we are and where we are going. We started listening to our inner voices and began looking for signs, people, and relationships to give us meaning and new direction.
One such coincidence happened one weekend when we drove to West Virginia and my sister and her husband drove from Boston to meet us. We met in the middle at this little bed and breakfast that she found by chance. It was a wonderful time of rafting and exploring, relaxing and enjoying the cozy bed and breakfast. One evening I took a random book off the bookshelf and went out to a bench in the herb garden and opened the first page of two people that would in time become the new compasses in our journey further down the path. The old, worn and tattered book that I couldn’t stop reading is called The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. It is their story of living a self sufficient, simple, healthy farming life in the 1930’s. We borrowed the book and the entire ride home from West Virginia, when we weren’t reading a new chapter out loud to each other, we were silently dreaming and exploding images in our minds. When we finished the book, mysteriously somehow many of the passions and dreams that were once alive in the Nearings were being born inside us.
We are both outdoors kind of folks. We love to hike, backpack, camp and be in the woods. This passion led us to a hunger to learn more about our natural resources and the environment in which we live. After a weekend long women’s adventure program with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Sharon came home and took me for a walk in the woods. She was able to point out several edible plants and trees that she had just learned about. We realized we were smack dab in the middle of a Sassafras tree thicket and never were so happy to make our first batch of sassafras tea, Creole spice and sassafras salad shoots.
We started picking up books on wild edible plants like Edible Wild Plants of North America by Thomas Elias, and Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. Every night we would take our walk and return home with bags full of things to eat and even more to investigate in our “lab”.
It didn’t take much more than a year and a half for the reality that the 30 plus acres that surrounded our Sassafras Ridge was being developed at an astonishing speed. New homes were popping up weekly and the seclusion and nature that wrapped around our little home was only temporary. It was also painfully obvious that our attempts at growing a garden in the middle of the forest would continue to fail unless we cleared over half of the trees. It was from this point we sprouted our dream of rural life, growing our own food, becoming semi-self sufficient, having no debt, and protecting land. At first it was just morning coffee conversation and then one day it found itself as a crazy plan written on paper. We created a folder we labeled as “The Great Escape” and filled it with dreams, pictures, ideas, plans and projections.
Our first plan had with it many questions to figure out, like how to finance this change in lifestyle and then how to sustain ourselves once we got there. We first decided to try to save as much money as we could over a 10-15 year period. I was working as a full time computer programmer,did some moonlighting on the side too. Sharon was working full time for a record/publishing company. We were trying to figure out a path where we could invest and save enough money so we could eventually supplement our income from interest.
Unfortunately… or perhaps fortunately we had fires burning on every end. In addition to being stimulated by this quest for a new understanding and lifestyle, we were both also working more than full time. Eventually we just started getting burned out from the idea and process of making money and this fast, pretentious way of living life.
I guess it was at just the right moment and just the right time other books, friends, and coincidences occurred that slowed us down enough to reevaluate and think. A dream 10 to 15 years down the road was so hard to keep in perspective. It slowly came into focus that in reality we only have today and who knows what will be in 10-15 years, how much land will be available and how much it will cost, if our family would still be alive and healthy, and so many other things that are uncertain. So we began reevaluating our dream and current lifestyle and decided now was the time for life changes.
We strengthened our belief in that the way to freedom was not in obtaining money, but living on less, staying out of debt and not being slaved to income. We also were given an easy read coffee table book called Simplify Your Life – Ellen St.James, which became a bible of sorts that we read and used many times. We cleaned out closets, began eating only vegetables, sold our boat, learned more about wild foods and foraging, and in general made our relationship able to run on a leaner mixture of money, material things, food, and stuff.
We changed our 10-15 year goal of one day living in the country into a 5 year plan. Instead of working and saving for years and then one day looking for the ideal perfect dream farm, we would lower our expectation, find something probably a little run down or even just a nice piece of land, but something that we could hopefully pay cash for. Once we dove into this new chapter we wanted to be debt free and our expenses low enough that they could be met by part-time work and eventually income generated from the land.
It just so happened that shortly after we began down this new section of our path, the company I was working for started down sizing and in the shuffle I was demoted to a part-time (3 day a week employee). Our income took a blow as well as my pride, but we used it to our advantage. It was our motivation to live even more below our means and pay off those last few debts. We took it as the sign to begin the hunt for our new country home. I used the extra time to focus our vision and began taking our dream to paper, research and actions.
The area we decided to look for property was around the Cumberland Mountain foothills, where I grew up and where some of my family still lives. The prices for farm/wilderness land were still below $1000 or so per acre and it was within an hours drive from Nashville.
We hiked and hunted, dreamed and imagined, toured farms and laid in barns for six months. We eventually decided that having a little land was more important at first than having a livable farmhouse. Finding both the land in the perfect setting and a livable home was just not going to happen with our budget. After reading Walden again by Henry Thoreau and seeing how he returned to such simple and basic living in a one room cabin, we decided that we could camp, live in a tent, or build a temporary shelter until we had a house that was livable. So most of the properties we looked at from that point forward were in pretty rough shape including Butterfly Hollow. But the day we drove up into this secluded valley we knew it was perfect. It not only had an old, unlivable farmhouse that cried for restoration but it also had 80+ acres of hills, forests, springs, ponds, garden spots, and a nice used mobile home on the property. This would give us the place to live and maybe we could restore the old homeplace or perhaps build a new one one day. Even though Sharon said she was ready and that we could do anything together, I could tell that she was a bit skeptical about the idea of living in a tent for three or four years anyway…and truthfully I was a little too.
We closed our eyes, held hands and made the leap….. put our home in Kingston Springs on the market and were able to sell it without a realtor within a month. We used our profits plus every penny of our savings and became the proud caretakers of Butterfly Hollow.
There weren’t too many friends, family or co-workers that thought we were making the best decision. I suspect the majority of them thought we were bit crazy. Well, we really are, but it is that sense of crazy and belief in each other that keeps us motivated.
The first week here we had the electric company come out and turn off the big utility light that lit up parts of the hollow. We wanted to see the stars. We wanted to see the moon rise over the ridge. We didn’t have a clue how dark it really was when that moon didn’t pop out. What are those sounds we keep hearing at night? Is that a coyote? What’s that rustling in the woods? A few weeks later we paid the reconnect fee to have them turn the light back on. It’s going to take a little while to adjust being out here in the middle of nowhere. (we eventually had them take it out once again and now we LOVE to count the stars at night)