The rear of the house, showing the courtyard flanked by round brick outbuildings.
People often fantasize about trying out different (and usually, at least in the imagination, far better) lifestyles, but few actually change the way they live. Social commitments, habit systems, and inertia stop most such dreamers cold. They just don't know that all it takes to realize a fantasy is a small amount of money, a bit of luck, and a whole lot of courage.
I was "old" when I came into a modest inheritance which amounted to a monthly income of around $100. I was pretty much alone, too, with my wife gone and all of my children grown up.
Furthermore, my house was no castle in the country. I lived in an old mansion in a decaying residential area that was more like a mausoleum, a tomb requiring care, cleaning, and endless costly repairs. I was plagued with taxes, light bills, gas bills, water bills, heating bills, and the helpless feeling that resulted from watching my old neighborhood disintegrate into an urban ghetto.
Security Gone Sour
There were other factors prodding me toward a life-changing decision, too. I had a "good job" as an associate professor in a medical school, so I received a salary raise each year, but—of course—it was always more than swallowed up by inflation.
And as time passed, the medical students grew more unruly and less interested in learning. The standards of the school steadily dropped, and my department became a hotbed of "office politics," backbiting, and resentment.
As soon as I got home each evening I'd change into my old (and not too clean or mended) jeans and muddle about in the garden, finding there the only real moments of satisfaction left in my urban life. (I was even pleased when the city's wildlife, the rats, drank from my garden pool at night! )
In such a melancholy environment, it was no wonder that I suffered (along, no doubt, with many others) from continual hankering, vexation, and apathy. But then I inherited my little income, and I thought, "I want out. Oh man! Do I ever want out!"
The only person I really had to consider before making a move was my loyal friend and housekeeper Joe, who—for 17 years—had cooked for me and my boys and cared for the mansion. He'd been in trouble with the law once and had only a fifth-grade education, but he'd learned far more about the world than I had with all my degrees ... and somewhere along the line he'd developed a talent for whipping up meals fit for a king!
It seemed out of the question for me to ask Joe to move to a pretty, ticky-tacky house in the suburbs, because he seemed to have an inherent dislike for anything modern. (He even kept the cords of our few electrical appliances tied in knots, as if to choke them!) My companion also insisted on using iron skillets and old ironstone platters in his kitchen, confessing once that he'd always wanted to cook on a woodstove. Furthermore, I knew I could never live in an apartment, a type of dwelling which I consider to be only slightly better than a prison.
So I wondered, "Where shall we go? What shall we do?" And, with my little inheritance providing the necessary impetus for change, I made up my mind. "Why not make a clean break now," I concluded. "Why not get back to basics ... be poor!"
After some soul-searching conversations with Joe, I decided that we really needed to find some place in hilly country, with the glamour of four seasons but without super-cold winters, with a good supply of pure water and wood for heating and cooking, and—most important—with a measure of isolation. (After years of enduring the sensory overload of city life, I desperately wanted to be situated where I could neither see nor hear my neighbors.)
I studied geological survey maps of southern states and wrote to the presidents of local realty boards. One such person answered that he had 40 inexpensive acres of hardwood trees in the Appalachian foothills, completely surrounded by national forest land. I figured that the cash from the sale of my city property, plus my retirement fund and the money in escrow, would allow me to make such a move, so I drove down to Georgia to take a look. There I found hummingbirds, whippoorwills, butterflies, bobcats, great oaks, fungi, and rolling mountain woodland. I was hooked!
While still lecturing, I bought the land, had a well dug (160 feet deep), planned my house, and bought a little camper and a jeep.
Then, in 1976—on my fiftieth birthday—I resigned from the school, auctioned off all the furniture and possessions I didn't care about, gave away all my electrical appliances, sold my property, and arranged for a moving company to take charge of the things I wanted to keep. Then Joe and I (plus my two English mastiffs) left for our "kingdom."
Cutting ties that have taken a lifetime to form is a draining experience, and throwing away professional security and all its supposed conveniences and luxuries is like losing a piece of oneself. But for me, the change was like crawling out of an old, outworn skin.
A Magical Metamorphosis
What an exhilarating, unsettling, and strange rebirth it was! Joe, the dogs, and I left the city during an icy blizzard. We lost our way several times in the course of the trip, couldn't find the property when we did reach the area, and spent the night parked and lost. And after we had finally located our new homesite, the storm grew worse. Dead Horse Road (our winding, logging-trail driveway) disappeared completely. For the next few days we were alone and stranded in the wilderness, and had to begin our new life by melting snow for our water supply.
In the blizzard-bound quiet we faced up to the incredible amount of work that loomed ahead and the fact that we had much to learn!
Our first task was to list our priorities and to make necessary purchases. The most important buys were a chain saw, a two-wheeled dolly, a small concrete mixer, a garden cultivator, and a kerosene refrigerator. (We'd already picked up a wood stove at a flea market in the city.) These and all of our other possessions, which the movers eventually brought to the foot of the mountain, were put into temporary storage under plastic sheets weighted down with stones.
As we cleared the forest and built—by hand—our house, we celebrated each achievement with a bottle of homemade wine. The following list defines a few of our most memorable days:
Relying upon a tripod of logs for a makeshift "derrick," we installed the entire pumping system in the well casing. Our first burst of accomplishment came when free, clean, cold, and delicious mountain water began gushing out of the hand pump. (Water Day!)
After a good bit of experimentation, we set up the kerosene refrigerator and actually got it to work. (Ice Cube Day! )
We dug trenches and installed pipes for sinks, a tile field, and the chemical toilet, which was later enclosed in a round, brick outhouse. (Privy Day?)
Using only hand tools, we dug the excavation for the house's foundation, lined it with bricks, and filled it with concrete and boulders. We used 45,000 bricks to raise the walls of the house... placing them three layers thick with two-inch-wide air spaces between the layers for insulation. Even so, the cost was quite low and the results pleasing, though I'd never laid a brick before in my life!
By the end of the first summer, we were able to move into the first floor, which contains the kitchen, dining room, and living room. During the second year, we put a roof over our two upstairs bedrooms, which are reached by a circular stairway that's illuminated by my own stained glass window.
And of course, we celebrated Foundation Day, Beam Day, and—at long last—Roof Day!
A Country Estate
Within two short years we were living in an elegant mini-castle. Our small country estate boasted a circular rose garden at the end of the drive; fruit trees and grapevines; a vegetable garden that produced fresh corn, cabbage, carrots, turnips, and other edibles; and a brick gazebo topped by a sun deck, overlooking the garden, where we take tea. We use many homegrown and foraged food products and our meals must certainly be among the best in the world. After all—as Joe instinctively knew—nothing compares with wood stove cooking!
In fact, we live in a grand style on a little over $200 a month! Of course, we have no electricity, no phone, and no television set ... but we don't miss those things: We also have no electric bill, no phone bill, no water bill, and no fuel bill. We owe no one!
True, we spend a little on taxes, gasoline, kerosene, and insurance, but most of our meager income goes for food. However, the garden, the fruit trees, and our flock of chickens reduce our grocery needs a bit further each year, and—in time—we expect to produce almost everything we need to eat and more.
This morning, for example, I picked fresh raspberries to go along with our whole wheat pancakes (we grind our own flour from wheat that we buy for $7.00 per 100 pounds!), and honey from our beehives served as syrup. Then I weeded, pumped water, and went about my other chores. At 10:00 a.m., we had tea in the gazebo, and I designed a new chicken-house that I plan to start building soon. Tonight, I may practice my harp. Or perhaps I'll just sit in the courtyard and listen to the tree frogs and whippoorwills, while bats fly and the clouds drift across the full moon. The world that's around me now is fresh, quiet, and very beautiful!
Take a Giant Step
The fact is, I'm writing this story simply to give hope to other old rebels like me. It's not necessary, you see, to keep piling up the bucks and plodding away at the treadmill until the last crippling coronary takes away your freedom of choice. There's a time to make a change, and that time is before the rocking chair takes charge of you!
There is, of course, no single simple blueprint for everyone, since personal needs and responsibilities vary. But why be tricked into working the whole year in an uptight world, only to earn a couple of harried "vacation" weeks in an expensive summer cottage? Why enter the "golden years" filled with remorse for things undone?
My message is that we older people are really free—even more so than are young folks—and, because of our experiences, perhaps at least a little more wise. If we want a different, fuller, more exciting life than we're leading—one closer to this beautiful earth—we can have it. Our only chains are those in our minds!
Just promise me that you'll think about it seriously for a while ... after all, wouldn't you like to live in your own kind of "castle in the country?"