A Tale of Two Homesteads

Reader Contribution by Anna Hess And Mark Hamilton
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I left college with one real goal — to find a piece of land with a creek and room for a garden, to move in, and to live as simply as possible so I could focus on my art. As you might expect, the reality turned out both better and worse than my expectations.

The land I settled on was much larger than anticipated — 58 acres, funded by a no-interest loan from an amazing friend who never even set foot on its soil. A quiet creek made the core homestead walk-in-only, which was no trouble for my nature-loving self…until I started thinking about the reality of building a home there. Oh, and did I mention that the creek overflowed its banks and cut off the central area from all outside access for up to a week at a time once or twice a year? I reveled in the adventure (and in the rich soil laid down by the receding floods).

The husband who wandered into my life halfway between the day I purchased the land and the day we actually moved there was ten years older and more of a realist than my starry-eyed self. He helped me realize that an old mobile home today was far better than an owner-built home that might never materialize. He talked me out of hauling water by hand from the well for all of our garden and household needs. And he came up with wheeled conveyances that made transporting large supplies more feasible during the dry seasons that inevitably materialized a few times a year.

For the better part of a decade, we lived in bliss. The mountains of southwest Virginia are poverty-stricken, and the flip side of that coin is that life there can be dirt cheap if you grow most of your own food, heat with wood, and entertain yourself by watching chickens and butterflies. Property taxes rose by 50% one year during a reassessment…which meant we were paying the equivalent of $30 per month instead of $20. Pretty feasible even for an aspiring author. (And yes, the writing dream came true as well when plenty of time for introspection and creativity morphed into well-received books that did and do continue to pay the bills.)

Of course, the only thing we can depend on is change itself. Around about year seven, my husband stopped being a spring chicken able to toil in the fields without a thought for aches and pains. New dreams arose and were harder to kindle than we’d expected in our remote location. And I started having a totally different kind of dream — a recurring nightmare in which I pulled and pulled and pulled and couldn’t dislodge a piece of gum lodged in my throat.

A search of the internet suggested my gum dream meant I had something I neded to say, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what. Until, that is, the death of a beloved dog and a beloved goat within a month of each other snuffed the spark of joy that had tied us to the land since the beginning.

“Don’t get scared,” I told my husband one evening over dinner. “But I think it’s time to move.”

So we did. Over the course of three months, we found another plot of land with many more opportunities for both my husband’s film-making aspirations and for allowing me to leave the hermit stage of my life behind. We packed up two cats, a wheelbarrow, and two wood stoves. Then we moved north.

Our new homestead is smaller and less remote than our old one, and the property taxes are a bit steeper too. I miss my creek, my black-gold garden soil, and the composting toilet that allowed me to do my business while watching phoebes nest in the rafters. But I love the like-minded community and the thought-provoking opportunities in the new location, both of which make it possible to live sustainably without doing everything ourselves.

So did we make a mistake with homestead number one or with homestead number two? I’d say both homesteads have been just what we needed at the time. When I was 25, I had little cash but plenty of desire to immerse myself in self-guided study about wildcrafting and livestock raising and the understanding the earth. Now, at 39, I’m ready to rest on my laurels and spend more energy on the creativity that drove me back to the land in the first place.

Which isn’t to say I’m letting the land lie fallow around me. Instead, we’re starting a new garden, are plotting out rainwater capture, and are harvesting ramps and mushrooms out of the woods. After all, the homesteading bug is no passing fancy. You just have to be willing to go with the flow and let shocking changes enfold you on the path to following your dreams.

Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton‘s starter homestead is now on the market. Perhaps you’re the right person to make the fruits and berries, goat pastures, and huge barn of homestead 1.0 your new home?


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