Back to the land...

This blog is an account of our experiences trying to homestead in Eastern Tennessee. We've bought almost ten acres with power and a well, and a small shed for the well pump. Half the land is already cleared.

This year we haul out 10 tons of trash from an old burned down home. We plant a large garden, and fruit trees, and build a compost bin specifically for humanure. We build a small pad for a gazebo up under the oaks, and begin building our house/barn, with grading, a stone foundation, a concrete stem wall, and the modified post and beam frame. Everything is done by hand. We also dig four thirty foot swales across the top of the clearing and plant the berms with blueberry. A lot of work, and a lot more to go . . .

I'll also cover the process of picking out a piece of land, the negotiation, and "where to begin?" phase, at least how it all went for us.

[YEAR 2] - We build the shell of a 16'x25' two story cabin from scratch . . . check out how it was built.

[YEAR 3] - We try to finish the cabin . . .

[YEAR 4] - I move up permanently to the property to homestead full-time . . .

[YEAR 5] - Rachel and I try to make it as homesteaders . . with a wood cook stove, dairy goats and a cow, finish the barn, expand the garden, fence pastures, plant more fruit trees, build a flock of healthy layers, grow our own animal food - in other words . . . WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK . . .

[YEAR 6]
'Homesteading in Tennessee' is now HOLDOUT FARM. Check out our new farm website. We produce premium quality raw dairy products from our fodder-fed goats, pastured eggs, organic fruits and vegetables, and offer a seasonal list of classes on Permaculture Homesteading.
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Friday, September 4, 2009

The Pier Foundation

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Pier foundations are very common on cabins, outbuildings, and smaller homes, and are ideal for a number of reasons:

-The site does not have to be previously graded.
-There is less overall foundation work when doing piers . . . less cost, less labor.
-The building is elevated above the ground, and so the framing remains dry, especially when the area beneath the building is left open via a lattice, rather than permanently enclosed [think crawlspace].
-Plumbing and electrical can be put in after the shell of the building is up, and are easily accessed and altered at any time - a great help for amateur builders, who are usually winging it, and building as money comes in.

Two websites were key in the design and layout of my piers. They are BUILDING A CONCRETE FOOTING FOR A POST OR DECK, and AN EASY TO BUILD POST AND BEAM FOUNDATION. I did a lot of research elsewhere, but these two articles I specifically printed out and took with me up to Tennessee. And it was following these foundation designs more than anything that started me building a more conventional post and beam cabin rather than straw bale.

If I were following my original straw bale design I'd ironed out over the winter, all I needed was minimal piers (we're talking sauna tubes) for the posts to hold up my roof. Between the post piers would go the wide perimeter rubble trench foundation which would take the weight of my heavy straw bale walls.

But once I went down the path of building huge 16"x16" piers, all 6' apart, I began to realize that if I'd just stay with lightweight stick-framing, this was all the foundation I'd need. The thought of continuing more foundation work after I'd gone through the arduous labor of building 12 piers (the digging of a huge perimeter trench and infilling of gravel) was not a pleasant one. This project was about speed, low-cost, simplicity . . . it wasn't about reinventing the wheel. For someone with no prior building experience, just a little stick-framed cabin was challenge enough (of course I complicated everything by going post and beam - obsessed with keeping all of the weight directly on the piers - I do everything the hard way).

And as a sidenote on strawbale - I couldn't find it anywhere locally for a decent price. It rained nearly every day through the spring so keeping it dry would have been problematic. The only bales I could get readily in abundance were from Lowe's, and the quality was so poor they could never have been used for building. They were half as dense as the year before, a complete rip-off [and $4.50 a bale].

When the cabin and barn are done, I do intend to use alternative building techniques for the passive solar home. But I think the best candidate so far is dirt rather than straw. Our Tennessee soil is so clayey, that my excavated dirt from the footer holes cured into rock in the intense sun in a matter of days. I think if we added sand to it and found the ideal ratio, we could have some killer adobe, or use rammed earth or earthbags, some more monolithic technique. That is a building that would truly be low-cost and endure.

On top of the footers covered in my last post, went the concrete block:

I used mortar between the courses where I needed extra height for the pier - skipped it where it didn't. I kind of miscalculated here. I didn't realize the first course of block goes down in a full inch of mortar, I figured it would be a standard 3/8" joint. So there were a few blocks I had to trim down with the circular saw to keep the pier from getting too high. Other than that, everything went smoothly.
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Here's a shot of the worksite, with the two types of piers - footers cured within a form, and block above the footer:

The block will later get infilled with concrete.
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Here's a closeup of one of the piers after I'd removed the form:


I then backfilled it with earth so water drains away from it, and doesn't pool around it:

Here's a form removed . . . a true rig-job:

On top of the pier is bolted the large 2x12 treated sill plate:
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This idea was the product of a long discussion on the subject with a fellow homesteader up in the Catskills of New York. The reason for the large plate is so the massive tripled 2x10 25' girders have plenty of room to be positioned, so I can get the framing for the floor square. I also liked the full contact and distribution of weight the plate provided for the girders - the thought of a little post anchor and getting it in just the right spot (also the outrageous cost - $18 per connection) was odious.
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The only negative to such a large sill plate would be if it were permanently exposed to the weather it would be a perfect seat for water and ultimately rot. But these plates will be entirely covered by additions and siding.
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Here's a shot of the plates in, where the piers top out closest to grade:
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Patty comes up to stay with us a week, and so we a take a little break from building.
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We take a trip over to the local sawmill for sawdust for our composting toilet. A guy there says their incinerator is down, so they've been filling a trailer with the dust instead of burning it. He says a bunch of it spilled and we can go get all we want for free. It's a major score - there's a mountian of it - and it's so much easier to get than digging around their saws inside!

I fill up 5 doubled 30 gallon bags - that's all the room we've got:

We buy some apple trees from a local nursery. We get a Rome, a Grimes, and a Granny Smith. The Granny Smith is covered in flowers, and the Rome even has little apples! And the trees are tall and only $10 (online they're so much more expensive, and shipped bare-root).
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Here's the Granny Smith, which we plant up with the other apples, near our wild crabapples. We're hoping to someday have a productive orchard:
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Here's a Georgia wild peach we picked up to cross-pollinate with our purple-leaved flowering peaches:
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The girls have a lot done on their doll village . . . a post office, theater, school, a salon I think:

Here's a shot looking down from the apples:

It's Easter and we have a real Easter egg hunt. Patty's brought all kinds of sweets which we stuff in colored plastic eggs, then hide out in the grass.
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Here the girls are checking out their Easter baskets, while Mishka wonders where his is:

Here they're out looking for eggs . . . a perfect spring day:

The harvest:

I think Rachael found one more egg, and one is missing:

Frozen Head State Park is about a half hour away from us, and we take a trip over for hot showers. Remember Frozen Head from last year, the place we climbed 4 miles to the top and found a spring and all the cherries and wild apples? Well the trailhead has a small building with free hot showers, truly incredible. And they are very well kept:

It's such a luxury to bathe in hot water . . . so much better than the cold pool.

Patty and the girls are working on getting the garden going, tilling and planting lots of seeds. Patty has sown an entire bed with mammoth sunflowers:

Mishka of course is not supposed to be up on the beds.
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And we get a lawnmower:
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When you set out to go back-to-the-land, and embrace Nature, there is no uglier symbol of suburban life than the lawnmower. Ultimately we'll have grazing animals like goats or sheep [a friend of mine would like to see me out there with a scythe], but for now, as hard as our lives are, we need something to make them easier! Last year I mowed a whole 4 acres with a weedwhacker - that's the sort of stupidity I'm trying to move away from. The lawnmower not only keeps the grass down so we have room to walk, and with that keeps down the bugs like ticks, it also brings in a much-needed cover material for our humanure composting - grass. Why buy straw and have it trucked in from Nebraska when you can harvest the same thing right from your yard? I call the mower our 'cover-material harvester'.
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Here's the center chamber of our bin filled with the most nutritious stuff on earth - weeds and grass, ready to be turned into compost:
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My book on Humanure emphasizes over and over the need for thermaphyllic bacteria in the composting process, which needs hot temps to exist. Try putting your hand into the middle of a pile of cut grass after a few hours - it's almost on fire!
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We'll see how it works though. It's got the high temps, but can have a matting effect and cut out oxygen to the pile if overused. So it'll be trial and error for a while. I think in the end, no matter what, after a full 2 years the compost is going to be solid gold - if we waited only 1, not necessarily.
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I continue working on the piers:
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The low piers are done, and exactly in line:

The girders will run between the bolts.
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Here's a shot of some higher piers, built up with block, infilled with concrete, and later to be covered with surface bonded cement for extra strength:

Patty and the girls are still gardening. They've got big plans, and are planting almost 7 beds (each bed is 30' x 6'):


And for now, below is the last picture I have of the next 2 months of building the cabin - it's the site at evening, the piers almost completed. Hopefully Patty can find these missing 200 photos somewhere, so I can continue posting:

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Blog Index

10/30/08

BUYING RAW LAND

11/8/08

TRASH CLEANUP

11/10/08

WINTER IN ATLANTA

11/12/08

SPRING IN TENNESSEE

11/14/08

STARTING A GARDEN

11/15/08

BUILDING THE COMPOST BIN

11/15/08

THE FROST

11/16/08

GRADING THE BARN

11/18/08

DIGGING SWALES

11/19/08

PLANTING FRUIT TREES

11/19/08

BUILDING A STONE FOUNDATION

11/20/08

THE CONCRETE STEM WALL

11/21/08

BUILDING A SMALL 12'x12' PAD

11/21/08

THE GARDEN

11/22/08

BUILDING A DRIVEWAY

11/23/08

INSTALLING THE SILL PLATES

11/23/08

THE MODIFIED POST AND BEAM FRAME

11/27/08

FRUIT IN THE GARDEN

11/28/08

THE BARN FRAME

11/29/08

AUGUST IN TENNESSEE

11/30/08

HANGING THE JOISTS

11/30/08

CLEARING THE LAND

11/30/08

COUNTRY NEIGHBORS

11/30/08

THE HARVEST

12/1/08

PLANS FOR A CABIN

12/14/08

THE LAND IN WINTER

12/22/08

BARN UPDATE

12/29/08

WINTER PLANTING

1/4/09

EDIBLE PLANTS

1/10/09

WINTER TREES

1/12/09

WINTER TREES II

1/21/09

CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER

2/11/09

THE STRAW BALE CABIN

3/26/09

THE STRAW BALE CABIN II

4/2/09

1880 FARMHOUSE

5/6/09

HOMESTEADING / THE CABIN

8/13/09

THE POST AND BEAM CABIN

8/22/09

RETURN TO TENNESSEE

8/25/09

SITE WORK

8/30/09

DIGGING THE FOOTERS

9/4/09

THE PIER FOUNDATION

9/10/09

911

9/11/09

FINISHING THE PIER FOUNDATION

9/12/09

THE GIRDERS

9/13/09

FRAMING THE FLOOR

9/16/09

DECKING THE FLOOR

9/17/09

THE POST AND BEAM FRAME

9/19/09

THE RAFTERS

9/20/09

INSTALLING THE METAL ROOF

9/21/09

FRAMING THE WALLS

9/26/09

DOORS AND WINDOWS

9/27/09

TENNESSEE IN JULY - OUR LAST MONTH

10/2/09

TENNESSEE IN OCTOBER

10/10/09

THE BARN FLOOR

10/15/09

PIGEON MOUNTAIN

11/10/09

NOVEMBER

11/16/09

PERMACULTURE: ANOTHER ROUND OF FRUITING SHRUBS

11/22/09

DRIFTERS

11/30/09

THE BARN ROOF BEGINS

12/20/09

'DRIFTERS' PART I

12/30/09

WEATHER

1/1/10

NEW YEAR'S IN TENNESSEE

1/25/10

DRIFTERS: PART II

3/2/10

MY SISTER'S WEDDING

3/21/10

FERTILIZING WITH HUMANURE

3/28/10

THE ADDITION FLOOR

4/19/10

THE ADDITION

5/11/10

RUNAWAY

6/13/10

FINISHING THE ADDITION

.........................The Timeline.........................

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1992
-MAY . . . for Patty and I's first date, we skip school and go to the Pinnacle - a wooded overlook off the Susquehanna River.
-SEPTEMBER . . . I leave our hometown of Lancaster, PA for college - Penn State in Reading, 45 minutes away.

1993
-FEBRUARY . . . Patty and I both drop out of school, and camp in some woods behind a grocery store in Lancaster.
-MARCH . . . Patty steals her mother's credit card, and with it we take a train to Utah. We ultimately end up on the Northwest Coast, living in Port Orford, Oregon.
-APRIL - OCTOBER . . . We join a traveling carnival and work in it for 6 months. We sleep in the back of a Ryder truck, and go through California, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. I run the guns, and Patty does the goldfish. We save $9,000.
-NOVEMBER . . . We return to Lancaster and are arrested for stealing the credit card.

1995
-OCTOBER . . . We bike from Lancaster down to Charleston, South Carolina. Patty wrecks in North Carolina, and a friend drives us the rest of the way. We live in Charleston for 2 weeks.

1996
-JULY . . . Our first daughter June is born in Lancaster, PA.

1997
-MARCH . . . We sell everything in our apartment, and hike out of Lancaster with backpacks and our 9 month old daughter. We reach the Susquehanna River.
-APRIL - JUNE . . . We get a canoe and paddle 500 miles up the Susquehanna River to its source. We camp on islands. We get a ride to the Erie Barge Canal and paddle west.
-JULY . . . We are arrested in Little Falls, NY. Our daughter is taken, we're charged with neglect, and we fight the courts for months. We are cleared of all charges, but never get her back.
-SEPTEMBER . . . We take a bus out to Ruidoso, NM and camp in woods just out of town. We return to Lancaster and camp in the Brickyard for the rest of the month.
-OCTOBER - FEBRUARY . . . We live in an apartment in the Amish community of Strasburg, PA. Amish go by in their horse and buggies every day.

1998
-FEBRUARY . . . Our second daughter Rachael is born. We try to deliver her on our own at home and fail. Patty ends up in the hospital with a c-section.
-MARCH . . . We get a ride from a friend down to Covington, Virginia. We stay a week, and look for places to camp in the surrounding national forest. We find nothing, and go to New Mexico.
-MARCH - MAY . . . We camp in the Gila National Forest, north of Pinos Altos, a mile from the nearest trail. We camp above a spring with an infinite view west. We start building a hogan.
-JUNE - SEPTEMBER . . . We live downtown in Santa Fe, NM. Patty markets her paintings, and I get a N.Y. literary agent for my first book 'Flesh Aflame'.
-OCTOBER - DECEMBER . . . We rent a house in Crescent City, California, on the Northwest Coast, a mile from the ocean, on the edge of a bird sanctuary. It's great until the rains begin and we run out of money.

1999
-JANUARY - FEBRUARY . . . We camp in the Uwharrie mountains of central North Carolina, and look for a place to build a winter home.
-MARCH . . . We get a canoe and paddle the Holston River down towards Knoxville, Tennessee.
-APRIL . . . We get dropped off in the Smokies and paddle Fontana Lake. We stash our canoe at Chambers Creek and hike in to the Smokies for a secret camp. Patty paints the creek, and we stay 3 weeks.
-MAY . . . We live in a trailer just off the ocean in Myrtle Beach, SC. The sky is beautiful after storms and we love the pelicans.
-JUNE . . . We camp in the Brickyard back in Lancaster, PA, saving money for an apartment.
-JULY - DECEMBER . . . We live in Lancaster and save for our trip back out to New Mexico. We also buy the jeep.

2000
-JANUARY - JUNE . . . We camp and travel all over the Southwest, from the Gila, to Organ Pipe, to the Weminuche in Colorado. Brooke is born in February in a motel in Deming, NM.
-JULY . . . We stay in condos with a friend in Aspen, Colorado. I do concrete work. We then go to California, and look for a place to live in the Russian River area.
-AUGUST - OCTOBER . . . We rent a small house in Tesuque, NM, just outside of Santa Fe. We hike up into the Pecos Wilderness. We become vegetarians.
-NOVEMBER . . . We visit a friend in Tucson, AZ, then drive to Crescent City and the Northwest Coast. The beautiful weather is over, and the rains have begun. We don't stay long.
-DECEMBER . . . We return to Pennsylvania, and live out of our car in the Philidelphia area while Patty works at a restaurant. We sleep in parking lots and rest stops. It's the coldest December on record for the area, with the wind chill it's -10.



2001
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JANUARY . . . We head south for warmth, try the Chatooga area of South Carolina, then camp in the woods of northern Florida.
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FEBRUARY - JUNE . . . We live in Asheville, NC, in the middle of the Southern Appalachains. We spend nearly every day out on the trails, hiking, and learning plants.
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JULY . . . We get mountain bikes for touring, and bike the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Smokies.
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AUGUST . . . We camp in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwest Colorado, and do a 6 day fast.
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SEPTEMBER . . . We stay in Loveland, Colorado with a friend. We climb Long's Peak on the day after 9/11. We then drive to Vermont, and look for a place to live in the Burlington area.
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OCTOBER - DECEMBER . . . We rent a house in Tucson, AZ, and try to become raw fooders.

2002
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JANUARY . . . We hike in to Jordan Hot Springs in the Gila.
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FEBRUARY . . . We bike in to Turkey Creek Hot Springs. We stash our bikes near the mouth of the creek, and hike the rest of the way. Many of the pools have been ruined from floods.
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MARCH . . . We go to Vermont again, this time the Bennington area of southern Vermont. It's way too cold.
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APRIL - JULY . . . We rent a house in Asheville, NC again. This time we have a large garden, and become 100% raw fooders. Every day I'm out hiking the trails gathering wild edible plants.
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AUGUST . . . We cash out all our credit cards, and move up to Shining Rocks Wilderness in the Southern Appalachians, camping at over 5,000 feet. There are blueberry fields everywhere, and blackberry, and wild cherries. Not only are we mono-raw fooders now, much of our food is wild. I hike barefoot everywhere. We bathe in the pool below the falls.
-SEPTEMBER . . . We visit a friend in Atlanta, and on a night full of alcohol I break my foot in 3 places. I'm told I'll be crippled with arthritis, and ultimately never walk again.
-OCTOBER - DECEMBER . . . We rent a furnished condo in Tucson, AZ. I cut my cast off prematurely with tin snips.

2003
-JANUARY . . . We camp off the Gila River at Box Canyon, just up from the city of Gila. I'm still on crutches. We meet Jabber-Mike, and Vet-Mike, and Doug. We trade juniper berries for Doug's black walnuts. We're still 100% raw fooders, and Doug teaches me the local plants.
-FEBRUARY - MARCH . . . We return to Atlanta for free medical care so I can learn how to walk again. PT is hell.
-APRIL - MAY . . . We go back to the Gila and camp off the Gila River. We gather cattail, nettle, primrose flowers, and harvest prickly pear pads. We find the most perfect hot spring in all of the Gila, man-made, at Brock Canyon.
-JUNE . . . We fall off our raw food diet, and camp up at Black Balsam again off the Shining Rock Wilderness. We gather wild strawberries. We then camp above the Amicalola Falls in north Georgia for 2 weeks. We become committed to the idea of buying land.
-JULY - SEPTEMBER . . . We live in Woodstock, GA, just north of Atlanta. I do a 14 day water fast.
-OCTOBER . . . We paddle Fontana Lake in the Smokies, on our way to Nova Scotia. We find a great camp and gather wild persimmons, but ultimately abandon the trip.
-NOVEMBER . . . We go back to camping off the Gila River at Brock Canyon. I begin 'June'. We run totally out of money, and gather and clean 10lbs of desert willow seed to sell to a local guy in Gila. He gives us $20/lb, and we use the money to get back to Georgia.

2004
-JANUARY . . . We go to north Florida, and check out the sinks, and the aquifer springs, and paddle the Wacissa River.
-FEBRUARY . . . We paddle the Suwanee River in North Florida. Patty makes a basket out of greenbriar.
-MARCH . . . We camp in the pine flats of Apalachicola National Forest. We make baskets from grapevine, cordage from the retting of Spanish Moss, and a mat from palmetto. We camp here for 3 weeks with no money while we wait for our tax refund. We're 100% raw fooders again.
-APRIL . . . We camp off Owl Creek and paddle the river. There are free hot showers in a nearby campground. There's a great trail with wild blueberry, and we gather the new shoots of bracken. We later camp in Tate's Hell.
-MAY . . . We camp at Sand Creek in the Ocala National Forest, an hour east of Atlanta. I gather cattail in the Beaver Pond. I edit and type up the 'June' book at a nearby library for a literary agent.
-JUNE . . . We drive out to Oregon and camp off the Illinois River in the Siskiyous.
-JULY . . . We camp in the Adirondacks off Jones Pond.
-AUGUST . . . We camp in the Jemez Region of northern New Mexico. We gather wild mushrooms, and sell lobster mushrooms to chefs in Sante Fe. We camp at San Antonio Hot Springs for a week, and Big Tesuque Campground outside Sante Fe.
-SEPTEMBER . . . We go back to the Gila and camp at Brock Canyon. We gather desert willow seed again. We swim and play games in the river. We see tarantulas. I gather prickly pear fruit in baskets we've made from willow. We take a trip up to Turkey Creek Hot Springs.
-OCTOBER . . . We camp in the Oconee National Forest southeast of Atlanta, under persimmon trees in a field. We also camp up on Pigeon Mountain near Rocktown.
-NOVEMBER - JANUARY . . . We live in Atlanta.

2005
-FEBRUARY - MARCH . . . We move to Portland Oregon. We paddle the Wilamette River, and go to the nude beach at Sauvie Island, just after Mt. St. Helens erupted.
-APRIL . . . We return to north Florida looking for land to buy. Everywhere is flooded, and there's been a lot of damage from the previous hurricane.
-MAY . . . We camp up on Pigeon Mtn. The weather's perfect, and there's more wild food here than anywhere else.
-JUNE . . . We go to Arizona, and camp in the Hannigan area of Apache National Forest. We ultimately try to get back out to Oregon, but car problems make it not possible.
-JULY . . . We return to Pigeon Mtn in Georgia. The blackberries are in.
-AUGUST . . . We stay in a campground off the ocean in Jacksonville, Florida, while we look for jobs and a place to live.
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SEPTEMBER . . . We move back to Atlanta.
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OCTOBER . . . We abandon the jeep with 320,000 miles in a motel parking lot.

2006
-MARCH . . . the girls and I camp up at Pigeon Mtn, in a secret camp we've made.
-JUNE . . . the girls and I go back to Pigeon and camp longer, this time starting a wigwam from red maple saplings, muscadine vines, and grass I collect naked in the field with a small knife.
-AUGUST . . . the girls and I camp up at Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Every day we gather the wild blueberries and swim in the pool beneath the falls. We hike all the trails, and establish a secret camp in a grove of juneberries.


2007
-FEBRUARY . . . We look at property in north Florida.
-MARCH . . . We look at property in Asheville, NC.
-JUNE . . . We look at the 10 acres in Sunbright, and make an offer.
-AUGUST . . . We close on the Sunbright property, and take the kids to Disneyworld.
-OCTOBER . . . The girls and I camp up on the property in Sunbright, and clean up the trash from the fire. I build a fireplace out of old concrete blocks.

2008
-APRIL - SEPTEMBER . . . The girls and I camp up on the property. We clean out the rest of the trash, build a compost bin for humanure, plant the garden, and fruit trees, I dig the swales, do the stone foundation for the barn, and the stem wall, and the post and beam frame. We build a pad for the gazebo.

2009
-APRIL - JULY . . . The girls and I camp up on the property again. We build the 2 story cabin from scratch, plant another garden, and more fruiting trees and shrubs.
-OCTOBER . . . I put the upper story floor in the barn.
-NOVEMBER . . . The girls and I begin building the barn roof.