Becoming An Us, by K.L.

This may sound like an odd title to a story, but for anyone who has ever tried to move to a rural setting it takes on a complete meaning of its own. Learning how to get along with and even go so far as to ingratiate yourself with the locals in a rural community is a survival skill all its own. As a matter of fact, getting to know your neighbors in a rural setting cannot only save your life when the balloon goes up, but it can save your hearth and home and be of great benefit today, tomorrow, and all the days from now until WTSHTF. Just to give you a head’s up, when you first move to a rural community, you are automatically labeled a “them”, as in us versus them. It takes a great deal of patience, skill, and time in order to become an “us”. There is no amount of preparation that you can do to hasten the transition. In fact, attempting to speed up the process could very well be met with suspicion.

When I first moved to the mountains of southern Appalachia, I was an unknown quantity to all but a few neighbors. This was because my family had purchased a small parcel of land back in the ‘60s and built a vacation home there in the late 70s to beat the heat of southern Florida and have a place that we could all return to. It meant a lot for me and my brothers because growing up as army “Brats” and living the nomadic lifestyle, it gave us a place that we could call home. Every year, our parents would go out of their way to make sure that we could spend a week or two on the family “farm” in the summer or during spring break. I use the term “farm” because the neighbors used the land that we bought as a cattle pasture and a hog lot prior to our purchasing it. As my grandmother used to put it, “Your grandfather wanted to be a farmer when he retired until he realized home much more work was involved”, so he contented himself with a fairly large garden, a small orchard, and a great big mowing headache. The rest he allowed to return to its wooded state.

My grandparents wanted to find a place that they could drive to in a day’s time, was still on the eastern seaboard, and was high enough in elevation that summers were cool and had ample rainfall. My grandparents and parents enjoyed the area a great deal and would vacation here during the 50s and 60s, back before it became the “in” thing to do. In the late 60s they began looking for a small piece of land that they could make their own. When they finally found it, it had all the necessities. It already had a small cabin with a spring box water source. It had open fields that could have a large garden, and it had several sites where they could eventually locate a larger house. It was also within five miles of town, but it was located on a dirt road that came off of a poorly maintained county road, and there were only a few land owners within a mile in any direction.

My parents and grandparents went in 50/50 on the property and house when it was constructed in the mid-70s, and the farm soon became our respite retreat from the world. Eventually, I became the only grandchild that continued to come back on his own with regular consistency. In college, I completed a degree in Emergency Medical Technology and later completed a B.S. in Outdoor Recreation Management. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I finished school; I just knew that I wanted it to be in the mountains. I eventually took jobs as a river guide in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a ski instructor in Breckenridge, Colorado, a hiking/canoeing guide in Saranac Lake, New York, and a ropes course builder near Pescadero, California. Eventually, I gave in to my home sickness and returned to the family farm.

When I first arrived with a couple of degrees to my name and having traveled around the country and the globe, I really thought that I was a man of the world. I went to work in the tourism industry and ran a small rafting company during the summer and ski patrolled during the winter at a small ski slope near the farm. Even though I had been coming to the area for my entire life, I was still considered an outsider because I knew very little about the local people and I knew even less about their customs and how they lived.

Luckily, due to some quick action by my father years before, our family was close to clan that lived around us. Their matriarch was mowing her yard at the age of 82 when she hit an electrical cord lying in the grass. The cord whipped outward at a high rate of speed, slicing through her skin on her legs and lacerating an artery before she could even let go of the handle. One of her grandchildren, that she had been keeping an eye on, ran down the road to our house and alerted my father and grandfather to the emergency situation. My father drove the farm’s truck up to the old lady’s house, applied a tourniquet and direct pressure, put her in the back of the truck with the help of my grandfather, and whisked her away to the nearest emergency room. That was all it took to earn the love and respect of the neighbors. Now, if only I could somehow save the life or limb of everyone’s grandmother within a five mile radius, then I’ll be doing really well.

Since that’s not really practical, I decided to do the next best thing; I went to work for the local newspaper. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is, when you live in a small community, you learn to wear a lot of hats. Right about this time in my life I had gotten married and was preparing for the birth of our first child. As anyone who has worked at a small newspaper can tell you, you don’t make a lot of money doing it. So, you have to find ways to supplement your income. Personally, I worked at the newspaper all year but on the summer weekends, I was a river guide; in the winter, I worked nights on ski patrol; and throughout the year I worked in the evenings, afternoons, and weekends in the Christmas tree fields. That’s how you become a local; you adopt their work ethic and do it from dawn to dusk, all year long.

Now since I had come to the southeast ski and raft industry via the western ski and raft industry, I was treated with a little bit of incredulity because of my experience, but when it came to just about everything else I was treated with patience and kindness for the most part. You know what I’m referring to; it’s the same level of patience and politeness that you show an inquisitive child. It wasn’t until I learned more about homesteading that I finally realized just how patronizing the locals were to me. They were kind but patronizing. In fact, it wasn’t until I started gardening that I actually came to understand just how little I really knew about how to live on your own.

The first thing I found out about gardening was that not only did I not know anything but neither did the USDA, the local extension agent, or any of the seed magazines. My grandmother quickly told me that I needed to talk to the neighbors before I planted anything in the ground. After all, if it grew in this area, they grew it. If they didn’t grow it then obviously it didn’t grow here. When I sought the wisdom of the local sages, I was greeted with a new level of respect and affection. If there is one thing that is an age old truth about old farmers or old people in general, they love to talk about what they know; all you have to do is ask. Just in case you’re wondering, they know a lot. Please allow me to elaborate.

The very first time I decided to garden was a couple of years after my grandfather had passed away, so the garden plots (terraced to prevent erosion because we live on the side of a mountain) had to be plowed. One of the hard and fast rules about rural living is if you ask a neighbor to help you out, even if you plan to pay them, you should always be on hand during the time that the work is being done just in case your assistance is needed. I approached our neighbor and asked him to plow the field, and he agreed. While he was in the middle of it, the sheer bold on the plow broke but became lodged in a control arm. After a couple of attempts to free it failed, we went to his shop to try a few other things to get it out of the hole. In the span of a couple of minutes, I observed my 70+ year old neighbor use applied physics when he attempted to free it with a ratchet and then get a long pipe and slid it over the handle of the ratchet in order to lengthen the lever. He also used metallurgy when he went and got his MAPP gas blow torch to heat it and a hose to cool and alternated rapidly heating and cooling until he was able to use a hammer and punch to knock it loose.

That was the day that I realized that despite my several degrees, I was truly ignorant about everything that really matters in life. The next time I needed some help, I resolved myself to learn all that I could. When I told my neighbor, he laughed and said, “That sounds great. Just watch what I do this time. Next time I’ll watch what you do it, and then I won’t have to come over anymore.” I also decided to start reading more about homesteading, and before long I had amassed a pretty decent homesteading library. One of my first acquisitions was Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living. When another neighbor stopped by and noticed the book on my coffee table, he asked, “What’s this book for?”

My response was quick, “It’s to teach me all of things that you already know.”

His retort was just as fast, “But if I already know it, why would you bother buying a book? Why not just ask me?”

I had to mull that over before I could respond, eventually settling on the obvious reason, “Because I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know. I need to read a book in order to figure out what the question is and then ask.”

When that same neighbor became ill and had to have a porcine valve put into his heart, I stepped up to help him with his Christmas tree harvest that year. When we were finished, he wanted to know how much he owed me for the weeks’ worth of labor. I told him, “How about a bottle or two of your homemade wine?” He told me that wasn’t even close to being enough for all the work I done for him. My reply was easy; I needed a new wood stove. He told me that he’d get right to work on that. In a few days, he called me on the phone to tell me that he had located a full-sized fireplace insert wood stove with an industrial blower wired to it. His son, who lived an hour away, had just replaced his wood stove with an electric heat pump and wanted to still have a fire from time to time. His father had not only convinced him to sell it to me for a $100 but he would not only deliver it but he’d even help me install it. How’s that for a week’s work?

I still help him harvest his Christmas trees every year and also help him every time he bags a deer to get the carcass out of the woods. And I continue to not get paid for my time, but I do get free Christmas trees every year, a couple of bottles of homemade wine, a share of the deer that I haul out of the woods, and the skills of an experienced welder and machinist. It’s not a bad trade off if you ask me. After 15 years of helping my neighbors when they need it, I have built up plenty of “chits” that I can always count on being able to cash in, not that anyone is keeping count. Of course, you don’t have to count them when you’ve finally been adopted as a native son.

As I moved around the country in my younger years, I came to love the people that live in the rural parts of the country. They can be described as “the salt of the earth”. These people love family, they love friends, and they love God. They will give you the shirts off their backs if you ask for it, and they’ll happily help you out when and if they can without any caveats as long as you’re not an able-bodied loafer. But if you want them to help you out a lot, you have to be willing to reciprocate, and you need to be ready to listen to their wisdom.

After all, the people that populate the Appalachian Mountains have grown up as preppers their entire lives. They weren’t preppers because of the fear of what might come; they were preppers because of what they knew was coming each and every year– winter. They spent their summers preparing for the time when food wasn’t as readily available. They recycled their food scraps, leavings, and pealing, when there was any, by feeding it to their pigs. They grew and made most of their own food and continued to do so up until around 1980. They can, dehydrate, and freeze foods every year, despite the fact that a grocery store stands a few miles down the road.

After only 10 years of living in the community, I finally had my “coming of age” event. It was the very same sage neighbor that had taught me so much that called one day to ask a question about planting asparagus. I had started growing asparagus a couple of years earlier, and because of the early time of year that it becomes productive I shared the bounty with the neighbors and members of our church. Not only did everyone want to start asking us about the asparagus, but they also wanted to know when we would be getting in our crowns for the next planting. (Never grow asparagus from seed or one-year-old plants sold at the big box stores when you can get two- or three-year-old crowns that will produce spears in one year from when you put them into the ground.) Since I was ordering thousands of crowns, I am always happy to give away some of them to my friends and neighbor. It costs me very little and pays back huge dividends.

When my asparagus crowns came in, I had my wife drop off a grocery bag with 50 or so crowns. It wasn’t until later that day that my neighbor called to get my advice on how to put his asparagus in the ground. Just after I started walking him through the steps, I felt compelled to stop long enough to call my grandmother and tell her that one of the neighbors was on the phone calling me for planting advice. My wife also received her own “coming of age” event when a neighbor asked for her recipe for a dish that she took to church. It’s these events that let you know you have finally arrived.

And, if you really want to learn something, all you have to do is ask. They won’t ask you to buy a subscription to get their wisdom; all you have to do is visit. When they were growing up, it wasn’t the norm to have people stop by on a regular basis, and so they enjoy having guests. One of the best stories I’ve ever heard was when I asked my neighbor if he missed the “Good Ole Days”. He laughed and said, “I’m glad I lived through them, but I don’t want to have to do it again.” He then reminisced about Christmas when he was younger.