Our Homestead Story
The young housewife and mother sat at the kitchen table sipping her freshly brewed coffee. The morning sun streamed through the window as she paged through the newspaper. She was still in her nightgown, having a little quiet time before getting her daughter up. Her husband had left for work, and her three oldest children had left on the school bus twenty minutes earlier. Her youngest, a little freckle-faced redheaded girl, was still asleep in her bedroom.
The silence broke when Jack, the family’s trusty Chocolate Labrador, let out a low rumbling growl from his old grizzled muzzle and took a few steps toward the window. The woman looked out to see what had alerted the dog. A dark-colored four-door sedan was parked on the road in front of the house. The window rolled down a few inches and a camera lens peered out. She could make out that the driver was a middle-aged man wearing dark sunglasses.
After snapping a series of pictures, the driver rolled up the window and the sedan continued up the road and turned down the main road and disappeared from view. A little nervous about the strange occurrence, she called her husband and told him what happened. He assured her it was probably nothing to worry about, but told her to make sure the door was locked, just in case.
Over the next few months…
The event repeated many times. Sometimes at different times of the day, but always the same vehicle and driver. Sometimes he drove by slowly, studying the house. Other times, stopping and taking pictures, as he had done the first time. The young woman’s uneasiness had grown to terror. Perhaps he was a sexual predator? Could he be someone her police officer husband had sent to prison years ago, planning a home invasion attack as revenge?
Having no idea what the strangers interest in her home was, she’d call her husband in a near panic when the strange man in the dark sedan appeared. He told her to try to get a license plate, lock the doors, and make sure Jack was nearby. If she needed it, he reminded her the gun was on the top shelf in the bedroom closet.
One day she was talking to a friend she had met at a neighborhood yard sale. She nervously told the other young mother about the man who had been terrorizing her for months now. “That’s the Nazi,” her new friend informed her. “He works for the homeowners association. If your kids leave their bikes in the driveway, your grass gets too tall, or you decided to stain your deck without a permit, he’s on you like a fly on you know what! The first time he comes around he takes pictures, he will come back in about a week, and if you haven’t remedied whatever got his attention, they write you up and hit you with a heavy fine.”
“So we pay hundreds in dues every year for the privilege of being stalked and having our privacy invaded?!” Her new friend smiled and replied, “Yes, pretty much.”
From whence we came
Fly fishing near our homestead
Cheri and I grew up in Colorado. We met while I was working as a police officer in the town she grew up in, and we married in 1995.
I grew up hunting, fishing, camping, and was active in the Boy Scouts. Grizzly Adams was my idol. My youthful career plan was to be a trapper in the remote Alaskan wilderness. What I ended up doing was having a nearly thirty-year career in law enforcement.
Cheri grew up in a small town near Vail. She spent most of her winter free time on the ski slopes. Summertime was time for camping and fishing with the family. Cheri ended up running a small Home Management business and developing a profitable talent for buying and selling antiques.
Some of Cheri’s fondest childhood memories were of spending time as a little girl in her grandmother’s vast garden. Picking and eating raspberries and snap peas was a favorite treat as she helped her grandmother work the soil and nurture the food bearing plants. Grandma’s garden was now a distant, although cherished memory. Starting a homestead was something she hadn’t ever given much thought to, even though having a large productive garden of her own, full of tasty fresh vegetables was something she had always wanted.
The homestead plan takes shape…
That was when we began to think that the H.O.A. life was not for us. The more we thought about the restrictive “Covenants” we had apparently agreed to abide by when moving into the neighborhood, the more we craved freedom. We began to talk about buying a piece of land of our own, out in the country, where we could have a huge garden, chickens, and maybe a couple of goats. Somewhere amongst like-minded people, who had also escaped from within the confines of the cities and H.O.A’s
Moving back to Colorado
After spending a few years in northern Arizona, we moved back to southwest Colorado in 2003. I started with the local PD as a Detective. It was in 2009 we decided it was time to get serious about our plan to escape and start a homestead. We both had the itch to find at least an acre or two where we could have freedom and be more self-sufficient.
The plan at the time was to build a small off-grid homestead. We would do all the work we could and hire out or get help with what we couldn’t do ourselves.
While still living in our HOA, we just couldn’t wait to get going on our new modern homestead lifestyle. One day we decided it was time to take the plunge into chickendom and drove to the Co-Op in search of chicks. As it worked out, the Carhartt clad gentleman working in the store had by that time had just about enough of feeding, cleaning up after and smelling the little peepers and desperately wanted them all gone. To our benefit, he made us a great deal and we went home with twenty chicks, including Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, and one Rhode Island Red.
The hiding place
We kept the little peeping and pooping balls of fluff in an eight-foot-long sheep tank in our living room until they were big enough to into the small portable coop I’d built outside. We quickly learned about something called “pasty butt” and how to remedy the issue. As the chicks grew, we entertained ourselves at night by watching them jump up and try (and often succeed) to catch the moths that had found their way into the house and were flying crazily around the heat lamps over the trough. Better than HBO for sure!
Eventually, our young pullets matured enough to be moved into a 10′ x 10′ chain link dog kennel right off out front porch. Of course, to avoid getting busted by the HOA Nazi’s, we had to hide the hens out of sight. The HOA did allow you to have “Neatly stacked” firewood on your property, so we carefully camouflaged the dog kennel as a 10′ x 10′ stack of firewood! The neighbors on that side of the house were wise to our treachery, but thankfully they were homesteaders at heart too and used to have chickens themselves.
First steps into our Homesteading Adventure!
We began driving the county roads in search of land. Finally, we found a beautiful piece of property near the end of the road in a river valley, with good southern exposure. The lot was a little over an acre and ideal for a garden plot, a goat paddock a small barn and a home site. I took out a loan from my retirement account which enabled us to buy the property without a bank loan. Not long after, we were able to obtain an adjoining lot, doubling our property to about two and a half acres. We installed a septic system and a water cistern, with some hired help and a lot of volunteer hours from family members.
I took a septic installation class from the Health Department; this allowed me to be my own contractor for the job and decreased the cost of our septic from a quoted $10,000 to about $3200, plus a case of beer for a helpful neighbor.
Leaving the HOA subdivision
In the fall of 2011, we found and moved to a small rental home on a spacious 65 acres, with a large barn. The place was in the same county as we had been living in and had bought our property. The “Rentalstead” was also close to the land we’d purchased. We had plans of building our homestead on the weekends and summer nights after work.
We acquired our first goats, a pair of Alpine dairy does which we bought from a friend. Our chickens were elated to be liberated from the firewood encased dog kennel and loved free ranging on the property. We spent hours sitting out on the front porch watching “The chicken channel.” One of the duties that came with the ranch was helping look after 30 cow-calf pairs that were on half of the property.
Soon after getting the goats, Cheri stumbled across an ad for some Anatolian Shepherd livestock guardian dog (LGD) puppies. We educated ourselves on these amazing dogs and in short order we knew we had to add one to our homestead. On a 20 below zero night in late December, we met up with Daryl, a cattle rancher from northeast Washington. Daryl had just made the long trip to southwest Colorado with three pups; one was for us, whom we named Samson. The other two puppies were for Daryl’s parents, who lived on a ranch about two hours from where we lived.
Samson fit right in and instinctively knew his job. He has been the protector of our homestead ever since.
The interim at the Rentalstead
Living on our rental property for the next four years, we raised our chickens and Alpine goats. It was a good transition to starting a homestead of our own. I sold eggs to friends and co-workers. I began milking goats and started a small milk share with the extra milk. We learned to make goat cheese and goat milk soap. Additionally, I began learning about solar power and off-grid energy and bought lots of books about construction.
The half of the property that the cattle were not on was ours to use. I fenced in about 20 acres with electric fencing for the goats and Samson. Our landlord graciously allowed us to put up a greenhouse where we grew tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. A modest sized outdoor garden had more tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, kale, carrots, potatoes, and thistles. Lots and lots of thistles!
Getting ready to make the move
After almost four years at the “Rentalstead,” we got the itch to speed things up and get moved onto our property. Not having to pay rent would help us save money for the construction of our house. We bought a used RV trailer and fixed it up. My son and his best friend helped fence in a paddock for the goats. With the assistance of some good friends, we managed to get a small barn put up that spring.
The big move
That summer, me, Cheri, our twelve-year-old daughter Jordan, our camper, the chickens, Samson the LGD, and our small herd of goats moved onto the property. Our son had turned 18 and decided against roughing it in a camper with mom, dad and baby sister. He found a little rustic rental cabin that bordered national forest, and out of the nest he flew.
Making it work
We were officially “Off Grid” with two solar panels on top of the camper, an inverter, and a small Honda generator/inverter. The Honda, or “Portable grid” as I thought of it, proved to be a reliable essential that made life much more comfortable. The little Honda was a real workhorse and was put to use for everything from charging batteries when the solar panels weren’t enough, to running power tools for projects.
I hauled water from town in a water tank in the bed of our truck and dumped it into the cistern (which we still do). From the cistern, I pumped water into the camper’s storage tank by using a sump pump plugged into the jenny. The camper was near the newly installed septic system, so not having to haul portable poo tank into town every few days to dump was a real benefit.
The power of God
Our first night in the camper a massive thunderstorm descended upon our infant homestead. Flashing lightning lit the night every few seconds. Pounding thunder violently shook the camper for over an hour. We questioned the wisdom of riding out the storm in basically, a metal box.
The following morning, I mosied over to Roger’s place, our nearest neighbor. I let him know we’d moved in and asked him if what we had experienced the night before was a common occurrence in the valley. I noticed a lot of rubble on the ground strewn around Roger’s house. It looked like a bunker buster bomb had hit a nearby Taliban stronghold. I asked Roger, “What’s up with all the rocks everywhere?” Roger pointed up on his roof, to what remained of his rock chimney. Lightening blew it apart! Sure enough, looking up on his roof, the chimney was a rocky stub. We were beginning to wonder if this was a good idea after all.
Life was rough
That summer was extraordinarily hot. The little camper had no AC and was fully exposed to the baking sun. By two or three o’clock in the afternoon, the camper was nearly a hundred degrees inside. Furthermore, there was usually no breeze to offer even a momentary relief. It was miserable, and the only way to escape was by going to work or going shopping in an air-conditioned building. I worked five days a week and was able to cool off in my office. On the other hand, Cheri was only working part-time and was in the camper most days. The heat was taking a toll on her.
Can you hear me now?
We had no phone either, which also meant no internet. My job required me to be on call. I had been a month with no phone service in the camper. My boss gave me an order to get a phone, pronto. We could only get two bars on the cell phone by standing on an old stump up near the road, which we dubbed, “The talking stump.”
The phone company told me they could only use their contracted trenching service to bury the line, and they were running three months out. The phone company offered to give me enough direct burial phone cable and suggested I could do the job myself. I talked to my neighbor to the east, Tom, humbly asking for written permission to trench across his property. Tom graciously gave me the required letter. I rented a trencher, installed the line in the ground and buried it. About a week later I got the phone company out to hook up the line, and so I got to keep my job. Although excruciatingly slow, the Internet was a luxury.
Stupid is as stupid does
On an exceptionally hot summer day, I learned the hard way that a little too much gasoline in a burn barrel on a 97-degree day is not a good idea. The gas fumes were shooting up from the draft in the hot metal barrel like an invisible raging chimney fire. With the flick of a Bic, a giant fireball erupted and engulfed me.
I had burns on my face, chest, and arm, but my right hand got the worst of it. The skin of my palm was hanging down, seemingly melted off of my hand. I detested going to the doctor and tried my best to avoid it if at all possible. I wanted to tough it out, just as Grizzly Adams would have done. Unlike Grizzly Adams, my boss required that I have a doctors note if I was going to miss work, which I apparently was. All I could do was sit around the camper with my hand in a mixing bowl of ice water.
Fall back and regroup
Between the burns on my hand and the intolerable heat in the little camper, we decided to temporarily move into a tiny (but air-conditioned) apartment above my parent’s garage. Starting a homestead can be rough. Sometimes a fall back plan is good to have so you can regroup and then march on. My parents had left town for a while and needed a house sitter anyway, so the timing was right. The apartment offered relief from the heat, and it was easier to keep my burn clean and taken care of.
We still had chickens, goats, and Samson back at the homestead who had to be fed and watered. Between Cheri and I, we had to make a 30 mile round trip from my office or else a 54 mile round trip from my parent’s house twice a day.
The burns on my arms, face, and chest were not severe, but my hand had genuine certified third-degree burns. The doctor gave me a silver cream to put on my wounds, which helped them heal.
Movin on up
Cheri and I decided to upgrade the small $3000 camper in favor of something more substantial and better insulated. Winter was coming and we both knew what a Colorado winter could bring.
We began our search for an upgraded camper. Just before winter that year we found an all season 38-foot fifth wheel. We knew that the extra insulation and dual furnaces would help us survive the Colorado winter without grid power. We had quite a few nights of -20F or colder temperatures that winter. There were lots of challenges staying warm, including keeping the generator running, unfreezing pipes and sewer drains, to name but a few. Nevertheless, we managed to survive.
Getting a start on homestead plans
The following spring we purchased some blueprints for a small house and got some bids for foundation work. A small garden plot was in place. I made two hugel beds after studying their benefits. Hugel beds consist of buried wood (preferable rotting wood) covered in a layer of soil. The wood acts like a sponge and holds water and also gives off nutrients. Hugelkultur, as it’s called, eliminates the need for most watering and fertilization.
I planted a small orchard, with half a dozen Zone 4 hardy apple trees. The goats and chickens settled in and the solar electric fence was up. Samson the fearless livestock/chicken guardian dog was on duty.
We intended to piecemeal the building expenses, mostly from money saved by not having to pay rent. That summer we were consumed by other things going on in our lives. We decided to put the foundation off until the following spring.
Change of plans
As providence would have it, the vacant house across the road went into foreclosure. Subsequently, a for sale sign went up. The house included two acres but was in need of a tremendous amount of work. Even so, repairs and a remodel would get a permanent roof over our heads sooner and cheaper than building.
After the third price drop, realtors and lookie-loos began showing up across the road on an almost daily basis. A real estate agent friend put a quick offer on the place on our behalf, and we started praying. We learned a few days later that our offer had been accepted.
We closed in February 2016 and began working on the house in March. Our plans called for basically gutting the house and starting over to make it so it would work for us. We were both working at the time. I was working full time plus a lot of overtime. We worked on the house after work at night and on weekends, as time allowed. We did most of the demolition and the construction on our own. My dad, who is a Master Electrician, helped with the electric.
I’m not a speed demon when it comes to this stuff, so progress was slow. We made the move into the house ten months later, in January 2017. The house had two bedrooms mostly finished and a functioning kitchen and bathroom.
We took out a bathroom on one side of the house to increase the size of the living room. A while later, we began adding a master bath. A kitchen remodel is in the planning stages.
Outfitting for energy independence
Our plan is to go to a solar system with a battery bank eventually. A generator will provide backup battery charging. With this system, we will be able to operate independently from the grid. We have purchased new energy efficient kitchen appliances for our modern homestead, including a propane refrigerator.
Proper off-grid appliance solutions
I learned a few things while searching for off-grid friendly appliances. Nearly all modern gas stoves have to have electric power to work. They have an energy wasting “glow bar” in them that stays on the entire time the oven is on. Glow bars consume about 500 watts, which is entirely unacceptable for the modest off-grid solar system we have planned. Eventually, I found and ordered a propane powered stove that needed no electricity to operate.
I wanted to avoid an electric dishwasher altogether. I thought it was more off-grid efficient to load the dishwasher the old-fashioned way. That entailed pouring a few glasses of wine for the wife…Ha Ha! Get it? Loading the dishwasher?! Somehow, Cheri didn’t think it was funny either. We ended up buying a super energy efficient dishwasher that dries the dishes without an electric element. I’ll talk more about these off-grid purposed appliances in upcoming posts.
Recent and Coming up
Last year we added another Anatolian Shepherd to give Samson some backup. Bears raiding nearby farms and a dramatic increase in lion sightings dictated it was the prudent thing to do. The new pup’s name is Cora, and she fit right in; Samson is teaching her well.
This coming year, we will be continuing the remodel, and further developing the homestead. A more substantial garden and a goat-share are in the works. Fencing off more of the property and maybe expanding the orchard is on the chore list.
Since we have a cistern and septic on the lower portion of the property, we want to build a small solar power guest cabin there in the future.
Some very generous friends gifted us some beehives, so we will be adding honey bees this spring. More posts will be coming about chickens, dairy goats, bees, gardening, orchard husbandry and other homestead topics.
Also, Cheri will be sharing many more nutritious, real food recipes and home improvement and decorating posts. We hope you will subscribe, comment, and check back in often. God Bless, and thanks for visiting Aprons and Acres Homestead.