Many people long for a farm in the country someday, but with only my wife and a small dog in tow, at the age of fifty-seven, we decided to go for it. We purchased fifty-four acres in the remote foothills of the Appalachians and spent three years clearing the land and building a quaint farmhouse, an artist cabin, and a guest cottage. Did we bite off more than we can chew? Perhaps. I’ll let you be the judge.
The year 2018 began at a new tavern in Carthage. For clarity, I should mention we live in Tennessee—not Tunisia. For some befuddling reason, several sleepy southern towns nearby have been named for majestic and ancient faraway cities. There is Rome a few miles to the north, Alexandria to the south, Smyrna to the west, and Macedonia to the east.
Of course, there are also settlements such as Nameless, Tick, and Fur Tick. A young man who helped build our cabin lives on Difficult Road in Defeated, Tennessee. Somehow he has managed to grow up to be an optimist.
An honest to god tavern that serves alcoholic beverages is a new thing to these parts of the Bible Belt. Up until a few months ago, the town did not permit liquor-by-the-drink and on-premise consumption at an eating establishment. To correctly understand the conundrum of convoluted laws that white Christian people have instituted, one has only to travel a bit farther southwest to the rural town of Lynchburg.
With a population of fewer than 6,000 people, the town of Lynchburg, Tennessee is home to the world-famous Jack Daniel’s distillery. It attracts nearly a quarter of a million tourists each year.
At the end of the tour with aromas of the iconic whiskey tantalizing your senses, one enters the “tasting” room where they dare to serve you a paper cup of lemonade. Believe it or not, it’s illegal to sell or purchase an alcoholic drink of any kind—even the town’s most famous product—because Moore County is dry. This law dates back to Prohibition in 1910, and for some inexplicable reason, the good folks of Lynchburg have never bothered to vote it down.
After living three years near Carthage (also dry) and forced to drive to Nashville an hour away to quench our thirst, the opening of Ebel’s Tavern was an additional reason to celebrate the New Year. The establishment is on Main Street, and the party was to begin at 8 pm. The advertisements promised champagne and oysters on the half shell in a town where the most exciting culinary event so far had been a Sunkist cola and Moon-Pie.
We took this occasion to shed our usual evening wear of ancient sweatshirts and flannel pajama pants and dress up a bit. I donned the classic party outfit that GQ Magazine guarantees will fit in anywhere. It consists of a white Hanes T-shirt, white dress shirt, black cashmere sweater, Levi’s Made & Crafted jeans, and black Cole Haan loafers. I added a woolen pea coat, scarf and a tweed Country Gentleman cap as protection from the arctic chill. And we were off.
The suspicion that our first New Year’s evening out on the town might be unusual occurred when we descended the narrow concrete steps promptly at eight o’clock into an exceedingly cozy but very empty tavern. Thankfully, a hostess soon appeared from the back room bearing simple party favors and a warm smile.
“Are we too early?” we asked. “No way,” she replied, “you get the best seat in the house.”
A few people eventually straggled in from the cold, the bar began to work its magic, and the occasional squawk of a noisemaker helped set the mood. They did indeed serve champagne. The oysters were delivered—after a bit of interrogation as to their origin and method of delivery—and were well-presented and satisfactory.
The proprietors, Cole and Erika, personally greeted us. They were an enthusiastic and attractive young couple—thankfully with profitable day jobs—and have high hopes of bringing a long-dead Main Street back to life. He is a sandy-haired pharmaceutical salesman and was wearing an aqua-blue dress shirt that was rumpled and slightly untucked, polyester dress slacks and comfortable shoes. She is a statuesque brunette and mother of three boys and wore a black sequined pantsuit with a daring neckline.
Cole worked mostly in the back, and Erika took care of the front. As they laughingly recounted a bit of their arduous journey with city fathers, good ‘ole boy bureaucracy and permits, especially the liquor-by-the-drink saga, I began to think they just might do it.
On the short drive home along the dark and winding one-lane road, my wife and I were feeling quite euphoric and marveled at the wonder of champagne wishes and oyster dreams in little downtown Carthage. On the journey back to the farm we did not pass one moving vehicle, and we haughtily lampooned the dangers of our friends driving in the hordes of drunken revelers in downtown Nashville.
The tempo of life at Kalien is governed by nature, not by the clock.
By the way, you should know that I love to name things. I believe it is one of the most underutilized privileges that we possess as humans. Kalien is the general name for our place in the woods. We have a cottage christened Keefer-Roberts designated as a retreat space for our non-profit called Creative Community. Our farm is called Beauchamp Farm in honor of my wife’s champion thoroughbred horse Beau. My artist cabin is called the Hawk’s Nest and the 157-year-old oak tree outside our bedroom window is called Old Majestic. We have hiking trails named Moonshine Springs, Upper Turkey Knob, Cinqwani, and Slaughter Holler. There is Galt’s Gulch, Aurora Springs, and Remy’s Creek. I could go on.
Back to nature, the Great Mother seemed quite temperamental as winter began. After we endured one of the coldest holiday seasons on record, she then blew in what meteorologists called a bomb cyclone. Also known as a bombogenesis, a storm is classified as such when the barometer falls 24 millibars in 24 hours. But this storm’s pressure plummeted 53 millibars in just 21 hours. It was a bombogenesis of nuclear proportions and another chapter in a prolonged season of misery and vengeance brought on by humankind’s mistreatment of our fragile earth.
“Storms like this,” says Jeff Frame, an optimistic atmospheric scientist, “serve an important function as they help redistribute pockets of heat and cold more evenly around the globe.”
With pipes bursting, toilets freezing, and power bills zooming, we wished the storm distribution would push a little more of the heat down our way. But Mother Nature was definitely on the warpath, and she was just beginning. A few days later she dipped into her arsenal with another winter storm hurling rain, ice, sleet, snow, gusty winds, and single-digit temperatures. The immortal words of Sinclair Lewis capture the onslaught of January 2018 perfectly, “Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.”
Looking back on it, our decision to buy horses in late autumn seems a bit suspect now. My wife is a champion equestrian and has cared for horses her entire childhood. But she lived in the balmy climes and eternal sunshine of Florida. She could have fed and brushed her horses in the time it takes us just to get all twelve layers of clothing on for the trek to the barn.
Myriad questions haunted our new equine adventure. Should we keep the horses in their stall? Should we cover them with blankets? How do we keep their water from freezing? How do you muck frozen horseshit? What action do we take when the freezing rain comes? How do we heat a 57-year-old drafty barn? What is rain rot? What is thrush? Do we put the hay in the barn or the pasture? Do we need a farrier?
A job that should take sixty minutes each day was consuming four hours. And when you live in the Central Time Zone that means pretty much all day. In Slaughter Holler where the barn sits, the sun (the rare times it shows its face) comes up over the eastern mountains around eight or nine o’clock in the morning and is already setting behind the western ridge around two in the afternoon.
Frigid temperatures, low gray skies, and incredibly short days were the order of the season. A stockbroker friend of mine who lives in Chicago once told me winter is for hibernation. It is the time when you rest, try to stay warm, gain weight and have lots of sex. He is right. I would like to add, however, three additional requirements for surviving winter on a Tennessee farm. Drams of the aforementioned liquid gold, big pots of steaming meat stew of local origin, and colossal roaring fires with logs split by one’s own hand.
On one of those sub-zero chill factor mornings, we layered up and skated down the icy gravel driveway to the stable. The horses leered ominously and snorted plumes of smoke as we brushed the snow that had wafted in the various holes of the barn from their turnouts. My wife’s huge prize-winning racehorse Khalessi was particularly antsy. After the feeding, we reluctantly decided to let them out for a bit of exercise after being cooped up in a tiny stall all night.
As we opened Khalessi’s gate—the cold must have seeped in and numbed our mental faculties—we neglected to move out of the way, and she must have thought the metallic scraping of the gate and clanging of the chain was the bell that meant the beginning of a sprint. Her training kicked in, and before we knew what happened, we were both knocked sprawling like two bowling pins as she exploded through the opening to the outside.
As we looked over our prostrate bodies to assess the damage, we felt like the little brother in the movie A Christmas Story when he is walking to school and falls sideways into the snow and can’t get up because of the pillow-like outfit his Mom made him wear.
When it dawned on us that bones were unbroken and all was well except for a few bruises, we burst into laughter. Khalessi was up on the hill in the snow contentedly munching on fresh hay. We managed to help each other up without a word and finished our chores vowing not to complain any longer about the multiple layers of clothing that had saved our asses.
One of the main reasons for purchasing the farm was to have plenty of room for horses and to recapture a dream. My wife was a champion English show jumper in her adolescence and teens and was scheduled to compete at Madison Square Garden. But after the untimely death of her beloved six-year-old thoroughbred Beau in a freak accident, she walked away from competition grief-stricken. She vowed never to ride again, and it took over forty years to reconsider.
With the dust of construction barely settled, we set out on a quest for the perfect steeds. After numerous online searches, compassion led us to seek out equine rescue organizations. These horses have been abandoned, mistreated, or starved, and various non-profits save and rehabilitate them and subsequently offer them for “adoption” to qualified owners at a significantly reduced price. This offer proved irresistible to my wife who was an adopted child.
Ah, dreamers have visions that are so noble—yet so naive. We visited the horse rescue ranch several times, once taking my wife’s 93-year-old Dad who was her equine mentor and fellow animal lover. As we stood at the stall of a newborn colt, he commented, “Oh Randy, you and he could grow up together, you in your knowledge of horses and he into a fine stallion.”
Those big brown eyes looked up at me, he nuzzled me, his warm breath tickling my fancy and then he softly nickered. I was smitten. And when we heard his backstory, in the classic words of Ernest Tubb: “That was it, that was all she wrote.”
His name was Caspar and was discovered barely a few hours old by the dead body of his mother. Scattered around the field of this wretched farm were two other standardbred mares that were also skin and bones and at the point of starvation. They were rescued and subsequently mired in a court battle.
Many times here in rural Tennessee the owners refuse to surrender their mistreated and abused animals and are often angry that someone dares to seize their property. And in many counties, animal rights are non-existent, and the government authorities and law enforcement are challenging if not impossible to reason with. A lawsuit ensues, and the animals often lose.
In the midst of the emotion, a bit of common sense prevailed, and we agreed to foster the three horses until the legalities were settled, under the condition that we could return them at any time. We also were entranced by a beautiful American Paint whose coloring was a stunning combination of raw sienna and white. What’s four when you already have three? We purchased her for $300.
We commenced building a six-foot-tall wooden fence around our lower meadow. This job entailed digging by hand seventy-two holes measuring six by eighteen inches amidst clay and rock, cutting and mitering four by four poles for each hole, and filling each with an eighty-pound bag of Quickcrete. You then add four eight-foot one by six-inch horizontal slats between each pole and a five-foot vertical slat to cover the joints. This undertaking took a while.
Yessir. By the sweat of your brow…until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return. Amen.
We then cleaned three years of accumulated junk out of the barn (we had previously cleared fifty-four years of someone else’s trash to make room for ours) and remodeled it and built three stalls and a tack room with cedar planks from our local sawmill. A trip to the farmer’s co-op netted twelve bales of hay, some feed, different buckets and pails, and a mineral and salt block to assist with their nutritional rehabilitation.
A few weeks later we pronounced ourselves ready, and the herd was set to arrive. Ms. Alisha Rupp was to bring them. A ranch hand for Volunteer Equine Advocates, she is no bigger than a minute but as tough as whit leather. One can barely see her white blonde ponytails bobbing beneath that wide-brimmed ten-gallon cowboy hat as she wrangles those horses fifteen times her size. It is a thing of wonder.
Alisha has a perpetual tan and is toned like an Olympic athlete. Her attire usually consists of two sweat-stained layers of sleeveless fluorescent cotton workout shirts, light blue polyester stretch jeans, and muddy manure covered cowboy boots. She’s one of those folks you instantly take a liking to. Short on talking but big on doing—she is a no-nonsense person who commands respect from humans as well as horses.
As the rickety horse trailer drove up to our gate at the end of the asphalt road, I happened to be standing on the opposite ridge jawing with Robin Grisham. He was the man who has done all our excavating over the past three years, and as you would expect we have got to know one another quite well. He and his brother Tommy grew up here and have carved out a good business.
Robin has straw blonde hair, regular height and build, and an eternal cigarette. Tommy is a big boy. He has dark hair, a laugh to match his girth and is the business side of the outfit. They both have the ruddy red faces and earthy smell that come from a lifetime of outdoor work.
They are one of the few Anglo contractors in these parts that work hard and keep their word. The kind of boys when they say they will get there at seven am—what they really mean is six-forty-five. And if you want their respect you will be there casually sipping on a cup of coffee before six-forty. As I have attempted to employ locals in these parts, it has been a disheartening experience of no-shows, drinking on the job, lame excuses, and a total lack of passion. I’ve come to understand why hardworking and honest Hispanic people get most of the work.
But the Grisham boys are keepers. Robin calls me “Big Bear” even though I tell him my name means wolf. One summer day as he was building the road up to our guest cottage I happened to be in the ravine below him with a chainsaw cutting up a fallen Black Walnut tree for the sawmill. I got my saw stuck and was coming up to fetch a wedge as he drove by in the dozer laughing at me.
He said, “Gawd, Randy, coming out of that gully with all that sweating and going on, you look just like a big ‘ole bear. A big ‘ole sweaty bear.” And it stuck. I’ve been Big Bear to him ever since.
Back to the ridge. He was taking a smoke break, and I was telling him the rescue horse saga and what a good deal we got and what a good deed we were doing. I said, “Gotta go,” but he touched my shoulder and caught my eyes for a minute, and with that southern drawl of his said, “Remember, Bear, you get what you pay for. You better watch those horses, they’ll hurt ya.”
With those ominous words ringing in my ears, I hurried down the mountain to help unload.