I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia. I had experience living and working and knowing others who lived “the plain life,” as it’s called in those parts. It was a life I left behind a long time ago. I joined the military. I went to college. I got married and got a job. I didn’t think about the old days much.
And then a few years ago, my wife and I were discussing the way our world, and our Church, seemed to be heading. Our talk turned into a family discussion with our six children. Before long, that discussion turned into a commitment. We decided, as a family, that it would be the best thing for all of us to move away from the hustle and bustle of the Washington, DC suburbs of Northern Virginia – “city living,” as my grandfather used to say – and find enough land to start a homestead where we could make a real effort to be more self-sustaining. A little more prepared if things in our society got worse. (And no, we didn’t have plans for a bunker.)
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Our suburban house was perfectly nice, if a bit small. It was a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath ’90s tract house on a quarter-acre lot. There was no basement, and we had welcomed two more children after we moved in with our first four, so we were a little cramped. But I had a short commute (almost unheard of in this area), any store we could ever want was within a 5-10 minute drive, and we were only a mile-and-a-half from our parish. And we were all involved there. I was a sacristan for the Latin Mass, which we were blessed to have every Sunday and many holy days. Our oldest daughter sang in the choir and our older sons served as altar boys. My wife and I attended Adoration every week, often taking one or more of our teenagers with us. We belonged to the homeschooling group. We had all made some good friends. Still, we all felt it. It was time to move on. Time to put our house on the market and follow our dream.
There’s an old saying that “God works in mysterious ways.” I’ve come to believe it. Once we decided what to do, it seemed like it was just a matter of doing it. We met a couple from our parish who worked in real estate. In the process of getting the house ready for sale, we became close friends. They told us what to do to get the house ready. We patched, we painted, we moved half our belongings into storage so we could “stage” our house. Agents would call for showings, my wife and the kids would tear around the house cleaning and straightening, then load everyone into the car to drive around for an hour.
We prayed daily for the intention to make the transition from the suburbs out to the country. All the while we had our own ideas of how that would work best. Of course, God knows what is really best, and one of the most difficult things to do is to leave it up to Him.When we got impatient, or tried to do things our own way, nothing seemed to work out. And when we left things up to God instead of what we – or I – thought was best, things seemed to just fall into place.
We had a contract within the first week. We were excited. A week before closing, though, it fell through. We put the house back on the market. More showings, more cleaning, more loading everyone into the car and driving around. Three weeks later, we had another contract. This one fell through after just 10 days.
We had been so sure we were doing the right thing. We had been praying that the house would sell quickly. Weren’t we supposed to get as far away as we could from the suburbs? We desperately wanted to give our children the chance to take care of animals and tend a garden, to learn how to build things and preserve food as generations before us had done. We wanted to ground them in The Real.
By now it was fall, and the showings had tapered off. Our agent asked to meet with us. “I don’t think it’s time,” she said. “Let’s try again next spring.” We drove home from that meeting disappointed, but feeling oddly relieved. We could enjoy the holidays in familiar surroundings. And we could stop worrying about keeping the house ready to show at an hour’s notice.
Still, we continued to pray every night that our house would sell quickly in the spring and that we’d find just the right place for our homestead. When January came, we met up again with our agent. We agreed to put our house back on the market March 1, and decided to start looking at places to buy. We looked at a lot of places. Nothing felt quite right.
Just when we were starting to wonder where we were going to go, we found an early 20th-century, 4-acre homestead up on a mountain.
“If you get this place, I’m going to have to start calling you Ma and Pa Ingalls.”
Our agent’s husband was standing with us in the largest bedroom of a 100-year-old cabin. It was small. The top of his head was just inches from the ceiling.
“I don’t get it. I’m glad you guys like it, but I don’t get it,” he said.
We could tell our agent shared some of her husband’s misgivings, but she celebrated with us when our offer was accepted. We scrambled to get the house we were selling back into pristine condition, and were able to put it on the market a month sooner than we had originally planned. We kept praying that it would sell quickly and that the purchase of the new property would go smoothly.
Before long, we had our house under contract, along with the cabin we wanted to buy. This time everything went according to plan. We had no more problems with our home sale, and we closed on that end of the deal on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. “…Be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) We were set to close on the mountaintop property a month later; the owner had agreed to let us rent the house until then. So we packed everyone and everything up and headed west. We thanked God for His goodness and kept praying that the purchase of our new homestead would go well.
But it didn’t. The previous tenant trashed the house before she left. There was no oil in the furnace, and it was brutally cold at the higher elevation, with a wind that never seemed to stop. Thankfully there were wood stoves, and our agent and her husband brought us a kerosene heater. We planned to attend Mass at a nearby Latin Mass community that first Sunday but awoke to a blizzard. That was just the beginning.
The neighbors left their two billy goats loose all day, every day, and they would invariably wander into our yard to chew on the rose bushes. We quickly realized that the smaller living space, which had seemed cozy at first, was just too small for our family. Finally, it became apparent that the house and property would need more work than we had the time or money to accomplish. Still, we were away from the suburbs, we had land to use, and we were determined to make it work if that was where God wanted us.
As the closing date loomed, there was a problem with the deed that that made getting an appraisal impossible. The contract on the little mountaintop cabin fell through as well. The owner kindly allowed us to continue renting that house while we looked for another. Again we prayed and asked God to help us find the right place.
Our agent found a property for sale just a few miles from the first one. It was a newer, bigger house on more land with a swimming pool and solar panels – on the same mountain. Convinced that now we had found the right place, we made an offer. The sellers accepted it in less than 24 hours, and we were once again under contract. Closing was scheduled for May 27 – our 25th wedding anniversary. We prayed to God every night that the purchase of that house would go smoothly and that we would close on schedule.
The appraisal came in much lower than the selling price. Despite our agent’s valiant efforts, neither the owners nor the appraiser would compromise. Yet another contract fell through.
Now, we were really starting to doubt. Why wasn’t this working? Should we have stayed put? It began to dawn on us that maybe God had other plans. We prayed that His will for us be done, no matter where it led us.
Our agent sent us some more listings to look at. There was one house that we liked, but it was at the top of our price range and only 20 minutes away from our old house. We were skeptical. As we pulled up that morning, turning off a main road down a long, wooded driveway off the beaten path, a sense of peace set in. As it turned out, it was the only property in a year’s worth of hunting that fit our needs without a lot of additional work. The lot was the right size. It was already fenced off and set up for animals. And the house was actually big enough for eight people. It was still close to our old parish, our friends, and my job, but that’s where the similarities with our old house ended. It was situated in a way that made it feel like it was far out in the country. Like it was somewhere else entirely. And it fit us perfectly.
We made an offer. It was accepted. We waited for the other shoe to drop, but nothing went wrong.
Before we knew it, we were at the closing table. We signed the papers on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our family has a special devotion to the Sacred Heart, so we took that as a good sign.
We’ve only been in the new homestead for six weeks, but we already feel like we’ve lived here forever.
There was a day, not long ago, when my little daughter, Mary Cate, was looking out on our back deck in the suburbs and asking what that thing was that was going across our deck. It was a squirrel. Just a regular old squirrel. I knew at that moment that we needed to get out of there. When our children don’t know what some of the basic animals are, we are in trouble. When people don’t know where eggs come from, or that the hamburger they’re eating comes from a cow, that’s not right.
Now, in just less than two months, we’ve become the proud owners of two pigs, two roosters, and eight laying hens. Twenty-five chicks are scheduled to arrive next week. Next year, God willing, we’ll plant a garden and start a few beehives.
Is everything perfect? Of course not. There are many boxes yet to unpack. Our teenagers grumble occasionally about the extra work. Our youngest daughter is most emphatically not a fan of flying insects. I have had very little free time since we moved in.
But chickens and pigs are, in addition to being excellent food sources, endlessly entertaining. My wife and I get to see the wonder on our little girls’ faces when they find yet another egg in the coop. Our teenage sons have experienced the satisfaction of contributing to the well-being of our family by building something useful -– a fence for the pigs and a chicken coop so far -– and are learning to handle the responsibility of caring, day in and day out, for living creatures. All of our children will be better able to care for others in whatever vocation God calls them to as adults.
The best thing, though, is the peace and quiet. You can hear yourself think. And it’s a little easier to hear what God is telling you.
I sat on the front porch this morning drinking my coffee and listening to the wind in the trees, the rain from last night dripping off of the leaves, the roosters crowing, and the birds chirping. I saw three deer in the front paddock, a frog hopping just off the porch step, a spider repairing his web for the day’s catch and those same chirping birds flying back and forth from their nest as I imagine them feeding little ones.
I never wanted to sit out on my front porch in the suburbs. I guess I didn’t want to stare at the other houses, or listen to the traffic going by on the main road. Maybe I’m a little bit of a hermit, but having all of the hustle and bustle around me 24/7 never appealed to me and always seemed to make me a little uneasy. A psychologist would probably say I have some kind of a human phobia.
When I’m in suburbia, I feel like I’m surrounded by what man has made. Houses, buildings, roads, walkways. I feel like I’m surrounded by stuff. Man’s stuff. I really have to search for what God has made, which to me is so much more beautiful and appealing. I want to be surrounded by God’s stuff. I know there is a passage in the Bible that talks about how we should turn away from the things of this world and set our sights on God, I just can’t seem to find it.
It reminds me of the birth of Christ. He is the King of the Universe. He could have come to us with all the pomp and circumstance, He could have been born in a palace, but He didn’t and He wasn’t. He came in the night in a lowly manger. I think He was showing us that we should be concerned with the things of heaven, not the things of this world. We always hear about how good it is to be close to things. Close to the local Target, the supermarket, the Chick-fil-A. Why? Are we so wrapped up in consumerism that we have to be within two minutes of our next purchase, our next acquisition, our next instant gratification? Is it not more worth it if we have to work a little harder for things? Do we not get more satisfaction when we put a little effort into what we do, strive a little more for where the next meal comes from?
Why do we need to have these things so close to us? Is it the speed at which we can get to the McDonald’s, so that we can hurry and get to Lowe’s, so we can get Johnny to baseball and Cindy to dance and make it to the Church for adoration and pick up the stuff for the next marriage ministry team member at the Church and drop off the testing material for the child who is going to receive a sacrament this year? All so that we can get to the next thing we need to do, and then before we know it we realize we didn’t get to spend time, real, quality time with our families today? Too many things going on. Maybe tomorrow.
I don’t want to miss out on life, my family, the part of this world that God made for us. I don’t want to walk out my front door and watch my neighbor power wash his driveway. I want to watch our children playing in the front paddock with our pigs. I want to sit here and pray and listen to God’s handiwork and reflect. Nobody reflects anymore. We just don’t have the time.
Not every family would jump at the chance to homestead. There’s a lot of hard work, and the life isn’t always easy. For a man trying to grind out a career in the 21st century, coming home to a small farm can be an escape. For a stay-at-home mom and her children, it can be a little less idyllic. Let me assure you, however, that my wife and children have been fully supportive of this endeavor. Without them, there’s not a chance this would work. I’ve learned that farming on any scale is a team effort. There’s no time for individualism, where everyone spends their days doing their own thing and only wind up meeting around the dinner table, if ever. Many hands make for light work. And all hands are needed.
Because of how I grew up, this way of living isn’t entirely new to me. I have a leg up. This is all new to my wife and children, and I feel so blessed that they were willing to leave the comforts and conveniences of suburbia to take the risk and move to our new life in the country. It’s an experience that we will never forget. An experience that I believe will change us for the better.
As we turn our backs on what we knew and set to work on the affairs of plain living, we are starting to see what we believe is true wealth. As we’ve pursued this path, some friends and family have told us we’re crazy. Some are concerned about why we’re tossing away our good, comfortable, convenient lives and doing something as menial as farming. My favorite farming guru, Joel Salatin, once said, “I want to know who the people are who will set their eyes on a goal and go for it in the face of opposition. Who are the folks who will dedicate themselves to pursuing a dream regardless of what others will say?”
I’m amazed every day at our little adventure at how much we are learning about life, about God’s presence in this world He created and the roles we get to play in it. Happiness, for me, is seeing the joy in your children’s eyes when they open the chicken coop door to find another egg, or when they’re able to train the pigs to come running at the sound of a bell. They’re beginning to realize that there’s more to life than what they can watch on a screen. I cherish the smile on our daughter’s face as I watch her feeding our pigs. The quiet satisfaction and pride of our two older boys after they’ve worked hard all day building a mobile chicken coop. You can’t download that. Can’t buy it in a store for any price. I am thrilled to be able to watch my children learn about life and death and everything in between while caring for God’s creation.
I heard a story once. Maybe from my mom’s dad, who loved to tell stories. I wish I had listened more before he died.
A preacher had a shoebox with a rattlesnake in it. He kept it on the pulpit every Sunday as he preached. One of these days, he would say, he was gonna open up that box and pick up that rattlesnake and show his trust in God. He was gonna prove his faith in the Lord that he wouldn’t get bit. Week after week he preached, but he never got up enough nerve to take the snake out of the box. Finally, one day, God told him to take the snake out. He reached in and took the snake out, and the snake was tame as could be. It didn’t bite him. He put that snake back in the box and spoke to his people about trusting in God.
For months and months afterward, he left that snake in the box. Sunday after Sunday, the congregation kept asking him to take the snake out of the box again and handle it and show them how he trusted in God. One Sunday, he decided to listen to them and took the snake out.
It bit him, and he about died.
When he got better he said the first time he took the snake out he was doing what the Lord wanted him to do, so everything was fine. The second time he had done what the people wanted him to do – and that’s what made the difference.
God wants us to do His will, we just have to put our desires last and put His first. Someone told me once that the letters in the word JOY stand for Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. That’s true joy.
I realize that this life, this plain living, is not for everyone. It has its ups and downs, its joys and sadness. That’s part of the appeal. Hearing my family say daily how much they love this place, and remembering how all those doors closed so that this one could open, I know we made the right decision and followed God’s will in our lives.
Chris McClure was raised Southern Baptist and converted to Catholicism after the birth of his second child. He is an Army veteran and a police investigator. He and his wife, Wendy, live on the outskirts of Northern Virginia with their six children.
A very enjoyable article. I’d love to hear more from Mr. McClure as his homestead develops. As the scale of his approach seems workable on our current property, further resources would be valuable in future articles. Already went and ordered a Joel Salatin book from the library. Keep up the good work. Must be very gratifying for you, the Mrs. and kids.
Very well-written and thoughtful. Thank you. I have often felt the pull of someplace less…peopled (as they say), but unlike the author, I have lived in and around cities my whole life. I don’t know how capable I’d be of self-suffiency. You might want to read some Wendell Berry. He’s wonderful.
Thank you, Mr. McClure. I have returned back to the house in which I grew up. As a kid, we climbed trees, picked apples and pears, caught grasshoppers in buckets, raced across open meadows and went fishing in the creek. Now, the best climbing trees are either in fenced yards, or not strong enough (Or maybe I am not strong enough) to climb. The fruit trees are gone. The clover and alfalfa are gone. The creek is fenced in, with no trespassing signs. You and yours are blessed to have found this place!
As someone who is following a similar path, although mostly as an empty-nester, I greatly enjoyed this article. There is a period of adjustment, of course, made shorter or longer according to each individual situation. Nearly a year on, we are beginning to understand and embrace the reality of rural living, owning livestock, and having stewardship of a couple acres. The blisters on my hands attest to the physical labor that comes with caring for animals and property. I would not change it, though, because in the mornings (or evenings) I walk the property and the quietness and beauty of His creation helps me feel God’s presence. There is a very small internet presence of other Catholics who are going back to the land: http://newcatholiclandmovement.org/. Also, there are a large number of homesteading blogs out there: http://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2014/08/homestead-barn-hop-171.html. It is amazing what one can learn from reading how others are going back to the land. Again, thank you for the article.
Congratulations! It’s a beautiful place and a well done article. I grew up on a similar plot in the country back in Southern Illinois and still miss and fondly remember it well…
Thanks for the article – we moved from the suburbs in Maryland to the Appalachian mountains in western North Carolina and are raising our six kids on a growing homestead. Very similar situation. The biggest struggle has been feeling like a Catholic “missionary” sometimes. As you know, this is Baptist country and the Catholics that are here are often retired people with second homes. I often miss having young Catholic families around, especially since we homeschool. Have you experienced this?