Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Life at Pine Needle Farm

Cooking eggs for breakfast on the wood stove
Today we said goodbye to Ann, walked the grounds of Pine Needle Farm to say goodbye to all our favorite animals, and hit the road. We’re currently hanging out at the Kalispell Library, using the Internet as I try to put the last week and a half into words. 

The view from Lone Pine State Park, which we visited last week on our day off. Kalispell is pretty!

Zach with the guard doggies
A week and a half ago, when we left the paved road behind and trundled up the packed-clay Forest Service road that leads to Ann and John’s farm, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that they lived off-grid in a straw bale house, but I wasn’t sure what that meant: would there be running water? Flush toilets? Some easy way to do the heap of dirty laundry we had from Yellowstone? I wasn’t anxious, but I was eager to find out. As we bumped along the road under a clear blue sky, winding our way between neverending fir forests, chipmunks and big jackrabbits with tan back legs darted out of our way. It was a beautiful day to find out.

We pulled up, greeted by two ferociously barking white dogs who live in the goat pen (they immediately turned into softies when Ann came out to say hi). Ann welcomed us and showed us around the farm, which I soon learned was a cozy mixture of modern and old-fashioned. Everything we saw, Ann and John had built. They had cleared the land, build the house, plastered it over, roofed and sealed it. They had felled pines and used the rough logs to construct barns and shelters and sheds, and fenced the area with cattle panels and chicken wire to keep the goats, chickens, and gardens separate from each other. Twenty acres of coniferous forest, with the occasional aspen and a thick ground cover of immature Oregon grape, surrounded them, and the only sounds we heard was the chatter of birdsong, the snuffling and chewing of the goats, the clucking of the chickens, and the occasional caw of an enormous raven that swooped overhead.

Nellie, a very old Great Pyrenees, in her natural habitat

Laundry hanging out to dry, and a chicken tractor

Yes, there was running water, a flush toilet, and a washing machine, much to my relief. They don’t have running hot water, but their impressive woodstove has a chamber for water, which we would dump into a specially-designed jug that’s hooked up to a shower head, allowing excellent showers. Zach and I stayed in a cozy 1970’s camper with an avocado-colored fridge and stove that reminded me of our first apartment.

In many ways I was startled by how “normal” everything felt: John works a day job at Lowe’s; we ate toast and eggs for breakfast; there was a stack of Dixie cups next to the sink; they had wi-fi and cell signal. But with each “normal” bit there was a flip side: John often commutes to work via bike, 25 miles one way with a 2,000-foot climb on the return trip; the eggs were fresh from the chickens, their yolks impossibly orange-golden and round; most of their dishes were hand-thrown pottery; and the temptation to sit on the Internet all day was mostly absent, and instead we’d find ourselves spending an hour or two just staring at the goats and watching their antics. (More on the goats later.)

We soon got settled in, and over the week and a half, we pitched in with a lot of chores and projects that are best done with more than one person. We shoveled a lot of wet straw from old goat pens (goats’ manure is like deer scat, little pellets rather than pies, so they’re easy to clean up after), rearranged fences, repaired odds and ends, flattened out a slope to make a picnic area, and hauled/split lots and lots of wood. They had a log splitter, fortunately, which I quite enjoyed using: after the hydraulic power had nearly split the length of the pine, I would grab the halves with both hands and rip them apart, just like Captain America! The smell of pine sap and the sawdust that coated me from head to toe gave me vivid memories of my first trip out west when I was 19, a rather ill-conceived mission trip in which we split a lot of wood. Pine will always be nostalgic to me.

We cleaned out this pen and moved the fence

We hauled in compost for this Jerusalem artichoke bed (I want to raise them!)

This was a big slope until we hauled in a bunch of dirt. Someday it'll be a place for picnics!

We also helped out with the goats a bit, of course: we tossed them hay, filled up their water buckets, played with the kids (aka grabbed them and held them until they stopped panicking and would lie quietly in our arms), and even milked the dairy goats a few times. My favorite goats were, of course, the kids first, but especially Cedric, a tiny black cashmere kid with folded ears and a rather existential angst about him. I also loved Ruthie, a round black cashmere who was bottle-fed as a kid and is therefore quite affectionate: she’ll rub up against you like a dog, and when you scratch her head or pat her back, she’ll wag her tail and invariably start chewing her cud. Speckles, one of the dairy goats, was another of my favorites because she was so gentle and didn’t mind being milked. (Her kid Olga, a wide-eyed little creature, was terrified of me.)

Ace nursing

Ace and Cedric
Zach with Ace

Speckles (note her legs tucked up under he like a cat)

Zach and I ate a lot of toast, eggs, and tuna wraps for breakfast and lunch, but dinners were the highlight of the day. Ann would start preparing a bit in advance, chopping veggies, scrambling eggs, prepping meat. We’d often have scrambled stir-fries, loaded with veggies, the eggs bright golden because of her chickens’ healthy diet. They raise all of their meat themselves, and we sampled goat burgers, turkey (they raised turkeys last year), and, last night, the hands-down best chicken I’ve ever eaten. You can taste the care and nutrition that goes into raising the animals. (The subject of raising meat yourself is an interesting topic, and I think I’ll devote another post to it.)

Most of all, the past week and a half have been a wonderful time for thinking. The first few days, caught up in all the new sights and sounds— the kids capering around, the lodge pine pollen floating off the trees, the sharp sunlight that lasts until ten at night, the nuthatches honking from the pines— I didn’t think much, but once I got settled into the routine, I began to really absorb what was around me and think about what I want for my life back home. I read a host of books from Ann’s library (The Year of the Goat, Nourishing Traditions, Solviva, Chicken Tractor), and during the day when Zach and I were cleaning the pens or weeding, we’d talk about what homesteading might look like in a suburb like ours, and what we could do. We wandered aimlessly through topics, both earnest and half-fantasy, discussing everything from compost toilets to solar power to fermented foods to slaughtering chickens in our garage. The two parts of my personality, the dreamer side and the practical side, have both been active during this week, and I’m interested to see what comes of this experience.

At night, we usually went straight to bed, but one night John got out his telescope and we were able to look at the moon, which filled the whole lens. Then we switched to the nearest planet and saw it was Jupiter— we could see its stripes and three of its moons! Another night, Ann gave us both spinning lessons, and we spun out some seriously lumpy yarn as a souvenir. At rare moments during my lesson, both my feet and my hands did what they were supposed to do, and the cashmere wool slipped through my fingers in a meditative rhythm. I can definitely see the appeal of spinning, and it’s something I hope to look into further.


Zach and I went to sleep when it was light out and woke up far after the sun had risen— you can tell we’re pretty far north! The roosters started crowing at about four in the morning (the black Jersey Giant gave a proud cock-a-doooo!, but the Buff Orpington let out the strangest, saddest, er-er-er-errrrr....), so Ann bought us some earplugs. Despite all the physical work, our muscles held up pretty well, and I even get a little bulge when I flex my biceps now!

Two days ago, Ann let us off work early so we could take a hike in search of “the rocks,” the top of the neighboring mountain with a great view. We tried twice to find them, following Ann’s map, but got lost on Forest Service foads (the second time we ended up on completely the wrong mountain and had to use a GPS to bushwhack our way out!). Fortunately, Ann decided to guide us to the rocks yesterday, and we hiked straight up the mountain until we emerged at the top, seeing the whole valley laid out before us. What a sight!

We got lost here, but it was pretty
Always follow the arrow! (It took us to a dead end, but it was the correct direction)
Finally made it to the rocks!
Lewis and Clark, of course.
And now here we are at the library, getting ready to head to our next national parks adventure. Like many travel experiences, I feel like our time at Pine Needle Farms has changed me in some hidden way, but it might not become evident until much later. I felt slowed-down and more serene on the farm, and I soaked up a lot of knowledge, both firsthand and in my reading. I’m tucking these thoughts away, seeing how they end up blossoming later. A big thank-you to Ann and John for letting us come to their house and see firsthand what an off-grid life can look like.

Now, off to Glacier!



  1. It was great to have you two here! Thanks for all your hard work, you did a wonderful job around here! Have fun on the rest of your adventure...

    1. Thanks again for everything!! I'm excited to see what comes next. :)