I Choose Joy July 2017

Yowza!! This past month has been a hot, simmering, summer slice of change and movement. Many days when I’m sweating it out under the fan after coming in from farm chores, I remember and reflect just how basic our thankfulness should be.

We all like to joke about our “first world problems,” but if you ever take a spin through third world life for even a short season, it gives you a little perspective on what not to complain about, as well as simple things to smile about.

So first, things we’ve survived without (albeit temporarily) that I’d like to acknowledge and appreciate:

  • opening up the faucet and feeling hot, clean water
  • flicking on a switch and enjoying warm, stained glass light
  • sitting in front of a whirling electric fan on a sweltering day
  • feeling a fresh breeze through screened windows, leaving most of the bugs outside
  • opening up the fridge and being able to throw something together for dinner . . . even if it’s just things like rice, chicken, beans, tortillas, cheese, milk, eggs – what a feast!

Farm fresh eggs

Life is abundant. Life is also scarce and grasping many times. But we can acknowledge life’s myriad facets and strive to trust God during both feast and famine, and all the better.

More July joys for the Big Country/Liberty clan:

  • Celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. Our beautiful former host family of 12 watched the kids, and we enjoyed a restful break with sushi, Beren and Luthien, a time to reflect and dream, and a kayak adventure across the gorgeous evening lake.
  • Big Country beating out 100 other candidates for a spot in this fall’s Fire Academy. So proud! We are moving onward and upward.
  • Mamaw’s visit. Yummy food, visiting friends, meeting her fun AirBnB host, and taking the kids to the splash pool and lazy river for Firebell’s third birthday.
  • Big’s co-workers stopping by and taking time to build a little tiny house made out of Legos for the kids.

Lego Tiny House

  • Baby Hazelnut beginning to crawl! And I am suddenly aware of how non-babyproof this tiny house still is. Well, at least the loft railing is up!
  • Spending some one-on-one time with Rig, reading several books to him at his request, as the little girls napped.
  • Playing in mud puddles after summer rains.
  • Mamaw’s homemade pillows and curtains. What would a tiny home be without those sweet touches?

Homemade pillows in the tiny house

  • Big massaging a chicken with a bent neck, comically trying to restore its mobility as he has with his human clients.
  • Being invited, so many times now, to the family gatherings here on the farm. Hope they’re not asking us to join in just because our house is blocking the picnic table and the fire pit!
  • Rig beside himself with anticipation about chicken processing day! Participating and learning so much about this age-old community event.

Old-fashioned chicken processing

  • The kids doing each other’s hair, putting clips in baby Hazelnut’s wispy topknot.
  • Seeing the kids’ faces light up with joy as they wade into a swimming pool.
  • Picking chokecherries in the rain, out of the bed of the pickup truck.

Picking chokecherries

  • Late at night, making delicious, rich chokecherry juice.

Fresh chokecherry juice

  • Library and park time. Enjoying the three kids playing together quietly and busily in the train room.
  • Cloudy, drizzling cool afternoons, often accompanied by full rainbows. So refreshing to sit out in lawn chairs and watch the majestic thunderheads rolling in.
  • Cherry pie at a local hole-in-the-wall and a drive to the dairy with a good friend.
  • The gentlemanly, yet ornery raw milk dairy manager.
  • A mysterious card from an anonymous friend wishing us “Home Sweet Home” and including two generous gift cards. Whoever you are, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Home Sweet Home

Hammock Reads July 2017

A wide-cast net of recent reads on love, liberty, and shelter . . .

Hacksaw Ridge Deserves an Oscar for Redefining Heroism, Lawrence W. Reed, FEE . . . Happy Independence Day with a little recognition for an unconventional soldier of peace.

Mr. Money Mustache vs. Dave Ramsey, Brian Jones, BrianJones.com . . . Surprise reflections on how Jesus might “live like no one else.”

How to Live Frugally and Save Money: 100+ Genius Ways to Save, R.J. Weiss, The Ways to Wealth . . . Covering all your bases: utilities, food, financial services, taxes, entertainment, work, kids, and travel.

Church Fined $12,000 for Giving Shelter to Homeless, Brittany Hunter, Generation Opportunity . . . Why allow charities to be charitable when the government already does it so well?

Full Tour of my 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter Van Conversion, Kristin Bor, Bearfoot Theory . . . One day when Big Country and I settle the kids into their own homes, we’re hitting the road in a sweet van like this one!

Photo credit: Chris Thompson

The Liberty Homeschool is in Session

Oftentimes a friend or acquaintance will ask me, “have you begun homeschooling yet?” Our kids turned 5, 3, and nine months old this summer, so I know they’re mainly talking about our young son Rig, the oldest.

I think what they’re trying to ask is, am I starting to deliberately, methodically teach him any reading, writing, or math? Have I chosen a curriculum? Do we have a routine? Does he have a desk?

But I usually stand there a little befuddled for a moment or two, finally responding with one of several mischievous responses:

“No, there’s really no start date in mind.”

Or:

“You know what they say, better late than early!”

Or, if I’m feeling particularly cheeky,

“Begin? In a way, we’ve always been homeschooling. Kids start learning at birth!”

But that doesn’t mean Big Country and I are lax about our children’s education. We just have a different vision as to what’s beneficial and best.

Right now, and probably for a few more years (gasp!) the plan is to let them just be inquisitive kids, playing, exploring nature, story-telling, singing, asking a million questions, and listening to music, adults conversing, and the sounds of life. Along the way naturally comes a learning of family expectations and a developing of self-discipline through our modeling and guidance.

Homeschool child playing with sand

Later on, there will be musical instruments to practice, Bible verses to memorize, math problems to solve, books to read and discuss, and exploding Alka-Seltzer volcanoes to clean up. But I’m convinced that this will all unfold as each child needs in such a beautiful way that the best curriculum planner couldn’t have orchestrated it more seamlessly.

Back to the present, what does this homeschool preschool of sorts look like?

We live on a farm in a tiny house, so our lives are simple.

Gathering eggs, counting them, sorting them. “An araucana laid this green egg!” exclaims Firebell.

Rig takes it upon himself to count by twos in 12-egg cartons, then by threes in 18-egg cartons. And with the bigger egg flats, “4 rows of 5 eggs makes 20!” He grins proudly.

Tiny house kids counting eggs

We read a couple pages from the richly illustrated book Dinotopia about the people of Treetown hoisting themselves up into the canopy with baskets and ropes.

Tracing with our fingers where the ropes on the page go, we talk a little about what a pulley is. Emptying out a couple baskets holding lemons and avocados, the kids hoist stuffed animals into their high chair treetops with string and measuring tape for ropes.

Getting frustrated. Solving problems of balance, slack, and weight as the baskets sway and tip.

Then their baskets turn into sailing ships. And as they do, the wind suddenly rushes in, billowing our bedsheet-turned-curtain. “We’re sailing on the high seas!” we sing.

Sailboat homeschool

“Mommy, what if you had no arms?” Firebell asks me one day during lunch. I smile. “Well, I’d use my feet!” I say, and attempt to show them how I’d put a spoon between my toes and lift my foot to feed myself. Then I find a video of an inspiring mom who really lives life to the fullest without arms, and the kids love it.

Homeschool matching card game

Playing with their matching cards and wooden toy sets: a rainbow stacking cone, stacking tree branches, tea cups and saucers, a tool bench, and fruit to cut with a little wooden knife. Mixing and matching pieces from the toys. Problem solving when the tool box’s hammer claw is missing by using another toy as a tool to do the same job.

Simple wooden stacking toys

Watercolors, play doh, crayons, colored pencils. Coloring on a white board with the alphabet printed on it. Showing Rig the successive steps to write the letters in his name. Rig showing me a drawing of his Ten-Legged Honey Spider and marveling how the oscillating fan with its concentric metal circles looks just like a web.

Rig dictating letters to me thanking grandparents for gifts and signing his name. Showing him the different addresses on the envelope, where the stamp goes, and walking it down to the mail box with him. Reading The Seven Little Postmen and answering his questions about the intriguing way the mail is gathered, sorted, and delivered.

Homeschool mailing a letter

Rig snapping clean cloth diapers together while Firebell folds wipes. And then the couch suddenly becomes a burrito kitchen food truck, with the diapers being rolled into made-to-order lunches!

Reading our comic book style Picture Bible together on the couch. Answering unending deep questions on life, death, and how tall Goliath really was.

Relating to nature as an extension of the home. Flitting around as ladybugs, building dens as foxes, sitting on eggs as chickens after witnessing these things just outside.

Singing, humming, tapping, drumming. Our rendition of I’m a Little Teapot turns into Mammi’s Little Baby Loves Shortenin’ Bread, with the kids squealing and me stomping my foot as the bass drum and slapping my leg as the snare. Boom chick boom chick boom chick boom chick . . .

Listening to instrumental music echoing times of old: Praetorius’ peasant festivals, Vivaldi’s country seasons, the Budos Band’s chill palm tree nights.

Homeschool music

These things don’t take a lot of money, and there are no lesson plans. What’s vital is caring for their bodies and minds with sleep and good food and creating an atmosphere that’s calm and conducive to a natural free flow of activities.

Times of rest and books, times of creative play. Times of eating and chatting at the table. Times of outside work, laundry, and chickens. Times of indoor work, cooking, and picking up. Times of playing with each other and letting Mommy nurse the baby and read and write this post on her phone.

I truly believe that any parent who can talk with, spend time with, and seek out good people and opportunities for their children can successfully homeschool.

I also believe that the benefits of homeschooling are vast and far-reaching.

Blue bird flying free

Our far-reaching goals are many. But in essence they boil down to a desire for our kids to have literacy and enthusiasm in the realms of:

  • Spiritual life: through Bible study, prayer, sermons, and engaging with church and family with the aim of spiritual maturity and the fruits of the Spirit.
  • Nutrition: through study and practice in traditional, whole foods cooking with the aim of lifelong health.
  • Finance: through study of economics and personal finance with the aim of wise stewardship of resources.
  • Love and understanding of people and creation through history, literature, science, music, art, travel, communication, and the outdoors.
  • Problem solving and practical skill competency through math, technology, hands-on work, home and vehicle repair, caring for animals and plants, starting a business, and organizing trips, outings, and purchases.

This all may sound like a lofty mountain to summit, but honestly, I don’t lose any sleep over it. These things are the natural outcome of kids living in an engaged family and community and are things that have been taught for thousands of years without any state-run education.

So when someone inquires whether the Liberty homeschool is in session, perhaps I should respond, “Yes! Always. We all are learning, and the learning never stops.”

Because it’s true. Big has a sermon playing in the garage while he figures out how to make a railing for the loft, which is probably the thousandth thing he has had to learn this year. And I have a motley stack of books on Jesus, macroeconomics, and the Supreme Court on the wood stove by my chair. My phone currently has tabs on how to make a barn quilt and what to do with chokecherries. Tomorrow I’m calling another tiny house friend to share, laugh, and problem-solve, and yes, I’ve invited ourselves over to yet another friend’s house on Sunday.

The beauty is that life is the freest, truest classroom there is. It is ours to receive the gift and resist anything that would stifle this freedom.

Tiny house homeschool

I Choose Joy June 2017

“Summertime .  .  .

.  .  .  and the livin’ is easy .  .  .”

Boy, I wish we were lounging on a shady porch sipping sweet tea and lemonade all summer long!

In reality, this is the season of dawn to dusk labor, as much as the long light will allow. Be it up on ladders and roofs at his regular job, hauling buckets of feed on the farm, giving massage therapy treatments, training for the fire department, or hammering on the tiny house, Big Country is always on the move.

The hours are long, sweaty, and hard, but it’s investment time, and gathering in the fruits will come later.

Time to be thankful! This month:

  • The first pink rose out our big window.

Pink rose at the tiny house farm

  • A long, hot, luxurious shower at a friend’s house while she watched the kids
  • Rig’s fifth birthday, a delightful family day in town. Rig wanted to spend his big day at the library, a local coffee house with a kid’s play area, and eating Cajun food (ok, his parents influenced that one a bit). What a sweetie!

Rig's fifth birthday in the tiny house

  • Cooling rains extinguishing the afternoon heat.
  • Picking rhubarb by the armload and making sweet strawberry rhubarb sauce for pancakes.

Strawberry rhubarb pancakes

  • Big Country carrying our speaker to the chicken coop and playing a recording of a fox screaming, just for his own amusement.
  • Catching up with friends at church, enjoying the fellowship of genuine, funny, encouraging people.
  • A beautiful morning, shaded by the trees, at our old neighborhood park overlooking the lake.

Rig and Firebell climbing rock wall at the park

  • Fun, unexpectedly bilingual library storytime.
  • Baby Hazelnut hefting herself into standing!
  • A lingering Sunday afternoon visit at a friend’s homestead. Eating hot beef and turnip greens soup, cold gazpacho, hibiscus tea, and quinoa bars. Pushing the kids in the swings, looking out over the endless grassy prairie to the faraway mountains, the same view horseback travellers saw hundreds of years ago.
  • A sunny, light-filled home.

Iris on the tiny house farm

  • Rig sweetly following around and holding hands with an older teenage girl working on the farm. “I love to work! I’ll help you shovel!” he said, staggering back under the long heavy tool. “Well, maybe you could help me instead!”
  • Digging out our camping bin, packs, and sleeping bags for a young friend to borrow. Wonderful memories!
  • A fresh breeze on a hot day rushing through our newly screened kitchen window.
  • Homemade chocolate mousse and blackberry shakes.
  • Sitting in front of the fan and putting on a once-in-awhile nature video for the kids on a hot afternoon.
  • Fun at a friend’s 37th birthday party (hey, why not?) Pinatas, samurai swords, water balloons, Mama Jo’s homemade enchiladas, margaritas, and lots of little kids having a blast.
  • Firebell massaging Hazelnut. “Roly, roly, roly . . .”

Firebell massaging Hazelnut

  • Friends being genuine, yet not complainy. “Yeah, the first half of the year, our car was stolen and trashed, I changed jobs, we paid the ER two visits, and our marriage was under quite a bit of stress . . . but I’ve been reflecting on it, and this next half year’s going to be great!”
  • Tiny yolkless pullet eggs the kids get to keep.
  • Shady sandbox play.

Tiny house kids in the sand box

  • Kids eagerly helping the farmer and his wife move the meat birds out to pasture. And Mr. R thanking them with ice cream sandwiches.
  • Celebrating our wedding anniversary! 10 years as husband and wife, 15 as best friends, and 20 as fellow classmates, trouble-makers and dreamers. Here’s to many more!

Big Country and Liberty wedding

Big Country and Liberty when we were young

Life Ain’t Easy Livin’ for Free

This blog could have be called many things. First World Housing Problems, Life Ain’t Easy Livin’ for Free, or my current favorite, Tiny House Whole Lotta Work.

Sun up to Sun Down

Because we’ve chosen to live where we do and build a simpler, cheaper tiny house that is not yet completed, the price of our housing lifestyle is paid not only in money but in work, time, and unending surprises.

When we first installed “Blast Off” the washerdryer, it shook so violently that we’d run around catching​ books and trinkets jiggling off top shelves during the spin cycle.

Every second or third day, we lift the Loveable Loo bucket, our sawdust toilet, into a wagon along with a bucket of water and pull it up the hill to the compost pile in the north pasture.

Farm work two Amish men in wagon

Once or twice a day we hook up the hose from the hydrant to our house’s inlet and fill the tank, watching carefully that it doesn’t shoot a geyser of water into our kitchen.

And as anyone who has camped or glamped with their family knows, things just get dirty! Vacuuming the floor, the couch, the bed, the counter top, and around the sawdust potty . . .

In winter there is wood chopping, tending the wood stove, and shovelling off our un-garaged truck.

We run extra errands for sawdust from the mill, propane tanks from the grocery store, and our mail from the post office.

And this is all the normal, everyday maintenance of living, aside from our main job here on the farm, the 587 or so free-range chickens and assorted odd jobs. Wading through the waist-high grasses to feed, water, and gather eggs, we all have farmer’s tans, including the baby!

We now have farm clothes and town clothes, and muddy boots fill the landing. The kids’ dress cowboy boots are safely tucked away for when we venture into public.

Cooking over a fire pit

We were having lunch with friends from church a couple months ago, and I think she hit the nail on the head.

“Your family feels it all. You don’t just run the water from the tap, flush the toilet, turn up the heat unthinkingly and pay the bill later. You fill the tank, dump the compost, and chop the wood. It must be tiring at times, but at least you’re feeling how much life costs and are done paying for it at the end of each day.”

So if we’re done paying for our housing expenses at the end of each day, what is that worth?

Playing around with creative housing hustles a few posts back, we found that the average home price in our city, Fort Collins, Colorado, currently stands at $350,200.

After 10% down, this comes out to around $1490 for the monthly mortgage payment, plus a ballpark $1043 for utilities, PMI, property tax, maintenance, HOA, etc., totalling $2533/month.

But let’s face it, this number is largely meaningless to those of us who don’t always earn this much per month and would never buy a house this expensive anyway.

And we can’t compare these numbers, apples to apples, to the living expenses of a tiny house because the entire housing experience is so fundamentally different.

Big house vs. tiny house

Oh well, let’s do it anyway!

Right now, our entire housing expenses average out to 2.7% of the average Fort Collins house, or $70/monthly.

Another way of looking at it, this amount pays for three quarters of a day (19 hours) per month in the average Fort Collins house.

The breakdown:

  • Rent $0; paid in farm chores
  • Wood $0; given by friend
  • Electricity $25
  • Propane $15
  • Water and trash $12
  • Sawdust $10
  • P.O. box $8

Why so low?!

First, the location. Our friends’ parents welcomed some help on their farm in exchange for a parking spot on their property. Our target goal is working around 10 hours a week, although it can vary widely. Truly, surprises arise almost daily, and the work on a farm never ends.

What’s the location worth financially? If we had to pay for a camping spot in one of the nearby parks, this would be $500-750 each month that we’d be further from our goals. Very significant.

Apart from these benefits, living on the farm here is both rugged and picturesque. We contend – I mean commune – daily with all the nature around us. Taken as a whole, the tiny house’s current location is a blessing.

Second, utilities. In a small home, we use less. Fewer rooms, fewer lights, fans, and appliances.

Despite enjoying an efficient propane hot water heater, we try to conserve by wearing clothes twice before laundering and taking short showers.

Heat is achieved through kindling and logs too small for our friend to use or sell himself, fed into the wood stove.

Cooling right now is through fans and opening windows. To improve our often-balmy home this summer, we would choose to orient our house on the east-west axis with the door to the south. Shade trees and an awning would help immensely as well, but we’re getting through. At least the evenings and mornings are delightful!

Internet is through our phone’s mobile data as well as through the farmer’s house, as he graciously let us plug in an extender and use his signal. So far, it works sporadically.

Farm mailbox

Third, the house itself. We paid for the construction of the tiny house with blood, sweat, and tears (ours and others’) as well as savings accrued while living for cheap or free for 11 months.

On top of that, we put a hefty amount of construction costs on credit cards. Yikes!

However, with full knowledge of how wasteful interest payments are, it has been our number one priority to pay them off aggressively. As of this writing, we carry a $2904 remaining balance (down from an all-time high of $15,500 six months ago), with hundreds coming off every paycheck. Nearly there, and then on to the big wild student loan payoff!

I cannot exactly recommend this course of action to someone else. Having a credit card balance is ridiculously foolish, right?

On the other hand, this was no ordinary consumer debt. In completing our house sooner and having an almost-free place to live, we have chosen to spend hundreds in interest to save thousands in housing. A calculated risk.

Scenic road from A to B

The Motorcycle Analogy

Somehow, this reminds me of riding a motorcycle all through college. I bought my beautiful Honda Rebel for $1000 and sold it seven years later for the same. It went a whopping 70 miles to the gallon, and I parked right off campus for free in a space with a light pole that could not otherwise be used for cars. As an older bike, it required an average of $50/month in maintenance and with liability only, insurance topped out at $11/month.

Savings compared to a car in depreciation, gas, parking, maintenance, and insurance? Almost incalculable, definitely into the $1000s. And plus, I had the time of my life, and it’s probably what convinced Big Country to marry me. Now how could you put a price on that?

But could I safely recommend riding a motorcycle day in, day out in a traffic-choked metropolis to an absent-minded 20-year-old girl protected by only a helmet, denim jacket and youthful optimism?

A resounding NO! 

But would I do it again?

Liberty on motorcycle

Absolutely!

This is essentially the attitude I have taken toward the tiny house. It is not a “regular” house and does not try to be, just as a motorcycle is not a car and does not pretend to be one, either.

But at the end of the day, the tiny house is a safe, warm place for our family to live, just as a regular house is. A motorcycle was my way, in one season of life, to get from A to B. The tiny house is our way, in this season of life, to get from A to B.

Is it worth it?

So has all the head scratching, stuff chucking, uprooting, designing, building, problem-solving, chicken chasing and compost dumping all been experiences I would recommend to others?

Has this crazy adventure that has tested, taught, broken, and strengthened us wildly beyond our expectations been worth it?

I guess this entire blog is my attempt at figuring this question out.

There’s really no such thing as living for free, just as there’s no such thing as a free car, horse, or anything else.

But we’re doing the closest thing to it that we can, and perhaps we’ll be able to evaluate the depth and breadth of our time here from future eyes.

Motorcycle by the sea

Strawberry Rhubarb White Almond Pancakes

What do you do when your farm’s rhubarb is growing like runaway weeds and the strawberries are red, ripe, and in season, too? Daily pie, of course!

Or, even more simply, strawberry rhubarb pancakes every other day for breakfast. Why not?

Fry in plenty of grass-fed butter and top with a sauce made from early summer’s best fruits for a healthy, tasty, gourmet breakfast.

White Almond Pancakes

Dry ingredients

  • 1 cup organic white flour
  • 1 cup almond flour
  • 1/2 cup ground flax seed
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

White almond pancake ingredients

Wet ingredients

  • 2 cups raw milk
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  1. Mix dry ingredients together.
  2. Mix wet ingredients separately.
  3. Mix dry into wet.
  4. Refrigerate overnight: optional but recommended for extra thick pancakes.
  5. Fry on the stove in plenty of grass-fed butter.
  6. Top with butter, yogurt, and strawberry rhubarb sauce.

White almond pancakes frying in butter

Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce

Ingredients

  • 2 cups organic strawberries
  • 2 cups chopped rhubarb
  • 2 Tablespoons raw honey

Simmering rhubarb

Directions

  1. Simmer rhubarb and an inch of water on the stove for 8 minutes or so, until rhubarb is softened. Drain off water.
  2. Blend rhubarb, strawberries, and honey together using an immersion blender or conventional blender.
  3. Enjoy just like applesauce: on its own, on pancakes or yogurt, or baked into other recipes. Yum!

Strawberry rhubarb white almond pancakes

Hammock Reads June 2017

A wide-cast net of recent reads on love, liberty and shelter . . .

What My Girls Think About Me, Timothy Willard . . . What his three little pixies really see, and a daddy’s manifesto of love, joy, and manliness for all times.

Are You Committed? Pastor Jeff Urwiller, Evangelical Free Church of Eaton . . . Inspiring and dead-on target. What does it really take to walk the Christian walk?

Teens Need Less Schooling and More Apprenticeships, Kerry McDonald, Intellectual Takeout . . . Let’s imagine a world where the youth of America are happy, productive, learning and earning!

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury . . . The first in a series of easy-going, valuable primers for all ages. This one has fun with money, inflation, the boom and bust cycles, and other fascinating topics.

Why Kids Benefit From Fewer Toys, Emily Wade, Think About Now . . . What do kids really need to play and learn, and what are they better off without?

How the Sharing Economy Can Help You Go Minimalist, Michael Munger, FEE . . . Solving the problems of too much stuff, not enough access. “For the first time in human history, entrepreneurs can make money just by selling reductions in transaction costs.”

Summertime Quinoa Bean Salad

What’s not to love about a cold summer salad just about anybody with any diet can eat and that includes endless flavorful toppings?

Easily one of the tastiest, most versatile summertime dishes, I find myself making quinoa bean salad at least every other week in the warmer months.

An excellent side dish for hot dogs, pizza, gazpacho, barbeque, and for picnics and potlucks. Satisfying for lunches, we pack it in Mason jars.

Make a double batch ahead if you’re expecting company from out of town, and you’ll rarely run out of food. Enjoy!

Ingredients

Essentials:

  • 2 cups uncooked quinoa
  • 2 cups / 1 can cooked black beans

Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup avocado oil or olive oil
  • Juice of 1 large lemon (1/4 cup)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 jalapeños, seeded and diced
  • 2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers, seeded and diced

Treats (as many as you like):

  • cooked chicken
  • avocado
  • cherry tomatoes
  • pine nuts
  • feta cheese
  • cilantro
  • green onion
  • zucchini
  • summer squash

Avocado cherry tomatoes salad

Directions

1) Thoroughly rinse quinoa using a fine mesh strainer. Bring to a boil with 4 cups water in a medium saucepan. Cover and simmer on low for 15 minutes.

2) Stir sauce ingredients together in a small bowl.

3) When quinoa is cooked, transfer to a large bowl, fluff, and stir in sauce.

4) Fold in beans.

5) Top with optional treats.

6) Eat it hot or allow to cool. Refrigerate.

Nature is Our Living Room

Sometime in the night, as if by magic, a little bubbling spring seeped up through the earth and emerged beneath the tiny house.

With the recent rains flooding the Poudre Canyon, the underground river is suddenly coming to the surface in pools dotting the grass, making our new parking spot a muddy marsh. In exasperation, Big lays a makeshift boardwalk in the mud so we can make our way, stepping gingerly, to the truck.

Tiny house on a muddy farm
Little House in the Marsh

Three days later, the marsh is spreading. “Our home smells like the Jungle River Cruise at Disneyland!” I cry in dismay, swatting away flies. “All we need are the hippos!”

It is sultry summer, and the butter melts on the counter. Big labors to install window screens so we can let in the fresh breeze without inviting wasps, flies, and honeybees. A ceiling fan is on order, as the one we picked out was crushed by a falling crate at the store.

For now, we relish shade, wet hair after showers, and the gorgeously cool evenings with pink and lavender clouds swirling into the summer night.

Colorado has famously good weather and boasts 300 sunny days each year. But somehow over the last seven years of living in the state, I did not fully experience the other 65 until now.

Two weeks ago, it was Thunder Snow! Booming grey clouds brought a blizzard of heavy wet snow, swirling all around the tiny house and blanketing every green thing the Spring had brought thus far.

Thunder Snow tiny house farm

During these times, we watch the rain or snow shower down all around us and content ourselves with hot chocolate and watercolors, library books and pillow forts.

After one of these rains, we discovered that the moisture from the soaked ground had evaporated up under our tarps of tools and possessions still in the yard, soaking everything. Hours of sun drying toys, washing quilts, and line drying papers and photos ensued.

This afternoon, we were under a tornado warning, and Big hunkered down in his truck across town until the golf ball sized hail let up. Then, all of a sudden, deep blue skies broke through the silver clouds.

Nature and blue skies at the tiny house

And the skies above are not the only thing we’re now closer to in a tiny house.

Mountain lion in the pasture

Large, unwavering eyes following Big one night led us to be extra wary of the mountain lions that stealthily prowl the foothills. We keep the kids indoors after dusk and go together when we need to run out for something at night. And a rifle has been added to our belongings, courtesy Papaw.

Raccoon at the tiny house

Silently​ precocious raccoons and skunks have visited the grounds around our trailer at night, pawing for worms and other treats.

Colorado fox

We awoke with a start one dark night as a fox pair screamed their banshee wails to one another across the windy pasture.

Canadian geese on the tiny house farm

In the icy months of late autumn and winter, the wide swaths of grass welcomed flocks of Canadian​ geese. A sleek coyote would circle around, setting his hungry eyes ambitiously on the giant birds.

Honey bees at the tiny house

Occasional honey bees from the nearby hives flit here and there around our house. But on the afternoon we were set to hitch up and move thirty paces closer to the main house, something got into those bees!

Suddenly billowing to a 70,000-strong swarm blocking our path, the local beekeeper arrived, and we learned that the hive was splitting. Lasting less than an hour, we were soon able to go about our business unplugging, hitching up, and moving the house.

Colorado fall tree tiny house

After growing up in southern Arizona, coming to Colorado marked the advent of experiencing real seasons for us. Furthermore, living only a few steps away from the outdoors at any given time means that we see, hear, smell, and feel nature more immediately, with little separation from these things.

It’s interesting to see the kids playing and acting out the things around them, rather than characters from shows. Chickens and coyotes, foxes and geese, they imitate the squawks and growls and make dens and nests on the couch and under the table. And wide-eyed Baby Hazelnut is big sister Firebell’s “precious baby calf.”

Firebell and Calf at the dairy

Being this close to nature isn’t always comfortable and often makes us scramble. But our hope is that the kids are thriving during this tiny house season with nature as their living room.

Creative Housing Hustles in a Hot Market

Our plan, as long as we’ve been married, was always to have Big Country finish school, get a fulfilling, decent-paying job that left plenty of time for family, live frugally, avoid debt, buy land, and build our own cabin or yurt.

That is, until we thought we were going for the gold in pursuing a medical career and instead ran ourselves into the ground emotionally and financially.

Playing big and putting all your chips on the table means that sometimes you lose big. But, what can you do? Perhaps a bit of vagabonding and stumbling through the building of a homemade tiny house for your family of five? That sounds reasonable.

Big Country and Liberty in our living room . . . the Rockies
Big Country and Liberty in our living room . . . the Rockies

But really, this unique vantage point has opened our eyes to the myriad of people also under the gun to find sustaining jobs and housing. And perhaps nowhere else is there a more challenging place to be hustling for housing right now than in Northern Colorado.

Northern Colorado cabin

What’s going on in Northern Colorado?

Recently The Denver Post discussed the phenomenon of this area’s unprecedented housing prices in terms of affordability. Although there is evidence that we’re over the crest of the boom and growth is slowing, it’s still a very hot seller’s market with homes being snapped up mere hours after listing or sooner.

But are these homes affordable? To whom? Out of the dozen most unaffordable counties in America in relation to wages, seven are in Northern Colorado.

Let’s take a look at the area’s biggest city.

The average home price in Fort Collins, CO is $350,200, which comes out to a high $203 per square foot.

  • Mortgage: For the above house, say you’re able to come up with 10% down, plus closing costs, etc. A 30-year mortgage of $315,200 at today’s 3.92% interest rate would mean a mortgage payment of $1490/month.

Add in . . .

  • Utilities: electricity, gas, water, trash, recycling, internet… $200/month is a ballpark estimate, as factors such as local rates, a home’s insulation, and personal preferences make all the difference.
  • Maintenance: common rule of thumb is 1% of the purchase price per year, so $3502/yr or $292/month.
  • Property tax: a percentage based on a percentage. First, the assessed fair market value of a property is generally 80-90% of the sale price. Then the county or state collects tax on this figure. Larimer County collects .64%. Let’s say 85% of $350,200, which is $297,670. Then, .64% of this is $1905/yr or $159/month.
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI): required for down payments of under 20% to protect the lender (the bank) from the borrower (you) defaulting on the loan. This can be .3%-1.5% depending on credit score and down payment amount. Let’s say 1%, so $3502/yr and $292/month.
  • HOA fees, lawn care, tree service, and/or anything else applicable to home ownership. Homeowner Associations (HOAs) are all over the board in what they charge and what services they provide, and there really is no meaningful average. Fort Collins is green and full of trees. Let’s throw out $100/month.
  • . . . and you could be looking at shelling out $1043 + the mortgage of $1490 = $2533/month for housing related costs.

Most lenders consider 28% as the standard “housing ratio,” which is the maximum responsible allocation of pre-tax income toward housing (consisting of principal, interest, taxes, and insurance).

So if we were to take out utilities, maintenance, HOA, and other services, the house above would come out to $1901/month.

$1901 is 28% of $6789. And so, to afford this average Fort Collins home, the average home buyer would need to make $6789/month, or $81,471/year.

These numbers are representative of the Front Range region in general. Some neighboring towns as well as outlying areas, foreclosures, short sales, and the daunting “handyman specials” run somewhat more​ affordable.

“Hot” areas like Timnath and Berthoud can run even more expensive, into the half-a-million-dollar range for, at the end of the day, yet another single family dwelling. And of course this is not to mention the separate unaffordable universes of Boulder, Vail, and Telluride.

For comparison, the average monthly rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in Fort Collins runs $1400, although this can only accommodate a family of four under the city’s “two person max per bedroom” rule. Families with even one baby more than this (like us) have to go bigger.

These numbers are all fine for a working professional who makes a high steady income and wants to put down roots in a vibrant, desirable area of the country. For the rest of us, we have to get more creative.

Creative Housing boho loft

Families who Hustle

We know a family who both lives for free and draws an income from their work on a grass-fed cattle ranch. The gentleman farmer-owner, a doctor in the city, needed a manager for the estate and someone to renovate the farmhouse. The husband of the young family hired for the job has experience with both cattle and carpentry, so it was a perfect fit.

We have friends who pay a small mortgage on rural land, live in a 400 or so square foot converted Tuff Shed, and slowly build their home as earnings come in. They have debated whether to go the route of a construction loan to move things along, but banks don’t typically understand their unconventional plans for a homestead.

A sweet former student of mine and her husband and two boys just moved to a 600 square foot loft in downtown Loveland. The rent’s a bit pricey, but it’s a perfect location to be close to family, work, and community.

We have friends who rent a farmhouse they worked hard to renovate and beautify for their first year’s rent. They’re happy here and have no foreseeable plans to move or buy. Still, they have struggled with the nebulously communicative owners who at times have seemed suddenly eager to sell it out from under them.

We have friends who went in with their older parents to buy a rural farm and have moved all three generations together to enthusiastically establish a life for themselves, complete with gardens, bees, chickens, and ducks.

We have acquaintances who lived in little more than a room when their son was born and placed him in a dresser drawer beside their mattress. “Just take him into bed with you!” encouraged the wise midwife.

Other friends stay temporarily in basements of friends, with something always cooking in the kitchen and little kids’ screams and laughter ringing through all the rooms.

An enterprising single woman we’re privileged to know lived for two years at a family member’s empty condo. Then, with that family member’s assistance, she bought and completely renovated a home in a desirable neighborhood. She now lives in a beautiful home of her own and rents out two of the rooms for $600/month apiece to other single ladies.

Another couple we know VRBOs two rooms in their home, making $18,000 last year alone.

Several friends bought homes they don’t love at much lower prices a few years ago, but they probably won’t sell high because they can’t afford anywhere else. They instead are cautiously renovating and preparing their homes in case an opportunity presents itself to make an advantageous lateral move.

Others have left the state for opportunities to build a life elsewhere, usually staying with family for a season while getting established.

And many others struggle on, paying 50% or more of their earnings on housing, as we did before the tiny house adventure.

So what is the answer to an increasingly unaffordable, even skyrocketing housing market when you’re a hardworking, blue collar family?

Big Country and I continue to learn many things that help formulate an answer to this apparent quandary of shelter.

Creative Housing for families

Shelter Thoughts

  • Pursuing a house for your family in a hot market is about getting smart, working hard, earning more, and spending less. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be an impossible quest or a pie-in-the-sky dream to be financially fit, have a comfortable home, and build a legacy for your family.
  • Recognize what currency you possess. It may be youth, flexibility, education, health, physical strength, good communication, a particular skill, a language including native English, a willingness to be frugal for your goals, or simply a joyful heart. In an abundant society, there are opportunities to leverage even small assets for big dreams.
  • Talk to friends about their housing journey. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
  • Familiarize yourself with different attitudes towards housing, risk, and debt. Most people pay their minimum monthly mortgage payment and spend almost everything else, or more. Some people seek to aggressively pay down their mortgage as soon as possible and live mortgage-free. Others prefer to leverage extra money into additional rental properties or other investments and believe the risk and stress to be worth the payoff. Consider your personality and family goals in light of different options.
  • Study historical trends of both the housing and business cycles.
  • Learn and know the housing market of your area. Download the Zillow app, get updates on houses that go up for sale, take realtor friends to coffee, attend realty seminars. Make it a goal to get good at estimating prices based on many factors. It’s fun!
  • Consider what level of fixer-upper you are game for. The more you can do yourself, over time, paid with cash, the richer you will be, but hardcore insourcing must be balanced with the reality of your skill set and family life.
  • Learn what you really want and need in a home. For us, an east-west orientation with south-facing windows is way more important than square footage.
  • Be fluid; be patient. Your picture of the right home may change over time. And there is no joy in making the pursuit of a house into an idol.
  • Opportunities come in very unexpected ways. We would have never foreseen the blessings of the past year and a half: housesitting for two different families, totalling six months; having incredible, skilled help on the tiny house from our wonderful host family of 12; being able to work hard and live for free on a beautiful farm. What’s next? I can’t wait to find out.