The First Year (1971): A Homestead in the Mountains

In the morning we traveled the first-gear road into the backcountry and mostly uphill. The road followed a creek on our left side and the sandy terrain was deeply cut by gulches and covered with grass and pine trees. The farther we traveled, the sweeter was the smell of the pines. After about seven miles we encountered the first dwelling -- a waddle and dab shanty. Here lived Dagoberto (the cattle wrangler of the land owner) and his wife Mercha and their three small children. They offered us coffee, tortillas and homemade cheese. Little did we know then, how much we would grow to appreciate their warm hospitality and a place to rest, after we'd made a supply trip to the valley, and still had three more miles to walk before reaching home.

For now Dagoberto told us how to get to the northern edge of Don Mauro's land. We needed to drive two more miles, go right at the fork by the river (the left road went up to Amparo, Don Mauro's Coffee farm) and go about one more mile until the drivable road ended at a steep downward incline. Following his directions we drove to the river and to the right, went up the steepest incline we had experienced so far, with a 200 foot drop down to the stream bed. We wondered what the rains would do to this little sandy road hugging the side of the cliff. Two more miles and we reached the end of the drivable road where we got out and started looking around.

Here, the road was on a crest, which dropped off sharply to the east and gently to the west. Facing west, off to the right, the terrain led straight away and then slopped upward toward a pine covered mountain. Off to the left, the land slopped downward toward a gulch. Pine trees and a few oaks were scattered here and there but the area between the road and the mountain and the gulch was mostly open and covered with grass and brush. We liked what we saw and drove the truck off the road, about 200 feet toward the mountain, and pitched our tent.

We slept our first night on the slope of the mountain we would later learn was known as Sangarro.
For the next two days we explored the land and at some point we were joined by Dagoberto to help us measure off what we wanted. I don't remember any conversations about should we or shouldn't we. We had found our place and now we just needed to build our dream. We ended up defining eighty acres (50 manzanas), a rectangular piece (500 by 1,000 yards or varas) which paralleled the road and went 500 yards up the mountain. We had purchased pasture, pine forest, and to the north, a piece of mountain land which changed from pine to highland jungle. It wasn't until June 30th that we went to town, paid for the land and received title.

Not far from where we had first pitched our tent we discovered a swampy area. The swampy area formed the head end of a small creek. To the west and south of this area was about five acres of relatively flat land for building and gardens. On the upper edge of the swamp we dug a hole about three fee wide and three feet deep. The bottom of the hole filled with about six inches of water. We had struck gold!

We moved the tent closer to our water hole and started to dig and bail - dig and bail. I think it took us about three days to create a six foot wide, eight foot deep hole lined with stones which we hauled from the creek. We ran our plastic tubing from inside the well down the slope to a flat area overlooking the gulch and created suction in the tube. We now had running water from our wishing well.

We designated the end of the tubing as our future house site, but now turned our attention to making the tent more livable. As luck would have it there was a bush saw mill about five miles back down the road and off to the east. The mill was run by a Mississippi lumberman by the name of Troy Ivy. Maybe we gave him a couple dollars for the lumber we hauled in; more likely he said "Just take what you need."

During the next few months we built a 2 x 8 platform (which included a porch/kitchen), 1 x 8 walls and a roof of sheet metal (bought in Ocotal). We literally built a little minors shack around the tent. Although this may sound a bit strange, it was our refuge from insects, wind, rain and dirt for more than a year. We worked and worked and worked - digging, planting, building - but at the end of a day (and sometimes for an afternoon break) we'd leave our clothes on the porch, sponge off, and enter, through the zippered door, to our clean, soft, fabric home.

During March, April and the first part of May it was hot and dry, though cool at night. We wondered what the rainy season would be like - it was supposed to begin on May 15th. As I recall we wanted to get rid of the truck so that we wouldn't have to worry about the road washing out, and indeed, we did sell it before the rains began - and the rains began on May 15th!

For the next four months we cleared land and planted gardens. About every two weeks we'd make the 20 mile round trip to town (San Fernando) for basic supplies and mail. Maybe once a month we'd take the bus on into Ocotal for banking or building supplies. Our basics consisted of sugar, salt, flour, rice, beans and coffee. The walk out was basically downhill and always easy. The trip back, however, was sometimes difficult and, as I've mentioned, the stop at Dagoberto and Mercha's was always a welcome rest. Once or twice I remember sleeping on the trail, in the dark, to gather strength for the last mile home.

Our meals improved when our vegetable gardens started to produce. I remember with the first lettuce and radish crop I announced to Elizabeth that from then on, "if it didn't come from our farm, I wouldn't eat it." That afternoon she baked one of her cinnamon bread specialties, which cured me quickly.

At some point we received news of my brother Gary's October wedding in New York and we were ready for a break. I think we flew into Houston and, after eating one dozen Dunkin Donuts, we made our way to Austin. There we visited my Austin family and worked on a construction job for a week, then on to Omaha. From there we drove with my Mother to New York. After a fun time at the wedding we went to Colorado to visit my sister Mollie and her husband Glenn. With Glenn's help we purchased a jeep, a rifle and a small 6-shot revolver and headed south again. Elizabeth was five months pregnant.

The trip back to the farm in the jeep took ten days. The strongest memory of the trip back was at the Guatemala/El Salvador Border. First a soldier searched through and under the jeep. As he crawled under the jeep my heart started to pound because the rifle was duck taped onto one of the main frame pieces. He crawled back out! (later I looked under to look and saw that the road dust had done a near perfect job of camouflage. Next they took me into a shed and strip-searched me. After the ordeal, and the usual payments, we drove on (never to import guns again). The revolver was in the pregnant lady's underwear! - smart lady!!

Back at the farm we went to work. We continued work in the gardens and started construction of our hexagonal home. We read mid-wife manuals and made preparations for the baby. We were one hundred percent sure we could have our baby on the farm. As always, Elizabeth worked at least as long and hard as I. The due date came. Days continued to pass. I remember a kind of surreal time of waiting and wondering -- maybe even three weeks past the anticipated date. And then, one evening, Elizabeth came back into the tent saying "the baby is coming!"