Polyface Farms

Polyface Farms might be the coolest place on the planet. Okay, it’s probably not even on the coolest list unless you are a fanboy for regenerative agriculture and Joel Salatin is one of your favorite authors and presenters in the agriculture/Permaculture space. In that case, Polyface is pretty darn cool. First off, the lunatic farm tour they offer every other Saturday from March thru October is a bargain at $20.00 per ticket. The tour was the primary destination for the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy’s trip to Virginia recently. We went other places and learned other things but Polyface was the place we wanted to go.

Because we had traveled to Polyface the afternoon before we knew how long it was going to take us to get there. The Mad Farmer showered, had the coffee going and most of the stuff packed into the family truckster pretty early the morning of the actual tour. Miss Mercy said it was plain to see that I might be a little bit excited. That part is definitely true. I’m not sure exactly when I heard my first Joel Salatin podcast, might have been on Jack Spirko’s The Survival Podcast, might have been on Diego Footer’s Permaculture Voices Podcast, either way since that first podcast I have listened to a lot of interviews with Joel Salatin. The first time the Mad Farmer got to meet him in person was several years ago when he was a keynote speaker for the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. I’ve read several of Joel’s books but my favorite is “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal“. Miss Mercy’s favorite book up to this point is probably “The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs“.

Anyway, the Mad Farmer is a self-proclaimed fanboy. The tour is either led by Joel himself, or his son, Daniel. It would be great if Joel was the guide, but it was a 50/50 shot who would be guiding the tour (okay probably more 90/10) but, either way, we were really looking forward to the tour. I kind of felt like I knew Daniel – reading about him growing up, his early start in business raising rabbits and all the other family experiences that were described in detail in the books. So either way, we would be happy to take the tour no matter who was the tour guide.

When we first pulled up we were about a half hour early, but we weren’t the first ones there by a long shot – we also weren’t the last, so that was good. The farm has been doing tours for a while and they approach it like everything else on the farm, they study the best ways to do things, then they put that process in place and tweak it until it works. Your first impression of the farm is the actual layout as you drive up the road, the second, is people directing parking, answering questions and just generally being super helpful.

The first other visitor we met when we got out of the car was a gentlemen who was a long-haul trucker from Missouri. The trucker thought it was “great to meet people from Kansas who had come farther than he had”. A pleasant fellow, we chatted briefly and then we went into the Farm Store.

Polyface Farm Store

The store is rustic looking, has a bank of fridges and freezers for the grass-fed, grass-finished pork, beef and chicken they sell and also has racks of shelves and other items that are display. Lots of T-shirts, books, local produce, jams, jelly’s and such. It’s an inviting place, easy to move about and the people staffing the store are helpful, cheery and give you the impression you’re not a bother – they are glad to help you. There’s an autographed picture of Joel with the band Train – pretty random, but very cool, especially since we’ve seen them in concert in Kansas City. Miss Mercy and I decided to buy our T-Shirts early and leave them in the car before the tour. The Mad Farmer was as happy as a Marvelous Pig that he was able to get an “Everything I want to do is Illegal” shirt.

Right on time the tour started. The Lunatic Farm Tour is kind of like a hay-rack ride. Two Tractors with two hay wagons attached provide seating for the tour participants. The tour is limited to about 100 people, but because of how it is set up it doesn’t seem crowded and everyone has a chance to see, hear and ask questions. Plenty of water is provided, which is a good thing, because, on a two hour tour in the Virginia sun in June, (cue the Gilligan’s Island Theme song) there is more than enough time to get dehydrated if you are not careful.

It was Daniel who showed up to lead the tour, and shock, shock, he’s a grown man with a family. You read about Daniel in the books as a young boy, and even though later Joel talks about him getting married and having a family, in the Mad Farmer’s head he was always a “young boy”. Clearly not the case. Daniel comes across as a highly competent, clearly intelligent, individual who is in charge of running a large farm operation.

So the tour starts out with everyone getting on the hay wagons and we chug off across a stream and up a hill towards various areas of the farm. The first leg of the tour was about a mile by tractor and stopped at the current location of the chicken tractors. Many of Joel’s books discuss the chicken tractors – portable shelters that protect the very small chickens and still let them feed on grass and bugs and keep them relatively safe from predators.

Polyface Chicken Tractors

Each chicken tractor is made from light weight materials and can be moved by a single person. It only takes a couple of minutes per tractor and 1500 birds can be moved in under an hour. Very efficient and a proven method that has been tested over decades. Everything about Polyface farms is about flexibility, light weight and mobility. If you aren’t sure it is supposed to be a permanent fixture then it probably shouldn’t be. The tour then moved on to the chicken roosts

Polyface Chicken Roost

The roosts are surrounded by electric fencing which helps keep predators out and chickens in. The portable structure provides a place for laying eggs and nighttime roosting. It’s proven it’s working, plus the water storage and chicken feed storage is attached to the front, so everything is easy to hook up to a tractor and move. Polyface is all about making things work – a life lesson for everyone to be sure.

The next stop was the fabled “egg mobile” or is it “Eggmobile”? Either way there aren’t fences around the area. These chickens are as close to “free range” as is possible in a world where they don’t crap on everything you own, especially your porch. Polyface also raises Turkeys in a similar fashion.

Polyface Egg Mobiles

The last stop on the tour was the cattle. We had hoped to see the pigs reveling in the Marvelous Pigness of being Pigs but Daniel told us they were several miles away in fields that were not conducive to easy access by tractor and the time to get there and back would have taken longer that could be accommodated. So we tractored on a bit and came to a shady wooded area near a stream that was full of cattle. Just up the hill was a very nice pond.

Polyface Pond

We were told the pond was man-made and collected run-off from all the fields above, helping to keep the stream below flowing and allowing the water to be used for many other things downhill. Land and water management is a huge part of Permaculture and it’s a huge part of Polyface Farm’s land use. The last part of the formal tour was being able to watch the Polyface interns “paddock shift” the cattle to the next grazing location, opening electric fencing and “calling” to the cows. The cows are used to the process, appear to look forward to new grass, and seem eager to move. In just a couple of minutes all the critters had moved to the new area and started grazing.

Polyface Cattle

When the Mad Farmer was much younger he used to walk out to the fields with his Grandpa Farmer (a man who farmed successfully all his life, with hard work from sunup to sunset) and used to bring the dairy cattle back to the barn. I can tell you that experience was night and day different from what we saw at Polyface. I loved my Grandpa, but he was definitely a product of his time. Grandpa was born before airplanes flew and passed after man had walked on the moon, but I’m pretty sure what is happening on a daily basis at Polyface would have left him shaking his head at the “newfangled notions” and confused him mightily.

After the tour went back to the main area we were invited to stay as long as we liked, ask questions and take a look around anywhere we liked. Miss Mercy’s first beeline was to the chicken coops, where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of very cute baby chicks being grown big enough to go out and “get on the grass”. It wasn’t smelly, they weren’t standing around in their own poop and we knew the birds we were looking at would shortly be having the best experience poultry being raised for egg laying or for later “freezer camp” can have.

After a short walking tour around the grounds and work areas Miss Mercy and the Farmer ended up chatting with Daniel for a bit. Yours truly forgot to ask him what it was like constantly having people drop by the farm while trying to work (guess we’ll have to go back again, oh darn). Miss Mercy asked him about the pigs. We were told where they were and that we were welcome to hike up and take a look. Daniel also mentioned there were a lot of younger pigs that were currently in the barn and we could go check them out if we liked. So moments later we are in the barn, taking the in Marvelous Cuteness of piglets (come on, you know they are). After a bit we started toward the field where the larger pigs were grazing.

Pop-up lightning and the start of a fairly intense rain storm cut the sojourn to the pigs short and your intrepid wanderers left the wonderful place that is Polyface Farms and started our journey back to the homestead. The trip home was stormy, long and ultimately uneventful. Your weary homesteaders arrived tired, happy, and having been some wonderful places and learned some amazing things.

Polyface Pigs – enjoy!

Traveling to Staunton and some really good Pizza

So after we toured Monticello we had decided to build in another leisurely driving day, this was a vacation after all. We decided to drive-by Polyface Farm on our way back to make sure we knew where we were going, and just because we wanted to – the farm was the whole reason for the trip in the first place. So we put the farm address into Waze, left Charlottesville and headed toward the farm (or so we thought).

You might remember from an earlier post that the Farmer said we were trying out Waze as a directional app and that they all have some quirks. At one point, on our way back, Waze directed us to turn onto the “Old Virginia Turnpike” . There actually seemed to be a sign that indicated the road we turned onto was the “Old Virginia Turnpike” and originally it started out paved. After a ways it turned to gravel, then it turned narrower and twisty and eventually it turned into a one-lane dirt goat path that went on for miles. GPS and satellite signals were non-existent, sporadic or few-and-far between and not necessarily in that order. Many miles into the path, where we had a top speed of approximately 15 mph, we finally got an updated signal and according to Waze the path we were on went around in a circle, with no apparent way off for probably another 15 miles.

Old Virginia Turnpike

Pulling over into a small clearing we decided we really didn’t want to drive on this particular road for the next 10-15 miles at 12-15 mph. Options were discussed and it was decided that we would turn around and head back to concrete highways and more visible indications of civilization. The return drive (back to the highway Ben Stone…) was uneventful and went much faster since we had already been down “that road” once. There were “drive-ways” deep down that forest road, we even saw a “property for sale” sign once, it reminded the Farmer of a lot of properties deep in the Ozarks, where we used to vacation at my Uncle’s cabin when everyone was younger. Probably a nice, remote place to live, but it might be tough to commute from there to a day job, so definitely off-grid homesteading possibilities if you are leaning that direction. Check out Staunton, VA real estate here.

So at that point we ended up back in Staunton and being a mite peckish decided to stop at the Shenandoah Pizza & Tap House. We weren’t expecting much and man were we blown away by this place. It was early afternoon on a weekday, so the place wasn’t that busy but their pizza options were varied and delicious. They had some excellent local brews on tap and if you are passing anywhere near Staunton, VA, we would highly recommending stopping in for a slice. It really hit the spot and clearly we can’t say enough good things about the place. Try if for yourself. After the bite to eat we decided to go ahead and drive out to Polyface and see what the trip was like, get the “lay of the land”, so to speak.

It’s about a 20-30 minute drive out to Polyface from Staunton. The roads were mostly paved (except for the last mile or so) and it was a lovely drive, right until the heavens opened up and unleashed a driving rain you literally couldn’t see through for more than a few hundred feet. The rain combined with the winding roads and unfamiliar territory did slow us down considerably. The last mile or so turned into gravel, with exceptionally large potholes (reminded us of Topeka roads) that you couldn’t really see because they were full of water. We apologized to our suspension multiple times on that drive. Finally we did arrive at Polyface. We decided based on the rain not to go on in (they are open any day you care to go, farm operation transparency is their thing). We decided to turn around, head back towards Staunton and get to our Airbnb location for the night.

Polyface Farm

We were booked into a stay at Fordell Farm near Staunton, VA. We were really looking forward to staying at the Fordell Airbnb site. The Airbnb listing looked fantastic and we weren’t disappointed, and the owners have really set the place up to make the stay very pleasant. There are currently several options and we stayed in the apartment suite attached to the main house. There was a walk-out patio, with a nice sitting area and the suite itself was very cozy. The owners have put a lot of effort into making the experience traveler friendly and inviting. The space was super clean, the furnishings comfortable, informative visitor information was provided about things to do in the area, places to eat and coffee table books on the history of the area. When we arrived we had a nice chat with Randy the owner. Even though there was a light rain, it was great to just sit for a while under the umbrella on the patio without having to be anywhere. Randy was easy to talk to, not intrusive and very knowledgeable about the history of the area. Overall, if all Airbnb experiences were all like this we would never stay anywhere else.

Fordell Airbnb Patio

Next up: Polyface Farm Tour!

Monticello

So the main purpose of the trip was to visit Polyface Farms. Turns out that Monticello is not very far away. In an amazing coincidence Miss Mercy was at a Master Gardener presentation on Presidential gardens and Monticello was part of the presentation. A text to the Mad Farmer went “want to add the Monticello gardens to our trip” and the answer back was “Yeah” (or something similar to that exchange, it has been a while but you get the gist). So Monticello was added to the itinerary.

Monticello is an amazing place. Multiple times it was relayed to visitors on the tour groups at Thomas Jefferson was a type of Renaissance Man but also a product of his times. Thomas Jefferson did many amazing things, including drafting the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson also owned over 600 slaves during the course of his life. While Jefferson professed he did not believe in slavery he was never able to reconcile the economics of slavery with freeing his slaves. It appears the only slaves he ever actually freed were the children he had with his slave mistress, Sallie Hemmings. The Mad Farmer is not the person to be able to reconcile all the good Jefferson did, all the amazing things he did and the horrible institution of treating people like property. So, we’ll leave that to history, profess it’s beyond the Farmer’s comprehension and move on to Monticello itself.

Jefferson designed Monticello himself and there are many European influences in the architecture. On the House tour we were told that there were two phases to the building. Originally there was a first floor with eight rooms and eventually, after many years of construction, the 2nd floor and 3rd floor dome were completed. Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer took the evening house tour – we highly recommend it. The evening tour starts at about 5:30 pm and lasts until about 8 pm. You can arrive at Monticello as soon as it opens and spend the day taking tours and wandering the grounds until the evening tour. The daytime house tours usually only cover the ground floor. The evening tour is a smaller group, covers all the floors from the dome to the basement and is very informative.

We arrived about 11 am and ended up taking the Garden Tour, the Slavery Tour and exploring the grounds for the rest of the day. Jefferson apparently never met a growing thing he didn’t love. Trees, flowers, plants and vegetables were all things he enjoyed, planted and observed. According to his daughters journals he was never happier then when he was puttering about his garden beds. There are three main areas of growing things on the site. There are the terraced vegetable beds, the flower path that surrounds the commons on the front of the house and the flower beds that surround the house. One of the coolest things is the Monticello website has an option to find out what flowers are growing when and where they are on the grounds. You can explore what is growing at Monticello, when and where at In Bloom at Monticello.

Monticello Flower Path Reconstruction

The flower path in front of Monticello is a wandering oval, that is lined on both sides with a variety of flowers every few feet. We were told that Jefferson’s favorite plant was a “Sensitive Plant”. The Sensitive plant curls inward when you place you hand near it, apparently it’s related to carnivorous plants, like the Venus flytrap. The variety of plants is amazing. The grounds were overgrown for decades and when they were eventually restored they were reconstructed based on Jefferson’s notes. Jefferson kept meticulous notes and sketches and recorded the daily temperatures in his notebooks for decades. According to the journals there were originally about twenty flower beds around Monticello itself. Turns out Jefferson found that was not nearly enough for everything he wanted to plant so he added the oval flower path and kept on experimenting.

One of the best things about Monticello are the terraced vegetable gardens. Originally there was only mountainside, the terraces were man made. In modern times the terraces would be dug by heavy equipment or the Permaculture equivalent of an Amish barn raising. In the 18th century, there was no heavy equipment, or Permaculture, so we’ll leave it to the imagination to how the terraces were actually developed. The Garden tour guide told us that the vegetable gardens were not adequate to grow enough produce to feed the entire plantation, mostly they produced for the Jefferson family and guests. Many of the slave households had their own gardens, to produce for themselves and sold the excess to Jefferson – even under the most dire circumstances capitalism was apparently a thing.

Monticello Vegetable Gardens

As awe inspiring as the garden and flower beds are, the actually housing complex that is Monticello is almost overwhelming. During the house tour were where told that Jefferson designed the house and decorated all of it, at least the first floor, to be a teaching moment for everyone who came to visit. The lobby has artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, fossils, Greek busts and lots of other things, including a perpetual clock designed to tell the day and time using cannonball weights. Turns out when Jefferson designed the clock the lobby space wasn’t high enough to show Saturday so he had holes cut in the floor and if you go in the basement you can see the label for Saturday. Jefferson had a seven day clock in a six day space.

In conclusion, Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer really enjoyed Monticello. There is every chance that your homesteading duo will be returning to the area and exploring further. We did not have time to visit the gardens at Mount Vernon (we hear George Washington is an interesting fellow) and Jamestown and Yorktown are within an hour of Monticello. There is a lot of history in the area and a lot of gardening going on, so it’s worth a look if you have the chance.

Cape Charles and the Really, Really, Very Bridge Day

So after the enlightening adventures of Colonial Williamsburg Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer built in a travel day before heading to Monticello. Because we live in Kansas, which geographically is as far from an Ocean as you can get, it seemed like a no-brainer to go to the beach. It was decided that we would go to Cape Charles, VA. Cape Charles is not too far away from Williamsburg, VA and not too far from Charlottesville, where Monticello is located, so it was going to be a relatively short drive to the beach and a reasonable drive to Charlottesville. Driving to the Cape would also allow us to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

In case you are not familiar with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel it spans the Chesapeake Bay connecting Virginia Beach and the Fisherman Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, replacing a Ferry service that made the crossing until 1964. The Mad Farmer had once driven over the Astoria-Megler Bridge between Astoria, OR and Washington state. The Astoria-Megler bridge spans about four miles over the mouth of the Columbia River and it is definitely an experience traveling over it. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is 17 miles across, including two under-the-ocean tunnels that span a mile each so ships can traverse the bay. The Farmer can safely say that traveling across the bridge is a unique experience, traveling at 55 mph along a two lane highway under the ocean is very different. Miss Mercy seemed to enjoy it, so that part of the trip was a success.

One side note, the CBBT website at the time we looked it up was a few years out-of-date. It said that if you were making a day trip that the one-way toll across the bridge was $14.00 and the return trip would only be $6.00. Turns out several years ago they changed that so that you only get a discount if you sign up for the Virginia EZ-Pass toll payment system. You have to do that in the state, they won’t let you sign up online if you are out-of-state so just be aware of the tolls.

So the cool part about crossing the bridge is that you eventually end up at Cape Charles, VA, which is located on the Chesapeake Bay.

Cape Charles

Cape Charles is an excellent place to spend some time. The bay shelters Cape Charles from direct exposure to the Atlantic and in June the weather was perfect. There is something about the ocean, especially a warm, breezy, ocean day that warms a Parrothead’s heart and the rest of him as well. In case you missed it somehow, between shark fins on the Farmers’s fence posts and the backyard bar named “Key Midwest”, the Mad Farmer is a Parrothead of long-standing. How is it that a ocean-loving Parrothead wanna-be beach bum lives in Kansas you ask? That is a mystery for the ages yet to be explored. Take it on faith, a good day at the beach is always welcome.

Cape Charles Beach

So after a wonderful afternoon at the beach we brushed the sand off our feet (it was super hot sand, if you care to know – Note to Mad Farmer Self: buy new flip-flops before going to the beach again). Miss Mercy piloted us back across the Bay Bridge and we headed to Charlottesville and our Airbnb reservation for the night prior to our tour of Monticello the next day.

Next up: Monticello

Axe Throwing and 18th Century Gardens

One of the things Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer did at Colonial Williamsburg that was extremely fun was learning how to throw hand axes. It’s a small extra charge, $10 per person, but it’s well worth it. It was one of the first things we did on the last day we were at the museum and we were the only two people signed up for that time slot, which meant we got personalized instruction from the two people working the activity and we got to throw quite a bit. It was humorous, fun and by the end of it the Mad Farmer is planning on installing an axe target at the Homestead. At the end of the time there was a contest for the best throws to the target. I’ll give you a hint, Miss Mercy did not lose that contest.

There were actually a lot of really interesting things to see at Colonial Williamsburg. There are many craftspeople who are actually working and apprenticing in 18th Century Trades. We were able to visit, observe and talk with a lot of different people doing a lot of very fascinating things. We spent a long time at the Gunsmith shop, talking with the Smith and his apprentice. The Gunsmith makes both “guns” and “rifles” the difference being that “rifles” are “rifled”. I know, “duh”, but it was pointed out to us that in the 18th Century there weren’t shotguns, and rifles and smooth bores and etc. There were mostly just “guns”. We also found out that Gunsmiths are one of the more versatile trades. They actually do wood working (gunstocks), metal working (barrels and trigger assemblies), carving and horn work (making powder horns), Blacksmithing (forging the barrels and other parts and their own tools) and leatherwork (slings and other items). We also found out that all of the guns made at Colonial Williamsburg are commissioned before they are made and the have a long waiting list of people who want custom made guns.

There are many, many other trades you can experience that are just as fascinating. Wheelwright (makes everything to do with wagons and wheels), Coopers (makes barrels, buckets and wooden drinking utensils), Silversmiths, Tinsmiths (very cool), Joinery (door frames, windows, etc.), Carpenters (saw the trees, make the boards and build structures and items), Cabinet makers (fine carpentry), Printers, Bindery (books), Apothecary (herbs, medicines and what passes for doctoring – specialty leeches anyone?), Shoe makers, Candy makers, Dress makers, Potters, Gardeners, Brick makers, Tanners, and on and on. It really is best to plan on spending more than one day at Colonial Williamsburg. There is a lot of history on display, a lot of things you can learn and it’s all very entertaining.

The last place we happened upon, almost as we were leaving was the Gardens. We had thought that the common growing area was the gardens but that was not the case. We’re not sure how we missed that, because one of the reasons we put Colonial Williamsburg on our visit list was because we had seen a documentary on vegetable gardening and one of the things that was highlighted was the tomato table trellises that are used at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tomato Table Trellis

The Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy probably spent almost 90 minutes just exploring the garden and chatting with the Gardener about fruit tree trellising, their Paw Paw trees, Bell Jars and all the other fascinating things that were going on there. At the end we ended up buying the book “Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way” by Wesley Greene. It’s a very informative book and well worth a read. We were sorry to leave the Garden and would definitely like to go back.

One thing we were surprised to learn is that Colonial Williamsburg is a non-profit that does not accept any Government funds. The original restoration project was sponsored by the John D. Rockefeller and he ended up spending something like $65 million dollars on the project before it was all said and done. His wife was one of the early collectors of “folk art” so there is also an extensive museum on site that features many of the items she collected. The current operating costs are covered by visitor fees and donations. We were glad we went and there is very good chance that we will return at some point in the future.

Next up: Cape Charles and the Really, Really, Very Bridge Day

Colonial Williamsburg Day 2

So the Farmer and Miss Mercy got up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (just kidding, we slept in a little bit, we were on vacation) and then used our new electric kettle and our new stainless steel French Press to make our favorite coffee (Seattle’s Best #5 in case you are wondering) before we ventured forth to sample the “Continental Breakfast”. The coffee was fantastic and a welcome start to the morning (we’ll probably never travel without taking our own coffee again thanks Jack Spirko)! Then your traveling Duo went and had “breakfast”.

First, I always wonder what “Continent” the Continental breakfast is from. Based on the strange things that hotels provide now I’m pretty sure it’s not North America. Sadly, I think that Miss Mercy and the Farmer are going to have to start figuring out how to make breakfast on the road ourselves. Hotel fare that is “free with your room” is worth about what you pay for it. Anyway, we muddled through eating “breakfast” while having a discussion about if any of the food was actually food. The outcome of the food conversation was inconclusive so we left for Colonial Williamsburg.

Since we had purchased our tickets the day before we were able to bypass the very long lines waiting to purchase tickets and go right through the visitors center and make our way into the Colonial Williamsburg Living Museum. There are two ways into the history museum, one is to go to the bus stop at the back of the visitor center and take the bus to one of the various stops around the town. The second way is to take the Time Walk Back.

Going backwards from 21st Century to the 18th

The Time Walk has you cross a bridge as you enter the Museum site. Embedded in the bridge are bronze plaques that describe events in reverse order that takes you from the 21st Century back to the 18th Century. The events are things like “TV hasn’t been invented”, “You can only travel 70 miles per day maximum” and finally “You are a subject of His Majesty the King”. A sobering thought to a Midwestern Mad Farmer, but highly effective in changing mindset as you enter the area. In case you are wondering, if you are exiting the site from the other direction the plaques guide you back to the 21st Century.

As you follow the path the first thing you come upon is a recreation of a typical plantation of the times. The entire Museum experience is different than you might think, at least different than the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy thought it might be. The web site describes Colonial Williamsburg as a “Living History Museum” basically stating that the community has been re-created and functions like it did back in the 18th Century. It’s true that people do dress in period costumes and that there are a lot of craftspeople that practice doing things in the technology of the time. But at a lot of the tours it’s people dressed costume saying “Welcome to the Palace”, “Welcome to the Palace”, “Please stand over there”, “Welcome to the Palace”, “I’ll be killing myself from boredom right after the tour”, “Welcome to the Palace”. Okay, not everything is as dramatic as that but we’re kind of used to Cos-Players and Frontier Folk at Silver Dollar City, who live to be in the worlds they are portraying.

Do not take that to mean that we didn’t enjoy ourselves, we did, just somethings didn’t quite make it backwards to the time. We had an excellent brown ale at Chowning’s Pub, but the “Turkey Trencher” we ordered was basically a turkey sandwich on flat bread. Pretty sure that Trenchers were slabs of bread the food was served on and used to sop up gravy and such at the end of the meal, so it was good, but not exactly authentic. They had an outdoor grill area where you could get burgers and hot dogs off a gas grill. Not exactly 18th Century. But the experience was very enlightening and we did learn a lot and there are a lot of things to see.

Next up: Axe Throwing and 18th Century Gardens

Colonial Williamsburg Day 1

We got into Williamsburg a little earlier than expected and decided to go straight to Colonial Williamsburg and check it out, so we would know where to go the next day. There were clear signs from the highway to the Visitors Center and we had the address programmed into Waze as a backup. I typically use Google Maps but we are trying out Waze on this trip. Like Maps and Garmin, none of the travel apps are perfect and Waze has some interesting features and some not-so-interesting quirks. The most annoying of which is repeatedly telling you that you will be turning in 1000 feet, 950 feet, etc. until the last 100 feet when it seems that it forgot to mention that you just passed your turn. I will say that trait, along with confusing a goat path with a highway did not endear itself to Miss Mercy (more on that later).

The Colonial Williamsburg parking lot is easy to get around in and parking was free, perhaps because arrived after 3 pm. Once inside we talked to the lady and gentlemen at the information booth. The first thing the lady attendant said to the Mad Farmer was “How can we not help you”? The Farmer, smart-ass that he can be replied “Don’t want to ruin your record, so we’ll be leaving” and turned around and headed back to the front door. Info Lady started laughing herself silly, Info Dude actually laughed out loud and then the Duo from Kansas was able to ask the questions they came to ask. We were informed that if we purchased tickets after 3 pm that they would be good for either the following day (if a single day pass) or good for that evening and the next three days (if purchasing a multi-day pass). Sounded good to us so we purchased our multi-day pass, looked around the visitors center for a bit and then went to find lodging.

Coming into the park (is it a park? it’s at least a historical site) we had seen signs for “Anvil Camping”. Because Miss Mercy and the Farmer love to camp, and because we haven’t been camping in a while, our gear was in the back of the Truckster. Our thought being if we ran into camping space near something we wanted to see we would save a few bucks and enjoy nature at the same time. A camp ground right near Historical Williamsburg sounded like a match made in heaven so we went to check it out. I admit to wondering what our faithful readers consider to be “camping”? We would love to actually hear from you about this, so please feel free to let us know what you consider “camping” in the comments.

The Mad Farmer thinks of camping as being somewhere secluded, or at least semi-secluded, under some trees, quiet, and, in a perfect scenario, with a brook nearby. A privy or National Forest Service bathroom of some kind is a plus when Miss Mercy or other females are around and the Mad Farmer won’t turn a toilet down out of spite. So, thinking idealistic thoughts, we went to view the Anvil Campgrounds. First, the sign was a bit misleading. The campground is actually several miles away from the historic site. Second, when we turned into the place it looked like an RV park. I don’t mean a wide, sprawling place with plenty of space like some KOA camping parks, I mean it looked like a gravel parking lot for RV’s with about nine trees scattered about, and not a really big parking lot either. You could fit the entire park into the West lot of Sam’s Club back in Kansas. Because we were trying to be adventuresome the Mad Farmer went in and asked about “tent camping”. He was told “of course, we have five sites!” After confirming that some of the sites were actually available I took the brochure and rate sheet I was handed and went out to the vehicle to inform Miss Mercy of our fantastic luck.

According to the rate sheet, in season camping (which starts in April) would cost us $39.95 per night for a camp site. We slowly followed the map (and a happy, but elderly couple, out for an evening stroll with their walkers – there but for the Grace….) and found the five camping slots. The camp sites were approximately ten feet wide and about fifteen-twenty feet deep. Roughly twice the size of a standard parking spot. They were all at one end of the park, sandwiched in between RV slots on both sides with clearances of about two feet. Flashbacks to Christmas Vacation immediately came to mind – you know the scene, where Eddie is emptying the RV septic system into the storm drain and waves? Yeah, you know it. It may have been a fine campground, the fellow campers may have all been upstanding and virtuous citizens (contrary to first impressions) but the concern must have shown on the Farmers face because Miss Mercy suggested we go get gas and take a moment to consider our options.

Miss Mercy and the Farmer gassed up the vehicle then moved off to a shady spot in the parking lot to discuss options. It was decided that for the price, the distance away from the historical site, the number of highways to cross and the overall thought that “camping” in that place was not really camping to us we decided to acquire lodgings at the local La Quinta. We called La Quinta. They had open rooms at a very reasonable rate. We got the address, prepared to go find the place and Miss Mercy tapped the Mad Farmer and bade him to look over his shoulder. The hotel was directly behind the gas station, less than 150 feet from us. Literally the fastest I have ever arrived at a location after making a reservation.

Once in the air conditioning, having a well deserved adult beverage we had a peaceful night and prepared for our visit to Colonial Williamsburg the next day.

Next UP: Colonial Williamsburg Day 2

My Three Things

Sorry about the interruption of the Polyface Farms trip. Since we got back the Mad Farmer has been exceptionally busy at the primary place of employment. It’s sad how taking a vacation somehow results in twice the work when you return. I don’t think that’s how it is supposed to work, but somehow, it seems like that does become the end result. Perhaps the Mad Farmer is doing it wrong? Seems likely.

In the meantime the Mad Farmer has started listening to a new podcast – Living Free in Tennessee. The podcaster is Nicole Sauce, who is also an Expert Council member for Jack Spirko at the The Survival Podcast. The Living Free podcast is much like it sounds, it’s a podcast about homesteading and being more sustainable and self-sufficient, right up the Tiny Sustainable homestead alley.

One of the things that Nicole Sauce is a big fan of is something called “My Three Things”. As the Mad Farmer understands it My Three Things is basically about prioritizing the three most important things that you need to get done each day. Everyone is always busy, that’s a side-effect of current life. Everything is fast-paced and it’s easy to lose sight of what your goals are. My Three Things help you keep track of that. Lots of people keep a To Do list, the Mad Farmer keeps multiple lists of all kinds of things, lots and lots of lists. So many lists….

So of all the things you want to get accomplished in a day, pick out the three most important to complete that day and actually write them down. It can be a help if you write them down in a public way. Currently on MeWe (a social network platform that doesn’t have ads and doesn’t sell your info the way Facebag does) Nicole has a group called “Living Free in Tennessee” (anyone see that coming)? On the group page a lot of followers post their three things that they are hoping to accomplish that day. It generates a group encouragement and helps folks to tackle those tasks. Seems like a good idea, or at least a helpful one.

So, the Mad Farmer has started two “My Three Things” lists. One for the homestead and one for the workplace. So far the it’s been an interesting experience. Helpful, not too much different than than all the other lists, but the component that is missing so far is the public posting. The Mad Farmer has started sharing the three things with Miss Mercy, so there is some semi-public accountability. Will it work? Only time will tell. If you would like to hear it in a better and more coherent form, then you can listen Nicole Sauce’s podcast “Balance Your Short Term and Long Term Success with My Three Things“.

I’ll Take “What’s Airbnb” for $100, Alex”

So before we left Topeka we added a couple of days travel time and when we looked at our trip there were going to be four main areas of expenses: Gasoline, Food, Accommodations and location expenses (admission costs, event costs and tour costs). As far as gasoline costs that is not something you can really control if you are driving. You can budget for approximate cost, add about 20% and that will be probably be pretty close. If you know your average mileage (about 18 mpg in the Family Truckster) and the approximate round-trip mileage (about 1,500) and the average cost of gas (estimate the high side, so $2.50 per gallon) so that works out to about $210.00 in gas. Add 20% about $40.00 and we figure $250.00 for gas (I know, you can see where this is going). I’m pretty sure given side-trips, add-ons, and the occasional “did I miss a turn? I missed that turn. Okay, find a place to turn around”, Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer probably will add 500 to 1000 extra miles on this trip.

Admission costs we knew about from looking up ticket prices on the inter-webs prior to the trip. For example, the Monticello Evening Tour tickets were $65.00 per adult (well worth it and will be the subject of a future post). The least expensive tour price, was $20.00 per adult at Polyface Farms (the destination that started it all). Ax throwing added $20.00 at Williamsburg (also worth it). Anyway, admission and tour tickets prices were pretty steady. Food we planned as a mix of self-created meals (sandwiches, snacks, trail mix, buying drinking water in 1 gallon jugs for $1 for use with our water bottles instead of $3 for a bottle of water other places) and purchased meals. We knew going in that eating at destinations and restaurants on the road would be pricey so we planned in a few instances of that (more on the dining experience also in a future post). So that was pretty fixed. Which brings us to lodging.

Usually when we travel we tend to say in clean, reasonable hotels along the way. The last time we did a major trip (to the Pacific Northwest) we mostly stayed with friends and the family that Miss Mercy has in that area. Our lodging costs were very minimal. Given that the Mad Farmers relatives did not come to America until the 1860’s (Miss Mercy’s family history is hers to tell, if she likes), there were not too many relatives back East that the Mad Farmer is close enough with to spend an evening. According to documented family genealogy the Mad Farmers Grandfather on his Mother’s side was related to Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, as an eighth-great cousin or something (if you are really interested let me know and I’ll dig out the exact connection for you). As swell as that is historically, I don’t feel that it entitles the Mad Farmer to show up at basically a random strangers house, yell “Cousins”, hug them and ask to crash the night. So we were looking a pretty hefty budget item in the form of hotel fees.

So, this is where the Airbnb part comes in (everyone heaves a sigh of relief “he finally is getting to the point”). Miss Mercy’s boss at one of her part-time occupations had recently returned from a vacation trip with his wife to attend a Grateful Dead concert in a far off land (remember the reference from the very first post – I was sure it would come around sometime). Masterful Mike (he is a very good vegetable and mushroom farmer) was extolling the virtues of an Airbnb location they had rented while on their trip. Remote location, view over a lake, meals cooked by a chef (okay, I probably added that last part – he was going on a bit about how great it was). Sounded wonderful, Miss Mercy and the Farmer said we might give it a try. So fast forward to the first day of the trip. We’re off schedule and stay at a chain hotel the first night. Because we’ve built some cushion into the schedule the Farmer suggests to Miss Mercy that we try out the Airbnb thing and try and find a place to stay in Staunton, VA, the second night of the trip, so we’re not killing ourselves trying to drive all night and it seemed like a less expensive option than another night in a hotel.

So Miss Mercy is driving the second part of that day. The Mad Farmer signs up for Airbnb on his phone (it can be done, but it’s a bit challenging when the signal drops and you lose internet and have to start over). The Mad Farmer searches the area, as a complete newbie and comes across a listing for a room at a house close to where they will be. New remodel, access to the backyard, kitchen and laundry, not too expensive – great! We’ll reserve it! Get 4/5 ths of the way through reserving the room and the app crashes. Go to re-reserve and the site is no longer available – what! Did we reserve it? Did someone else get it while we were trying to get back online? What is going on? Good news, after 10 minutes of trying to figure out what is going on we get a confirmation from Airbnb. The reservation is ours, instructions for how to get in the house are sent and the address as well – we are on our way. We message the host and tell her approximately when we will be arriving. Everything is going swimmingly.

Then, disaster! We forgot about the time zone change from CST to EST and for some reason all our devices were not set to auto-change time zones. We’re getting in an hour plus later than we thought. Frantically we text the host of the issue – the response “no problem, it’s all good”. Wow, huge sigh. Turns out most hosts have some form of self-check in. Apparently a lot of times people get in late, crash, leave early the next morning and the host never even sees them. We learn this later, but at the time, it was nerve-wracking not knowing if we were going to be able to actually check-in.

We finally arrive at the destination. Self check-in goes smooth. The house is newly remodeled, everything is lovely, the room is nice (although only one outlet – reminder to self, pack an extension cord) and the bathroom is clean, stocked with towels and essentials and has a tub with jets! We’re pretty tired, so we crash and when we wake – we find out we mis-read the communication from the host – she works nights, so we have the place all to ourselves. It’s peaceful, we make coffee in our french press. Have a look at her garden, look at her cookbooks (some of which Mercy owns or wants to own) and then pack up and head out on our journey. Never met the lady, but super experience. Can’t recommend that site enough, a great first experience.

Next Up: Colonial Williamsburg Day 1

The First Travel Day (aka “Have you Made Friends with Construction Cones”)

So as the Tiny Sustainable Household started their trip East to Polyface Farms we expected to run into traffic delays because of road construction in Kansas. We had a hard winter with extreme bouts of “freeze/thaw” temperatures, which tears roadways apart in short order. The current running joke is “Europeans drive on the left, Topekans drive on what’s left”. If I remember correctly our state motto is “Welcome to Kansas, we’re under construction”. So we are used to construction delays in Kansas. We expected some delays in Missouri, both because of construction and traffic. Contrary to belief outside the Midwest, Kansas City and St. Louis are both major cities. Interstate 70 East between the two is the Midwestern equivalent to the I-5 mess between Portland, OR and Seattle, WA.

What the Mad Farmer did not expect was that the roadways in Indiana would be the best of the whole trip. For the most part, not many potholes in Indiana, things are patched well and the few places that did have construction underway were clearly marked, fairly short in duration (in Virginia we ran into construction zones that were 20 plus miles in length, with a top speed of between 55 mph and zero), and actively being worked on. Never thought I would say it but, “Kudos to Indiana”. So the point to this is we ran into construction zones early and often. A lot of sections of highway that weren’t under construction should have been. So the construction, combined with the rain delay in starting, meant that by the time it got past dark both travelers were weary and ready to stop for the night. We originally had hoped to stop in Lexington, KY. We made it to Evansville, IN the first night.

If you have never been to Evansville, IN it’s a pretty nice town. Evansville is the third largest city in Indiana , about 120,000 people – similar in size to Topeka, KS. We rolled into town about 10:30pm CST and managed to book the last room open at a La Quinta Hotel. La Quinta is in the Wyndham property group, think Days Inn, etc. Usually they are pretty clean, reasonably priced and offer a “continental breakfast”. Almost every hotel out there now offers some sort of “breakfast” for the traveler staying at their facility. If you really enjoy breakfast you might want to consider dining out somewhere else. This trip Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer splurged on a stainless steel french press (shout out to Jack Spirko of the Survival Podcast and his “Item of the Day“). The press, along with a Hamilton Beach electric kettle that we got for $3 at an overstock store (thanks for the “heads-up” to our good friend Lady Erin of the Mad Shopping Skills), and a bag of our favorite “Seattle’s Best No. 5” we have had excellent coffee on this trip, no matter what “breakfast” is placed in our path

After what passed for “breakfast” the Farmer and Miss Mercy hit the road, and then, once we got into Kentucky and West Virginia, we hit even more road construction. The Farmer really wishes he could grow orange construction cones, he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams, but alas, he can’t. Given the delays, the fact that the trip did kickoff earlier than planned, and, a discussion while driving (many are had between the Farmer and Miss Mercy during these trips – it’s one of the best things about them). It was decided to stop in Staunton, VA and re-evaluate the travel plans instead of attempting to drive non-stop into Cape Charles, VA. So, at this point, where will the intrepid duo stay?

Next Up: I’ll Take “What’s Airbnb” for $100, Alex”