The following is an excerpt from:
When Chels got pregnant with Aspen, we decided to do something radically different with our lives. We sold our home in Harrison and bought a 3,800 square-foot log cabin tucked away on fifteen acres of secluded paradise just a stone’s throw from the Buffalo National River. We cashed in our chips and left modern society to try our hand at becoming hippiebillies.
We wanted to give our kids the unique experience of growing up in a log cabin in the wilderness, but it went deeper than that. Chels and I shared common values influenced by Thoreau and Scott Nearing and we wanted to create our own Walden experience living The Good Life.
The goal was to build and maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle and get ourselves off-the-grid. The first thing I did after we moved in was fire up the John Deere 5200 and break ground on a quarter-acre garden for Chels.
She’s the real green thumb of the family. But our reasons went deeper still.
Before Chels got pregnant with Aspen, we stumbled upon some recent studies and books about early childhood development that intrigued us. Most significant of these were Fatherneed by Dr. Kyle Pruett (2000) and Hold Onto Your Kids by Dr. Gabor Mate (2004).
These books and others along with peer-reviewed articles in medical journals got us hip to the topic of The Father Effect. In short, it describes the significant impact an engaged father can have on his child in terms of self-confidence, emotional regulation, and healthy lifestyle choices, all the way through adulthood. Conversely, the absence of a father in a child’s life can have (and statistically speaking, typically does have) horrific consequences on the child, leading to a lifetime of addiction and self-destructive behaviors.
For instance, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016):
When fathers are involved and nurturing, young children [0-5] develop:
- Better linguistic and cognitive skills
- Increased academic readiness
- More emotional security
- Better social connections with peers as they get older
More research proved to us the positive life-long trajectory influenced by engaged fathers can begin in utero. There are also studies showing the health status of the father (and mother) before conception can have long-lasting effects on the child.
Chels and I wanted Aspen to have 100% of my attention and care, and not just experiment with The Father Effect, but take it a step further. If The Father Effect resulted in what was being referred to as “super kids,” what would happen if a child was raised by a full-time, fully-engaged, stay-at-home father?
There was only one way to find out. But first, I should rewind the tape a bit and explain why this was so important to us to begin with.
Before Chels and I got engaged, she knew I wanted to break some cycles and create my own solid bedrock—my own family. I was, and remain, convinced one of the major problems in American society is a pandemic of fatherlessness. Because I had my own father wounds to recover from, I wanted nothing more in life than to be a good dad. Chels had her own reasons for being on board with The Experiment, which requires me to roll back the tape even further.
Chels and my little sister Betina were best friends growing up, attending school and church together in rural Harrison, Arkansas. I was fourteen years older than Betina, so by the time they were friends, I was already on my own bouncing around California, Texas, and Colorado. Over the years I’d see photographs of them together, so I knew who Chels was long before we were formally introduced.
I routinely visited Arkansas about once a year, but that all changed with Betina’s sudden death. An aggressive onset of leukemia took her life in 2010 when she was twenty, just past her only child’s first birthday.
My sister’s death sent me into a tailspin till I hit rock bottom two years later, shipwrecked in Harrison, divorced, on probation, and suffering through AA meetings. I moved to Harrison to heal. To fill some gaps in my sister’s life and salve the guilt I felt about my absence from it, I started contacting Betina’s old friends. I became friends with a few of them, too. I photographed Tessa’s wedding, the guitar player with hypnotic green eyes who sang on American Idol. I had pizza with Sarah who was so desperate for a husband I watched her fall for a narcissistic whacko who knocked her up right after they got married then divorced her, poor thing. I went rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch with Mitch—we watched in horror as he fell from a craggy cliff about thirty feet high. Before I could reach him he hopped from behind a boulder and started dusting himself off saying, “I’m good! I’m good!” though he limped back to the trailhead like he broke both ankles. I went on hikes with Andrew, a talented photographer and a damn good paddler. We were even neighbors for a short while and chopped it up over religion versus morality. Several of Betina’s friends were already married with kids, like Cassie and Megan—it was common in that part of the country for folks to get hitched as youngens. That was basically Chelsea’s story, as far as my mother told it.
Chels and I initially connected through Facebook. I gathered she was single with two little ducklings in tow. She knew I was in town, but for some reason we didn’t personally connect for several months until the rodeo came to the Boone County Fair. She posted something about watching the bull riding competition with her sister Nikki, who also grew up with Betina. Now, I can’t remember if Chels invited me or if I invited myself, but we agreed to meet that chilly October night outside the gated entrance of the fairgrounds.
Even amongst the bright lights and harsh shadows, I recognized her right away. Maybe it’s her high cheekbones, maybe it’s how the bridge of her nose crinkled when she smiled, but Chelsea’s youthful appearance never changes. She waved me over and started walking in front of me, which she tends to do, but that was alright because I didn’t mind the view. The problem started when we reached the ticket booth.
“You made it!” she said as she spun on the heel of her blue pointed cowboy boots. She spread her arms wide and came in for a hug. I finally got a close look at those sultry blue eyes of hers underneath the shadow of her straw cowboy hat.
Uh-oh, I thought.
I bought my ticket and followed Chels to the bleachers where Nikki and the kids were sitting. Indy was seven and Cooper was five, both of them gussied up like they were about to put on a show at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.
I don’t hardly remember what Chels and I talked about that night. I was shy, probably a bit withdrawn, but Chels isn’t those things at all, and I reckon she did most of the talking. That probably worked in my favor. I do remember laughing while the kids climbed the rails and waved at the cowboys and rodeo clowns like two Howdy Doody dolls. Chels and I made plans to hang out again, just the two of us.
I wasn’t expecting any hitch in the original plan for my stay in Arkansas, much less getting (ahem) hitched. I was just going to be there for two years max. Then my Australian Shepherd Ollie and I were going to wander northwestern Montana for the next five years. As far as Chels was concerned, I was just supposed to hang out and ask a few questions. But Chels is blessed with a natural charm, a curious intellect, and an outgoing confident personality. Combined with freckles across her cheeks and nose, she’s cute to watch, easy to like, and fun to be around.
Lunch dates led to dinner dates, dinner dates led to hiking, hiking led to camping, camping led to cold nights sharing a sleeping bag, and the rest is history. Over the course of a year, Chels and I hardly spent a day apart and quickly became best friends. Like Rocky Balboa told Paulie why he liked his sister Adrian, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps. Together, we fill gaps.” Chels and I were bruised people at the time, but we’re also fighters—and together, we would write our own comeback stories.
Chels and the kids had a rough start. At nineteen, Chels fell into the hands of the wrong dude. When she told him she was pregnant, he met her in the lumber aisle of Home Depot while they were both working an evening shift and gave her a ring he borrowed from his brother. But before they made it official and honeymooned in Branson, Missouri, the cheating and abuse began. After two years of that bullshit, Chels got convinced a second child would force the fella to settle down, get a steady job, and finally accept his responsibilities as husband and father. Might as well have thrown pearls to swine. When Chels got pregnant with Cooper, things only got worse. After the next-door neighbor at their apartment complex confessed to humping the dude, Chelsea left him and took Indy and Cooper with her. It had been a long five years. But once she left him, in a single year she graduated from Arkansas Tech with her bachelor’s in Education, started teaching at Vantage Point, and bought a house. Two years later, I met her at the rodeo.
Sixteen months after that I proposed to her on the beach in Santa Cruz, California, next to a big light tower.
“The only thing I can promise you,” I said when presenting the diamond-encrusted gold ring to her, “is a life of adventure.”
Chels put the ring on and soon discovered I wasn’t joking. Back in Arkansas and newly engaged, we started planning The Experiment.
The first year at our secluded cabin paradise was magic. Chels was the new Special Education instructor at Forest Heights Elementary School. She was also completing her master’s degree in Special Education at Arkansas Tech. Indy was in sixth grade, Cooper was in fourth, both attending Forest Heights, which was convenient for everyone. I closed my publishing business, hired a fiduciary and got invested into a diversified portfolio, and relished every second of my new life as Full-Time Dad.
The first half of my day was dedicated to the baby. I’d let Aspen sleep however long she needed, allowing nature to do its work. This meant I slept till whenever, as well, because Aspen slept with Chels and I. Many mornings Aspen would sleep right on my hairy chest, like Mowgli floated on Baloo in The Jungle Book. That skin-to-skin contact is vital to parent-child bonding, and Aspen received a lot of it from both of us.
Once Aspen woke, my chores began. From cleaning poopy cloth diapers, which meant spraying those mustard pudding nightmares with a high-pressure hose I installed on the toilet, from dressing to cooking, from feeding to entertaining, Aspen was a high-energy infant who kept me on my toes the entire time. I also did the laundry, vacuumed the first and second floors and the basement, and potty-trained our two pups. Then I’d cradle Aspen in my arms as we walked to the pond and back, the perfect way to rock her into a nap—she’d be snoring on my neck by the time I returned to the front porch. Around 3:30 in the afternoon Chels would walk through the front door with the kids. We would then tradeoff.
The rest of my time was spent outside building trails, clearing brush, and generally improving our plot of land. The front five acres were completely cleared and carpeted in thick wild grasses I kept manicured with my John Deere Zero-Turn Mower. In the summer months, The Front Five looked like a park—hence the name we gave it.
Near the cabin I trimmed several large oaks to expose the southwestern views of Boat Mountain and the Buffalo River Valley. The southern breezes whispering from its trees and canyons always kept my land cool and a tad less humid.
Behind the cabin I had a large workshop where I stored all the tools and equipment I needed to manage our secluded hideaway. I built a narrow road along the fence line that took visitors from The Front Five through a shaded pathway of firs and white oaks, opening to a clearing where the kids and I built a large fire pit. It sat on the upper bank of our pond that was fed by a seasonal spring.
Sometimes on a cool clear night we’d go out there and watch the Milky Way with our bare eyes. We had some of the best seats in the house—the Buffalo National River was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2019.
That narrow road I built along the fence line then skirted the pond’s embankment and climbed the hill, deep into the woods to access the rear of our property. It was perfect for my John Deere Gator, which was in constant use as I collected felled trees and hauled them to the woodshed.
The resources on the land were crucial to our survival. It took several months, but I fixed the drainage problem with our pond. It was retaining water again and attracting more wildlife, which I monitored with my hidden game cameras. Our 150-foot well was pumping plenty of water for house and garden, and we had a wealth of timber for building materials, as well as tons of native stone to use. Our fifteen-acres was also primo hunting land for rabbits, squirrel, possum, and white-tailed deer.
Over time, Chels expanded her garden. It kept her and the kids busy throughout the seasons, keeping us fed with organically grown fruits and vegetables and later, sauces, salsas, and jams. They also took care of the chickens, which were great layers. That is to say, we ate a lot of eggs. We had hopes of acquiring pigs and goats soon, too. It didn’t take long for our lives to settle into a rhythm.
We built quite a life in the woods. We wrote our goals in a notebook and expected to be there for fifteen years. After that, we set our sights on Colorado.
My passion for big mountain ranges goes deep. They’re symbolic to me. I even have a range of snowcapped peaks tattooed across my back.
Two years into The Experiment, the strangest circumstances came to pass, and it appeared our forest cabin of solitude wasn’t going to be enough to protect us. Most significant of these was the discovery of Indy’s abuse by her biological father.
Police reports were filed, investigations were initiated, protection orders were granted. Then the dude got arrested for rape and stalking of his ex-girlfriend, and more protection orders were granted—for the ex-girlfriend and each one of us—which he then broke against the ex-girlfriend and was arrested again, whereupon a sheriff’s deputy found an unregistered handgun in the guy’s truck along with two extra cellphones. Shortly after the dude bonded out of jail, we received notice he was placed on the Child Maltreatment List—for life. It gets weirder from there, so twisted Chels and I will take those secrets to our graves. This all resulted in our retaining an attorney and initiating the paperwork for me to adopt Indy and Cooper.
The other prong to this pitchfork of perils threatening The Experiment was The Culture. Not only did Harrison have the controversial reputation of being the most racist town in the entire United States (undeserved or not), but the entire region was also awash in that Old Time Relijun and all the antiquated values that came with it. However, my mother and her husband were the most bizarre believers I’d ever known. Chels and I were already deconstructing our shared religious beliefs and acknowledging the harm they had caused, and we were losing confidence that we would be able to shield the kids from toxic religion and cultural indoctrination. We wanted to raise free, independent thinkers. If the kids desired to choose a spiritual path or lifestyle, we wanted them to approach it on their own two feet, not ours or anybody else’s.
Adding it up, the unfortunate summation we had to examine was that our lifestyle and what we wanted to achieve with it, were at risk. We considered our experiment in the wild might protect the children while they were young, but we knew we couldn’t protect them forever. They would soon enter their world and what world would that be? What world would we introduce them to? We were also beginning to have concerns about diverse opportunities for their futures, or rather, the lack thereof.
Chelsea soon graduated with her master’s degree and, at that juncture in her career, felt she had philosophically outgrown the public education system. She was searching for something a little more dynamic and challenging. She had always wanted to be an attorney and was beginning to study for the LSAT.
That’s when we began to discuss moving. We considered Bentonville for its arts and culture, Eureka Springs for its character and natural beauty. But the mountains were calling me. Prior to Arkansas, I lived in Colorado for seven years. Since I left, the Rockies never stopped calling me back.
Don’t get me wrong, the Arkansas Ozarks has a wild charm of its own and Buffalo River Country is one of America’s hidden pearls with an allure for every season. In the spring I paddled the clear cold waters of the upper Buffalo in canoes and kayaks. In the summer we took the kids swimming and picnicked at popular campgrounds like Steel Creek, Erbie, Ozark, Pruitt, Hasty, Tyler Bend, and Buffalo Point. Then the seasons would shift again, and autumn would paint the landscape with a canvas of crimson and gold splattered across the white and gray-striped bluff lines and river bends in that remote backcountry. In winter, we took advantage of the cooler temps and decreased humidity and explored its slot canyons, secluded waterfalls, and hidden caves. In April 2014, I paddled the entire length of The Buffalo in my canoe over the course of nine days—alone. It was a spiritual experience.
But the Rockies were only a twelve-hour drive away and I kept finding myself riding the highway west. I took Chels and the kids on road trips through Colorado several times over the past several years, and Chelsea had fallen in love with Pagosa Springs. As we were considering our options one night, we reflected on our goals.
That’s when I saw Cornelius’s post on the ol’ book of faces.