We had a rocky arrival into Alabama, the Megabus broke down in Virginia making us four hours late into Atlanta and we missed the Capitol Crescent Amtrak train to Anniston. Three hours later we jumped onto the next available Greyhound after an interesting experience at possibly the worst bus station in America (two people tried to sell Mischa drugs, one wanted to buy his jumper and another asked us to Google the numbers on this pill some guy gave him just to check whether it was safe to take). Eventually we arrived at the small gas station bus stop where Mandy was waiting with open arms. Dustin and Mandy made us feel comfortable right from the start and welcomed us into their woodland home. They showed us a whole new way of living, completely outdoors.
Days were spent helping to build Valhalla, the community kitchen for the future yoga retreat. We learnt how to deck a floor – lots of hammering nails! The terms bespoke and rustic became common parlance when using a jigsaw to cut painstakingly measured semi-circles out of the planks to fit the almost always non-circular posts used to hold up the roof. With the five of us, including Camilla another workaway from Argentina, we managed to complete the decking in less than a week. Blisters galore and muscles grown!
The second week Jean from France joined the party and crossbeams, all taken down from their land and treated over a year, were moved into position. With brave lifters and wall jacks, the four beams were carefully risen over three evenings.
It was a wonderful feeling to wake up naturally by the sun between 6-7am every day, never felt tired. For the last year in our flat in Sheffield with the balcony doors in our bedroom we had stopped closing the curtains, the natural light really does make it easier and nicer to wake up in the mornings. This hasn’t been possible of course staying in hostels and other peoples’ homes more recently so it was wonderful to have this back. After being in China for several months, going to the toilet outside with little privacy was no problem, and more comfortable than you might imagine. The outdoor shower, something we had previously experienced in Sichuan province, is invigorating being hot under the water with the fresh air blowing around you. My favourite part of the outdoor living was the open-air kitchen and the amazing food Mandy and others cooked and provided for us. It was so nice to go back to being vegetarian/vegan for two weeks, our bodies were very grateful. From homemade veggy burgers to ma po tofu stir fry, I have greatly missed the food since leaving.
Every evening was spent relaxing and chatting by the campfire, sometimes hearing the coyote packs howling on the other side of the creek. Mandy and Dustin were so generous and inspiring that we learnt so much from them, personally and physically with the new construction skills. In our future woodland I’d love to build my own wooden cabin and outdoor shower, but maybe a composting toilet! You really do have to learn to live with nature though, something we picked up in Kumakogen with all the bugs. One night we spotted this giant spider which froze everytime a light was shone on it, and one day I didn’t check my gloves and got stung by a wasp – ouch.
Staying and volunteering in Talladega National Forest has been one of, if not the most, fantastic experiences of our year around the world. It was hard to leave the amazing people and beautiful landscape. We’ve been growing and changing as people throughout this journey but Dustin and Mandy were so inspiring, energetic and full of positivity, we already look back with such fond memories. They showed us a new way of living, off-grid with solar panels and water from the creek and the open-air living. Although this might not be so easily achievable in the UK due to colder weather and strict planning permissions (there is none in Alabama), we’re convinced that it’s something we wish to attain one day – our own cabin in the woods built by ourselves (and workaways too!)
Swimming holes (written by Mischa)
Winding along the periphery of Parksland is the Dry Creek. It is dry in name only, our hosts informed us that it has always been flush with water even in the driest of seasons. On several occasions after a hot day’s work we’d make the 5 minute walk down from the ridge where we lived to the preferred swimming spot, a broad, slow stretch of steadily deepening water. After the entrance point the near side rose into a looming cliff whilst on the opposite bank the forest came down a steep hillside right to the edge of the river. It was pure bliss to slip into, beer in hand, and just float for a while. It was cold at this time of year but manageable, especially after a period of acclimatisation!
About 20 minutes walk away is a local swimming place called Blue Hole. It is part of the same “Dry Creek” that runs through Parksland but lies downstream from where a second creek joins the mainstream so the creek is much larger here. It’s a stunning place, with a waterfall at one end dropping into a deep expanse of dark blue water. Along the edges extending from the waterfall are cliffs that you can jump from which you reach by swimming across the pool to their bases. The only issue was that when we went the water was extremely cold and the cliffs block a lot of the sun which can make up for the chill in the water. It took slightly longer than intended to reach them because of this but once I made it the reward was worth it!