Follow our journey
Our five-year dream: Create a Carolina mountain retreat center
Happy New Year!
Like most people, Russ and I have been trying to navigate the crazy and unexpected detour COVID has taken the whole world on in 2020. While we came to the mountains of Western North Carolina with the dream to build a retreat center, God has other plans, at least for the time being. King Solomon did say, “A man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
So, Russ and I are excited about a new direction God is apparently taking us in. As many of you already know, Russ lost his personal training job back in March when the coronavirus hit. He reinvented himself by becoming a handyman for many of his elderly personal training clients and their friends and neighbors. He is building quite a reputation as the friendliest handyman in town (big surprise there).
Many of these elderly folks live on a fixed budget and couldn’t afford most of the services required to maintain a safe and dignified home. Since they wanted to compensate Russ somehow for all his hard work, Russ took whatever they could afford (including re-saleable items in exchange for services). Then he had an idea–why not start a charitable thrift shop to support this need?—and Handy Helping Hands LLC was born.
to unite dignity, purpose, and service where everyone can share their skills, wisdom, muscle, and/or financial resources for the benefit of the whole community.
On December 15th, Russ and I leased a space close to downtown Franklin, NC. Since then, Russ and my mom, Laine Kelly, have been cleaning and prepping the 2300 square foot space for painting and collecting donations. I’ve been handling the back office and marketing details—turning on utilities, getting signage ordered, building the website, setting up the Facebook page, and creating a GoFundMe page to help us launch this new endeavor. We plan to open February 2, 2021.
What makes this organization so different is our goal is to create a continuous “pay it forward”, a circle of service where giving and receiving work hand in hand:
Russ has already impacted so many lives in Franklin and Sylva, NC. We want to create a venue and an environment where we offer dignity and purpose through service. Here, let some of Russ’ past and current clients tell you themselves:
Because Handy Helping Hands has become my and Russ’ new focus, we are going to put this online Retreat Center newsletter on hiatus until God makes it clear we need to start working on our retreat center again. In the meantime, we hope you might consider a small donation to help support the Pullens as we strive to live out God’s definition of religion: “to look out for the disadvantaged (widows and orphans) in their distress” (James 1:27).
You can also LIKE and follow the Handy Helping Hands Facebook page and keep up with how things are going as we move toward our February launch.
Once the threat of COVID lifts, and if you decide to spend some time in the amazing mountains of Western North Carolina, make sure you stop by the 3H Thrift Shop in Franklin. You never know what treasures you’ll find!
All our best!
Hope you and your family are “weathering” the COVID storm well. Here in the mountains, the primary difference we’re feeling is the difficulty getting consistent internet service since the whole world has switched to doing pretty much everything online. It’s definitely teaching us to be flexible!
Speaking of flexible, Russ and I were asked to teach a healthy lifestyles program to members of our former home church in Orlando. We call it “I Am STRONG”. The 12-week online program helps participants “step out of the box” with a whole different way to think about food and fitness and start them on a new path to be physically, mentally, and spiritually strong.
We successfully taught the popular program live two times in Florida from our living room with incredible results (the image is our first group who lost 159 pounds as a team!). Now, we’re doing it via ZOOM so there’s no limit to who can participate.
Labor Day Weekend we hosted a camping trip on the mountain ridge a mile from our cabin. Nine adventurous young men joined Russ for an overnight stay in the woods and then joined us for an online church service on Sunday morning followed by a BBQ lunch.
We’ve already had our first taste of fall with temperatures dropping down to the low 40s. We can’t wait to see autumn colors burst onto the mountains. Since this will be our second winter, we wanted to try something different when it came to heating our mountain cabin, so we had a wood insert installed in our fireplace! What’s a wood insert, you ask? It’s a super-efficient wood-burning furnace that’s also beautiful! It’ll keep the whole upstairs warm night and day…and we can still cook s’mores in it!
Prior to the wood insert installation, Russ was busy with his chain saw and our neighbor’s hydraulic wood splitter chopping several cords of wood. With plenty of downed trees on our 15 acres, we’re going to seriously cut back on our heating bill this winter!
And that’s not all! We honed our tiny house/yurt building skills with a DYI project—installing sheet vinyl flooring in our basement. It was a learning opportunity (Russ did amazing!), and we saved $1300 by installing it ourselves!
And what would our newsletter be without a video? Just before the hummingbirds flew south for the winter, we caught a glimpse of them gathering en masse around one of our bird feeders. They’re fast and the video isn’t long so don’t blink!
Well, that’s it for now. We’ll check back in around Thanksgiving time.
We’re celebrating one year in North Carolina! It is amazing to think that one year ago we embarked on this astounding adventure! Only God could know that COVID-19 would strike the world sending everyone into a new bizarre version of life.
For those who have been keeping up on our updates, my garden has exploded! I pulled my first tomato, yellow squash, and coolapeno (a not-to-spicy jalapeno) just this week. It has been a challenge keeping the bugs and local fauna (squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, and birds) from eating everything. Usually these little critters come for midnight snacks (like my strawberries and blueberries!) so we had to construct an electric fence. I think the chipmunks are still finding a way in because my strawberries keep disappearing.
We are looking at this first year as a time of learning, and we’re planning (and scheming) what to do next spring so the critters get a little less and we get a little more for all our hard work.
Speaking of wildlife, here’s a video of a little bird who must have worked at a carwash as he tried cleaning my windshield wipers as I sat in the driver’s seat.
We also got to explore more of the local parks and hiking trails. One of the many beautiful parks in the area is Parker Meadows. Tristan got to do his first tubing ride on this ¼ mile river run with Russ.
And this short video is a glimpse from the top of Picken’s Nose (yes, that’s the name), a popular hiking trail about 35 minutes from home.
Russ continues to work as a handyman in Franklin. There is no end to work right now for him which is good for us.
The Pullen family continues to move forward with our retreat center dream watching the vision evolve with each passing day. By September, we hope to get our first site completed, a 20X20 platform suspended off the ground with a glamping tent, something like this…
…only with the platform and the tent suspended 10-15 feet from the forest floor. We’ll probably initially start off by inviting “guinea pigs” to try the place out and give us feedback. Any volunteers?
Hankering for some time in the mountains? Here are a few 1-minute mountaintop moments for you to enjoy. Sit back, glory in the view, and enjoy the relaxing sounds of the forest…
See you in the fall!
Greetings from the rain forest of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina.
Boy, have we gotten some rain so far this year! But it’s only made our 15-acre heaven-on-earth burst with life which you can see in both these videos. All the images were taken within 100 yards of our house.
While we’re waiting for things to return to normal so we can start working on the retreat center again, we’ve been busy in the garden where Russ built me two new raised boxes for sweet potatoes, squash, and zucchini (see below). We’ve already been able to enjoy a sample of our homegrown romaine, mizuna, bok choy, cilantro, chives, and parsley at the dinner table.
We also planted 10 trees—3 American Redbuds, 2 Sargent Crabapples, 2 Washington Hawthorns, 2 apple trees—a fuji and a golden delicious—and my favorite, a pecan tree!
In a few years, we’ll be able to enjoy the fruit of apple and nut trees,…and so will any friends who visit us on the mountain.
We’ve also had visitors of another kind enjoying the fruits of their labor.
We received some disheartening news that Russ had been let go from his job at the gym. But, resourceful as ever, he utilized many of his contacts from the gym (Russ has never met a stranger) and has been slammed with handyman work like pressure cleaning, painting, and landscaping for many of the seniors in Franklin. Word has gotten around, and the referrals keep pouring in, enabling us to continue paying our bills on time.
Well, that concludes our spring news. June is on the horizon and our one year anniversary in NC shortly after. See you in the summer!
If you live, oh, anywhere on planet Earth, you’re probably living under some kind of quarantine or government-sanctioned isolation. In the North Carolina mountains, it doesn’t feel much different than normal except Russ is home more often since the gym where he works is temporarily closed. That means, also like most of you, our finances are going to be tight for awhile.
But we’re taking advantage of the solitude and the promise of spring by getting our yard raked and garden cranking! We already had several blueberry bushes, but this spring we’ve planted cantaloupe, garlic, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, red kale, cilantro, parsley, basil, and stevia. We’re also planning on planting sweet potatoes, orange Italian peppers, hot peppers, spinach, peas, and a fuji apple tree!
We also spent some time with Frank Smith, a world-traveling tiny house and renewable energy consultant and owner of Naturally Green. After walking the 15 acres of our property and scheming about the best locations for future guest spaces, Frank offered several unique suggestions to get the retreat center up and running quicker and less expensively than we had initially planned.
Of course, we have to wait for the world to return to “normal.”
See you next month!
So, this is what winter is supposed to look like!
Living in Florida 56 of her 57 years, Kim never experienced a winter that included snow. Sure, she visited family and friends for the holidays, but living through December to February in a central state is a world of difference. On the other hand, Russ grew up in the Adirondacks, experiencing all the adventures that northern winters bring…and then some!
Something else we didn’t realize is the Smokey Mountains are actually a rain forest! The area averages 55 inches of rainfall, and at 3600 feet where we live, we get between 8 and 13 inches of snow each winter. This winter we had LOTS of rain. Here’s a video that shows the flow of water from the top of our mountain down to the streams that feed the Little Tennessee River.
Also, this month in video: in “Stuck,” Kim finds out what happens when a 2-wheel drive Toyota RAV4 meets a 35º graveled mountain road covered in 2 inches of snow (“Stuck”). And for some birds, “south” is the mountains of North Carolina. With the joy and peace they bring just sitting and watching them, we make sure they always have plenty to eat (“Winter Feast”).
And with spring starting to peak its colorful head (see the daffodils!), we finally got a response from the environmental company to check out our spring and cistern so we can channel all that crystal clear water into a usable place (like for tiny houses!).
Next up, the joys of septic systems! Yep, once we get the water flowing, we’re going to have to wade through the legal challenges of putting a disposal system in place, all before we put a single screw into a tiny house!
Enjoy more of our gallery below and see you in the spring!
Snow dusting the NC woods and mountains.
A Sentinel at Sunset
A silhouette of a winter tree against the colorful Western Carolina Sunset.
The stark trees paint silhouettes against the Carolina sunset.
I was told that this was one of the warmest winters that North Carolina has seen in a while. I’m grateful, because it is helping this Florida girl to get used to this kind of cold weather. We’ve only had a few inches of snow. Our 22-year-old son with autism, Tristan, stepped out with Russ on his first venture into the snow. You can see the video:
We’ve been a little stymied on pushing forward with getting started with the first tiny house. Our building permit is contingent on the county approving water and septic systems. We have been trying to get an environmental company out to our place to give us some information about our well and natural spring, and to help rebuild the cistern we want to use to store fresh water. We’ve been waiting since early December, but apparently there’s a backlog of requests. And things just don’t move very fast out here in the winter.
Meanwhile, after Kim celebrated her 57th birthday, she returned to Central Florida to pick up her 81-year-old mom and move her to Western North Carolina, possibly to live in a tiny house in a local senior community. It’s going to be quite an adjustment for all, but it’s also going to give us opportunity to check out used tiny houses and talk with those who build them and live in them.
That’s it for this month.
December greeted us with the answer to a parent’s deepest desire. After studying the Bible with disciples in the campus ministry of the Orlando Church, our 18-year-old daughter, Tirzah made the decision to make Jesus the Lord of her life and was baptized on December 8th, just days before my own (Kim’s) 38th spiritual birthday. The best Christmas present ever! (You can watch the video I spliced together from several who recorded the eternity-changing event for us.)
We continue to be in awe of this area. In this month’s newsletter, I also included a couple videos of my adventures with these misty mountains.
Tirzah also flew in to spend time with the rest of the family, and we visited the Highlands area east of Franklin. The waterfalls and ridges are stunning! We took some video of Dry Falls–which are anything but dry!—and took some fun family pictures.
Slowly, we keep moving forward with plans for building the retreat center. Now, it really is official as I visited the Jackson County Courthouse last week and purchased our first permit to start developing our land!
Wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday.
As a native Floridian, I got my first taste of really cold weather this month. Brrr! Yes, that’s 17 degrees on November 13th. On the positive side, the colder weather is a great excuse to purchase a new wardrobe as winter approaches the Western North Carolina mountains. I never knew just how wonderful thermal underclothes could be.
Celebrating our first Black Friday in North Carolina, Russ and I skipped the mall and headed out on a 10-mile mountain bike ride through Nantahala National Forest.
As Thanksgiving approached, the last of Fall’s leaves fell from the trees. It’s pretty wild driving through the mountains now and seeing houses where only a few months ago there was nothing but foliage. Even more amazing is the current view from our backyard!
My new office is complete except for the final decorative touches and I love it. It’s my own little personal space to start working on the details for first tiny house.
Speaking of our first tiny house, we just purchased the plans for it! And here’s a preview of what it will (hopefully) look like. This is the model.
As we say goodbye to our first November in NC (and to you, our retreat center followers), we wanted to share a new first for the Pullens.
Fall has arrived in the NC mountains. Travel down our street, Pumpkintown Road, as green summer turns to colorful fall.
Russ is thriving at Franklin Health & Fitness. He’s become especially beloved by the retirees who attend his Water Aerobics class. Like most people, they have a hard time keeping up, but laugh the whole time they’re trying!
After hearing all the challenges that mountain living brings when you add SNOW, we decided to upgrade Russ’ little Honda Fit to a four-wheel drive 2013 Toyota Tacoma. It’s Russ’ first pick-up truck and by the picture, you can tell he and Tristan were happy with the purchase.
Tia seems to be adapting well to her new school, Jackson County Early College (JCEC). She was recently inducted into the National Honor Society! We also found out that she was an answer to prayer: Tia’s new best friend’s mom prayed for a student to move to western NC this summer, attend JCEC, and befriend her daughter!
I was asked to teach a class at the annual Carolina Women’s Retreat and spoke to 60+ women on how to transform marital pain into peace and purpose. You can watch the lesson below.
We’re still plugging away at my office. Once that’s done, our next purchase is a trailer, the base of our first NC Retreat Center tiny house!
Catch ya next month!
It’s challenging to move from one city to another, but moving three states away…well, that’s a whole different animal. Especially when you have a special needs adult and you’re sending your first child to college in the state you left behind.
Since he aged out of public school in July, Tristan and I are adapting to being with each other full-time. Weeks after we arrived, he needed to get two molars extracted. It took some major insurance acrobatics to get everything covered, but we (God) did it. To keep this 6’4″, 230-pound young man active, three days a week, he and I visit Russ’ gym so he can get his $1 per mile on the treadmill while I resuscitate the Zumba class I taught for eight years.
While adapting to having Tristan as my daily companion, I also launched Tirzah, our eldest daughter, by returning her to Orlando for her freshman year of college. Yes, weeping ensued, but I’m getting my Tirzah-fix daily through the Marco Polo app.
Building a Dream
Slow and steady is the way you build a dream. And that’s how we plan to build our retreat center, fully anticipating God to continue aiding in the process. To that end, Russ and I created a calendar with the goal of completing our first tiny house by April 2020.
In the meantime, we are working on zoning, pricing trailers (the foundation for the tiny house), and researching designs. To get us warmed up for the construction process, we are revamping a canning room in our detached garage and creating an office/AV studio for me. Yay!
Our first investment, though—especially before winter—is a four-wheel drive truck. With how challenging these mountain roads are to traverse in the fall, I can only imagine the difficulty with a foot of snow on the ground!
While it’s still warm, Russ is also carving out trails through the woods from our backyard into the Natahala National Forest. He’s already created a one-mile trail, and he took a five-mile trail-bike ride through state lands. The views are amazing! So far we’ve seen foxes, deer, raccoons, chipmunks, wild rabbits, dozens of hummingbirds, and yes, even fresh bear scat!
We know autumn is approaching as the trees surrounding our house rain down acorns on our roof every few minutes, and we’re looking forward to our first North Carolina leaf-changing season!
See you next month!
My opportunity to become flexible for yoga is nothing compared to my need to become flexible and adaptable to this new life in the mountains. They have something up here called “mountain time” and for “A” type personalities like me, it takes you to a whole new world of patience. I’m learning that EVERYTHING takes longer up here: Longer to get anywhere, longer to get financial things done, and definitely longer latency for internet (that means I often feel like I’m using dial-up).
I keep reminding myself that this is good for my character, and that God is trying to transform me. Or as Russ keeps reminding me, “just get done what you can get done and save the rest for tomorrow.”
There are some bright spots: We DID get internet (finally), we unpacked most of the boxes from the house, and I’m actually finding my way around Sylva and Franklin, NC without Google Maps. Also, here’s a few videos while we were enjoying our property:
After some serious obstacles three days before our Orlando home closing (and then a few more after we closed on our Sylva home), we finally made it to our mountaintop in an area locally known as Pumpkintown.
The ride has been full of joys, challenges, surprises, and friends. Our biggest challenge has been securing consistent internet and cell phone service. And with three young adults in the family and a mom who relies on the internet for work, that’s a big deal! We gave in and got a landline (haven’t had one of those in YEARS), and should have our internet in place soon.
Meanwhile, Russ started his job at Franklin Health & Fitness Center and is getting used to working 8-5 after being a subcontractor for many years. We also connected with our spiritual family in Asheville, and are rekindling old relationships and building new ones.
We found it. Our dream home (and future retreat center) is on 15 acres in southern Jackson County, NC, at an elevation of almost 4000 feet. The property backs up against 3000 acres of the Natahala National Forest so there is unlimited access to nature quite literally in our (future) backyard. Our offer on the house has been accepted and we are currently in the due diligence phase of the contract. What’s more, Russ secured a full-time position at a hopping local NC gym.
In the meantime, we have also accepted an offer on our Orlando home. Our tentative closing date is July 18th.
God has cleared our path in more ways than I can recount here, but it’s surely to be recorded as legend in the future annals of the Carolina Mountain Retreat center. Continuing to pray to our God who has already done immeasurably more than we asked or imagined.
It’s official. We put our Orlando home up for sale May 15, 2019 (are you looking for a 4/2?). We’ll be heading to Jackson County, North Carolina this summer. It’s exciting because God has been working in so many ways, clearing our path.
We’re excited to be part of the Asheville Church and connect with friends and “family”. Our son, Tristan, and our youngest, Tia, will be going with us, but our daughter, Tirzah, will be remaining in Central Florida to attend Valencia College.
It’s almost time to embark on our long awaited adventure!