36. Came Here VIII: “With All my Possessions on my Back,” by Jack Wall.

Jack Wall (b. 1949) is Director of Wall Residences, Inc., headquarters at 718 Franklin Pike SE, Floyd. “Residences” refers to private homes throughout the state where people care for those with an intellectual, developmental disability or a long-term mental illness. Jack and Kamala own Hotel Floyd and Floyd EcoVillage.  A Came Here like Ed Gralla, Chapter 40, he also found his way to Floyd County from the Northeast, appreciated the natives, and ended up as a prominent citizen.

When visiting Floyd in December of 1973, I spent some time with Ruth Bason and her small band of homesteaders at Travianna Farm, located off Rt. 612 (now Stonewall Rd. NE) in Check, Virginia. Ruth had become divorced from her lawyer husband earlier that year and had used some of her money from the marital settlement to buy a 100+ acre farm with some partially rundown buildings for about $10,000.

She and her three children, Will, Searcy, and A’Court, along with some of their friends had moved from the city earlier that year. JD, Perky, Chrissy, Marvin, Alta and others were an enthusiastic and fun-loving crew. It was evident that the Bason family had done a lot of planning for this move from a genteel horse farm in Raleigh to these rustic digs with a milk cow, chickens, goats, farm dogs and cats and a few riding horses. 

When I arrived, Will was busy with seed catalogs and planning the spring garden. Chores included milking the cow twice a day, caring for the chickens, splitting firewood, and various projects and repairs. Ruth and the women prepared vegetarian meals for the crew, a group that often included occasional visitors like me. All the chores made for a good appetite and we ate well around the large dining room table.

On my last day in Floyd County before I drove back to my apartment in Cambridge, Ruth invited me to come back and stay with them anytime. The thought had never occurred to me. I loved my life in the city, where I lived near everything. My job was a two mile walk across the Charles River to Government Center in Boston. From there I could walk anywhere in the city in five miles or take the subway or my bike. Owning the car was more than I could afford or justify, so shortly after returning I sold it.

But as successful as I was as a city dweller, I still felt the draw of living off of the land in a small community with friends. By late March 1974 the yearning had gotten to me. “Hey, Ruth,” I asked over the phone, “remember that offer you made to me to come stay with you?  Does that still stand?”  “Why sure, Jack Wall, come on down whenever you can. We will be here whenever you arrive.” That easy-to-get affirmation brought the challenge of a new way of life.

I turned in a notice on my government job, told my landlord that I would be leaving early, organized and sold my things, got a bus ticket to Roanoke, VA, and made my exit in April. After getting off the bus, I hitched a ride to Floyd County to within a few miles of Travianna and hiked in the rest of the way with all of my possessions on my back.

Location of Travianna Community off Stonewall Rd. NE.

Location of Travianna Community. Stonewall Rd. NE. runs off the dark blue Rt. 221 at a corner where the hitchhiker became a hiker.  

Being a city boy, I had a lot to learn, although my skills as a long-time Boy Scout and an outdoors person came in handy. I was not very good with the cow but I could churn the cream to make butter; I was good at bread-making, splitting firewood, making a fire and tending to the chickens. I learned some gardening skills under Will Bason’s direction and that summer learned to work for local farmers putting up hay.

I will never forget or fail to be impressed by these quiet, practical, and enormously talented human beings. Farmers with the names Branch, Blackwell and Uriah Ingram (and their wives) were great country people with a traditional way of life that involved dedication, responsibility, and reverence. These people were what I like to think of as true Christians. Here I was a new kid from Boston with a lot of hair styled in an Afro but I never felt judged or unwelcome. These men had large responsibilities. Farmer [Moses] Blackwell had a dairy farm of over 100 cows needing to be milked twice each day 365 days a year no matter what.

I remember one summer afternoon when Mr. Blackwell had hired three of us boys from Travianna to load up hay from one of his large hay fields. We had just gotten started when the axle on his large wagon broke. We all had to stop. Mr. Blackwell got underneath to look at the damage. When he then asked if we would wait while he went to his barn, we all agreed. Twenty minutes later he came back with welding equipment and proceeded to spend the next thirty minutes welding the axle back together. During all this time he is losing time and money because we have a big job ahead and he is responsible for paying us for our time just standing around idle. Mr. Blackwell never said a cuss-word or even gave a gesture toward frustration or anger. Such humility and grace is hard to find. It also blew me away at how skilled this man was. Not only did he know all the details of raising, feeding and milking cows, but now at the broken wagon I learn that he can weld metal and manage himself through what others might consider a crisis. A pillar of a human being.

One day I worked with Farmer Branch when he was harvesting potatoes from his field. These vegetables were gorgeous and consistently huge. I turned to him and asked how you grow such amazing potatoes. He just showed me the soil he had in the garden—and of course this was the answer. He had a lot of horse and cow manure which he composted and added to the soil in large amounts. This super-rich, dark material was something you can’t get from chemical fertilizers. Simple lessons of life that I was learning.

Uriah Ingram was another example. Although more more a businessman than a farmer, he was both. He farmed over 6000 acres and had a place on Rt. 221 called R.T. Ingram’s Store, which is now vacant. Uriah had a lot of local young men who worked for him full-time, but he liked me because I worked hard and I was willing to ask questions and pay attention. I got along okay with the local boys even though they could have been threatened by my rate-buster mentality [i.e., the tendency to work so hard that others look bad]. We spend many a sunny afternoon stacking Uriah’s large barns with heavy bales of hay.

Speaking of heavy, my work in the fields that summer transformed me physically. I had always been fit from a lot of running and walking, but working in those fields really developed my upper body. Throwing around 30- to 50-pound hay bales for hours at a time will do that quickly. I remember the first day I volunteered to work in hay. I struggled to lift or move the larger bales and my hands would get raw from the abrasion of the bale twine on my fingers even with leather gloves on. In a matter of days doing this work that all changed. I got very strong and my hands toughened so that I could work without gloves much of the time. My arms and torso became like those of a body builder.

Travianna house, 19--

Travianna house, probably 1978. Courtesy of Barbara Triplett. Another center was Hanatuskee, a farm established to teach old-time agricultural skills (Chapter 38).

Living on the farm with a lot of unrelated people and no rules was a valuable learning experience. We got along well but had to work out details to pay bills and purchase a few other things including maintenance and gasoline for a tractor, cattle truck and car. Initially Ruth covered some of this expense but others needed to step in to help. We did not have much cash income so this was an occasional problem, particularly in the winter when there was not much farm food or outside work and utility bills were higher. It was a pure example of socialism since people would help with payments when they had money.

We had many visitors come through at different times. “New York Bob” was the first long-term sojourner I remember. Arriving on in his VW microbus in the fall of 1974, he was on his way to California. I have no idea how he found our place since he seemed to have no connection to any of us. By the time he was ready to travel on I asked to get a ride from him to visit a close friend of mine in San Francisco. We had a great trip together across the country and after a few weeks in the San Francisco area with my friend, I got a bus ticket to travel back to see my family in the Boston area. My mother and sister drove me back to Travianna that winter to see this new home of mine. Probably not a good idea to have them visit that time of year: the farm is bleak, there is not much activity, and many of the people from there are visiting others.

That winter of 1974-1975 was somewhat like a survivalist mode. The cow was dried up for the winter, although we had some frozen milk for a few months. Chickens do not lay many eggs in those months, and the stored vegetables get eaten by January. Plenty of firewood but it must be split every day, and keeping dry wood takes planning. Each night the fire goes out, so we wake to freezing temperatures until the fire gets going. We had a sack of wheat berries and a grinder to make flour so pancakes and bread are the staples. When eggs and milk are gone, the pancakes were very simple flour, water and baking powder. I also made a wheat cereal from the wheat germ-bran flakes roasted in a fry pan. Besides chopping wood, keeping fires going, feeding chickens and simple cooking, other time was passed by reading at the fire. 

It is a wonderful introverted experience not unlike Thoreau’s at Walden Pond or a backpacker’s in the woods. Time to think, reflect and experience nature at its most peaceful. Colors are mostly gray and somber on a cloudy day, but the peace and simplicity of nature becomes revealed. Snowstorms add to the beauty and create some extra duties to find dry firewood. Sunny days lift the soul. On two days in late January we had a spell of Indian Summer with temperatures up to the 60-degree range; we men took our shirts off and danced around because it felt like summer.

Other visitors to Travianna in 1975 were Joe Farr, Chris Prokosch, Billy Bell and Kris Hodges [he became the co-founder of FloydFest]. Additional homes were planned and built. Additional homes were planned and built. My savings were running out and I felt a need to get a regular job, so I applied at the IGA supermarket. On my application I left off that I had a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration because I thought they would consider me overqualified for minimum-wage.

Later I applied and got a job at Catawba Hospital, a state mental health facility about an hour away (north of Roanoke in Craig County). I lived in state housing on the beautiful mountain campus and came home to Travianna on my days off. I worked with an elderly population with mental illness, dementia and medical needs. I was taught to run sensory orientation classes and to do routine medical care such as giving enemas, taking blood pressure and temperature readings, changing beds, and transporting people. After five months on the job I was notified that the state was laying off workers on a last-hired, first-fired plan. Although given a month’s notice, I was also told that I could request transfer to a new state facility being built in Hillsville, Virginia, to serve the mentally retarded. I checked into this possibility and met a music therapist who was transitioning to a job at this new facility. 

I moved to the Hillsville area in late August 1975 and from then on did not have a lot of contact with the bunch at Travianna until 1995. That year I went through a divorce and was rebuilding old relationships. I visited the farm one weekend in July for Ruth’s birthday celebration. 

Although there were a lot of people there, I spent much of the time talking with Kamala Bauers about our mutual interest in the disabilities field. At the time I was making plans for start my own company; Kamala, who had also recently divorced, and I worked on developing some of the ideas. She and her estranged husband, Pat Fenn, and their son, Josh, had lived at Travianna from around 1976 through 1977. Kamala and Pat had moved to Floyd from Oregon after hearing about Floyd from a prophecy of Edgar Cayce, who had recommended it as one of the best places on earth to weather the coming world transformations. So although Kamala and I lived at Travianna during different parts of the community history, we had connections to many of the same people from there and of course to Ruth and her visionary work. The rest is history as Kamala and I started Wall Residences later that year and got married on December 14, 1996. 

Our experiences from living at Travianna were life-changing. It was Ruth Bason’s openness and love that made this experiment possible and successful. Her willingness to allow anyone to come and stay without conditions, contracts, rules, judgment, fear, or expectations was the first value that made her special. Ruth had gone through a spiritual change to want to break free from a pompous, elitist way of life she had experienced to one of love and sharing. She learned to pray and meditate on how to be open to the universe and let go of a life built on control and possessions. Ruth applied her life experiences to helping others on their path toward enlightenment. For me as a person in my mid 20s, she was a mentor who showed what is possible in the world when people of differing backgrounds but similar desires break free of destructive cultural norms and live together in a free and sharing community. 

These values had a lot to do with the motivation and ideology to create Wall Residences and later on, Floyd EcoVillage. In addition to the social aspects of the experience I also learned about health-food production and how people can live together on limited cash income through self-reliance for building shelter, growing and cooking food, and generally living off of the land in beauty and harmony. 

Although I left this place to return to the “corporate” world, I have continually striven to find a balance. On one side, to meet the demands of society for making a living and following the rules; on the other, to establish and nurture deep relationships in family-like settings. In these circumstances people learn from each other and share diverse contributions to a holist, healthy existence.

An early alternative community, its Check, Virginia, chapter was founded in 1971, but there were earlier Traviannas in Raleigh, NC.—Melody Cochran.