A Life-Changing Quarantine Adventure, With Great Expectations
It took some getting used to, this idea that food was no longer readily available. Suddenly, you couldn’t just run to the store and pick up whatever you wanted. And it happened without warning. We weren’t prepared.
We were away when the first lockdown began, in February of 2020. Flying back to Albany International, friends did not greet us with the usual hugs. As we’d arranged, they pulled up at the arrivals lane in our car, waved, — and took off in their own vehicle.
“What gives?” My husband looked at me, puzzled. We’d been sort of cut off from the world. My husband’s sister found out she had stage four lung cancer. Her daughter called, “can you come?” We hopped on a plane to her home just outside Las Vegas. For the next few weeks, we focused on being there for her as she died. We didn’t watch the news.
People weren’t wearing masks yet, when we returned to New York. But social-distancing, a new term, was all in vogue.
We drove to our rural hamlet, an hour away, and stopped at the local market to pick up a few necessities: veggies, chocolate, toilet paper. We found the first few items, but the last aisle, where paper goods, diapers and cleansers resided, was practically bare. Not a shred of toilet paper, paper towels, baby wipes, soap or cleansers to be found.
There wasn’t any butter, milk or flour either. The meat case was nearly empty. The chicken case was equally depleted and propped open for cleaning.
“And there’s no bacon,” my husband announced. This was serious. Sure, we could live without bacon, but why? We liked our creature comforts.
We asked the cashier. “People have been coming up in droves,” she explained. “It’s worse than Hurricane Sandy. This time, they just cleaned us out.”
A steady stream of cars flooded out of Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan and the Bronx. Anyone who could afford to leave, did. Many of them drove north. They bought up supplies and moved into whatever housing they could find.
A mysterious virus seemed to be spreading through New York City and the surrounding boroughs. No one knew exactly what it was, but there were reports of hospitals filling up, of people dying. Suddenly, being packed like sardines in desirable city neighborhoods wasn’t such a good idea.
Here, sparsely scattered homes lie in the shadow of gorgeous mountain peaks, not far from the Hudson River. We often look up to see the mountaintops wreathed in mist, as snow falls in the higher elevations. Our hamlet is close by a couple of popular ski resorts but not too close. And, we’re just two hours north of Manhattan. It made sense, if you were fleeing the city, to come here.
People who rented for the ski season were extending their stays indefinitely. There were no rentals available in town, and people were buying up all kinds of properties. RVs and campers were selling like hotcakes. Seasonal campsites were booked up for the next few months.
My husband and I did our best to adjust. We ordered some meat directly from a local farmer. It was more expensive, so we made do with smaller portions. We learned to keep an eye on the local dollar store. If several cars were parked outside in the early morning, a toilet paper delivery was likely in progress. Slowly, we built up our supplies. It felt sort of like we were living through another war, with much-needed items rationed.
“Why don’t we raise chickens?” I asked one day.
We had several acres and a pond, plenty of room. Lots of people in our community had chickens, goats, sheep or bees. We bought honey from a neighbor down the road with beehives in his orchard.
We did some research, joined a homesteading group and placed an order with a well-known hatchery. Late in May there was a call from the post office at 7:30 a.m.
“Your chicks have arrived.”
I didn’t even know the post office was open that early. Apparently, for live deliveries, you get that special, early-morning call.
This was a whole new world. Because of my husband’s allergies, we don’t have any pets. But these chickens would be outside, in whatever residence we built for them.
“They’ll need a brooder,” my engineer-husband noted. “And a coop. And a run.”
This became our quarantine project, a welcome distraction from worrying about our grown children, half of them in Queens, New York. News anchors breathlessly described their borough as the epicenter of this strange new pandemic. The kids assured us they were fine, and taking precautions.
We set up the brooder in our garage and tried not to handle them too much. Aside from dipping their tiny beaks in water so they’d know where it was, we just kept them well supplied with feed and fresh bedding. One died. I realized they needed grit. I felt guilty. In my ignorance, I’d killed a helpless little creature.
All through that long, hot, humid summer, my husband labored, building an ultra-predator-proof chicken coop and enclosed run. Several varieties of hawks flew by on a regular basis to check out his efforts. An experienced hunter, my spouse explained there were coyotes, raccoons, fisher cats and other wildlife nearby.
“They’re not going to get our chickens,” he declared, already feeling protective. The chickens grew fast. At seven weeks, we’d expanded the brooder with a plywood section, to give them more room.
Finally, the coop was ready. We hoisted the heavy plywood brooder box onto a cart and wheeled it across the lawn. The coop was close to the woods that bordered our property. We thought that was a good location, less likely to bother the neighbors.
We hadn’t thought about the logistics of sledging feed and water across a snow-covered yard in the depths of winter.
Opening the wide clean-out doors, we shooed the 7-week old pullets inside. They eagerly watched my wonderful husband finish the run and fence it in with hardware cloth. They’d have a place to play, safe from predators.
Despite our inexperience, the chickens thrived. We had ordered black Australorps, ending up with four roosters and fifteen hens. The little yellow chick, a “bonus” from the hatchery, grew into a fine Brahma rooster with white-gold feathers.
Months went by. The pandemic seemed to subside. It was possible to find meat again, even bacon, at our local grocery store. The chickens were four months old now, eating heartily, squabbling excitedly over the scraps I brought out to supplement their feed. They loved dried mealworms, and fresh weeds I pulled from the garden. Wild thyme and clover were their favorites.
I tried to keep a record of overall costs. My husband started calling the hens “slackers.”
Finally, at five months old, the hens began producing eggs, slowly at first, little brown marvels, still warm, with bright orange yolks. We thought they might slack off as winter approached, but they kept on. More hens joined in, until we were picking up five or ten eggs a day.
When our grown children felt it was safe, they came up to visit, one at a time, to lessen the chance of infecting us. It was lovely to see our (masked) grandchildren happily riding their bikes down our isolated cul de sac. For months, we’d seen them only on video chats. We sent them home with fresh-laid eggs from our now-prolific chickens.
We decided to cull two aggressive roosters. Our flock just didn’t need that many. My husband dispatched them quickly. We scalded them and placed each one in a plucker, a round device like the inside of a washing machine, that removed all their heat-loosened feathers in a minute or two. I placed each bird in cold water to lower their temperature. Soon, both were neatly packaged and resting in our big chest freezer, just under five pounds each. They had looked like huge, important roosters, strutting around the run, but those thick black feathers (great for insulating them against cold weather), hid a much-smaller chicken.
Last month we ordered meat chickens to raise next summer, a simpler eight-week adventure. We’re keeping our laying hens, though. Maybe rabbits? Sheep? It was something to think about.
My husband and I had grown up in the suburbs; we had zero experience in farming. Somehow, we’d crossed a threshold, learning how to raise our own food, something our grandparents had done, years ago.
The world was still spinning off-kilter this winter: a second lockdown, another virus on the horizon. In our rural community, we chose to explore a healthy, self-sufficient lifestyle. Baby steps. But at least, we were headed in the right direction.