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Deep South Road Trip Extravaganza, Day 2: Sparta, TN

Sparta, TN is a small town in Tennessee. There’s not much in Sparta. It’s mostly country and farmland. A stop in Cookville, TN to see The Minister’s Treehouse brought us unexpected adventure, and our Airbnb host in Sparta brought stories of a life well lived.

Man standing next to sign on fence

Day 2 was a looong driving day. We knew this when we planned it, and decided we would spend the first two days “getting out of Dodge,” then take our time between destinations. Despite it being 6+ hours in the car, it was surprisingly enjoyable. There wasn’t much on our route: farms & fields for miles; cows, sheep, and goats.

Our original route was going to take us on 441 up through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, but on checking the map it looked like major parts of 441 were still closed due to the fire, so we had to re-route ourselves. I don’t think it was any shorter or longer, just different, and less mountain views than we probably would have preferred – but pretty nonetheless.

We’re reading Joel Salatin’s, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” on our drive. We discovered years ago that I am the worst listener to books on tape that ever existed. I get totally distracted, my mind wanders, and then I have to go back and start over because I didn’t hear anything for the last 20 minutes while my mind was wandering.

Our solution to this has turned out to be getting books we’re both interested in from the library, and I read out loud while Brandan drives. The author is the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia, and his farming methods are absolutely amazing. In this book, he argues that we can all do better in being involved and knowledgeable about where our food comes from, and keeping it closer to its origin.

A timely read as we drive through farmlands, cattle pastures, and stay at multiple Airbnb’s on farms along the way. Here’s a quote that resonated particularly well with me:

“Food does not have to be adulterated and prostituted. Food does not have to be veiled in scientific jargon. Food, this most common of substances, the one thing none of us can do without, should be understandable, pronounceable, and doable for every person.”

Our stay yesterday was in Sparta, TN, but as some of you know from my slightly over-exuberant emails about it, we stopped slightly outside of town in Crossville, TN to see something called The Minister’s Treehouse.

The Minister’s Treehouse

Remember yesterday when I said if you stop and listen, the world will deliver exactly what you’re looking for? Well it happened again. As we drove down the road to the treehouse (past the sign that said, “The treehouse is closed permanently, NO EXCEPTIONS”) and continued down the dirt path, we saw a van full of 5 or 6 kids who looked to be in their early twenties climbing over the fence with this sign on it: 


Yikes! I asked them if they had gone inside, and they said yes, but there were some people down there with cars, and they had told them they were trespassing and asked them to leave. They drove away, and we kind of hung around to see what would happen.

A minute or two later, a truck pulled up to the other side of the gate, and a guy got out to unlock the gate so he could drive out. I approached him and asked if would be possible to walk down and get a photograph. He made a quick phone call to someone, and just like that, we were walking down the path to the treehouse, never to return again. (Spoiler alert: we made it.)

path to The Minister's Treehouse in Tennessee

Once we got down there, there was a woman with some children who were running around. She said she takes care of Horace’s horses, and was checking on the property because some kids had been down there the night before vandalizing it.

She told us we could go in, and could go to the top if we wanted, but if anyone came, she didn’t tell us that. So, we took our chances. Because when someone tells you you can climb to the top of this insane treehouse, you do it. Here’s a photo of me in front of it, for scale:

The Minister's Treehouse up close

We climbed all the way to the top. The place was nuts. It rambled in a million different directions, with no clear path. Stairways to the left and the right, porches off random hidden rooms.

In what was presumably the middle, we came to a main central “chapel” with pews and a large cross, as well as a basketball hoop, because apparently Horace believed in physical activity. I don’t know about you, but I am NOT playing a rowdy game of hoops in there.

basketball hoop inside Minister's Treehouse

As we climbed higher, we found a room full of some weird carved statues, of Jesus and his disciples, maybe? Some looked like chairs, some like statues, but all of them were carved out of trees.

Statues inside The Ministers Treehouse
woman with statues inside The Ministers Treehouse

This truly might be one of the craziest places I have ever been. Here’s the view from the top, so you can get an idea of just how far above the trees we climbed.

view from the top of the ministers treehouse

We went down a different way than we came up, down a dizzying spiral staircase that wound its way around a giant tree.

spiral staircase at The Minister's Treehouse

On our walk back out, we passed this sign leaned up against the fence, which made me a bit sad. While I’m not a religious person, this man built this out of what he believed.

Since the fire marshal closed the place, it’s now a mess, with broken glass, graffiti and other various vandalism all over the property. Something made me take a picture of it, because at least for this part, I’m not telling my story – I’m telling his.

joshua bible verse sign in woods

As we continued on our way to Sparta, TN we decided we wanted to stay in for the night at the Airbnb we had rented, the White Mule Lodge. The reviews were through the roof, and most of them were more about the host, Dan, and his hospitality than the property itself.

We wanted to stop and get some meat to cook for dinner, and just like that I found a local slaughterhouse that also sells cuts of meat. Serendipity. We got some hot ground sausage and headed to the Lodge. 

 We settled in and explored the property a bit, taking a quick walk through the woods with Folly so everyone could stretch their legs. Then we headed back to the house to cook dinner.  I chopped up a sweet potato that we purchased the day before at Oglethorpe Fresh, then picked a bowlful of arugula and some green onions out of Dan’s garden.

We cooked the sausage in a cast iron skillet on top of the outdoor wood stove until it was broken up and the pan had a bit of grease in it, then moved the meat out, added in the diced sweet potato and covered the skillet with a metal camping plate in lieu of a lid. I let that cook for 10 minutes or so until the sweet potatoes were tender, then I added the sausage back in and tossed it around until it was cooked through. Just before serving, I added the arugula and green onions, and tossed until they wilted, then served. 

The White Mule Lodge

Dan, the property owner, came down to join us with his guitar, and enjoyed some of the skillet meal with us. While we cooked and ate, he regaled us with stories of his life, which were seriously fascinating.

Here’s one for you:  When he was younger, he and some friends sat around and said, “What would we do if we were rich? ” They decided they would go around to bluegrass festivals around the country and sell music supplies: picks, strings, etc. Then they said, “Well, let’s do that anyway.” They bought a van for $130 and traveled around the country to bluegrass and music festivals, selling supplies to bands.

Here’s another one for you: In the 80’s, He and his wife left home in a van with $40 to their names. They found a way to make money  on the road – painting lines in parking lots. Seriously. They would drive by businesses with owners on premise (doctor’s offices, law offices, etc.) that needed their lines painted, and offer to paint them. They were paid mostly in cash, with a few checks. They used a 2×4 to keep the lines straight, with a can of paint and a 4” roller.

They spent their summers in the Pacific Northwest and their winters in the Keys. Dan told us they made 85k a year on the road – a decent amount of money for two people with no other expenses who had everything they owned with them. They spent 7 years traveling the country, trading their van up for a “motor coach,” as he called it.

Over 7 years they had 3 different motor coaches, and returned with plenty of money after sending plenty of money home. 

His father purchased the farm he now lives on in the 40’s and left it to him. They have horses, and recently built the White Mule Lodge, as well another cabin on the property that is also for rent and is a bit larger. He told Brandan the family motto was, “we don’t want to own all the land, just all the adjoining land.” His father made the first purchase of 120 acres, which his now up to 300 acres. 

Before departing, Dan gave us a CD of “music from the White Mule Lodge,” which was a mix of some of his music and some other artists. No names, no labels, just bluegrass. When I asked how we would know which ones were his, he said, “You won’t. You’ll just have to listen and enjoy it.”

After dinner and we sat chatted about family, government, and chickens, in that order. It was dark, cold, and raining, and we were tired, so we  went to bed around 8pm –  full & happy. Life on a farm. 

I woke up this morning to the rooster crowing. I’m guessing it was sometime around 4am, because the sun wasn’t up yet. I went back to sleep and was woken by him again around 6:15am. We got out of bed, made a pot of coffee, and heated the remainder of our skillet meal up for breakfast, then fried some eggs to go on top. (Dinner is breakfast, breakfast is dinner!) 

I didn’t get any pictures of the horses or the lodge or the chickens because I’m an idiot (or I was just enjoying myself and Dan’s stories too much to remember.)

Today’s Life Lesson: You can do whatever you want.

 I know, you’re thinking, “I’m an adult. Of course I can.” Or, you’re thinking, “I have responsibilities, no I can’t.”

Here’s the thing. If Dan and his wife can leave home with $40 in a van with all of their possessions in tow, so can you. If Dan can imagine the one thing he would do if he was rich, and then go and do that thing even though he wasn’t rich, so can you. It’s all just a matter of willingness.

How willing are you to get out of your comfort zone? To take a chance? To do the thing that scares you? We all live in routines. Don’t be scared to break them. Take a risk, take the chance, do the thing that makes you nervous. And if you don’t try to control it, and you just take that leap, it’ll work out. Three quarters of life is just showing up.

Show up, stay open minded, and the world will deliver.

band on a stage
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