River Stillwood: City Girl Lives Her Dream in Rural Ozarks
What does it mean to live out your dream? One local woman knows exactly how that feels. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has her story.
A few years ago, River Stillwood’s career as a busy news producer in sunny San Diego was skyrocketing. She herself had made headlines and won the respect of southern California when she refused to reveal a confidential source in a high-profile murder trial.
But sitting at her desk in the newsroom one day, something on Ebay caught her eye: undeveloped land for sale in the rural Ozarks.
“I’d always had this lifelong dream of living in the woods. And so, on Ebay, I entered a bid on one of the parcels. And I actually won the auction. And my down payment on the land was only 72 dollars! And so, I figured it was destined,” she says.
Stillwood’s co-workers thought she had lost her mind.
“Everybody thought that I’d been taken over by a cult, you know, that I’d joined something, that I was doing something strange. But there was one man there who worked at the news desk. And he sent me an email. And he said that he thought I was the sanest person he’d ever met,” she said.
She packed up her belongings, withdrew her savings, and moved here, to a backwoods spot in southeastern Douglas County which my car can’t even reach, due to the rough terrain.
Sound: Stream and walking
River leads me by foot down the hilly, forested trek to her home, using stepping stones to cross the stream.
She named this place “The Homestead on Twisted Pine Creek.”
When her family heard what she’d done, her twin brother and father flew here in her dad’s plane to make sure she was okay.
“But the ticks had awakened. And so Dad and Quinn show up and I hugged them, ‘Oh, so great to see you,’ hug, kiss, love, love…and then I immediately hosed them down with Deet,” she says.
Shortly after River arrived, her new neighbors began to get curious.
"And they had heard that there was this ‘woman in the woods.’ That’s what I was called—the “Woman in the Woods.” So, Charlie Cooper drove down—all the way down here—in a Cadillac! And showed up and wanted to know who the heck was living over here. And we became the best of friends,” she says.
After several minutes, we finally reach her magnum opus: the cabin.
Stillwood: It’s 12 by 16 [feet], with a six by 16 [feet] porch. All built by me, and it still needs trim. But I love it dearly. I just love it dearly.Moore: How did you get these heavy beams, and …how did you do that yourself?Stillwood: One board at a time. And I built structures that I could lean them against. And then I used rope and pulleys to get them into place.
It took this petite woman just four months to realize her dream. Finally, she moved in.
She built a greenhouse, learned to make a pot-roast inside her wood-burning cookstove, and built an outhouse. There’s no electricity nor plumbing out here, but she does have a phone.
She washed her clothes by hand and drew water from the creek for drinking.
River mail-ordered chickens from Lebanon and bought rabbits from the small-animal swap meet in Rogersville. In honor of her father, who River says is a conservative Republican, she named her baby lamb “Rush Lamb Bah.”
She can now give you a 20-minute brief on chiggers, how to butcher a turkey, or why you should never eat a diet solely consisting of rabbit meat.
"You will die of what's called 'Rabbit Fever,' she says.
River began writing a column for the Douglas County Herald called “News From the Homestead.” She wrote about the exhilaration of learning to drive a big Ford tractor through fields of golden hay, and the excitement of saving her baby chicks from a black snake. Before long, she knew most of the faces at the local “junction,” and they knew her.
"I valued what Ozarkers know. And what the people who always lived here know. And I always make myself the butt of the jokes. I mean, I was the newbie here. I was coming into this magnificent environment and I knew nothing. I think that I earned the respect of people here. Because I really wanted to learn the ways," she says.
And the “ways” were how to live off the land, and how to live in a small community where people aren’t disposable.
She quickly learned what she calls the “rules” of small-town Ozarks.
"One is you never speak badly about anybody. And I mean, never! Because if they aren’t related to the person you’re talking with, they’re related to their husband!"
Another lesson she learned is that you always cut people slack, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
"In the city, we’re so fast to take offense, or to say, ‘Oh, this cashier was way too slow, or treated me rudely,’ or whatever. And out here, it may take you ten times as long to buy something. But that’s because the person behind the register knows every single person that they’re dealing with and spends a couple of minutes saying ‘Hi, how are you?’"
And, she said, after moving here, she learned how to work at relationships because, as she says, "by goodness, that person is gonna live next door for as long as you live!"
With every column, River Stillwood became more endearing to the locals here. It wasn’t just the remarkable story of her living her dream that made her stand out, but her positive attitude in dealing with everything from tornadoes to some health problems she’d been having.
River chose to view this tiny dot on the map as extraordinary. She got to know each person, and pinpointed what made him or her special.
But in October of last year, her newspaper column would deliver a shock to the community she had come to love. That article was titled “The Seismic Shift.” It was devoted to the stunning news that she’d been diagnosed with uterine cancer.
Tomorrow at the same time, you’ll hear about her battle with cancer, and how she had to say goodbye to her beloved homestead and head back to the city to seek treatment.
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.