One morning, as the sun began to turn the sky those breathtaking shades of pink and orange that seem magnified in the country, Stacey Brooks went for a run.
She passed a huge patch of bluebonnets and thought to herself, "It's gorgeous." And then she did something that wasn't usually part of her exercise routine: She stopped.
"I had to, because it was breathtaking," she says. "It really made an impression. Out in the country, you can't find a better place to be close to God."
That yearning for closeness played a big part in the Brooks family's decision to change their lives. About six months ago, Stacey and her husband Greg sold their 4,200-square foot house in Dallas. In January, they moved with their two sons onto 800-plus acres in Hamilton County in Central Texas.
Their new home is a two-bedroom, one-bath stone farmhouse with just under 1,000 square feet of living space. There are so few electrical sockets that the family must decide between using the coffee maker or the microwave.
Greg, accustomed to days behind a desk in his law office, recently shot a rattlesnake 30 feet from the house. Stacey worked as a language therapist while her sons were in school; now, she teaches them at home.
In Dallas, Garrett and Carder Brooks spent time participating in sports, playing with friends, watching Nintendo. Now they hunt rabbits, help their dad fill deer and turkey feeders, weed the garden. Garrett, who just turned 10, often just finds a quiet spot to read.
Actually, when Greg and Stacey were contemplating the move, Garrett and his books offered another reason why they should.
"One day, Garrett was so cross," recalls Stacey, 36. "I said, "What's wrong?' And he said, "There's no time. I go to school, to soccer practice, to piano, and I never have time to read my book.' "
The Brookses loved their lives in Dallas. They had wonderful friends, a lovely home, weekends filled with sports and social activities. But, under more intimate examination, they realized their older son was halfway to manhood, and the years were slipping away.
"When we came up with the idea of possibly moving out here," Greg says, "it was with an eye toward focusing on relationships - between us and God, between us and our children, between my wife and me. It was a combination of focusing on those relationships and experiencing a lifestyle we couldn't provide them while living in a big city."
So after much discussion and planning, they moved. Hearing them talk a season later, one wonders whether the change in their lives can be summed up in a single word: Moments.
Like the time they pulled 50 radishes from the garden, and Carder, 6, insisted on washing every single one before eating lunch. As his hands helped the water rinse the dirt away, he turned to Stacey.
"Mom," he said, "it's really neat to have a garden, even if I don't like to eat anything that comes out of it."
Added his brother, "Mom, can we just live off the land?"
Then there was the beautiful morning Stacey took the boys to the stock tank for their Bible lesson. They watched a monarch butterfly land on a milkweed leaf and lay her eggs, and they couldn't stop talking about what they'd seen. Or the time they looked up in a tree and saw a huge spider wrapping a grasshopper in her net.
"This opens up avenues of thought and reflection you might not normally have," says Stacey. "Little miracle things."
Each family member keeps a journal, speaking privately into a tape recorder. The four eat all their meals together. They bless their food, and they pray every night. After breakfast, they have a devotional.
"I have definitely gotten closer to the Lord out here," says Greg, 40. "I wish I could say I spend an hour every day or night reading the Bible and praying. But what I do, and do a lot more, is to say little prayers during the day. I'm likely to stop and look over the ridge and say a little prayer. The spiritual side has given me comfort in knowing this is the right thing to do."
He listens to his sons pray, and he marvels at their words.
"They're more specific in appreciating things and thanking the Lord and asking for help," Greg says. "I can't say it's because we're in the country...but now they really think about what they pray for, like "Help me get along with my brother."
The boys still bicker, Stacey says. But they're different around each other.
"Back in Dallas, they had TV. We don't have TV," she says. "They had Nintendo. We don't. One would get angry and plop in front of the TV. Now they can't do that. They have time and space to come to some sort of resolution. They have become good friends, and I'm glad for that."
Leaving friends wasn't easy for the boys, Greg says. But neither he nor Stacey have ever heard them complain about being in the country, about the size of the house, about having to share a room.
They did, however, have a hard time adjusting to manual labor. In Dallas, chores were limited to keeping their rooms clean; sometimes they'd question why they had to make their beds because "I'll just sleep in it tonight anyway."
"They wanted rhyme and reason," Stacey says. "Here, they've been an integral part of how our yard looks. We talked about work ethic, that when one part of a machine breaks down, the machine doesn't work.
"Our family is like a machine. They understood that better than, "It's important to take responsibility to help the family.' They're growing in reliability and responsibility."
When Stacey taught in Dallas, she'd have 30-minute periods to herself. But now, there's not much downtime. If she's not planting or weeding the garden, she's planning or teaching her lessons. Or she's trying to keep the house clean, or figuring out what to fix for the next meal. (La Madeleine, regrettably, is no longer an option.)
But she's happy with the family's new life. And for her personally, it couldn't have come at a better time. Her mother died in January; this change in scenery and lifestyle has helped Stacey through her grief.
"We were very close," Stacey says. "We'd talk on the phone every single day. . . . Moving here has been a great blessing. I don't know if I could have gone back to the familiar life I had and had this great void."
Plus, she loves the outdoors.
In Dallas, "I was carpool mama. I lived in the car. I had makeup in the car. I had snacks in the car. I'd drop the kids off, go to work, pick them up. We'd be here, we'd be there, we'd go home. Now two or three days go by when we don't get in the car."
Another change has been having her husband around so much.
"For 14 years, the house was my kingdom," she says. "I was queen and we did things my way. ...I always welcomed Greg's input with the children, but it was very strange at the beginning. They ask him something and he'd say yes, where I'd have said no. But it's very liberating to give some of this over to him."
At first, Greg says, winding down from his fast-paced professional life was hard. He felt compelled to accomplish everything immediately.
"My goal wasn't to continue practicing law during this period," says Greg, who shut down his office in Dallas. "It was to . . . get away from that totally. Between mowing and weed-eating, running the tractor, working in the yard - it's not what I'm used to. I'm actually enjoying it."
Plus, he cherishes the seemingly limitless hours with his family. He has spent more time with his sons in the last several months than he would have in a year, had they been living in Dallas. He and Stacey are a true team; their communication has improved because they're together so much.
The family still travels back to Dallas for Indian Guides activities, piano competitions and a handful of social activities. But when they're back on the ranch, "We're not looking for opportunities to come to town," Greg says.
They look forward to joining a church in nearby Hamilton and becomingmore involved in the community. They're also planning to build a larger house. As for the long haul - well, the family isn't sure. Eventually, they think they'll return to Dallas. But it's too early to tell.
What they are sure about, though, is the importance of what they're giving their sons - and themselves.
"One of my hopes is to strengthen our relationship [with the boys] so that they will come to me or Stacey when they come face-to-face with big issues that could possibly change their lives," Greg says. "Just because we live out here, it's not like everything's rosy. But we're together so much that our relationships have solidified."
Stacey and Greg also want the boys to remember the fun, and the endless stretches of time with each other.
"Life is experience, and the memories you make with your family," she says. "We could move to Dallas or wherever, move into a big home, drive nice cars, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not saying we didn't love that kind of lifestyle; we really did.
"We've always tried to focus on material possessions not being the end-all. But it's different when you live in a 990-square foot house with lots of land and lots of dirt. We're down to the basics.
"If we'd never done this, a big house would be the standard. I hope the boys will go out and find for themselves what that standard is."