Early Days on the Diagonal Bonus Blog: A Look Back

Early Days on the Diagonal Bonus Blog: A Look Back

(If you’re just joining this series, it will all make more sense if you start with the first one and work your way forward.)

Our house is far from perfect, but there’s something better than perfection in knowing we did it ourselves. That’s what brings us joy every single day. And things certainly haven’t always gone as planned. But then, do they ever? As I’ve previously mentioned, before we ever “finished” our building project, it was time for some serious renovation and rehab work. We’re still in that mode. This time around, we’re thankful we can work at a slower pace, taking on projects when they fit the rest of our plans.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what advice I’d give my younger self—or anyone else thinking about doing something similar. What have I learned from our experience? What would I do differently if I had it to do over?  What did we get just right the first time?  I tried to narrow my thoughts to ten worthy points, but I just couldn’t do it. Guess I learned more than I realized. So, here, from my 38 year perch of experience, are twelve bits of wisdom for diy homebuilding newbies.

1. Do your homework. Learn about the area as well as local building codes. If possible, you might even want to rent a place nearby for awhile to give yourself time to search out the perfect location and to become familiar with your new community—to make sure it’s a good fit.

2. Seek out like-minded folks. It can get lonely out there. The idea of homesteading used to be all about going it alone. These days, folks have learned that community makes a lot more sense. Never underestimate the benefit of a support system or the value of experience.

3. Make friends with your neighbors. You’ll likely be living with them for a long, long time. The folks down the road may have an overabundance of apples, and you may have extra downed trees they could use for firewood. Maybe someone would mentor you in exchange for some of the honey your bees produce. Besides, these people are your “first responders.” They’ll be there in time of need. 

4. This is no time for the it’s-better-to-beg-forgiveness-than-to-ask-permission philosophy. If your community has a building code, the people who manage it take it seriously, and you’re not likely to get forgiveness after the fact. Be clear and open about your plans, and be 100% certain that you hear what’s actually said, not just what you want to hear. It’d be a real shame to have to walk away from something you’ve put your heart, soul, and financial investment into because of a misunderstanding over the rules, but it happens. Don’t let it happen to you.

5. Be flexible. If there’s one thing you can count on it’s that things won’t go as planned. When they don’t, smile and find a workaround. 

6. Have someone knowledgeable check your plans for common sense. Did you forget to include a closet? Would it make more sense, from a plumbing point of view, to relocate your bathroom? 

7. Be willing to compromise. And don’t beat yourself up over it. I once heard an experienced modern homesteader respond to a question about homesteading purity this way: “Everybody makes compromises. The few who don’t—or can’t—die alone and lonely.” As I recalled times we found it necessary to choose expediency over perfection, I realized he made a good point. 

8. Don’t underestimate how much it’s going to cost or how long it’s going to take. (Actually, just assume you’ll do both and be ready to adjust.)

9. If you can possibly manage it, stay out of debt. If it’s too late, get out as soon as you can. See how much that mortgage is really costing by the time you’ve paid it off with interest. Credit card debt is even worse. Do the math. You may decide it’s worth the sacrifice of going without while you whittle down your debt.

10. Look to the future. When you’re thirty, climbing stairs several times a day may not be a big deal, but you’re embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime experience; you may want to stay here forever. What happens when your knees give out? Or when an elderly parent needs to move in? Easier to put a bedroom and bath on the first floor now. (Ask me how I know.)

11. Just do it! Dive into your big adventure with all the gusto you’ve got. If you hesitate, you might miss something phenomenal.

12. Be patient—with yourself, with your family, with your grand project. And remember to laugh—a lot!

More than once I’ve looked at these old pictures in wonder, trying to conjure up the young whippersnappers who thought they could move to a strange place, camp in the wild, and—with no experience—build their  home themselves. Sometimes I even think I can see them, if ever so faintly. This series has been a fun trip down memory lane. Hope you’ve enjoyed it, too. I’m happy to say that after thirty-eight years of living on the diagonal, we’re still here and not planning to go anywhere anytime soon.

Here are some last looks.

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Against the sky

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We were always struck by what we saw as a Japanese style of artistry and simplicity in the bones of our house.

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A well-deserved nap

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Catnap times two

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Hamming it up for the camera

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Section of first floor ceiling

And then there’s this heart-stoppingly gorgeous view of the nearby valley shrouded in clouds. It would be worth living here if only for sights like this.

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Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown

Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Nothing says Spring like the bright freshness of rhubarb, the earliest vegetable to come to life in our garden each year. Everything about rhubarb is delightful. It’s not fussy. It’s tough—it can take spring’s unpredictable temperature swings. It’s reliable, coming back bigger and stronger every year. It’s a showoff with its gargantuan leaves and showy, red stalks.

Rhubarb’s massive leaves could serve as emergency umbrellas. But don’t eat them, please—they’re full of poisonous oxalic acid.

Perhaps its only flaw is that rhubarb needs winter’s cold to thrive. As a child of the hot South, I’d never even heard of rhubarb before that fateful summer when our family camped our way to visit my Minnesota cousins. I’ll always remember the moment Aunt Ruth handed me a saucer of deliciousness in the form of a triangle slice of rhubarb pie. I fell in love right then and there. Unfortunately, it was years before I made my way to a climate where rhubarb would thrive and I could bake my own rhubarb pies.

It’s images of pie that dance in most of our heads when we hear the word rhubarb, but this odd vegetable has lots of other culinary uses, too. Jam, for one (mm-m good). There are rhubarb breads, rhubarb wines, and non-alcoholic rhubarb drinks. We’ve even made rhubarb pickles. They’re more pulp than anything else, but I think they make a nice condiment, and they give a flavorful kick to stir-fry. I was surprised recently to learn that rhubarb is also used in savory dishes. You can find over 300 rhubarb recipes in the online Rhubarb Compendium. But you won’t find this recipe for Skillet Upside-Down Cake there.

I swear, this cake gives rhubarb pie a run for its money. While it doesn’t pack quite the puckery, acidic wallop as its counterpart with crusts, it still has enough tang to be interesting, which makes it a good way to introduce rhubarb to young, inexperienced palates.

Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Oven: 350 degrees

Don’t you just hate it when you start mixing up a recipe only to discover these dreaded words: butter, at room temperature. Well, consider yourself forewarned. Don’t start mixing until you’ve given your butter a chance to warm up.

Topping:

¼ cup (½ stick) butter
¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups (about six stalks) rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces

Batter:

½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature (See? I told you.)
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup milk

To make the topping, melt the ¼ cup of butter in a cast iron skillet.* Add brown sugar, stirring constantly until it melts and the mixture gets all bubbly. Remove from heat and layer pieces of rhubarb on top of butter-sugar mixture. You should have enough rhubarb to cover the pan in a more or less single layer.

In a mixing bowl, cream room temperature butter and white sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in salt and baking powder. With your mixer on a low setting, mix in flour, about a ½ cup at a time, alternating with milk and ending with the flour.

Pour batter over mixture in skillet. Batter may be so thick that you’ll need to dollop it into the pan by the spoonful, instead, and then gently spread it to even it out.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of cake and about halfway down (not so far that it encounters the rhubarb) comes out clean. (I always start checking after about 30 minutes. You don’t want it to get too dry.)

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Fresh from the oven

I never have the courage to turn my cake out onto a plate so that it really is upside-down, though the Gnome has had success with that method. If you want to give it a shot, let the cake cool a few minutes (5-10 max), loosen the edges with a knife and invert onto a serving plate.

First slice–just add fork

Serve alone or with ice cream or whipped cream.

NOTE: If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, you can substitute a nine-inch square cake pan. Heat your butter-sugar mixture in a frying pan or saucepan and transfer it to your baking pan before adding the rhubarb pieces.

Abundant is too tame a word to describe well-established rhubarb. If you have some in your garden or a corner of your yard, you know what I mean. Tune in right here in the coming weeks for a few more ideas on cooking with rhubarb.

Becoming a Home–and a Construction Zone: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 8

Becoming a Home–and a Construction Zone: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 8

(If you’re just tuning in the Early Days on the Diagonal series, you may want to start here and work your way forward.)

Not surprisingly, December just keeps getting colder. As far as temperatures go, life in our shed isn’t much different from sleeping on the ground. Not much construction work gets done—we spend most of our time trying to keep warm. Finally, on December 20th, when at 1:00 pm the thermometer reads 5°, all our water and canned foods are frozen solid, and the temperature keeps dropping, we know we can’t keep this up.

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Within two hours we find a furnished one-bedroom apartment in town. Temporarily, we leave behind a lonely-looking but imposing 2 1/2 story structure—shingled and, for the most part, enclosed.

We also face the reality of a drastically low bank account. If we want to finish the house, we have to find paying work. Consequently, we have barely any time to work on the house. Vicious cycle.

Nonetheless, we continue our building efforts on weekends, and by mid-April, after nearly four months in town, we move back to our land, this time directly into the shell of our house. It, too, is only covered with blackboard—for the moment—but we do have doors. No glass in our twenty-three window openings, so we’re still very exposed to the elements.

Once again we turn to plastic, but this time with a protective layer of landscape shade cloth and rows of strapping to protect the plastic from the rain and whipping winds. This combo does nothing to abate either the cold or noise, though. We wince every time the fierce wind blows and beats noisily against the plastic.

Naturally, a cold front moves in the same time day we do and temperatures drop to the twenties. Our little space heater can’t compete. At least we’re warm when we snuggle under the electric blankets the Gnome’s parents have provided.

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Looking into kitchen area. Horizontal girts make perfect narrow shelves.

In May our phone is installed. Now we have access to the outside world. With no stairs yet, our access to the second floor is a ladder. Neither do we yet have running water; we’re still pretty much camping.

By the end of June, all the studs for our few interior walls are in place. We’re also beginning to put up exterior siding. With the height of the house and no scaffolding, this means even more ladder-climbing. It’s a slow process.

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Upstairs with loft above. Look carefully and you can see some of the horizontal plastic strapping protecting our plastic-covered window openings.

The glass for our windows arrives in August. After installing them, we finish most of the exterior siding. We wait for lumber prices to drop before buying the rest. We also install our tub, toilet, and bathroom and kitchen sinks, but it will be a full year after we’ve moved back up here before we complete all the plumbing work and get running water. Since we’re dependent on an electric pump, getting water is also dependent on having electricity. The Gnome’s electrician dad does a walkthrough to assure us we’re doing it right. April 24th, 1981, the day we’ve completed our wiring and water is finally running to all our indoor fixtures, is a red-letter day for sure!

Our home’s far from finished—for instance, we’ve only now finished nailing down the subflooring that’s been sitting on joists for a year—but we finally bring all our belongings home from the storage unit where they’ve been sitting for eighteen months. It gives the place a homey feel.

Punkin and Cuddlebug’s extracurricular activities keep us so busy that work on the house slows to barely a crawl. Living in an unfinished house means working around people, furniture, and stacks of unpacked boxes, slowing things down even more.

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Lumber gets stored inside to protect it from the weather.

It will be another five years before we have a kitchen counter and cabinets, and still another before we get around to painting our interior walls, build a closet, and finish the exterior siding.

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Before we had a closet

In truth, we will never get finished. When we once again have time—and money—to finish the job, the house will be begging for some serious rehab and remodeling. But that’s another story for another time. Meanwhile, stay tuned for a bonus segment of Early Days on the Diagonal.

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Except for painting the window trim (we’d started, upper right) and vent openings below windows, this is as finished as it gets until thirty years or so hence.

California Dreamin’ – Continued

California Dreamin’ – Continued

Last Tuesday’s post tells a bit about our recent trip to California. I won’t repeat it here. Just wanted to share some more photos as promised. (Some pix by the Gnome; some by me–can’t remember whose is whose anymore.)

Leaving Pt. Reyes

Pride of Madeira

 

Windblown

Point Bonita, across the bay from San Francisco

Scene 1 from the Hearst Castle

Scene 2 from the Hearst Castle–the man knew how to find a heck of a view.

Surfin’

Oceanside Pier at twilight

Nearly full moon

 

So many orange, lemon, and quince trees. How I wanted to reach up and snatch a juicy one.

This guy was a real showoff.

Don’t let this soft-looking Teddy Bear cactus fool you . . .

their spikes can cause serious injury.

Western jay

See those big patches of yellow? California’s wildflowers were just beginning to put on their display while we were there, working their way up the mountainsides.

 

Lizard

 

San Simeon

Moving on Up: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 7

Moving on Up: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 7

(This is the seventh in an eight-part series about our early attempts at modern homesteading. If you’re just tuning in, you may want to start back at the first one and work your way forward.)

We’re using a post-and-beam construction technique. It’s the easy way to go for the open floor plan we’re set on. After putting in floor joists, we begin work on our posts. Lifting them into place is a struggle—each post is made up of three 2×6 boards that are ten feet long, weighing almost 150 pounds each. That’s a lot for the two of us to manage without proper equipment. As physical as the work is, it’s not enough to keep us warm on fall days.

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The first post has been successfully raised.

On October 5, as we begin the fourth month of our adventure, we raise the last of the twenty first-floor posts. The same day we’re surprised to look out over the field and spot our first snowfall of the season; leaves are just now beginning to change color.

Beam-lifting turns out to be another feat requiring engineering creativity. Eleven-foot lengths of built up 2×10’s are even heavier than the posts and have to be lifted eight feet up to attach to the posts. Relying on ladders makes us nervous as we fit and nail beams and posts together.

With the beams in place, we can install the tongue-and-groove upstairs floor, which will also serve as the downstairs ceiling. We don’t have a floor downstairs yet, but one upstairs is necessary to get on with the next steps. My parents lend helping hands again.

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Our nearest neighbor and his dog come to watch when the septic tank and water reservoir are installed in late October.

Back in the shed, it’s gotten pretty chilly. We have a small electric space heater, but with an open doorway and our flimsy structure, it heats the rest of the county, too. Just for the sake of warmth, we usually dress for the the next day before we hop into our sleeping bags each night.

The fall colors are enchanting. Clouds drift by, creating fascinating patterns of light and shadow on the mountains, Nature’s kaleidoscope. It’s so mesmerizing often we find it hard to focus on work.

Second floor posts and beams go up, followed by beams to support the ceiling and roof. To work on these, we lay a 2×10 board across the lower beams as a precarious scaffold of sorts.

After adding upstairs ceiling boards, we close in the structure with plywood and blackboard—hanging precariously around the sides, under the bottom, and over the top to do so—all because we lack scaffolds and sufficiently long ladders.

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We rig up a pulley system to pull plywood and blackboard into position, then nail it in place from inside.

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We have to stay ahead of the weather, so my parents come for one last weekend of feverish work adding roof rafters, insulation, and plywood to support our shingles.

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We add plywood to the front center for structural stability and begin framing for glass.

By golly, it’s actually beginning to look like a house.

(Stay tuned for the next episode of Early Days on the Diagonal.)

California Dreamin’

California Dreamin’

The Gnome and I recently returned from our very first trip to California, where we were guests of dear, decades-old friends. It was phenomenal, and the best part is that even after being in each other’s pockets for nearly every waking hour of our two-week visit, we’re still tight (I hope!).

We visited the south, the north, and in between; we saw the coast and the desert; we went to Indio, Oceanside, San Diego’s Balboa Park, San Simeon, Chico, San Francisco, and Berkeley. We saw three amazing plays, toured museums, rode the cable cars, and spent a few hours at Fisherman’s Wharf. We explored a national park, a national seashore, a national maritime historic park, and a national monument. We marveled at the cacti, animals, palm trees—lots and lots of palm trees, snow-capped mountains, and wildflowers.

We listened to the the sea lions and roamed around Hearst Castle. We drove past hundreds of wind turbines and miles and miles of almond trees; we hiked into a canyon and up a mountain, around a lake, and through the woods; we played Phase 10 and Pandemic (now, that’s a brain strainer). We traveled to Point Reyes (the only foggy day of our journey, so we could barely see its lighthouse), and we stood in hushed awe among the mighty redwoods in Muir Woods.

We had good times with our friends’ very grown up children and their fine partners. We bought groceries together, we cooked together, we ate great food and drank fine wine together, and we shared hours of light banter and deep conversation.

It was a busy couple of weeks. Words can’t do it justice. Neither can photos, but I can’t resist the urge to share. There are far too many to put up on one post, so I’m planning a follow-up in a week or two. (Except for sunsets, photos courtesy of the Gnome)

Juxtaposition

Looking up down in Palm Canyon

Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua tree in bloom

I’ve seen sunrises over the Atlantic, but this was my first Pacific sunset. It did not disappoint!

Another Pacific sunset

Around San Simeon

Pt. Reyes National Seashore on a foggy day

Redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument

Redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco from across the bay

Grabbing some rays

Moon jellies, Aquarium by the Bay

California poppies were popping up everywhere.

It was a kick watching the cable car turntables and the grip operator at work. We were lucky to snag outside seats. We held on tight!

 

 

Electricity and Wind: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 6

Electricity and Wind: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 6

(This is the sixth in an eight-part series. If you haven’t been following the journey, you may want to start back at the beginning and work your way forward.)

As idyllic as our wild life can be, we welcome the August arrival of electricity. The electric cooperative has to run power up the mountain to put in our temporary pole. We can only operate one or two items at a time, but that’s a big improvement over hand saws and drills.

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We have a road put in, a necessity for getting deliveries of building materials, our water reservoir and septic tank. An added bonus—no more walking in and out with groceries, laundry, and those heavy five-gallon water containers.

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Building the road is one of the few things we don’t do ourselves.

Summertime’s a damp season up here, but this year it’s been extreme, raining nearly every day. We need it relatively dry to finish digging these trenches or the walls could fall in. There’s nothing to do but wait—impatiently—for things to dry up.

Out of the blue, we experience David, our first hurricane in the mountains. The Gnome and I lie awake all night listening to the wind blow across the mountains. Each time it does, we hear it roaring through the trees for at least five minutes before it finally reaches us. When it does hit, it hits with a fury, tearing at our plastic walls. They weren’t meant for this kind of abuse. When we’re not making a futile effort at sleep, we’re outside in the driving rain and wind furiously nailing up strips of scrap lumber to try to hold whatever remains of the plastic in place.

At about 5:00 am we’re too exhausted to care much anymore—which is just as well since the plastic roof caves in. The kiddles slept through it all.

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After a nightlong battering, our black plastic “roof” caves in, dousing everything.

After the kids leave for school, we buy supplies and put on a real roof with plywood and asphalt rolls. Within days we get reports that a second hurricane is following David’s path. We rush into town for blackboard to replace the plastic walls.

In retrospect, 2017: Well, obviously, we should have invested more into this structure.  It would have come in handy later, too, as an outbuilding.

Other than to adhere the first course of concrete block to the footings, we forego the traditional mortar in favor of fiberglass reinforced bonding cement. The snow white mixture with its shard-like fibers bears a remarkable resemblance to shredded coconut and has us craving for macaroons.

We have to keep our heads covered while we’re mixing so our hair doesn’t bond to our scalps. As usual, we improvise, using old t-shirts as makeshift hats.

Building the foundation has been nervewracking. For all the how-to books on home construction, we’ve been able to find absolutely no guidance on this critical first step. Even the extensive building code offers no direction. We have a great reference book titled From the Ground Up. We wish in vain for a From the Ground Down manual.

In retrospect, 2017: We did okay—the house is still standing.

                                      The kids like to help when they get home from school.

(Stay tuned for Part 7 of Early Days on the Diagonal.).