Good Vibrations!

(Date stamp: late afternoon, August 3, 2019)

The Gnome and I don’t do all that much entertaining up here on the diagonal. That’s partly choice and partly circumstance. It’s funny, because as we were planning our open design floor plan all those years ago, we pictured lots of people milling about and even imagined having only giant floor pillows for seating so they could easily be shoved out of the way for more milling or even dancing.

I don’t know why we thought we’d be party-givers here—we hadn’t hosted many get-togethers back in Kentucky, either, though those few we did were always fun, whether is was sharing an evening of the Mille Bornes card game (with my French teacher colleague, of course) or hosting a Thanksgiving potluck with almost more people than could fit into our small suburban tract home.

Perhaps we had visions of showing off the fruits of our hand-building labor, but that was before the hustle-bustle of gymnastic lessons and competitions, track meets, and cross-country races. And it was before we realized we’d be living in a construction zone for years to come.

The way our forever home looked when we moved in–horizontal girts make perfect narrow shelves in our designated kitchen space.

But today was one of our rare company occasions. It was an almost-last-minute, spur-of-the-moment event, which probably made our day all the more enjoyable. We just relaxed our way into it. Our guests included my college roommate, Jan, and her spouse. The four of us had shared several outings in our college days, but decades intervened before we found our way back to each other. Only three visits in the last couple of years, each one making us wonder why we wait so long.

The other couple we’d never met.

For a couple of introverts, that’s the kind of thing that could create a pile of anxiety. But Lyn and I serendipitously and inadvertently had gotten to know each other rather well on social media—through Jan. (They are in-laws.) We became instant pals, each intrigued by the other’s life experience and appreciative of our common values. With Jan’s help, we’ve been trying to get together for a while, so today was a very big day.

Lyn has been eager to see what our ‘modern homesteading’ life is all about. If she was disappointed to learn that we keep no animals and that our garden is at rest this year, she didn’t show it. Instead, she—and all our guests—wanted to know how and why we up and left a familiar life and tried our hands at hand-building a home in a strange place, pretty much away from everything.

Working from the second story

Well, they got answers—and how! The thing is, since the Gnome and I are sort of on the reclusive side, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about this life we’ve chosen and the experiences we had living in a tent and then a barely less flimsy structure while clearing our land, leveling a hillside, and wielding hammer and saw as we also raised our family.

Our first ‘home’ on the diagonal

Oh, we were in our element, talking about those early days. Retelling our story today brought back so many memories—funny, daunting, and sometimes scary. It reminded us just how proud we are of the home and life we’ve built in this little slice of paradise. There are lots of other reasons our visit today was so special, but revisiting our early days on the diagonal warmed our souls.

So, thank you Lyn and Jan and Bob and Jim for rekindling old memories. I can guarantee we’ll go to sleep tonight with big smiles on our faces.

Friends, old and new

Celebration

 

Today marks a big anniversary in the Gnome and Crone’s household. Exactly forty years ago, our family began our biggest-ever family adventure when we came to this little corner of paradise to stay. Two thirty-something adults, two children only weeks away from their sixth and ninth birthdays, and two formerly housebound cats. We came with a suitcase each of clothes, a tent, and not much else except a whole lot of enthusiasm. Almost everything else—including jobs and any sense of financial security—we left behind.

We’d seen our property twice before—once in early April when we signed the contract, and again in late May. There was no sign of spring on either of those visits.

We had expected our Memorial Day weekend trip to be filled with clearing debris. Wearing nothing more than shorts, tees, and flip flops, we were unprepared when we opened the tent flap the next morning to snow! Clearly, we had a lot to learn about living in the mountains.

But this time was different. On July 2, 1979, summer was in full swing. No longer bare, the five acres of woods were lush with full-leafed maple, oak, beech, poplar, cherry, locust, and wild magnolia trees. The almost equally large section of open meadow was a massive sea of daisies, with the occasional black-eyed Susan thrown in for variety. It took my breath away.

The first few days were for exploring. We discovered the delicate deliciousness of tiny wild strawberries growing everywhere; we visited our wooded mountain creek; we discovered an old locust fence in the edge of the woods along our east boundary line; we found twists of downed trees and ferns and mushrooms and wildflowers.

We found home.

Forty years later, things look a bit different around here. Most of the meadow is gone, thanks to trees sprouting up when mowers were out of order or when we were too busy with life to get around to mowing. We jumped on the Christmas-tree-growing bandwagon and planted a few hundred Fraser Fir and Norway Spruce seedlings. Those, too, got out of hand. Today, they are crowded evergreen giants making a home for birds and other wildlife. Most of the daisies have gotten crowded out.

Just the lower portion of a few overgrown Christmas trees

We got the house built—and decades later, rebuilt. All with our own hands. As dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfers, we can’t bear to farm out any of the work on our place even if that means it gets left undone for far too long.

But we have done a lot. We cleared the land of some trees and over time planted more; we built our forever home with our four hands—as well as the help of four much smaller hands (setting out the building lines, foundation, plumbing, electrical, roofing—the whole bit); we built a spring house and pumped water up from the creek; we built a couple of outbuildings.

We started and abandoned one garden only to begin again a few decades later. This time we enclosed a 5400 square foot space, a space where many of those gorgeous daisies once lived, for vegetables and fruits—we’ve been working on that project for four or five years now, and we do a pretty good job of feeding ourselves from it throughout the year.

 

 

(It may not look like it, but that 5,400 sq ft of enclosed garden space (ready for planting) could hold six clones of our house with a decent amount of space left for landscaping. A couple days’ worth of harvest in pictures 2 and 3.)

Most of all, we raised a family. A family where our children learned the value of making do, of making their own fun, of how to do things with their hands, of learning by doing, and that it’s okay to take (certain) risks—to try new things with an entire world of unknowns in front of you.

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And now, we have grandchildren to share it all with, too.

It’s been a good forty years. We are looking forward to many more.

     

Same view (more or less) 1979 and 2019. Our road is under the snow.

 

    

Version 1.0 in need of serious rehab after 30 years vs. Version 2.0

If you want to learn more about our early homebuilding experience, you can start here.

Best Laid Plans

(This year marks the 250th anniversary of Daniel Boone’s first trip to Kentucky from North Carolina. The trip was filled with adversity. It reminded me of our own journey—especially since our path was similar to Boone’s except in reverse.)

Two hundred and twelve years after Daniel Boone left western North Carolina for his first foray into Kentucky, our family of two adults and two young children made its way from Kentucky to a new life in western North Carolina. Our adventures weren’t nearly such a hardship as the Boone band’s, but plenty hard, nonetheless.

Our plan was simple: camp out on our newly purchased land while we hand built—all by ourselves—our forever home. Reality was a little more complicated. For one thing, we had no jobs. For another, we had almost no money. Our budget was shoestring for sure.

For the younger campers, the best part of our earliest days of adventure revolved around the campfire.

 

The excitement of tent-camping in the wild far outweighed the inconvenience of having neither water nor electricity. We cooked over a campfire. A rhododendron thicket was the perfect spot for a pit toilet. We drove to a roadside spring to collect water. We hiked to a creek in the woods when we were desperate for an all-over, if frigid, bath. The return hike uphill sweated off our clean.

Daily thunderstorms sent us to the relative safety of our steamy car. Soppy sleeping bags regularly sent us to a laundromat in town. The effort of camping precluded any progress on building. We had to make alternative plans.

Instead of building our house, we built a very temporary shelter. It was all of 8′x12′, barely large enough to hold two cots and a double sleeping bag. The plywood floor kept us off the ground. We wrapped the lumber framework with inexpensive clear plastic for make-do walls and roof. Instead of a door, we had an opening covered with a tarp.

Our “kitchen” is outside on left end of shed. The doorway is also on the left end. Look carefully and you can see a suitcase and canned goods lined up along our front “wall.”

During the day our shed, as we called our new quarters, was a stifling greenhouse. Mountain nights were a different matter. We wrapped ourselves in sweaters under our blankets. Then the rains came, and the winds, in the form of an inland hurricane. Our  “walls” were decimated. The black plastic “roof” caved in. We were forced to invest in slightly sturdier materials.

It was a mess!

Finally, we could complete our building plans, which meant we could have a temporary power pole installed. Electricity made it ever so much easier to build, though the only power tools we had were a drill and a couple of circular saws. Nonetheless, progress was slow with two novices working on our first significant building project, learning as we went.

As the nights turned colder, we used a space heater to keep relatively warm, but with no door, much of the heat escaped. December’s bitter cold found us huddled over the heater more often than pounding nails.

Finally, it became too much. At 1:00 pm on December 20th, when the temperature dipped to five degrees and was heading lower and our water containers and canned goods were frozen solid, we faced the inevitable and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in town until warmer weather descended.

The state of things when the weather got the better of us.

In spite of the cold, we managed to get some work done on the house throughout the winter. Four months later when we returned to our mountain place, we moved into our home, a structure that barely qualified as a shell. Loose plywood covered the floor joists. Blackboard sheathing was the extent of our walls—no siding, no insulation, no drywall. Our plan called for lots of south-facing windows, but we had no windows. Once again, we used plastic to protect us from critters and the elements. A construction site heater warmed us during our morning bathing and dressing routines. We still had no running water and what little electricity we had access to still came from the temporary pole. Of course, we didn’t have a phone.

Except for the plastic we installed over the window openings, this is how the house looked when we moved in.

It would be another year before we got those modern conveniences and many more until our house was what most folks would consider properly finished. But we persevered.

Other than a coat of paint on the window trim (see where we’d started, upper right) and vent openings below windows, this was as finished as our house got until thirty or so years later when it got a total facelift–standard windows, horizontal siding, awnings, and more.

Almost forty years later, our daughter says our years of living in the wild brought our family closer together and notes that her somewhat unusual childhood always makes for a good conversation starter. Our son, wanting his own children to experience the kind of life he had as a kid, has begun a homebuilding venture of his own. The Gnome and I are still here, still working on our dream home. We are here to stay.It was an undertaking of our own choosing, born of youthful enthusiasm and sheer ignorance. Had we known what we were getting into, we might still be in Kentucky today. But we’d have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

(To read more about our homebuilding adventure, check out the nine-part series beginning here. Unrelated posts are interspersed, but you can scroll past those if you choose.)

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

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.

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 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.)

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.).