The List (in Three Parts)

THE LIST (in three parts)   

When I announced my decision to retire from a thirty-five+ year career in public service a few years ago, I got lots of questions about my future plans. Curiosity about how I would spend my retirement was so boundless that I decided to make a list for my inquirers: One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire. For the most part my plans were simple: ditch the makeup and hairspray, make baskets, wear pj’s all day, donate about ninety percent of my clothing to Goodwill, take the back roads. So many things. I dashed off my list in a flash.

Part I: “What Will You Do?”

The question I was asked most often almost always came with its own answer attached: “What will you do in retirement—travel?” Most everyone, it seemed, assumed I’d become a full-time tourist. Apparently, that’s what people expect of retirees. Indeed, it’s what lots of Silvers do. I know folks who, in between their many domestic treks, make two, three, or more overseas trips each year.

But travel, outside of more frequent visits to our children and their families, was not on my agenda. My interests were much closer to home. Rather, they were at home.

Simplicity. In a world that was claiming too much of me, simple was all I wanted. I looked forward to not having an alarm clock blare me awake before daylight, to going barefoot all day, to reading in the hammock. I wanted to take things a bit more slowly and to live more simply. All these things were on my list, too.

When a long-distance friend asked the inevitable question and I answered that I wanted to get back to the simple life we’d begun here so many years ago, I could hear her almost choking on her coffee as she spluttered, “I’ve heard about that life of yours, and it’s anything but simple!” She was right, of course. Hand building our house while we lived without running water, toilet facilities, kitchen appliances, or heat had been anything but simple, at least in the sense of being easy or even uncomplicated. But it was straightforward; it was a return to the basics. That’s what I meant.

Building our house all by ourselves

I wanted to learn some of the old ways, to learn or relearn some fundamental life skills, to feel real. I wanted to live more intentionally, to lead a more conscious life, to be under the influence of nature, to tread lightly. I wanted to live more sustainably and move more towards self-reliance. I wanted to know, for instance, that if I lost power for  six months, I’d be able to cope. I wanted to eat real food, food I grow and prepare myself rather than something that comes in a box.

A day’s garden haul

I wanted to live in the present. I wanted to unclench my jaws.

Simple? Maybe not. Basic? Real? Most definitely. Have I succeeded? Well, like most things, finding my way to a new lifestyle is a process. I think I’m well on my way and I feel more content every day.

Maybe it really is about traveling. Getting back to basics is a journey, after all.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The List next week.)

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.).

Daily Life: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 5

Daily Life: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 5

(If this is your first time visiting the Early Days series, may I suggest you start here and work your way forward?)

Everyday life is a wee bit different when you have neither electricity nor running water, but we’re finding our way. To get water for our daily needs, we fill two five-gallon containers every couple of days from an enclosed spring with an overflow spout by the side of the state maintained road about three-quarters of a mile away.

Sometimes, we take sponge baths, and sometimes we take advantage of the almost daily rain for a brief shower. (Brr-r-r!) When we feel especially in need of a good cleansing, we trek deep into the woods for an exhilarating 40-degree creek bath. Our secret site is decorated with rhododendron flowers and boasts a convenient mountain laurel towel rack. We always leave with a strange sensation of lightheadedness, especially when we wash our hair in that cold, cold water.

 

On occasion, we take a trip to town for a dip in the county pool preceded by a real shower with hot, running water. It’s the only time we feel really and truly clean. Eventually, these trips become a twice-weekly routine that provides us with a time for family play as well as some good exercise. Not that we don’t get plenty with all the digging and tree-cutting, but this feels different—and a lot more fun.

We spend evenings and rainy afternoons (plenty of those) reading stories aloud from our stash of books from the county library. We especially enjoy Ramona and Clifford the Big Red Dog books. Other favorites are That Quail, Robert and the iconic raccoon tale, Rascal. We’re also fascinated by Eric Sloane’s Diary of an Early American Farm Boy, a pioneer-days real-life story that seems to parallel our own experiences at the moment. When we’re not reading, we pass the time creating themed crossword puzzles for each other to complete.

One of the joys of building our house ourselves is getting to be out in nature and getting to know our little corner of paradise on an intimate basis. As we dig, we find all sorts of interesting creatures: a golden-eyed spade-footed toad, black and red salamanders, and shrews that can’t seem to stay out of the holes.

Each morning brings an untold number and variety of spiderwebs, with dewdrops making them sparkle in the sun. The geometric masterpieces can be found on fences, in trees, and just about anywhere else one can imagine. I stalk these works of natural art with camera poised.

 

Now that we’re out here in the country so far away from city lights, we can really appreciate the night sky. In August, we ‘re treated to the Perseid meteor showers. We’ve never seen anything like it.

Mid-August heralds the beginning of the school year, which always coincides with the blooming of the touch-me-nots (or jewelweed) that line the long gravel drive to our house. Afternoon walks from the bus stop are always slow because our children can’t resist stopping to pop every seed pod they spy.

What a delightful surprise it is to discover wild blueberry and blackberry plants on our land. It’s a charmed life we’re living.

(More of the Early Days on the Diagonal series coming next week. Stay tuned.)

Getting to the Nitty Gritty: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 4

Getting to the Nitty Gritty: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 4

(If you’re just now joining this conversation, you may want to start here and work your way forward.)

It’s now been two weeks since we moved here. Now that we’re settled in the shed, things are happening faster. As I continue to chop trees, sling weeds, and shovel clay and gravel, the Gnome swelters in the shed poring over reference books and drawing house plans. We want every detail to be just so—we’ve read horror stories about inspectors who give newbie builders a hard time, so we expect to be unduly scrutinized. The whole building thing is the Gnome’s forte, but we decide I need to get better versed in this area, too, so we can jointly think through design issues.

In retrospect, 2017: Glad we figured this out back then. The second opinion/sounding board role has been essential through the years. We now laughingly say that my job, whenever the Gnome is tackling a big project, is to say, “Isn’t there a simpler way?”

We want large fixed-glass windows across the south-facing side of the house to provide passive solar heat. A local company will make insulated glass panels to our specifications. Our reference books tell us it will be no problem to mount, cushion, caulk, and trim them ourselves.

In retrospect, 2017: Big mistake. Silicone caulking didn’t do the trick; our windows weren’t water- and airtight. Nor did we accommodate for natural expansion and contraction. Within months, several of our big glass panels cracked. We lived with them—unhappily—for years.

A long week later and our plans are finally ready. We nervously deliver them to the building inspector. He approves our permit on the spot, no questions asked.

We start work right away, first measuring our footprint, then digging trenches for the foundation. Before long, the dirt is flying. Literally—we’re digging with only shovels and muscle power. This is more like it!

 

Cuddlebug digs digging, but it’s a challenge when the holes become as deep as he is tall.

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Building forms for our very carefully dug footings.

It’s pretty smooth sailing till we get to the third corner and find nothing but rock. There’s just enough wiggle that we don’t dare incorporate the rock into the foundation. It takes days and a big dose of creativity to break it up and leverage out the biggest pieces. The Gnome demonstrates Archimedes’ physics lesson: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” We feel like we’ve moved the world by the time we get the trench cleared.

 

We’ve been here exactly one month when my parents come up for a weekend of help. Cuddlebug and Punkin make miniature dams and ponds in the creek while the men dig out the nearby spring that we hope will provide our water supply.

 

They’ve determined, none too scientifically, that the spring should easily produce enough water to meet our future plumbing needs. That’s great news—there’s something about the idea of getting our water from a spring that feels natural and pure.

In retrospect, 2017: After 38 years, our spring’s still doing its job. It’s never run dry. On the other hand, we’ve had to repair or replace more pumps than we can remember, some due to lightning, some . . . well, we don’t rightly know. We do know it’s no fun to find yourself soaped up in the shower when suddenly there’s no water. Because we’re hardcore do-it-yourselfers, this often means a week or so without water while we figure out and fix the problem. Having gone much longer without running water and survived it, at least we know we can do it again.

(Stay tuned for next week’s Early Years on the Diagonal adventure.)