Monday, December 6, 2010

First Year of Construction: Nov. & Dec. 2007

When I first began writing this blog I had already been working on the house for about a year and a half. My wife set it up for me and insisted I keep a journal of what I was doing. My account pretty much begins at that point, when the walls and roof were already built and there was electricity flowing into the house. By the time I began writing, the house was relatively comfortable. So there is a big gap up to that point in my story to anyone who wishes to follow my adventure from the beginning. I have added some prequels in between, the last one ending with my trip in October of 2007 (please refer to the entry of Feb.4 2010: First Year of Construction: Oct. 2007) when my parents came to visit and we started building a platform for a somewhat temporary shack which was meant to be an addition to the current tiny living quarters of a slide-on truck camper built in the 1970s. The "addition" was meant to solve some heating and storage issues I had with the little camper, but in retrospect I can't help but wonder "what was I thinking?" Why didn't I simply build a small box off the camper and be done with it? I would still have had a place to store my tools and a shelter for a wood burning stove to solve my heating woes. It could have been done after only a couple of visits. It didn't need to be any more complicated than my outhouse. Instead I have erected a monstrosity from almost no plans that has now eaten the camper and continues to grow and envelope a nearby tree. Most disturbing of all is that this mass of wood, metal and glass has a foundation originally meant for a shack. I've since beefed it up with stone and more "feet" but it is not set deep enough for any kind of permanent structure. It just sort of "floats" on the ground. It's like a ship at sea now resigned to dip and heave in the ocean of soil and rock to be torn apart by the whims of the Earth. There are no signs of damage by frost heave yet but I fear that soon the rocking of the ground will show it's strength. First the doors and windows will get sticky. Little by little the frame will turn from a cube to a trapezoid; only slightly at first but as the years pass the frame's shifting will loosen the sheathing and everything else with it. The corners will open up with triangular holes and the roof will buckle and open up the interior to rain. Water will drip drip drip into all the corners and passageways as water likes to do, bringing with it rot. The house's bones will become brittle and break under it's own weight. The house will implode and eventually be scattered by the wind leaving only two old oil drums that once held up a slide-on truck camper built in the 1970s.
Perhaps it is a fitting end. And perhaps I should save sharing my fear of death for another entry.

For now I just want to close the gap in the history of this project. I did return in November of 2007. At that time I was spending only about 3 days a (winter) month on the project so progress was slow. This was due to a few factors some having to do with my work situation on Cape Cod and partly due to power limitations. I had no electricity yet. I did all my cutting for construction with a Stihl chainsaw. The only other usable tools I had was a cordless drill and jigsaw. Each had a battery that was also interchangeable with a utility light which got a lot of use in the evening. The camper's power source was a couple of old car batteries that I soon replaced with one deep cycle RV battery. The camper's battery could easily power it's small interior lights for days on end but the propane heater was coupled to a fan on a thermostat. Kicking on the heater also meant running the fan. The camper was so flimsy and marginally insulated that even with the thermostat set at 50 degrees (it's lowest setting) the heater was kicking on every few minutes and ran continuously when it was really cold outside. It was so inefficient that after only a few nights the battery was dead and my propane tank dry. I spent some very cold nights in a soggy camper with a heater that barely worked. I could have bought some more batteries and more propane tanks but as has been the case throughout this project I did have (and do have) a very limited budget. To add to the discomfort of the leaky camper it was also home to an extended family of mice who stayed up all night scratching and clawing at the inner walls. I caught dozens in traps but there were always more to take their place. I had reoccurring dreams in which armies of little grey mice clawed and nibbled on my feet and face while I slept. I really wanted a new place to sleep. I figured that as soon as the first floor's sheathing and windows were in place I could erect a make shift roof and heat myself with the wood stove and sleep next it on an old couch or something.

By the end of that November visit I had nailed up all of the OSB sheathing, installed four windows (I had bought used for $20 each locally) framed and covered the second floor with 1" hemlock. There were still some large openings left open to the world: two post and beam framed "doorways" in the eastern and western sides, and the landing between the camper and the "house" which was closed on all sides but open to the sky. There ended my November visit. I threw a tarp over the open landing and put a few sheets of plywood and metal roofing on the second floor to have a sort of roof to keep the interior dry. It didn't work...


More than a foot of snow had fallen since my last visit. I shifted my pickup into four wheel drive and plowed through the snow, wheels spinning until I reached the top of the little plateau where my shack stood. I had with me a load of furniture donated by the Bennett/Tasha family of Truro. The load included a recliner a dresser and a couch that I intended to sleep on that night. It was already late afternoon, sky darkening and the house was full of snow. The tarp I had hung at the close of my previous visit had filled up with snow and now hung like a sack between the back of the camper and the second floor of the house. Casting it loose was not an easy task and as soon as I did the snow ended up piled on the floor of the landing. I would have been better off not hanging the tarp at all. By then it was almost completely dark. I donned my head-light flashlight and lit my propane lantern. I started a fire in the stove and got it going good and hot. I then shoveled out the majority of the snow around the stove.
Now I needed to enclose the stove so I could sleep next to it. The stove already had the make-shift roof of the second floor and on top of that I had laid sheets of metal roofing and plywood to cover the slats. The walls, however still had three gaping holes. I covered the door opening in the eastern wall by nailing a sheet of plywood over it. Then with a couple of tarps I made a wall over the opening to the landing which was still open to the sky and full of snow. It was also my route to the camper and it's kitchen. I hung the tarps in such a way that I could slip in and out. With the last opening in the western wall I was going high tech with an actual door. I had found a pre-hung exterior door in a dumpster months earlier and I had saved it for this very occasion. Being already hung in a frame and with a header already in place in the wall it went up relatively quickly. I closed up the last small gaps around the frame with a few pieces of plywood. Boom! Done! Milestone: a new place to sleep. The enclosure was already beginning to hold heat. I dragged the couch out of the truck and into the shack and set it in the snow next to the stove. It was late in the evening by then and I was going to sleep well tonight! Or so I thought. Sleeping on a couch next to the stove was cold and cramped. I bundled up well but dreaded each time during the night when I had to get up to reload the stove or go pee in my pee-jar. Still, it was better than the camper which in turn was better than a tent. I was moving up in the world.

I awoke the next morning with gusto. It was time to frame out the second floor which meant a roof was soon to come. I started out building on a sunny morning with what 2X6s I had left over from before. I soon ran out but was low on money and could not afford to buy more. I did, however have some pressure treated 2X6's that I had salvaged from a demolition on the Cape. So I used those. In retrospect I should not have done that. It was a waste of good pressure treated wood and it was very difficult to nail together. Every other nail I tried to drive in would bend. Eventually I built graduated walls that could carry the weight of the pitched saltbox roof at several points. I also added a dormer facing south that was not in my original plans but when a clear evening sunset brought to my attention how nice it would be to have a point from which to gaze upon future sunsets I decided to build one. So with pressure treated studs in the upper floor it would last forever. At the same time I noticed that some of the studs in the lower walls were already showing signs of rot. I guess I should have taken a better look at them before pulling them from the discard pile at the lumber yard. As I have done many times before and as I have done many times since, I reproached myself for being so careless. So stupid to have let that go unnoticed. I am blessed with a respectable amount of will-power but am capable of astonishing lapses in judgement. That can be a dangerous combination.. I must remind myself always to be careful and think things through.

So with the second level walls framed, my few days visit to Maine was at an end and I needed to get back to the Cape. Before leaving I stood on the second floor and imagined what it would feel like when the walls were closed up and the roof in place. A far sight warmer, that's for sure! But also I imagined a feeling of protection and sanctuary.
Somewhere in the middle of the framing process during which I was trying to nail together boards that seemed to be made of stone, I had one of those moments that was simply remarkable. The sun setting low in the sky cast a celestial light of Devil's Red across the snow and the trees. The quiet in those woods was so pure and extraordinary that I had to pause and take in all that was around me. My soul felt full of joy and gratitude and I knew that I had found the path I was looking for. In spite of whatever mistakes or lack of patience or stupidity that I had and would display in the process of this undertaking I would be taken care of; I was a part of some sort of Great Spirit or Oneness; and this project and this land was my Way towards it. Nowhere have I ever been able to experience such states of being with any kind of consistency but on this land. No doubt this is a religious experience.
Now it was time to return to the world of the Living with work and rules. I packed the truck, said farewell to the shack and headed south.

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