Thawing our paws by the fire

Well friends, I am pleased to tell you that WE MADE IT!

There was a long faltering moment, or maybe it was more like a couple of weeks, when we felt just on the verge of throwing in the towel on this whole crazed notion and retreating to our house in Scranton (which has not yet sold), where the gas appliances hum and there is heat, running water, and Mexican takeout.

It was cold here, so very cold. The tent was no longer homey and inviting.

Waking up to temps in the low teens is a motivating situation. It makes you want to get the house insulated so you can move in. It is also dispiriting, which is interesting, isn't it? On the one hand you think, we're fucked. And on the other hand your last ember of optimism flares weakly with hope.

I have often thought to myself in recent weeks, you are like a cat on a rug in the sun. You are like a squirrel on a branch in a swaying breeze. You are like a sloth with a martini in your paw. When it is warm, you only want to curl up in the heat of the beautiful kind glowing world, and when it is cold you are like what the hell is wrong with me?! why didn't i store any nuts?

So many standards of civility and hygiene go by the wayside when all the buckets of water are frozen, the dish soap is frozen, your fingers are numb, and the path to the spring is icy and  treacherous and sharp. Outdoor baths, dippered from a dutch oven brimming with hot water, are romantic and lovely in the summer landscape. In the winter those baths hurt and make me cry, even when taken in the washtub in the tent in front of the electric heater.

Which is why I took to relieving this tragedy by telling Matt my funny story called We Are Two Dirty Trappers. (I just finished reading a historical novel with a trapper in it, and this trapper was a filthy, foul, wretched individual.) When Matt says, do we need to wash a dish?, I say, no! we are two dirty trappers! Because a trapper would only have one frying pan, and he would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner from it, with no cleanings in between, if he were lucky enough to have such a round assortment of meals. He would drink his dram of rum and be content with a sputtering campfire before him and the weather and the wolves at his back.

But all that - the wishing we'd built this house faster, the living as two dirty trappers - that's in the past! I am typing to you from inside our toasty new home, where the fire flickers sweetly. The house is insulated! It has no sheet rock or running water yet, but that will come in time, and we will heat water on the stove for washing ourselves and our dishes until that day. I am just very glad to be warm and dry.

Besides the actual insulation project, which took some time (we covered the interior stud wall with special fabric and rented a machine to blow dense-pack cellulose behind that), there was a long and fraught ditch-digging saga. I will not go into detail regarding the tractor breakages that occurred, I'll just give you the happy news that our well pump is in, our water, power and phone lines are run underground to the house, and all trenches have been refilled. Shit's not all hooked up yet, but we're close.

We have a house! 'Tis the season for feeling thankful, and I am so very thankful for this new wooden box. Our most excellent family and friends helped greatly with this project, and I'm very thankful to them, too. I will try to stay on task with Matt and complete the drywall, so that we can all celebrate together soon. I will not heap up my wool blankets on the hearth in front of the wood stove, and I will not hollow out a small nest for me in the center, and I will not arrange my coffee and my pencils and my tower of books and paper so all can be reached from within. Not just yet.


Mount Moosilauke

There was one day when I said to Matt, The End Is Nigh, and I can not toil another hour without losing my faith in this godforsaken fools' dream and plummeting deep, deep into the bourbon bottle, not to reemerge til the new moon.

And Matt said to me, well why don't we go for a hike instead? And so we climbed Mount Moosilauke, and it was beautiful, and might I say: if you choose only to bag your peaks on clear days with long views, you will miss out on the sad dark heartbreak of the high, cold fog, where the boreal chickadees are.


The frosty damp damp

We had our first hard frost in the middle of September, and I was like, what the hell!? no one said this was going to happen. That's a joke, because everyone said that was going to happen. Vermonters have a tradition of welcoming newcomers by asking how many cords of firewood you have put up, and then after some quick addition, they say you need two more than that to survive.

So that's how I knew it was going to get cold, and boy howdy, has it. But tonight I am warm, enjoying the second fire in our newly-chimneyed wood stove, in the house. I will soon retreat to the icy black depths of the wall tent, which still shelters our bed and kitchen, but for now my toes are toasty.

In the weeks since I last wrote, here is what has happened: We tar papered the roof and walls, and a roofing company installed standing seam. It was the only house-construction project we've had the pleasure of hiring out, and it was fun to watch a small crew of professionals bang out our roof in two hours. Nothing, oh nothing, has taken us two hours. Everything has taken so many more. But for the most part, we are having fun and satisfaction.

We installed eight windows. With much help from family, we stained the shiplap siding, and installed half of it. With the roof on, the rafter tails and eaves stained, and some of the siding up, we can see what this place is going to look like, and I am pleased.

Also, the Season Spectacular has been and gone. The maples put on such a fiery riot that it was like being inside the pumpkin. The ash trees are not as notorious, but they are my favorite - each one a smoky, smudgy bruised-bronze lantern on the mountainside.


What it's like

Let me tell you what it's like, living out here. I've wanted to tell you that for awhile. People ask, is it like camping? The answer is, it is and it isn't.

I love camping. When I'm camping, I'm my happiest. I'm silly and relaxed and in touch with the place I'm in and the person I am. I like myself when I'm camping.

This is like that, because we are in the outdoors, all the time. Even when we're sleeping, it's just the tent canvas between us and the stars. Throughout June, there were so many fireflies in our clearing, and so many stars in the sky, that they met where the treetops ended, and it was just one sparkling veil from the ground up into the Milky Way. The black was so black, it was bottomless and ever expanding.

The owls talk across the hills to one another, and I hear them when I'm swimming up from dreams at night. They are in the trees when I stumble out the tent flaps in the wee hours to pee in the grass. There is one called the Little Monkey Owl, whose hoots are very silly. There is Cockamamie Raven, who fledged from the nest this year, and never quite seemed to grow up all the way.

There is Mouse, who enters the camp kitchen late at night and finds a good chip bag or brown paper sack to crumple loudly. He jumps from mason jar to mason jar with just enough oomph to make a satisfying sound when the lid depresses and then pops back. When I rise from bed to confront him about his Unacceptably Loud Midnight Trespass, he perches on the edge of the peanut butter jar and questions me with his enormous satellite-dish ears: you wouldn't pick me up and throw me, would you? little old me?

There is a hummingbird that visits each morning while we're having coffee. We have a small garden of potted plants on the tent deck. There are zinnias, nicotiana, nasturtiums and verbena, and hummingbird enjoys them all, then perches on the little cage of branches I made for our tomato plant. One of these days she'll be off to sunnier shores, and we'll miss her as we're warming our fingers on our mugs.

It smells good here, like different kinds of honey (the locust, the milkweed, the goldenrod), or like hot balsam. It never smelled so sweet in Scranton. Today when I called and left a message for a friend, I had one small pang of missing our back porch in Scranton... I thought how nice it would be to sit there with her and share a bottle of wine, like we used to do. I can honestly say that was the only such pang I've had. This is home now, and I am attached.

The part of this that is not like camping is the pressure. We now have a house shaped box, but it isn't the kind of cozy box a person could spend the winter in. There's a long way to go. Will we have time to do it all? Will we have enough money? These are the constant questions, besides all the technical ones like, how the hell are you supposed to fucking do this? I ask myself that many times a day. Then I ask Matt, then I ask my dad, then sometimes he asks our friend Carl, and when all else fails I ask the internet. In the end I either get the right answer or cobble together whatever-it-is in the best fashion I can.

So, that is what it's like. I am sitting here in the house, listening for the first time to the rain on the roof. We got the felt on just before the weather turned. Or rather, I watched Matt swing and scamper back and forth across the roof and roll out reams of felt and tack them down while I clung white-knuckled and for-dear-life to the totally bombproof rope and harness he'd rigged up for me. I am grateful that he is not a'feared of heights, or we'd have a very short house indeed.


Water and some walls!

We've been so busy framing, I've had no time to write! Today we are Both Very Tired. Here's what's been happening.

First, we had a well drilled. 240 feet down, 35 gallons a minute! Now there is a big black pipe sticking out of the ground, and you can hit the lid with a stick and make wonderful echoing noises that go deep into the heart of the earth. We don't have a well pump or a water line to the house site yet, so we continue to haul pails up the hill from the spring for washing, and carboys from the neighbor's tap for drinking.

Second, we have been hammering nails. Big ones, 20d. My arm is tired. My mom and dad have been visiting frequently - they bring tools, manpower, guidance (they've built lots of stuff, including a house of their own almost 40 years ago), and FOOD. While Dad is helping us build, Mom paints the landscape and then cooks a wonderful meal over the campfire which fortifies and revives us.

We've also had a lot of help from friends. Francis spent a day with us sheathing the house, and Pete was here for two days raising rafters and roof boards. Because of this, we now have a house-shaped thing. It feels monumental. Momentous. Amazing. Thank you, our friends - you're the best.

There are so very many things I think of to tell you throughout the day, and I look forward to remembering those things sometime. When I do, maybe it will be snowing, and I'll be sitting by the wood stove. That's a nice idea. If this happens, I will write. Til then, hammer on.

P.S. Today we just simply couldn't hammer one more nail, so we went for ice cream. It's a half hour drive for ice cream, and that feels kind of extravagant, but a person has to live a little, don't they? The best part of ice cream was, we passed so many sheep on the way! They were all belly deep in fresh green forage, and there were all these new little fluffy brown ones, so I nearly deafened myself with squealing.


A terrier in the weeds

Everyone needs a wiry little mischief seeking mud puppy in their life, no? This is Griffin, the subject of my most recent pet portrait. It was challenging to draw a dog who really, truly does have a grin on her face much of the time... It's hard to make a smiling dog face not look human. Some pet portraits roll right off the tongue... or off the pencil lead... and others do not. I struggled with this one, but am happy with it in the end. When you only get to meet a pet in photos, on the computer screen, how do you know if you captured their likeness and their spirit in a way that will ring true with their person? I never know, and gosh darn it does make me nervous.


And... We have a foundation!

We spent much of last winter planning the house we would build this summer, and then trashed those plans entirely. The new plans evolved as we've been living on the land, and they are more humble: we are building a 16 x 22 house on concrete piers, with an open floor plan and a loft for sleeping. We settled on this because it is inexpensive and we can build it ourselves (with plenty of hands-on help from family and friends), and it will hopefully go up quick enough that we'll be cozy when the snow flies.

And so, it's been a busy couple of weeks around here. With the tractor and his very strong back, Matt dug us some footings. Eleven holes, each 3 feet wide and 4 feet deep. I was beginning to fear I would lose him to the earth forever, but he did eventually emerge from the last hole, a few pounds lighter and a few shades darker.

I scooped a few shovelfuls of dirt myself, but mostly, while Matt was digging, I was scratching out some house plans. I am trying to stay one step ahead of construction with these plans and cutlists and orders. It's just the way we do things, all last minute, when we can see the project laid out in front of us. It comes of not having any idea what the hell we're doing, but really wanting to do it anyway. It might be foolish, or it might just be the way we work best together. It is definitely one of the things that makes us kindred spirits.

Our first load of rough-cut hemlock and spruce was delivered the day after the concrete truck came. A few days later, with the help of Matt's dad and step-mom (who are here from Minnesota) and the direction of my dad (who has plenty of past construction experience), we got the girders on the piers and the joists on the girders. This is the fun part, I think (though I've never done it before): the framing. I like to cut wood and nail it and watch it become something.

There have been many compromises made in these house plans. I never thought of this place as our dream house - that sounds so big and extravagant - but I did have ideas about the way I wanted things, so they would be nice. Matt did too. But ultimately, we only have so much money, and so many months, and when both of those are all run out, we damn well better have a house to live in. So this house won't allow us to try out some of the more interesting and innovative building techniques we were excited about, but I think it will still be pretty sweet. We are using a lot of local framing lumber - stuff that was grown and milled here in Vermont - and we feel good about that. We will be warm and comfortable and have a nice (tiny) kitchen, and we will be here, in this amazing place, where the outside is so much bigger than the inside, and there is land to explore. And that's what we were really going for all along.