Friday, November 25, 2011

Walking the Land

     She's not a big parcel. Five hundred feet by seven-fifty. Shows up on the county plat map as a four sided micro. Barely big enough to get my initials in the rectangle. I dream of having more acreage, endless land of forest, lake and swamp visions. Maybe even an esker left over from the last Ice Age. Not in my cards. Both choice and circumstance say no. There are hills to our south and north. All of 'em moraines left by the glaciers. Our acreage is pretty flat and sand to the earth's core. Must have been a sandbox for the wooly mammoths to frolic in way back when.
     Over the last ten or twenty millennia a lot of feet have passed through. Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota, French, British, others. From the 1870's on our title shows a continual rotation between railroad, lumber barons and the State of Minnesota for a half century. You have to think there was money involved. Maybe a lot of money. Built James J. Hill quite a house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. The lumbermen didn't do badly either. The State runs about five billion in the hole. There's a moral in there somewhere.
     The creek (pronounced 'crick' in case my cousin Sharon ever reads this) running out of Deadman diagonals the east boundary. We call it the creek 'cause every couple of years the water's high enough to get a current going. Also makes us sound more like Ted Turner and his million acres of spring creeks (pronounced 'creek' in case Mr. Turner ever reads this) in Montana. The rest of the year it's a long, narrow swamp. But when the water's up, our local beavers use it to drag and float aspen branches to the pond. In our corner of the world, beavers don't dam up streams. No need to make ponds and lakes. There's already plenty of them within spittin' distance. In the most important ways beavers are a lot like us. Eat food so they have enough energy to hustle up more food, make an occasional 'nuther mouth to feed and invent hi-def television. I almost included clothing but remembered beavers shamelessly run around naked most of the time. Only occasionally have I seen them. The last was a New Year's Eve in '94 when a pair of them strolled by the cabin decked out in full length beaver coats and beaver top hats. Leave it to Minnesota rodents to be two centuries behind in fashion.
     Back in the mid-80s Lois and I hand-planted three hundred evergreens alongside the creek. For the most part they've done well. Not so the Colorado blue spruces. Probably too darned cold for them. In the winter of '96-97, the mercury dropped to near -50 degrees several times. Had them wishing they were sitting around the campfire with John Denver getting Rocky Mountain high. We've also had little luck with the hundreds of soft maples transplanted from our gardens back in town. I suspect they're deer candy. The few that've survived are a dozen feet tall and pencil thin.
     Tall and skinny. No fat trees on our land. It's a forest and the canopy's seventy feet off the ground. If you want light, you have to reach for it. Not a trunk seems to put on any meat till it stretches at least forty feet up from the seed. Majestic, spreading, branches touching the ground oaks? Best look a thousand miles south. Ours are ship's masts in the making. Don't have the heart to tell them wooden ships ain't happenin' anymore. Let's see, on our 8.72 acres there are red oaks, burr oaks, paper birches, one basswood, mountain ash, one hop hornbeam, jack pines, red pines, white pines, white spruces, puny Colorado blue spruces, aspen, soft maples, mountain maples, a few balsam firs and six hundred, forty-seven thousand stalks of hazel and alder brush.
     The driveway's still all there but not like we planned it. The first third leads to the yard. Looks just like Lois' vision, an evergreen tunnel. Cuts a sharp, curving angle in from the road making the cabin invisible during the leafy months. From the yard on, the final third's evolved into a wide path leading to a clearing on Deadman. Someday, maybe, there'll be a screen house there. So long as there's no electricity, plumbing or basement, I can build one. Just a matter of getting around the law without going against its intent.
     That clearing isn't being wasted. A family of whitetail deer bed down in the long grasses. They've chosen a good site. Can't be seen from the road and have a heckuva view. Lois and I grew up in a world that called them 'dumb animals'. Didn't think, didn't plan, didn't play. Seemed their idea of a good time was flying through someone's windshield as the sun went down. Nothing but eating and excreting machines. We've both been around long enough to see how wrong that is. Deer like a view when they wake up. Pelicans like to soar in formation on the thermals. And, obviously, beavers like to dress up once in a while. That's more than I can say for myself.
     Nearly all the jack pines along Deadman have died. Not a new one in sight. You see, all the babies are held captive in tight nut cones. Like little, pointy rocks. They need a fire to set them free. Hasn't been a fire around here in way more than a century. The big pines left by the lumbermen as seed trees are at least a hundred-fifty. And there's no way the Forestry Service will let a fire get going in our neighborhood these days. So bye-bye jack pines. Unless an idiot like me, who has an affection for those pitchy, shaggy conifers, puts some heat to the cones. I'm not saying I'll set the woods ablaze. I'm leaning towards a cone roast by a campfire or a tray full in the oven at two hundred degrees. Get some seedlings going so my great-great grandchildren know what a real jack pine looks like. Maybe tear out all the skinny-assed maples that don't belong and plant me some real up-north trees in their stead.
     As a firewood jack pine has both its up and downsides. The smoke coming out of the chimney smells like incense. We've burned it in town once in a while. Made the whole neighborhood smell like sunshine on pine needles in July even though the calendar said January and raised your mental temperature on an evening's walk. 'Course it's in a class by itself when it comes to larding up a flue with creosote. Ground zero for a fine, rip-snorting chimney fire. Ain't nothing like the contained roar of a chimney fire in triple-wall pipe on a brisk, late fall evening. Except, maybe, a Navy jet coming in on the treetops to drop a barrel of napalm. Gets me all tingly inside. And not in a good way.
     Noises coming from the sky, especially helicopters, always take me back. The chook, chook, chook of a prop beating into the wind. An Eagle Flight chopping in to take First Platoon, Bravo Company to some God-forsaken shit hole. Not a one of us ever wanted to go. Nowadays they're settled into a quiet memory. Nothing more. To me, badly timed truck diesel still reeks of a fire support base. The Army never buried its excrement. Burned it instead with diesel fuel. We sure had a high opinion of ourselves and our leavings, much like the Ali'i of Hawaii. Who knew what spells might have be cast upon on our efforts if The NVA could read the tale of our droppings? Might even have lost the war (guffaw).
     Last summer I finally cut a trail along Deadman's southeast shore. Been in the planning stage for years. Most things I plan eventually get done. Some take awhile. Some a long while. Not planning on dying anytime soon and lots left to do. Hope that works out. Immediately, the path passes beneath the largest red pine on the land. Like the beginnings of most forest roads in the U.S., I only widened what the deer had already started. How many passings does it take to create an established deer trail? How come I've never seen one actually walking one? Maybe I'll set up a deer stand? I've read that if you want to see the animals of the forest you have to sit quietly and give them some time. Become a stump they're not afraid of. I can do stump. Do it well.
     Nearly every day at the cabin I wander the trails and always end up at the towering white pines, there to spend a minute. They don't talk a lot. Might sigh a bit when the wind is up. And up top, sway to and fro. There's no way I'd ever shinny up just to share their feeling of being flopped around a hundred feet above the duff. Also no way I can stop from wondering what that might feel like. From immediately below, the perspective turns the pair into pin heads. From the other side of Deadman they appear as eagles spreading their wings just before dropping from a branch to fly off. Point of view is a big deal I guess.

     There the trail turns back a hundred twenty degrees. Eventually passes the canoe shed on its way to the cabin. Mid-way it bends around a burnt, jagged, moss and lichen encrusted, jack pine stump from who knows when. I like to think that tree was born before the Revolution and hit by lightning during the Civil War. Or burned to the ground when the last forest fire passed through sometime between. Whatever, whenever, that stump doesn't look a whit different now than when we first cleared the path. I'll be dead, gone and humus before that stump turns to dirt. Gives me a good feeling. Life always goes on. Even in death.
     After the sun sets, it's another world out in the woods. Some animals bed down in places where they won't get eaten. Others go looking for a meal. I try my darnedest to feel at home in the dark whether emptying my bladder or heading out to the road to see if the stars are still there. Moonless nights are the best and the worst. The stars really pop but that walk up the evergreen tunnel of driveway to stand on the road for the show above, is darker than dark. Honestly, I can't see the hand before my face. Reminds me of bivouac at Fort Campbell. Had to pull guard one overcast night. Crawled out of the shelter-half tent and couldn't see squat. Looked around to no effect and immediately crawled back in the tent for my glasses. Took a half minute to realize I already had them on. The soldier I was relieving blindly shuffled us to the post, fifty feet away. Said, "Stay in one place. If you try to walk the post you'll get lost for sure." Got me to thinking, "if it gets this dark in Vietnam, I'm a dead man." Thankfully, on the driveway I've got the dent of tire tracks to guide my shuffle.
     On the blackest of nights I can see the faint greenish glow of fox fire or some other kind of bioluminescence on the dead oak trunk halfway down the driveway. When you're already feeling the spookiness of night in your gut, a tiny glowing cloud ten feet off the ground will definitely catch your eye and raise your hair. Lets you know we humans haven't evolved all that much since we were worshiping rocks. I stuff down the urge to turn around by chanting, "I do believe in witches, I do believe in witches." Top that off with the throaty rasp of a raccoon in search of lunch and I'm ready to shuffle back to the cabin and put on dry drawers.
     But the stars are worth the trip. The cloud of the Milky Way above parallels the gravel road below. Can't see but twenty stars back in the city but up here our galaxy stretches across the night sky and gives me a stiff neck from staring. In August comes the Perseid meteor shower. N matter the night satellites slowly straight-line by. And if you squint just right, down a bit from the right V of Cassiopeia, lies the Andromeda galaxy. Tough part is not looking right at it. If you do it's gone. Must be good looking 'cause it's so hard to see. Kinda neat knowing you're seeing the farthest object visible with the naked eye. Everything's relative but that ain't. Take that to the bank Einstein.
     But never, no matter how many times I've done it, do I feel comfortable wandering the woods in the dark.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Porch and Addition

     Four years later the holes were dug for the rest of the cabin. Life lesson: dig yourself a hole and work your way out. Didn't know it at the time, and don't remember whose half-cocked opinion it was, but I've read it ain't a cabin if it's more than twelve hundred square feet. Ours just squeezes under if the porch is included. Doesn't really matter though. Outhouse and well. How much more cabin-like can a building be?
     No doubt about it, this second time around I got lazy. Same depth for holes but I build forms. And called up the Redi-mix guys. And had a local man do the rebar up exactly as the good Lord intended. After the concrete was poured the man said, "Give me a call in fifty years and let me know how they're holding up." Twenty four to go.
     Built and joined two beams in an L shape upon the six new piers. The L paralleled the south and west sides of the cabin. Sixty running feet of triple two-by-tens. Lois helped me raise them on the piers. Heavy, heavy beams. She was having difficulty getting her end atop, as was I. When she let me know her problem, I yelled, "Shut up and lift!" Talk about stupid, callous and uncaring. Had I been fast enough I'd have run those sound vibrations down before they got to Lois and stuffed them in my pocket. Burned them when she wasn't looking. Sometimes my brain don't work so good. I'll never live that down. Don't deserve to.
     First came the porch. Again my brain was out to lunch. Only made it six feet wide. Don't remember why. Probably had twelve foot joists on hand. Cutting them in half was simpler than picking up a couple of extras. Short sighted indeed. Our best friends learned as we did. Mostly in retrospect. And the continual reminder of living in a space lacking the couple of extra feet necessary for adding a closet (inside joke, ask Lois). Greg and Bonnie always said, "Figure out how big it has to be, then build it a little bigger." Remember, 'snot like we're talkin' mansion here, just a cabin.
     In the years following, we've spent a lot of time on the screen porch. Nearly all of it sitting on the world's heaviest picnic table. Made it from left-overs. Always have left-overs. The rule of thumb for building materials is to buy ten percent more than you need. Screwups and bad wood eat up their share. But I'm cheap, damned cheap. Double and triple measure. However, having extra wood is no problem. Hardly ever goes to waste. Picnic table here, end table there, can never have too many shelves. You could go to the store and drop a small fortune on manufactured cabin furniture or make it yourself with materials at hand. Log, branch, flooring and lumber. What's more cabin-like than making furniture out of the same stuff the cabin's made of? The picnic table was originally made for outdoor use. Built on the ground. Eyeballed to level. Well, kinda level anyway. Fir two-by-eights, one pass through the planer from rough-sawn. Thick and heavy. Put it on the porch decking before the walls went up. Had to move it back and forth as the floor was laid. Ain't going anywhere now unless the walls come down. At the moment it's covered with floral oil cloth from Hawaii. It's a pain in the butt to move when we clean the floor. Doesn't matter. I love that table.
     The addition began in a manic frenzy. Floor joists, insulation and decking went up in one early Spring day. Awake when still dark, finished in the following dark. Twenty minutes for lunch. The only question in my mind that day was, What's next? That's it. Measure, level, drive nails, hoist lumber. What's next? Drove home that night through the glow of grass fires and the sweet smell of smoke. All intentional. People burning off last year's dead. Making way for the new. Screw T. S. Eliot and his April being the cruelest month of all. He was just looking for a theme and trying to make a buck. Nineteen hour day. Uf dah!
     Tom and I have been friends for almost fifty years. His life has wandered over continents in that half century. Don't know if he was so much a mover and a shaker as he was a seeker. Some have called him a free thinker like it was supposed to be a bad thing. He was the first person in our little group of hinterlanders hip to Bob Dylan (took me a couple of years to get past his voice). I set myself on a descent into Vietnam through simple neglect and profound stupidity. Tom took the high road as a Conscientious Objector. Wasn't an easy thing to do in a tough time. Eventually did two years alternative service in the Peace Corps. Tom's home away from home in the mid-seventies was Kabul, Afghanistan.
     In the years following he bounced around from place to place. Always checking out what was around the corner. Seemed to be looking for something. Think he always knew what that something was and also knew it was in his pocket wherever he was. Picked apples. Built irrigation systems in California that eventually washed him back into the Peace Corps. This time Mali in West Africa. The end of the world. Seems to me the Army and the Peace Corps have spent a lot of time and money studying the planet's anatomy. Learned we live on a many-rectummed planet. And sent thousands, sometimes millions, off to examine them. At a cost of billions. Maybe trillions.
     Back from Africa, Tom reconnected with Lois and me. Didn't have much going for him in those first months. That's how he came to be staying at the cabin while the addition was going up. I shamelessly worked him like a dog. Together we framed and sheathed. Put a cedar shake roof on. Tom prepared tasty - Tom loves that word, tasty - combinations in a pressure cooker and was always up for driving a few more nails.
     Nothing in this life gets done alone. I sometimes strut around cornering the innocent to let them know the cabin was built by me alone. But know that just ain't so. Couldn't have done it without the grace of friends and family. Good thing most of us were young, stupid and relatively poor. Driving nails and moving dirt almost seemed like fun.
     My vision of the addition told me I needed a new tool. A big tool. Yeah don't we all? So that's why I was standing in a Fleet Farm looking at table saws. The Man in Black walked up behind me that Sunday morning when I should have been in church and set me straight. Black from head to foot. Black shoes, socks, pants, dress shirt, tie, suit jacket, beard, hair and hat with a small, flame-red feather. Said I should look elsewhere. Sears maybe. "A radial arm saw is what you really want. Isn't it? Hmm?" When he added I didn't even have to sacrifice my soul to get one, how could I deny him? Turned out he was right. The saw made a lot of cuts both easier and more accurate. Almost fancy, if you consider straight lines and tight angles fancy. Being half German I found them orgasmic.
     A simple misunderstanding led to the addition becoming two stories. Gotta learn to listen better. But what's done is done. Nothing fancy about the job. Framing, sheathing, covering with impregnated felt - don't that sound fertile? The old timers say a building needs to breath, therefore the felt - and an outer layer of one-by-twelve, rough sawn cedar to match the original cabin. Ah, but the roof was a tad out of the ordinary. Together, me and Tom built three overstuffed roof trusses. Double two-by-six for the side ones. The center, a step and a half stronger. Each was bird-mouthed every two feet. Four-by-six cross beams, also bird-mouthed were whacked in at right angles. The final product, a huge latticework over-hanging two feet on all sides. Kinda made it up as I went along. Never got around to drawing up a plan  for the addition either. Saw it in my head and built it. Somehow it all tied together. No big deal actually. A building's just a big box. The button-up was finished when the casement windows, a lot of 'em, went in.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Cabin - Erection

     Details, as in the beauty of. Way too much of my writing floats along the surface. When the conditions are right I'll get a few strikes of truth. But most often the hooks gotta drop below the surface. That's where most of the fish are. And most of the experiences that color and move a life. You know the ones. The angle of the sun while sitting in a meadow back when you were eight. The taste of horehound cough drops your brother bought you just 'cause he knew you liked them. The cheap ones at the gas station counter for three cents a pop. Yeah, that was sure a long time ago. And a whole lot of negative crud that you have to work out of your system; what they call growing up. "Get used to it."
     So, the cabin. Most of the detail is gone. And a lot of what I remember clearly is wrong. The building and the wood that went into is no problem. On a walkthrough I can tell when, where and any significance of most every board and beam. And I eventually will. But the people, my family. So much happened, based on feeling with no consciousness. So much taken for granted. Spent way too much time wrapped up in myself. Thank God for photos. They at least hint at memory. And, as I sit here, how many visions of the long ago float past my eyes as I stare at the laptop screen.
    So, the cabin. Returned two days later with my brother's youngest son. Framing involves weight, a lot of it. Rob proved an asset lifting walls and beams. Driving nails and providing company. Don't know about him but I sure had a great time.
     Rob wasn't but fifteen as I recall. Don't exactly know why he came along. Don't know if he knew either. When I picked him up he'd just gotten off the school bus and was starting summer vacation. Could have been doing most anything. Or nothing. Yet he was heading up north with his weird Uncle Mark. Fifteen was a tough age back in the last century. Too old to be a kid, though the desire to be one was alive and kicking. Too young to be an adult and wouldn't know what to do about it if you were. Definitely old enough to get into big trouble. His Mom had died less than four years earlier. She was the heart of my brother's family. Life revolved around Marilyn. Her passing hit the four children like a hammer. Don't think any of them ever got over it. Don't think any of them ever will. The world turns on a dime. One morning you wake up half an orphan. Phht! Rob's hurt probably still had a raw edge in '81. Having him in the woods driving nails was good for both of us. Was also expecting the arrival of a good friend. Maybe.
     Most every time I've picked up a hammer or saw, it meant either bending over or standing on stuff I shouldn't have. And doing stuff up there that wasn't smart. A good back and a lack of common sense were my friends. Two sixteen pennies in each end and three eight pennies toe-nailed in each stud. Frame the windows and doors.  Section by section she rose. Hammer 'em down and brace them. Vertical and square. 'Bout the time the main floor was done and we were thinking about the fun of the loft, my friend David appeared. Drove an ancient VW Microbus with Sans Souci handwritten on the side by a previous owner. Could also have had Sans Money written beneath.
     Me and Dave had been best friends 'til the military split us up. Came close to the same in the years after. He could have been most anything he set his mind to. As it was, his choice was having as much free time as possible. And at that, he was a master. Also was beyond talented at figuring stuff out. He could see the logic in the way things were put together. Dave had no real training in things mechanical. However, he once broke the blown engine in one of his old beaters down to the guts, found and replaced the broken rod then put 'er back together with no left over parts. If that wasn't enough, the car actually ran.
     The active part of the day ran from sunrise to dark. Included work and a little fishing On a nearby lake. We trespassed on a magnificent piece of land at the end of a mile long peninsula. Undeveloped and up for sale at a quarter million. Lot of 1981 dollars. There I saw my first Pink and Showy Ladyslippers, Minnesota's state flower. Mostly Dave fished, Rob explored and I threw rocks. All the while the cabin grew. By the end of seven weeks summer vacation and nearly every weekend, the cedar roof was on and the cabin buttoned up. Most every step along the early way was done with the help of friends. The never ending finish work was up to Lois and I.  But this was just phase one. No sooner had we finished then the addition began. At times I thought of this becomimng our Winchester House. Keep adding on or our lives would end. Seems like we'll run out of gas before our car quits.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Cabin - Holes

     No hurry anymore. The pressure was off. Don't mind doing what I have to do regardless of how big a thing that might be. So long as it can be done at my own pace. No one looking over my shoulder. I'm gonna make some mistakes in the coming weeks, months and years. But it'll get my best shot. Do it right. Make the building so it'll outlast me. The UBC had given me most of what I needed to know about construction. Plumb, level and square. Wright says the strength of a building is directly proportionate to the amount of steel in it. Don't think he meant nails. Also heard that too many nails can weaken a joint. I'll go with the UBC. Pierce the wood, twelve inches apart for eight penny nails, sixteen for sixteen penny.
     Left Minneapolis before rush hour and it was a little after ten when I pulled off the road. Power company'd be coming in the afternoon to trench and run the line. Task one was to sit out on the road, assemble my first wheelbarrow. It's a simple tool. Probably goes back to the discovery of the wheel. In the coming weeks it'd move tools, sand, dirt, firewood and concrete. Grunt tool for a grunt. Let's see, bolt A goes into hole 3.
     Am learning quickly the woods are an unexacting place to work. No open ground. What looks flat ain't. Easy to lose small things. That's why I'm out on the road. Pop it together, tighten it all down, load it up and move it in. Step one done, a half a million more to go. Tiny smile on my face as I humped the stuff up the driveway.
     Life turns on a dime. One minute you're walking through the woods behind a wheelbarrow, all's well with the world under bluebird skies, in seventy degree air. Then you come upon a corner building stake with a note tied on. The note says, more or less:
                               Think again city boy. Seems I thought
                               your land was somewhere else. Kinda funny
                               actually. Don't know whether the joke's
                               on you or me. Deadman's an
                               environmental lake. Ha! Bet you didn't know that.                                                                     
                               Get hold of me. Good luck. I could be 
                               anywhere in the county. And my phone's
                               been disconnected.
                                                   Bob the zoning dude
     Read the note three more times. Even tried if backwards in case the guy was dyslexic. Nearby, hazel brush leaves rustled from the air coming out of my day. You ever have one of those moments where something big-time goes wrong and you've got to fix it but have no idea where in the world to begin? I sat down on the ground. Tried to figure out square one.
     Don't remember how or why I remembered Meyer Electric. Probably had to do with my mental game plan at the time. Somewhere down the road electricity was to run through the cabin, even though I don't believe in electricity and it seems to have it in for me because of that. Kind of a paradox ain't it?  Meyer was only three minutes away by car. Hoped he'd have a clue.
     Lucked out. Meyer turned out to be the man I needed. More than once. Was both an electrical contractor and the electrical inspector for the township. 'Spose some folks would see that as a conflict of interest. Didn't seem to be in Meyer's case. Besides, electrical inspection requires a fair amount of expertise. The township had at most a few hundred residents. They did what they could with the resources they had. Meyer was easy to work with. When the time came he sold me what I needed, drew up a wiring plan and showed me how to do it. Inspection was a breeze.
     On this first day I ditheringly rushed in, the world on my shoulders. Explained my problem and got a chuckle in return. Guess he'd heard something similar in the past. Yup, he knew the building inspector. Knew he was a free-lance hired hand who could indeed be anywhere. Also knew the low-down on Deadman and other environmental lakes. Wondered if I was dead set on building where I'd staked it out. If so be the case, I'd need to get written permission from the other four land owners on the lake. Then petition the township board for a variance at the next meeting.
     "You get lucky, they'll say yes. Six, eight weeks from now you might be able to start work. Or you could pace two hundred feet back from Deadman's high water mark and start right away. I'll let Bob know. No one'll say a word against it." 
     Simple decision. A month's vacation wasted up front. No guarantee the variance would go through. Headed back to the land. I had me some pacing to do. And a well to move.
     Time to step back and think about what I'm doing on these pages. Over the years I've given a lot of thought to writing the cabin building process. Tried putting it down on the page several times with no success. Could never decide how detailed to make it. Somewhere between a brief paragraph and enumerating all the bent nails, there has to be an interesting story. At least one that goes beyond my personal fan club of me. Haven't been successful. Cripes, the cabin's in its thirtieth year and still evolving. Had to be something fun, meaningful, maybe even illegal, going on somewhere along the way.
Also, this here blog is a public document and brings in self-censorship. Don't want to be getting my ass in a wringer. Or embarrassing friends and relatives needlessly. Also don't want to white wash the process to the point of hearts and flowers. Dilemma, dilemma. 

     Figured I'd take no chances. My strides were good and long. Also was impossible to strike a straight line through the brush. Threw in a fudge factor and began to clear a new site. Consoled myself with the mantra of "No longer have a water view but now have a woods view. Never had that before. Life is good." Part of me retreated to the lower left corner of my soul where it knew the whole process still sucked.
     Time to whack me some stakes. Coming up with a perfect rectangle in the middle of the woods wasn't the simple process I'd imagined back last winter. Needed to drive eight stakes in pairs. Each pair joined by a cord. The end product looked like the pound sign at the top of a keyboard. The inner rectangle of the pound sign, sixteen feet by twenty-four feet. Measured both ways diagonally. When the diagonals were finally equal (Moved some of the stakes a half dozen times. Measure and measure again. Curse briefly. Thankfully, Mother Earth had built in white-out.), I had myself four square corners, baby. I'd been square most of my life. Now it was finally working to my advantage. 'Bout then the power company showed up. Slathered some peanut butter onto whole wheat and cracked open a coke. Watched the Ditch Witch lay some line. Picnic time.
     Pier holes were something else. Five feet deep, a tad under two in diameter. Even today that doesn't seem like much of a hole. Heck you're just making nothing out of something. Actually moved right along until around three feet. That's when the post hole digger took over. And the inches got longer. And the hole widened. The PHD's like a clam shell with long wooden handles. A dirt digging tongs. Four feet long. Five foot hole. Work on your knees. Squeeze the handles together. Fire it down. Reach in. Pull it out. Dump a couple of cups of sand to the side. Repeat. Slowly widen the hole so you can spread the handles. Two hours a hole. Nine holes. Got two done that afternoon. And hoped they were in the right places.
     Beer, wonderful beer. Working and sweating in the great northwoods of the U.S. of A. called for and American brew. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Put a bucket under the pump. Put in the beer and pump 'er full. Come back twenty minutes later. Empty and re-pump. Near ice-cold and refreshing as the land of Sky Blue Waters. Wondered what the poor folks were doing tonight. Bathed at the pump. Crawled in the car and slept the sleep of the dead. The first of many twelve to fourteen hours now in the past.
     The beauty of youth. Well, thirty-four years is young when viewed from thin-haired sixty-four. Back then I could work myself to exhaustion, sleep in the back of a mini-station wagon, and do it all over the next day. Yawn, stretch, scratch my butt, throw a bunch of calories down my throat and pick up the shovel. Gonna have company today. My sister's oldest boy, David. Gonna work him to death. A good friend refuses to work with me 'cause he knows what it'll be like. Says something about chain gangs being a step up.
     Again, another picture perfect day in the woods. However, there's a cloud over my head. The holes are growing, no doubt about that. But I don't have any sand to mix with concrete to make piers of the holes. For all I know, the sand I'm lifting and pitching is perfect. But I don't know. A wise man would get hold of a local ready mix company. But that kind of wisdom was still a few years up the road for me. The good news was the remaining seven holes. Didn't have to figure out the sand today. But it ate at me.
     Dave road in on his motorcycle just as the power company showed up to finish installing the transformer. Meyer'd be by in the afternoon to put up a power post with outlet. How could I be so organized? I remember myself as an idiot. Had to be. I was digging holes in the middle of the woods. Yet, all the ducks seemed to be lined up, at least the one's that didn't need sand. While David and I excavated, the cloud above my head turned into a plan. Come morning we'd go pay Rollie at the lumber yard a visit. Give his leg a shake and see if any sand information fell out. For the rest of the day we alternated shovel and PHD. Ate in town, drank beer in camp. Set up the tent on a pad leveled with the fruit of our labor. Seven holes and counting.
     Rollie knew. Rollie knew where to find the sand. Knew what two and a half yards weighed. Knew three tons of sand outweighed my car. Also didn't know me from Sam Hill. Set me back a piece when he reached under the counter for the ring of truck keys. Said he had a '52 Mercury, two ton flat bed, I could use if I wanted. Had driven something similar in Basic Training. Figured I could do it, said yes and thank you. I recall the cab as being a sun faded green. Smelled like me and Dave weren't the first working men to sit up front. A comforting smell of dirt, grease, dust, wood chips, Lucky Strikes and tools. Been in similar cabs many times and many places over the years. Gives a feeling of home on wheels.
     Rollie passed out directions that didn't touch a single state road. Might have been a reason for that involving State Troopers. Three miles later we were alongside a white clapboard farm house. No sign out front, no sign of a gravel pit out back. But the white haired lady said we'd found what we sought. And commenced to give a set of directions that started down the two track behind the shed. Our path was heavily dependent on turns predicated on my ability to tell a white from a burr oak. Outside of having to back blindly up a half mile of trail, it was mostly easy.
     She was a big flat bed and we intended to load sand 'til it overflowed the sides. One shovelful at a time. Carried from the hillside twenty feet away. Three pints of sweat split two ways. Not a guess. The math was mentally fudged by the two of us using the Boellinger Universal Work-Sweat Formula. Converting the resultant liters to pints gave an approximation of 2.97 pints. About equal in volume to the bottles of Pabst we drained once back on the land. The offload from truck to wheelbarrow to tarp left us two brews behind the curve cheerfully regained when back from returning the Merc. Hats off to Rollie C. Finished the last two holes. Tomorrow the concrete. Almost.
     Friday. A load of people coming up. More than just warm bodies. Friends, relatives and sons of friends. Some to work, others to fish. It was Memorial Day weekend, the official beginning of summer in the northwoods. They're thinking fun and adventure. I was leaning toward cement mixers and hole fillers. Either way it'd be a camp-out party. Work can be fun, really it can. Could be eight people. Almost one a hole.
     Bottleneck. Mine was the single wheelbarrow. Could only do one batch of concrete at a time. Without going into detail it was nearly fifteen man-hours to fill the holes with mix and rebar. Thus nearly two days doing it one batch at a time. Throw in a second mud box, one day. You get the picture.
     One other problem. I had four yards of hole and three yards of fill. The solution was rock hunting. The only rocks I've ever found on our land were in, not on, the ground. And then nothing larger than a shooter marble. Me and Dave had ourselves a quest for the day that involved gravel back roads and ditches. Little granite treasures between golf and baseball sized, the goal. You'd think finding rocks in a part of the world where the glaciers had roamed would be a snap. Took several forays and most of the day.
     Also made me feel like a thief. Sure weren't my rocks we were harvesting. We'd pull over to the side whenever a collectable was spied. We knew those little buggers bred like house mice. Once had this idea of putting a mating pair of mice in a sealed closet filled to the brim with grain. See how long it took 'til the rodents were packed tight. As for the rocks, where you found one, its brothers and sisters were close by. Never felt comfortable loading them up. Constantly was looking up to see if someone had called the law.  "There be a couple of boogers out front in my ditch stealin' my gravel Bob. You best skedaddle out here and arrest their sorry behinds." 
      On the other hand, I was thrilled to get something needful for free. Back in the Fourth Grade we called that scrounging. Walked the alleys to and from school looking for cool stuff. My find of finds was a discarded carburetor. Couldn't believe my eyes. Obviously some people had no idea what constituted treasure. Snuck it home where I did my first dissection. Spread newspapers on the table in my room - no doubt my mother's idea, although I might have been housebroken by then - and went at it with a screwdriver. Broke it down and built it back up. Yup, I was a regular Tom Swift and his Electric Milking Machine. A perfect job, outside of the two screws, a spring and some kind of widget still on the table. Blew my dreams of being a natural born mechanic out the window. My real ability, an off-center mind, came to the rescue. Had the realization if I found enough carburetors there'd eventually be sufficient left over parts on the table to build a new one. Like Johnny Cash's Cadillac of song. The completed carb would have four parts left over to start on the next. An empire of malfunctioning auto parts, built right there in my bedroom, would have me ready to make a fortune in the late '70s when all the cars were crap to begin with. Didn't know that back then and lacked the ambition to do something totally stupid. Recalled the carburetor story many times over the years. Maybe even in one of the ditches with David.
     Over the evening hours the crew showed up. Each seemed more than willing to lend a hand. By nightfall we were a third done. As darkness suck in through the brush, our conversation grew and the liquor supply shrank. Finally we disappeared into tents and cars. Slept peacefully under the thickening clouds and late night rain.
     Evolved into three days of rain. From gentle to downpour. We'd get an hour of clearing and then she'd come flooding down for hours. Spent a lot of time killing it. Ate in town, shot pool but mostly waited it out. On Saturday night my brother-in-law Joe, pulled a half dozen porterhouse steaks out of his cooler. Didn't expect that but didn't surprise me at the same time. He was that kind of man. There's a picture I'll eventually find and enter showing him bent over the cooking fire, grilling those steaks. What the photo doesn't show was the beginning of another downpour. We wolfed those very rare puppies down with smiles on our faces. No damned rain was gonna ruin the fun.
     With no letup in sight, one by one, friends began to drift back home. Couldn't blame them. When Joe and his sons left on Monday the piers were finished. Three support beams sat ready to go on top once the concrete cured.
     On Tuesday Lois and the kids arrived by bus in Pine River. We were a one car family back then. A year earlier we'd passed through this area at three in the morning. A brief camping trip had become even briefer when a storm compelled us to stuff the soaked gear in the car and head home in relief. While the kids slept in the back we vowed never to camp out in Northern Minnesota again. Five months later we bought the land. And now were staring down the barrel of a two month camp out. A bit ironic don't you think?
     Five days were spent finishing the subfloor. Mostly I moved lumber and Lois chopped brush. Don't know how the kids handled it. But they were kids, a lot better at accepting things. Could be wrong about that. I've always leaned towards dealing with life as it came flying at me. Never did know where the bull's horns were located. Would've been as likely to grab the other end. Allan was a toddler and Annie a wood tick magnet. They seemed to have a good time in the sandbox improvised out of logs and hole diggings.
     Lois worked constantly. Always has, always will. Trying to keep up with her keeps me an the go. Our work load in the woods balanced pretty much as it always had. I did the stuff that showed, she, the stuff no one noticed. You head up the driveway and our cabin pops out against the forest. But, unless you've done it yourself, how many pause to consider what it took to clear nearly an acre of brush? We're surrounded by meadow thanks to a pint or two of Lois' blood.
     The five days passed. We drove home having completed a square, level, and sealed deck in a growing clearing. A couple of days were needed to get the grime off our bodies. Then it was time for me to head back north.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Cabin - The Land

     Lois and I get this magazine in the mail, The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. It's free but the DNR hints at donations. They know Minnesotans, at least the Scandi-Finno-Dutchman kind. The ones who thrive on guilt. Who know for a fact, nothing ain't free. You can pay for it as you go along or take much bigger lumps at the Pearly Gate. So we donate. It's a good rag. A joy to read and I do read it. This month's feature article centers on Sigurd Olson's Burntside Lake cabin up near Ely, Minnesota. Got me to put my nearsighted nose right up to the interior pictures. Olson's an icon in the Northland. And the rustic cabin's a thing of simplistic beauty. Of course my thoughts turned to the cabin on Deadman, not an emulation of the man. Didn't know Sigurd Olson from a rutabaga back when we built it.
     Two things hit home (actually a whole lot more than two). The homemade ash canoe paddles above Olson's fireplace and the quiet he found at Listening Point. I've been contemplating a new straight shaft paddle. Maybe even making one. Doing it right. Why not a timeless design? Skip the high-tech. Return to one from a single piece of wood. The quiet I'd written of earlier. It's a primary ingredient in the soup of the Northland. In an ever noisier world, quiet carries a lot of weight.
     Thoughts then turned to the Deadman Lake cabin itself. Never really went into any depth about how it came to be or why. Could have sworn I'd done an entire entry on the land and building. A check of the entries said no. So I guess it's time to think about something that means so much to me. A dream symbol held together by a couple of hundred pounds of nails. A door that swings both ways in my life.
     For me, it was a blind stab. Didn't know what I was doing. Did know that I didn't know. Wasn't worried in the least. I knew which end of the hammer to grip and how a circular saw worked. The rest was all learnable. Four years ago, 2007, we did a kitchen/addition remodel on our city house. Half the job was knocking a hole in the ceiling. The other half was doing an extensive repair job. Throw yourself off the cliff and figure out how to safely land on the way down. Do that enough and the fear of screwing up becomes a non-concern. Back in 1980, we'd already stuck our necks out enough times to know our heads were safe.
     The land was Lois' idea. She figured we needed it. Who was I to say we didn't? Besides, the idea of owning a patch of woods appealed to me. Lois was already in the water, why not join her? So I went with the flow. For me, the flow usually ran between the Tao and the realm of Wishy-washy. Had been a Grunt in Vietnam but wasn't much of a warrior. Had long hair afterwards but wasn't much of a hippie. But I knew if my toes were stepped on, they hurt and I was pissed.
     Turned out Lois knew best. I needed the land as a place where I could pretend. Pretend there was more to life than being on the job. Woodsman and builder, both gifts given me by Lois. Our choice of site, the second we looked at, was perfect for a person like me. The laws governing construction were simple. Required few shoulder peeks and, if properly done, the legal stamp of approval was no more than a head nod. Put the structure in a legal spot. Plumb and wire it correctly. And the Township was happy. Didn't know that when we first walked the land. Another stumble in the dark that worked out.
     Money was the governing factor. What we had in the bank told us how much we could spend. Cash on the nail. Already had a house payment, didn't want another. We were cheap and solvent. Wanted to keep it that way. Recreational lakeshore was not in the cards. The goal was a fancy wooden tent with heat. Lois' plan was to take it one paid-for step at a time. Mine was to daydream out a feasible reality.
     We first saw Deadman Lake on an iced over December afternoon. Annie was three, Allan still in arms. A pathless walk through five hundred feet of bare woods led us to a stroll on the pond. We turned around. There rose a stand of mature jack and red pines, deep green against the white of sky and ground, that said simply, "Build here."
     We'd found ourselves a semi-hippie's idea of lakefront. There was a lake, shallow in the extreme, but a lake none-the-less. Whoever'd wandered out there to give it a name by drowning must have worked at it. If it was my legend, I'd have sent him meandering on to Chicago to become a beer baron during Prohibition. Sided with Al Capone. Eventually turned coat; sold out the big man. Became intimate friends with J. Edgar Hoover. Finally ending up with his brains blown out in a Philadelphia gutter wearing nothing but a full length beaver coat and a Wendell Wilkie button. Glad that didn't happen or Deadman would have had some nondescript name like Schultz' Pond.
     The walk back to the car had the same face whipping as the walk in. I was so ignorant at the time, I didn't know those whips were hazel brush. The land had oak, birch, pine and an incredible amount of brush. Still does. God apparently loves brush. Lois feels otherwise.
     The plan started as a twelve by twelve screen house. It'd sit on piers. Knew that drill from having built a deck back in town. Also read a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright over the winter. His Imperial Hotel in Tokyo had withstood an earthquake that had leveled everything else in the city. Its survival was attributed to having been built on piers. If a massive earthquake ever hit Minnesota, our cabin would be just fine.
     Being a little slow on the uptake was and is a way of life with me. A screen house had its limitations. When the breezes blew, as they inevitably would off of Deadman, having a means of keeping them at bay would make us comfy campers. Canvas shades evolved to wooden shutters. Shutters cut out the view and the light. Eureka! I could put glass in the shutters. At that point Lois called from the living room, "How about windows? I've heard you can buy them already made." That little note of sarcasm had its element of truth. So, windows it was. Did I ever tell you how I invented the pocket?
     Heat. Let's see. We had nine acres of wood. Maybe some form of wood stove? Kept my mouth shut during that chain of thought. Cut down on the comments from the Peanut Gallery. But a wood stove in a twelve by twelve wouldn't leave much room for people. Kinda defeat the purpose of a shelter. Growth followed rapidly. Found a deal on four foot by four foot, glide-by windows and bought eight. Those and the size of a standard sheet of plywood determined the footprint. Threw in a loft and drew up plans just like in High School Drafting Class. Floor plan, elevations and perspective. Drew in and counted the studs, beams and sheathing. Wrote a materials list. Applied for a building permit. Got hold of the Crow Wing Power Coop. Figured having electricity for my few power tools was a good thing. Through every step, Lois was along with suggestions that made sense in both the short and long run. She has a firm grasp on reality and I tend to grip chickens, so to speak.
     Foundation piers meant we needed concrete. Concrete meant we needed water. Had a whole lake of it but that was yucky water. Ducks and loons befowled it constantly. When the frost came out of the ground in late April, we shipped the kids off to Grandma and Grandpa. Headed north for a one day second honeymoon with the idea of sleeping in the car and driving a well. Seemed like some kind of mystical thing that we could get water out of the ground. Images of divining rods floated through my dreams. Gettin' hold of some old cackling hag with poison apples in her pocket. Writing out an eternal damnation contract just to get the same product we got out of the tap in town for pennies. So be it.
     We had but the vaguest idea of what we were in for. Twenty years earlier I'd watched a team of men take turns driving fifty feet of water pipe into the ground with a nine pound hammer. 'Bout a half inch a whack. Sweatin', smokin', laughin' and in general, having themselves a fine time. Remarkably, water came muddily out of the pipe about the same time the last beer came out of the washtub. Big, big washtub. Happy men.
     Back in 1981 there was a plumbing supply in Pine River. Menards and Home Depot hadn't as yet landed in Baxter and sucked up the lion's share of hardware expenditures. Those big boys are great for major jobs but a tad shy on local knowledge. Especially on the lay of the land forty miles to the north. The Pine River plumbing store was exactly what we needed. We did the right thing when we admitted we were dumb as stumps when it came to drawing water. That told them exactly what they needed to ask us. Which was, "Where's your land?" Didn't need a water witch, a drill, surveyor. Local knowledge, baby, it's a good thing. Sold us a sand point, sixteen feet of pipe, teflon tape, a pitcher pump and rented us a driver to slam the stuff into the ground for five bucks. Said we'd hit water at fourteen feet. At fifteen feet we'd hit a hard pan, hang the tip and suck air. We'd be going through nothing but sand. Piece of cake.
     The best things in life kinda sneak up on you sometimes. By the time you realize they're happening you're either in the middle of it or looking back from thirty years in the future. Like I said, I'm a little slow on the uptake. So there we were, surrounded by towering red oak and pine in a little clearing we'd made ourselves. Seventy-five feet away, a pristine lake without a cabin in sight. Sun's out in one of the bluest skies we'd ever seen. The sky gets like that up there. Bottle of spatlese, chilled, nothing complex, goes down easily. A man and a woman, alone. Married but still in love. And drivin' ourselves a well. Bam! Bam! Bam! goes the driver on the water pipe. Driver is a two foot, lead weighted collar with grasping handles. Raise it. Smash it down! Over and over. We take turns. Work up a sweat. Sip the sweet wine. Poundin' an iron tube into Mother Earth. Almost symbolic, eh? Oh, it was some kind of fun out there in the woods. Didn't take much over an hour. Screwed on the pump and began to crank. For a minute she's coming up dry. Handle goes up and down easily. Then the weight. We could feel it coming. Up the shaft, then overflowing the spout. Sludge at first. Slowly clearing to become - what shall I call it? How about? - well water. Just like the man said.

     -Pictures finally being added to Learning Curve. Ain't that thrilling?-

     A once-in-a-lifetime, woodtick hatch of the century, provided entertainment during the driveway clearing. Me and my nephew must have hit the hatch on the nose (unless woodticks are mammals). We sat on the tailgate of my car, drank a beer in the evening, and watched hordes of the little guys crawl by. Made us want to be small enough to climb aboard a pair of itty-bitty horses and herd 'em. Yee-haw! Never saw anything like that before or since. If you've been in the woods when they're out and about, you know the feeling they inspire. Every moving hair takes on a magnified significance. And you know where they're heading, "Wasn't so much the tick on his heart suckin' blood what done him in. 'Twas the shrapnel from the bug's hide when it exploded. Blew a hole in the old man's heart. Bled to death in a half minute. Good news is there was two ticks in there and we saved the second."
     Lord, what's wrong with my brain? Did we do the driveway first or the well? Chicken and egg rear their ugly dilemma once again. For the sake of my fingertips I'll go with well.
     The driveway. Lois had a vision for it. Idyllic as all get out. And a long distance vision of the first order. The layout was no problem. High and dry from the road to the site. No gravel, no pavement. Our vehicles would make the tracks. The oaks and birches would lay out the weave. Natural. Real feng shui. Except neither of us had ever heard of feng shui at the time. Would even have mispronounced the term had we seen it in print. You'd think if they'd have wanted it pronounced fung shway, they'd have spelled it that way. Complaint aside, Lois was in touch with the concept. Along either side of the track was to be a row of spruce and pine. Trimmed to provide a Little Red Riding Hood effect as you wound your way through the evergreen tunnel. That second part took a couple of decades.
     Figured eight to ten feet wide would do it for the track. Took us two days of chainsawing, trimming with a loppers and moving deadfall. Made a small mountain of brush. Didn't drop a live tree. Finally, we cleared the cabin site a legal seventy-five feet from the pond. We were set and awaiting the building permit.
     Headed back up on Tuesday before Memorial Day weekend with permit in hand, the power company on the way and a wheelbarrow in the car that needed assembly. Also had seven weeks off from work in my back pocket. Over the winter I'd gone from full to part time. A moral issue concerning a brief period in management I was being punished for. Don't have many regrets in my life. Can't actually think of another besides those six months as a supervisor. And maybe forgetting to put that minnow bucket back in the Sauk River. Becoming part-time worked out as another bed of ironic roses for me. Had an understanding manager. Turned the eight hour full time vacation days I'd accrued into four hour part time ones. Doubled my time off. Enough to get us through the summer and the initial building buttoned up.
     First order of business when I rolled into town was business. Had my list in hand. Found the lumber yard's office and walked in. Was I intimidated? Shouldn't have been but I was. Most of what I knew about building I didn't really know. Readin' ain't doin'. It's easy to say, "I know what you mean." But if you haven't been there and put in the hours, you don't really know. Hell, I'd never built a building before. And there I was walking through the door, about to spend a couple of grand - remember, this was 1981 when a brand new, self-exploding Ford Pinto could be had for around thirty-five hundred bucks - on a bunch of stuff that might fall over faster than I could stand it up. Had my plan and notes taken from the Uniform Building Code. The man behind the counter didn't know he was dealing with a pretender. Probably didn't much care. I was willing to spend money. He was willing to help. All for a pile of squared up sticks. At least I was smarter than that first pig.
     Had to bide my time while Rollie went into a detailed explanation of soffit assembly with the man first in line. Tried to put on my best know-what-a-soffit-is face. Mistake. Took a couple of encounters with the local business people to realize they'll assume you know what you're doing if you don't say otherwise. Best to come right out and say, "Don't have a clue. Sell me all I'll need and tell me what to do with it." Honesty is the best politics per Stan Laurel.
     As it was, felt like I was standing in line for Confession on the Saturday before Holy Week. Hated that. Priest or no in that dark little room, I felt no real need to tell a stranger what was festering in my dirty little mind. No need except being twelve years old and looking down the barrel at eternal damnation if I didn't. All that was going on in my dirty little mind this time was gettin' me a load of two-bys and a pile of plywood. But those pubescent experiences do come springing back as feelings that can cloud a person's day. Was kinda off in the ozone of reverie when my turn came. Almost started out with, "Bless me father...." Instead, I slowly slipped my list across the counter. Rollie looked at it for a few seconds. Didn't pick it up. Didn't touch it.
     Slowly raised his head to pierce me in the eyes and asked, " What you gonna do with all this here wood?"
     Thought for a second he was going to accuse me of the sin of presumption. "Build me a cabin up by Deadman Lake."
     Looked down at the list again. Then said, "Hmmm." A fly landed on the window sill. He looked up again, "Guess you won't need everything at once. Yup, we got it all. No problem. Just let us know where and when. Pay for it when you ask for it."
     Ordered and paid for the framing material right off. Walked out the door. Realized I'd been holding my breath for the last five minutes. Got in the car and drove north to dig me some holes. Big holes.