This old house
It was 1998. Our kids were 4 and 6 at the time we bought the property on which the house would eventually stand. Finding the property was quite coincidental; I was actually looking at the acreage next door. I wasn’t thrilled with either the property (it was a bit dark; down in a hole), or the listing price (it was a bit high). But it was a good location and it did have potential. I decided to contact the owner of the neighboring parcel to find out if they had plans to clear/develop their property any time soon. If they did, it would allow more light to permeate the property that was for sale, improving the setting on which a house might be evenutally built. As it turned out, the owner of the neighboring property was actually thinking of selling. To make a long story short, we ended up purchasing the property from him for a better price than the other parcel, and it was a far better piece of property. We had no immediate plans to build a house, but at least we had secured the land. Good pieces of property were becoming harder to come by with each passing year. If we never built, it would still be a good investment until a time when we sold it. I then began the process of
manipulating convincing Mrs. UA that living on acreage was far desirable to living in a neighborhood with cul-de-sacs and covenants, codes and restrictions. She was neither easily nor instantly swayed. We had young kids that would benefit from riding their bikes on paved culdesacs, playing with neighborhood kids, trick-or-treating along with thousands of other like-minded kids, etc. Living amongst the masses, it seemed in my wife’s mind, would be more desirable than living on the fringe. I longed for the frontier, where a man could cut a tree down if the mood struck him, operate a corn whiskey still in the back forty, or walk outside without wearing pants.
A blank slate.
The property was 8 acres of 3rd-growth forest. Most of the fir and cedar had been cleared in decades past and it had grown dense with broadleaf maple, hemlock and scrub alder: not much commercially valuable timber. There were (and still are) some impressive old growth stumps. I can imagine through these old sentinels what the land looked like 150 years ago. The old Douglas Fir stumps are in a state of deterioration, though giving life to huckleberry bushes and new trees that grow from the nurseries. The old cedar stumps, with their still-visble springboard notches, have done a much better job of resisting the elements over time. When the property was new to us I would spend weekend days, hours at time, cutting trails with a machete and chainsaw, trying to get my bearings in the dim light of a dense overhead canopy. I could envision where a house might one day sit, at what angle the foundation might be poured so as to capitalize on the sunset. I could see it: a nice log structure nestled in the tranquility of a small clearing, surrounded by nothingness, yet still only a mile and a half from the civilization of our small town. There would be rough-hewn plank floors and a riverrock fireplace, adorned with a 6 point bull elk. Mrs. UA didn’t share my vision for a log home, but once she began looking at house plans she bought into my vision of building a house and raising our kids on the property. We agreed on a style of home that we both liked. My plan was working, though there would be no log structure or 6 point bull elk over the fireplace.
The road from hell, and witchcraft.
Progress began long before we ever received our building permit. The first order of business was to have an access road punched-in so we could drive to the property from the south side (much more preferable than the access from the north). This “road” would remain nothing more than a dirt track for several months, but during that summer of 1999 it was sufficient for the well driller to get their equipment on-site. The driller actually “witched” the well before a drill bit ever penetrated the ground. It was a fascinating thing to witness. He cut a green, forked branch from a nearby maple and began walking. With the forked branch held in front, he proceeded through the timber at a deliberate clip. I followed, skeptical of his antics, as we passed by the area I had thought would be a good location for the well. Eventually the end of his stick would drop with authority, pointing straight toward the ground. I recall him saying, “Here”. Who was I to argue? He marked the spot, then headed off in another direction for a few paces. When his stick dipped again, he asked me which spot I preferred. My head was spinning, but I selected the first location without having a good reason for my choice.
Next, the witchy drillerman would really blow my mind. He cut a small twig from a nearby tree—literally a twig no more than 6 inches long. Clenched gently in both hands, he held the twig in front of him, pointed straight out. Suddenly the twig began dancing up and down. “What are you do—” I tried to ask before being abruptly shushed. The twig continued it’s up and down dance for a minute or so before it stopped. I watched his hands, sure that he was giving motion to the twig. His hands did not move. The drillerman then looked up at me and said, “100”. It was explained that every bounce of the twig indicated a foot of depth; 100 bounces of the twig meant of the water source was roughly 100 feet down. Whatever you say, drillerman. I felt as though I’d just been played for a fool and looked anxiously over my shoulder, expecting to see the Candid Camera crew. A couple weeks later when the drilling rig hit water at an official depth of 103 feet, I became a believer. The well passed with flying colors, producing 20 gallons per minute during the bail test. It would continue to provide ample supply of clean, good water for another 12+ years.
The dirt track that served as adequate access during the summer would need to be built-up if we were to proceed. During the fall and early winter of 1999, further progress was made on the access road. It was slow going, as trying to get the road contractor to show up and get started was like pulling healthy teeth. Trying to get him to finish up once he had begun was even harder, and because of the delays we lost the advantage of dry weather. By the time the work was completed in November of that wet year, the soil had developed an insatiable appetite for rock. Truckload after truckload came and left, leaving behind tons of rock that would eventually provide a solid substructure. Today it bears little resemblance to it’s troubled past.
With or without permission, we shall proceed.
We had applied for our building/clearing permit 9 months earlier and we were getting antsy to begin. My patience ran out 3 weeks before we had the permit in hand. During the winter of 1999 the property next door was purchased and the owner began clearing his parcel. I spoke to the logging crew and it was decided that they would simply move their equipment onto our property after they had completed work next door. Our building permit was due to arrive any day and I reasoned that it would be better to ask for forgiveness (if we got caught) rather than wait for permission. If the logging crew left and then had to move their equipment back in to do the work on our property, it would cost me more money. I decided to take a chance. I’d already spent way more on the road from hell than I had intended.
I vividly remember the day they actually began clearing. The first order of business was to establish the first slash burn: it literally started as one would light any outdoor campfire; with a little diesel a propane torch. As trees came down, branches were added to the pile. On several evenings I would stop by the site and stand around the slash burns drinking beer. By law there had to be someone on fire watch at all times, so I convinced Mrs. UA that it was my responsibility to be there. On the final night I cooked steaks for the 2 man crew as we watched the last pile reduced to embers. After two weeks, 2-1/2 of our 8 acres had been cleared of trees and stumps. The remaining 5-1/2 acres were left in timber and eventually enrolled into a protective “open space” program to benefit wildlife habitat.
Luckily our building permit arrived shortly thereafter and in January 2000, and ground was broken on the house itself. Construction was a long process, but it was fun to stop by the site on my way home from work and see the progress. We never entertained the thought of being the general contractor and I never regretted that decision. Things took place that I never would have imagined possible; the amount of creative excavating that was done to mitigate the natural contours of the raw land was amazing. It all came together in the end and was actually a very smooth process working with the builder, who also happened to be a friend and who would years later hire Mrs. UA to be their Safety Commissioner.
The week before Thanksgiving 2000, we moved into our new home. Mrs. UA and I were ecstatic. Our kids were mad as hell. Being the bad parents that we were, we had taken them out of their previous neighborhood where they had begun to establish many friends. We hadn’t moved far, and the kids were in the same school they were previously in. They would get over it eventually as they quickly became fast friends with kids just up the road a quarter of a mile. We may have deprived them of a neighborhood, but we made sure they weren’t left out of things that city kids love. For example we would load them into the car and drive to the nearest residential development for collecting candy handouts each Halloween. We had 4 trick or treaters in the 10 Halloweens we spent in this old house, and those were token visits by friends. Mrs. UA would still buy a few bags of candy each October, “just in case.”
Settling in to a routine: maintenance.
And so went the next nearly 12 years of our lives. Much of my free time would be spent doing yard work, which was seemingly never-ending. The yard was planted and the first year I spread 32 yards of bark/mulch by hand. Not using a 5 gallon bucket mind you, but with a wheel barrow and rake. I swore that I would never do that again. 2 years later I spread another 25 yards, but by then the gardens were slowly filling in and there was less surface area to cover with bark. When not tackling occasional tasks like spreading bark, I would battle against the ever-encroaching native brush that was hell-bent on reclaiming what was rightfully its domain. I would curse the blackberry vines that literally surrounded us, except of late August each year when I would harvest their fruitul bounty. Constant weed pulling, planting of new shrubs, moving of existing shrubs, adding this and that, etc. Hardly was there ever a dull moment, and if there was it was filled with mowing both the “manicured” lawn as well as the perimeter grounds which had been planted in pasture grass. Without livestock to keep the grass down, I would cut the perimeter probably 3 times per month. That task took several hours each time. As for the actual yard, any sane person would have hired this weekly task done, but I maintained the philosophy that “I made my bed, I’ll sleep in it.” A part of me thrived on the yard maintenance, but it did consume nearly all my time when I might rather be doing something else like, say, fishing.
Room to do whatever.
As much as I complained over the years I did enjoy the space, and derived a great deal of satisfaction when I’d accomplished a task. Both Mrs. UA and my son, Schpanky, learned to cast a fly rod in the back yard, on freshly-mowed grass. On more than several occasions I would enjoy the vast expanse of grass on which to test out a new rod or line. Nice to have room without worrying about one’s backcast. Nice to be able to walk outside and not worry about whether I was wearing pants (though I usually did in fact wear pants).
We made our home open to our kids’ friends. They had space to do what kids do over the years; whether assembling their friends for group photos before school dances, or making trails and playing in the woods below the house, or sledding on the gentle slopes of the yard when the snow fell. Inside the kids had their space to host sleepovers, and there were countless sleepovers over the years. Outside there was room to be kids; to run and play the way kids should.
The house and property was everything we had hoped it would be. It became a wonderful place to call home, and to come home to. It was more than just a house. We felt connected to the land on which the house was built. We new everything about it. We had created it from scratch. It was like giving birth to and raising a child in many ways. We watched it grow and mature. We poured our love and energy into it. We raised it from nothing. It was a place where not only two-legged types gathered, but also those of the four-legged variety. It wasn’t uncommon to see coyotes year round.
For 11 months each year I cursed the blackberry vines that surrounded us, and beat them into temporary submission as they attempted to reclaim the property. And every August when the fruit ripened, I would harvest the bounty, as would bears.
Time for a change.
With 2 kids both off at college, this big old house had begun to feel even bigger; too much space in which to get lost without the energy of 2 kids drawing us all together and distracting us. Lots of time to think, even though the yard continued to cry out for attention. We spread a paltry 15 yards of bark this past Spring (it felt like child’s play). But the grass still grows and the native brush still encroaches. I began to grow weary of the constant battle I’d waged for years. I grew less tolerant of it all and started to value my free time more than ever. I want to be able to fish when the opportunity arises. I think Mrs. UA wants me to fish less and spend more time doing things together. We’ll see how that goes ;). I want to rest at night not worrying about whether the well, which continues to pump out ample water, will suddenly go dry. That’s not likely to happen, but it could. What if the septic system were to suffer a catastrophic failure? Every time the septic alarm sounded over the years, I would breath a sigh of relief that it was never anything serious. It’s possible–even likely, given that septic systems are “designed to fail”–that one component or another of the system may eventually need replacing, to the tune of several thousand dollars. I’ve grown financially and emotionally weary of paying exorbinant county property taxes; it feels more and more like paying rent on a house that I own (thank you, King County, for the privilege of renting from you). Over the past couple of years I’ve been seeking more and more simplicity, and Mrs. UA agrees that less is more. It’s been liberating to reduce our clutter as we put the last 12 years of our lives into boxes. Actually, 12 years isn’t that long to have lived in a house, but when we moved into this old house, we brought with us many previous years’ accumulation as well. So in all reality, the de-cluttering process has involved ridding ourselves of much more than just 12 years’ worth of stuff.
Change came fast.
I always said, half-jokingly, that after Schpanky graduated from high school we would sell the old house. I didn’t really expect to make good on that. Not right away, anyway. Having one’s home for sale is a strange experience: the house must be tidy and the floors vacuumed at all times because that call from a realtor may come in at any time: “I’d like to show your home today at 3:30.” We never expected the house would sell as quickly as it did, nor did we anticipate that the buyers would want to close on the house within 30 days (gulp!). That was a shock that was followed by an emotional rollercoaster. We had to get both kids off to school, then dig right in. The preceding 3 weeks have been spent looking for a new house (difficult to find in a seller’s market where inventory is low), getting well water samples tested and septic tanks pumped and checking off a list of home inspection items. And packing. We boxed up our lives as the moving day drew nearer. How could we accumulate so much un-needed stuff? The target date for closing on our house was never set in stone until 2 days beforehand, and even then it changed. We had to be prepared to load our belongings into a truck on a moment’s notice. I had to forego a few previously planned events, which was hard to do. Bad timing. But that’s selfish of me. Selling this old house affects our entire family. We had an emotional attachment to this place. We created it. It was the home in which our kids spent their truly formative years, and when they left for college this year, they knew they would not return home to this house.
A slight bump in the road.
On the day we were set to close on the old house, and the new house, we had a crew of 18 year-old boys ready to go at 9 AM. The first load of furniture was loaded into the moving truck on Thursday by noon and as the lads ate sandwiches in the shade of the empty garage we awaited the call–the green light to move. At 1pm the call came in, but it wasn’t the call we expected, or had hoped for. Instead of a green light, we hit a major bump in the road: the title company had overlooked a few things and closing would be delayed at least a day, maybe more (insert profanities here). We sent our moving crew home, hoping they would be available the next day, even though we didn’t know if the next day would be THE day. We did know that if it was delayed past Friday, the truck would have to be unloaded because it was due back to the rental facility by 8 AM Saturday (of a very busy Labor Day weekend). That night we slept on the floor (the bed was already on the truck). It was a restless night. We awoke early the next morning, made coffee, shared multiple phone calls with out realtor, and waited. While we waited, Mrs. UA and I spread some of the ashes of our old dog, Kate, who’d gone to chase tennis balls in heaven 6 years earlier. Kate had loved the property; it seemed fitting to leave some of her behind. Around midday we got word that the sale would indeed close that afternoon, so we called in the movers again; this time only 3 were available. At 3pm the green light shown upon us and the fire drill began: 4 truck loads and a half dozen pickup loads did the trick.
At 11:45pm I made the final run to get the television set. I walked through the old house one last time. It seemed even bigger now that it was empty. I wasn’t emotional as I thought I might be. I’d already moved on, and the house belonged to someone else. I thought about leaving a housewarming gift in one of the toilets, but thought better of it.
A week has passed and we’ve begun settling into our new house, in a neighborhood. Most of the house is still in boxes and I can’t find the majority of things that for 12 years I new the exact location of. I do know where my fly fishing gear is, however; I made sure it was stowed safely in the back of my truck. Eddie was a bit out of sorts for the first couple days, but he’s adapting to a fenced back yard and strange sounds of suburbia. It’s still going to take some getting used to for him, but in all reality he was never truly comfortable in his role as free-range protector of our home and acreage. I think he’s actually relieved to not have the responsibility of a property guardian. He’ll be fine as long as he’s with us and he gets 2 meals a day and the occasional treat. Oh, and some time in the yard with a tennis ball.
It’ll take some adjustment on my part as well. There will be hundreds of trick-or-treaters on October 31st so Mrs. UA will finally be able to justify the purchase of Halloween candy. There will be certain neighborhood rules I’ll have to abide by, such as no blue tarps or dilapidated vehicles left in the front yard (not that that has ever been an issue, I just don’t like to be told what to do). I’ll adjust. I’ll also have to pay for water and sewer, but I won’t ever have to worry about our well doing dry or our septic system failing. I’ll be able to knock out the yard work in a fraction of the time it has taken me the past 11 years. And while I may have to shorten my casting a bit, there will still be room to practice in the back yard (roll casts, perhaps). The new house has a cozy feeling without being cramped. We’ll have all the space we need because our needs have changed. We will enjoy the new house, but we will never have the attachment we had with the old house. Still, we’ll make this house our home. We will cherish the memories of the old house, and in many ways we’ll miss it. In many other ways, we will not. The new owners will never have the connection we did because they won’t ever know what went into making it. But they will enjoy it, and I hope they come to love it and care for it. I may never know what becomes of it because it’s off the beaten path, down a private road that says, “No Trespassing.” Of course, that hasn’t stopped curious lookey-looers in the past. Maybe curiosity will get the best of me some day.
Two days before we moved I fired up the John Deere for the last time. It was a relatively easy task that took less than 4 hours total because the late summer heat and near record # of days without rain had all but put a halt to the grass growth. But the grass will green and begin growing again sometime in late September and will require weekly mowing until sometime in October, weather permitting. If the weather does not cooperate and the new owners fall behind by a week, it will not be a pleasant task. However, the demands of the yard and property won’t truly reveal themselves until next spring when everything really starts to come to life again. That’ll start in March some time. April through June will be hell months. I almost feel sorry for the new owners—they have no idea what they’re in for. Fortunately for them the trusty John Deere riding mower stayed with the house, as well it should. It wouldn’t know what to do with all the down time it would have at the new place anyway. I, however, know what I’ll do with the downtime: more fishing. Not sure that Mrs. UA realizes this yet or not. She’ll just have to adapt. Maybe this is the Christmas I buy her a pair of waders.
This week’s Weekly Drivel was actually begun last week, but the move got in the way of me being able to finish and post. So, it’s actually coming to you from my office in the new house. It’s a good office. Needs a proper desk and other furniture, but it feels right. We’ll be busy unpacking boxes and trying to figure out what to do with everything for weeks to come: cramming 10 pounds of potatoes into a sack made for 5 takes some careful execution, and a garage sale next weekend. The list of things to do at the new place is long, and each day I add something new to the list.
I just have to remember to tell our kids what the new address is so they can find us when they come home from college for break.
If you actually took time to read this, thank you. I wrote it more for myself than for anyone else.