Twenty five years in the city. Twenty five years of weary acceptance, raising children, working working working. I’m never sure where my yearning to ‘get back to the land’ really came from – although growing up on a farm left me with some knowledge and a wish to return to farming, it goes much deeper than that. Homesteading. No hydro, no gas powered implements, wood heat, dirt to plow, food to preserve for the winter. For every day I spent listening to horns beep, stereos thump, sirens wail, for every day I privately cursed the gas company for the heat bill, the hydro company for the electricity bill, the grocery stores for the food bill, the neighbors for leaving their sprinkler on 24/7 because they were too lazy to shut it off and cared little that the water was simply running down the storm drain – I determined that one day I would get out. Out of the city. Out to some farm land, some bush, I didn’t really care – just out.
I planned. I plotted. I drew up plans of cabins, made lists of important things I would need in my ‘likely never gonna happen’ quest, I collected brochures of wood cook stoves, wood hot water heating systems, wind power, solar power, composting toilets. I collected books on tanning hides, curing meat, post and beam construction, stone building, clay ovens, kerosene lights, making cheese, growing food.
I knew that it would be next to impossible to accomplish this feat by myself, but I was prepared to – should I have to – if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s hard work. Everybody needs a goal – a hope for what they really want in life – homesteading, though an odd choice – was mine.
My present husband and I have known each other now for over twenty years – though we’ve only been together for ten – one of those ships passing in the night things – either he was married, or I was married, or he was living elsewhere with somebody else. When we finally found ourselves unencumbered by life and free of all responsibilities we sat down with a map, picked the furthest spot from where we were at the moment, and that we could drive to, packed up a 25 year old (oddly enough) Lincoln Continental and decided if we could travel several thousand miles and live in a car together for three weeks without finding a reason to throttle each other, then we probably had good odds at sticking things out in a relationship.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t much interested in the business of sharing – I decided to take what little money I had (and it was very little) buy what I could on my own, and get on with the grand plan. If I didn’t simply jump in with both feet and to hell with the consequences – I didn’t think it was ever going to happen. I recall tossing out some flippant comment like “well you’re welcome to come with” – happy to have the man join me in my odd quest, but under no illusions that he would. When he decided he would ‘come with’ I did ask where he drew the line with basic ammenities – not sure why I asked, probably figured I should at least give him the sense that he had some say in the matter. After some consideration, he decided that it would be nice to at least have electricity -at forty, he wasn’t sure how much oomph he had in him to build something with just a chain saw and an axe.
When you have next to no money, and you’re starting over, you take what you can get. More of a realist than anything else, I figured that whatever I could get was at least a start – it was better than doing nothing. I searched for long hours on the computer – not easy – the place had to be at least liveable in, had to be a reasonable distance to work, had to have at least the promise of being somewhat close to what I wanted.
When we finally pulled up in the driveway in the middle of winter to look at pretty much the only option I could find, the first thought that came into my head is ‘well…this is where the dream meets reality.’ The second thought – as I stared at the enormous icicles hanging from the roof – nearly touching the ground ‘no insulation in the attic.’
We parked. We went in and met the owners – an elderly couple who had hardscrabbled in this place for thirty years with no water, no sewer, unreliable hydro and finally brought in gas for a small wall furnace that would keep the winter cold at bay. I found out they had raised six kids in this house – six kids in a six hundred square foot house that had spent the first half of it’s life as a ranch hand cabin on a nearby dairy farm. I couldn’t imagine it – the place was crammed floor to ceiling with all manner of stuff, it barely accomodated the four of us. We sat down at the table and talked turkey – they wanted to spend their final years in a warmer climate – I wanted somewhere to start over.
It was immediately apparent that the pictures in the real estate listing had been taken many, many years past – still, the realtor knew his stuff. ‘For the independant minded’ it read. ‘Small house, ten acres, wood cook stove.’ Good enough for me – sold.
The teeny table we were crammed around was the only place to sit, no worries about checking out the bathroom – there wasn’t one to check out. The place was sweltering – sure enough, not three feet away from where we sat – the cook stove. It wasn’t one of those antique, covered in nickle trim cook stoves like the ones in my many many brochures, rather it was a black steel and white enamel serviceable models with a warming oven and it was keeping the place plenty warm and brewing a giant pot of coffee. Long and short of it, we made a deal – I made sure the stove was going to stay.
I don’t know now, whether I was weary from the eight hour drive in the winter, or wearing a double set of rose colored glasses at the time. I do know, I sat and drank coffee, ate a couple of cookies and decided the run down tired appearance of the place was of little consequence. ‘Some elbow grease and a couple of coats of paint,’ I thought. Nothing a little effort couldn’t fix up.
My ‘come with’ partner in the quest said little. He dutifully took the tour of the surrounding hundred feet of the place as it was all you could get to in the piles of snow, and made mention after the fact as we headed out, that he’d checked out the outhouse and by the way – it was full….and he’d never actually seen a ‘dualling shithouse’ before – it accomodated two people at a time. Come spring – we were going to have do dig a hole and build a new outhouse. I mentioned to the realtor, politely, that perhaps the owners could have the outhouse pumped out before we took possession. He replied, politely, that it was frozen. There was no pumping frozen contents from an outhouse.
By now, there seemed to be a faint twang of banjo music jangling away in my subconcious – I ignored it – I was too busy packing, arranging, finding a job, deciding what to take, what to leave behind. I picked out a couple of Martha Stewart paint colors – renamed them ‘lumber wrap’ and ‘barn red’, threw them in the moving van and we were off and running.
Work wasn’t hard to come by in the north – I was hired over the phone by simply faxing in a resume – I wasn’t sure if it was a good sign or the man was desperate – turned out to be the latter. I began work the following week for a man with two mechanics on the floor, neither of which were lisenced, who was in the middle of a nasty divorce and an endless fight over the children, who ran his business out of a next to derelect building with poor lighting, years of accumulated grime, months worth of backlogged work, and years of hoarded parts, paperwork, and personal ‘get to it one day’ junk. I was handed a nice letter welcoming me to my new position as a ‘shop foreman/service writer/transmission rebuilder’ stating my wage and the terms of my employment and asked to read it over and sign it. God himself couldn’t have straightened that place out – but I gave it my best shot. Eighteen months later, exhausted, frustrated, and incredibly ill from cleaning parts in paint thinner (because it was apparently cheaper than good old regular toxic solvent and cheaper than fixing the parts washer) I called it a day and marched down the road to another job – in a better lit building, with a functioning parts washer, for a man who was willing to let me do my job and understood it might be many months before I was a fully functioning human being again – he had worked for my previous boss for thirteen years and knew well what I had managed to pull off.
As the couple who had owned the house I bought were elderly, and it was winter, we gave them extra time to pack up and move – in the meantime we managed to rent an incredibly cheesy basement suite in town for a month – a suite that came with instructions that were we to use the washing machine – we had to make sure the plug was in the bathtub – if we didn’t, the washing machine would back up into the tub. I wouldn’t know the couple to see them now, but I remember clearly – upon meeting the Mrs, she excitedly asked us to guess what she did for a living. Not having the faintest, we simply waited for the answer – ‘a librarian!’ No…..she did not look like a librarian – at least none that I remember. I also recall, her husband worked shift work at a sawmill – and as their paths seldom crossed, we were soon to discover that when he was at home and she wasn’t, he would spend long hours getting hammered and talking loudly to no one in particular, and when they were both home at the same time, the bed springs and the sofa springs never stopped squeaking. Never. You literally could not drown it out by turning up the volume on the tv. I took to spending my days off down by the river with a thermous of coffee and my ‘game for anything’ not yet hubby, spent long hours reading up on how to build a plumbing system that actually drained and did not back up into anything it wasn’t supposed to back up into. That and staring at the ceiling above and wondering when the squeaking bed springs would stop squeaking. We were both happy to have jobs to go to – and both anxious to get into our house.
Finally! Moving in day. We pull up with the van and all our belongings including two dogs – a very large Pyranese, and a medium mixed breed I was sure looked as if he might have some pit bull in him. First things first – they had left their cats behind – along with several tins of cat food, apparently thinking the cats would be happier to stay behind than get crated up for several hours on their way to a new home. Both cats took one look at the dogs and bolted – never to be seen again. The cat food went to the dogs.
It wasn’t until we walked into the house proper, that the full enormity of what I had taken on for a project, hit me. Minus the clutter of thirty years of life in one house – the place looked like you might expect after the lights get turned back on in the bar at closing time. Run down, seedy, dirty, garish, depressing. Where the artfully arranged china cabinet had stood – there was a very large hole in the floor – one could actually see, under the wall, to the front yard. Said large hole also extended into the bedroom – it became apparent that that particular corner of the house was on it’s way to collapsing upon itself. The floor that did exist was armored with a many layered mixture of vinyl flooring, linoleum, newspaper, ranger board….and oddly enough, the last and most visible layer was a large chunk of fabric nailed down over top of all. There was a cupboard/counter unit with a sink that drained to nowhere, a hodgepodge of ‘cabinets’ built from various scraps and stacked precariously above the counter, a range hood that had sat over their gas stove – yet oddly was wired into nothing. The cook stove had an odd but obvious tilt to it as one of the legs had collapsed, and in the corner of the living/kitchen room sat a behemoth of a freezer, rusted completely to the floor, still running and still full of game meat of indeterminate age.
Silent. Both of us. I thought perhaps I should sit down for a minute – but there was nowhere to sit down. Instead I marched out to the moving van, dug out the coffee pot, armed myself with a decent size bottle of whiskey for spiking the coffee, found the jug of water and marched back into the house. Still silent. Prepared the coffee, plugged the machine in, hit the button and – ‘bzzzzzt!!’. With a shower of sparks from the receptacle – out went the lights.
‘Well.’ said hubby to be, still rooted to the spot I’d left him in. ‘I guess that plug’s no good. Where’s the breaker panel?’
Lights back on, I find a receptacle that functions and doesn’t seem ready to self destruct and make the coffee. Hands on hips I make a complete circle, wander in and out of the bedroom and the one day to be bathroom. I look at the floor. The yellowed ceiling tiles. The cracked front window.
‘I guess we’ll just gut the place.’ I finally state. ‘Do you happen to know where in the van you packed the splitting maul and the chain saw?’
Game as always, my partner in this mess cracks a beer, thinks for a moment and finally nods. ‘Yep. I happen to know exactly where it is.’
Stay tuned for…..This house of mine:part two: how not to burn down an outhouse.