Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mountain High, Valley Low

We left our hearts in San Francisco according to custom and headed south and east toward Mariposa, California, a place that was subject to 49ers hoping to pry their fortunes out of the gold-riddled hills.  Driving up those crazy mountain roads has had me thinking, "what kind of medications do the road engineers of California take???"  These twisting, climbing, dropping by-ways are a challenge in the Land Whale.  I have too much length, not enough power, too high a profile, too much mass, too little braking reliability, too many cars blasting up my backside, too little visibility, etc. for these roads.  It made me think, whatever drugs these guys are on, they are taking too much or too little of them.  It finally occurred to me that these roadways are so old, they were probably well-established in the days of wagons and horses that couldn't go too fast and for whom the tracks probably made a lot of sense.  When automobiles came on the scene, it probably just made sense to pave what was there because the roads went to and from places people wanted to go. Hence, a white knuckle ride!

The roads and the country reminded me of Wallace Stegner's novel, The Angle of Repose.  I read that novel so long ago, little detail of it remains of it in my mind.  I recall it depicting a scene of a harrowing trip over the mountains to a mining town in a horse-drawn wagon, and how the trip left the horses horribly wasted.  I also imagined those people whose drive and spirit impelled them away from civilization to go live lives on the frontiers of the West where life was hard.  They had to have been a bunch of rough cobs to take that on and survive--many didn't.  Still, their children and grandchildren really made it work, though. That next generation following the original stakeholders inherit the spirit and a piece of the place made more civilized by their parents' huge efforts and sacrifices. Most of us do.

One needn't wonder if any of that original pioneering spirit still survives.  It does, but its hand-built home and back-to the-land energy in many cases is connected to the world with smartphones and libertarian politics.  It stands to reason that living a lifestyle the government doesn't want you to live and which most of society doesn't understand yields an attitude of independence, suspicion and leave-me-the-hell-alone-ness.  Now these frontier-types can maintain their preferred isolation and still stay connected to whomever they choose via the internet.  That community connects them with like-minded people and people willing to share information and experiences on how to do things. We were going to that world.

We visited Glenn and Kathy's place, arriving late at night and parking right next to the rusted hulk of a well-drilling rig.  Poking around trying to learn about the lay of the land, my flashlight found printed signs that warned "Federal officers of the IRS, HEW, HUD, Environmental, Health and other unconstitutional agencies" [HEW, by the way, was reorganized under the Carter Administration and has not been around since then.] about the problems they would face if they entered his property without permission.  These signs are a way to keep at bay inspectors and agents who might have an interest in what Glenn is doing.  It makes sense to get inspectors to agree not to fight before actually engaging them by making them shy with dubious legal mumble jumbo, if it works.

Glenn and Kathy do not want a house that passes inspection, they want the house they are building.  Glenn, a professional metal-worker, fell in love with Mike Oehler's ideas about building his own house.  Stuff, and by this I mean building materials and building knowledge, come to Glenn all the time.  These materials, logs mostly, and wood Glenn has cut on his own sawmill, have been put together without benefit of professional structural engineering using techniques Glenn learned from Mike and though his own research and experience.  Railings on the steps in the house, for example, are made from found pieces of wood.  When he is out, Glenn keeps his eyes peeled for just the right branch to make a turn around the spiral stairways he uses in his house to save space and materials, and because they look cool.  As a result, their home is graced with a  combination of nature and art that is both zen-like and clever at the same time.

For all its unique construction and interesting beauty, this house will most likely never grace the pictures of Architectural Digest or House Beautiful.  The edges and joints in the wood, in many instances cut with a chainsaw, are un-apologetically rough.  There were places where I saw gaps filled with burlap rice bags and, in a couple of places, plain daylight through the joints.  Corners and edges are surprises.  The floors are made, in some rooms, with cob ( a mixture of clay, sand and sometimes straw) or even dirt with linseed oil on them.  Others are beautiful poured, hand-tinted concrete, and re-purposed boat docks.

Glenn estimates that his whole house--some 2200 square feet in size and a quirky warren of rooms--cost him around $5,000, not counting his labor.  He and Kathy have stuffed it with an amazing collection of antiques and books, so don't conclude they are living in some sort of squalor or inhabit a hovel even though much of their home is below ground.  The trick of this kind of construction is to allow natural light to infuse into every room so that the beams and earthen floors do not become too oppressive.   And did I mention they were off the grid? 

As a pedigreed bureaucrat myself, I probably come down on the side of the inspectors and the role they play in our communities.  Behind most codes is some incident where a resident of a home or other building died due to some correctable construction practice. (Interestingly, Glenn mentioned an account of another one of these do-it-yourself home-builders who had made his own concrete home without benefit of inspectors only to die, crushed in it a week after moving in due to subsidence caused by running water beneath the structure that compromised its structural integrity.).  Do people have the right to build a home without following building codes?  I suppose if they are the only ones to go in it.  But what if concrete house guy had a wife, or kids?  What if he had visitors spending the night?  Do you have the right to know that although Glenn built everything hell for stout, his home fails to meet all seismic, fire, and structural codes?  Do you trust that he knows enough about building these structures that your visit is safe?  I found their home as fascinating as they were and whatever risk I took was worth it to see what they have done for themselves.  They were gracious and warm hosts.

After saying good-bye to Glenna nd Kathy, we steered the Land Whale to Yosemite Park so Paul could scratch viewing a grove of purportedly tall trees from his "bucket list."  When we finally got to the Park [see California's crazy road discussion, above] we were told by the Park staff that no civilian Land Whales were allowed to visit the Tall Trees, forcing us to drive down 4 miles of crazy road in order to take one of the Park's even larger Land Whales back up to see them.  I forwent that opportunity, having seen several large trees in my life.  After the Park Land Whale took them up to see the Tall Trees and brouoght them back, I took the Land Whale back up the very same road in order to leave the Park.  Paul, Jocelyn and Eivind saw the Tall Trees and traveled the same eight miles twice.  The Park Land Whale was air conditioned, I am sure, but the reaction to the Tall Trees seemed nonplussed.

With the end of the day looming with nearly 200 miles to travel, we ate dinner at Todd's Barbeque Shack and headed south with a vague idea of where to spend the night.  Two Walmarts, a residential neighborhood, and a restaurant whose signs threatened us with towing and fines later, we settled on a truck stop by virtue of its space and claim to hot showers.  The rest of the crew hit the rack but I was compelled to obey what Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes" calls the 'inscrutable exhortations of my soul' and try the shower.  The attendant took my $5 and she handed me a thin white towel that might have been from the days of the Eastern European Bloc nations, a paper bathmat that looked like it doubled as a place mat at a diner and a key on a long rubber bungee cord.  Unlocking the shower room, I saw what prison showers must really look like.  Squinting to avoid seeing things I would only have to tell you about, I luxuriated in the soothing hot dribble of water in the shower.  Sure, the sign on the door said that if showers exceeded 5 minutes, a showerer's deposit would be forfeit, but I had a couple days of Land Whale wrangling to get off me so I didn't care.  Imagine my delight, though, upon returning the bungee key when the attendant smiled and gave me three bucks back.  I recalled talking with Robert at Dell Artemis Farms about what constitutes 'luck' and noted this was an example he would have liked.

1 comment:

  1. One of my sisters built her own house in that area -- on land a few miles northwest of North Fork, a small town near the entrance to Yosemite. The neighbors were all urban refugees of the type that would put up the types of signs you mentioned. Anyway, after paying a friend to pour the foundation and frame the house, my sister read books she checked out at the public library that explained how to hang sheet rock, install plumbing, paint, and do electrical wiring. Armed with that knowledge, she did all that work herself. !!! (Although she *did* have my electrician brother inspect the wiring.) When she and her husband divorced, they couldn't sell the "illegal" house, so it defaulted to him, since it was built on land he'd inherited from his family.

    For a man used to wide and straight roads, you are doing well in your navigation efforts. Everyone is arriving alive. Well done!