Giving Thanks

In the course of my journeys over the past several months, I’ve come to see how blessed I am. That word, blessed, is one that is not often used by my friends, for it often implies the hand of a divine entity, whose existence most of my friends do not acknowledge, preferring instead to use a more neutral word like “lucky”, which merely implies chance. I too, am not religious, and do not claim to know whether God does, or does not, exist. But I feel the word blessed is appropriate for how I feel, because it reminds me that life often is influenced by circumstances other than random chance, and while these circumstances may not have divine sources, they still deserve gratitude nonetheless.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, I would like to say thanks to all that I am grateful for.

For starters, I am grateful for my parents, for having me and raising me in this world, and whether by intent or accident, shaping me into who I am today.

I am also grateful for my few, but supportive friends who have provided me with incredible emotional and logistical support over these past several months. Specifically, I’m grateful to Nikki, for encouraging me to follow my dreams and passions. I am grateful to Harold, for collecting my mail all these months, and for lending me a couch on numerous occasions. I am grateful to Joyce, for letting me use her home as a giant mailbox and accepting a small mountain of materiĂ©l on my behalf. I am grateful to Josh, for his couch, for his advice, and also for his help raising my hut. I am grateful to Keith and Stephanie, for opening up their home to me, and offering me a home away from home. I am also tremendously grateful to my broader network of friends, who I have relied upon for emotional support during some of my darker moments in recent months.

Though it is easy to forget, living on vacant undeveloped land made me grateful for all the technology that we have available. I am grateful for the fact that I can own a vehicle that has allowed me to affordably travel tens of thousands of miles in several months. I am grateful for affordable solar power, for refrigeration, and for efficient battery-powered tools and appliances. I am grateful for the internet, which has allowed me to stay connected with friends and family, and for giving me a medium through which to share my story with a much bigger audience than I could in person.

Last but not least, I am grateful to this country, and to all the men and women who made this country what it is. While admittedly not without its faults, few countries, past or present, have ever offered the individual so many opportunities and freedoms. Close to 9 years ago, I landed at LAX, with nothing more than a couple of bags, a laptop, and less than $10,000 in cash. I started taking classes at a community college, then worked my way up to eventually get a degree from a world class institution, and a job at one of the most coveted companies in the industry, if not the world. This is a country where people come to fulfill their dreams. I came. I did.

While there is much to be grateful for, it is also important to acknowledge that there are many who are less fortunate, and that there is more work to do. Today, there are countless millions who suffer from lack of food, lack of shelter, lack opportunities and freedoms. We are closing our borders to those who wish to join our ranks of dreamers. Budget cuts affecting public education are increasingly closing doors to those who aspire for a better future. Lack of adequate health care threaten the well-being of many. Our disregard for the environment damages the world in which our children and grandchildren will live. So while we say thanks for all that we have, I hope we can take a moment to reflect on our obligations to our friends, our neighbors and our children, to help create a world in which they, too, can share in all that we are grateful for.

Finding a Home in the Urban Forest

As I indicated at the end of my last journal entry, I left Serenity Valley for the winter (rest assured, dear readers, my hut in the woods adventures will resume in a few months). The reason for leaving was almost entirely financial — I’d simply run out of cash… and credit. Without cash, I couldn’t prepare my hut for yet colder and wetter climates. Without cash, I’d have to choose between paying this month’s payment on the (small) loan I took out to buy the land, or health insurance. Not to mention, you know, car payments, food, gas, cell phone, and all those other recurring expenditures.

Yes, the reality is, even though I “lived” in the woods in a $600 hut, I was still not completely free. I still had shackles in the form of bills1

So, I came out of the woods, and headed back to Silicon Valley to start a short-term consulting gig I had waiting for me. The gig is part time, and I can work from pretty much anywhere, so in theory, I don’t have to “live” in Silicon Valley. But I want to. I lived here for 4 years before I moved away, and the roots I established during those years still remain here. I have friends here. My shooting club is here, as are shooting ranges. And, besides, if I’m working in tech again, it makes sense to be here. Oh, and it’s nice and warm here too 🙂

But there’s one problem. Having built a $600 hut in the woods, I’m having a hard time justifying paying for an apartment or room. For those of you not familiar with the area, a 1 bedroom apartment starts at around $1000 here. If I share a place, I might pay $600 instead. Per month. That’s a new hut I could be building every month.

I recently did some calculations, and realized that I’d paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in rent during the 4 years I lived here. Some people will argue that that’s why it makes sense to buy a house. Sure, if you considered money to be the most important resource, then buying would likely save you a ton of money. But to me, money isn’t the most important resource; time is. And buying even a cheap condo in the area means taking out a huge mortgage, that would take 15, 20, 30 years to pay off. That’s 15, 20, 30 years of financial obligations. That, to me, sounds like a 15, 20, 30 year prison sentence. I’m not going to prison, just to put a roof over my head2.

So, I’m trying to find the equivalence of my $600 hut in this (sub)urban forest. I even considered buying land out here and, yes, building an actual hut. But that’s simply not feasible. Land around here is scarce and insanely expensive, and, not to mention, I’m pretty sure I’d have city inspectors swarming me the instant I erected a single two-by-four without a permit.

Rather, the same way my hut was an exercise in minimalism, I’m trying to apply the same idea here. That process starts by asking the question, “What do I need?” For starters, I need a place to sleep. I have that covered right now, since my “employer” has graciously offered to look the other way if he were to find me sleeping at the office. Then, what else do I need? I need to bathe, occasionally. Here’s a dirty (literally) little secret: I can go for days without showering before anyone notices. Last night I borrowed a friend’s shower. Perhaps I can keep rotating between various friends’ showers… Or maybe I’ll get a gym membership, to use the showers. What else do I need? I could use a kitchen, so that I don’t waste money eating out. Well, except, maybe I could live off of sandwiches, and eat out occasionally if I wanted a warm meal. Sandwiches don’t require a kitchen to make, and are cheap.

So I have all of the above covered, without paying rent. But there’s one thing missing: it’s that sense of home you get from having your own place. Partially, it’s about privacy. Partially, it’s about freedom. And partially, it’s purely psychological. Whatever it is, it’s somewhat unsettling to not have that. On the other hand, I’ve been practically homeless for the last 3 months, except for when I was living in my hut, and I’ve become accustomed to that feeling. At least, accustomed enough that I wonder if it’s worth paying hundreds of dollars a month to make it go away.

There are also smaller inconveniences. For instance, I went to the range yesterday, and then didn’t have anywhere I could go afterwards to clean my rifle. I probably could’ve done that at the office, especially since there’s nobody there, but there’s a bit of a resistance to bringing an AR-15 to a place of work. Along similar lines, I’ll eventually need a place to setup my reloading equipment. One of the last things I did before moving out of my apartment back in April was to load as much ammo as I could. Nikki and I loaded something like 700 rounds, in between packing up the apartment and hauling things to the storage unit, but now that I’m shooting again, I’ll probably go through that in a month or two. But I don’t need an apartment to clean a rifle or reload. Maybe I could rent a storage unit and setup my reloading bench in there — if I ignore that clause about no hazardous materials…

In any case, I’m still at that stage where I’m looking at various options, and weighing the pros and cons. I’ll keep y’all posted on how things pan out…

  1. I should note that my total combined (non-cash) financial assets are still greater than my obligations. In other words, if I liquidated my non-cash assets, I could pay off all my debt, and thus “buy” my freedom.
  2. Comparing a mortgage to prison might be a little harsh, since you can get out of mortgages, either by selling your house, or by simply foreclosing. But I imagine there’s a huge mental barrier for that, and I’d rather not build a prison in my head either.

Breakdown of Hut Costs

The original plan had been to build a hut for under $300. That quickly proved to be unrealistic, but now that I’m done with the initial iteration, I thought I’d break down the costs so far. I’d like to note that the prices are approximate and/or rounded, and don’t include taxes. Some items I bought from different stores, so prices might’ve varied; I picked the higher price, or the average, in such cases. I also bought tools, which aren’t included here, neither are excess materials I purchased and didn’t use. So, yes, the actual cost has been much higher ($600+).

Item Qty Price Total

cement blocks 6 $2.50 $15

2x4x8 12 $2 $24

2x4x92.5″ GDF 26 $1.50 $39

2x6x8 4 $3 $12

2x2x8 8 $3 $24

1x3x8 8 $2 $16

.451″ thick 4’x8′ OSB 6 $9 $54

.451″ thick pine 4’x8′ ply 6 $14 $86

nails + screws $25

paint 1 gal. $16 $16

painting supplies $10

caulk 10 $2.50 $25

mylar 52″x100′ 1 roll $40 $40

bubblewrap 1’x175′ 1 roll $20 $20

asphalt saturated paper 1 roll $27 $27

.220″ thick 18″ x 24″ plexiglas 3 sheets $14 $42

door hardware $20

weather proofing $15

glue 1 tube $4 $4

Total: $514

For the most part, I think I hit a decent price-performance point, even though I went way over my original budget. I’m pretty happy with the quality and durability of what I have, though I could use more/better insulation, and I’m a little concerned about the long-term durability of the plywood exterior. When I started, it made sense to set a lower initial budget since I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to build something that wouldn’t collapse immediately. But now that I have something that seems viable, it makes sense to invest more money into it for improvements.

Start small, iterate. The lesson I learned in software engineering applies to huts too.

Tiny Stoves!

I found an article over on the Tiny House Blog about tiny heaters, exactly the kind that I need for my hut! I think one of the cute, tiny wood stoves would be perfect for my tiny hut…

Journal: November 13th, 2009

Yesterday morning, I woke up in winter wonder land. There was a fine silvery coat of snow on everything when I burst out of the hut at 9 in the morning, after one quick peek out the window. I love snow, especially in the woods. It was absolutely gorgeous, and almost made the cold worthwhile. Before long, the sun came up, and the snow melted away. I’m sure there will be more. I did manage to build a small snow ET using snow off of the food tent roof…

I spent the rest of the day working on the front windows. It’s a traditional looking two-pane window, with a wooden frame, and fills up most of the right half of the front of the hut. Now that the window is there, my hut basically looks like a platonic house; the kind that I used to draw in kindergarden. Pitched roof, a door, a window. I guess all I need now is a chimney.

As good as it looks from the outside, it didn’t take me long to realize my mistake. The plexiglas I use for my windows provide less insulation than plywood. Which means I actually managed to make my hut less insulated than before. I tried to make up for it by putting up bubble-wrap and mylar on sections of the interior, but I’m not sure it really makes a difference. Mylar reflects radiant heat, but I’m losing most of my heat to conduction, and I don’t think mylar prevents conductive heat loss.

Since today was my last full day here (assuming I actually manage to get out tomorrow), I did a bunch of small tasks to finish up the hut. The first was to build a table-type thing under the window, so I can put my stove on an elevated surface. With the stove there, it made sense to hammer in a couple of nails on the wall to hang my pots and skillet. Then it made sense to line up my spices on the windowsill too, and with the oil lamp that was already there, that corner suddenly looked really homely.

Another minor task I did today was to frame the door. To be honest, this was almost entirely cosmetic, though, it does help seal the door somewhat. I also put in some molding (I think that’s what they’re called –pieces of wood that go where the walls and floor meet), and stapled roofing paper all around the hut, to cover up the “foundation.” The exterior has remained surprisingly dry through the last week of rain and snow, but I think that’s mostly because it hasn’t been very windy. Hopefully the tar paper skirt will help keep things relatively dry.

Tomorrow, I’m packing up camp, and heading out. I’m working under the assumption that I might not come back until Spring. I do hope I can come back for a couple of short stays in between, but it’s going to start snowing for real soon, and the roads might get a little too treacherous for the little Ryomobile.

To be honest, I’m ready to get out of here. That’s not to say that I’m unhappy with the state of the hut, or my camp. I’ve managed to stay on my property well into November, and have stayed relatively comfortable despite rain, snow, and freezing temperatures. If I hadn’t built this hut, this past week would’ve been unbearable. And I’m rather proud of the fact that I’ve broken my endurance record despite the weather; I came here Tuesday the 3rd, and will be leaving on the 14th, which means I will have spent 11 nights here. My previous longest continuous stay was 6 or 7 nights, and that was when it was much warmer too.

The reality, though, is that life’s not quite comfortable enough here yet to be able to stay indefinitely. For me to stay longer, I’d need more/better heating in the hut. I’d also need to figure out a way to bathe, even when there isn’t enough sun to warm up my solar shower (probably a gas powered shower will do). I’ve also been having issues keeping my laptop charged/running, though I mostly only use it to play music.

And, I’ll admit, I miss civilization, and its creature comforts; the warm showers, the warm beds, being able to get up at night to pee without freezing. I also miss my friends. I miss the feeling of being connected, to people and to the world.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about solitude, and my isolation. It’s clear to me that I’m not a true hermit. No doubt, I’m introverted, and I enjoy solitude and isolation. In fact, I need it. But I miss the touch, the embrace, the smile, the voice of a loved one. It’s the kind of warmth that is lacking out here, no matter how warm my hut may be. I realized that as the days went by, I spent more and more time thinking about people I care about, and thinking about time I’ve spent with them.

Over the last two weeks, I found that while I set out to build a hut, a temporary shelter, I was actually building myself a home. I’m almost there. In the sense that this is a place I can always return to, this is a home. It may be the only home in the world that I have. But there’s another kind of home; a home that you share with someone you love, regardless of its physical shape, form or location. That is the home I need to seek now, now that I have a place that I can call home.

Journal: November 10th, 2009

Yesterday, I got up in the morning, and decided I needed to get away. It was a cloudy morning, and I felt miserable. I wanted to be dry and warm. I also didn’t have much work I could do on the hut, because I was out of lumber (again) and with the clouds threatening rain, I couldn’t paint either. So I went to Redding.

I got there around lunch time, and gorged myself on some Chinese buffet, then waddled over to the hardware store and gorged myself on lumber. Since I had a bunch of photos to upload, I headed to a Starbucks near the hardware store to use the wifi connection. Dressed the way I am, I didn’t feel particularly out of place at the hardware store, but I definitely felt weird at Starbucks, especially in contrast to the clean-looking cute barista who took my order. She had dark wavy hair, and a dimple in her radiant smile. It made me realize how isolated I’ve been. Waiting for my tall decaf mocha, I felt uncomfortably warm, so I took off the outer most layer: a Google hoodie, polka dotted with caulk and paint, and bleached reddish by some mysterious substance in the woods. The next layer wasn’t much of an improvement: a long sleeve flannel shirt. I considered taking that off, but underneath that was a long sleeve orange t-shirt, a size too large. I gave up, and since there weren’t any seats open with power outlets anyway, I left after picking up my coffee, and headed across the parking lot to the Safeway, where there’s also wifi and power, but fewer laptop users.

As I went about doing internet things, I realized that I was actually running a slight fever. My head felt fuzzy, and I felt clammy. This was rather inconvenient, since I was an hour and a half away from my land. I can’t honestly say that going back to my cold hut and spending another night in my 24″ wide loft, constrained in my sleeping bag, probably with freezing toes, particularly seemed appealing to me. But I knew that’s exactly what I would do. I chose to do this. It would take more than a slight fever to make me give up.

I decided to try the old family remedy for mild illnesses: tons of food. Chinese buffet for lunch was a good start. I decided to top it off with a burrito for dinner, downed with a bottle of vitamin water. It was around 8:30 or 9 by the time I got back to my hut, but fortunately, it was much, much warmer than on previous nights. The thermometers registered around 32F outside, 46F inside, with my kerosene lamp and new propane lamp I’d picked up in Redding providing some additional heat.

I have a wide variety of lighting devices in my hut. The most basic form of lighting is candles. I have 3 of them lit right now, and I like the soft warm glow they give off. A few days ago, I got an oil lamp at the local hardware store. It’s only about as bright as a candle, but probably much cheaper in the long run, since a $8 bottle of oil will probably last a month or so. Then, there’s the propane lamp I got yesterday. Even at its lowest setting, it gives off tons of light, but propane canisters are heavy and bulky, so I’m a little weary of burning through them too quickly. Lastly, I have an assortment of electric lamps that run off of AA or AAA batteries. Since I charge AA and AAA batteries from my deep cycle battery that in turn is charged by my solar panels, electricity is by far the greenest form of energy on my land. I have a virtually infinite supply, generated on my property. But, truth be told, keeping all these batteries recharged is an annoying chore.

I felt about as miserable this morning, as I did yesterday morning, despite the sunny weather. I felt lonely and isolated. My fever seemed to have gone away, but I was still cold and felt oddly empty. I got up briefly at 8:30 to pee (which, for me, means climbing down from my loft and going outside to the nearest tree), then climbed back into my sleeping bag. I didn’t come out again until 10:30, and just puttered around my camp in a daze. At one point, I found myself mindlessly eating honey roasted peanuts from a can I’d bought at a Girl Scout sale at the local grocery store.

Oddly enough, taking a dump made me feel better. There’s something about crouching in the open field, in the sun, with my pants off, boots on, over a shallow hole, that gives me perspective. I have a hut in the woods. Sure, there are things I don’t have that I long for, but I have a lot that other people don’t have. Most importantly, I have freedom. I focused on that, and thought about all the adventures I could go on. It made me feel much better.

I decided to utilize the good weather to do some painting, before bad weather returned. I spent most of the afternoon applying a second coat of paint, focusing particularly on the lower parts, where it was more likely to get wet. I then duct taped the paint roller to an 8-foot section of two-by-two to get the gables, which I’d missed the first time around. By the time the sun set, my hut was, for the first time, fully painted.

Using what little light I had, I gathered firewood for the evening, then headed down to the car to bring up some of the lumber I bought yesterday, in case I decided to do some work after dark. On the way down to the car, I thought about what work I had left. I decided to just leave the tarp over the roof until I could get some help putting on the roofing paper. I’ve also been concerned about how weather proof the plywood exterior would be. The cheap crappy ply I got is already starting to warp and crack in places. Would it survive the winter? Other than paint, what can I do to make it more weatherproof? A couple of weeks ago, I tacked on some of the roofing tar paper around the bottom half of the hut, sort of like a skirt, as a temporary measure. Perhaps I could do that, more permanently. But then I started thinking, why not use tar paper as siding? Why not cover up the whole hut in that stuff? I certainly had enough, and if I wasn’t going to use it for the roof, I might as well use it for something. And if I’m going to wrap up the whole thing in tar paper, why not also put my mylar-bubbewrap insulation on the exterior too, underneath the tar paper? Putting insulation on the outside is easier because all the columns and studs won’t get in the way, and it’ll also help protect the plywood. I also happen to like the exposed wood on the interior. Thoreau says “New ideas for new people, old ideas for old people.”

I ended up taking the evening off. I cooked myself a nice dinner of grilled chicken seasoned with salt, pepper and thyme, with a side of saute’d onions and rice. The rest of the evening was spent sitting by the fire, occasionally reading some Walden. It seems like it’ll be another reasonably warm evening. Last I checked, it was right around 32F outside. Inside, it is a balmy 46F.

Q&A: Electricity

In response to Episode 5, Nina asked:

One question about your freezer: you say that it’s been a real challenge getting enough power for it. How have you been coping with that? Do you just have to shut off the freezer every couple days, or have you found a solution? And could you explain why the solar generated power isn’t enough? Is it because you lose power in the transition? You threw out some #s of demand/supply of energy, and I thought that the freezer demand # (30?) was way smaller than the solar supply # (130? or something?), but maybe I missed a difference in units (30 per hour vs 130 per day)?

I decided to write a whole post about it, because I figured some additional information might be of interest to… well, people in addition to Nina. I think there are two questions in there, so let me split them out.

you say that it’s been a real challenge getting enough power for it. How have you been coping with that?

I’ve since gotten my generator back, and it’s been working perfectly, so I no longer have a power shortage. But when I didn’t have the generator, I resorted to hauling one of my batteries down to my car, hooking it up to my car battery in parallel using jumper cables (like when you jump-start a car) and running the engine. The engine turns the alternator, which charges the car battery, and since the deep cycle battery is hooked up to it in parallel, some of the current also goes to that as well. It’s a crude and inefficient solution, and one that’s also potentially harmful to the battery, but it worked.

could you explain why the solar generated power isn’t enough?

The solar panels I have output 60 Watts under ideal conditions (i.e. there’s good direct sunlight, and the panels are pointed at the sun). Theoretically, if I have 7 hours of good sunlight, and manage to have my panels pointed at the sun continuously, I can get 60 Watts x 7 hours = 430 Watt-Hours of electricity. My freezer, on the other hand, continuously draws 30 Watts, which translates to 30 Watts x 24 hours = 720 Watt-Hours per day. So already I have a 310 Watt-Hour deficit. In reality, since my panels are stationary and don’t track the sun, they don’t generate anywhere near the theoretical maximum, even on a sunny day. Additionally, trees cast shadows on the panels for at least some parts of the day, which further decrease the amount of power generated. On top of that, if there are any clouds obscuring the sun, output can go down to 10 Watts or lower, even if it seems like a sunny day.

So, there you have it. Thanks for asking Nina, and I hope that answers your question!