Journal: November 30th, 2010

I got back to Serenity Valley after being away for over a week. Returning to my property after a long-ish absence is always exciting, because I never know what to expect. I knew there was a winter storm that passed through the area a week ago, so my biggest concern was snow covering the dirt road and making it impassable.

Indeed, when I arrived at the dirt road, the thick layer of snow did concern me somewhat, but aside from a little slippage, my car was able to make it up without problems. In fact, with the snow smoothing over the bumps and muffling all sounds, it almost felt like I was in a magical self-powered sled, gliding through a winter wonder woodland. The biggest obstacles I faced were a couple of padlocks that had frozen shut, though heating them up with a lighter seemed to do the trick.

My camp seemed to be ok, other than the fluffy blanket of snow. Though, upon closer examination, I noticed that my tent had collapsed. My ladder, which had been propped up against Hut 2.1, just yards away from my tent, had toppled over, possibly squishing the tent. Though, the tent was also under a lot of heavy snow, some of which might’ve fallen off the roof of Hut 2.1, so who knows what happened there. I had all my bedding in the tent, but fortunately it was all still dry.

The temperature got down into the single digits (Fahrenheit) and below last week, so basically all my liquids have frozen solid. My 7 gallon water containers have turned into big balls of ice. My olive oil is a solid, and even the vegetable oil turned into sludge. A bottle of cranberry juice I’d left in my hut also froze, and since sugar water has a much lower freezing point than pure water, that gives you an idea of how cold it got. To make liquid water, I had to pull out my “emergency” stash of bottled water I keep in my car, and boil it, then pour it into my frozen water containers to thaw some of it. Last night, I put some hot water in an empty plastic water bottle and stuck it in my bed, partially to help heat up my blankets, but mostly to ensure I had liquid water in the morning since, otherwise, all my liquid water would freeze overnight. I considered melting snow, but who knows what kind of contaminants are in there. Electronics aren’t impervious to cold either. Batteries tend to not work as effectively in the cold, and chargers often will refuse to charge batteries that are cold. My power tool batteries will also be sleeping with me at night.

I have plenty of warm clothes, and a high metabolism that generates ample body heat, so I generally don’t mind the cold. In fact, I feel livelier in the cold than in oppressive heat, and I just love snow. After I had my morning coffee, I went for a walk through the snow, following deer and rabbit tracks all over the woods. When I was a kid, I noticed how grown-ups seemed to think of snow as an inconvenience and hazard, while kids universally loved snow. I promised myself that I would never be the kind of boring and joyless grown-up who didn’t appreciate snow. I think I’ve done ok so far.

Temperatures this week are supposed to be warmer, with highs above freezing (albeit by only a few degrees), and lows of around 20F. But it’s supposed to snow for the next several days, so I decided to come back out to town to stock up on supplies, just in case I get snowed in. I’ve got 2-3 weeks worth of propane, and ample food, so I should be fine. I’ll just keep working on Hut 2.0, which is sufficiently covered at this point, that I can keep working on it through snow.

Laptop and a Rifle Calendar!!

It’s here! And it’s awesome!! What’s here? The 2011 Laptop and a Rifle Calendar, that’s what. And you can buy it (or just preview it) right now for the low low price of $29.17 (well, preview is free)! Wait, you’re still here? Perhaps you are not convinced. Well, let me list the reasons why you should buy this calendar, because trust me, this ain’t no ordinary calendar and you won’t find one like it anywhere on the internet.

Feature 0: It’s got shiny photos I took! Yep, all the photos in this calendar were taken by yours truly. About half the photos are from Serenity Valley, and the rest are from various places in the US. If you want to see pretty pictures of trees and hills and flowers and waterfalls and… etc etc, this calendar is for you! Or if you know someone who likes trees and hills and flowers and waterfalls and etc etc, it may be a perfect gift for them! The calendar is also printed on nice thick stock – paper so thick I kept thinking I was flipping two pages when I was only flipping one (yes, that’s a feature, I swear)!

Feature 1: Buying this calendar will make me happy (and support this blog)! Yes, I will make a small profit if you buy this calendar. But, it’s not much. More importantly, it’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, because regardless of your real reason for buying the calendar, I will assume that it’s because you enjoy my blog and support what I’m doing. Isn’t that a great deal? You could be buying this calendar to give to your annoying neighbor, or that aunt you hate, or the ugly step child you secretly want to sell to the circus, or your fish Wanda who has no concept of date or time, and I will still feel warm and fuzzy inside. So, it’s like buying a gift that comes with a satisfaction guarantee (so, ok, the guarantee is for my satisfaction, not yours or the unlucky recipient’s, but we’re just splitting hairs at this point). On a more serious note, your support does mean a lot to me, and will encourage me to stay up on my property and keep blogging a bit longer, rather than giving up and returning to a life in the warm and well paid cubicle farm…

Feature 2: It’s got more holidays than any other calendar!* This calendar has at least one holiday per week, sometimes even two or three! And these aren’t boring ol’ holidays. I mean, if you need a calendar to tell you that January 1st is New Years Day, you probably had a bit too much champaign. But, did you know that January 3rd is “Drinking Straw Day“? Or that January 13th is “Rubber Duckie Day“? Don’t forget “Working Naked Day” on February 1st either. And while you may know that September 19th is Talk Like a Pirate Day, you may not know that two weeks before that, September 5th, is Be Late for Something Day. If you didn’t have this calendar to remind you of these obscure but fun holidays, you might totally miss out, and 2011 may end up being a boring year like any other. So, if you want your year to be less boring, you should buy this calendar. (* – Well, at least, of all the calendars that I’ve seen…)

Feature 3: Warm photos for cold months, cool photos for warm months! Why do calendars match their photos with the months? I mean, if I wanted to know what it looks like outside right now, I’d just look out the window rather than look at the calendar. So, with this calendar, I flipped things around. The cold winter months show sunny warm photos taken in the summer, to help you feel warmer! And the summer months show nice and cool photos, like a picture of a waterfall, or pictures of ice and snow, to help you cool off. Now, that’s another feature you won’t find on other calendars. (Feature only available to residents of the Northern Hemisphere.)

Feature 4: Two extra months for 2012! Many calendars go up until January of the following year. So I went one further! This calendar goes all the way to February 2012 so you basically get a sixth of a 2012 calendar with your 2011 calendar! Actually, there’s a mini calendar for March ’12 on the last page, so if you’re really scrappy, you can hold off until March 31st 2012 before getting a new calendar. You know what that means? It means you can wait later than everybody else to get a 2012 calendar, by which point you’d be able to get one for far cheaper. So, even though this calendar may seem to be a bit pricey, it’s not, because you’re basically getting a discount for your 2012 calendar. Oh, and if the world ends before March 31st 2012, you might not even need a calendar, and you can laugh at those suckers who paid lots of money for one. And trust me, if the world ends, you’re going to want something to laugh about…

Feature 5: The price is a prime number. Yes, you read that right. There is no $x.99 or $n.79 trick going on here. I chose the price because it’s a prime number. In fact, the price is comprised of not one, but three primes: 2917 is a prime, as are 29 and 17! (Sadly, with tax and/or shipping, the actual amount you pay might not be a prime, but that’s not my fault.)

Feature 6: This is the only calendar to be endorsed by my friends’ cats: Gimli, Nymera and Una. Here is the photographic evidence of their heartfelt and enthusiastic endorsement:




If you’re still not convinced, well… I’m out of ideas. Let me know what you’d like to see in your ideal calendar, and I might be able to incorporate it in future editions!

Journal: November 20th, 2010

Work slowed down a bit this week, but we still made solid progress on Hut 2.1. That’s right, we went straight to 2.1 and framed up the extension. The original plan had been to finish 2.0 first so that we could start living in it, but the plan suffered the inevitable fate that most plans face: obsolescence due to fluid circumstances. Specifically, Kelly decided to go home for Thanksgiving, so I decided to prioritize work that required her help, and in that light, it seemed to make sense to get the extension framed while she was around. The extension really only took us a couple of days, including the roof, though I just have the OSB roof sheathing covered in Tyvek and will be putting up proper roofing later. I was also hoping to get the chimney up too, but the chimney mounting kit I bought was missing pieces, so I had to hold off on that until I get a re placement. However, I did manage to get the door up, since that was something I thought I would need help with.

On Thursday, we left the property ahead of a snow storm that was supposed to last several days. Kelly had a train to catch, and we didn’t want to get snowed in, not to mention, predicted lows were in the teens, and Hut 1.0 is woefully under-equipped for that kind of cold.

Before heading out, we went into the nearby town, where I bought an antique cast iron stove. It’s pretty tiny, about 2ft tall, with a combustion chamber measuring maybe 8 inches in diameter and about a foot high. There are two removable burner plates, which I can hopefully use to cook and boil water. Actually, I’m not even entirely sure it’s a “wood” stove, since it’s clearly too small to burn logs, but it doesn’t look like a coal stove either (the store had one of those too). In any case, my plan is to just burn small pieces of wood, and maybe charcoal briquets if I need the extra BTUs. A larger stove would probably get too hot anyway, so we’ll see how things go. It was only $120, so even if it doesn’t work out, I haven’t wasted too much money…

On the way back from town, I met another self-claimed “neighbor.” We’d noticed my adjacent neighbor’s chain was down on our way out to town, but since I didn’t think they were around, I was slightly concerned. Then on the way back from town, we were driving up the dirt road that leads to our properties, when I noticed a dude walking down the road towards us. He was an older guy, with long grayish hair and a similarly colored beard, wrapped in tattered olive drab Vietnam-era field uniforms, with a foot-long hunting knife dangling off his belt. A chocolate colored puppy bounced besides him, as he approached us. I quickly scanned him for weapons, and noticed none other than the knife. I also tried to see if he might be carrying anything he might’ve stolen off my property, but again, he didn’t seem to be carrying anything, other than what I assumed was a can of beer (it was actually Mountain Dew). Seeing no immediate danger, I stopped and lowered my window. He continued to walk until he was next to my car, and we proceeded to chat for a while. He said he recently moved in to property nearby and was out taking a walk. His trespassing irked me, but in his defense, both chains between the road and my property were down, so I decided to let it slide. He complemented me on my cabin, and asked if he could have the designs. We made small talk for a while, and went our separate ways. Other than the fact that he doesn’t look like he’s changed clothes since his second tour of duty in ‘Nam with the USMC in 1968, he seemed like an ok dude, but then, I’m a poor judge of character so who knows. Standards are a little different out in the backwoods, and as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t mean me or my property any harm is “ok” by my book.

In general, I was somewhat startled to meet a stranger near my property, because Solar Burrito’s recent burglary was still fresh on my mind. When I got property, everybody with any experience with rural land ownership warned me of all the hazards. If all they said were to be believed, my cabin would be broken into, all my possessions stolen, anything that can be destroyed will be destroyed, illegal hunters would crisscross my property shooting at everything in sight, while timber thieves cut down all my trees. Fortunately, none of those things have happened. While neighboring parcels have trash, my property hardly has any, probably thanks to its relative inaccessibility and remoteness. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Since Hut 2.1 has glass windows, as opposed to the stronger plexiglas in Hut 1.0, I’m somewhat concerned of vandals breaking windows for the hell of it, even if there’s nothing to steal. I could board up the windows if I leave for prolong periods, but there’s not much you can’t tear down with a sledge hammer. In any case, I could worry almost infinitely, and if I wanted to do everything I can, I’d have to build a fortress (or a robot army (or a fortress defended by a robot army (mmm… robot armies…))). Maybe I’ll look into getting insurance, but beyond that, I’ll probably have to just accept the risks. After all, living in the city isn’t all that safe either.

Journal: November 14th, 2010

It’s been a productive week here on Serenity Valley. I picked up Kelly in Sacramento on Monday, and we got back to my property on Tuesday. It was raining when we drove through town, but the rain switched to snow just a few hundred yards down the paved road from my turn-off. The snow continued to fall all night, silently and tentatively. We woke up to a silvery glittering morning, the white coat of snow twinkling in the bright morning sun. The scenery melted back to the autumnal hues of brownish-yellow, and the weather remained fairly clear for the rest of the week.

Clear, that is, but also cold. Temperatures at night have dropped down solidly into the 20s. We moved my futon mattress and comforter into the back of the car, and have been sleeping in those cramped but moderately insulated quarters. It still gets cold enough inside for condensation to freeze on the windows and door frames, but the thick comforter has been keeping us quite warm.

Despite the cold, we’ve made good progress on the cabin. Since Kelly came up, we’ve managed to cover up the loft knee-walls and gables with OSB and rigid insulation boards, installed the 3 loft-windows, and have started working on the lower levels. Down below, we’ve got 5 window support frames up, as well as one 4’x8′ OSB sheet. Forecasts for the next week also seem clear, so I think there’s a good chance we’ll have it all enclosed before wet weathers return. The plan is to get it enclosed with OSB, and install the windows and doors as quickly as possible so that we can start living in the structure. Rigid foam insulation boards will go up next, covering the OSB and thereby providing a waterproof layer. I’m planning on leaving the rigid insulation boards exposed for a while, rather than put up siding right away, so that I can add more if one layer proves to be insufficient.

I’m feeling pretty good about Hut 2.0 so far, especially with the planned 2.1 upgrade. Maybe it’s my background as a software engineer, but I’m reluctant to commit to huge projects. I like to start small, and then make incremental improvements if –and only if– the initial efforts seem sound, but otherwise leave open the option of a major “rewrite” (as we call it in the software world). At this point, I’ve gained enough confidence in the structure itself as well as my abilities, that I’m feeling more comfortable investing in various improvements. For instance, I think it makes sense to shell out the cash for a proper chimney, even though the frugal (or just plain poor) part of me is tempted to get by without it. I’m also thinking of putting in another floor on top of the existing one, and filling in the space between with blow-in recycled-cellulose insulation. The 2.1 extension is obviously another “incremental” upgrade that only made sense to me once I saw 2.0 standing. Every now and then, someone will post a comment saying how I didn’t seem to be planning ahead, as if that were a problem, but I think it’s just a different approach to solving problems. You can do a lot of upfront planning and design, and perhaps that’s the norm in architecture. But then, for my own purposes, minimal plans coupled with flexibility and adaptability seems to work just fine.

Other than that, our lives have fallen into a nice routine. We’ve been getting up consistently at around 10:30am SVT (7:30 PST) shortly after sunrise. After warming up with some coffee and toast, we’d start working on the cabin, and continue working until close to dusk with a brief lunch break in between. As the sun sets beyond the hills, we’d utilize what little light was available to enjoy a bit of free time. We’ve gone on walks, sat at the rocky ledge to watch shadows creep up opposing hills, or spent some time alone, Kelly reading in a hammock, and I doing some gunsmithing and shooting. After dark, we’d retreat to Hut 1.0, where our combined body heat, a propane lamp, an oil lamp, and the propane stove keeps temperatures at a balmy 50 to 60 degrees. We’d cook dinner, usually some variation of rice and vegetables, then inhale our food like a couple of starving puppies. With our bellies filled with warm food, we’d then sit contentedly, and read a book or two while nursing a nice warm drink. Most nights, Kelly would take out her violin at some point to practice, the melancholic (or experimental, scratchy) tunes of her strings reverberating out through the thin walls of the hut, and out into the silent starry darkness. After a few too many yawns have been exchanged, we’d brush our teeth, turn off the lamps, close up the hut, and crawl into our frigid bed in the car, wishing we had a nice furry husky to warm up the bed for us.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting experience, sharing this life in the woods with another person, even if temporarily. Kelly probably will be moving on in her travels before too long, but for me, it’s been an interesting preview of what life could be up here, if I were to ever find a partner who’d want to join me more permanently. Who knows if that’ll ever happen, though. Hell, I don’t even know if that’s what I want either. But, well, such are thoughts for another time and place. For now, there’s work to do, and a house to build.

(See the full photoset on Flickr.)

Hut 2.1

When designing Hut 2.0, I went back and forth on the dimensions. Zoning codes allowed for up to 120 square feet without a permit, but I was reluctant to go from Hut 1.0’s 48 square feet, all the way up to the maximum in one leap. After all, that seemed like a case of Biggerism, a pitfall I wanted to avoid since I am trying to strike a delicate balance between minimalism and comfort, according to an aesthetic I might call “Enoughism”. So I settled on a more modest 8ft by 12ft structure, with a total footprint of 96 square feet. While double the size of Hut 1.0, I figured that’s probably be enough.

Of course, the definition of enough, shifts depending on the circumstances. Hut 2.0 was designed for a single primary full-time occupant (me), but was also meant to be large enough to accomodate the occasional guest or two. For instance, the loft is big enough for my full size mattress, and comfortably sleeps two; a considerable upgrade over the 2ft-wide ledge in Hut 1.0. But beyond that, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of sharing Hut 2.0 with another person beyond a hypothetical eventuality somewhere down the line.

This past week, ever since Kelly decided to come join me out here in the woods, I’ve been eyeing the structure with a new perspective. Also, with the roof done and the exterior structure largely set, I’ve been turning my mental focus more towards the interior, trying to decide how to lay out the different functional aspects of the cabin. Where would the stove go? Where would the kitchen go? Where would the toilet go? Where would we sit and hang out? Suddenly, a structure that seemed big enough a week ago, started to seem a little bit cramped. Yes, I could fit everything in there, but it would be a squeeze.

So I went back to the drawing board (well, SketchUp), and what you see in the picture above is the (preliminary) result. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to make the “foundation” much larger than the planned structure –the floor beams are 16ft long– , leaving me with room for expansion. So, instead of leaving a 4×8 area exposed for a deck or porch as originally planned, I decided to extend the cabin by 3 feet, to a total of the maximum 120 square feet. The extension will house the toilet (a 3’x4′ enclosure) and most of the kitchen, leaving most of the remainder of the original 8’x12′ structure open. The additional space might also mean I can fill in the wall cavities with insulation, rather than try to eek out every cubic inch of space.

Rough estimates of the material costs for the extension come out to less than $150, and perhaps an additional 3 to 5 days of construction. The latter, actually, presents the bigger issue, since Kelly and I will want to finish the structure as quickly as possible and start living in it before it gets much colder. To mitigate the increased construction time, I’m planning on putting up an uninsulated false wall on the inside of the extension to wrap up the original 8’x12′ first and make it habitable, then work on the extension and take down the temporary wall when it’s done.

On a semi-related note, I recently started looking into chimneys, and was surprised to find out how expensive they are. Maybe the components I was looking at at Lowe’s were overpriced, but $75 for a 3′ section of chimney? And $250 for a chimney mounting kit that doesn’t include the actual chimney? Whoa. If that’s how much it really costs, I’m looking at another $400-500 just for the chimney, and not including the stove. That and the extension will certainly put me over the $2000 budget I started with, but then, that’s still a few orders of magnitude cheaper than most homes…

Delaying Sunset

I have been acutely aware of the shortening days, as the onset of darkness and cold halt all work on Hut 2.0 shortly after sunset. Sunlight, which used to last until well past 8pm during the summer, now sinks beyond the western tree line shortly after 6pm. While some may accept the earlier than desired arrival of dusk as an inevitable side effect of our planet’s tilted axis, such defeatist attitudes have no place out here in the woods. Something had to be done, and soon, since the upcoming time change would further exacerbate the issue by robbing us of another hour of daylight.

A solution came to me easily enough, and with a few taps on my iPhone, my evil plan had been implemented. In Serenity Valley, the sun no longer sets at 6pm. Instead, it stays light out until past 8pm, as it reasonably should.

No, I did not use an app to change the earth’s rotational axis (though, no doubt, there must be an app for that too). Nay, the solution was much simpler: I set the clock ahead 2 hours. And when everybody else is “falling back” an hour, I will not be changing my clock. In fact, when the days get even shorter, I may set the clock ahead another 30 minutes. Or maybe another hour. In Serenity Valley, it’ll always stay light out past 8pm.

I’ve been living in Serenity Valley Time for about a week now, and I’m quite satisfied with the results. I can go to sleep at 2am, sleep in until 11am, and still get 9 hours daylight! On those rare occasions that I interact with the outside world, I have to remember that everybody else is in a backward timezone, but I’m pretty used to that, having friends and family in various timezones all over the world. Besides, everybody around me is 2 hours behind, so while the local hardware store closes at 5:30pm PST, it stays open until 7:30pm SVT, and the grocery store’s even open ’til 10pm SVT! So not only have I gained 2 hours of daylight, I even extended business hours. Not bad, eh?

Journal: November 4, 2010 – Roof Complete

I got that streak of nice weather I’d been hoping for, and I managed to finish the roof! Yay! The Ondura panels turned out to be pretty easy to install. The only annoying part was that I had to cut up a panel to make narrow strips because I’d made the rafters too long, and ended up with a few inches short at the ridge. Fortunately, those panels are pretty easy to cut; I’d imagine tin roofing would be a little harder to slice up. The biggest challenge, actually, was figuring out how to get up onto the ridge to lay down the ridge caps once I’d put down all the panels. I was hoping I’d be able to just climb up the gables, but that turned out to be a bit scary (not so much the climbing, but going from the gables to the ridge, with nothing to grab but loose roofing panels), so I ended up improvising some footholds by bolting on some small scrap 1x4s through the roofing panels down to the purlins. I was a little weary of poking more holes through the roofing, but I can just fill them in with caulk later, so I don’t think it’ll be a big issue.

So, the roof’s all covered up, but I’m trying to decide what else to do while I have relatively easy access to the roof. One thing I’m concerned about is that gap between the corrugated panels and the ridge caps. On the one hand, it provides ventilation, allowing warm air trapped between the roofing panels and insulation boards to escape. On the other hand, moisture may get blown in there by the wind if there’s a storm, and though the moisture shouldn’t penetrate far, it still might be an issue. I’m also trying to decide if I want to put down mounting brackets for my solar panels while I’m up there. The problem is, I haven’t quite decided whether I want to mount my solar panels up there in the first place. The roof does get decent exposure since it rises above the shadows cast by many of the trees, but the panels would be fixed, so I won’t be able to get as much power as I would if the panels were on trackers. But then, my solar panels are currently out in a clearing far away from the hut, and mounting the panels up on the roof will give me power in the hut, which would be nice…

Anyway, for now, I’m simply happy to get the roof done. Sure, it took 2 months, but then, I did manage to do the entire roof all by myself, so that’s something to feel good about. Now I just need to get the rest of the hut wrapped up before it gets too cold.