Error: Cabin out of Square

I recently encountered one of the most difficult challenges on Serenity Valley that I can remember in recent years. Things have been pretty ho-hum up here, at least compared to the early days, with very few challenges remaining to keep me comfortable.

So, when I discovered that my cabin had gotten out of square enough to prevent the door from closing and locking, well, it was almost fun and exciting. Well, ok, it would’ve been totally fun and exciting if it weren’t for the fact that I was trying to get out of there in time to get back to the city for a party. But with the time pressure, it was only moderately fun, and I even at one point thought to my self “Huh, I’m not sure I can solve this”, which is a thought I hardly ever encounter in life (except for when it comes to matters of the heart).

IMG_3518-0As it were, it took a few hours and multiple attempts to solve the problem. My first thought was to anchor a piece of 2×6 in the ground, then lean it against the cabin and pull on it to apply a force on the cabin. That didn’t work. I then got the jack from my car, and jacked up one corner of the cabin. I succeeded in lifting up the corner an inch (and could’ve kept going) but that didn’t seem to be making a difference so I abandoned that plan. I then tried to push the cabin using a 4×4 by jacking one end against a tree, but that ended up too unwieldy to set up alone.

IMG_3519-0Then, I got out the come-along, which hadn’t seen any action since 2009 when I used it to winch the trailer up my property. First, I drilled a 1/2-inch hole in a beam inside to tie one end of the rope, then anchored the come-along against the opposite corner on the outside, and tried to winch the cabin back into shape. This might’ve worked, except with the rope coming out the door, I couldn’t get it shut (duh). So, then, I did the same thing, but this time securing the come-along against an interior post (though, by this time, I was starting to get a bit desperate and didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures). That didn’t seem to work.

This was around the time I felt stumped. Not to sound arrogant, but I haven’t encountered very many challenges in life where I hadn’t solved it with my 5th attempt. I thought about calling up some neighbors to help, but I wasn’t sure what they could do that I couldn’t.

As a somewhat desperate measure, I decided to try one more thing. I drilled a hole through one of my 4×4 posts, all the way through the exterior siding, so that I could tie a rope to the post from the outside. I then anchored the come-along against a large juniper tree using some rope I found. I started applying tension, then with a BANG the come-along went flying, smashing through a plastic bin that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I checked my fingers– I still had 11 of them.

After taking a deep breath and making a mental note to make sure I got more trucking rope for occasions like these, I got another length of rope, doubled it up, twisted it, then wrapped it around the hook on the come-along a few times (that’s where it failed the first time) and then around the tree. I then started cranking again, applying enough tension that it became quite difficult to pull the lever. I became paranoid so I got another rope and reinforced the anchoring using a trucker’s hitch to take some of the load off the first rope. At this point, I probably had close to a ton of tension, rendering the entire contraption into a veritable siege weapon… pointed directly at my cabin. I gave it a few more cranks, then ran over to the door to see if it would close.

It did, just barely.

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Letting Go

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Heartbreak, unemployment, fire, and now embarking on another open-ended journey (I’m on the way to the airport as I write this draft). If this year has a theme for me, it’s definitely “letting go”.

It’s hard to let go. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that newly born babies have such strength in their hands that they can grab something and hold their weight. So it seems that we’re born with the ability to grab and hold on. And then we spend the rest of our lives learning to let go, until our moment of death when we finally let go of life itself.

What makes letting go particularly difficult for me, at times, is the fact that I’m a pretty tenacious guy. In many situations, that’s a virtue. If there’s something I want to accomplish, or a problem that needs to be solved, I’ll keep at it until I succeed. This trait has gotten me pretty far in life, and it’s something I’m proud of. But, sometimes, our gifts can also be vices, when applied in the wrong context. Sometimes, I need to make the difficult decision to let go, rather than to endlessly attempt to solve an intractable problem.

One tool I’ve come to appreciate in such difficult processes, is a ritual of some sort. I haven’t always been a big fan of rituals, having been exposed to quite a few of them through my Japanese heritage. The inexplicably rigid format of old rituals felt mechanistic, and I didn’t understand their underlying purposes or intentions. But, as I grow older, I’ve come to appreciate rituals for what they are: a way to externalize, visualize, embody, or make tangible an internal and invisible process, often in the presence of witnesses.

One ritual I enjoy and actively take part in, is the act of burning, which I experience annually at the Burning Man festival where a giant man-shaped effigy, a large temple, and other large pieces of art are burned every year in the vast emptiness of the Black Rock desert in Nevada. One of the wonderful things about burning is that it can symbolize and represent almost anything you want. To burn something, you need to create something to be burnt, which in itself can be a satisfying and meaningful endeavor. And when you light up a giant (non-destructive) fire, it almost always evokes a sense of wonder and beauty, and a sense of celebration. Or, burning an effigy can represent conquest, victory or at least resistance and rebellion. And burning something of value can symbolize a form of release and catharsis.

IMG_3491So, when I recently made the difficult decision to finally let go of a really amazing lady I madly fell in love with last winter and clung to for way too long after our attempted relationship fell apart, I decided to build something and burn it. After some thought, I felt it would be fitting to build a log cabin-shaped pyre to represent the hopes and dreams I had for a future with her, and then to burn it down to express my commitment to letting go. I told a few neighbors about this plan, who eagerly joined in on the project, and we spent an afternoon collecting fallen trees and felling skinny struggling trees from my pine forest. That process served the triple purpose of supplying building materials/fuel for our project, removing fuels from my woods to reduce the impact of a potential fire, and culling stragglers to give stronger trees more room to grow. Incorporating local sustainable materials and employing forest stewardship practices seemed only fitting considering how our shared love of nature and passion for environmentalism were partially what had brought she and I together. Once we’d collected a large pile of logs, we proceeded to stack them into a vaguely cabin-like shape, then filled it with dry tinder.

After the build, we broke for dinner. As we prepared dinner and waited for dusk to fall, nature gave a helping hand by blessing us with just enough rain to dampen the ground and eliminate our concerns of an un-contained fire. Then the sky cleared, the sun set, the stars appeared in a moonless sky. We trudged back up the hill in darkness, the chilly air moist with the smells of early autumn. We stood by our cabin-pyre, I said a few words, then lit it up. As the fire roared, shooting flames high into the sky, scattering embers among the stars, I let the heat and the light sear into my skin and mind…

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So, am I done? No. But the burn gave me a sense of finality. And every time my mind wanders back to her, the things I said or didn’t say, or the adventures we never went on, I remind myself: Let it go. You burned that cabin, remember?

Fire Threatens Serenity Valley

I was heading up to my property on Saturday, just like I would any other time, when I saw a giant column of smoke in the general direction of my property once I got to the nearest city, about 1.5 hours away. I looked online, and found that there was a massive fire within miles of my property.

I headed up to towards my property, fearing the worst, but knowing that there wasn’t much I could do one way or the other. I got stopped at a road block about 45 minutes away from my property, due to a different fire. Fortunately, the cop told me of a way to get around the roadblock, and I was able to get on the county road towards my property right around dusk. I expected to get stopped, but there were no road blocks, and I checked in with firefighters huddled by the road to make sure it was safe, and nobody told me not to continue.

It was a huge relief once I got to my property, and to see it still unscathed, for the moment — there were plenty of signs that this one might be close. The ground was littered with ashes and bits of charcoal, and orange fire retardant had been dropped on my cabin and surrounding areas. The air was thick with smoke, and even though I tied a wet towel around my face, there were moments when I felt light-headed and almost asphyxiated.

I spent most of the night doing what I could. I first loaded up the car with things worth saving (mostly things of high replacement value or high sentimental value), then I spent a few hours fireproofing my cabin. I’d read that structures tend to catch when burning embers get in, rather than from radiative heat that comes from a nearby fire. So I cleared flammable debris from the base of the cabin and put up a skirt to keep burning embers from getting underneath. Then I took down the gutters so that embers wouldn’t gather there, and I used heat-resistant foil tape to cover some exposed wood and foam insulation. I also cleared dry and dead vegetation from around the cabin.

Throughout the night, I also took frequent breaks in my cabin. I put on some music, ate some food, and sat there as I would on any normal night, trying to enjoy and appreciate the chance to spend some time there, perhaps for the last time. It felt like seeing off an old friend. Even though I’ve only had it for a few years, it was shelter. It protected me from the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow, and -10F nights. It was the one place I could come to, no matter how rough life got, and stay for as long as I needed. In some ways, the cabin was the most dependable friend I’ve ever had. Until now.

It was also a good reminder that nothing lasts forever. Life sometimes feels like nothing but a lesson in letting go. Letting go of the old to let in the new. And in some ways, that’s what this forest fire was about. Fire is part of the ecosystem. There are seeds that only sprout when there’s a fire. Fire maintains balance and nourishes the soil. Sure, the fire ecology here is out of balance… but that’s our doing. By not letting ourselves allow for healthy burns, we’ve set ourselves up for unhealthy burns. This seems like an important lesson, in all aspects of our lives.

I worked until 4am, then decided to take a nap. Partially because I was tired, but partially because I wanted to sleep in my cabin, one last time. But I also knew that, even though the fire was staying put, that anything was possible once the sun came up and the winds started blowing. So I allowed myself a 2 hour nap, got up, finished packing, shot the video, and headed into town. They shut off the road for good just as I was leaving.

Last I heard, the fire, which has burned tens of thousands of acres, had reached a road 200 yards from my property line the day before I was up there. That line seems to have held so far.

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News from Serenity Valley, June 2014

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I can’t believe it’s already June. Time seems to be flying by faster and faster these days. I wonder what they’re putting in the water… Anyway, it’s time for a long over-due update, and I’ve got some big news!

The first piece of news is, as you can see in the photo above, I finally got my property deeds! I’d sent in my last payment last summer, but it took a while for the deeds to get to me, probably because I hadn’t kept the seller up to date on my mailing address. But, I have them now, and the property is officially mine for ever and ever. It feels great to have that taken care of. For as long as I can afford to pay $500/year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home.

The other piece of big news is that I quit my job (again)! I’d been working in San Francisco as the Chief Technology Officer of a startup for the last couple of years, and recently decided it was time to move on to my next adventure. So what’s my next adventure, you ask? Well, that’ll have to be another post, but for now, I’ll just say that I anticipate being able to spend slightly more time on my property, and having more time for blog posts, and definitely more adventures (for starters, I went on a 7-day 85-mile backcountry backpacking trip!).

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As far as other updates go, the rain barrel I set up late last year (and finally hooked up earlier this year) managed to capture over 800 gallons of water off my cabin roof, despite it being a severe draught year. So, I decided to plant another tree (the cherry tree I planted a couple of years ago died last year). This time I opted for an apricot tree, and I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to keep it alive, assuming the irrigation system works properly while I’m away.

One thing I’ve been trying to figure out, is how to make decent dirt. I’d like to grow more plants and vegetables in the future, and I’d like to avoid buying soil if possible. But the native soil is this dusty red dirt that compacts into a hard lump when moistened and dried, and hardly has the texture of soil. After some experimentation, I’ve found that mixing a naturally occurring mulch-like substance from a decomposing tree along with sand into the native dirt produces something that has the texture and water absorption properties of proper gardening soil. I’m currently experimentally growing a couple of squash plants and a tomato plant in this home-made soil (with a small amount of commercial planting soil around the roots), so we’ll see how they do.

Other than that, I’ve got a bunch of projects or project ideas, so I’ll keep y’all posted on those as/if I make progress!

1000 Gallon Tank, Evapotranspiration, and Other News

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I can’t believe it’s already December! This year definitely flew by… and now I only have a month left to try and beat last year’s abysmal blogging record of 4 posts for the year. Good news is, with this post, I’m up to 2 for the year, so I’ll only need to squeeze in a few more this month to beat that.

It’s been a quiet year in Serenity Valley. I’m spending most of my time working in the city, so I only get to go up there every now and then. On the other hand, all this working allowed me to keep paying the bills, and I’m happy to say that I finished paying off the property this summer. So, from here on out, as long as I can afford to pay the $500 or so a year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home. Having grown up moving from place to place and never feeling like I had a home, it’s tremendously gratifying and comforting to know that there’s a place on this earth that is mine; a place I can go to at any time; a place nobody can take away; and hopefully at some point in the future, a place that can sustain my basic needs (it already provides free shelter, free electricity and nearly infinite heating fuel — which is more than you can say about most homes).

Speaking of home, both structures have faired well so far. Hut 1.0 is going into its 5th winter, and it’s still looking about as good (or shabby) as new, at least on the outside. On the inside, though, a few gaps that opened up in the walls have given the local mice community a free run of the place. I still use the hut for storage, and set up traps every now and then as token resistance against the invaders, but I fear it’s a losing battle. Nonetheless, given that the original intended lifespan of the structure was 5 years, I’m happy it’s still standing and in as good of a physical shape as it’s in.

Hut 2.1 is doing very well going into its 4th winter. Unlike Hut 1.0, 2.1 has been remarkably free of mice, and is doing quite well structurally. The dry climate certainly helps keep all the wood in good condition, and I’ve recently started adding some braces in the corners as seismic reinforcements. About the only thing that’ll destroy the structure is a forest fire (or carpenter ants), but other than that, it’s probably not unreasonable to expect the structure to stand for a couple of decades or more. It’s pretty remarkable what you can build for so little money…

Other than paying down debt, I’ve also started putting money into various improvements as well. The 300 gallon rain barrel I wrote about in the previous post this Spring was one such improvement. And more recently, after watching water slowly (very, slowly) accumulate in that 300 gallon tank over the course of the (very dry) year, I decided to expand my water collection system by adding a 1000 gallon tank.

I’m still not completely done hooking everything up, but I’m already starting to dream about what I could do with all this water (assuming there’s enough precipitation to fill the tanks this winter). I know, 1300 gallons isn’t that much water in the grand scheme of things, but it’s far more water than I’ve ever had on this property. My meagre attempt of a garden back in 2010 was irrigated from a 50 gallon tank, which I was only able to re-fill every other week, and that wasn’t enough water for most of the plants. At 3 gallons per plant per week, 1300 gallons would be enough for over 400 plant-weeks (or 20 plants for a 20 week period). That’s certainly a far cry from achieving self-sufficiency, but it’s enough to at least start experimenting in earnest.

Incidentally, you may wonder where that aforementioned “3 gallon per plant” figure came from. Well, I said I’ve been “dreaming” about what to do with all that water, but actually, said dreaming has included some actual research into plants and water usage (a topic I knew nothing about — for some reason, they didn’t teach us this stuff in any of my computer science classes). As it turns out, the amount of irrigation a plant requires is largely a function of “evapotranspiration” (ET), which is a combination of soil moisture evaporation and plant transpiration. As you may imagine, ET is affected by things like temperature, humidity, soil, the size of the plant and many other factors, so it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. There’s a formula called the Penman equation which can be used to estimate ET (here’s a handy dandy online Penman calculator), but that’s more for estimating ET over an area of land. If using drip-irrigation as I have, (and would in the future) you really want to know how many gallons of water each plant should receive. For that, I found this nifty water-usage table by plant size and climate (the same site has a great page on irrigation in general), and according to that table, it looks like a small plant or shrub would use somewhere around 0.2 ~ 0.75 gallons of water per day during the hottest days of the year. That translates to 1.4 ~ 5 gallons per week, so I decided to call it an average of around 3 gallons.

One last project for the year is to build a covered deck in front of the cabin, which will further expand my rain/snow collection surface. But I’ll talk about that in another post… For now, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the 1000 gallon tank.

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U-Haul trucks are for moving things, right?

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The frame of the octagonal base.

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A little trig goes a long ways…

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The octagon was filled with gravel to create an even and level surface…

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The tank on the base. You can’t see it in the picture, but there’s a layer of OSB between the gravel and tank.

Back…

I apologize for the long hiatus on this blog… There are a couple of reasons for the long silence. The first reason is that when I got from Japan back in mid-June, I felt like I should write a post wrapping up my experiences there, yet somehow I couldn’t quite find the words so I kept putting it off. So, I’m giving up (for now), and will simply point you at this talk I did at Google’s Tokyo office that does a decent job of summarizing my experiences. The second reason for the long silence is that I’ve been seeing someone else… I mean, I’ve been blogging elsewhere. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

When I got back to my property in June, I was obviously anxious to see what state my property and huts would be in after such a long absence. Out here in the country, anything can happen. Fortunately, nothing did happen, and I found my property more or less as I’d left it. Of course, it was warmer, as temperatures were still dipping below freezing when I left for Japan. From what I heard, Spring this year was wetter and longer than most years, and my property was particularly lush and green even in late June. Wild grasses seemed thicker and taller this year than in past years, and they covered up my normally rocky ground to give my clearings a more meadowy look.

I’m not doing a whole lot on/with my property this year. I pretty much have everything I need/want to live comfortably, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve achieved my goal of establishing “minimalist comfort.” I did, however, plant a small garden again, though I missed planting season so I’m not sure how productive it will be. When I got back in June, I was surprised to see my strawberry plants sprouting out through the pine needles I’d covered them with for the winter. They’ve since continued to grow, so I planted a few more strawberry plants. They seem like the only plants that thrive on my property, through the cold winters and hot summers. Maybe I’ll just give up on growing other vegetables and have a strawberry patch…

One thing I may try to do this year, if I can afford it, is to set up a rain catchment system. I was skeptical about rain/snow harvesting before, but after spending a winter up here (including a month during which I lived off of snowmelt), I’ve been convinced that it’s worth doing. I’d like to start with a 300 gallon tank, which I could probably fill up with run-off from Hut 2.0’s roof, and would go a long ways towards keeping my strawberry patch watered next year.

Other than that, I’ve been focusing a lot of my attention and energy on my new project: Bootstrap Solar. In short, I’ve been developing an affordable yet powerful solar power pack for powering smart phones, iPads, and other small devices. The project was inspired by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan back in March, when I realized how crucial yet difficult it was to keep phones charged in a disaster (or, even in ordinary times if you spend a lot of time away from power sockets). I’m hoping to start selling them in kit form as early as next month, if I can raise enough funds. In any case, I’ll probably occasionally cross-post here as well, but follow BootstrapSolar.com for regular updates.

Anyway, that’s it for today. I’ll try to post again… hopefully sooner next time.

NFSV Episode 8: Chores

Latest news from Serenity Valley. In this episode: cleaning in and around the hut, picking up trash left by other people, putting up signs, and clearing dead branches in preparation for fire season. View in HD on YouTube.