Journal: January 16-19

January 17th

It feels good to be back on my property. I got back yesterday shortly before sunset, after a month-long absence. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest I’ve been away from Serenity Valley since my return last Spring. As is usual after such a long time away, I felt slightly anxious to find what kind of condition my camp would be in. Would both huts still be up, despite the snow? How much snow would there be on the ground, in the first place? Would vandals or animals have caused any damage? Would I find a squatter in my camp?

Fortunately, my camp survived my absence (again) with few ill effects, excluding a couple of minor exceptions. I found a trash bag I’d left behind torn apart, with its contents strewn and blown about. And I did indeed find a squatter in Hut 1.0, or at least the signs of one. The squatter, likely a puff of fur no larger than the palm of my hand, had gotten into some of my food stores, leaving in exchange black grainy droppings all over the place. He likely slept in a nest he had made in a folded blanket on my chair, complete with his own tiny stash of food scraps. This squatter, though, seems to have been polite enough to vacate my home before I returned, or perhaps more likely, himself became dinner for a hungry coyote.

I decided to give myself a day off to get re-acclimatized, after spending weeks in the cities. The weather cooperated for once, blessing me with 50-degree temperatures and even some sunlight, instead of the frigid darkness that I’d left behind in December. After a late breakfast of greens, eggs, tortillas, and coffee, I spent some time doing chores around camp. I started by getting my 100W solar panel out of my hut, where I’d locked it up while away, and got it re-mounted on my tracker and wired to my batteries. I then spent some time gathering the trash, some of which had been blown nearly a 100 yards away. I also cleaned up some of my cups and bowls, which contained tiny black gifts left behind by my rodent squatter. Later in the afternoon, I went for a long walk circling roughly half my property. I headed east from my cabin, then south along the western boundary, then south-east down a ravine that cuts across my property, and back north along the eastern border. Most of the ground is exposed at this point, the snow having melted away in relatively warm temperatures, though the surface is so full of moisture that the mud noticeably compresses under each step. The rough terrain and effects of altitude had me breathing pretty hard, and with the air cool but not too cold, I found myself enjoying the unexpectedly rigorous stroll through the woods. It was nice to be alone, finally, among my trees.


January 19th

Today, I came out to the City for a supply run. Things I have in my car right now: four 2x4s, four 1x4s, two cinder blocks, 10lb of charcoal, one 4’x8′ rigid foam insulation board, one tube of silicone caulk, two 12ft coils of 10-gauge wire, a deadbolt, a can of foam insulation, wood-cutting blades for a reciprocating saw, one 24″x24″ window, two 115Ah deep-cycle batteries, 15lb canister of propane, 45W solar panel kit, a mouse trap, some targets, and a bag of groceries (carrots, mushrooms, mixed greens, a lemon, tortillas, sausage, eggs, chunk-o-pork, ready-to-eat indian food, a bar of chocolate, dried milk).

With the exception of shooting targets, everything I bought today relates in one way or another to the essentials of life: food, water, and warmth (and electricity). These days, I hardly ever buy anything that doesn’t relate to one of those essentials, though, that still adds up to a lot of money…

The last few days — or, my first few days back on Serenity Valley in 2011 — have been great. The weather continues to be gorgeous, with highs up in the 50s, and lows in the high 20s. In fact, the weather’s been so nice that I’ve been having a hard time working on Hut 2.1 during the day. Instead, I find myself wandering in the woods for hours on end, futzing with my solar panels, or doing anything that would keep me outside and among trees. But then, the whole reason I left behind my desk-job for this life was precisely so that I could wander around in the woods when the weather’s nice. So, in some ways, I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, though by other measures, what I should be doing is finishing Hut 2.1…

To appease my socially-instilled compulsion towards productivity, I redirected some of my woods-wandering energies towards wood gathering. Days of sunny warm weather have melted away almost all the snow, leaving relatively dry tinder exposed for collection. My stove is technically a coal stove, so the opening for feeding fuel is only about 3 inches high, meaning, it would be most convenient for me to gather wood that’s about 3-inches wide. Fortunately, there’s a lot of dry dead tinder in the surrounding woods that fit that criteria. The easiest to collect, is this unidentified shrub/tree (close-up of leaves) which seems to keel over and die when it reaches a certain size. That size, conveniently enough, is when the main branches are roughly 2-3inches in diameter. For what looks like a shrub, the wood is surprisingly dense and hard, so I’m hoping I’ll get decent BTUs out of those. Also readily available are dead Juniper branches, which are also fairly dense, though they tend to give off a black smoke when not completely seasoned. I also have a lot of Oregon white oak, which burns easily and quickly, making for good kindling but with relatively low energy density. About the only other trees I have are ponderosa pines, which I hear are prized as lumber, but isn’t readily accessible to me as firewood as they grow tall and straight, and have relatively few low-hanging branches (unlike Junipers, which have branches, usually dead, starting at the ground up).

That’s not to say that I haven’t made any progress on Hut 2.1 either. I finished getting the North-facing wall completely insulated, and the the South-face is also mostly insulated. But, that’s about it, and there’s much more to do…

Last night, as I was inside Hut 2.1, my mind wandered back to the issue of the chimney…. again. If you’ve been following my progress, you probably remember that the chimney issue has been plaguing me for months. Well, last night, it came back to haunt me again. There I was, looking around inside the still-empty interior of Hut 2.1, when I suddenly realized that I could’ve put the stove on the south-west corner after all, if I’d only thought of having the chimney go up the south-facing wall instead of the west-facing wall. But, I’d since decided to put the toilet in that corner, and installed a window on the south-facing wall of that window. On the other hand, it’s not like I’m happy with the new location for the stove in the extension on the north-east corner of the structure. Putting the stove in that corner is suboptimal for a number of reasons. For one, the chimney would be precariously close to a tree, posing a potential fire hazard. Also, the extension’s ceiling is only a bit over 6ft high, so some of the chimney support structures would have to be placed just a few feet above the stove, which could also be a potential fire hazard. Since the stove is tiny and I don’t plan on getting it too hot, I don’t think the risks are unmanageable, but there’s still the simple fact that having the stove in that corner simply doesn’t feel right, perhaps because the stove would be competing for space with the kitchen, which is also supposed to go in the extension.

As these thoughts criss-crossed my mind, I came to a flustering impasse. To move the stove & chimney back to the south-west corner, I’d have to rip out that window, then shell out over $700 in chimney supplies. Putting the stove & chimney in the north-east corner in the extension would only cost $400 and won’t require me to rip out any windows, as long as I could live with the other concerns.

Then, I became frustrated with the whole thing. I became annoyed at myself for not having thought through this whole chimney issue in the initial design phase. But then, I realized that a book I’d referred to hadn’t even mentioned chimneys (the word “chimney” doesn’t even appear in the index), even though it seems like a rather crucial component of a stove-heated home, and one which also heavily influences the general design. Besides, this is only my second structure ever, and the first to include (potentially) a chimney. The whole point of this crazy exercise is to make mistakes and learn. Once I remembered that, I felt better.

Then, another question popped into my head: how much do I really need a stupid stove? I’ve done fine so far without any heating, even when it got down into the low-20s. Sure, I might want some additional heat if it got colder, but I have a 1500BTU catalytic propane heater. The only reason I’m trying to get this stove going is so that I could burn wood instead of propane for heating and cooking. As much as I like the idea of using local wood, is it really practical? Does it really make sense to sacrifice 10% of my total living space to a stove, when I don’t even need it most of the time? Is it really rational to spend $700 on a chimney, when the same amount of money would buy me 600lb of propane — enough to keep me warm through many winters?

I ended with more questions than answers. But it seemed that I had enough questions to defer the chimney issue, yet again. One thing that did become clear to me, though, was that I didn’t want to put the stove in the north-east corner. I’d rather put the bathroom there, and if I do decide to keep the stove, I’ll figure out a way to put it in the south-west corner, even if it means I have to rip out a window and even if I have to shell out extra cash. If the stove is worth it, it’s worth doing right and putting it where I want to. If it’s not, then it’s not worth half-assing either.

In the mean time, I will continue to investigate alternatives. One idea I had was to use a hibachi like they used to in Japan. A hibachi is basically a giant ceramic pot filled with ash, in which people used to burn charcoal for heat. While burning charcoal indoors could kill you if you don’t have adequate ventilation, decent ventilation backed up with carbon monoxide detectors shoulder render this option reasonably safe. Though, when I tested it out (see pic below) with charcoal briquets, I got a lot of acrid smoke. For this to work, I need to turn the entire structure into a chimney, allowing smoke to rise and exit out through vents in the gables. I also need real charcoal that doesn’t release noxious fumes. I bought some hickory charcoal today to continue the experiment, and if that works, I’ll look into making charcoal myself, which would allow me to burn local wood without using a stove. It’s a long shot, but we’ll see.