Farewell to the Tiny Cabin

In Borges’s short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” one of his characters plays with the idea of multiple parallel universes that exist when any decision we make bifurcates into a new path.

In my current reality (the one in which I am writing this blog post), I teach at a university and have a family; in another path, however, I’m living in a tiny cabin in the woods and spending much of my time writing to natural light filtered by tree leaves

In the parallel off-grid reality, I’m probably debt free and, when I’m not living in a tiny house, I’m traveling around the globe…it’s a happy life, and simple, and one in which, as Yeats would say, “peace comes dropping slow.”

The path of parenthood is a different abundance. Time is what I have the least of, but every minute is full to the point of bursting. I hibernate in summers to recover from the wild ride of the school year, and trips are usually small and local.

I’m thinking about these two lives—the one I once envisioned and what came to be—because not long ago, we sold the land with the tiny cabin. It’s almost sad except for the relief of no longer having to maintain it or feeling like we’re in a perpetual state of unfinished business.

The past five years have been an adventure, the ups and downs of which I never would’ve guessed. And as days unfold into weeks-months-years, I’m sure other paths are branching off into parallel worlds where this or that did or didn’t happen.

It’s nice to imagine that there are many versions of a great life that I might have lived. And maybe living in a tiny cabin, even if it never came to be, made this reality even better.

Tiny Cabin: Summer Growth

Just hours after Chuck posted his last grade and officially began his summer, we headed to the land with a riding mower: the yard maintenance was long overdue.

We had a tiny window before rain moved in, and it was just enough time to get the main parts of the yard under control. Once the sun comes back out, we want to be ready to do some roofing!

Tiny Cabin Garden SpotTiny Cabin Land Cleared May 2016

The riding mower worked its magic, but it couldn’t handle the Bradford pear stumps along the driveway. We alternated weed-eating and hacking with a handheld weed cutter. Our arm muscles ached back into the memory of last summer’s clearing.


Uncleared Driveway, May 2015

Though the cabin is just a frame–and a tiny one at that–I look back at where we were last year and remember how far we’ve come. Our first attempt at driving onto the land ended with us stuck in the mud and a good bit of our budget spent on gravel. Because the truck was unable to spread the gravel evenly, we spread most of it ourselves before the mayor showed up with a backhoe. I never mentioned it, but that day I tore my right quad. It felt like it had been ripped from my kneecap. It took over ten weeks for it to heal, but heal it did.

5-19-15 Car in the mud

May 2015

At this time last year, we cleared land deeper in the woods only to later find it had become a flooded mosquito sanctuary. By the end of June, we finally settled on the spot where the cabin is now, but soaring temperatures in July and August (among other things) kept us away.

Now the summer is just beginning, and though it’s supposed to hit 90 tomorrow, it shouldn’t stay hot long. There’s more rain sprinkled in the forecast, but soon we should have enough days to finally get the cabin “in the dry.”


Tiny Cabin: Fire and Rain

One week we’re burning the brush pile in 39-degree air; the next, we’re sweeping water from the cabin floor in a humid 75 degrees.

Completing the rafters last Saturday was a high point in our cabin building. My brother-in-law came to help, and by afternoon all 18 rafters were up. The day could not have been more beautiful, even if the sun left its mark on our bodies.

We knew that six straight days of rain were ahead, so we covered the cabin with a tarp and put some plastic sheeting over the floor. The rain began Tuesday night, and when we went Wednesday afternoon, the land surrounding the cabin was a lake.

The water went past our ankles and soaked Chuck’s pants to the knee. Luckily, I had my rain boots on, though I discovered the left one has a hole.

In spite of our bungee cords, the tarp had blown off one side and rain was pouring in. There were already several inches of water on the floor. Using a long pipe as an extension, we were able to move the tarp over the rafter peak and re-secure it. We splashed back to the car knowing that five more days of rain lay ahead.

There was a possibility that the water would keep rising until it engulfed the cabin floor. In that case, we decided we would haul in more dirt and rebuild. Though we would like a cabin built on land, we also considered that we might have to build on a trailer bed. We decided that at some point we would have to cut our losses and run—how many thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours are we willing to spend on a thorny Bradford pear plantation?

Thankfully, the waters receded and we didn’t have to act out any of our worst-case scenario plans–at least not yet. More rain is forecast for tonight, and we will have to see how well the floor dries out this week.


Tiny Cabin: Four Walls!

Chuck and I knew that putting up the walls on the tiny cabin was (ideally) a three-person job, but until minutes before heading to the land, we thought we would be alone in our pursuit. In fact, we were debating if we should even try–it was all four walls or nothing. We didn’t want a repeat of the front wall falling over in a wind gust.

As it turned out, my father-in-law beat us to the cabin site!

The walls have been finished since December, but good weather plus time off work have not been synced. We finally had our chance: last Saturday was a nearly 70 degree day. What’s more, this week is Chuck’s spring break, so we knew we would have time (and, luckily, good weather) to continue working on the cabin after the walls were up.

I have to say–my father-in-law really knows what he’s doing. Not that we don’t have some idea, but we occasionally we hit a snag that causes us to question ourselves, which takes up time.

In a matter of hours, all four walls were up, complete with California corners and additional supports. We still have some windows to finish framing, but time, for a change, is on our side. We left when the sun began to slant below the horizon, tired yet triumphant.


Tiny Cabin: Clearing a Path to the Pond

Among all of the ephemeral childhood memories I have, a few remain vivid.

The first time I went fishing, for instance: four years old, sitting on the high bank of my grandma’s pond, the red and white bobber on my fishing line disappearing beneath the water, me jerking the pole up with all my strength to hook the catfish.

It got away with the worm, of course, but the thrill of the unseen manifesting itself, however briefly, was enough to cement this memory more than any big fish story I’ve had since.

Our land has a sizable pond, but we haven’t been able to reach it due to the overgrowth. I saw it last winter before we signed the paperwork, but I haven’t been able to get close to it since.

As much as we want to work on the cabin, now is the best time to clear paths, as we don’t have to worry as much about poison ivy, ticks, and snakes. Leafless Bradford pears are also easier to trim back and cut down. I can contend with three-inch thorns as long as I can see them.

We came home bruised and scratched, though triumphant: we cleared a path to the pond!

Bradford Pear Thorns

Three-inch thorns on Bradford pear branches

Brush Pile

Ever-expanding brush pile

Cabin Site 2-16

Tiny cabin site

Pond picture

A view of the pond

Outdoor Toilet

Friends have been curious about the logistics of building a cabin while not having access to water or electricity. Our power tools are battery-operated, and we charge them at our other home. But what about when we spend the night in our camper, which we don’t currently have a generator for, much less water hookups?

Our Coleman lantern serves us well.

Sometimes we shower at a friend’s.

But there’s one thing we didn’t want to live without: a toilet.

We had a broken chair that Chuck reinforced with boards. He borrowed a jigsaw and cut a hole for a toilet seat. What’s beneath? A bucket with a little peat moss in it—magic, organic material that eliminates odor and helps with the composting.

I admit I was skeptical at first, but days later there is no smell, nor are there flies (and we’ve had some warm days). This potty chair currently sits in a private spot in the woods. We cover the chair with a tarp, but otherwise it’s open to the elements.

Most of us have heard the euphemism “when nature calls,” but an outdoor bathroom brings a whole other level of meaning to that expression.

Hauling Dirt

Before we could break ground, we needed more of it. Dirt, that is. Lucky for us, there’s a mound not far from the building site.

dirt pile before

Dirt pile after

A wheelbarrow worked for the potholes, but not to the extent we needed.

The Conway Home Depot rents Bobcats for $249 + tax, and we would have had to haul it an hour both ways. We hoped we could do better by going local, so we called the first place that came up on a Searcy Google search and reserved one at a considerable discount, quite proud of ourselves.

Saturday morning Chuck and his best friend Dan pull up to a sketchy-looking house surrounded by a fence and a series of piecemeal shacks. It was a junkyard minus the Rottweiler.

The exchange went something like this:

Chuck: “Hello, I’m here to pick up the Bobcat.”

Man: “Bobcat?”

Chuck: “Yes, I called yesterday to reserve one for this morning.”

Man: [Blank look.]

Chuck: “I spoke to Curtis?”

Man: “Oh. Well, I’m Curtis.”

It turns out that the Bobcat was ready, but the trailer was in a shack, parked behind a forklift that, they soon discovered, was out of gas. That wouldn’t have been a problem had Curtis not directed Chuck to fill it up with a gas can that turned out to contain pink liquid and that would have to be siphoned before the forklift could be moved.

We were lucky that our work day turned out to be cloudy and an unseasonably cool 86 degrees because it took two hours just to rent and load the Bobcat.

Driving one of these things is a lot harder than it looks.


And for future reference: they won’t go in reverse unless you first pull forward. It was sort of a metaphor for our day: going in the opposite direction before any ground could be gained.

While the guys figured out how to operate a machine whose switch labels had long worn off, my friend Laurie gave me ideas for laying out the future garden, taking a page out of the permaculture playbook, such as planting parsley, Echinacea, eggplant, and other herbs around trees to create their very own microclimate. We also scouted out strategic places for a fir and a fast-growing hardwood to create greater seclusion in front of the cabin. She also advised that the number of old, rotting trees on part of the land will make great fertilizer at the bottom of a raised bed. I could almost feel my brown thumb turning green.

Once the guys got the hang of operating the bucket via pedals and the right angle at which to charge the pile, we spread the dirt.

cabin site with dirtcabin spot with dirt

It took surprisingly little time to complete the task, so after a hard-earned lunch break, we finished out the driveway. Like the foundation of our cabin, the driveway will need gravel, but now it’s at least level with the ground around it.

dirt road from land

We left feeling pretty triumphant, even if later I discovered that I had provided a host of mosquitoes with their daily dose of iron. I had so many bites that they blistered—it felt like chicken pox all over again or the time I somehow managed to get poison ivy on my back. I’ll remember to re-apply the bug spray more frequently, and in the meantime, I’d like to give a shout out to my new best friend, the oatmeal bath.

On the Farm

Bird's Nest

After spending May, June, and July picking a spot and clearing the land, I now realize the appeal of building a tiny house on a trailer. And since we have to drive an hour just to get to the land, building on a trailer would have enabled us to work from our own home–where there is water, electricity, and a shady carport!

But there’s something about building the house literally from the ground up. For us, this adventure is also about reconnecting to the earth below our feet.  Continue reading

Tree Removal

In Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” his neighbor insists that “good fences make good neighbors.”

Many of us like our boundaries, and a fence is a way to clearly communicate a do-not-cross zone. (We put up our fence a few years ago after I saw one man chasing another with a pistol.) A fence can also keep animals and children corralled as well as offer privacy. But like the fence in “Mending Wall,” they need to be repaired from time to time.

Driveway 5-13-15 after

Driveway 5-13-15

Driveway July 2015

Driveway July 2015

Our neighbor out at the land asked if we could trim or remove the Bradford Pears growing between our driveway and his fence. Limbs were growing over into his yard, and the trees were preventing him from making repairs.

We showed up one morning with that singular purpose: to cut them down. As can be said about most of our work days, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

What at first appeared to be four or five substantial trees growing along our neighbor’s fence line turned out to be 50-60 smaller trees growing in clumps, ready to scourge.Tree Roots

Generously, our neighbors and their kids came out to help. We used the clippers on smaller trees, Chuck chainsawed the larger ones, and we hauled them to the open field, making a brush pile. The sun wasn’t too hot, and after less than five hours we’d taken them all out.

Brush Pile (dried out)

Brush Pile (dried out)

Granted, the brush pile was a little more scattered than we had hoped, but several were simply too heavy to lift and heave on top. The pile is spread out rather than tall, but we plan to trim it up before burning it.

The job isn’t finished, however: all of the little stumps have to go. Otherwise, they’ll just re-sprout from the roots. We’ve bought a mattock to help with that, but it’s all easier said than done.

Our neighbors plan to plant a row of lovely Japanese maples in their place. Good fences make good neighbors, and so do shared tastes.

Bradford Pears and Clearing the Cabin Spot

Cabin Spot with Plastic sheetIn the book of Genesis, God tells Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”

And then God created the Bradford Pear, or at least the cross-bred variety covering our land like a plague of locusts.

Imagine if thorny vines grew into trees. Imagine a super-plant that can perniciously sprout out of its own roots and grow in a cluster. Imagine interlocking branches and no smooth surface to grab when dragging them away. Imagine inch-long thorns jabbing arms, legs, and abdomen, leaving a tetanus-shot soreness and a purple bruise.

Granted, in spring they blossom white—they’re lovely if you can get past the stench. In autumn, the leaves are breathtaking shades of red, yellow, and orange. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrus_calleryana

But unless cultivated, they’re literally a thorn in the side.

Nevertheless, we’ve cleared enough to put down a sheet of plastic roughly the dimensions of the tiny cabin. This sheet is 10’ X 25’, and our cabin (with porches) will be 16’ X 22’. We still have to remove some stumps, and the impending rain should work in our favor for once–hopefully softening the ground enough for us to pull them out.