Tiny Cabin…for Three?

Baby ultrasound picture

That’s right. Life is full of wonderful surprises. I’m nearly six months pregnant.

Although we’d talked about having children of our own off and on over the twelve years of our marriage, we haven’t always been on the same page. Nevertheless, when I became pregnant last July, we were overjoyed. All of the concerns we had felt insignificant compared to the new life we had made together.

Eight weeks later, I had a miscarriage. It happened just before Chuck’s bicep tendon surgery and in the midst of bad news regarding his mother’s cancer. That time is a blur for me, except for the gestures of love and support from close family and friends who helped us through.

After all that we knew we wanted a baby. We also knew we hadn’t figured out the details yet. And what about the tiny cabin?

For awhile I was still going to the land, insect repellent ready, but sheer determination only goes so far with a little one kicking inside. I listened to my body, which meant a good bit of my time was spent sitting in the shade and reminding Chuck to hydrate. We made progress surely but slowly. At first, I thought of the baby as adding pressure to the mix of all that we need to get done. Recently, however, I realized that was the wrong way to think about the new and exciting changes.

I’m due at the end of September, and there is still much to be done on the cabin which will require minor and major purchases—including an A/C system. Although our original move-in date was August 2017, I have decided that a hot cabin away from my doctor and family while I’m eight months pregnant may not be what’s best for me. And after the baby is born, I’ll want to be in my well-established nest near my mother, who has vowed to help me in the difficult first few weeks.

And if things weren’t adventurous enough, we will be teaching in Italy in Spring 2018 (baby in tow). That also takes the pressure off of finishing the cabin by the time school starts.

So we’ve taken a deep breath. We’ve set new goals.

We would like to make headway on the bathroom by the end of summer. Having a bathroom (and hopefully shower) will make working and staying at the cabin more convenient for obvious reasons while we continue finishing the kitchen, the living room shelves, the floor, and the loft. And, possibly—eventually—a baby room off the back. We’ll see.

Tiny Cabin: Summer Vacation

Between frequent rain and the busy end of the semester, we basically managed to maintain the property and insulate the walls of the tiny cabin.
We’ve ordered parts for the bathroom, including a mop sink for a shower. We couldn’t find a shower basin smaller than 32″ x 32″, and we needed something along the lines of 27″ x 27″. After a couple YouTube DIY videos, Chuck was ready to pour the concrete himself and tile it. I love his determined spirit–it is what has taken us this far–but we are ready to streamline our process. So when I ran across the mop sink for $125 and free shipping, we jumped at the chance.
The components for the bathroom are ready–they just need to be assembled. The first and greatest task is the composting toilet. The compost bin must be away from the house and sheltered from the elements, and we need to dig a trench for the piping system. I can’t remember what we were expecting when we bought the toilet two years ago, but it seems more involved now than when we purchased it.
Once assembled, we’ll need a solar panel to make the pump work. But one thing we won’t have to worry about is water–it takes only 1/4 a cup to flush.
So, last week Chuck worked first on clearing the land and then on assembling the shed which will house the compost bin. The shed will also give us a place to store other items taking up precious space in the cabin.

On different days he had help from his dad, me, and his son Geoffrey. The summer heat hasn’t arrived yet, but we did hit 86 degrees–a drastic change from the 50s and 60s of the week before.

This weekend Chuck’s cousin Scott–who roofed the cabin for us–is coming to help finish the ceiling insulation and panels. After Chuck’s fall last year, there are certain jobs on which I insist having professional help.

Tiny Cabin Exterior May 2017

We’re still dodging rain (and, now, mosquitoes), but we should have a few weeks of somewhat pleasant weather. And unlike last year at this time, the tiny cabin has a roof, so even on rainy days we can do things inside.

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

Front Wall Down

While the front wall held up in spite of storms and six inches of rain at the end of November, this time we weren’t quite so lucky. We had hoped to have the side walls framed out and the walls up by December, but the work was going slowly. I often wished I had paid more attention in high school geometry, though thankfully I hadn’t forgotten everything. I think it’s all still in my brain somewhere, beneath fifteen years of other information.

Chuck, meanwhile, figured out how to use the saw to cut boards at a 45 degree angle. But in spite of our successes, the measurements were off for our side walls. We noticed this when the studs were slanting toward each other at the top. We then realized that the base was 2″ wider than the top (116″ vs. 114″), which meant that the boards for the roof pitch were too short. We used the mallet to try to beat one of the side walls into shape, only to have the wall fall apart.

In these situations, it’s better to start over anyway. We figured out where we had gone wrong, and now we just needed to know how much longer the top boards should be. We needed Pythagoras.

Luckily, the sands of time had left the Pythagorean Theorem unburied in my mind: a^2 + b^2 = c^2 .\,  Since we had the distance for “c” (our hypotenuse) and knew that “a” and “b” had to be equal, we were able to calculate the length needed rather than “guesstimating.” 116″ x 116″ (“c” squared) = 13,456 divided by 2 = 6,728, the square root of which is 82″. For some reason, we came up with 82.5″ that day, and it worked.

The walls are nearly finished. We still have to frame out a couple of windows, but then we will be ready to raise the walls. As a precaution now that winter has begun here in Arkansas, we left the front wall down and stacked the other walls on top of it. To ensure that rain would not fill the ruts between studs, we placed OSB board on top and then the tarp.

What we need next are several nice days during which we can finish framing the windows, raise the walls, and start nailing the rafters up to support the walls. Chuck’s Spring Break is seven weeks away, but there’s no guarantee that the first week of March will be lovely, or even remotely conducive to working outdoors. Last year we had a late snow that week.

Until then, we can cut grooves in the rafters, continue planning, and rest up for our next chance!

Tiny Cabin: First Wall

We had three days off before Thanksgiving, and the weather was promising. The flood waters had receded, and our cabin had weathered it all. Schedules cleared, we set our alarms for five thirty each morning and drove an hour to the cabin site. The sun crested the God-forsaken Bradford pears to warm the 36 degree air.

The other days weren’t as cold, but they were breezy and sunless. Warming up wasn’t hard with plenty of gravel to shovel around the foundation. Six more inches of rain would soon be on the way.

Our days began and ended in the dark, a rhythm that my body actually welcomed. We were home by six with just enough energy left to eat, bathe, and fall asleep.

The first order of business was nailing down the sub-floor. If I had it all to do over, I’d buy the more expensive, sturdier boards. However, once the sturdy pallet wood floors are down, we won’t know the difference.

After buying 70+ boards, we began assembling the walls. Luckily, Chuck pays attention to measurements and drawing straight lines. I gave that up a long time ago…

We realized that the 2 ¼” nails weren’t cutting it—nailing one end loosened the other. I’m not sure why we thought they would; the directions were clear: 3 ½” nails. No problems there.

Nailing together the frame took only a matter of minutes. Framing the door and windows, however, required finesse. We had to consider not only the size, but also the placement and height, which meant we needed to know the floor plan. Anticipating this, we had already taped off the size of the cabin in our current living room. That’s right—the tiny cabin is smaller than our current living room!

We spontaneously decided that each door would have a transom window. We built the back wall as well, but we’re waiting to put it up. We covered everything with a 20’ x 30’ tarp and didn’t want it to invite a pond between the two walls.

The hard part now is coordinating time off with good weather. Three consecutive days should be enough to finish the shell, but that depends on forces beyond our control.

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.

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.

A Ton of Work…Literally

5-22-15 driveway with partial rockA few days after our sinking episode, we called a gravel truck. The problem: because the clay was so soft, he couldn’t gradually release the rock so that it spread evenly. He just had to dump it. While he went for another load, we spread it with shovels, shoes, and gloved hands.

We hadn’t expected anyone to be able to come out on such short notice, much less deliver multiple loads. Otherwise, we might have had more hands on deck! Instead, it was just the two of us. We had planned to spend the day clearing the new site for the cabin, but we knew this had to be done. More rains were on the horizon, and the driveway was basically a 6’ x 22’ mud hole.

The air was cool and the day was lovely, but after spreading the third load we were worn out—and the driveway was only half done.

Then, the mayor of Higginson himself showed up—tall and serious, with a resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones. He was in the neighborhood because around the corner a stretch of houses were having some sewer problems. [With a composting toilet we won’t have to worry about that!]

He exuded silent confidence while sizing up the situation. He told us he’d be back with a backhoe, and five minutes later we watched, mouths agape, as he smoothed out the freshly-dumped load.

5-22-15 driveway with rock

We asked if we could make a donation to the town, but he wouldn’t take any money directly. Instead, he said, “If you want, go to City Hall and make a donation to the 4th of July fund.” He seems to take his civic position as one “for the people.”

Thankfully, our cabin-building schedule was only tentative, or else we’d be behind. At the moment, we’re under a severe thunderstorm warning, and up to five more inches of rain are expected this week. We’ll go out to the land on Thursday to see if our new site is still above water.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Although the driveway was still pretty wet, we thought we’d push on through in the car and save ourselves the trouble of hauling equipment over the mud puddles.

5-19-15 Car in the mud

In short, we caused ourselves more trouble than we saved.

The title of this post comes from the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse, On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.” He apologizes to the mouse, whose house he has accidentally destroyed at the onset of winter, then philosophizes:

 The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

He then tells the mouse that though she’s unfortunate in the present moment, she’s still luckier than he: humans look back on a difficult past as well as anticipate future hardship.

After over an hour of futile attempts, we were soaked and muddy, spirits dashed. A kind neighbor drove by and pulled us out with a chain. It was a moment of triumph.

We then discovered that with the recent rains, our cabin site had turned into a swamp. To our credit, the house stakes were on the highest ground. Still, our “castle” doesn’t need a moat, so we’re currently looking for a new spot. We probably need more sun for the solar panels anyway.

Looking back on the mistakes we’ve made and knowing that more surprises are no doubt on the way, I can relate to Burns’ poem. But the kindness of strangers, not to mention friends and family, gives me comfort.

Composting Toilet: Not Flushing Your Money Away

When we moved into our current home, each bathroom was its own color: sky blue, bright red, and teal. That included the sink, tub, and toilet. With five people in the house, using the toilet only three times a day, multiplied by an average of four gallons per flush, we used 21,900 gallons of water a year, not including showers, laundry, or dishes.

Over the years we’ve remodeled the bathrooms, replacing the toilets with more efficient ones that use a lot less water. Still, we’re wasting thousands of gallons a year of perhaps the most precious natural resource we have.

This time we’re going with a composting toilet. It is what the name implies: waste, through various chemical processes and a little time, becomes soil.

The low end of composting toilets requires only a bucket and peat moss. A mid-range toilet requires frequent emptying, possibly before the waste has finished composting.

High grade composting toilets are expensive—relatively speaking. The one we are currently looking at http://www.envirolet.com/320.html is around $3,200 (on sale through tomorrow).

That is considerably more than we had wanted to spend (three times the amount of the materials for the shell of our cabin), but it’s still cheaper than a septic tank. And rather than empty the waste ourselves, a solar-powered battery will suck it out of the house and into a composter. The great thing is, it only has to be emptied once a year, after it’s through composting.