It is early Thursday morning, and routine, which has been evasive over the last month, is returning to me. A quarter past six, and there is not even the subtle brightness of the sun, which usually turns the speckled black sky into some shade of deep violet before it is turned blue, and the clouds turned pink. It is snowing. Not a heavy snow, but snow that has barely passed from being rain; small crisp crystals that make a noise when they fall onto your jacket. I am lucky to have finished shingling the roof the day before yesterday. It would have been quite an effort to manage now.
Today I was up particularly early, and have already been reading “Lovers and Tyrants” by Francine du Plessix Gray for an hour. The days are so short now, it is hard to go to sleep at a reasonable time. The dark and the cold hit early, driving me into my van to light up the propane heater. Morning free time has always been my favorite, and how much more I get when morning restlessness obstructs sleep.
I still live in my van, and cannot see it otherwise for at least a few weeks. So comfortable it is with just one glowing propane heater in just 14 cubic meters of space. Though not well insulated, I also need not care of leaving a door open shortly, or cracking a window to brush my teeth; in fact it is all the better to let out some of the carbon monoxide that I’m sure exists. I have a carbon monoxide detector near the floor, but and untrusting of its warnings, as it has not alarmed as of yet. I am keen to stay well aware of my consciousness, and any lightheadedness that may indicate a catastrophic lack of oxygen.
Lots to do on the house: caulking, insulation, panels to cover the fiberglass, stairs for the loft, running of electrical lines, and laying the slate and grout in the corner that will house my wood stove. The temperatures are not nearly bad enough yet to make me worry. I expect that this domicile will be a work in process for a good while. Tile around the shower, trim and paint on the exterior, sink and countertop all means something to do well into the spring (If I can keep the money flowing, construction is expensive.) My days now will be again in pursuit of the green stuff, moving the completion date of my wood stove further back.
I will miss this van. All the dirtbag days I’ve spent in the cold. Most recently with my dog curled up near my torso, warming us both. The small space which is completely adequate for my small needs, with built in power, stove, and fridge. Spending my time standing next to a wood stove in the morning, and reading in a chair nearby will be nice, but Ill miss warming myself by the raging propane heater after scuffling to find my way in new snowfall for my morning constitutional. Every moment important, every step in the process beautiful. I’m trying my best not to be stressed about the imminence of January, and just enjoy the shortest days of the year for what they have to offer: wondrous sleepless mornings.
All work and no play makes Ronjohn a dull boy. Aside from my weekend reprieves at shelf road, and my week long hiatus for thanksgiving in southern Utah, giving up my time for money has dominated my life. Time is in fact the most important and precious thing we have, yet how often we think nothing of giving it away. I can’t wait to have my time back. In an effort of foresight, I am trying to set myself up a space where I don’t have to worry about how much money is coming in, therefore freeing myself of this burden if giving my time away. For five days, my dad came and slept in uncomfortably cold conditions so that he could help me build a nice shed to live in.
Knowing my dad as I do, I can also say that he had some joy in the creation of something. What is more enjoyable than taking a blank piece of land and erecting walls to hold the heat in, and windows to frame the mountains. It was nice to create with him, even though there were points of frustration, usually miscommunication. Since he’s been building or reworking a structure every couple of years ever since I can remember, my dad knows framing. Usually when we argued about how to do something, we were trying to say the same thing, but couldn’t communicate it. It’s funny sometimes the Father son dynamic. I had to convince him that my thirty-three years on this planet has bestowed on my some knowledge. In general, fathers expect that they will always know more than their kids, so it makes it hard for them to listen. We got better and better as a team each day, and once the stress of a bare plot of land was turning into the last few OSB panels on the roof, we were flawless communicators. I learned especially that Dad has to see things visually, while I like to imagine it in my head and describe it.
Unfortunately, we ate at about a third of our meals at fast food restaurants, and another third were turkey or ham sandwiches. Both of these have the benefit of no preparation time, so we could continue working. Is that how the rest of society regularly operates? So maxed out in time that the easiest thing to do is go buy a few things on the dollar menu. The problem of cooking was compounded by the fact that my van ran out of propane on the first day. Though I knew it was coming soon, it was very inconvenient. Still, I was able to cook a few meals on my whisperlite camp stove, usually late breakfasts with potatoes or yams, and eggs. Oh how I can’t wait to do dishes in a sink, and not squatting!
As far as the building is concerned, it is very tall. Disproportionately tall for its base. My dad had previously built a tiny home in Grand Junction, and I didn’t really want to use his previous specifications because the loft, to me, felt really crowded. My idea was to build a four foot wall on top of the first. And so we did. This extension, along with the barn style roof created such a high volume upper level that I had trouble going to sleep thinking, “I’m going to have to buy a ceiling fan to push all the heat that is going to get trapped up there.” Once we covered the roof however, the space seemed a little more reasonable. My goal was to store my 9’6” surf board suspended from the roof, which is certainly possible as it’s built. I may even have to use a step stool to slide it into place, which is good, because it will still be well overhead when I’m standing in the loft.
It’s getting colder now, and I still have to lay the shingles when I get back. I had to drive my dad back to grand junction after he delivered me a trailer and van, so while I’m here I’m trying to give back to a few of his reparation projects; he is replacing single paned windows and siding on a rental property he has. Our ability to work together has only strengthened. As my granny Jo has recently passed away, I also find myself cherishing these moments with my dad, since in twenty years I’ll probably be losing my parents as life guides and friends. Time seems to move faster when your older due to each year being a proportionally smaller fraction of your life. This opposed to when you were five and a year was one fifth of your total existence. I can only hope that I make the most of it.
Nothing of any value was done in a day. Our society is obsessed with the idea that we can have everything that we want within an instant. Often this is the justification of loans for houses or cars, and is the reason that there are predatory lenders such as the paycheck advance loans. What if we tried to go slower? What makes it impossible to enjoy the journey?
On the property here, I have a lot that will change when winter settles in. The water tanks that I’m using will have to be emptied so they do not get damaged. The vanagon will only be a slight refuge from the cold, with single paned windows and ubiquitous places for air to be exchanged with the outside. I will no longer be able to drive the vanagon to town to fill the propane, since her diesel engine doesn’t like to start in the cold, and I would also be otherwise concerned about getting her back to the top of the hill in any kind of slippery wet conditions. Pouring concrete gets more complicated, and the work day gets shorter. There is less motivation to get out of bed to step into the cold. Winter is a slowly coming crisis.
I’m not the first to enjoy this adventure. Probably many of the homesteaders who settled here in the early nineteen hundreds felt the same urgency. The natives who lived here also had to spend their autumn in preparation for winter, smoking fish, harvesting grains and squash, or otherwise securing their food sources for the winter.
Get a little done at a time, that is all you can do. I have spent much time in the winter environment, and kind of enjoy the thought of sleeping in a makeshift canvas dome complete with a wood stove. I filled the propane tank which a heater is mounted, cut up the tent I found on the side of the road to create a patchwork on the dome, bought a carbon monoxide detector, and staged my tools and generator to start making cuts once the connectors arrive(sometime between the 15th and 22nd). I spent a small portion of the week digging holes and peeling the bark off of the logs I retrieved from the forest. I started to get in a good pattern writing, but the weekend tends to interrupt it. Writing in long isolated stints seems to help me get lost in the story, much like when you sit for days on end and read a good novel (my September). I read once that introverts can often see others as a distraction; the longer I am here, the more I see the truth in that. I do not have cell phone service here, so even if someone wanted to get a hold of me it would be impossible, unless of course they just showed up.
This weekend I will be seeking out distraction: I’m headed again to shelf road. For the foreseeable future, I will be trying to get out there and climb every weekend. There is nothing like climbing to push you into the moment. Sunday I’ll load my truck down with construction materials (concrete bags, 2x4s, cinder blocks) and isolate myself again for another week in this beautiful place. I can see the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo’s off in the background, and the snow that fell there last week is fading to white couloirs and crevices. There is at least one spot that I am curious about the possibility of Ice climbing. Later this month I’ll probably make the three mile trek to see if the early freeze thaw cycles were enough to create something up there at 12,500 feet. The warm temperatures this weekend, and the disappearing snow, give me some hope.
Living each day like it is your last is something hard to strive for. This is perhaps one reason that I choose to guide customers down the river every day as an occupation. There may be wind upstream, there may be a disgruntled person on the boat, it may be cold and wet, but it is never a bad day when your floating down the river. American Dippers, Western Tanagers, and White-Throated Swifts accompany us down the river daily. It doesn’t pay well monetarily, but sure has some advantages. I could not imagine being stuck inside an office cubicle eight hours a day, five days a week.
As I start to develop the property that I bought two years ago while in Gunnison, the question of ownership plagues me. Why do we, especially in America, tend toward this obsession with having more and more things? As long as our daily needs are met, why shouldn’t we be happy? Is there a better system? One that would not require such misuse of all the resources on the planet. We all know that things deteriorate over time: metal rusts, rubber seals decay, wood rots. Why would a supposedly advanced society (which is starting to realize it’s own impact on the planet) allow houses, tools, and equipment to deteriorate unused, only to be replaced with the newest model within the next ten years at a great ecological cost. Jacque Fresco calls for a kind of resource based economy, as opposed to a monetary one. I imagine in this style of economy you can have access to tools and equipment you need when you need it. Instead of having a chainsaw in every garage, there will be a central location where you can go and borrow it for a day, or a week. Use of tools helps them to stay in a working order also, as well as having a maintenance person to do regular preventative repairs. For every one chainsaw that is used regularly, how many sit on the shelves to be used every five or ten years? Those on shelves falling into disrepair.
This same concept can be applied to the houses that we build. As it stands, developers (with money) who understand that our population is ever increasing, and that there will always be a demand for new young families to buy houses, are making a killing by building on every square inch of soil that can be divided into a subdivision. Of course, part of this is derived from our culture of self sufficiency in America. In America children must become independent and move toward their own life path. In countries like Argentina and Peru, there is a more family centered outlook, where grandma stays in the same domicile and helps manage the children while mom and dad are free to take care of subsistence and other obligations. Grandma and Grandpa have a great influence on the children’s growth, and become part of passing on traditions. We could probably live more happily in more closely connected, and not dispersed over the country(as it stands), family units. Another problem with our housing situation in America is our numbers of wealthy families, who have two or three homes which are unoccupied, excluding a week or two of each year. I have seen this mostly in wealthier communities such as Rockport, Snowmass, Crested Butte, Telluride, and San Diego. This is not isolated to these cities, but is an epidemic of misuse of resources. These beach and mountain homes sit idle and decay in the salt air, or spring thaw. The wood from our forests which built them house nobody, shelter no one. In one hundred years the architecture will be obsolete, and the houses bulldozed and rebuilt by the next, and wealthier kin of the previous tenants.
Being on my own property, with the ability to decide any aspect of where to dig, or build, or burn makes me question ownership more than ever. Truly I am just a steward of this land, until I die and the next living generations utilize it for their own goals and aspirations. I continually question what I really need to live on a daily basis, and if the structures that I build will be put to use, since they are certainly resources being consumed.
I am slowly meeting the neighbors. One carries a 9mm sidearm always. I assume all of them vote Republican. Every one that I have met has multiple guns. On the weekends you can hear the report of rifles and handguns, one neighbor conveying “I just want to make sure people know I have guns, and am not afraid of using them.” These neighbors have plans to bury large amounts of what they regard as trash: tarps, broken bike parts, pieces of pallets, broken plastic buckets, etc. I only hope that nothing they bury in toxic, leaching into the groundwater. It is sort of a redneck paradise up there, with nobody to tell anyone else what to do or how to live. There are a few thieves about. As I mentioned before I had two water tanks stolen. I apparently had a nice wood stove in the old hunters cabin that was removed by the one questionable group of neighbors down the hill that I was warned about. My outdoor furniture was also moved around recently, making me worry a little that they have plans to take them next chance they get.
All said, this question of ownership makes me rethink whether or not I even want to strive to own my own structure. Maybe it would be better, instead of going it alone, to join a community where everybody works toward the common goals of growing food and providing housing to the community long term. I don’t think that I’ll be able to solve this internal crisis anytime soon, but at least I have the river, and fellow guides to comfort me along the way.
The last few weeks were spent joyously with friends. What more in life can be asked for? I am starting new here at the property, and was very happy to be emotionally recharged with the strong friendships that I do have. Being a vagabond takes it’s toll. Always a new setting. Always surrounded by different people.
My buddy Tyler, his wife Missy, and their four year old Winston were great to hang touch base with in Los Alamos. He works at the particle accelerator there, doing theoretical work (turning epiphanies into computer simulations) in order to see if they can’t get the old girl working a little more efficiently. Winston loved to play hockey in the street. Tyler and Missy are great parents, and I look forward to seeing their kin grow up to change the world. One more in the oven now! Congrats!
I was summoned to a climbing family reunion in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Ralph, Jordan, and Kyle were great to be around again. Also, some friends that I haven’t seen for three or so years, since Ralph and I visited Joshua Tree National Park happened to be in town (Ralph’s doing). Discussion’s ranged from Shrodinger’s cat experiment to internet privacy; sex therapy falling somewhere in between. They are a fun intellectual group to be around.
Jeremy, one of the best photographers I know, is also fast becoming a videographer. He is still pushing his own limits and growth, and it is amazing to see him traveling the world with such great photo documentation. He will be going to Peru in a few weeks to climb water ice five at elevations near twenty thousand feet. I got a chance to ski with him, my only ski this year, in the backcountry of Marble, CO. I am certainly not in shape after spending so much time on the beach in southern Texas, but was happy to push my body to the limit ascending some more vertical terrain, which the Texas coast lacked.
I also got to hike a few days around Steamboat with my long time friend Erynn, who has ventured out into the unknown with me since the later years of high school: braving my navigation skills while I find backcountry huts, or testing out the theories of snow caves published in “Freedom of the Hills.” She is making her way up the healthcare ladder quickly, pursing her passion for helping people.
This was meant to be a synopsis on my few weeks with good friends, but reminds me of how important community is. I am certainly lucky to have such great people in my life, though they are scattered to the winds. Most of my really close friends now live within a six hour drive of where I am now in Colorado. There are still the remnants of my time in the Navy, leaving traces of myself in Connecticut, and California. I’ll continue to be inspired by all of these great souls, and look forward to all of the moments that we become reacquainted after lulls in sharing the present moment.
Tomorrow I will be going out with the rafting company that I will likely be guiding for. We are headed down the Royal Gorge, a kind of pre-employment check out run. I went down the Arkansas, on a much easier section, with another group of guides already, and I am excited about getting on the river consistently. As far as making money goes, it is not bad to be continuously paddling downriver: just going with the flow. The pay leaves a little bit to be desired, but you do get to chat it up with a lot of folks. As an introvert that just “turns it on” every once in a while, I hope I can influence a lot of people in a positive way.
I am also in the planning and preparation stage of building my own little shanty. As of now the plan is for a twenty-five foot diameter cordwood structure, with a loft. Still pondering octagonal or round. Where I may lack money, I have the ability to move heavy things around. I live on a hill scattered with iron rich magnetite. I have accumulated a pile which will eventually be shaped into a mortared platform for a cast iron stove, or perhaps a chimney. This is my first time stacking rocks with mortar, and should be a fun learning experience.
Here is to another new horizon.
I would have photos but I think my camera chord is in Salida. Oh well.