Origins of a country dream.

I moved to NYC in 1981 from my hometown, Mayville, NY— a small village in Western NY State with a population of around 1,700 people. Finding affordable housing in NYC is next to impossible for a person without a job, but through luck and a friend I was able to secure a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village for $300/month. This was a 340 sq. ft. apartment with two rooms and a bathtub (I soon converted this to a shower) in the kitchen.

NYC 1981, kitchen with sink and bathtub. The apartment was a disaster. Making it livable.

It was great for about 10 years, but I became dissatisfied with my claustrophobic living situation. What to do…buy an apartment in very expensive NYC on my freelance cameraman income or look outside the city for a weekend getaway place. Besides the cost of owning an apartment, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to even  stay in the city. I wasn’t like some of my friends and associates who thought New York City was the center of the universe. I had a couple of friends who had places in the mountains and became intrigued with the idea of owning my own getaway.

Mayville, NY 70 miles south of Buffalo.

When I was a kid back home, my best friend Danny and I would spend weekends in the springtime exploring the woods behind his house at the edge of town.  As soon as the snow was gone, we would be out there hiking around, going skinny dipping in the icy creeks on those unusually warm, sunny days — screaming when we’d hit the cold water just because we “had to” do it. The creek led into a nearby cow pasture and we would have cow pie fights, chasing after each other with a vengeance.  There was an old maple sugar shack in the woods with piles of lumber lying around –probably intended as firewood for boiling the sap back in the day. We took some of the wood and built the beginnings of a really cool tree house, but the farmer who owned the land discovered it and tore it down– scolding us.

The coolest thing we discovered in the forest, I still remember to this day: on one of our deeper explorations into the woods, we found a dry, old, hollowed-out log over 16 feet long that we could actually crawl all the way through. Unfortunately, when we’d think of it again and go back and try to find it, we never could.

But probably the most fun was this small tree we found, about 20 feet tall, that hung out over the creek. You could climb up the tree about 10 feet to its crotch and get the tree rocking back and forth till it would actually fall over and land in the water. Then because of its strange root structure, one of us could climb on top of this big root that would stick up out of the ground as the tree bent over. When you stood on the root, it would cause the tree to stand back up straight while the other one of us was still riding it in the crotch, howling with delight. That entertained us for a couple of summers.

On another long hike into the woods, carrying these pointed spears we had made, out of nowhere we heard this enormous roar! We jumped, facing each other, crouching for combat with terror in our eyes–spears at the ready. Then we both tore out of there and didn’t stop till we got back to Danny’s house. We didn’t ever go back to that part of the woods again!

After graduating with a BFA in photography from Buffalo State College, I moved back to Mayville for a about six years, and would work construction in the summer and collect unemployment in the winter while I established myself as an artist and independent filmmaker.  I achieved some success, with works shown in Chautauqua and Buffalo and reviewed positively in the Buffalo News (Tony Bannon described my work as “punk photography” back in the 70s when the term punk was just on the edge of everyone’s understanding).  One of my photos  won the best in show award at the Albright Knox Art Gallery Western New York Exhibition.  Those were creative, and a bit wild, years.  I kept my art personal, earned my money the hard way, and spent my days and nights in one of the most beautiful areas of New York State.

During the late seventies,  x-country skiing came into popularity like crazy. At least with my friends. We were going through a recession at the time and there was something called CETA, Comprehensive Employee Training Act.  It was a federal program to open up jobs, and was very helpful to artists as well as other young professionals just starting out.   Well one thing CETA paid for was provide labor to build the Chautauqua County Overland Trail (check out Jennifer Schlick’s blog, “Hike Chautauqua”). This trail was spectacular in winter, going about 20 miles through the woods, over creeks, through pine forests looking like they were straight out of the Disney movie “Fantasia,” winding up and down hills–what a blast. There was this one part we named the Cathedral because it was a pine forested, narrow trail that, when covered with heavy snow, was like the inside of a cathedral when you looked up. We use to laugh when we thought of the majority of people out x-country skiing on golf courses–how boring compared to this. To this day most people just don’t get it!

These roots, these great memories in the hills and dales of Chautauqua County, tell you why–as one of millions in NYC– I might be interested in a weekend place in the mountains–rather than the beaches, where most other New Yorkers head for the weekend. I grew up on a fresh water lake and the ocean gives me the heebie-jeebies. Even though I love to body surf and snorkel, when I’m in the ocean, I can’t help glancing around the waves for that shark to come by and drag me away forever. No, I would rather face the roar of that unknown animal in the woods–and I speak from experience, having had more than one encounter with bears on my property. Just like when I was a kid, I still get the hell out of there in a hurry!

With my employment situation in NYC working out well, I had been saving money. I had this objective to save for retirement and have my own place in the country. By country, I meant the real thing– low population density and large tracks of uninhabited forest and mountains. Wealthy New Yorkers who think going to their multimillion-dollar homes in “The Hamptons” is  “the country” are confused!  I have to snicker to myself when I overhear people talk about going to the country when they are really going to posh suburbs on the waterfront.  Just say, going out East. I’m OK with that.

So as my savings kept accumulating, I would reach a goal I had set to buy land, and then end up thinking- no, that is not enough yet. This kept going on. Thanks to my cheap, cramped apartment, I had, outside of retirement funds, saved over 100K-  still that was not enough for me! So I was dating this make-up artist for about a month one summer, the summer of 1995, and she all of a sudden dumped me!  Why? She said, “You’ll die with your money in the grave.” No kidding, she knew as well as some of my friends that I was a cheap bastard and she wanted a more generous spender so to speak. So that was it, I got my act together and by Labor Day weekend 1995, I had bought 32 acres of mostly forested land in the Catskill mountains and had started to clear a spot for my garage/cabin starting point. That is what this blog is all about.

BUYING THE LAND

Summer 1995:

Never having bought any land or a house before, this was all new to me. I had a friend who had a unique piece of property in the mountains that I liked a lot. It was a five acre parcel next to a creek with a beautiful waterfall, two swimming holes and some terrific ledge rock formations. The only bad thing about it was the cabin being very close to the road–and the mosquitoes.

For sale next to their property was a 7-acre piece of land that was covered in forest and had three beautifully successive rock ledges (about 3 to 6 feet in depth, each about 100 to 200 feet long) that broke up the terrain as it sloped down to the road frontage. I called the Realtor and they were asking over $6K an acre. That was too expensive so I asked her where I could find cheaper land. She said go to the next county over and gave me the name of another Realtor.

The thing I wanted most on my property was rock formations. Everything else except price was secondary. I wanted a place that exuded a kind of primordial, mystical sense of being. It had to be a place I would have loved to play in and explore as a kid. I could imagine rock ledges, creeks, moss, changing terrain, pines and large trees. So I met up with my Realtor Fran one hot day at the end of July and we drove around the mountains. The 3rd place we visited interested me but it had a big power line off in the distance bisecting the view and no streams nearby. There were five sites on our list, and the last one was a winner. The address was in a small town and as we drove near it, I had a good feeling. A beautiful river snaked alongside a  road that was covered by majestic white pines and hemlock. There were less than 20 houses in the village and no red lights or stop signs. The road we were traveling on actually dead ended at a famous mountain-hiking trail–but I didn’t know about this at the time. After we drove through town, we went over an old bridge that crossed one leg of the river and then we made a sharp left turn up a mountain road. The road kept climbing and climbing, as my expectations rose. After about a mile we arrived at the land–staked with the now familiar realtor’s For Sale sign.

Property Map 1995

It was a 32 acre parcel bisected by the road, with 10 acres on the west side and 22 acres on the east side. The acreage on the east ran all the way down to the river we had just crossed over on the way up the mountain. On the left side of the road, was a winding, rushing creek (it had rained heavily earlier in the week), with a variety of large trees standing above a forest floor blanketed with ferns. The view to the east was obscured because of a high roadside bank, but as we drove on, an old logging road appeared which I could see gave access to the property. We parked and walked up the old road to see a heavily forested area–also densely blanketed with beautiful ferns. There was a large–over 30 acre–clearing on the neighboring North side of the property with a 10×60’ mobile home parked in the center. From my vantage point, looking east, I could see a partially obscured though very nice view of a neighboring mountain and to the northeast more mountains rose over the clear meadow. The view south and west was heavily forested and obscured. No rock formations–but as we made our way down the logging road, lo and behold rock formations appeared next to an old stand of hemlocks.

Rock formations, Winter 2010

This was a long, over ½ mile, narrow property, which these rock formations bisected. From that point on the property started to drop off  steeply toward the river and I was eager to explore it. Since I didn’t want to put Fran, my Realtor through the climb back up, we returned to the car and drove around until we found another road that took us near the river that bounded the property at its lowest point.

I hiked over from this road till I came back onto the property. The land leveled off and the mature, hardwood forest was stopped by a large stand of Hemlock along the riverbank. WOW! I couldn’t believe it. This was so cool and almost perfect. I knew this was the piece of land I was looking for and I found it at the end of the first day! I drove Fran back to her base and told her I would call her soon.

The Negotiations:

I had never done any significant negotiating in my life so I asked an acquaintance of mine, who was a car salesman, what I should do. Mark said how much do they want for the land? I said at first they wanted $52K but subsequently reduced that to $42K. He said how much would you like to pay for it? Based on the other properties I had seen and the fact that I liked it so much, I knew I would pay the asking price. But of course I’d prefer to pay around $25K. Mark said he had recently read Donald Trump’s book, “The Art of The Deal” and, based in the 25K figure, “You should make an offer of say $15K.”  I said Fran would never take that seriously, $15K was about 1/3 the asking price. He said she has to submit all offers, that’s her job. “After she places that offer for you, then what you do is get a couple of friends to make offers like $12K or less just to make the owner feel like your offer, as crazy as it originally sounded, wasn’t so bad.”  I went a way from this conversation with my head spinning. How am I going to orchestrate a deal like that? I am no Donald Trump and I don’t like manipulating people. I talked it over with some friends and no one had the time to put on a charade, although they thought it was an interesting idea. So I did the next best thing and made my own offer for $15k. Fran submitted the offer and as expected the owner refused. I acted barely interested in the refusal and asked Fran for more land listings. My problem was Fran knew I loved the property, so for the plan to work I had to convince her I wasn’t that interested and price was supremely important. Over the next week I made a couple of trips to the mountains looking over properties Fran had given me, calling her and discussing the pros and cons of various pieces. This was all a guise to convince Fran that, in spite of my original enthusiasm, I really wasn’t that interested in the property and wouldn’t be making any new offers on it. I went back to look at the land each time I drove out. It was killing me! The more I looked at other property the more I was convinced that this was the right piece. I was afraid someone would come in and buy the land while I was playing Donald Trump. Fool! After almost 2 weeks I submitted a new offer for $20K but only for the 22 acres on the east side of the road. Fran came back to me the next day with, amazingly, a counter offer for the whole 32 acres–but for $24K. I was astounded. After some back and forth over fine points he accepted $22,300 and we quickly closed on the property.  I called Mark right away and told him the good news. If it wasn’t for him I would of paid the asking price of $42K. I saved over $19K. What a dealmaker I am, ha!

Come to find out, this 32 acre piece of land was the remaining remnant of a large tract that the owner had broke up into 7-acre parcels and sold off a long time ago. Knowing that he no doubt made a good profit on his investment, I didn’t feel sorry for taking the owner down so far on his price. He was happy to get rid of it and I was extremely happy to take it over.

By Labor Day weekend of 1995, I was camping out on my land and making plans for what I was going to do with it.

OK. NOW WHAT?

After buying the property I was free to start my dream. What to build, where to build? So much land.

Labor Day weekend of 1995 I pitched my pup tent back deep in the woods and proceeded to freeze my ass off that night.  Winter comes early in the mountains and I felt the need to make some decisions fast if I was going to have any kind of shelter before the snow flies.

About 250 feet West of the road there was a small clearing and I thought it would make a good spot to build a garage with a one-room cabin attached. I sketched the plan out in my mind: the garage would be useful as a staging area for the next years’ house construction and the cabin I would live in while I built the house. I didn’t know where to build the house yet and this initial project would also give me time to figure that out. I also liked the idea of the spot I had chosen because I didn’t know the area and it was in view of my neighbor’s trailer. My neighbor, Diller and his wife and son, were renters. They seemed nice enough and I though they could alert me to any funny business going on in my absence. There were no other neighbors within a ¼ mile.

I had a friend back home who was a contractor and a fan of pole barns. So I thought this would be a good type of construction for a garage. Essentially what you do when you build a pole barn is you dig holes four foot deep, eight feet on center and stick 16 foot, 6”x6,” pressure treated beams into the holes.  These beams make up the foundation and wall supports for your garage and you can go as simple or as complex as you want from there. When I submitted my plan to the local building inspector I described it as a pole barn with cabin attached. He called me up and said, “You can’t call it that; you need to call it a storage building”.  Calling it a cabin would involve a sewer system and the County Health Department, so it was called a storage building from then on. I didn’t want to get involved with a sewer system or water well because the house was going someplace else entirely and I wanted to keep it simple. I could get water from the creek across the road.

I needed to get a driveway built and asked the inspector for a referral. He said he wasn’t allowed to name anyone in particular but instead gave me a list of contractors in the area who do that kind of work, putting his finger on one guy’s name, looking at me, and nodding. That’s how I got hooked up with Duke. I used to build blacktop driveways back in high school and college during the summers so I knew something about them. I drew up a spec sheet of how I wanted it done and he gave me back an unbelievable quote, $2000 for a 250-foot driveway, 10 feet wide with a foot deep of gravel.  Now I know there is a reason for that expression– “If it seems to good to be true, it is.”  Duke was a clean-cut, handsome young guy with the build of a running back. The vibe I got from him wasn’t great but his price was. Turns out he was a full time employee for the county highway department and was trying to get an excavating business going on the side. He had probably done a freebee for the inspector and that’s why he was recommended. He was a nice enough guy in some ways, his wife was nice and they were helpful. But he was a redneck bullshitter who liked to talk about shit kicking. He knew how to run a bulldozer but didn’t know the basics of road construction.

Bulldozing a driveway.

We had a wet fall and after a few weeks with a little traffic the driveway went to hell. In the end I don’t think there was one place where the gravel was a foot deep. I paid him to dig my electric service trench and he left his backhoe parked there for a few weeks. I used it to dig up all the mud holes in the driveway, filling them with the many rocks lying around. I spent more than one day doing this. That’s when I discovered there wasn’t any gravel beyond a couple inches in some places. From that lesson I hired a contractor only when absolutely necessary and I soon bought my own backhoe.

During the second week in September as Duke was running his bulldozer, I was working on running my underground electric service and some guy walks over and introduces himself as the owner of the property next to me. This is the beautiful 60-acre parcel that Diller’s ugly mobile home sits on. Hopper, about my age, then proceeds to tell me that this is his land. I looked at him incredulously and he says, “Yeah. And if I had the money for lawyers, I would take it from you.” I said that I paid for a title search and it came back clean. That was about it and he walks away.

Diller’s wife explained to me later that their landlord used to boast to them about how much land he owned, 100 acres, and even though there was a For Sale sign on 32 acres of that 100, it could never be sold because he owned it. So when the bulldozer shows up and the earth starts moving I guess he has egg on his face. Turns out the land had been divided up in a property dispute between his now deceased father and the gentleman I bought the land from.  The court ruled against Old man Hopper. Nice.

Campsite 1995

For shelter I had set up a rudimentary campsite not far from the building site. I was sleeping in my pup tent, which I had put a rain fly over; eating out of a cooler with food I had prepared back in the city. I cooked some of my food on a propane cook stove. When it got dark I would light up the night with my Coleman Lantern. There is something very reassuring about the hiss of a Coleman Lantern– but at the same time looking out past the campsite into the blackness was not. And when you are trying to sleep you hear all kinds of strange sounds. Every now and then I would hear this thumping sound. Like someone standing nearby and stomping their feet. Turns out that sound is from buck deer stomping their hooves and making their presence know to does in the area– or so I’m told. The worst night was the one when, around 2 AM, I heard this person (or animal) from the direction of the mobile home lumber over to my tent, stand right next to it for a moment and them amble off into the woods. It must have been a bear. I did not dare stick my head out of the tent and look into the black night.

My trailer neighbors fancied themselves as dog rescuers of sorts and they had a lovely blond lab of their own but would take in strays now and then. They acquired this one little black mutt about 15 inches high that would come over at night while I was listening to my Coleman lamp hissing and enjoying the Zen of my endeavors. Then this damn dog would start barking incessantly, about 50 feet away. I tried to ignore it but sometimes, when I couldn’t stand it any more I would chase it with my blazing lantern or throw sticks at it. Nothing worked; I couldn’t understand why Diller would allow the dog to bark at me for so long. They were stoned watching TV and couldn’t be bothered I guess. Eventually the dog would give up and walk back to his trailer and the Diller family would let it back in.

Garage/Cabin site.

The 3rd weekend in September, I had a barn raising type thing. It didn’t start out well. I arrived on a rainy Friday afternoon at 2PM, my car burdened with construction materials. I drove up my driveway expecting to see 14 piles of dirt marking 14 holes for my pole barn posts. Instead I saw a figure shrouded in a blue poncho, standing motionless in the rain. Duke was supposed to be gone by noon after he had dug the postholes with his backhoe. Most people would dig these holes with a power auger but that couldn’t happen in this geology, too many big rocks. He had 13 puny holes dug no more than two feet deep, instead of four feet deep and three were in the wrong spot. He said, “You can dig the last two feet by hand can’t you?” I was so pissed. He promised to have them done by noon. My friends from the City were coming up Saturday to help me stab these 16-foot beasts in the ground. I started to dig out one of the holes in the drizzle as Duke filled in his three mistakes. Right off a big rock stopped me. I jabbed around the glacial dropping with my 5 foot steel bar for 10 minutes- futile. No way were these holes going to be done in time for my work party. I climbed out of my mud hole and paced around for a few minutes. What the hell was I going to do?

To make the story short, I paid Duke the $1700 I owed him for the driveway and he took off, leaving me with the keys to his backhoe. I finished digging two of the postholes and decided to quit because of the muddy mess, relieved that things were in my hands now.

The rain continued into the evening until the temperature started to drop. I sat under my tarps, wrapped in a blanket, rain snapping into plastic, lantern hissing, staring into darkness, wondering if my friends were going to show up the next day.

For some reason I slept well and warm. The next day I awoke to see the sun shinning through the trees. By noon I was beginning to wonder if I had any friends. By 12:15 PM two cars and four people had showed up. The work began. My friends were impressed how much I knew about all this stuff. I said “I’m from Mayberry, everyone knows this stuff!” (Mayville, NY). We finished cementing and back-filling the fifth post by dark. Tom Bergin had the campfire going and his turkey stew cooking. Tom was not only the cook but also the entertainment as he played his guitar and harmonica. We lay in autumn leaves, drank beer and threw wood on the fire. Never having owned any property before, I felt fortunate; but laying there and looking up at the stars I remarked to my friends, “I may own this land but I am really just the temporary caretaker, it’s not really mine, it’s much bigger than me.” It was a memorable day.

Work party- Jack Norflis, John Moore & Me.

By Sunday 3PM, the ninth post was up and I said goodbye to my friends. I continued to work till dusk, struggling with my 300 feet of 4/0 aluminum direct burial electric service cable. This was the power cable that would run 300 feet from the pole at the road to my job site, underground in a two-foot deep trench. The cable had to be pulled through a two-inch, schedule 40, PVC pipe. I try to imagine the ability I will have of plugging in a power tool. But then I laugh to myself. Ha! What is electrical power anyway? I’m off the grid baby!

Over two consecutive weekends my friends came up from the city and helped me set the 16’x6”x6” pressure-treated posts in the 4-foot holes, pour cement around the base and back fill. This was a big help; we got all 15 perimeter posts in for the 32’x19’ garage and I put in the shorter posts for the attached 10’x20’ cabin earlier. My friends were into it, there was lots of esprit de corps; they all appreciated the challenge of my undertaking.

The next week a local electrician hooked up my meter and service panel. The Power Company turned on the power.  The cabin was now my priority. I was working a lot in the City and could only come up on weekends. Rain or shine I had to work on those weekends, and did it start to rain! I would fly a tarp up overhead and do whatever I could to move forward. It was a race against the coming winter. I felt like a settler from a wagon train arriving at my destination and trying to get buttoned up before winter. I kind of think I won the race in a very timely fashion.

October 1995

At the end of the first week in November I arrived Saturday afternoon to the news of a fast moving weather front coming in. I had heard about it Friday night on the Weather Channel but the radio had continuously been alarming me about the impending storm. At 2PM it was still warm but by 3PM the wind had picked up considerably. On this part of the planet the wind usually blows from the west to the northeast, Westerlies they are called. For that reason the west wall, south walls and roof of my cabin were sheathed in first, to protect me from the wind. But this storm was a Nor’easter, with the winds coming from the Northeast and the west wall was not protected. A gaping hole stood before the storm. This caused me great anxiety as wind gusts up to 60MPH and heavy rains were predicted. So I dragged out my biggest and best tarp, nailed two corners to the roof, one corner to a tree and piled rocks on the last corner on the ground. This protected me from the storm as I raced to the finish. This wall was not framed in and I set about sawing and nailing the 2×6 SPF studs into place.  After the framing was done I needed to nail in the ½ plywood sheathing. The wind was my friend as I finished up, pushing against the tarp and my back as I worked, holding me up on the ladder. I was furiously pounding in 8D common, galvanized, overkill nails into the last of the sheathing.  It was well past dark at 9PM when I finished.

You know, sheathing is what ties a modern house together, gives it strength. I had three walls tied in, the north wall framed and tarped over. The wind was blowing like hell and I was thinking as I lay on my cabin floor drifting off to sleep how solid the place seemed. I don’t know if I was dreaming or what but at one point the whole place was shaking. Thinking back, I know it had to be a dream because the floor was moving too. That dream turned out to be an omen.

The gable ends were not sheathed in yet. These are the triangles above the walls that meet the roof. I had a sheet of plastic covering my sleeping bag and me, as some rain would blow in from these open gable ends. By morning the temperature had dropped to about 28 degrees and I woke to a dusting of snow over me. I looked outside and the world was white. Did you ever put on a pair of frozen leather boots? Kind of uncomfortable for a while.

Things went OK on Sunday but I wasn’t prepared for the snow- two inches. Most of my lumber was covered with ice, then snow on top of that. Some of my oldest City friends, Linda and Kevin, who had a place in the mountains, came by in the middle of the afternoon to help me. We pounded some nails on the north wall for a while, it was still cold and a light wind was blowing, but the sun was shining. Poor Linda, what a trooper she was, fingers numb as she hammered away at those cold #8D nails. They talked me into driving the 45 minutes to their place to spend the night. Good thing, it was the coldest night yet, down to 22.

I went back to my place the next morning and worked on installing a wood stove.  My neighbor Diller had an extra one parked out front in his yard. It was one of those double door, cast iron types, and he gave it to me. The snow drifted down constantly Monday afternoon, six inches, no wind. Sweet! It was a winter wonderland. “That’s the reason I’m up here,” I thought to myself. I was disappointed when it was time to let the fire go out and head back to the city. You don’t appreciate things so much when you are in a race, but when I drove home and would let my mind drift off while at work, I  thought about how moving out of that pup tent and getting the wood stove going were milestones. Just a few months earlier, back in July, I didn’t even know I was going to buy land! Bring on the winter, I thought. I considered all the things I was doing, and I felt good.

January 1996

CABIN FEVER:

During the month of December, 1995 I put in a sliding glass door facing south, a casement window to the left of that and another large awning window facing east.  I got the windows at a 40% discount from a local building supply because they were cast-offs from other orders. Then I ran the electric wiring for my duplex receptacles and lighting. It was very cold most days and well below freezing at night so I needed to get some insulation going. I had 2×6 inch stud walls so that allowed me to put in R19 insulation. With 2×8 rafters in the ceiling I put in R30 insulation there. I don’t know what I was thinking but I didn’t use 5/8 fire code sheetrock in the ceiling– instead I varnished plywood T1-11 siding, 5/8 inch, 4’x8′ panels  and nailed that up to the rafters. For a cabin it looked good! Considering my mistakes in hindsight, I just remember that I’d been working a lot in the city and then rushing up to the mountains to do more work. I wasn’t taking much time to do research on how things should be done to building code because, in my mind, “This is just a cabin.” Later, when I would build my house, I intended to do everything to code and better.  Putting up this structure was more about getting warm and getting some normal comforts going inside for the winter.

Window light and Dusty.

The most difficult thing was getting firewood. I had made no provisions for collecting, splitting and stacking wood because I was in too much of a rush to get under cover for winter. With almost 2 feet of snow out there I would slog through the snow and find a dead but not rotted tree, cut it down with my chain saw, saw it up into burnable logs, then drag it back to my cabin on a kids plastic glider I bought. These logs were usually wet or damp inside and my fires would always hiss. Because of the snow depth I was very exhausted after doing this and would have to force myself to keep working back inside.

I still found time to go out cross-country skiing a couple of times. I would first wrap a potato in tin foil, throw it in the wood stove, cook it through and then take it with me as I explored the area on skis. I would eat the potato sitting on some log in the forest, look around at the winter wilderness, and feel lucky.

The weekend of January 6th, I arrived late on a very cold Friday night. In my old Buick Skylark were a new rooftop TV antenna and a used 23” color TV. I wanted to watch the NFL playoff games. The next day I put up the antenna and installed a ceiling fan to help circulate the woodstove heat. On Saturday there was news of a big snowstorm coming in. Late Sunday morning I got a call from a client asking me to do a job that required rushing back to the city and trying to catch a flight out to Las Vegas –that day! We were already scheduled to fly out on Monday for a weeklong shoot, but the guy wanted to try and beat the storm and fly out late Sunday afternoon. “OK.” I said and rushed to close up the cabin. It hadn’t started to snow yet, but as I got closer to the city, it really started coming down, with cars spinning out all over. Before I got to the George Washington Bridge I heard on the news that the airports had closed. So that was the end of that.

While in my apartment, early that evening I got a call from Diller, my cabin neighbor. He said, “John, I hate to tell you this but your place is on fire.” Not quit believing what I was hearing, I said, “How bad is it?” He said, “Real bad. It’s completely engulfed in flames.” I said, “What happened?” Diller said, “My wife looked out the window and saw flames shooting out the roof and we called the fire department. It is snowing like crazy and the fire department had a hell of a time getting up here. Three companies have responded and one fire truck slid off the side of the road.” I said, “Do you think they can save it?” The answer was obviously no. My voice cracking I thanked him for calling and hung up. I sat down stunned. I guess I cried. 

I tried to figure out what  could have happened. My first  thought was that Hopper set it on fire under cover of the snowstorm. He was still harboring a serious grudge about me building on “his land.” I carried that idea around with me for a few weeks. Later on I called one of the fireman responders and he told me the fire seemed to have started over the wood stove because he could see a V shape above it, indicating the longest and hottest burn point. He said he hates wood stoves and got rid of his years ago. Then I started to think about how I installed it. When my neighbor Diller gave me the stove I asked him how close it could be next to the wall. He said, “You buy this stuff called wonder board and you can put the stove right next to it. They are putting in fireplaces now with zero clearance with this stuff.” I remembered hearing about zero clearance fireplaces but I realize now those were for gas fireplaces, not wood burners. I asked the fireman about the wonder board and he said, “You need an airspace between the wonder board and the wall for air circulation. ”

Woodstove with wonderboard surround.

Say what?      The fact is, my wonder board had no airspace between it and the insulated stud wall.  A good twelve inches separated the rear wall from the stove but only two inches from the right wall. Behind the wonder board on the right was an 6×6 inch vertical wood beam, surrounded with insulation.  I remember on Saturday I smelled smoke over in that area but with the wood stove going, I dismissed it. I think the paper face of the insulation had already started to silently smolder up behind the wonder board while I was still there, and probably burst into flames later when it reached some air pocket at the roof. I must have been almost home when the flames broke out.

A couple weeks earlier I woke up during the night to a cabin filled with smoke. To conserve floor space, I had built a loft bed and was sleeping up there. I jumped down in a haze and tried to figure out what was going on. Smoke was coming out the wood stove doors and not up the stovepipe. I hate to think what would have happened if I was a heavy sleeper.  Choking in the dark,  I put gloves on and pulled the stovepipe away from the wall connection. Pointing a flashlight into the hole,  I could see a big black glob clogging the pipe. I reached in and pulled out a bunch of creosote.  The stovepipe was the inexpensive single wall type. What happens is when the heated gases go up the flue pipe, they cool quickly from contact to the cold air against the single wall pipe, creating creosote (more on creosote at Wikipedia).

10 feet of single wall outside stove pipe.

Between the wet wood I was burning and the long pipe run outside the cabin, a lot of creosote was forming.  Creosote clings to the side of the pipe till its own weight makes it drop down or sparks cause it to ignite. Chimney fires are the most common types of fires with wood stoves. I should have had a T pipe connection with a cleanout instead of a simple 90-degree turn. That way when the creosote fell down it would go into the end of the T and not clog the pipe. When we were kids we had a similar set up with a tiny wood stove in a shack we built out behind my parent’s house. Diller had the same thing on his house but with a T connection and a shorter pipe run up the side of his trailer. The proper way to keep the flue gases hot and thus stop creosote from forming is to use the expensive stainless steel, double or triple wall insulated pipe outside the house. Hindsight is 20/20. I should have done a lot of things –like buy a used little camper with a propane heater instead of rushing to build something quick like I did. Trouble is, I was 43 years old and had wasted a lot of time not accomplishing anything in my life, so when I started this, it was full steam ahead.

V burn pattern over the woodstove.

In this photo you can see the V burn pattern over the woodstove location. Notice the only siding remaining is where the wonder board and drywall were installed. In my naiveté and rush for other comforts, I did not have any drywall in and don’t remember when I planned on doing it. Drywall is a passive fire protection material. It is intended to slow down the fire from spreading in a burning building until the fire department can get on the scene. The majority of the cabin probably would have survived if I had done this.  My cabin was a big nest of exposed wood and paper faced insulation, ready to burn with the slightest provocation. This is a very bad way to learn about these things.

This knocked me back a bit, damaging heart and soul.  Financially things weren’t much better– I didn’t have insurance. There was a loss of over  $10,000 worth of materials, tools and clothing. The homeowner’s insurance I had on my apartment covered some of the personal belongings, but not the cabin. I had just switched carriers to get the combination auto and renter’s homeowners policy discount with Allstate. Suspicious of the quick claim on a new policy, Allstate dropped me, topping this disaster off in a cruel way. The fire left a bad taste in my mouth. For years later friends would innocently remind me that my placed burned down, even though I was living in the new house I built. These comments would hurt. Now, 15 years later it doesn’t bother me. Since that time I have known people who had fires and empathize with how they must feel.

AFTER THE FIRE

When something like this happens to a person you can get very depressed. All that work and sacrifice up in smoke. The worst part for me was not being able to go into the mountains and continue working on my dream. Staring over bothered me but all of a sudden to be locked in the city for the winter demoralized me the most. You can’t help but spending a lot of time thinking, should of, would of, could of crap. You beat yourself up and think things like maybe you’re just a screw-up after all. In 1995 before I started this endeavor I mentioned to my personnel physician that I wanted to build a house in the mountains. Without hesitating he said, “Don’t build your own house!” Twice he said it, “Don’t build your own house!”  I didn’t ask him to elaborate. I know he was thinking about the added stress and physical problems the work could cause. On the contrary as time went on I noticed my stamina during TV Camera jobs increased greatly. I had stopped going to the gym and had more strength overall. I suffered much less back pain and I attribute this to the way carpentry and construction work causes you to use your body in continually changing ways over time as you take on different tasks, getting a total body workout. You are always flexing, stretching and straining. I’m not saying I never got hurt but the healing was very quick.  Cardio wise I stayed fit also. Sleeping has always been an issue for me and I must admit building your own house does not help in that regard. Especially when I would get back to the city, while trying to sleep, what I had just done, what I needed to do and how to do it would churn round and round in my brain. During waking hours this was cool, while trying to sleep it was not.

I didn’t go back up to my property till the middle of February. I walked around for about half an hour in the cold, ice covered landscape, took some pictures and left. It was as bad as I expected. In the mean time I focused on buying a used backhoe scouring the Heavy Equipment and Truck Trader sales magazines. By the end of February I found a very good deal up near Albany, NY and had the backhoe delivered to my property. I was set now to rebuild but had no idea what.

With three days of no work ahead of me, a check for the burnt power tools and spring fast approaching I had to head back up to the mountains and level the playing field. In real terms, demolish the remains of my dream. Trouble was a snowstorm had just hit and clear but very cold weather was in the forecast. Damn! That meant everything would be covered in snow and ice and where would I sleep?

Go for it! My car loaded with new tools, sleeping bag, some food and other homestead items I arrived Saturday March 12, 1996 at about 1:30 PM. As I had anticipated the mountain had about a foot of new snow on top of what was already there. The driveway was choked. I left my car in the road and walked up to my backhoe to try and start it. The keyhole could not be found, only a rusty glob of ice. Thinking about how to thaw it out I realized there was no way. The only thing left to do was unload the car and head back to NYC. But wait a minute- I have this half empty propane tank somewhere, why don’t I rig that up as a torch? I poked around every little mound of snow till I found it. Key in place and with a shot of ether, the backhoe started along with my nasty task.

You have to picture this frozen, snow covered, burnt out wasteland and me planning on staying over amongst the ruins. I knew I could go home any time if the objective of building a make shift shelter could not be reached.

I had a lot of things to do before I could start to work on a shelter, plow the road, unpack, re-organize, and knock down the dangerous overhanging roof. By 9pm I had a fire going in the unlucky wood stove, tarps surrounding it and plywood laid over the charred floor joist. I made the decision to stay the night. My neighbor came home about 10PM. I was hoping she would invite me over for the night but figured she was taking advantage of her son being at the fathers’ house, (they had split up), by the sound of the voices it was clear she had a man with her. That’s a whole other story.

Luna let her two dogs out and they came barking and bounding through the snow to my outpost. I was as happy to see Dusty and Nicky, as they were to see me. By midnight I faced the inevitable and crawled into my sleeping bag. It was 5 degrees out. I didn’t have one of those high tech, sub zero sleeping bags because I was to cheap to spend the money on something I didn’t plan on using for more than a couple of nights. The unlucky wood stove was going but the roof above it was good only for looking at the stars- heat rises stupid! Dusty had gone home but crazy Nicky remained. She is crazy, I could tell you about her, likes attract, and she stayed the night.

After an hour of barking at the dark, coming in and out of my shelter, nuzzling my lumpy form, she settled down on the bottom of my bag. It was a three dog night though; I needed two more dogs to keep me warm. One at my feet, one at my back and one on my head.

Leveling the playing field.

I think I slept for about three hours on and off. The next day was all blue sky and sun but I felt like crap and had to take a nap after lunch. I spent the day using my new 15amp Porter Cable Tiger Saw to cut the char into burnable chunks. The smell of burning tarpaper and charcoal mess gets to you after while- $9K worth. As I was trying to topple this one large section, it went over a little to far the wrong way and smashed my electric meter to smithereens. OK, that does it, no electricity; I have to go home now. I pulled the trigger on the Tiger Saw and it still worked. Strange how you can get power with a demolished meter. The meter and breaker panel somehow had survived the fire. By six I was beat and dirty. I couldn’t sleep out in that mess another night. When I plugged in my new phone the line was still working and I checked my messages back home. The Duke, my road builder had called to see what was up with me.

So I buried my pride and called him up, asking to spend the night. Yeah sure Duke, great driveway. Forget about the fact that the only way you could get in and out all winter was with a four-wheel drive and because of my experience with your work I decided to buy a backhoe- now let me take a shower and go to sleep. No- Duke is a good guy and means well. His wife is very nice and if he would only shut-up enough for her to get a word in edgewise it might be fun to be around them. I felt guilty for never returning their calls. It was good to see them. They had been real nice to me.

The next day I felt much better. I got the whole structure cut down and burned away. The most important thing was I got a new, proper shelter built that I can stay dry in and be fairly comfortable. I should be OK and am looking forward to restarting. Screw the tent, I aint going back. And if another Three Dog Night comes by, I don’t know, I may have to come up with two more dogs!

To be continued!

1 comment

  1. enjoyed reading your story. understand the feelings about boyhood experiences – I grew up on a farm in Vermont – and had our ‘forts’ in the woods, etc.

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