Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It Takes a Family to Build a Cabin

Our cabin is near the East Spanish Peak in far southern Colorado. We’re about 150 miles south of Denver and about 10 miles off I-25. If you are driving from Denver to New Mexico, just south of Walsenburg, look to the right (west) and you will see a wonderful mountain. That is the East Spanish Peak. We are at the foot of that beauty. Make sure you wave at me. We enjoy great tranquility there, with our nearest neighbors being my brother and his wife, who are there six months a year. We are there four months. Our nearest full-time neighbor is two miles away. We built the cabin ourselves. Below is an essay I wrote while we were building.

It Takes A Family To Build A Cottage

In the shadow of a Colorado mountain sits a simple country cottage built by an electrical engineer, an Internet technician, a sculptor, a reporter, a filmmaker, and a college professor. It’s a 480-square-foot monument to the family and to the tricky relationship between self-reliance and interdependence.

The cottage and the family are mine. The electrical engineer is my brother Ed, who was the cabin’s building contractor, the man who knew what he was doing and taught the rest of us how to do it too. He and his son the Internet technician built the cabin’s shell—exterior walls, floors, windows, roof, electrical system and plumbing. The sculptor and reporter are my daughter and son; they installed the insulation, drywalled, built the deck, and finished the interior. The filmmaker is my sister-in-law Gwyn; she helped finish and paint the walls inside and out, using sand from the nearby creek to create a textured finish. I am the college professor; I did a little bit of just about everything, even though at the time I was sure all of it was way beyond my capabilities

Like many professionals, I typically hire experts to do work around the house—painters, plumbers, electricians—and enjoy the pragmatic reward of somebody else’s job well done. Build an entire mountain home myself? Why? How? Huh? My brother, however, simply assumed I could do it. Or, more important, we could do it. So we did. Now the best part of my mountain getaway is the fact that every nail in every board was driven by somebody I love.

In many ways, the decision to build it was a natural for us. Our dad built our family home, in addition to much of its furniture. I remember him showing me how to use a hammer as we worked together in his basement workshop: Hold the handle at the very end, and use a broad stroke to slam the nail in. I still occasionally hammer like a girl—holding the handle in the middle and tapping the nail delicately—but I am getting the hang of this construction business.

At the cottage, Ed took Dad’s role, showing us all how to hook this to that so that it wouldn’t leak, burn up, blow away, or crumble. We were all cooperative students, although he had to remind me regularly of the builder’s adage, “Measure twice, saw once.” I needed to measure about sixteen times and, even then, I had to use creativity to make boards fit because I was inevitably off. Finally, I got new glasses and learned to take my time. The result is one of those learning experiences we appreciate a great deal after the fact.

I now know how to use a power saw (I even have my very own). I know how to hide drywall seams (even though you can still see many of them at night when the lights are on). I know how to build a deck (it’s actually a trapezoid rather than the standard rectangle, but it does the trick). I know the pleasure of watching my scholarly children turn into handy workers who get a serious kick out of constructing a wall. And I know how it feels to fall asleep at night exhausted by physical activity, but thoroughly fulfilled by the work.

We’ve spent four summers building the cottage, and by now it is a comfy little haven, with water, solar power, and a composting toilet. Along the way, both of my sisters, two more nephews, a niece, and her nephew have come along to help dig holes, install the woodburning stove, paint, and do generally whatever is needed. It has truly been a labor of family love.

Our parents instilled in my siblings and me a strong appreciation of nature and a desire to spend as much time with it as possible. They also taught us how to treasure one another, so that the idea of living in a family enclave on the mountain had a special appeal. The land where the cottage perches is our inheritance from our parents, who asked us what we wanted with the money they had saved through decades of frugal living. It was an easy answer: mountain land. So now I own a little corner of alpine paradise with Ed and Gwyn, who have a home—which they also built themselves—down the road.

The cottage started as a cabin, because that is what I intended to build, but along the way, that word began to feel inadequate; it no longer seemed to do the homey little place justice. So we promoted it to cottage status. Another few rooms—maybe eighteen or so— and perhaps it will be an estate. Whatever the name, the cottage formerly known as a cabin is actually an outgrowth of my family in more than its construction, because mementos from my various homes create the warmth of the place. The kitchen sink, chairs, and curtains came from my parents’ house; the dining table is one my husband built me for our tenth anniversary; and the coffee table was crafted from the wooden camping cooler my dad made more than fifty years ago. The biggest memento, though, is the cottage itself.

When we are on the mountain, we share most of our dinners with whatever motley collection of family members happens to be there at the time, in a wonderful throwback to communal living. We eat well—grilled steaks, homegrown salads, and homemade cookies—and we eat it in a setting of immense beauty. The cottage faces a 13,000-foot mountain across a meadow of timothy grass. Bears, deer, and coyotes eye us through the woods across the meadow; eagles glide above.

As my family relaxes on our slightly cockeyed deck enjoying the mountain greenery, we also look at our handiwork and share a deep satisfaction in the fact that the charming building by which we sit would not have existed without our labor. We also share the realization that the outside needs more permanent siding than the original plywood it still sports; that there’s no place to store all our tools; that the deck needs a rail; and that we will never be truly finished.

But that’s fine. Being finished is overrated. As it turns out, the product we have been creating here is not only a mountain home. Our shared sweat, exhaustion, and exhilaration have built more than a simple cottage in the shadow of a mountain; it has been one step in a major work in progress—our family.

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