Cabin Life – #69

So far, spring has been a big let down.  There were two robins in the yard Frozen Cherry Logthis morning, hopefully representing a soon-to-be change in the weather.  Between the upper field and lower field, I’d say about two-thirds of the area is still covered in snow.  In the woods, I can post-hole my legs up to the calf when not wearing snowshoes.  Luckily, the freeze and thaw effect has left a fairly heavy crust on top of the snow, making it a little easier to walk around.

The little path that Pico and I have made to the sugar maples is a safe walk, and I have no problem doing it in sneakers.  I might break through three or four times, but the falls through the crust into the four or five inches of snow don’t seem to matter now.  The end is in sight.

I pulled one of the taps the other day.  Initially I had tapped three trees, and so far the production has not been bad.  I now have about five gallons of sap sitting in a bucket, waiting to be boiled and condensed into maple syrup.  It’s not much, but it’s not too bad for a trial run either.  I figure I might be able to get half a pint or even a little more syrup out of this big white bucket full of sap.

The largest tree I tapped didn’t produce much to begin with and after another week of only giving me a few ounces of sap, I decided to pull the tap and jug and just let that tree get on to the business of being a tree.  The other two trees I tapped are starting to dwindle in their production, and I am planning on pulling them out this week as well.  I’m going out of town for a couple days and decided to leave the taps and jugs in place until I get back.  I’m not worried about overflow or anything like that, and with the reduced sap flow the last couple of days, I don’t think that will be a problem anyway.

The very first drop of sap that came out of the tap was both exciting and disappointing.  It was exciting because it meant spring and sweetness and another project to take on.  It was disappointing due to the fact that it seemed so insignificant.  Literally just a drop in the bucket.  I tasted the first drop as it rolled off the blue plastic spile and onto my tongue.  It was nothing more than sugar water, with an ever-so-slight taste of maple to it.  It’s amazing to think that at some point in history, someone looked at the clear liquid coming out of a maple stump and decided to taste it.  That such a huge tradition and addition to our culinary culture could come from some dirty tree water is wonderful.

But now, two weeks later, when I sealed up the lid on the almost full five gallon pail, it’s amazing that in such a short time so much potential has been unleashed.  There’s no doubt in my mind that if I had taken the time to tap the fifteen or so trees in the area that I could have had a considerable amount of syrup when all was said and done.  I actually regret not doing more this year, but as with all things, it is what it is supposed to be.

I can drive into the cabin without four wheel drive now, and have had the time to scout out some downed trees to drag out for next winter’s fire wood.  I have to fix the two metal roof panels that blew off the porch of the Upper Camp before any more damage occurs to the porch.  I have to watch out for hungry bears and raccoons.  There’s plenty to do out here, and making maple syrup is only one of many chores to be accomplished.

It is nice to think about the syrup as a chore.  I like being able to enjoy my chores, and sitting by a fire all day making syrup is definitely a chore I can take pleasure in.  I have no desire to climb up on a roof to fix the metal sheets.  I will take no pleasure in wondering if the sounds I hear while sitting in the outhouse are those of a bear wandering by.  But I will enjoy the spring, even though it is being rude with its tardiness.

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Cabin Life – #68

We’re here in April, and there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground.  The Spring Streamdays have been warm enough to start melting the snow, but the cold nights and occasional snow showers have hampered the quick onset of spring.  Pico and I went for a last ski down the railroad tracks near a friend’s house the other day, but now the snowshoes and skis are stashed, and unless something crazy happens with the weather, I think it’s time to call it a season.

A couple of weeks ago, it was so warm that we got our first taste of mud season.  Now, for those of you who don’t know, mud season in a semi-official time of year between winter and spring.  Mud season is not something that is well celebrated, but in some ways, it can be the best time of the year.

For me and the cabin, mud season is no picnic.  I live at the end of a one mile long dirt road with limited maintenance and no neighbors.  When there’s a couple of inches of snow on the road and it’s frozen solid, it’s a pretty nice drive.  But winter is the when the road is at its best, and mud season is when it’s at its worst.  Mud season is when the road gets wet, and it gets really wet.  There are several streams that cross the road at just a couple of locations.  These streams are all intermittent flows from springs up on the ridge.  I have two of these streams flowing through the property out here, but they join below my cabin and mark the end of the road.

The three or so drainages along the road however, can turn it into a sloppy mess.  Even with four wheel drive, I get tossed around and turned sideways in the two inch thick sludge.  This is a public road, and there’s always one guy with a huge truck that feels compelled to drive down the road at forty miles an hour, creating huge ruts which then freeze overnight and make my daily commute more than a little rough.

Luckily, the entire length of the road isn’t quite this bad.  During Hurricane Irene a couple years ago, the small streams turned into enormous torrents of white water.  Those small flows ripped out drainage pipes going under the road in two spots and created a large sinkhole up near my end of the road.  When the town fixed these issues, they did a good job and re-did whole sections with large crushed stone.  But, it’s the kind of sharp, angular stone that gives me a flat tire or two each year.  At least those sections aren’t muddy.  I’m really not sure how to feel about that.

The driveway is another matter.  After being forced to hike in for another couple of weeks, I can finally drive the car all the way up to the cabin.  It’s nice to be able to do that instead of stashing a sled at the bottom of the driveway and walking in dragging it behind.  There’s still quite a bit of snow and ice on the driveway because a big part of it doesn’t get much sun.  I think I should be all set to get in and out until next winter though.  It was a hassle parking at the bottom of the hill and hiking up to the cabin.  I just hope that mud season gets done in a hurry, otherwise I might have a much longer hike.

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Cabin Life – #67

I love my dog Pico.  But there are times when he can be extremely The First Spileannoying.  Like right now, he’s licking my elbow and won’t stop.  I lifted my arm up off the table but he just jumped up on me to keep on licking.  I don’t know why he is doing this or what I could have possibly gotten on my elbow to make him want to lick it so bad.  He’s just a little weird sometimes.

I noticed another oddity out here this week.  I tapped a few maple trees so I could make a little sap this year.  Last year, I was all primed to do the work, but then maple season came and went in a week in February, and I was caught off guard and left with no syrup.

This year is a test run.  I bought some taps and used a few old milk jugs as buckets.  Trying to do it on the quick and cheap, I’m really only expecting a couple servings of syrup.  I don’t have the equipment or the time right now to handle a big production, but now that I know what I’m getting into, I can make a bunch of syrup next spring.

Last winter I found a cluster of nice maples not too far from the cabin, and never touched them.  But this year I picked up a bag of spiles at the local hardware store and the proper size drill bit. A friend and I took Pico, the taps, jugs, and drill out to the trees.  The sun was shining and it was perfect weather for sap to run.  As soon as the drill bit broke through the bark, a big, fat drop of sap coursed down the rough exterior of the tree.  The drill then died.

My cordless drill, which I’ve had since college, made a hole about half an inch deep and just stopped turning.  I jammed a tap into the hole to see how bad it was, and the tap stuck out a ridiculous amount.  No way would it be able to keep a full jug from falling to the ground.  I pulled the battery out of the drill and locked the bit in place.  I used the body of the drill as a handle and finished the hole using my power drill as a hand drill.  This is why I only placed three taps this year.

The next couple of days were cold and I didn’t think the sap would run that much.  From the yard I could see the jugs on the trees and knew that they hadn’t fallen or gotten blown off.  When I went and checked the jugs after two days, I noticed the irregularity that I was not expecting.  The smallest tree had given me the most sap, and the biggest tree had given me basically no sap.

Now, there could be many factors for this discrepancy independent of the size of the tree.  I just found it odd that this was the case.  I figured bigger tree equals more sap.  But maybe I did something wrong drilling the hole.  Maybe I put the tap in at too much of an angle.  Maybe the stupid tree just doesn’t produce that much sap.

After three days, I had a gallon of sap.  At this rate, I might be able to put my own syrup on one pancake.  But that’s not really the point this year.  I just want to try something I’ve never done before and see how it comes out.  That’s what this whole experience has been about too.  To try something I’ve never done before and see what happens.  And maybe that’s why Pico was licking my elbow earlier.  He just forgot that he’s done it before and wanted to see what he might find.

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Cabin Life – #64

There’s a gentle thud as another icicle falls off the roof and lands in the soft, Melting Snowheavy snow on the ground.  It’s not that warm today, but warm enough to sit out on the porch and read for a while.  I needed a winter hat to sit out there, though the sun was warm when it poked out from behind the clouds.

There’s a noticeable difference in the amount of snow on the ground.  It’s not really melting, but it is disappearing.  Almost like the surface of the snow isn’t changing, but just sinking closer and closer to the ground.  The days haven’t been very warm, but we’re starting to get those days when it feels a little humid out.  This is the snow’s way of saying goodbye I presume.

While it hasn’t been warm enough to let the fire go out in the wood stove, I have been able to get by burning softwood during the day.  And a single load of hardwood has been lasting me all night.  It’s a far cry from January and February when I would have to get up a few times per night to add wood to the stove.

I’ve been stretching the hardwood supply and I think I’ll be all right for the rest of the year.  I’m hoping for a warm April, and can’t wait for the flowers to start blooming and the leaves to start growing.  Even though I know that my allergies will not be easy to deal with.

I’ve been wondering why this winter seems more difficult than last winter.  I think the biggest reason is that the novelty has worn off.  Last year there was furniture to move, wood to gather and split, property to explore and the adventure of a new endeavor.  I haven’t felt any of that this year.

I took several steps to make life out here easier this winter.  From the lights to the radio, and having established a procedure to wash dishes, this winter should have been a cake walk compared to the unknowns of last year.  But now all the chores that were novel last winter are just effort this winter.  Hauling in water is a pain.  Cleaning the chimney is no fun.  Getting up at four in the morning to put wood in the stove is, well, work.

I think that though the freshness of the experience has worn off, it’s been a good reminder of how much I can do without.  I have no intention of ever moving back “on grid,” but I also have no plan of living the rest of my life deprived of indoor plumbing.

While I sit out here and crank my radio, I like to think about what my own off grid house will look like.  There will be a heat source other than a woodstove so I can leave for more than twelve hours at a time.  There will be hot running water and an indoor toilet.  Once I get settled, I do not want to have to keep a toilet seat hanging on my wall above the wood stove.  Sure, it’s nice for now, but I really don’t want to be that guy for the next forty or fifty years.

I’ve learned a lot living out here and no matter where I go from now on, I will take these lessons to heart.  Plus, I would have a hard time learning to pay bills again.  That’s the one thing that, even though I was able to give it up, really keeps on giving back to me.

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Cabin Life – #59

Tools of the trade
Like most people, I sometimes make decisions that I regret.  Last week I made one of those decisions, and I have been regretting it ever since.  The decision I made was to shave off my beard.  On the coldest day of the year.  It’s not that I’m worried about my ability to grow another beard, but it’s been, well, cold and for some reason I seemed to forget how much insulation I get on my face from the beard.  In hindsight, it was a horrible decision.

I made another decision recently which is turning out to be much better though.  I bought a double-bit axe for use around the property, and I could not be happier.

Amy doesn’t want me to cut down any live, healthy trees out here for fire wood, so I am relegated to cutting only trees that are already dead and/or down.  Luckily, we’ve had some pretty severe wind this winter and there has been no shortage of trees to buck up and drag out of the woods.  I use the chainsaw for almost all of this work.  But when I’m cutting what’s called a “widow-maker,” the chainsaw can get pinched in the tree if I misread how the tree will fall.  It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s good to know that I now have a nice axe to use to chop out the chainsaw.

I got a double-bit for two main reasons.  The first is that they have straight handles, so it’s a pretty accurate axe.  The other is that I can keep one blade sharp for chopping, and the other a little more dull for splitting.  After splitting several cords of wood by hand last year with an eight pound maul, swinging the three and a half pound axe is much, much easier.

I’ll still use the maul for knotty wood or the really big logs.  It’s heavy, unwieldy, and gets stuck a lot, but gets the job done.  I also have a ten pound mini-sledge to get the maul through the really nasty logs, but that’s a lot of weight to be swinging around all day.  The combination of the two pretty much guarantees that I can get any log split, but it might take a long time to get a few pieces of burnable fire wood.  Three and a half pounds versus eight is a pretty easy decision.

And speaking of decisions, there is an annual event that starts this week which always makes me happy that I’ve decided to make the northern Adirondacks home:  Winter Carnival.

Carnival is what makes a hard winter bearable.  Carnival is something that I think everyone who lives in the Saranac Lake region looks forward to.  It is like a winter break for everyone.  And as an adult, who doesn’t wish that they still got all the vacations that school kids get?

For those of you who don’t know, Winter Carnival is a weeklong celebration of surviving through the winter.  There is a Royal Court, concerts, contests, an Ice Palace, and the whole thing culminates in an unforgettable parade.  Outside.  In the middle of February.  Needless to say, there may be some alcohol involved in one or more of these events.

Back when I was in college, there was a standing rule that my parents were not allowed within fifty miles of Saranac Lake on parade weekend.  I’ve grown up a little bit since then, but they still honor the buffer.  The parade really brings the community together.  People travel from all over the country and world to attend Carnival, and I have yet to hear of anyone coming away disappointed.

It’s a boon to the town, as well as to everyone’s psyche.  You have to be pretty tough to survive the winters up here, and Carnival is a great reminder that we’re all in it together, no matter who you vote for or how much you make.  We’ve all decided to tough it out up here, and Winter Carnival is our reward.

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Cabin Life – #54

Nick's Place
The snow is still falling, but not as fast and furious as it was earlier.  I heard on the solar radio that this is now called Winter Storm Euclid, but I think most people will remember it as the Blizzard of 2012.  I’ve got about twelve to fourteen inches on the ground, and it is still coming down.

I woke up early this morning to a text message from a friend letting me know that she had made it to Colorado alright.  The sun wasn’t up, but it was starting to get light out, so I got up and fed the pets and the woodstove.  The stove was cranking and it was pretty warm in the cabin.  I hadn’t done anything different in terms of what or how much I burned, but it was noticeably hotter in here.  When Pico and I went out for our morning relief, I figured out why it was so warm inside.  There was eight inches of snow on the roof providing a lot of extra insulation.

The next thing I did was to wax up my skis and get dressed for some outdoor activities.  After getting about a quarter mile from the cabin, I was glad I had set out early.  The snow was getting deep and it was hard to glide when I was breaking trail.  I could have followed Pico’s path, but that quarter mile would have turned into a half mile the way he runs all over the place.

Pico didn’t mind the new boots I had put on his feet, and the two of us made our way down to the little lean-to, named for the kid that built it, Nick’s Place.  It’s only about five feet high, eight feet wide and six feet deep, just enough for a couple of people to sleep in, though I doubt anyone has stayed there in quite a few years.  I’m always a little worried though, that when I round the corner of the trail and Nick’s Place comes into sight that some hermit or drifter will be staring out of the doorway at me.  It hasn’t happened yet, and since not even my landlord has seen the thing, I doubt if anyone will wander out here and find it.  But I always get just a little tense when I get close.  The more logical fear when it comes to the lean-to is that Pico will run in there and be face to face with a porcupine or raccoon.  He’s marked the area well, and hopefully my fears don’t come true.

Last weekend, I took Pico, a folding saw and some loppers to clean up the trail to the lean-to.  I’d like to make this place a little more accessible, and the first step in clearing out the existing trails.

From my cabin, I take the road that leads to Upper Camp.  About half way to Upper Camp there is a junction trail that goes off to the right.  It passes one of the old hand-dug wells and follows a stone wall to a large ash tree.  From there, the trail continues straight to a little clearing where all the pine trees were cut to build Upper Camp.  But the trail to Nick’s Place goes right, through a break in the large stone wall and meanders off into the woods.  I clipped some branches and small balsams that had started to grow, and pulled a few dead trees out of the way that fallen across the trail.  The trail then empties into an open glade, which in summer is beautiful.  Moss lines the ground and the thick clumps of balsam and spruce give off a classic Adirondack aroma.

There are thick evergreens that surround Nick’s Place, masking it in the woods.  Nick was the son of the previous owner’s and he did a nice job building this place.  The front is about half closed in but there is a doorway and a window, and the roof provides a little overhang so that snow doesn’t make its way inside.  After cutting out a few trees, you can see the lean-to from the where the trail enters the glade.  At least I don’t have to get too close now to see if anyone is living in there.

But this morning was not a work morning.  Pico and I just skied out to Nick’s Place and then bushwhacked up into the woods, heading towards the clearing up above.  I’d like to mark and cut a trail from the lean-to to the clearing, and found a pretty good route up there.  Of course, the route I took this morning is now covered in snow, and I’ll have to mark it another time, hopefully when there is not a blizzard going on.  It’s just one of the perks of doing this type of thing out here.  I get to ski it once, then ski again to mark it, and then ski it again to cut it out.  I could have done all that today, but I’m looking forward to having to do the route a few more times.  You know, as long as I don’t run into anyone along the way.


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Cabin Life – #51

Every morning there are tracks in my driveway.  Sometimes they’re deer tracks, or the random dog that occasionally wanders through, or, like this morning, they’re fox tracks.    With only a dusting of snow on the ground, I’m not sure why different animals seem to frequent the driveway, but I almost always stop on my way to work to see who had come through the night before.

I do mean a dusting too.  The lack of snow is great for getting things done outside, but obviously horrible for skiing.  Last week we got about six inches.  I got the plow hooked up to the four-wheeler and, miraculously, got it started.  I plowed the snow off the driveway just to practice with the new set up.  By Monday afternoon, the only place there was snow was where I had made snowbanks.  Good thing I didn’t actually break my finger putting the plow on.  It really felt broken when I slammed it.

Monday afternoon, I decided to take the four-wheeler again and use it to drag a tree out of the woods.  Now, this four-wheeler and I have a sort of love-hate relationship.  I hate it and it loves to not start or go in reverse.  On the occasions when it is running, I use it for two main purposes:  to drag next year’s fire wood to the cabin and to ride around on the trails for no particular reason.  I’d like to say that Pico goes with me, but he’s always trying to bite the tires, which can’t possibly end well, so he stays at the cabin.

During Hurricane Sandy, a large tree snapped in half way up at the end of the Left Trail.  My friend who owns the property doesn’t want me cutting live trees, so I’m constantly on the lookout for good dead stuff.  Good or bad, it was also a poplar.  Not the greatest fire wood, but it burns clean and since it’s free and there’s a ton of it, who cares if it burns faster than hardwood?

The tree had broken pretty cleanly about thirty feet up the trunk.  After I dropped the rest of the trunk and limbed it and pulled out the parts that are big enough to burn, I probably have about a cord and a half of wood just from this one tree.  I cut eight foot logs (give or take) and ended up with seven of them.

Now, back to the four-wheeler.  It does not go in reverse.  It came with the property, and no one seems to have any idea when it was last serviced or repaired.  So, I just have to deal with it.  Typically, I only drive it where I can turn around, otherwise I have to get off and push it back to wherever I need it.  This is not a good set up when you are on a hill.  Luckily the big poplar wasn’t on a hill, but it also wasn’t in a place where I could drive in and turn around.  So I ended up having to drag the logs to the four-wheeler because I couldn’t push it back far enough to hook them up.

The first couple of logs from the top of the tree weren’t that heavy, so I could move them whole.  The logs from the base of the tree, where it was about twenty inches in diameter, were much heavier.  I grabbed the chainsaw and cut the eight foot logs into four foot logs.  I couldn’t lift them whole, but I could flip them end over end the twenty feet or so to the four-wheeler.

The first fat and short log I grabbed was the heaviest.  I got it to the back end of the four-wheeler and wrapped a strap around it several times.  I hooked the strap to the trailer hitch and made it all of one foot before the strap came off.  This log did not want to go anywhere.  I did a different rig to hook the log to the trailer hitch.  Made it about ten feet before the strap broke.  Not really having any other options, I flipped the log up against the real cargo rack and slid it up onto the rack.  I strapped it down with my severely shortened tie-down and drove it back to the cabin yard.  When I shoved the thing off, the back end of the four-wheeler went up about three inches.  It was a heavy log.

I had to do that six more times to get all that fire wood down to the cabin yard.  It may be free, but I’m paying for it now.


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Cabin Life – #50

The tea kettle is warming up on the stove so I can have the first of many, many cups of tea today.  There’s cough drop wrappers strewn about the table and all of my handkerchiefs are in the laundry basket.  I hate being sick.

The worst part about this particular cold is that I finally took a day off from work and had to spend it lying on the couch doing nothing.  It was a beautiful day yesterday, with the first real snow of the year settling on the ground.  Being in a snow belt, I got a few more inches than most people and if there was any possibility of being able to breathe through my nose, I would have loved to go out for my first cross-country ski of the year.

But instead, I stayed inside and read, did a little shoveling and basically just drifted in and out of consciousness all day.  It was nice to look out the window at the winter scene that is my yard, though.  The pale blue sky played against the blinding whiteness of six inches of snow.  The sun created sparkles all over, always changing as the trees swayed in the wind.  This is my favorite part of winter.

It was about this time last year that I started writing the Cabin Life series, and believe it or not, this is the fiftieth essay I’ve written about living off the grid in this little cabin.  I’ve talked about the weather and birds, family and depression, difficulties and joys.  The outhouse, Upper Camp and Pico.  I like writing this way, about whatever happens to pop into my mind when I sit down at the computer.  I like that I have to wear a headlamp to write on my laptop.

After over a year, I do not regret moving out here.  I miss hot showers.  And on days like yesterday, it would have been nice to lie around and watch whatever nonsense was on TV.  Other than that, I don’t miss anything I used to have.  I lived in a nice two bedroom townhouse three blocks from the ocean when I left Jacksonville.  I liked being near the beach, but feel that the only thing I really gave up was the stress and endless hours of work necessary to afford that life.  I worked two jobs for five straight years.  I know lots of other people have done this, but I don’t have kids or a mortgage.  I did it to keep up with the Jones’, so to speak.  And after simplifying my life and wants and needs, I realize that I don’t care what the Jones’ are up to.  The best part is that I won’t ever again care what they are up to.

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Ausable Marsh

Pico and I hiked the Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area trail a few weeks ago.  Here’s a few shots from the marsh.  I don’t know wildflowers, so if any of you know what these are please clue the rest of us in with a comment.







Cabin Life – #19

I found an old set of horseshoes in the lower field the other day.  It has been a nice addition to recreational life out here at the cabin.  I had some friends over to play, and according to Adirondack rules, each participant had a beer in one hand.  No setting it down to throw, no cheating with non-alcoholic “beer.”  And of course, upgrading to whiskey or tequila gets a nod of approval from the fellow participants.

Even though I am very secluded out here, I’ve found so many pieces of evidence of the continued presence of humans that it’s hard not to think about how others have lived on this particular piece of land.  I only found the horseshoes because one of the stakes had a faded orange flag on it.  When I went to investigate, I found the shoes, and it took a little while to find the other stake because the field is overgrown.

On the way up the driveway on the left, in the woods, there is an old bus and some other assorted rusty pieces of metal, no doubt left over from an old camp.  It reminds me of my childhood.  Relatives of mine had a hunting camp in Wells, and there was an old school bus out there.  When I was young, I convinced myself that there must be a ghost in that old bus.  That was enough to make me stay away, which is good, mainly because I’m sure that there were skunks or porcupines living in there.  I don’t think there are ghosts out here, even though my radio does occasionally turn on by itself.

There is what appears to be an actual hitching post right outside my door.  No doubt prior owners had horses.  Based on the condition of the crumbling old stable near upper camp, it seems likely that the horses were used for work, and not for transportation.  The rock walls that criss-cross the property are huge, often thousands of feet long and several feet high.  It speaks to the amount of time that people were out here trying to work this land.  These walls were not done in just a season or two, but were labored over what had to be generations.  The rock walls are a great navigation tool, since if I get lost, I can just follow a wall back towards the cabin and I will eventually hit either the driveway or the big field.

There are piles of rusty metal randomly scattered about.  I’ve found two old hand-dug, rock-lined wells, along with the old plow out front and some farming implements out back.  Nothing about this place leads me to believe that I am the first one to live out here “off the grid.”  But back when the others were doing it, that was just the way life was.  No other options, no going to a friend’s house for a hot shower or TV.  And as far as I know, no writing about this life either.

There is a part of me that really likes history and research, and I’d love to dig into the past of this property.  But I don’t think I will.  Something about the mystery of forgotten lives and being able to imagine how hard those people had to work makes me think that I’ll leave the story unknown.