During my 20th year around the sun I moved upwards of 20 times.
I lived with the parents of my friends, I house-sat, I lived with my Brother, I lived with friends. My life was one big traveling suitcase made up of bags and backpacks and boxes filled with essentials and odds and ends. Chances were, if you thought of it, it was in my car. I packed and unpacked and repacked so many times that you would think I would have developed some systems but alas, the mind of my 20-year-old self didn’t prioritize order. I was a bag lady but with paper bags with constantly ripping handles and fall out bottoms. Needless to say, it was a bit of a mess.
And so, once I finally moved into my own house 5 years later I was beyond ready to trade in my bags for drawers and settle. I’ve felt the same nesting sense ever since. I love being home and since moving to Alaska (at the start of which I thought was just a blip on my radar on my new traveling trajectory) I’ve loved making our house in Alaska our home.
But, the seasons have changed and Fall is upon us. For us, Fall means heading South to California. And so, two weeks ago, the process of leaving began.
No big deal, right? Like I said, I’m pretty used to packing up and heading out and now, as more of an adult, I’m much more organized. I can Tetris a trunk like a pro and pack clothes for a month into every nook and crannie of a weekender bag.
But, I’ve never had to leave like this.
Growing up we had a family cabin in the Ozarks in Missouri. Every year we would go down in the Summer for a week. We would arrive in the early afternoon and the opening of the cabin would begin. Hours later and a whirlwind of opening shutters and turning on waterlines and changing sheets and the cabin would be open and off we would go, ready in time for Cocktail Hour by 5pm. A week later we would do it all in reverse: canoes put in the river shed, floors swept, bedding stripped, water off, shutters closed and all in time to make it back to St. Louis in time for…you guessed it: Cocktail Hour.
Between my bag lady days and my cabin plays, one might think shutting down our cabin would be nothing more than a blip on the radar but arriving to and leaving from our house in the woods is not quite the same.
Or at least I assumed it wouldn’t be.
You see, I’ve only arrived, never left.
I’ve opened but never closed.
It’s a whole different world, a world in reverse.
Last year when The Chief was shutting down the cabin to come meet me in Portland I got little snippets from him regarding the happenings of shutting the place down.
In my excitement to see him I realize that I glossed over words like: “non-freezables” and statements like “I don’t want it frozen into the ground” (last Winter I tried to “pick-up” a tote which had frozen into the ground a bit. I pulled and swiftly broke the tote in two: half still in the ground and half in my hand and overall totally unusable) and in my rush to see him I didn’t really understand the massive task that stood between us. Come Winter, I realized a bit of what he was talking about, but again, I saw it in the opening of the cabin mode.
Now it was time for the reverse. The shutdown.
The last week before we left our house I didn’t have to work. The restaurant had shut down for the season (another totally strange thing to me. The only time I’ve ever shut a business down was when it closed its doors for good, not just until the following May. Closing down for the Winter and shutting down forever are only a few hauling loads away from one another. It’s quite the ordeal and in a few months, the reverse will happen again). I felt so lucky to finally have some time off in the beautiful place I call home. There were adventures to be discovered and in the first few days I had off I found them.
And then…the panic set in.
I stood outside on my third day off and, as if I had seen it for the first time, I was stunned by the amount of work I had to do. The last few days the projects had been far from my mind but suddenly it was Go Time.
Living in the woods, I have come to understand the difficulty of the acquisition of things. I looked around our yard and saw years of acquisitions: lumber which will hopefully become a part of a building project in the future, snow machines since retired which we use for parts if one of ours (or our friend’s machine breaks), and random tools and tie downs and who knows what galore. In the woods, it’s very hard to throw things away for reasons which are twofold:
One: you may one day find a use for it and on that day, if you’ve hauled it out of The Valley to the dump, you are going to kick yourself
and Two: if you do decide to trash it, it is very difficult to throw things away. When you’re heading to Town and have multiple 55 gallon barrels for gas and suitcases for months of travel and recycling and trash from months of discard there isn’t a lot of room for the things you want off of your property and special trips into town to take away items are once in a blue moon. It’s just rare to have the room and so…things pile up.
I spent my first day (blue and white striped Traindriver overalls in action. I meant business) amongst the mayhem: lumber. There were lumber piles everywhere. Some were covered, some weren’t, some were still good, some were bad but all were both visible and taking up room and if I didn’t act now, they would be frozen in by the time we returned and unable to move until Spring.
I’ve never lived to quite an extreme like that, where the urgency a season imposes is both physical and mental and affects not just you but your things. Sure, I’ve cleaned gutters but here, you’d have to remove gutters (we don’t have any, so no worry there). It’s a whole new level. You have to think ahead. What will I need and if I need something, how can I make sure it doesn’t freeze into the ground? It’s a whole new fishbowl for me.
And so, (after three hours spent separating our recycling – we are working on a new system but for now, it all goes in one bag and then someone gets awarded the sloppy mess of sorting it. I won! Remember last Trash Day?) I spent the day unearthing old piles of lumber, separating the good from the bad and carrying it to more discreet lumber stashes on the property which I made with pallets I slowly hauled over to each site (who knew those things were so heavy?!). What I thought would take a few hours took me an entire day. I was dirty from head to toe and my arms were so tired I’d thought they might fall off.
The next day The Chief finally had the day off too and we spent it again moving things: an old snow machine had to be moved onto a pallet but it didn’t drive and so after many heaves and hos and brainstorming problem solving and ratchet strap configurations, we got it onto the pallet and stabilized it via a nearby tree. It’s the (seemingly) little things like that which take forever. Half the day gone just securing and moving things on the property and it was looking much better. I’d been wanting to get my hands on this project for a whole year now and it was finally happening.
Just then, we started talking about what to do with out food when we thought to call a friend who runs a freezer all Winter. We thought we’d check to see if we could put our food in it until we returned (at which point our “freezer” would simply be totes left outside, since it’s so cold they stay frozen). Our actual freezer is great but without having the generator run every few days it will melt. If we were leaving in December it wouldn’t be an option but until it gets cold enough outside to keep it frozen via nature we had to figure something else out. Our friend kindly obliged and the rush was on: we had to get the items to him that day because he was leaving. He also said he could store our non-freezables.
Holy moly! This was a gift from the Gods.
Stop the projects and change gears: food time.
We went inside and in the scurry I immediately lost all of my prior understanding of what happens when things freeze.
“Can canned peaches freeze?”
“Yes. Well, sort of.”
Huh? Apparently they might get a little mushy and the can might get distorted. Pickles? They might get mushy too but the vinegar content makes the freeze lighter than just straight water. No water could be left in anything in our house or it would break its container.
In our house.
Our house which is going to freeze.
Everything inside it is going to freeze.
Our house is going to be an unattended igloo.
This just doesn’t seem real to me.
And so I spent the next hour confused and confusing, wondering if we could leave dish soap and forgetting that I knew we could. We were rushing to get everything together but still needing to prioritize. We hadn’t planned on doing the food clean-up until the last day and so the sudden rush and flurry brought the stress levels out in the open.
We took everything out of our freezer and I snapped a picture so as to remember when we were shopping this December what we actually will need. The Chief started bagging it all up when it dawned on me: we still needed to eat. We were days away from leaving and here we were throwing all of our food in one (inaccessible) basket.
Duh. We knew that. But these are the things we forget when we rush.
And so I separated a few things, trying not to take out too much lest we waste it but not wanting to take out too little and end up eating trail mix for dinner. That’s the thing as you start to shut the house down: ideally you run out of everything on your very last day. In reality: you run out of things in an awkward kerplunk as the last bit of sugar falls out of the bag and you only have half of what the recipe calls for – hey, you wanted it light anyways, right?
Coffee was the first thing we noticeably ran out of. No biggie, we switched to tea. Then we ran out of milk (both our almond milk and our regular milk). No biggie. We had canned milk that…we had packed up already to give to our friend who was keeping our food. Who knew where it was in the boxes. Ugh.
And so, you go without or get creative but mainly, you just start getting excited for Town where you can go and get whatever you need pretty much whenever you need it (or simply want it).
The Land of Plenty looks pretty good when you’re coming from scarcity.
We finished packing up the foods for the house and The Chief made the limping journey in our not so working truck to pick up our last delivery of mail and drop off the goods. When he returned a few hours later (like I said, everything takes so much longer than you think it will out here) I had picked up more of the yard and moved more lumber. We were beat but so happy to have the food taken care of. We had been scheming the past week over whether we could create enough charge on our batteries to leave it plugged in and running off of them until the snow came but the idea of leaving the batteries unattended and working made both of our stomachs churn. We had thought of other people’s houses we might be able to stash it at or people who might enjoy the goods but nothing was easier and fit better than simply packing it all away in one spot. What a relief (thank you, thank you!).
Next up the following day was the inside shakedown and the outside burn. I took the inside and The Chief took the outside. I detailed every inch of the oven and cleaned the house from head to toe (almost, the living room eluded me) and went through our clothes to find donations and to pack (which sounds easy but since California is basically still in Summer mode, we have to pack for Summer and Fall and Winter in California). The Chief burned the wood we couldn’t use and the burnables that we don’t throw in the trash in order to keep the trash from filling quickly (i.e. tissue paper, unneeded mail, etc.). I swear I could see his smile all the way from the house while he lit the bonfire all the way over in the garden area. There was no worry of fire in the wet wet wet woods and so we were able to burn everything. It was a great feeling to clean up so nicely.
We were on a roll but the days were flying by. Suddenly, it was our last day. The heat was on and tensions were high. We’d never done this together and learning what was a priority for each of us versus a non-priority was a good lesson in compromise both with the other and with the self.
Finally, it was the night before we left. There were just a few things left to do: pick up the fire truck which needed to get worked on in Town, pick up Bluebell and ride her home and load the truck with the last few items we needed to pick up in the valley, unload them and then load the truck so it was ready in the morning. Just a few small things like that.
And then it started to rain.
Well, of course it did.
We picked up the truck, picked up Bluebell and I followed behind on her as we headed for the heavy stuff. It turns out her already weak brakes had gone completely out while she had been sitting and so the ride was more or less a constant gamble. Thank goodness for good boots. We headed to retrieve our 100lb. tank of propane and our little bitty backup. Then we headed to the fuel area and backed into the bay where there was no dolly to be found to move the 55 gallon drum of gasoline that we had gotten filled (note: they are much heavier when full).
We made our way home and I skid into the driveway. We found a pallet to store my little lady on and covered her with a tarp. The Chief came over and helped me. The way the tarp was, it would have collected snow and either torn or knocked everything over. Oh. You see, I don’t get it. But I’m learning.
Then, it was time to unload the truck. But first, we had to move our other vehicle in order to line up correctly with the drop zone. Easy, right? Except the other vehicle had mysteriously stopped running one day and so we would have to tow it first, then push it into place. We strapped a tire to the pulling and pushing truck after towing the vehicle forward and then smashed it between the two to push it backwards.
Oh, the ingenuity of living in the woods.
Finally, with big enough rocks found on the property in place in front of the wheels so it would stay, the driveway was clear and we were ready to unload the propane and fuel. The propane was “easy”. Heave, ho and off you go. It was heavy and The Chief had suffered a substantial bruising the night before in a Tiger Trap of sorts and my back was threatening to go out but, by comparison, it was light. The fuel, on the other hand…let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t alone with it. The Chief devised a sort of strong man bounce station with another tire (see why it’s hard to throw things away?) that the barrel could land on. From there we could then maneuver it into place on the pallet with the others. He got it to the edge and we both silently said a little prayer as almost $200 in fuel flew from the back of our truck onto the tire and…
didn’t bust, didn’t break. It fell perfectly and we strong-armed it into place. Success!
Then, we loaded the empty barrels we would bring into Town with us to fill up in December into the truck, followed by months of recycling and last but not the least: months old stinky trash. Oh joy. Me and my overalls probably stunk to high heaven but the day was finally done (minus still making dinner, finishing packing, fussing with last odds and ends, oh and harvesting all of our herbs and sorting all of their soils and laying the herbs out to dry).
Finally it was time to rest.
The morning was a whirlwind and stress levels were high. I’m the type that runs back to the house to see if the burner on the stove is still on. Leaving the house for a long day can be stressful. Leaving the house for two months? A little more. And so we spent the morning buzzing around, drinking less than delicious tea to propel us into our day and being snippy. You could feel the tension in the air, both of us trying to remember what it was we must be forgetting, doing last-minute check-ins with one another (“did you remember your passport? Wait, did I?”), taking every box out from under the bed (this is basically a days work in and of itself) to try to find my sleeping bag and still coming up empty-handed, pouring out last glasses of water, putting possible breaking glass (pickles, etc.) into the sink, draining the reservoir that the sink comes from, making sure the shower was drained and moving it inside, turning off the propane, sweeping, packing last bits and going in and out of the house so many times it would have made an onlooker dizzy.
Needless to say, it was hectic and Cinda was not into it. Dogs know and she knew we were headed out. She started to noticeably panic that we were going to leave her behind. Finally, she simply ran up to the truck and jumped in.
Well, almost. She is one heck of a hiker but her gold medal event has never been the high jump. She jumped…and then landed with a “thud” on her back. She was fine, she had merely wounded her pride. We tried to convey to her that we weren’t leaving without her.
A statement which she apparently heard and wholeheartedly took as fact.
And now I remember those famous last words: “we won’t leave without you.”
Finally the truck was packed up. Our suitcases were in, our Winter gear for the cold and extra heavy-duty gear for in case we got stranded on our way in this December, was in the truck. A dear friend had offered to let me keep my plants at her house since they stay the Winter and so all of my plant babies (it’s amazing how happy the sight of something green in the dead of Winter makes you fell) were tucked into the truck’s many compartments, ready to make the 20 mile drive over a very bumpy dirt road journey (which they would hopefully survive) to their house. We had ratchet strapped down the load and I had packed lunch.
We were ready to go.
Oops, forgot to turn off the propane.
O.K. now we were ready to go.
“Lou-lou!” We called out in unison to our pup.
No sign of her.
“Cinda bones! It’s time to go!” (she has more nicknames than Imelda Marcos had shoes)
Moments earlier (it had actually been an hour but it felt like minutes) she had been dying to get in the truck, so afraid to be left behind and now that she had attempted to jump in.
Now, she was nowhere to be found.
We weren’t leaving without her.
“We won’t leave without you.”
Famous last words.
…To be continued.