SCRATCH COAT ON

I hear there is a new president and the Senate has changed hands but my more immediate concern is what’s happening at 741 W Ocotillo Ave. I just hope to heck the new administration leaves me alone to pursue my own private interests which is all about fixing up this once ramshackle little house in Ajo, Arizona.

The stuccoing is well under way with most of the first (scratch) coat on. Juan is taking care of that. My project has been finishing the retaining walls in the back yard. Inspired by President Trump and his border wall project (a portion of which is being built a few miles south of here) I have started on a stucco wall around the perimeter to replace the chainlink fence that is already here. I think it will add a touch of class to our very plain house. Rather than rip out the sturdy chainlink fence, I have decided to incorporate it inside my stucco wall. I have been watching Juan as he works and have decided that stucco is not all that hard to do so I will be slapping the stucco on the wall myself.

NEW WALL

The new wall has a concrete footing. Atop that is a lumber frame which has cement board sides. They will be covered with stucco. I was going to use OSB sheets for the stucco base but they have quadrupled in price ($33/sheet!) since my last building project. The cement board is half the cost and less prone to rot. One day into the project and it is going well. By the way, the source of the gravel used in making my concrete is the same as the source of the rock for my retaining walls – the arroyo a quarter mile from here. Clean, naturally washed gravel and its free. Of course, I do have to wheel barrow it over here.

My stucco man, Juan, is seventy years old and his knees are shot but he whistles while he works, despite the pain, and he’s making steady progress.

JUAN OF THE SORE KNEES

RUDY “GREETS” NOEL

Every lot in Ajo has a chainlink fence surrounding it. We’re told these fences were installed by the mining company who owned the town until 1987. The reason for the fences is to form a protective barrier against the plentiful wild pigs (javelinas) that roam the streets of town as if they own the place. Seems they prefer the luscious vegetation humans plant to the spiny cacti of the desert and you can’t blame them for that.

What keeps the pigs out keeps Rudy in, so he’s been allowed to run free in our enclosure. This is a novel experience for him. Whenever out of the house he’s always been on a leash because he wanders far and wide if left to his own devices.

At first, he seemed bewildered by his freedom. He followed us around as if waiting for us to tell him what to do. But after a few days he got into the hang of it and he now spends his time patrolling the fence line and barking at passing pedestrians and bicyclists. No amount of scolding discourages his barking. Indeed, he takes great pride in “guarding” our home from what he imagines to be potential trespassers. After one of his barking interventions, he prances a little prouder, struts a little smarter. I get the impression he has found his purpose in life.

Ajoans have a lot of dogs, pit bulls and chihuahuas being the most common. Most of them are confined to fenced yards just as Rudy is. But every few days, several of them find a way through their fences, join together into a pack and go looking for trouble – that would be the pit bulls, not the chihuahuas. Like their human urban counterparts, these canine street gangs seem only to have mischief on their minds. They go from house to house, urinating and defecating at will, taunting captive dogs, daring them to come out for a brawl.

From behind our fence, Rudy appears ready to take them on. He lunges and snarls back at them, oblivious to the fact that each one outweighs him fourfold. Or is he oblivious? His aggression may be false bravado, secure in the knowledge that the fence will protect him.

This past week we have had two men, Juan and Noel, stuccoing our house. Even after several days, Rudy has not fully accepted them as authorized visitors. He follows them around as they work, periodically emitting low growls as if to say he doesn’t fully trust them.

All in all, I would say Rudy is enjoying his time in Arizona every bit as much as we are.

JUAN PREPARES TO STUCCO

Last winter we spruced up the inside of our Ajo house and our plan for this winter is to spruce up the exterior – as in stucco. I had planned to tackle that job myself. I was chatting with a neighbor when she told me about a man who had stuccoed her house and done a good job. With little intention of actually hiring the fellow (tradesmen are ridiculously expensive these days) but since estimates are free, I had him come over and give me an estimate. I was expecting the estimate to be in the $10,000 – $15,000 range but at least then I would know how much money I was saving by doing it myself – a very satisfying bit of knowledge that I have savored on many occasions. Much to our surprise, his estimate for labor and materials was $4,679. It was an offer too good to refuse.

The man’s name is Juan. He comes from Sonora, Mexico. He’s seventy years old (Mary guessed fifty!). He started the job today.

I had to custom cut some strips of cedar to fill in gaps in the house’s wood siding, getting it prepared to the stucco. The usual tool for cutting strips of wood is a table saw. I didn’t bring one so I rigged up a poor man’s table saw from my Skil Saw and a sheet of OSB. It did an admirable job of cutting straight-edged strips.

POOR MAN’S TABLE SAW

Mary is painting a few small areas (closets and the pantry) that she didn’t get to last year.

I’m going to build a hearth for the gas fireplace we bought on Craigslist, install a mini-split heater/air conditioner, and do something about the old kitchen counter. The place could use some landscaping and another terrace and rock wall are planned. The problem is getting a source of rock. Last year I scoured a local arroyo to build two walls but that source is pretty well cleaned out of good rock. I’ve taken to exploring the countryside on my bicycle but have yet to find a decent source.

As far as vegetation goes the options are limited. The summers are unmercifully hot here. No one, and I mean NO ONE has a lawn here. Most lots are either bare desert sand or cactus studded. I don’t care for the cactus route. Citrus trees seem to be one exception to the rule and they are attractive to my eye with their bright green foliage. They do need regular water however. We bought an orange tree and a grapefruit tree at Costco yesterday. I’ll have to set up a drip irrigation line on an automatic timer if they are to have any chance of surviving since we are not around during the hot months.

Our plan was to flip the house – fix it up and sell it. We may still do that but we’re in no big hurry. We’ve grown quite fond of it and owning a piece of land down here does have advantages. It has a nice bathroom which we use daily, a kitchen and it provides us with a free place to park our motorhome.

I’m not totally preoccupied with fixing up this house. Nick tipped me off to a $60 digital microscope and I’m having fun with it. Amazing what goes on at the microscopic level:

For example, that tiny eagle on the back of a $1 bill:

“BASK” SAID THE MOTHER

“WE BASK” SAID THE EIGHT

From Over in the Meadow, one of my favorite nursery rhymes. It comes to mind whenever I bask or, in this case, watch Mary bask. We always like to have a good bask on our first day in Arizona after escaping the snow and cold of Washington. Tomorrows high will be 70 degrees and it’ll be sunny all week.

Highlights from our trip down: 1) the city of Portland has lost its mind. The homeless have pitched their tents and scattered their litter all along the freeway that goes around the city.

2) Many are the times we have been caught in a traffic jam when we pass through Sacramento; not this time. We went through on the morning of New Year’s Day and pretty much had the road to ourselves.

3) Three cheers for Les Schwab! The RV’s front tires were wearing unevenly so we visited the facility in Chelan on the morning of our departure to have the wheels aligned. The technician said they didn’t need aligning, just rotation, which he did for free. He also discovered that a hubcap had worn a hole in the valve stem so he replaced that and transposed the tires – ALL FOR FREE! But that’s not the end of the story. We got to Oregon and I noticed on of the dual tires on the rear was flat. We stopped by the Les Schwab in Gresham, Oregon where they discovered that a nail was the problem so they repaired the flat – FOR FREE! Now I’m going to have to buy my tires at Les Schwab or my conscience will bother me.

It was with some trepidation that we arrived at our winter home in Ajo yesterday. The house has been vacant since last March and Ajo is not exactly crime free. We feared vandalism or worse. But the house was pristine as the day we left. No dust. No bugs. No lizards (our neighbors told us they returned one winter to find a large lizard had entered the house through the sewer line).

The only unpleasantry was a bush with wicked thorns, a bush that I had cut back to a stump last year, had come back bigger than ever and had grown over the front gate. I suppose we might thank this bush for protecting our property because anyone who entered through the gate would have suffered laceration. This bush was a real challenge to remove because it had enmeshed itself in the chain link fence:

THE BRAIN TUMOR BUSH

I cut away the various branches which left my hands a bloody mess even though I was wearing protective gloves. I felt like a brain surgeon who must avoid damaging vital areas of the brain when he removes a tumor. My saw blade was in constant danger of dulling itself on the steel fence as I sawed sections of the bush in bits and pieces to extricate them from the body of the plant. For good measure I put Roundup Concentrate on the root that I couldn’t get out of the ground. I wouldn’t be surprised if we come back next year and have to go through the “surgery” again.

My plan is to stucco the exterior of the house. Let you know how that goes.

RANCH WOMAN STOKES A FIRE

It’s snowing today in Union Valley. We’ve been waiting for a day like this for a long time. All through August and September – the dry months – we were keenly aware of how vulnerable our home in the forest is to wildfire. With less than an inch of rainfall in these parts since April, any spark, especially on a windy day, could have brought a disastrous fire – The Big One.

Unable to control the weather, we do what we can in terms of fireproofing the house and having a firefighting capability in the form of a ready supply of water, a strong gasoline pump, and hundreds of feet of hose but the primary defensive measure we employ is fuel reduction. And there’s a lot of fuel to reduce in a predominantly ponderosa pine forest like ours.

Needles aplenty drop at summer’s end, branches are blown down in wind storms, and some trees just up an die. (It must be a hard life, that of a ponderosa pine, because it seems like a surprising number of trees call it quits every year.)

So every year we, Ranch Woman and I, spend considerable time ridding the forest floor of this detritus. We try to use as much of it as we can as firewood to heat our log house but we only burn about three cords per year and that doesn’t keep up with the number of dead trees. A few years back we got ambitious and stacked up about seven cords and we’re still burning that wood years later. This year I didn’t even try to salvage firewood. We just made about twenty piles (some of them eight feet high) out in the woods and waited for a snowy day to burn it all in place. Hence, our jubilation this morning when it started to snow.

It had barely begun to snow when I started lighting piles. In my experience, there’s a fine line between burning piles that light the entire forest on fire and piles that won’t burn at all. A few days after snow has fallen even piles that have been covered with tarps refuse to burn. They must absorb moisture from the air because a guy can waste gallons and gallons of propane trying to get them to burn.

Anyway, I got it just right this year. Because they were still dry, all of the piles lit. And because some snow had fallen, the forest floor didn’t spread the flames. And because Ranch Woman was there to help me, we had a jolly good time doing it.

APPLESAUCE PRODUCTION ON THE SMALL SCALE

Mass production has done a lot to reduce the cost of goods and generally raise the standard of living for people around the world. Economy of scale, as they call it, certainly has many advantages. But if there is a flaw to this hallmark of the modern era, it would have to be that it disconnects us from the satisfaction of old fashioned, hands-on, self sufficiency.

Mary and I have a tradition of gleaning apples that the pickers overlooked in a local orchard and making them into applesauce. Even getting the apples for free, which we do, it is doubtful the value of the applesauce exceeds fifty dollars. When you consider that those jars represent in excess of a full day’s labor for two people, that’s not even what we could have earned working for the minimum wage. So why do we do it – and feel darn proud of ourselves for doing it?

Probably the same reason I collect our rain water and bake my own bread – I like the direct connection such efforts provide between my labor and its fruits. The millions of Americans who tend their own vegetable gardens know what I’m talking about. The cash value of most people’s garden produce probably doesn’t cover the cost of the tools, fertilizer, seeds, starts, and water that are required to grow a garden. Still, year after year, they weed and feed their precious plants and exult in the size of their tomatoes.

Although the economic return on building your own house probably does justify the effort, (probably because factory-built houses have never caught on) and thus is in a separate category from applesauce making, I must say that I get a special satisfaction each time I survey the House That Lief Built. Such things are part of my nature.

For all these reasons, I think I would have fit in quite well as a nineteenth-century homesteader. Not too many homesteaders got rich – certainly not by today’s standard. But to people who appreciate the joy of self-sufficiency, those must have been good times.

Just yesterday we had a spectacular wind storm. It was cold in addition to the blustery weather. The power went out for four hours at our house. Darkness fell and the house cooled down. For a few hours we we found ourselves living in the nineteenth century. Luckily, one aspect of our self-sufficiency that I jealously guard is heating our house with wood from our land.

No power? No problem! We simply fired up the old woodstove, cooked a can of chili and some hot dogs atop it, and played a game of Scrabble by lantern light. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to checking the weather forecast on my cell phone and calling the PUD to ask when the power would be back on – not exactly nineteenth century activities.). I’m not stupid.

L TO R: GIDEON, ROMAN, HEATHER, IDAN

Up at the end of a valley near Vail, Colorado, at the end of a gravel road, in a log house surrounded by aspen trees, lives my nephew, Roman and his family.

We stopped by to see them yesterday and were blown away by the beauty of their surroundings. We’re talking national park beauty. The fall colors were at their brightest.

THE HOUSE WHERE ROMAN LIVES
THE GROVE WHERE ROMAN LIVES

Roman is caretaker of a 700-acre ranch. The ranch borders national forest. Out his back door is a trail that winds along a creek and up into high peaks of the Rockies.

TRAIL INTO THE ROCKIES

Situated as it is at the mouth of a long, steep-walled canyon, I can only imagine the brutally cold air that must spill out of the canyon and around their little cabin on winter mornings. What a sight it must be to drive up their road on a winter day and see smoke rising from their chimney and know that a cozy, warm welcome awaits.

I hiked five miles up the trail this morning until fallen trees on the trail and rebelling leg muscles persuaded me to turn around. Saw some great sights as this scene of blue spruce and aspen shows:

MARY ON THE GRAVEL ROAD

We came to Colorado to revisit the sights of our 2015 bicycle ride. We’ve been quite lucky with weather and good bike rides. Mission accomplished. We’ll be heading home tomorrow.

ABOMINABLE SNOW MARY

It’s been getting cold at night. 26 degrees yesterday morning. Mary dons her hooded sherpa vest until the heater does its thing. We bought some of that foil-lined bubble wrap to wall off the unused parts of the RV to give the heater a helping hand. No use wasting heat where we don’t need it. Tomorrow we will find out if it works.

The days are sunny and it soon warms up so the bike riding has been fine. Today we rode up to Breckinridge.

We are camped on Dillon Reservoir. The town of Silverthorne is a few miles away. We bought our bubble wrap at the Lowes there. Noteworthy about Silverthorne is its location. It sets directly below the dam that holds back the Dillon Reservoir. If that dam should break…… Ever hear of the Johnstown Flood? Those black dots atop the dam in the photo below are cars (to give you an idea how large it is). Imagine the deluge if that earthen dam should break! I’m glad we’re camped above the dam.

DILLON DAM IN BACKGROUND

We drove from Aspen to Vail via Independence Pass on Monday. Ought to be called White Knuckle Pass. Where were the guard rails? 1000-ft drop offs. A 5000-ft pass is a high pass in Washington State. Independence Pass is 12095 ft!

Vail was a bust. No where to park. So we moved on down the highway to the town of Frisco on Dillon Reservoir.

Clear blue skies and golden leaves here. We rode around the reservoir and up to the Copper Mountain ski resort yesterday. We’re going to give our bodies a rest tomorrow – laundry day. Rather than move the RV, which is comfortably ensconced in this camp spot, we’re going to load our dirty clothes into our bicycle panniers and ride to the laundromat in Frisco. Sound exciting?

Oh yeah, the presidential debate. We were eagerly anticipating it yesterday. We listened to about the first fifteen minutes and then turned it off in disgust. What a debacle. These two are the best this country can come up with?

The powers that be in the valley that contains Aspen and Carbonville have generously provided well maintained bicycle paths in every direction, many of them paved. We rode down to Carbonville today for a total (roundtrip) of 60 miles. The trail was wide and paved and passed through some very scenic countryside. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos so the above photo was borrowed from yesterday’s ride.

Today’s trail, named the Rio Grande, not because it follows that river but because it is built on the former rail bed of the Rio Grande railroad that used to service Aspen. As any bicyclist will tell you, former rail beds make fine bicycle paths because trains, like humans, have trouble with steep inclines and the builders of railroads went to great expense to flatten out the humps.

But what I really want to talk about, or should I say brag about, is the excellent little system we have put together for our bicycle wanderings. I really can’t think of how to make it any better than it is. Our class C motorhome is not too big and not too little. It’s a good match for our requirements in the luxury category; it drives like a car and gets decent fuel economy for an RV (15 mpg).

The little cargo trailer we tow serves several purposes with no noticeable affect on our milage. First and foremost it houses our expensive bicycles and keeps them safe from thieves and inclement weather. (I had a bicycle stolen from our bicycle rack several years ago while we slept ten feet away inside our RV.). We also have a tendency to load the trailer up with excess junk that won’t fit in the motorhome. But the part I’m proudest of is the solar charging system it sports. Bolted to the roof is a 150-watt solar panel and inside are storage batteries that are used to recharge our e-bikes. The charging system has worked perfectly. We ride every day and the system has never failed to recharge the bikes. Without that system, we would have to find an electrical outlet every day or run a generator for several hours to do the recharging.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Aspen. We’re headed in the general direction of another ski resort, Vail.

MARY ON THE TRAIL TO SNOWMASS

No one could possibly dispute that the town of Aspen, Colorado is aptly named. At this time of year especially, these high elevation trees almost seem illuminated from within. Huge swaths of the mountainsides are painted yellow, orange, and pale green.

This is our first visit to Aspen. Of course we had heard of it but somehow never got around to visiting it until now. It is reputed to be a hangout of the rich and famous. Certainly the rich live here. The local airport (unusual for a ski town, eh?) is jammed with at least fifty private jets. Modest houses near town start at $1,000,000 and the first page of the Zillow real estate site is full of $50,000,000 houses.

PRIVATE JETS AT ASPEN AIRPORT

So, you might ask, where are Lief and Mary staying in such a star studded town? Are they rubbing shoulders with the mega rich? Well, not exactly.

After being unable to find a camping site at overcrowded Jackson Hole, we didn’t expect we would be able to stealth camp here either. Twenty miles out, we started looking for highway pullouts or inconspicuous dead end roads that we could park in. We weren’t having any success when Mary shouted “There!” as she pointed to a promising gravel road to the right of the highway.

One has to be wary of pulling into side roads in a rig such as ours. The motorhome itself is 25 feet long and the cargo trailer that carries our bicycles adds another ten to that. It takes a pretty wide space to do a 180 in. So it was with trepidation born of desperation that I turned onto the road. It soon became clear that we had not found our coveted hideaway. In about 100 yards our progress was stopped by a gate. The road widened there and I estimated it just might be wide enough to turn around in. I drove to one side of the wide space and cranked the wheel. At first it looked like we were going to make it but no…. If the road had been four feet wider, we would have made it. But when you have a vehicle towing a trailer that is already positioned in its tightest possible turning radius, you can’t back up and reposition the trailer. The only option is to back up retracing your incoming path. Then, at least, you’re not blocking the road. But you’re still facing in the wrong direction.

Luckily, our cargo trailer and contents only weighs about one thousand pounds. We unhitched it and, just barely, were able to turn the trailer around with muscle power by groaning and pushing and pulling. Then it was just a matter of turning the motorhome around and hitching the trailer back on.

Funny how you can feel elated when nothing has really improved in your situation except that you have avoided a catastrophe. We were on the road again, still looking for a place to camp cheap, no better off than we had been half and hour earlier, but at least we weren’t jack knifed in the middle of the road anymore and that was enough to set our spirits soaring.

When we were only a mile or two from Aspen, Mary noticed several RVs parked in a parking lot. Turned out to be the parking lot for the Buttermilk Ski Resort. This not being ski season, the lot was sparsely populated by an assortment of vehicles. For $6/day we could legally park there and so we did, thinking ourselves darn lucky to find such a place so near to such a popular town as Aspen, Colorado.

We rode our bicycles into Aspen this morning. Aspen is a very picturesque town. The streets are tree-lined and the houses are posh and tidy. It reminds me of Disneyland’s Main Street – albeit updated to the 21st Century. Like I said, houses start at $1,000,000 here, so that keeps the riffraff at bay. There was something kinda creepy about the place though. Everybody appeared to take the mask wearing edict super seriously. Not just inside, but walking on the streets or riding bicycles on the paths – everybody was wearing a mask. It’s got me wondering if there is some correlation between people with six and seven-figure incomes and accepting governmental authority.

THE ASPENS OF ASPEN

Aspen and its surroundings are crisscrossed by cycling paths and the weather is forecasted to remain sunny for the rest of the week so we should be able to keep busy exploring up and down the valley. Let you know how that goes.