The Quest for Fire, and Other Stories

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Hello, blog followers. It’s been awhile. For someone who spent much of the summer lying in a hammock and thinking about the future, I have been reluctant to take action, and the months since my last series of posts have been full of self-induced stress.

A Summer of Renovation Projects and Small Disasters

My beloved seven-year-old poodle, Hazy, suffered a gastric hemorrhage on the drive from Austin to Maine, setting the stage for a season of emotional burn out and self-doubt. IMG_3106One minute I was taking photos of a quaint mountain town in North Carolina, the next minute I was looking at a mess of raspberry colored blood and tissue that my dog squirted out all over the sidewalk, sighing politely, unable to wait a second longer. The next day, after many frantic phone calls, I found a veterinarian who was willing to examine my dog and take him for the day to give intravenous fluids. Apparently dogs die not from shedding out a layer of their intestine, as horrible as that sounds, but from the severe dehydration that follows.

The dog returned the next morning for evaluation and was pronounced good to go; in the photo above, he is resting with the IV port still in his leg. I highly recommend Riversong Vet Clinic in Brevard, North Carolina, by the way. They are skilled and compassionate people who did not hesitate to help an unknown animal in need despite having a heavy case load that day.

The road trip was rife with other annoyances, such as a flat tire on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a power outage that shut down the entire city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, forcing me to seeking lodgings elsewhere, but the dog and I also enjoyed views like these as we inched our way toward the Shenandoah Valley.

IMG_3138 Our arrival to the property was presaged by many messages and photos from Dave Simmons, the handyman I hired a few months earlier to take care of the place. Ben Webb, the excavator, postponed work on the septic system through an unseasonably warm autumn, the entire winter, and into the spring. IMG_20170511_154446Dave sent a photos of the property in April showing the complete upheaval of the front yard and removal of the stairs leading to the porch. It was a mess for a long time, something my neighbors let me know about whenever I spoke with them that summer.

Finally, in late April, Ben smoothed dirt over the concrete tubes of the leach field and planted grass seed. He was not done with the project; the lines connecting the two septic tanks still needed to be buried in the side yard. That part of the project was incomplete until July, when the first Airbnb guests of the season arrived.

Meanwhile, the handyman and my new carpenter, Henry Borntraeger IV, convinced me that I needed to roof much of the Estemeer (or north wing) of the house, mostly to get rid of a deep swale on the west side of the building caused by a quick structural fix some years back. The swale wasn’t causing damage — structurally, the whole building is pretty sound — but no one could be convinced of that fact, and since the whole roof really needs to be replaced anyhow, I let them go at it.

Generally speaking, when contractors look at this section of the building, the advice is to tear it down. I understand. It is a hodgepodge of pig sheds and outhouses creatively grafted to what was once, perhaps, the summer kitchen. But it’s my favorite part of the house, and rather than destroy it, I am going to restore, insulate, and turn the Estemere into a workable year-round apartment for some young couple who wants to live on my place and help with chores. At least, that is the goal at this writing.

About That Fire?

A while back, I wrote about my misadventures with a certain chimney sweep. Since that time, I’ve lost another chimney stack and found out that none of my existing fireplaces are safe, though occasional use of the Franklin stove in the Anchorage kitchen was deemed acceptable. A hole directly over where former occupants stacked the firewood in the garage off the barn led to some extremely smoky and disappointing fires in that uncomfortable hearth, making me all the more eager to roof that part of the barn before too much damage sets in. In the meanwhile, I had the roofers cover the affected areas with plastic tarp.

This autumn’s goal is to get at least one fireplace — namely the fieldstone hearth in the great room of the Cabin — in working order. This one structure has already cost me nearly $5,000 since it had to be cut around when we lifted the Cabin last summer in order to put in a solid foundation. The carpenters had to saw through two main beams that may or may not provide structural support; since the room seems to have been built along the classic principles of pier and beam architecture, one would assume that they are, but on the other hand, the left side of the chimney was built right into a beam, which feels more decorative than supportive.

No one can figure it out. Right before I left Maine for the season, I had the structural engineer out to meet with the carpenter in order to see what steps needed to be taken to preserve the structural integrity of that portion of the building. (I had already contracted a mason who, for just over $7,000, would rebuild the entire top of the chimney stack and remove the lead flashing, which now hung uselessly, like fish scales, about six inches shy of the new roof line.) It was a fruitless meeting in which the two men basically decided that they agreed with one another about everything, and I remained none the wiser about what, in fact, would be done.

I may not have been paying the best attention, though. I was at my wit’s end because my 80-year-old mother had just major surgery after spending months in agony from a cyst that had grown up against her spine and was pressing on the sciatic nerve. I wanted to spend time with my parents, but my father was angry at me because I was not spending enough time with my parents, and his wrath was keeping me both guilty and away. After years of worrying about what might happen if my father died first, I had an unpleasant flash forward to that alternate reality in which mom left my father on his own. I didn’t like it. My father is so anxious and set in his ways that my mother absolutely has to outlive him.

Idle thoughts like these crowded my brain, joining the series of renovation plans that needed to happen, might happen, and would probably never happen. I also had this to contend with:

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Two dogs in the backseat. Two dogs needing to be fed, taken out, driven over 2,000 miles back to Austin. One of them peed about once every 20 minutes. No wonder I was unable to concentrate. I was at the absolute maximum of what I could handle.

To Sum Things Up

The masons are still working on the chimney, and they have pointed out that I’ll need to have the firebox rebuilt as well. In case anyone has been keeping tabs, that’s close to $15,000 just to have fire in one fireplace. IMG_20171009_151126The carpenters finishing trimming the wall where the Cabin’s second chimney used to be, and somewhere along the way, they dropped a tool on the brand new lavatory sink, causing a massive chip in the porcelain finish. No one has accepted responsibility for this damage; the caretaker merely suggested that I should purchase a new sink. The old sink had to be replaced because the washer was shot, and given the age of the sink, there was no way repair it. The new sink had been installed for less than a month when this happened.

I am back in Austin. It’s been a hot and humid autumn. The puppy has grown almost to the size of my adult poodle. My mother is mending nicely. Before long, it will be Winter Break.

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