joebelknapwall: (Default)
 It's been something of a saga, the old ruin on the hillside. I've spent fifteen years fixing, refixing, stabilizing, demolishing, salvaging, and otherwise working at trying to make the enormous 24x24 foot cabin on a West Virginia mountainside that my father bought as a refuge from his own busy life. I've had minor setbacks, little leaks, thefts, and workarounds, and big ones, like losing my connection to the power lines (and, with that, my water, as the well pump needs heavy power) and the most recent one, where I came in to find that the wind had torn off half the roofing over the winter, soaked the interior, and otherwise made the place uninhabitable. It's filled with small animals, huge spiders, and ubiquitous wasps, and is flaming hot all summer and unheatable in the winter.

I've been accumulating materials as I could afford them to renovate the place, but it's just too much. It's literally five times as much space as I need, as the throngs of visiting associates never materialized (partly because the place is admittedly not much fun unless you're outside), and I don't have the budget, the truck, or the access my father had when this was his rural fever dream.

Last year, I started rethinking. I inventoried the materials I'd accumulated, did mountains of research, and dusted off my drawing board. As it turned out, I'd accumulated about half the materials I'd need to do a cursory renovation on the cabin, but more than enough to build a fresh one in a tiny house mode. Sometimes, given a choice between the endless, impossible project and the reset button, you gotta reach for the reset.

The Blue Moon, as it's known in the area, is setting. It was my father's dream, or one of them, but it's too much for me. Mine's considerably more modest, and within reach now.
 
The New Moon isn't big enough for a family. It's going to be 8x10 feet on the ground, sitting on 4x6 skids on concrete piers floating on tamped gravel (with an upgrade path to a better  foundation when I have the time and money). Twelve feet tall, with a generous sleeping loft, and a steeply pitched roof with no penetrations and a foot of overhang on all sides. Camp kitchenette with a 2 burner propane stove, big ice chest, sink fed by 2 seven gallon jugs I can refill in town. Propane heater for now, Sardine marine wood stove when I can afford it. Fourteen windows,  vents in the floor and at the gables to move hot air out. T1-11 siding for now, cedar when I can afford it. Small solar system for lights, amp for iPod with car speakers built into the walls, charger for netbook and phone, couple fans to keep the air moving. Little diner booth for working, eating, hanging out, converts to bed at night. If I add a hammock over that, it'll sleep 4, with one more in a sleeping bag on the floor. Water collection from the roof into a buried cistern for washing water (with a DIY Berkey filter to make drinking water). New super-tight outhouse up the hill that's cozy, clean, stinkless, and spiderproof. Well-maintained typewriter for writing, fresh ribbon, ream of paper.

All night, trains rumbling through. All day, reading, swimming, hiking, writing, breathing. I'm daring myself to fail at this, really, but I don't aim to do so. I've got all I need, but for the time and the last few materials. It means doing little else for the rest of the year, but after that, there's somewhere to go. I've always been a daydreamer, and sometimes I do what I mean to do. 
 
The Blue Moon will get a new roof, a little tidying, and will go on to being the biggest shed an 8x10 house ever had. Maybe I'll keep a canoe in there.
joebelknapwall: (cabin)
I suppose I ought to blame Harold. After all, the purple crayon was his, in that sort of lush, taunting fantasy world that draws kids like me in, and it was perhaps the most literal interpretation of all these rich daylight dreams.

I managed to escape to the Blue Moon twice in a month, a recent record. I drove up first with the friend who will not be named, with a Sprinter filled with T1-11 rough cut engineered plywood siding, rolls of tar paper and asphalt roofing, and other sundries, then again by myself, or rather with my cranky, aging, grossly-overweight pooch panting away in the passenger seat.

On my own, I tend to fall into a luxurious torpor up there, a sort of thousand yard stare that just sort of creeps in—gently, lovingly, like sweet liquor seeping into the sinews. As much as my natural state is a panicked sort of obsessive protestant work ethic, I forgive myself every slip up there, and relish that I still have the potential to stop worrying and learn to love something other than the metaphorical bomb of a mundane day-to-day existence.

This trip, I spent a lot of time looking through a drywall window.

It's not a window, of course. It's just an outline, in pencil, extending the borders of the horrible and permanently-jammed window at the front of the cabin's main room, about which I came to a startling and inexplicably-belated realization just a couple months back—that the sliding "pictshur winda" there is, in reality, a crappy 30x48" sash window, turned on its side by the ruinous "architects" of my lopsided insulbrick burden. I've been pondering options, thinking in vaunted terms of architecture, grousing, experimenting, investigating, and rejecting almost every possibility. After all, making a proper place to shit would be a nice upgrade, or stabilizing the foundation so I don't need a damn funicular to get from the fireplace to the kitchen, or finally repairing the scary room.

Still, having more than one opening window in a 24x24 foot cabin might be nice, and the view

The friend who will not be named took laughing exception to my fussy and obsessive reluctance to put in a vinyl 48x48 inch sliding window with insulated panes and a screen, pointing out that there really isn't any architecture there to violate with a big square window, and it sort of loosened up the naturalistic builder in me that gets too tied up in dueling built environment orthodoxies. After all, I've been working with organic masonry lately, building hand-formed retaining walls in the museum's garden that get stuccoed and then encrusted with mosaic, and there's something joyous and wonderful in architecture that works like pottery, where right angles are more the exception than the rule. I studied earthship construction for years, way back to when it first started to pick up steam in the early nineties, and though I've had to pull back from my fawning adoration of Michael Reynolds, who's tragically one of those hippie visionaries whose audience fits such a narrow demographic that it turns my stomach, it's still a root of a lot of good thinking about the built environment.

I've been pondering what to do about my little getaway/hunker-down-financial-disaster-refuge, and I've been largely limited by how much things cost, and how little I earn. Building materials are insanely expensive. I've got a leaky place clad half in T1-11 that my dad didn't install properly (no Z channel to stop the water wicking damage) and half in patchy ghetto brick (i.e. asphalt shingle sheeting printed to look like brick), but the cheapest materials to wrap the place still add up to thousands, and I can't go there, but I need to somehow keep the rain out if I'll have anything to hold onto for a time when I won't be so poor.

Inspiring thoughts came along, though, after my recent frustrations with the museum, where I'm told I've spent too much time on the "fun" stuff, which means the work I've done in the garden, and I've felt completely stopped in my tracks by those complaints, and it's made me want to take my skills to places where they're wanted, particularly my outdoor organic design projects. I've got ideas, ideas that build on a lifetime obsession with architecture and sculptural approaches to building a physical space, fed by people like Greene & Greene and Wright and Gaudi and Hundertwasser and Gehry (when Gehry was still great and not a damned overrated flashy desk jockey with 3D modelling software) and Soleri. I've pored over glorious sixties and seventies earth architecture tracts and studied earth sheltered construction, straw bale, rammed-earth, and cob building methods, and just about every other kind of left-field approach to getting a roof over one's head, and—

and I'm busting my ass to build amazing things for other people, in other places, and getting hollered at for "wasting" my time, and for some reason, I don't quite see how I've so easily slid right back into some kind of lumpen orthodoxy about the Blue Moon with all I've seen. I've been thinking like my dad, for one thing, consciously and unconsciously carrying on his legacy through the dogged observation of his own odd practices and little prejudices, thinking I'd more or less finish off the cabin the way he would have, except he's not here. It is so easy to forget why I love it so much up there, especially when I get frustrated by trying to finish a project I didn't start, using the methods and materials of a man who made four and five times what I make, and that's when I'm lucky enough to surrender to that gorgeous torpor of train time.

The trains come and I sit on the couch, listening to the dog snoring, and I just sit and look through the two panels of the windows Dad put in by the woodstove, where I can see the bristling pods of chestnuts clinging to the branches. I sit and I listen and I see myself picking chestnuts late this fall, prying them out of their prickling armor and wrapping them in foil to roast in the coals in the stove, and this is when the walls start to blossom and shift, bulging and curling in gentle waves of potential.

What if I didn't try to finish the Blue Moon the way my father would have?

What if I wrap part of it in as much T1-11 as I can afford, then clad other parts in soft curves of wood shakes, or salvaged wood from the porch, in forms that burst from the ostensible right angularity of the place, already a laughable delusion, and roll down from the eaves in the forms of moss and water? What if I took the stained glass I saved from the mosaic project, unusable because of color or being mostly clear, or just too plain for the museum, and built little windows here and there, just little pinholes, almost, set almost randomly around the place?

What about clerestory windows in a band across the kitchen, to bring in the gorgeous new green light of the fern-covered hillside behind the place, where the recent timbering brought sunlight for the first time since the forties? The foundation piers I need to build at the downhill side of the place could be straight cement block, smoothed over with undulating mortar and mosaic, reaching up onto the side of the cabin on panels of durock and mosaic, letting the boundaries break and shift, with new structures and curves and angles jutting in new directions.

I think about these things and it lightens the load.

I take a drywall square and a pencil and mark out where I can frame in a great big four foot square sliding window with insulated panes and a screen, for just $125 at the orange place, and it frames the penciled note from 10/29/1991 that reads "ready for skim coat." I sit back to stare through a drywall window, framed in pencil and my clear visualization of how I'll place the new framing, and how I'll detail the outside, and how I'll build a nice, deep sill where I can put a vase and the flowers I find wild on the hillside. I can see the ridgeline on the Maryland side of the river, and the tops of the trees along the train tracks, and the future starts unfurling like new ferns, tight spirals of potential unwinding and spreading out, covering everything in lush new emerald green, washing away the grey of doubt and history, and it is a view that I will cherish for now, even as I know full well it is the portal to a possible world, and just one of many.

I may just get myself a purple pencil to make these marks in the future.

There is so much to do, but the Confucians always maintained that when a man finished building his house, it was time for him to die.

I may just live forever.

In torpor, there's often more. I don't have much money, and probably won't for some time, and I don't have much freedom, at least until I banish the hounds of debt and obligation to a more comfortable distance, and what seemed like a career is probably just a job, just like the rest of them, but even in that, it is my mistaken belief about what I've been working for that has meant something.

It doesn't take a degree in architecture to understand carpentry, masonry, plumbing, metalworking, or any number of other worthwhile pursuits, and I understand more than most, more than a lot of folks who make their living practicing those skills, and I know when to stop the car on the side of the road because I've caught sight of something that may be of use and realized I could very easily strap it on my roof rack and make something of it.

I've been thinking that I don't have much to offer the people I wish would come to West Virginia, to my postage stamp plot of six tenths of an acre, for a weekend of wandering the woods and walking the tracks and swimming and boating in the river (supply your own boat, alas), but I've got a view through a drywall window, where I can see an amazing world, all possible, all there, just ready for the taking when the doubt is weak enough to let the senses rule. I'd hoped to be further along by now, and hosting my friends in sessions of deep-shit storytelling around the fire, but it's been rough, this damned year, and maybe I've been facing doubts of my own.

Already, I'm building a new outhouse, to replace the shambling wreck of the old one—a grand and wonderful outhouse where you'd be happy to spend a while with a good book and a Sears catalogue—if only in my head, but it's coming together, purple lines tracing themselves in my grey matter, over and over, lines crossing, changing, growing brighter as they take on a final form, and I've got a budget for that project that I can afford, barring disaster. These are the times that feel best, when I'm feeling the most gloomy, the most backed-into-a-corner, the most frustrated, because they're the moments when barriers turn to purple crayon, and my stake in the same old same old same old nothing really counts for…nothing.

So I sat and stared through that imaginary window, and the dog snored and the trained roared and wailed and clattered and thunked and the birds sang and a whole myraid of probabilities came twisting out of the fourth dimension, all parallel potentials laid one over another, daydreams in sweet flux, and that's one of those rare moments when I can see it all from that illusory state of torpor, all those lines criss-crossing, whirling, entangling, expanding, all coming from that place in all of us where everything is possible. I envy Harold and that purple crayon, but only until these rare moments come when it is all too clear that each of us could well be something he dreamt up—amazing portraits of possible lives rendered in searing lines of violet, blossoming like improbable and heartbreakingly gorgeous flowers out of West Virginia hillsides just when it really, really feels like everything is altogether hopeless.

Just now, I need to fix my car, to tend the home fires, and get my eyes examined, but my pencil is ready, and I've got tools and skills and stacks of stuff I've saved for possible architectures.

Stay with this.

Stay.
joebelknapwall: (cabin)
the dump and the truck

2 solid days, 1 used and donated air conditioner, 10 sheets of T1-11 rough-cut siding, 1 roll of tarpaper, 1 roll of white aggregate fiberglass roll roofing, 6 tubes of roof sealant, 30 minutes measuring windows, 1 giant spider in the outhouse, 1800 feet down the Potomac, 2 mild cuts from snail shells, 45 minutes baking on the broad, warm stone of Cleveland Rock in the sunlight, 15 minutes up the towpath, 240 miles in a Sprinter driven by a friend who prefers not to be photographed, 2 really loud, satisfying arguments about geopolitics, 6 Nathans dogs on the grill, thirty minutes with the broom, 1 afternoon of almost nothing, and the autumn is coming—time for a roaring fire in the woodstove and a place to read a book, trains beyond counting, blue skies, huge, beautiful woodpeckers flying high, hawks wheeling slowly above the trees, all that, all that.

You stop thinking of numbers.

There is no time, only trains, only green.

Soon, some of you will know it, too.
joebelknapwall: (cabin)
Busy week—troublesome, really. Little hang-ups, schedule's overwhelming, May 3rd is looming, more of the same old impossible newness in the ever-changing, always-shifting world of being in the midst of a career that's endlessly mutating, endlessly uncoiling loops of workplace DNA. I've never known so little about where I'm going, and still, there are plans, plots, maps to alternate realities. Tuesday, working on the museum's often-infested art brut log meditation chapel, setting a fresh log I'd just chainsawed into perfect shape, bent down, huge rusty nail, in my head. In my head. Had to maneuver to get the nail out. Head wounds bleed like crazy, like waterfalls. I dig my finger in, it's like I'm touching brain. I jump up and run for it, trailing blood everywhere, blood in my eyes, everywhere. First work-related hospital visit ever, tetanus shot, amazingly, no bandage—something about my clotting ability and scalp wounds. At least I'm a prodigy in something.

So I lay it out. I've got two comp days, rapidly heading towards their expiration date.

Fuck 'em. I'm taking off in mid-week, two days, West Virginia, my place—the Blue Moon.

The irony: I go there to work, in essentially the same roles as I get paid to do back home.

dog, mat, late night nowhere

I fixed a broken pipe and circumvented a stolen one. Re-wired stolen wires to get my well pump and hot water heater running again, cleaned the kitchen and the stove, made a lot of tea with loose leaves, like it's supposed to be, had some raging rare burgers seasoned perfectly, cut some firewood, rigged up some interim steps to the outhouse/woodshed, ran to the tracks with a borrowed video camera to catch the trains coming by. There aren't so many on a weekday, but I've never seen a VRE train there before, and lots of shipping containers from China rolled past.

Late night, light's golden, dog's snoozing, buddy's cleaning up from dinner, Pluramon churning on the boombox, pine incense smoldering, fire's burning perfectly in the gentle wafting drift of the ceiling fan. I will sleep well.

I need to take my escapes when I can. The weekend will be complicated.

Today, though, the first hot shower up there in a long time. Glorious.

Note to me… 
joebelknapwall: (cabin)
The drive is as it always is, a rhapsody in green, the way the woods swallow me, the way this rented pickup truck thunders into the rolling hills, rounding the bends and crossing over the ridgelines. I am anxious, always worried over what I'll find up there, endlessly expecting the day when I'll rumble up the little dirt road and find burned bones and nothing more. It isn't unnatural—the place is left alone for months on end, years on end, days going by without us, kept company by the intrusion of rodents and the drip drip drip of water finding its way inside no matter what I do.

The green consumes me. It is what holds me, fascinated, in this place where I have been for so long. These mountains are so old, so old, and they're so full of history it practically sets the ground shaking. The trains come through, so big, so loud, and yet they are the temple bells calling me to worship.

The drive is as it is and suddenly I'm there, rumbling up the little dirt road until it peeks out of the brush and overgrown woods. The moment is always tense, always fraught. I pull up and park behind, smiling to see that the door is still closed, not kicked in, not left open.

The light, though, is wrong.

the wrong light

The light is wrong, the openness unfamiliar.

(The new door on the outhouse is my work. I take pride.)

I park and climb the hill, into the sunshine. )
joebelknapwall: (Default)
greenbean in paradise

I changed my oil in a thunderstorm saturday night, belatedly draining the nasty dinosaur-derived engine pollutant that most people use in their cars because they just can't grasp the basic concept of "pay now or pay later." As the heavy storm clouds rolled in, I fed three quarts of fresh synthetic into my valve cover, feeling the hard spats of the coming rain, then jogged back into the house as the rain broke, feeling smug at having completed all the items on my weekend "to do:" list in a single day. I lolled around the house, watched a DVD, and was blissfully asleep by ten.

I beat the clock sunday morning, waking a full hour before the five a.m. time I'd set, staggered into the bathroom, showered, attended to morning things, then staggered back out for tea. By a quarter after five, I was at the wheel of the greenbean car with the radio playing the lyric sound of a bluegrass rendition of "City of New Orleans," a song dear to my dad and a good starting point for a whirlwind trip into West Virginia. I paused at my ATM, picked up three crisp twenties, then trundled onward and outward, picked up the northbound ramp to I-95, and accelerated to as substantial a fraction of lightspeed as I was likely to attain in a tiny-engined economy car.

The wind was wild even in my neck of the woods, and my lightweight car was pitched around like a low-flying kite as I buzzed down the highway. I flew through the monotonous, insanely overbuilt regions of the county on autopilot, listening to belgian pop music on cassettes and feeling all the usual twinges of anxiety that a trip to my tragic cabin provokes--Will it still be standing? Has someone broken in and ransacked the place? Has a tree come down through the power lines again? Is the well pump going to work? Is the roof leaking? I fret by nature, but having an unreachably distant (with my old car, that was) property always poised on collapse fed the fires like nothing else.

I forcibly took over the administration of the place while my dad was still alive, finding the notice of its impending sale for tax deliquency in his trash can and driving out to Morgan county in my old Citroen to redeem it after the sale. I've kept up the taxes and utilities, letting the phone service lapse, but haven't had the money to do much in the way of maintenance, and every trip I made out there became less of a retreat and more of a "so what's wrong this time?" fact-finding mission.

By the time my VW headed into glorious senility, I'd stopped going up at all, the last visit in 2001 marked by a vicious wasp sting on my upper lip, endless cleaning to remove the residue of the mouse jamborees that begin the second I drive away, and the crowning moment, where I fell off the roof after being chased by paper wasps while trying to re-tar the seams of the roofing over the bathroom--not just fell, in fact, but fell, sliding over the edge while flailing desperately for a handhold, grabbing (purely out of desperation) the power line and then swinging down and into the side of the house like George of the Jungle.

The place is an endless exasperation in a lot of ways, but it's the last of the family places, the last survivor as people died and houses were sold and every place I had special ties to fell under new ownership, so I cling to it in spite of the logistical disasters that often make trips up there into the opposite of a vacation, always optimistic that I'll eventually get it under control again and be able to go there with friends and family and enjoy the "nowhereness" of it all.

The trip is 121 miles, 99 of which are highway miles between Laurel and Hancock, and the highway part went smoothly as I got a feel for how to drive my little car at speed. It's oddly reminiscent of my smaller, two-cylinder Citroen, which would cruise at amazingly high speeds for a 602cc car, as long as you never let yourself lose your momentum. On the trip westward, it was easy--I was literally the only car on the road for most of my trip, with nothing in the rear view mirrors and nothing at the horizon. I zipped along, listening to the books-on-tape version of Cold Sassy Tree, a book with nice resonances for those of us with Georgia heritage, just zipped along, eating miles and watching the skies opening out and turning three-dimensional as I crested the low mountains past Frederick, Maryland.

I'm always amazed by the variety of landscapes available within a short drive in Maryland, and I think it's probably why I'll never live far from here, content to explore my little state that's like a dollhouse version of the country, excluding only the parts I'm not interested in, like the deserts and the brash, boastful Rockies. I passed Frederick and watched the valleys open up and out, watched the farms spread out and cover the landscape with grass and red barns and the scattered punctuation marks of cattle slowly grazing and looking like the stones in a zen garden. The clouds opened up into stunning, layered paintings, all in shades of blue in the early morning, and I had the amusing thought that the only place in my town where you can still see those sort of skies is in the parking lot of the shopping center where Wallace was gunned down back in '72.

I drove in a pleasant daze, starting to feel a bit tired and hungry, pulling into the town of Hancock around seven. I passed the truck stop, was annoyed to see that even the shredded ruins of the old drive-in theater were gone, headed down the main drag to the Hardees fast food place, and pulled in for an egg sandwich and coffee. The Hardees in Hancock is pretty much the only one I know of anymore, a nearly-global mass extinction event that is, for once, completely justified, but breakfast food is pretty hard to wreck and being there always brings back the memory of my late grandmother, who was convinced that Hardees made the best fish sandwich in the world. I sat in the empty restaurant, quietly eating my breakfast and watching pickup trucks pass by every minute or so.

Back in the eighties, you could still go to a nice restaurant on the main drag that was run by a pair of elderly spinster sisters who'd never been out of the county. The food was decent enough, essentially diner fare, but the place's main appeal was the peculiar art collection assembled by the sisters. Every time there was a fire in town, they'd get pictures of the inferno, often from a number of angles, then make plaques out of the pictures, gluing them to slices of tree trunk and then polyurethaning them until they were entombed like flies in amber, scenes of fiery destruction in aspic. I used to like to sit under one they'd made into a clock, the time passing by over the red and orange tongues of flames consuming the old post office, just chatting with my family and watching the sisters work the counter.

They died in the nineties, one following almost immediately after another, and eventually their restaurant was razed, burned down as a training exercise by the local volunteer fire department, and I can't help but wonder if the sisters were frustrated in their afterlife, wishing for one more plaque to complete the set, one more insanely shiny image of their old place, once and for all combining all the scenes of fiery denouement into a final exclamation point on the long, simple story of their lives. I finished my Hardees meal, disposed of my garbage, and headed off again.

On the bridge over the Potomac, I watched the river overflowing its banks in the railroad sidings on the Maryland side of the river and wondered what it'd be like upstream. The roads between Hancock and Berkeley springs have the demonically-high speed limit of 55, which always shocks me, as the road, though pork-smooth (Senator Byrd does very, very well by his constituents) is spaghetti-twisty, with lots of steep ascents, precipitous descents, and switchbacks, so I play it safe and go 45, hoping not to be rear-ended by an F150 or battered Mercury Monarch. The scenery there is majestic, so lush and green that I'm in no hurry anyway.

I passed the sprawling facility of US Silica, the immense sand mines that extract the famous Tuscarora sand from the hills there, and as usual, found it scenic and beautiful in spite of myself, the giant circular copper-blue sand-washing pools pretty under their scaffolding. The plant itself is pure cinema, sitting deep in a valley and looking so darkly industrial in a Victorian mode that it brings Brunel instantly to mind--it should be ugly, this gigantic, sooty monstrosity, but it isn't, at least not to me. It's helped by the fact that it sits in the midst of what I sometimes imagine to be the biggest lawn in the whole world, a miles-wide rolling plain of perfectly-manicured grass always marked with the those subtle mower tracks, and yet I've never seen a mower working those acres and acres of turf.

The next way-station is the old town of Berkeley Springs, a town famed for its ostensibly therapeutic warm springs and visited by luminaries of the last american age. Surprisingly, I've spent little time there, and though it's a lovely place, it's a lovely place that's well-known, and well-patronized, so I prefer to stay off the beaten track, except for the little strip of shops where the 7-11, the dollar store, and the "Whale of a Wash" laundromat stand at the intersection of Uniontown Road. I skipped the usual 7-11 stop and headed back into the hills, past the stone spectacle of Berkeley Castle, and on towards Great Cacapon.

The road out of Berkeley Springs heads almost straight up for a while, opening out to the Prospect Peak overlook, a stunning view of the valleys below. I almost always stop there, even after all these years, because the immensity of the green valleys and sparkling river below just grabs you, just makes you stop and say, "wow," in spite of yourself. I stopped and tried to take a picture of the greenbean looking out over the valley, where the shadows of an incoming storm looked like the map to fantasyland against the farms and fields below.

The wind picked up and I drove off, gripping the wheel tightly as I drove along the section of the road I always think of as being like a Roadrunner cartoon, where the edge of the road has a low barrier, then a sheer cliff for hundreds of feet. In a bigger car, you can't see the rail, which makes for a nervous trip down, but in my car, the gusty wind kept sweeping down from the peak above and blowing me out from the center of the road. I touched bottom, metaphorically-speaking, and drifted into the little town of Great Cacapon with a smug sense of having cheated death, rumbling over the rough roadbed of the green truss bridge there and along the quiet main street.

People waved to me as I drove by, and I waved back, enjoying the banal pleasantries that go unused in the more urban quarters of the country. I'm hopelessly a small-town boy in this respect, which gets me a lot of hissed "what are you doing?" queries when I'm walking around with friends in Manhattan, smiling and saying "hello" to passing strangers. I guess this kind of interaction could be seen as a sort of veneer over the real fabric of rural life, a facade of generosity masking a core of distrust, but I don't care--it costs nothing to be civil, and I'd rather try and fail to be friendly than just be in my own isolated world.

I left Great Cacapon and took a series of turns onto ever-smaller, ever-twistier roads, ending up on Orleans Road, which curls through the mountainside like an amusement park ride for snakes. The road winds up, up, up, until you reach the ridge of Sideling Hill, the old mountain on which my cabin perches, and then down, down, down, down to the train tracks and to the town of Orleans Crossroads, a microscopic rail town that I think would even be dwarfed by [livejournal.com profile] ruralrob's charming "Nanookville." There's just a single paved road through, maybe fifteen houses and the old abandoned rail office house, and I head for the gravel rail crossing feeling a bit sad to notice that Clyde's old house is boarded-up and empty.

The rest of the trip is rough and rocky, a bumpy mile along the gravel service road for the railroad, and it's muddy after a month of rain, the black mud (stained by the residue of a century of steam locomotives) splattering the sides of the greenbean even though I drove as slowly as I could in the face of reaching my destination. I rumbled on, waving to the retired DC lawyer working on his garden, then passed Light's Farm and found my cabin peeking through the trees. I parked in the tall weeds beside the service road, careful not to go beyond the raised gravel edge and down the steep incline to the floodplain below.

around the bend )
Standing there, I felt a bit of trepidation, as I always do, cheered by the sigh of the cabin still standing, but always worried that I'll find the back door bashed in. I have to remind myself that there's little worth stealing there, but it still triggers a nerve, a creeping sense of my insecurity and the ease with which my place could be laid open to the elements. I looked for trains, strode across the tracks, then climbed the overgrown railroad-tie steps to the drive and the exuberantly overgrown lawn of the cabin.

the palatial mountain estate in question )
I climbed the steep hill, rolling my eyes at the apparent squalor of the place, thinking "ugh, what a dump," chuckling at the sight of the bizarre, multiplex foundations to the old place that are visible underneath like the pilings holding up Venice against the waves. I reached the back deck, the overbuilt back deck my father put on, and was happy to see that the back door was securely locked. I looked for wasps, turned the key, and opened the door, grimacing in preparation for the vicious bear attack I always think is imminent when I first open the door. I went in, noticing the evidence of a two-year uninterrupted mouse jamboree, hoping to avoid getting hantavirus as I switched on the power at the main box, bringing the grim interior into sharp focus. "Well, it ain't much," I mused, "but it's mine."

the grand interiors of the gentried playgrounds )

I headed back out to check the water at the outdoor well head--yay! The bathroom wing still seems to be intact, although the jerry-rigged toilet drain setup I put together is as appalling as ever--getting the septic tank finished and hooked up is one of my first priorities. I walked around the place, doing a visual inventory. The markers I'd placed around the foundation seemed to be unchanged, a pleasant surprise, and I looked over the collapsing front porch with an engineer's eye, planning my approach in dismantling the section of the cabin most likely to kill someone. Assuming that my finances stay on a moderate uptick, I'm planning to dismantle the front porch, convert the tiny second bedroom into a screened porch (and new entrance into the cabin), get the plumbing back in order (the pipes all broke some years back from not being drained properly), and making the bathroom safe again for pointers and setters.

I strolled the grounds, surveying, and felt a lot better about the place than I've felt in years, took some pictures (the rest of which posted at the end), then locked the place up to walk around the "neighborhood." The "Blair Witch" house (reminiscent of the one scary scene in an otherwise mostly unscary movie) up the tracks was looking a lot better--the new owners have been renovating, the cute vintage green trailer house was as tidy and well-kept as ever, and the bus-house (pic after post) was as squalid/majestic as ever. I walked down to the Potomac, which was rain-swollen over the low banks and churning alarmingly, and looked forward to swimming there this summer while Paul fishes in the little pools and hollows in the bend. I couldn't get out far enough to see Cleveland Rock (a spider-infested rocky promontory in the river) or the rapids, so I headed back to the car, wiped the black mud from my shoes in the weeds, and headed for home.

All told, I left at 5:15a, got back at 11:07a, and felt oddly exhilarated by the fact that I'd taken the trip so casually, and that it all had gone by so quickly that it was almost like I'd teleported there and back, and that I knew it wouldn't be long before I was up there again, working, cleaning, building, recovering something special from beyond the brink, and I smiled more or less consistently for the rest of the weekend.

more tedious imagery )
joebelknapwall: (Default)
5:11pm leaving

I'm not a good traveler, not because I don't love to travel, but rather because I can hardly bear to leave any place behind. As a kid, I stole souvenirs of every motel, every Waffle House, every rest stop, and every unscheduled delay, because the notion of losing a place that I'd had at my fingertips has always been almost too much. Over the years, I've developed the finer skills of moderation, and my closets are no longer packed with the complimentary mints and placemats of destinations of little distinction, but on longer stays, I still have pangs of wanting to hold on, to be dragged away like a prisoner on the green mile.

I've wound up my trip to Chicago in an odd way, having seen my brother and sister-in-law off to the El and returned to their empty apartment to loll about in peculiar isolation for several hours. I tidied listlessly, doing the last dishes and watering the plants, finally closing the place up like a vacation cabin and locking the door one last time. I stepped down the creaky, well-polished stairs, dropped a few bags of trash in the dumpster, and headed out and over to Ogden Street.

Today's one of those bitter cold days, with biting wind and a vicious freeze that pervades every opening in your clothes and chills your eyes to the point that you lose fine focus. I watched the skyline rise and fall around me as I walked briskly on rapidly tiring feet, still feeling a bit overwhelmed at the scale of this city. A huge tower block looms on the south side of Ogden, ten stories of deserted former medical school relaxing into a disgraceful monochromic Mondrian as its cladding of marble selectively drops away. In my town, a building this size would be a skyscraper, lording over Main Street, but here's it nothing, nowhere, and no one cares.

I walked further and looked back to the intricate, brooding facade of the Cook County Hospital, which is deserted as of last week and looking into the concrete gulf where the Eisenhower & El run with an almost lonely look. Catching a terrific view of the downtown skyline, with the mute towers there winking at me in blue, and missing my family as their train heads south to San Antonio, I could easily understand the sentiment.

I'm surprised to feel something catch in my throat, but before I can think more about it, I see the El racing me to the platform, and I'm off, running under a mountain of luggage, hoping to beat the train, and for a moment, I'm breathing pure adrenaline, a fitting end to a week of almost decadent inactivity.

6:13pm the waiting is...

I wish they'd announce which gate the Capitol Limited will be boarding from--it'd be a shame to wait two hours and still get a lousy seat. I've at least got a friendly neighbor in the lounge, though, a bit of quotidien chat to pass the moments.

7:01pm on the train

Got through the waiting, got on board, and now I'm perched behind a baby, relearning the art of religion as I implore the various godheads for silence, or at least for occasional disruptions in the screeching and parental calm-talk.

10:18pm perchance to dream

I've been fidgeting in my seat, trying to read, but just on the edge of being too tired to actually do it well. I've also been trying to sleep, but the book's got me too interested to do that well, either. As a compromise, I've perched sideways on the seat, reading, but holding the book in a way that'll let it drop to the side should I actually manage to drift off.

4:20am the wee hours lounge (southbound edition)

I've finally drifted out of a fitful sleep, if not a dream-filled one. I'm really not suited to sleeping in a chair, unlike my father, who could have probably slept in a dentist's chair during an anaesthesia free drilling session. Luck was on my side, though, and my seatmate fled to a refuge far from the crying baby (which settled down amazingly quickly, I must say), so I again had a pair of seats in which to attempt a sleeping position. I managed to shake the airline cramp instinct and spread out in a sloppy sprawl of khakis and flannel, rolling and re-rolling my old brown coat into a pillow of sorts. I'd find a perfect position, often triggering an almost involuntary "mmmmm" as I curled into it and felt sleep closing on me like a vise, only to wake again an hour later and have to undertake the quest all over again.

4:41am Pittsburgh

I'm back in Pittsburgh, stopped in the station, and that damned light's right outside my window again, flooding my seat with a murky yellow light that makes me feel like the subject of a Serrano artwork. I'm looking forward to dawn and the chance to hover at the window watching something other than a seamless light show.

6:37am Dawson, PA

We cleared an interminable chain of mobile homes and sailed into a town of amazing victorian buildings, resplendent in turrets and gingerbread. I have to wonder where the wealth came to build a place like this so far from anything.

6:43am Connellsville, PA

Another in-between town, a confection of reasonably well-preserved twentieth century urban evolution. I watch the town sweep by and wonder what I always wonder--who would I be if I'd grown up here instead of in Scaggsville, MD?

9:13am Cumberland, MD

Back in Maryland's other city, this time in daylight. The spires of the churches glint in the bright morning sun, and life goes on around the train in a Monday sort of way. This town is such a paradox, simultaneously lovely and raw, mixing history and bad taste in nearly equal measure. We've pulled in next to the VFW/American Legion building, the words "FOR GOD AND COUNTRY" emblazoned on its side in foot-high helvetica, and we're creeping along and into the station at a slow enough pace to take it all in at leisure. One of the things Paul and I always had in common was one of our criteria for what we thought of a place--how would it be to be a gay teenager there--and I can't say I'd want to be one here. The fringes at the right are a little too entrenched and too privileged for this town to be welcoming to anyone who doesn't fit neatly in the mold, but I can't help but think it wouldn't necessarily be a bad place to return to once you'd built up the wisdom and fortitude to make your own place in the world. The whole cloth of Cumberland may be burlap, but it's plentiful and sturdy. Maybe I'm just romanticizing the place, but it's hard not to, seeing neighborhood after neighborhood of old victorian houses stacked up on the hillsides like an overly optimistic train garden.

9:38am somewhere in-between

I've moved to the lounge car again in hopes of catching a glimpse of my sad little cabin from the train. I'm not entirely sure that this line is even the one that goes by there, but I figure I'll give it a try at least until I pass Martinsburg without seeing anything familiar.

The windows on the right side of the train are appallingly dirty, and for no obvious reason, because the windows on the other side look fine.

10:02am Orleans Crossroads

Passed through the little townlet (maybe eleven houses) known as Orleans Crossroads, feeling overjoyed to see Clyde's old house and the little road leading to the tracks, and the access road you take to get to my cabin. I watched the DC lawyer's cottage pass, then Light's Farm, then the little brown cottage next to mine, then, almost lost in the sunlight flickering through the trees, my sad little cabin, perched on the hillside looking as run-down as ever, but not, as I'd pessimistically imagined, burned down or otherwise in ruins. The electric bill suddenly dropped to zero a year ago, and I've been anxious about why, skipping the obvious possibilities like the single light I leave on burning out or a tree knocking out the wires. In typical fashion, I've imagined it being burned down by evil teenagers or collapsing from its tilted foundation of railroad ties and slumping into a pile of firewood on the hillside.

I had the direction all wrong on the last trip, though it was dark enough I'd never have found it anyway, but it's a curious feeling to be on one of those Superliners I've waved at over the years. It's almost too miraculous to think that the train that takes me from Maryland to Chicago would run almost through the front yard of the old place, and it makes me want to get up there soon with my tools and raw materials, to keep my Dad's last surviving boondoggle going as a sign of defiance.

10:09am Great Cacapon, WV

Got a great view of the old "big city" that Orleans Crossroads is a suburb to. I've made this trip to Hancock, Maryland a million times, following the chunk gravel road back to the interstate as an alternative to the more baroque route through the mountains. Tracking the Potomac river, a thousand rough campsites assembled from old trailers, shacks, and lean-tos line the river, and at night, bonfires reign over the darkness from most of them. Every few years the river rises and the old beat-up travel trailers end up hanging from the trees. Sometimes the camps get rebuilt, with the old trailer frames still dangling overhead like tribal markers.

10:20am the little airport

There's a tiny airstrip here, immaculately maintained. Dad had always planned to keep an old junky car here, so he could fly up here and just drive the last few miles, but it never came to pass. When I think of his old plane, it makes me feel like a child of great wealth, even if it was just a junky old 1946 Aeronca with no running lights or electrical system. That plane scared the hell out of me, but it was something mystical to Dad, something I'm just getting a handle on now.

10:52am nearing Martinsburg, WV

Just returned from the pocket restroom, which is an experience akin to attempting to pee while competing in a rodeo. That said, I'm amazed at how clean and non-stinky they are.

This region seems to be on the boundary where run-down, but distinct and well-loved houses disappear in favor of late-century tract houses with showy facades and crappy siding everywhere else. I don't have a lot of friends who live in these sort of houses, because their character becomes suspect to me as soon as I find that they willingly live in such wretched places. Maybe I'm elitist, maybe I'm just cantankerous, but give me cracked real plaster walls and scruffy real wood floors any day.

10:55am along the C&O canal

Sometimes it's just a shadow, a barely discerable ditch, and others, it looks like it could be put to use again. At any rate, digging a 190-mile body of water from DC to Cumberland is one hell of a project, our own highly-localized Great Wall of China.

We're in Harper's Ferry now, place of John Brown's denouement, town of red brick and grey stone and everywhere everywhere history, hanging over the place like a cloak.

1:31pm (2:31 DC time) Union Station

Back home, back to the bustle, time to rush through the station, call for my ride, and race for the Metro, heading for home.

8:47pm home

Ensconced in the strange familiar environment I call home, halfway between Baltimore and DC, my house neat and tidy because of my Manhattan Project of housecleaning before my trip. I've just woken from a composite bath/nap sort of thing I undertook hoping to make a smoother transition from slowtime to realtime, and I feel muzzy. The dog seemed pleased to see me, though not as much as I'd have hoped. Must dote on her more in the future, to earn a more deranged welcome happy dance. Everything else seems right, but a bit off-center. I feel like writing more about the train, but am a bit tired and raw, so that'll have to wait.

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joebelknapwall

January 2013

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