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Archive for May, 2007

Fun with plumbing

This morning the lead tile installer told me he expected to complete our job on Saturday. Looking at the floor, I think that’s possible, so I booked us the very last site available at the south rim of the Grand Canyon for next week. On Monday at the latest, we will check out of this carport we’ve got the Airstream parked in, and haul up I-17 to the cool higher altitudes of central Arizona.

It’s about time. The house should be ready for an extended absence. All of the neighbors will be watching, some will be parking in our carport while we are gone, and we’ve also got a house watching service to go in every two weeks to take care of things inside. The roof is now rain-tight for monsoon season, the exterior is painted, and the plumbing and electrical issues have been resolved.

But not before I had my own little “Three Stooges” episode. It started when I decided to replace the flushing mechanism of the toilet. Yesterday Jerry the handyman replaced three water valves in the house that either didn’t shut off completely, or which leaked. They all seem to be original 1971 vintage. So today I felt I would complete the task by fixing what I thought was the last item. The toilet sometimes runs endlessly after being flushed, and that’s unconscionable here in the desert. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix.

For those of you who aren’t as handy as I am, here’s how I did it. Step 1: Turn off the water to the toilet. Notice that the shut-off valve seems to be a little sticky. Scratch head, then proceed.

Step 2: Empty the toilet tank of water and disconnect the existing flushing mechanism. Note a sudden rush of water on the floor. This is because the shut-off valve, doesn’t.

Step 3: Attempt to shut the valve again. When that fails, go look for a pan as water continues to flood the bathroom.

Step 4: Since there are no pans in the house, find a stack of empty 5-gallon paint buckets outside. Try to separate one from the stack. When that fails, call for help.

Step 5: With an assistant, pull apart the buckets. You’ll discover that one has an inch of white paint in it, which will be dispersed around the area as the buckets suddenly fly apart.

Step 6: Call for help from wife. Ask her to clean up the paint before it dries while you deal with the impending flood.

Step 7: Realizing that the buckets won’t fit under the source of the flowing water in the bathroom, try to shut off water to the entire house. You’ll note that the house shutoff works, but when the valve is closed, large quantities of water come spewing out of the shutoff valve.

Step 8: At this point the cell phone will begin to ring. Tell the caller, “I’m having a toilet emergency!” and hang up, leaving him to wonder exactly what you mean.

Step 9: Call handyman. Tell him, “Get over here and replace every !@#$* valve in this house now!”

Step 10: Talk to tiler, who at this point needs several gallons of water to make more mortar, but can’t because the water to the house is turned off.

Step 11: Write a check to the handyman.

Step 12: Make a note for tomorrow: “Replace toilet flush mechanism.” Rinse and repeat.

Fortunately, as my friend Adam noted, the good part of this episode is that we have now replaced nearly every water valve in the house. It will be nice to start off ownership with known good parts, so we can be sure that when we shut something off, it will stay off. Our goal was to button up the house and we’ve done that. The rest can get done when we get back from a summer of travel in the Airstream.

Escape plan

We are getting closer to escape! Today we had the floor tile team arriving at 6 a.m., the handyman at 9 a.m., the painter at 10 a.m., the gas plumber at 2:30 p.m., and the drywall guys at 4:30 p.m. Three projects completed, two estimates received. An average day lately.

We got lucky again with the painter. He was recommended by our neighbor across the street, and turned out to be a great find. He had a free man today, and after we accepted his price for repainting the trim on the back of the house and the concrete block wall that borders our back yard, we had a painter working on site in less than an hour.

Tucson block wall painting.jpg

The block wall wasn’t on our “to do” list but it was quick and relatively inexpensive to get done. The cement-gray wall made our back yard look like a prison yard. We picked a friendly green and in 30 minutes it was done. Later, when we put some cacti and bushes in front of it, it will hopefully be less of an eyesore.

While I was in the back yard digging out buried drainage holes in the block wall, a neighbor came running over to announce that a rather large snake was roaming near our front yard. It turned out to be a Bull Snake, about four feet long and very pretty.

Tucson bull snake.jpg

This snake likes to mimic the Diamondback Rattlesnake. The markings are vaguely like a Diamondback, and he demonstrated his ability to shake his tale to make a rattler-like sound (although he doesn’t actually have rattles). When confronted, the snake also hissed quite a bit, and coiled up like a rattler.

The snake wandered over to our neighbor Carol’s house and eventually found a nice hiding spot by sliding under her utility room door, which didn’t make her too happy. Carol says she’s never seen a snake in the neighborhood in many years of living here, so it was just lucky we saw this one. She called the Fire Department and Animal Control to see if they’d remove it. They will do that with venomous snakes, but the Bull Snake is harmless.

Fortunately the housepainter is a fan of reptiles and he captured it easily with a trash-picking tool and a 5-gallon paint bucket. He, another neighbor, and Eleanor relocated it to a more appropriate spot without harm done.

Tucson kitchen tile install.jpg

The tile team made a lot of progress too. The tile is, as we expected, making the existing white walls look like hell. We’ll deal with that this fall, by adding some color to the interior walls.

I estimate about 70% of the square footage is already down. But the more time-consuming tile cutting and grouting are still to be done. We are looking good for tile completion by Sunday, which means we can head out on Monday.

That’s if we don’t collapse first. The workload has been incredible for Eleanor and I, between logistics, problem solving, juggling contractors, and managing our usual duties (the magazine and Emma). We fall into bed at 9 p.m. every night and wake up at 6 a.m. (I never thought we’d do that. Are we that old?)

On Thursday I hope to be free enough from overseeing contractors to develop our “escape plan”. It’s getting into high season for the national parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah, so there are a few logistical considerations. With an hour or two to consider and browse the park websites, I should be able to work out the plan.

No matter what we do, I think our first few days on the road will be very mellow, because we’re going to be in recovery mode. Fortunately, the Airstream is the perfect vehicle for that. Can’t wait!

General Contractor

Today was the confluence of contractors, and I was in the dead center as the General Contractor. The day started at 7 a.m. with verification of our flooring shipment. At 7:15 the roofers showed up with two large trucks and a dozen men. In 15 minutes they had our roof mostly stripped.

Tucson roof stripped.jpg

While they were working, I went to pick up a 24 foot diesel truck rental. Then I trucked over to the warehouse and watched 5,500 pounds of slate plus a thinset (mortar) and grout get loaded on the truck via forklift.

By the time I got back, the flooring crew had arrived and finished stripping the remains of the old floor. I backed the truck up to our front door and we started unloading. It takes a while to move eight pallets of slate with just a dolly. Meanwhile, the roofing crew covered the Airstream in a tarp to protect it from dripping tar, and the mess really got started.

Tucson AS tarpe.jpg

If you’ve ever hired a general contractor and wondered what he did to deserve his fee, try standing in his tar-covered shoes for a day. I was running back and forth all day, directing traffic, driving the truck, unloading, answering questions, making snap decisions, authorizing expenditures, quality-checking the slates, and solving problems.

There were minor conflicts between the flooring crew and the roofing crew. There were unexpected tar leakages into the living room. We needed an electrician, and a plumber on short notice. We needed to find a pair of drywall finishers. We had to schedule additional work for later this week and even next week after we will be gone. There were deadlines to return the truck and get the trash to the dump, and at the end of the day a line of people waiting for their checks.

Tucson laundry tile.jpg

But at the end of the day, we managed to solve every problem, clean up the site, get everyone paid, and work up a schedule for the rest of the tasks to be done. It was a success and tomorrow we get to do it all again, with the electrician, plumber, drywallers and flooring team on site, and me on the phone trying to find a painter and gutter company to show up by Friday.

Note to happy full-time RV’ers: You’ve got it perfect already. DON’T BUY A HOUSE!

The Lock and Leave House, Part II

Since we are stuck immobile for another few days, I’ve been pondering ways to keep the blog relevant to the topic of full-time Airstream travel. While I know watching us renovate a house doesn’t seem exciting, it is really part of the travel experience. We need a home base that we can leave behind easily, without maintenance obligations piling up behind us every time we hit the road.

So, our process of making our house “road worthy” is absolutely a part of what we need to do. If we do it right, we’ll still have the freedom to travel. The trick is to keep the house low maintenance and affordable. That’s why we are making this investment of time and money now.

It hasn’t been much fun. In the last week, we had an electrician, a handyman, a tree trimmer, a landscaper, and a chimney sweep come to visit and provide services for the house. This week we’ll have a a roofing team, flooring team, a plumber, a pair of drywall finishers, a painter, and gutter service. To get all this to happen, I’ve spent hours on the telephone and collecting estimates. Then I wonder if they’ll show up, or even return my call.

I’m beginning to think that the appeal of being “on the road” is really more about not having the hassle and expense of a house behind you. But why kid ourselves? Owning a house is a substantial complication and we knew that going in. The interesting part will be discovering whether we can get the house to fade into the background and no longer occupy such a large slice of our energy and time.

It’s hard to be optimistic about that after the week we’ve had, but in a few days or a week, things will look better. In any case, the countdown to departure is looking better. If everyone performs as promised we can leave as early as Saturday. That means we’ll have time to go visit some national parks in northern Arizona or Utah.

I mentioned this to the roofer today. I said, “We live here now — we can always go see the Grand Canyon later.” He coughed and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “Bull—!” (Have to admit, I was surprised at his audacity, considering he was there to give me a quote. All the other contractors tried to agree with everything I said.)

But he was right. When you live somewhere, it’s easy to overlook the great things to do right in your backyard. There are many people here who have never been to the Grand Canyon despite having lived here for decades. It’s always a place to go “someday”. That’s a trap we could fall into as well. I’ll have to watch for that. So if we can possibly swing it, we will lock the door and leave early, and get back to the business of seeing America one day at a time.

Demolition day II

Take a couple of prybars, hammers, a ladder, and a few heavy-duty plastic bags … add one room decked out in the height of 1971 dark wood paneling … and have fun.

Tucson br before demo.jpg
Before the fun family day…

We always knew that this room would take some extra effort. It has fantastic potential but basically all the cosmetics are wrong: bad windows, peeling fake-parquet vinyl floor, outdated paneling, and a distinctly dusty odor. When we’re done it should be the nicest room in the house.

Last Thursday the laborers stripped the floor, and today we got in there to pull the paneling. Eleanor and I did the heavy work, while Emma collected the nails from the floor and assisted with sweeping.

Behind the paneling there was drywall, and behind the drywall there were furring strips nailed to burnt adobe block … and about a pound of fossilized mouse droppings and other fun things.

Tucson mystery eggs.jpg
Mystery eggs?

I was surprised to find a clutch of what appeared to be eggshells. They were very thin, white, round, and delicate. Each one was broken open, and there were no other clues indicating what they might have hatched. Any ideas?

Tucson demolition.jpg
… and almost done!

We’re very pleased with the change in this room. It is lighter, warmer, and more authentic. Already it is showing its potential. Once the floor is in, we’ll shoot a comprehensive photo essay of the entire house and figure out what else it needs.

We’ll have a lot of things to consider this summer while we are away. I just wonder if it will continue to command our attention, or if our ardor for the house project will wane when we get a few hundred miles away.

Tucson evening view.jpg
Dinnertime view of the Santa Catalinas from the patio

600 entries

This is my 600th blog entry. Since October 2005 I’ve been reporting nearly daily from the road as we’ve crossed the country five times from coast to coast. In June, it will be two years since we sold our house and moved into a rolling home. And now I can see the end coming.

When we started this trip, it was with the plan that we’d be on the road for just six months, and then return to home base to build a new home. But something happened along the way. After just two or three months, we began to sense the approaching end of the trip, and it didn’t feel like enough. The travel experience, the lightness of being mobile, the educational opportunities and all the other things I’ve written about in the past 600 blog entries became our lifestyle and we didn’t want to give it up so quickly.

I’ve often warned other people who are considering long RV trips about this. There’s never enough time. The world — even the bit of it accessible to motorized vehicles on the North American continent — is too big. There are too many interesting people and places, too many amazing experiences, to even scratch the surface of it in a few months. We know full-time RV’ers who have been on the road for fifteen years and they still crave more. So no matter how much time you plan to spend, it may not be enough.

But we now own a house. Things are changing. Emma is going to start a regular school soon, and when that happens we will no longer be free to roam. This summer we have a few short months and then …

So I am looking at the next three months like the first three months. We have a small window in which to do so much, and hard choices have to be made. Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon? Wind Cave or Mt Rushmore? Maine or Nova Scotia? Each decision feels more momentous because, like most other people, we now have very limited time.

We started this trip somewhat naive, looking only a few months down the road, and having only a foggy idea of where the road would lead. Six hundred memos from the road later, our crystal ball is no more clear than it was, but we do have a rich experience behind us and a feeling of confidence about the future.

So we don’t regret a moment of this, not by any measure, especially not dollars. If anything, we’ve learned that time is far more valuable than money. Anyone can make money, but nobody can make time. Use what you’ve got as best you can. That’s our plan for the last few months of our full-time travel experience.

Reality TV makeover

Well, first the bad news. I’ve had a couple of requests from people to get on with traveling again as soon as possible. With various contractor issues, it looks like we’ll be house-bound for another week. I wish I could “take requests” like a disc jockey, but this is real life, not a TV show, so all I can say is “stay tuned”. If we get all the house work done on schedule, we’ll still have time to visit the Grand Canyon before we head to Lake Mead and Las Vegas.

Tucson house floor strip.jpg

Meanwhile, back at the ranch … we got awoken again by contractors, this time the flooring crew. Today was demolition day (part I). They scraped up all the peeling vinyl flooring and the stained blue carpet, and now our house looks even more like a disaster than ever before. Only the kitchen cabinets and bathrooms remain, and those are coming out on Tuesday. Our “light cosmetic update” has turned into a full-blown makeover. Perhaps our life is a TV show after all, because right now it looks like one of those house makeover programs on cable.

Tucson linoleum.jpg
A scrap of the original 1971 linoleum, found beneath the carpeting.

Despite total havoc inside the house, I am somehow managing to get some work done each day, and we even had our first dinner guest this evening. Our neighbor Carol, an adventuresome soul, popped by and accepted a spontaneous invitation to dinner. Since we have no furniture and the house is virtually gutted, we built a table from sawhorses and a spare door, brought out our folding chairs, and grilled up dinner on the back patio, which included s’mores for dessert. Life is good, even though we are temporarily stationary.

Tucson house smores.jpg

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