Old man Quehman used to sit on the porch of his stone home in an old kitchen chair, and face the stream across his property. He held his shotgun in his hand, waiting, passing the time. His knees would fall open and his big swollen belly heaved up and down in his bib overalls as he grew sleepy. He was looking for muskrats to exit the stream and come looking for a free meal in his steer pasture. It wasn’t as if it were a free for all and they ran like a pack when hearing the Piped Piper. Only rarely did one exit so he often grew bored and sleep would overtake him. Occasionally, his gun would accidentally go off, shoot a hole through the tin porch roof and scare the beejeseus out of him.
Todd and I used to shout a hello to him to wake him up and not surprise him when we pushed our skateboard down the blacktop road to his cellar, plastic water jugs in hand. We were renting a tiny cabin attached to our landlord’s property. Every few days we fetched water and wheeled it back to our 500 square foot cabin. Our home had no running water, nor central heat but we got a bargain of a deal at $50 a month.
As newlyweds, we were saving money, for land, to purchase a truck load of logs to build our home, to long distance hike the remaining 1500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. We drove everywhere with a packed bag of towels, wash cloths, soap and shampoo in the car and snagged a shower from every friend and relative we visited. We also frequented the gymnaism’s swimming pool shower at the local university. When we heated water on our two burner Coleman stove to do dishes, we immersed our hands in the luxuriously hot liquid and fantasized about soaking in a full tub. We never took water for granted after that, as if hiking through the Mojave Desert on that national scenic trail did not already accomplish that goal.
Todd and I paid a visit to that tiny cabin the other night as I recently referred to it in a blog about our old landlord’s abandoned car turned into a chicken coop. I wanted to see if the car was still there and if our newlywed cabin still stood. We had not been back for thirty years. A flood of memories overtook us as we parked the car and snuck over. It sat dark and quiet by the stream, looking the same as it did decades ago, only a little more tired and dark.
On the backside of the tar paper covered building, we had nailed discarded speed limit signs to cover entrance holes that allowed critters in. In order to maximize space, we built our double bunk bed high off the floor so we could use underneath it for storage of our backpacking gear and supplies. Our wood stove was way too hot and cranked out way too much heat for such a tiny cottage and it often left us gasping for oxygen and chased us to the floor where we lay panting and sweating. In bed, our heads were so close to the angled ceiling that Norway rats would play in between the roofing and the wallboard and roll nuts down the roof slope and scamper after them, ramming into a rafter and dropping dust on our faces. One time, a squirrel came down the chimney and got caught in the wood stove. Since we were always trying to save money, and did not believe in killing animals and not consume them, we coaxed him out of the stove and into a live trap and shoved the barrel of my shotgun in. This squirrel was so mean that he mouthed the gun barrel and made Todd’s job easier. We skinned and gutted him, dipped the meat in egg and bread crumbs, friend him up but could not even score the meat with our teeth. That squirrel was like biting into a rubber spatula.
There was no insulation in the walls. I was writing my second book, “Journey on the Crest” about our 2,600 mile walk from Mexico to Canada and had to wrap my down sleeping bag around my feet as the floor was so cold, regardless if the ceiling up by our bed was cooking with heat.
But we did not mind living like this in the least. As newlyweds, we made love a few times a day, saved a ton of money, learned to garden and feed ourselves, found affordable land that we did not have to go in debt over, attended log building school in Minnesota and built a log sauna to practice for our home. We were living the dream. Independent, debt free, and working on making our dreams come true and were together in love.
After two years living in that cottage, we moved to a property by the Appalachian Trail and operated a hostel for the local Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club. Under the Volunteers in Parks program, we were allowed to live on this NPS land for free. At this time, we were building our home on the other side of Hawk Mountain. We used to tease and say, “Yea, we thought $50 a month was too expensive so we looked for a place to live for free.” That home did not have plumbing nor central heat either and our upstairs bedroom got so cold in the winter that my portable pee bucket froze in the night and we gave up winter camping for good after three winters there.
Todd figured that by making the sacrifice to live so frugally, we saved so much money that we were able to buy land and build a beautiful handmade log home and never acquire debt. If we had spent $500
a month on rent during those seven years, that total would have come to $20,000. That was exactly the price of our land, well, septic, logs and all the finishings. My family used to ask us if all our hard work and sacrifice was worth it and being long distance hikers who were in love with freedom and independence, we said “yes.” Never had a mortgage, never had a bank dictate to us how to build, was always able to travel extensively throughout our lives, and certainly did not have to wait to retirement to begin to live the life we had imagined. But we had to sacrifice “hardship,” in order to get it.
Our kids are grown now. They were raised without some of the creature comforts that most children in America enjoy. We still have no central heat, no microwave, no electric clothes dryer in our log home, but that feels normal for us and to them growing up.
While scoping out our old cabin, Todd and I marvel at the thirty years that have flown by since we began our life together there and wondered if our kids would want to do it, even could do what we did. How many from this generation would “choose” to give up something in order to have something larger. We hear a lot of “we deserve it” from our kids’ friends when they talk about lifestyle and purchasing material things. But you are always trading one thing for another. Sacrifice and hardship are all relative. To us, true hardship is living with debt, being controlled by bills, not being able to take off on adventures whenever you want, losing our freedom. To Todd and I, that is hardship.