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June 1, 2004
Getting civilized

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Cameron and Gail use mattocks and shovels to blaze a walking trail (our tent is in the background)

Our original plan, of course, was to buy an established house on a large lot.  Instead, we purchased a huge plot of raw land with nothing on it but some dirt roads.  In addition to building a house, we would have to figure out how to get access to water, phone, electricity, and other utilities.

We looked at several alternatives.

One alternative was to do nothing about utilities, and keep the land wild.  This was along the same lines as Russell's idea of never building on the property.  Just as Gail insisted on building a house, she also insisted on having a civilized house.  At the very least, there was no way that we could stay on the property without access to water.  In addition, Gail wanted all of the comforts of a modern home.

Our second idea was to create a completely self-contained "survivalist" ecosystem -- one that did not rely on any government utilities.  We would dig a well, use solar energy, install self-composting toilets, etc.  We actually researched several of these avenues, but ended up rejecting them as impractical, expensive, and unreliable.

During the time that we waited for house designs, blueprints, permits, and other delays, we took incremental steps towards building an infrastructure.



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The western knoll, before and after the shed

For the last year, we have been tent camping on the property.  Because the ground is solid flagstone, we also use air mattresses with our sleeping bags.  We talked about getting a pop-up camper and leaving it parked on the grounds, but decided that we wouldn't get our money's worth out of it before the house was built.

We did discover, very early on, that it was an incredible hassle to keep driving our camping gear up and down from the Bay Area.  We located an outfit called "Li'l Barn Builders," outside of Stockton, that builds sheds.  We liked the quality of their work, and decided that it would cost us almost as much to build a shed ourselves.  So we marked off a spot on the western knoll, down the hill from the building site, and called Donna.  Her husband and son came out one weekend last summer and built an 8' by 12' wooden shed.  As Donna reported to Russell later, "My husband says you have a gorgeous property."

With onsite storage, we were now able to bring up tables, chairs, cooking materials, and leave them there.  We have gone through several different types of gazebos and several different types of hammocks.  In fact, we now have so much stuff that it takes us about three hours to take down and put away everything each time we depart.



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Eric (a cousin), Joss, Cameron, and Russell at the local reservoir

One of the main reasons that we decided to use existing utilities -- instead of being self-contained -- is that our property has the rare distinction of qualifying for city water.  When we talked to several of the locals, we discovered that this is quite a perk.  Wells in this area are expensive and notoriously unreliable.  The unanimous recommendation was that if we can possibly get city water, then by all means we should take advantage of it.

Of course, getting the water from the highway up to our building site was a different matter.  We hired our neighbor Scott to dig a trench and lay a conduit all the way from the highway up the dirt road to our building site.  In addition to laying the water pipe, he also laid phone cables.  (Water and phone are allowed to be in the same trench.  On the other hand, California's PG&E specifies that electrical wire must be in its own trench.)  Scott installed a meter at the highway, and several faucets all the way up to our building site.

When we first bought the property, the previous owner warned us that we would probably need a "step up" pump.  At the time, we didn't quite understand what that meant.  Now we found out.  The water pressure from the city is enough to bring the water halfway up the hill, but not enough to bring it all the way to our building site.

As a result, we can only get water from a faucet halfway down the hill, a good walk when you're carrying several jugs to be refilled.  While it's a great inconvenience, we've gotten used to it.

We are researching what it would take to get a "step up" pump to bring the water the rest of the way up the hill.  The trouble is that such a pump will require a holding tank... and electrical power.  (We will probably also need a second holding tank next to the house.)

Gail has been researching both a solar electric option and a standard electric option.  The problem with solar is that water pumps are very energy-intensive.  The problem with standard electrical is that we would need to bring electricity an extra distance down the hill to the location of the pump  Neither option is ideal.  At this point, we don't believe that we will have our water problems resolved by the time we begin building.

On the brighter side, we have discovered an abundance of recreational water in the area.  There is a reservoir about a half-hour drive away.  At one end is a beach, where we can use inflatable rafts and air mattresses.  At the other end is a deep swimming hole surrounded by huge rock cliffs.  Both are refreshing on hot summer days, when the weather can approach 100.

Gail has also purchased a solar camping shower.  When left in the sun for a few hours, the large black water bag can deliver a nice hot shower.



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On the left: our portable toilet and privacy tent.
On the right: our septic system.

Even though we are on city water, we are not on a city sewage system.  Almost everyone in this area relies on a septic system and leach field.  We knew before we purchased -- thanks to a closing report -- that we would require a custom engineered septic system, due to the amount of flagstone on the mountain.

At the recommendation of our realtor Scott, we hired Jeff Morlan of Morlan Civil Engineering to design our system; and Daryl Giannini, a local worker, to install it.  The hardest part was finding a suitable leach field somewhere near our house.  We settled on a downward slope to the east of the building site, the least scenic direction.

Although the septic system is now complete, it is not yet usable.  In addition to needing an actual house with toilets, the septic system will also require electricity to power the pump.  We don't anticipate having either of those for awhile.

In the meantime, we're still highly dependent on Mother Nature.  For those requiring extra privacy (like Gail), we've purchased a portable camp toilet from Envirolet and we put it into a portable privacy pup tent.



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Gail tends campfire in the darkness

The biggest unresolved question is how we're going to get electrical power to our house.  Again, we are looking at the alternatives of PG&E's utility grid or solar power.

If we install PG&E electricity, Russell is adamant that he doesn't want any overhead lines.  Underground lines will be much more expensive, especially on a mountain top of solid flagstone.  Unfortunately, our building site is on the highest point of that mountain, and in the exact center of the property, thereby ensuring the greatest distance to any existing access.  Our neighbor Scott has a transformer right over the property line, but it's still a distance of several thousand feet to our building site.

Gail is very partial to solar energy.  The idea of not being dependent on PG&E is very appealing to her, especially given the current near-crisis condition of California's energy.  If we can get a solar system for the same or less cost than PG&E, we will probably proceed with that alternative.

Of course, the most ideal scenario would be to have a solar system, but still be hooked into PG&E's grid.  Not only would that entitle us to substantial rebates and tax credits, but we would get a potential refund from PG&E every month if we contributed electrical power into their grid.  Currently, though, we don't see how we could do that without spending twice as much money to build the equivalent of both systems.

Frankly, electrical power is a much lower priority than several of the other expenses that we're looking at.

We know that everything will be a lot more convenient once we have a full set of utilities up here.  At the same time, every new development is one more step further away from the pristine wilderness that we originally fell in love with.  Russell agonized about whether even to build the small shed on the western knoll.  Someday in the future, we know that we will miss -- and look fondly back on -- our current weekend adventures of camping and "roughing" it.

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Enjoying the great outdoors


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