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April 12, 2010
The unfortified hill

The hill, on a good day

“Never try to take a fortified hill.”
- Bill Hewlett (co-founder of Hewlett-Packaard)

“An unfortified hill isn’t all that great, either.”
- Gail Lee

The weekend of April 9-11 was originally going to see our friend Dirk up by himself at our mountain home construction site. April 9 was Gail and Russell’s wedding anniversary (22 years) and we didn’t know where we’d be. As the weekend approached, however, Gail decided that she would be happiest getting more work done toward the occupancy permit.

The first decision was that we would go up to the mountain. The second decision was that we didn’t need a “private” weekend – it was fine for Dirk to go up. With privacy gone, we extended an invitation to our other friend Steve, who was delighted to join. In the end, we also brought our son Joss and his girlfriend Rachel. The house ended up being so full that Dirk slept on the sofa bed and Joss slept up in the parapet.

The weather called for rain all weekend, and it did not disappoint.

The work agenda was set largely around Russell’s stair project. With the rough stairs finished, his next task is to construct finished risers and treads. First, though, the stair alcove would have to be drywalled, which fell upon Gail. With Rachel’s help she finished by mid-day Saturday, enabling her to move on to other drywalling for the rest of the weekend.

The stairway alcove got rather crowded at times. Here, Russell, Gail and Rachel all work simultaneously on various finishing projects.

The stairway alcove, before and after drywalling

Dirk continued wiring the house for phone and internet, as well as finishing up the electrical work. He also gave Joss a few lessons in home wiring.

Dirk shows Joss how to install an electrical switch box

Another crowded workspace: Gail, Joss and Dirk install a piece of purple (mold and moisture resistant) drywall over the hall bathroom ceiling. Gail and Joss hold the heavy piece up (Joss uses a large stick) while Dirk trims it to fit in place.

Steve was only too happy for the inclement weather, as it meant that he could freely burn. He ran a total of five burn piles around the property.

Russell was probably the least productive of anyone that weekend. We had decided that for the finished stair treads, we would use recycled oak and Douglas fir from a pair of old stair flights from a salvage yard. For the finished risers, we would use MDF (medium-density fibreboard), an engineered wood that is easy to cut and paint.

Russell planned to cut the side skirtboards from 3/4" x 11-1/4” MDF. He would cut the risers from 3/4" x 7-1/4” MDF. (Although the actual stairs are 7-1/2” high, the missing 1/4" would be covered by trim wood.)

A skirtboard adds a cosmetic finish to stairs (photo courtesy of www.stairsupplies.com)

Russell started out well, marking the skirtboards with a carpenter’s square fitted with some brass stringer guides. The horizontal cuts (for the treads) would be straight cut at 90°, while the vertical cuts (for the risers) would be mitered at 45°. This way, there would be a single seam right at the corner between the skirtboard and the risers.

Russell marks a piece of MDF to be cut into a skirtboard

It was when Russell went to actually cut the skirtboards that he encountered a logistical problem. All of the tools he has – the skill (circular) saw, the table saw and the chop saw – can cut a 45° miter downward to the left. The skirtboards needed a miter cut downward to the right.

The skirtboard is cut like a miniature stringer. While the tread side is cut straight, however, the riser side is cut at a 45-degree angle so it fits with the finished riser.

After further discussion, we surmised that Dirk’s radial arm saw may do the trick. Unfortunately, this saw is in Dirk’s garage in the Bay Area, so cutting the skirtboards will have to wait for another day.

The real adventure, however, did not begin until Sunday mid-day, when Gail and Russell drove into town to purchase more drywall. Because we had all of the seats in our van, Dirk was gracious enough to loan us his van. In town, Gail purchased a whopping 20 sheets of 4’ x 8’ drywall – more than we’ve ever loaded into the van at a single time. With Gail driving in the rain, we were fine until we actually entered the property.

To set up the situation, we need to digress and explain. When we enter our property, we first pass through a dirt-road easement on our neighbor Scott’s property. Scott does not use this road a lot, so it is not well maintained. In fact, lately Scott has been clearing brush with tractors, so the road is actually pretty torn up. There is one curve that has a fairly steep incline – downhill when entering the property and uphill when exiting.

It was going down this hill that Gail momentarily lost control of Dirk’s van. Between the rain, the mud, the torn-up road and the humongous weight load, the van began to skid and accelerate as we drove down the hill. Driving a strange vehicle with extremely tight brakes, it was all Gail could do to prevent the van from skidding off the right side of the dirt road into a ravine.

Ultimately, we made it through intact, though Gail had to stop for several minutes afterward to compose herself.

Dirk's van had been loaded down with 20 sheets of drywall. We usually transport no more than 15 at a time.

But the adventure was not over yet. Steve said his goodbyes and departed Sunday mid-afternoon. We were therefore very surprised when he showed up back at the front door several hours later, soaking wet.

Steve had gotten his truck stuck going up the hill on his way out. He had to walk over to Scott’s house for help. Fortunately, Scott was gracious enough to bring out his tractor and tow Steve’s truck up the hill. In exchange, Steve volunteered to walk all the way back up to our house to warn us of the situation – a half-mile uphill in the pouring rain.

The deal was that Scott was willing to pull the rest of our vehicles up the hill, but we had to leave immediately. Scott was going to meet us at the hill with his tractor in 15 minutes. Fortunately, Dirk and Russell were almost packed and ready to go. Unfortunately, Gail, Joss and Rachel had made plans to stay an extra night until Monday.

We held a quick discussion. The rain was supposed to continue through Monday. Dirk and Russell would take Dirk’s van out. We felt confident that we could make our way up the unfortified hill.

Gail and the teens would stay until Monday. If they found themselves unable to drive up the hill, they would contact Scott.

The three adult men drove out in Dirk’s van. Just before the unfortified hill, Russell advised Dirk to pick up speed and hope for momentum. Dirk made it halfway up and got stuck. He reversed back down the hill and Steve got out. Dirk gave himself a bigger running start. Though his van tried very hard to skid left and right, it maintained forward progress. We made it all the way up the hill. By now, Scott was standing by with his tractor, but he saw that he wasn’t needed.

Steve got back in his truck (parked near the exit gate) and began his drive home. Russell and Dirk rewarded themselves with dinner at Eddie Pappas’ restaurant in Pleasanton – one of Russell’s favorite’s from his birthday walk last year.

Gail and the teens stayed through Monday, paying careful attention to the weather. During a break between storms, they tried driving out at mid-day. Just before the unfortified hill, the kids got out and Gail gave the van a running start. After two unsuccessful tries, she saw the kids getting drenched in the newly falling rain. They loaded up and drove back to the house.

The next several hours were a waiting game until Scott had a break in his work schedule to bring his tractor over. In the afternoon, Gail was finally able to get the van out with the help of a tractor tow. Everyone is now home, safe and sound.

The four adults have tentative plans to drive back up to the mountain this coming weekend. For Steve, at least, everything depends on the weather.

We end with our regular, obligatory photo of Steve working outside. Here, he manages a burn pile (one of five) on the southwestern knoll near the storage shed.


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