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September 15, 2012
Russell’s bad day

A promising start: with our stair newels completed, we are ready for our final building inspection

In a recent blog post, we wrote about taking a 165-foot rappel adventure into Moaning Cavern. We did this despite Gail’s recent shoulder problems (and cortisone shots) and Russell’s recent hernia surgery. In hindsight, this was probably not a good decision. Since that time, Gail’s shoulder pains have increased and Russell has pinched a major nerve in his leg. Given our sorry physical states and constant pain, we have not been at our best in working on our mountain home.

We provide this introduction as a possible excuse for what happened next.

With our seven stairwell newels now installed and a temporary railing in place, we made a special trip up to the mountain on September 13-15 for one reason: to get a sign off on our *final* building inspection.

Our inspector, Dennis, said he could come to our area sometime on Friday, September 14, but he wasn’t sure when. So we drove up Thursday evening just to be on the safe side.

On Thursday evening, Gail kept hearing an intermittent noise. Upon investigation, she discovered that our sticky traps had caught not one, but two mice – and one of them was still alive. After much debate about what to do, Gail had Russell carry the entire trap outside, with the live mouse still on it. He covered everything with a bucket to keep predators away. (The good news is that by the time we departed two days later, the mouse had worked itself free and tunneled out under the bucket. Gail hopes it doesn’t find its way back into the house.)

On Friday, we did no major construction work. Instead, Russell worked remotely on his normal day job. Gail went around cleaning and tidying things. The hours ticked by.

One of Gail’s accomplishments this trip was to enlarge the front porch using some paving stones

At 4:00 pm – Dennis still hadn’t shown up – Gail called to Russell from the stairs with five very sad words:

“These newels are too short.”

At first, Russell was incredulous. He asked Gail to double-check her suspicion with a yardstick. He finally came over himself with a tape measure. The two middle newels – the ones that had been the most complex to install and had taken the most time – were each more than 7” too short. It was clearly visible.

What followed were all of the classical phases of grief, beginning with denial and anger. We both had the same horrible, gut-wrenching feelings of disappointment and disbelief. How could this have happened? We had checked and doublechecked every single measurement! We had made mock-ups! We had doublechecked again before making any cuts!

As we analyzed the situation, it soon became apparent where we had erred. Russell had measured the required 36” height from the landing, which was where the newel was mounted. However, the newel also intersected the next tread higher up. This was the tread that Russell should have measured 36” from.

When measured from the landing, the middle newels are the correct height. When measured from the tread, they are 7-1/4” too short.

Russell went back through his notes to retrace what had happened. When Gail originally bought the newels a year ago per Russell’s specifications, she ordered all of them at 48” except for two that she bought extra long. When we decided mount the lowest newels on the floor instead of the tread, we used the two extra longs for that purpose. Thinking that the remaining 48” newels would suffice for the middle, Russell made his measurements accordingly.

In an impromptu design change, we had decided to mount the lowest newels on the floor instead of on the tread for aesthetic reasons. This resulted in our using the extra-long newels here, instead of on the landings.

Ironically, when we originally measured the half-newel that corresponded with the landing newel, Russell saw that 48” would not be long enough. He sent several hours splicing an additional 7-1/4” to it. When we went to install that half-newel, we couldn’t remember why we had made the splice. If we hadn't been tired, if we hadn't both been in pain, we might have stopped and taken the time to wonder why we had made that splice. Instead, in the excitement of making progress and reaching the finish line, we removed that additional 7-1/4”. Subsequently, we cut the middle newels to the same length and installed those as well.

When we made our original cardboard mock-ups for the middle newels, we actually had the correct height. This photo clearly shows that the half-newel on the right needed a 7-1/4” splice on the bottom to make it long enough.

Our grieving process finally gave way to acceptance. We now had two full newels and one half-newel that were too short. On the positive side, even their original height of 48” would not have been long enough. On the negative side, we will need to order three more newels and start all over again.

Gail called Dennis and discovered that he had just gotten home. He had forgotten to swing by our house. (To Dennis’ credit, he was currently covering for several inspectors, and had done a whopping 28 inspections today.) He apologized, and Gail reassured him that he would have wasted a trip if he had come out. Dennis said he would sign off on a phone progress report, so at least our permit is renewed for another few months.

The moment Gail hung up the phone, Russell said “Let’s go for a drive.” He needed a break.

Russell’s bad day ended up having a better ending. We drove for an hour through West Point and the tiny town of Buckhorn to get to the upper Mokelumne River. The last several miles were down a barely-paved, one-lane winding road that closes in winter. But the destination was worth it. We finally arrived at Tiger Creek Reservoir, which had a power plant at one end and a dam at the other. The view was stunning, especially because we had had no idea any of this was here.

The PG&E power plant at Tiger Creek Reservoir

Unfortunately the area was fenced off by PG&E, so we couldn’t get down to the river

Tiger Creek Reservoir. The power plant is out of the picture on the left. The dam is on the right.

Tiger Creek Dam. We ran out of daylight to get a closer look; we’ll save that for a future trip.

We hung around taking pictures until almost sunset (signs warned us that the gates are locked at dusk). Driving back through Pioneer, we passed by a small Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere. On impulse we decided to stop there for dinner, and Gail enjoyed the best garlic eggplant she’s ever had. On Saturday morning, we packed up and drove back home to the Bay Area.

Le’s Chinese Restaurant in Pioneer

So we did not get our final building inspection, and our construction work continues. It will take several weeks – and several hundred dollars – to get replacement newels. At least it will give our bodies a chance to heal…

Our building permit will have to wait awhile for its final signoff


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