Backtracking. Everything that could go wrong and didn’t.

Here's the back of the truck from 3 weeks ago. Add to it most of my mother's clothes and a few odds and ends.
Here’s the back of the truck from 3 weeks ago. Add to it most of my mother’s clothes and a few odds and ends.

Burt and I perched an hour from the border between the USA and Mexico. Tomorrow we plan to meet Rosemary and Ed and cross over into our winter in Baja. More and RR and Ed later. Today I want to try and cover a subject that was set aside when my mom died: What could have gone wrong working in Virginia and did not.

When we agreed to take on the rehab and remodel of a home in Alexandria, Virginia we did so with a couple of caveats. One, we bid the job high because we had no idea what we would find when we physically arrived on site. We had a home inspection report but those are not reliable and certainly not geared towards home remodeling and repair. They are for home sales and negotiation. Burt and I are not impressed with the industry on a whole. Both of us have had home inspections fail to turn up fundamental flaws and over blow minor problems. Two, we could get kicked off the job at any time by either the building department for not having permits or the police for illegally camping on the street. A quick perusal of Fairfax county building codes revealed only a couple of areas where permits were required. Small, inconspicuous areas. When we learned that the most disruptive and visible work (replacing all windows) was permit-exempt we thought the job was a low risk enterprise. Still, we can’t guarantee a neighbor won’t turn us in. Our client was ready to take that chance. She knew we were fast and reliable. Her efforts to manage local builders from 2,000 miles away had been frustrating and expensive.

Dear readers might wonder why the owner didn’t simply get a permit. It’s not that easy. There are many reasons. Permitting a kitchen remodel can add significant time. Time means money. Also, permitting required an application by the actual owner. The boss on the job was the owner’s child. The actual owner is 89 and in poor health. No chance the owner was coming to Virginia to fill out paperwork. The only work requiring a permit was minor electrical and plumbing for the kitchen. Demolition, cabinets, windows, floor, painting, cleaning….all of this did not require a permit. Weighing the options it was worth the risk to the owner. Remember, a permit issue is the owner’s problem. We can legally work for anyone, anywhere. But as responsible business people we don’t want to knowingly get a client in trouble. We let them make the choice.

So there we were enjoying our season of no work when this job offer came our way. Consciously we debated the sanity of taking a job in a place far away with cold weather coming. A job in a place notorious for rules, crowds, Type A personalities. We discussed my mother’s health. We knew we could tack on a visit or two to see mom and dad. My brother and his family were near. The job was in a new area of the world. Google earth photos showed room for us to camp in the back yard. We could say we worked coast to coast. Mom’s health and our interest in the area tipped the scales over to, “Let’s go!”

Here’s what we worried about:

The camping situation.

Building inspectors.

Ordering windows, cabinets, counters, appliances. How long would it take? Could we get done by Christmas? Could we do it under budget?

Disposal of debris.

The size of the job.

How much could I work on my new heart meds?

On this job, nothing went wrong.

At first it looked like our camping situation was destined to cause problems. The Google Earth photos didn’t show the fence around the yard. For the first two weeks we parked road side. It felt like everybody was staring at us. The neighbors were watching but they were watching with delight as we made the worst eyesore in the neighborhood look clean and welcoming. They were thrilled we were in town and on the job full time. After 2 weeks we took a week off and towed away to visit my folks. This was the last time I saw my mom. Our timing was good. Some might say miraculous. After the visit we figured out a way to pull into the driveway and become less conspicuous.

Building inspectors never showed. Happy neighbors? Discrete work? We kept all debris out of sight and hauled it away frequently. We were quiet. The job was mostly unpermitted work.

After decades of working in the wilds of Montana and the intermountain west the ordering of supplies in the east coast megalopolis was a revelation. Everything is seemingly available at your finger tips. Things that take 6 weeks in Montana take 10 days in Virginia. Half the windows we needed were in-stock. The furnace had to be replaced and they had a new one in two days. Granite counters showed up five days after the cabinets were installed. This job had a coefficient of efficiency we never imagined possible. We had time to play bridge.

The job was just big enough and not too big for two. My heart meds slowed me down but I could work. Overhead stuff is really hard with low blood pressure. I grew frustrated changing light fixtures when my hand and arms didn’t have enough blood and I was gasping for oxygen but I got most of it done.

And then the real miracle. As we closed in on the last week of work my mom began to die. She could have gone mid-job and caused a ruckus. Surmountable but logistically hard. She could have waited until we were three weeks down the road. When turning back would have been costly and time consuming. Nope. She died two days before the job was done. Mighty convenient mom. Thanks for thinking of us. Living this wandering life makes traveling easier and harder. Timing a person’s death and the upheaval it causes is never convenient and always troubling. My mom could not have made it easier for us. It’s crazy that way back in August we thought about how nice it would be to be nearby and we could visit. We even thought about the end. We wondered if she might die while we were there. Someone somewhere was listening. Mom heard us? We heard mom? Our client heard that thing called god? I’ll never know.

 

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Wrapping up

All new windows everywhere.
All new windows everywhere.

Burt just told me to tell my dad that we might be there on Monday. This job is almost over. It’s a little early to go over the things we worried that might go wrong taking on a job like this from 2000 miles away in a place full of people and rules and complications but I think it’s safe to say nothing has gone wrong or even been difficult.

One example from the list possible difficulties is the photo below. Trash management. Rules are variable. Disposal fees can be every high. The logistics of moving the waste arduous. This job had a massive volume of demolition debris because of the full house window replacement, the rotten kiddie playhouse and the abandoned homemade swing set. We debated a roll off container but a massive curbside trash bin would call attention to our work. We discussed hiring somebody to come and get the debris when the job was done but a huge pile of trash might call attention to our work. We worried. Calls were made. Internet searches done. It turned out with just a piece of mail to show we lived here we could transport the waste to the dump ourselves and pay reasonable resident disposal fees. Over the course of 7 weeks we made three dump runs. We kept the work in-house (more money for us) and kept control of the job site and there were no large piles of refuse to call attention to our work. It’s smart of the urban planners to make waste disposal easy. This gets waste to the dump instead of a gully. We’d never do that but some might.

The waste here goes to a solid waste incinerator and is used for energy production. Over 2 million gallons of crude oil is replaced by burning garbage energy. You can read about it here. I was geekily delighted to see the incinerator in action as we dropped off our largely wood filled load. Our refuse from this job helped generate more than 1500 kilowatts of energy. Another reason to promote easy of disposal.

Last haul to the dump.
Last haul to the dump.
A very old house in Alexandria.
A very old house in Alexandria.
Down Mordor Road you will find the Fairfax County Waste Incinerator. Somebody has a literary sense of humor.
Down Mordor Road you will find the Fairfax County Waste Incinerator. Somebody has a literary sense of humor.
Details for a rental.
Details for a rental.
New door pulls.
New door pulls.
New door stops.
New door stops.
New vent covers.
New vent covers.
Rehanging the miniblinds.
Rehanging the miniblinds.
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Working all night long

Looks like he's reading but he is sound asleep.
Looks like he’s reading but he is sound asleep.

With the gNash parked mere feet from the front door of our current project Burt takes full advantage of his early mornings and the accessibility. Recently he’s been going in as early as 3:00 AM. Now back on the west coast that’s midnight. I’ve been pondering what this means for Burt’s internal clock and our lark/owl interpersonal relations for weeks and then this morning happened. Burt woke up and misread the 11:00 PM as 1:00 AM. Our clock is two hours behind. He thought oh, it’s 3:00 I might as well go to work instead of trying to sleep. But it wasn’t 3:00, it was 1:00. Got that? So Burt showed up for breakfast at 8 AM after putting in nearly a day’s worth of work. In the meantime I was sleeping soundly in the spacious bed. We were both awake for breakfast of pea soup. Now it is 11:55 AM and Burt is sound asleep. I’m doing computer updates and backing up writing and photographs.

I made a pumpkin pie but I can’t bake it until Burt wakes up and lights the oven. As of yesterday we have been living in this 22′ box for seven years and I still can’t light the oven. Co-dependency is what they call it. We’re off to my brother and sister-in-law’s place for the holiday. We haven’t settled on a meal plan. I was supposed to bring my pie but Christian won some pies in a raffle and so I get to keep this one. There’s no such thing as too much pumpkin pie in this trailer.

Yellow room will be white soon. I find this shade of yellow hostile and jarring in a bed room.
Yellow room will be white soon. I find this shade of yellow hostile and jarring in a bedroom.

 

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More Progress

Todd and me
Todd and me

The other day a blast from the past came to see me. Todd is a helicopter simulator designer, hang glider, tall ship sailor, and contra dancer, and a friend from college years at Georgia Tech. Todd lives in Connecticut. We haven’t made it to the north east in our seven years on the road so when he noticed his work and our work placed us in the same metropolitan area, he got in touch. Back in the day we rock climbed a lot. Todd was the classic climbing bum. He could get straight As in aerospace engineering and virtually live out of his truck and rock climb when he wasn’t in school. Sometimes he kayaked, too. Once we drove back from Yosemite together. Todd had just climbed the face of El Capitan in a multi-day siege while Penny and I had climbed Mount Whitney. Both Todd and I lived on the cheap. Penny flew back to Georgia and I took a free ride back with Todd. I’m pretty sure I promised to keep him good company if he would let me ride for free. Otherwise it was $100 for a one way ticket back with Penny. Todd begrudgingly made room for me. Todd was so wasted from his efforts on the 3,000′ climb that I hardly had to say a word. I remember piping up significantly when we accidentally arrived in Las Vegas, NV instead of Boulder, Colorado. Somewhere in the night we’d missed a turn. The high desert did not have many signs back then.

Meanwhile work continues. Mostly it’s Burt working and me cooking or helping here and there. I was supposed to install the laminate floor in the kitchen while Burt did other things but it turned into a two person job. Every laminate product is different. This Home Depot Ultra something was very recalcitrant. I’d no sooner get one end fitted and the other end of the plank would disengage. Over and over. Burt helpfully said, “I think you need to get more together.” I did not find this statement helpful. I went and googled for ideas. All I could find were people saying, “It was hard at first and then I figured it out.” No clues as to what ‘figured it out’ might mean. Links to videos ended up in dead ends of ‘vodep not available’.¬† Finally Burt tried. No luck. Then both of us tried. And tried and tried. Cussing, stomping, more internet searching. Eventually we developed a two person system of lift, hold, push, lift, hold, push.

Once the floor was installed we started on the cabinets. That went smoothly. No errors in ordering or construction. The granite counter guy came today to measure. The tops should be done in a week. In the interim more light fixtures and painting and new windows. It looks like we will get out of here without much trouble.

Tunnel in Alexandria
Tunnel in Alexandria
Kitchen cabinets
Kitchen cabinets
Kitchen cabinets and floor
Kitchen cabinets and floor
Island spacing?
Island spacing? 36″ to 42″ is normal.
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Moving Along

Trimming the new windows
Trimming the new windows 

I’ve been painting and installing light fixtures and doing the Home Depot runs. Burt is doing the hard work. Today he started at 3:45 AM. He’s been a bit of an insomniac since November 9th. I have been sleeping fine. Maybe I’m catching z’s because my snorer-in-chief leaves for work in the middle of the night. The earlier hours and long days are catching up with him. At bridge he looked like a zombie. Most nights he’s out by 8 or 8:30.

The counter installers come on Monday to measure for the granite tops. There should be some good progress made in the next few days. The whole job will wrap up faster than expected. Yay for us. Mexico is calling.

New light fixture
New light fixture
Homemade task light.
Homemade task light.
Sometimes I get scared just changing a fixture.
Sometimes I get scared just changing a fixture.
Annoyed and worried.
Annoyed and worried.
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Amateur Hour

A little public service announcement.
A little public service announcement.

This is just a sample of the stuff unwitting Do-it-yourselfers do. Here we have an outlet somebody painted over. Perhaps it was several somebodys. Layers of paint held this ancient outlet in place. It was time to update the outlets for safety and aesthetic reasons. What a pain in the buttinsky for our fully licensed and permitted electrician. Or homeowner. You fill in the blank. Sparky turned off the circuit and then attempted to remove the old outlet. She scored the edges of the old plate to try and cut the paint. It was too thick. Sparky’s boss came by and helped. Eventually the whole thing came out in pieces. If you want your faceplates to match the walls remove them and paint them individually. Reinstall after wall and faceplate paint is completely dry.

Autumn colors are elusive here in the Potomac River bottom. Leaves appear to be browning and falling. There isn’t much to peep at. Some photos below.

Moisture got back there.
Moisture got back there.
Glad I wasn't using this.
Glad I wasn’t using this. It disintegrated.
New outlet
New outlet
Watery spot near here.
Watery spot near here.
Maryland is across the way.
Maryland is across the way.
Not much fall color.
Not much fall color. Here’s a tree.

 

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Progress

Burt, Diane, and BAlvarius Balvarius in Mew Mexico.
Burt, Diane, and BAlvarius Balvarius in Mew Mexico.

A few days ago there was a knock at the door. Nervously I answered. Who would it be? A disgruntled neighbor? No, it was Kitty. She started with, “I saw your husband through the window…” dramatic pause. I filled in the gap…and he was naked? and he was what? what? what? I have to remind Burt almost everyday that there are people inside all these homes watching our every move. Kitty proved me correct, and… “I was cleaning my windows…”… another dramatic pause…” cleaning your windows, and what? “Well, I was cleaning my windows and one broke. Can he help me?” At that point I let her know Burt was around and that we would be happy to help. Prior to that I was going to say he was too busy to meet with her and discuss his lack of clothing. Burt came out. Story repeated on front stoop. Story repeated again on front walk. We crossed the street (I hope the whole neighborhood saw), Kitty on replay the entire time and entered Kitty’s home. In Kitty’s dining room we found a window that had come apart as she removed it for cleaning. The glass was intact. The window was quickly reinserted into the track but could not be repaired. We advised her she must leave it closed or buy a new window. Kitty is 83 years old and lost her husband a few months ago. She repeated everything at least 5 times. To her credit the repetitions varied in phrasing and always ended with some question about us. There was never much room in the conversation to answer any question. FOX News was playing in the background. Her son lives with her. I politely inquired about him (or so I thought) and she said some unpleasant things so I changed the subject. Note to self: Don’t ask questions of people that can’t stop talking except for dramatic pauses. Burt asked me if we had slipped back into a Truman Capote novel again. I agreed that the Kitty-style character was a standard southern trope: the seemingly charming chatterbox that asks questions but only wants to talk about themselves but that’s not really fair. Kitty did need help and we were more than happy to do a favor for a tolerant neighbor. We are parked in her view shed. We both came away with a fear that new ‘problems’ would develop on a daily basis but it’s been quiet for two days.

OMG OMG OMG Kitty just called from across the street! Burt’s in the front yard. I’m safe in the trailer. “Can I just ask you one thing? Can I open that window.” Burt says, “I wouldn’t.” I’m staying here.

Kitty in desitress
Kitty in distress
img_4834
Whose bed?
Losing
Losing
Olive back to her bed.
Olive back to her bed.
Christian makes the torta dough thin.
Christian makes the torta dough thin. This is my brother.
Home Depot sells Halloween decor.
Home Depot sells Halloween decor.
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Big City Trash Movement

Truck full of demo debris.
Truck full of demo debris.

Trash removal is always a problem that must be solved when remodeling. It can be a logistical nightmare depending where you are. The more remote the location the more difficulties caused by the mere logistics of moving trash long distances. Here on the eastern seaboard with it megalopolis we were worried about strict rules rather than long distances. While there are a lot of rules (recycling, yard waste, construction debris, household…) we found the system very workable. Two days ago we drove out to the transfer station and they let us in with just an envelop showing we’d received mail in the county. I think that’s sensible if you are trying to promote proper disposal. Err on the side of getting the garbage to the dump. We left 831 pounds behind for $25. Curb side pick up is also very slick. Appliances can be picked up with just a phone call. Free. A truck arrived this morning with a super arm and picked up a refrigerator and lifted it over the gNash and deposited it in the truck. I want one.

The refri must get down the stairs and into the street.
The refri must get down the stairs and into the street.
I belayed it from above while Burt took some weight from below. Friction slowed it down.
I belayed it from above while Burt took some weight from below. Friction slowed it down to a manageable speed.
Best Tonka toy ever.
Best Tonka toy ever.
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Working on the East Coast

Photos are not uploading. Perhaps in the middle of the night I will upload a few. I’m suffering a very intense bout of insomnia these days so I’ll try to put the time to good use.

Our 3 1/2 day across the U.S. was uneventful. New tires were installed on the gNash in Animas, NM and the transmission was mostly okay. We ate a lot of food. Italian, Amish, trailer made. I took no pictures of interest. At rest stop in West Virginia a man lost track of his wife. While we were sleeping they had an argument. We did not notice. Wife ran off into the darkness while man stewed. I presume he presumed she would return when she cooled off. A few hours later we awoke and she was still missing. The now distraught husband pointedly asked Burt if we had her in our trailer. Harboring an angry wife, like we have room for that kind of drama? The authorities arrived before we left. I hope she’s okay. I don’t think leaving a rest area at 4 AM in a stranger’s car is a good move. Take away for me is: Don’t argue at 4 AM in rest area. Just say, “Yes, dear.” Save any cross words for daylight and a Walmart.

Two days ago we arrived in Alexandria, VA for a home remediation and updating. The house we are working on is a 1965 split level located a half mile from the Potomac River and one mile from Mount Vernon. The property has been a rental for nearly 20 years and shows the standard wear and tear. You can guess how bad it looks by the fact that the neighbors are willing to have us park on their street while we make the property look better. The curb appeal was long faded and the house and yard are not up to neighborhood standards. In two days we’ve been buzzing about setting up window replacement and designing the kitchen. One big shocker had us very happy. Cabinets take two to three weeks to arrive after ordering. We’ve been in such small and/or remote places that we were used to waiting six weeks. Even more shocking is the granite counter tops typically arrive a week after measuring. These short turn around times take a lot of the pressure off us. There is time to enjoy ourselves and get everything done without rushing. At least it seems like that now.

Aside from talking to subs and designers we’ve been power washing the exterior of the house and demolishing an ancient wooden swing set and a child’s playhouse. The resident spiders are very angry. Here’s a fun fact: spider webs are more easily removed by broom than 1200 psi of spray washer. For real efficiency my sister-in-law advised, “the easiest way to remove a spider web is to use your face.” I can’t dispute her.

Other observations: There are a lot of trees here. There are a lot of people here. Traffic is very light in the middle of the day (not like LA). The weather is balmy so far. Children inhabit suburbia.

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Hunting Success

Crop contents of a sharp tailed grouse.
Crop contents of a sharp tailed grouse.
Smith Lake, Montana
Smith Lake, Montana

The Gypsy Carpenters are back in western Montana, taping and mudding the new bedroom at the kid’s place. Rainy weather made all non-paved roads in eastern Montana impassible gumbo pits. Our two-wheel drive Dodge was no fit for the backroad miles needed to get to good hunting locations.

The big news here is we are now officially internationally known musicians and nationally working carpenters. The western U.S. was pretty tied up with regular, loyal clients from Arizona, California, Oregon, and Montana. This fall we’ve landed a project in Alexandria, Virginia. Burt and I are looking forward to returning to work, seeing the DC area, and east coast family and friends. The job came about from a happy Helena client with property in Virginia. It was a big enough but not too big job. You can follow along here.

In the meanwhile we have a couple of turkeys we found yesterday. Our shots brought out the local game warden. Recent bear activity made him worry we might have been shooting at the bear. That was kind of funny. We’d never shot a bear unless it was self defense and maybe not even then. Best to play dead is what I’ve always heard. A little bird shot will just piss them off. The warden was delighted to see we had shot a couple of perfectly legal turkeys and there was no bear in sight. We think we might have scared him out of the brush while we were stalking and he was out ahead of us. Out of sight for us but in plain view of the local neighbors when he ran across a road.

Dragonfly
Dragonfly
Two turkeys
Two turkeys
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