Many years before I purchased the cabin where I live in Sierra Valley, California, I would sit in the living room of my nondescript home in Sacramento, California, and page through a small book I had purchased titled “Handmade Houses”. It featured very unique structures that had been carefully created by folks to fit within the outdoor spaces they lived in. There were many tree houses, both high up in branch boughs and incorporated in massive, twisted trunks. I loved the idea of the handmade houses because you could see that much effort was made to blend the structures into the setting. Sometimes it was difficult to tell where the human constructs began and the natural world had been blended into the structure, rather like mixing ingredients for a recipe that becomes something from which the parts cannot be picked out. I especially liked that the materials that had been blended with nature’s creations were mainly castoffs rescued from trash piles or seashores.
One Sunday morning my sister, Joanne, who had a home in Sierra Valley and has always been a frustrated real estate agent, called to say the small wooden house which we had often admired as we drove around scouting mostly in-my-dreams mountain retreats, had a For Sale sign out front! Within an hour I was in my car with my dogs heading up the hill to do what? Buy a nondescript wooden box on a small piece of property right on the highway? The cabin had just been listed the day before and the key was not available. So we peeked in the windows, walked what we thought were the boundaries of the property – about two and a half acres – and made a full-asking-price offer. By the time I headed home, I owned the cabin. Later that night I lay awake wondering what I had bought? Was it a rustic diamond-in-the-rough or just plain, well plain.
A few days later I drove back up to the valley to get the key and actually go inside my Sierra Valley cabin. It became evident that the cabin had not been well taken care of by the folks who had most recently been renting it. It was a rough life. The back “room” was actually more of a laundry/work room that had never been completely finished. There was a concrete wash basin mounted on one wall and the floor sort of tipped towards one corner of the room.
The upstairs was kind of a big open area that had been partially sheet rocked by someone who was not a carpenter by trade. I noticed handwritten messages on the sheet rock. They were thank you messages to someone named Larry, written by women who had evidently spent a night of incredible lovemaking with Larry. He obviously had made them very happy and satisfied. When we later taped and textured the sheet rock I felt sad to see these testimonies to nights of ecstacy disappear forever, but I think of them sometimes in the still of the night.
The cabin has undergone several transformations but I determined early on to keep many of the unique handmade features that make the cabin what it is. The man who built the cabin worked in the sawmill just up the road and the story is that he brought home the discards – boards that weren’t quite right either because they had too many knots or the grain was too twisted. These discards are the boards that were used to build the outside walls of the cabin. Today, they are the first clue that the cabin is one-of-a-kind. Nothing about these boards is straight. They twist and turn their way up and down the cabin and have found a way to fit together and protect it. Every two years I have a guy spray preservative on the boards but have resisted any suggestion that a particularly gnarly board needs to be replaced. Replaced with what? A standard, straight board can’t fit itself into the flow. So I hope they’re for forever.
The trim of the windows is also irregular and sort of wraps around the frames awkwardly. The boards that were mounted as the “earflaps” on the windows have heart cutouts. They were painted yellow when I bought the cabin and are still bright yellow in spite of my daughter’s suggestion that forest green or a grey/blue would blend with the setting more naturally. The cabin isn’t a blender. It’s the stand out.
I have had various upgrades and fixes done on the inside of the cabin. Often the well-meaning worker would say that this or that is not fixable and we need to tear it out and start new. I knew from the start that wasn’t what I wanted for the cabin and it became tiresome pushing back against stuff so I finally figured out a way to let the cabin stay as it was without making them angry. I would say that I just couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted so let’s just work with it for the time being. This seemed to be ok with them. I’m not sure why it worked. But here we are, 20 years later with much of the “this has gotta go” stuff just hangin’ around until I know what I really want.
The kitchen cabinets were made using a low-grade plywood. There are knotholes and imperfections. Over time they have become golden. When I started scrubbing them I quickly realized, thank god, that I was scrubbing the golden glow off! After that I just ran a warm-water washcloth over them lightly and called it good. Wonderful appliques are here and there on the cupboards. A bride and her bridesmaids are lined up on the board over the counter. Roosters seemed to be a favorite with the folks who decorated the cupboards. They aren’t cute, lovable roosters but rather feisty little scrawny scrappers ready to peck out your eyes. They are another good reason to not clean very often, which is my credo.
The doors on the cabin, inside and outside, are handmade with materials that were scrap leftovers from other projects. The front door is like a jigsaw puzzle of framing pieces that maybe would have been used for framing photos or as baseboard toppers. They are a jumble of different types of framing pieces fit together at angles. A small windowpane has been placed in the two doors to the outside and they have been framed as you would a painting.
Someone along the way in the life of the cabin became fascinated with cutouts that can be created with a skill saw, I think. So here and there are little zigzags and diamonds and curving windows frames that are wonderful frames for the beautiful scenes that nature has created for viewing out every window. I always look out and think “now this is the most beautiful” and then the season changes and I think it’s the best again. I never wanted curtains or blinds on any of the windows because I like natural light and I never wanted to miss anything that was happening out there. In the winter, I lose heat out these naked windows, I know. There are hundreds of staples in the wooden window frames where plastic was mounted over the windows in the winter to conserve heat. I understand that this is the sensible thing to do but always knew I could never be in the cabin without being able to look out at the trees, mountains and fields even when they are coated in snow. I wear multiple layers of clothes and pay more for heating than I should. I don’t care.