Tag Archives: community

Tangible Progress

Light is fading. Beneath the tarp the tape measure’s black dashes are starting to blur together. Brittney huddles over the top of the tape, her nose almost touching it. Every few seconds I hear the carpenter’s pencil scratch against a two by four. I bend another 20-foot piece of rebar and drop it into the forms. For the last two years the cabin has been a figment of our imagination. It exists on graph paper, our minds, our hearts. But soon it’s will be physical. A sign of what Melanie Heacox calls, “tangible progress.”

For the last hour snow has been falling. Under normal circumstances the first snowfall would be cause for celebration. An excuse to drink coffee and watch the world go white and quiet. Tonight I’m cursing it. Concrete needs to stay above freezing after it’s poured. Special blankets can be placed on top of the pour, holding the heat produced by the chemical reactions of the setting cement. All we need is four hours above freezing to mix, pour, and scree. Snow seems problematic. But maybe snow on concrete day is a sign of good luck, rain on a wedding day.

The light drains like water from a bowl. Brittney sets the tape measure on the table and we stand there for a moment. The forms are a foot wide and six inches high, a square trench 17-feet in length. Tomorrow they’ll be filled with 1.2 cubic yards of Portland cement, sand, and rock, we think. We hope. With a chill I remember Elm’s words a month ago when the house site was cleared and leveled.

“You screw up the concrete you may as well put the house somewhere else.”

Gulp.

We drive back to the little second story apartment we’re renting for the winter. We’ve brought the bags of concrete with us so we can put them in front of of the wood stove for the night and keep them as warm as possible. After a day of setting rebar, measuring, and general scrambling we’re both drained. The final act of lugging the 94-pound bags of concrete is a fitting conclusion. I’m struck by the irony of carrying our house in our arms, keeping it warm for one more night. It seems like a small penance to pay for what could be decades of faithful weight distribution and sturdiness beneath our feet.  I lie awake far too long. My head filled with 4:1 ratios, stem walls, square, level, right angles. Build a box.

Morning comes. The snow stuck but the day is dawning clear and crisp. A little too crisp. We lug the concrete back down the stairs to the car and wrap it in a tarp like Christmas presents. How bold it had felt to travel up and down the Pacific Northwest, all we owned in the back of our car. There had been times we didn’t know where we’d be in six months, where the next steady job was. I remember that freedom being more exciting than daunting, child’s play compared to this. As we close the car doors and back out the driveway I’m aware my mouth is dry, my stomach churns. There was no going back, no running now. We’ve never built a birdhouse. Now we’re building a cabin? What have we gotten ourselves into? Muir’s words float through my head, “we must risk our lives in order to save them…”

Gustavians are notoriously late. Like wizards they arrive precisely when they intend to. But when you tell them concrete pouring is at noon, they show up at 11:50 and bring wheelbarrows, shovels, soup, and beer. As I watch Craig, Emily, Zach, Laura, Elm, and Patrick walk up the clay infested trail towards the house site, the fear that has had a hold the last 24-hours disappears. We’re not alone. We’re never alone. Elm and Craig have poured concrete many times before. Elm fires up the small gas powered mixer and begins shoveling in sand, rock, and cement. He goes by feel, an artist who knows when it’s right.

When the recipe is just so we hurry wheelbarrows beneath the churning machine and half push half carry them to the forms. A curious dance begins, the clock begins to tick. One advantage to pouring in 39 degree weather is the concrete sets slower. More time to shore up a corner, fill an edge, scree it all flat. For the next hour and a half I don’t breath. I don’t think I blink. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow falls into the forms. My knees are soaked, gloves dripping with concrete. It’s going well though I’m insanely glad I bought one last bag of concrete that morning. Zach, Laura, and Craig have to leave at 1:30 to catch a boat. They stay until the final minute. So does Emily who’s late to her daughter’s parent-teacher conference and arrives with concrete on her forehead. As Patrick helps us dump the last wheelbarrow and Elm shuts off the mixer the gorgeous silence of this place returns.

We stop and breath. Elm cracks a beer, his voice carrying through the woods, he sounds as excited as we are. It’s level, it’s square, just let it sit for a few minutes he advises. Brittney can’t stop. She grabs a 2×4 and lovingly runs it over the top of the forms, leveling the concrete beautifully. Kim and Melanie show up with smoothies and smiles. Kim congratulates us on a successful pour and compliments us on our site selection that overlooks the willow sluice. I remind him that if it wasn’t for him we’d never know this spot existed. So much owed to so many.

Eventually Elm and the rest of our help return home, leaving the two of us to finish the leveling and wrapping it blankets to keep it warm. After this it’ll have to sit for a week. That’s fine with me, I’m ready to breath, turn my attention to wood and nails and table saws. The sun begins to set and we stand in the middle of our crawlspace, grinning at each other. It feels as if we’ve entered some sort of exclusive club. We’d earned our concrete badge. From here on out our mistakes can be corrected with a cat’s paw and hammer.

We pile the leftover food in the car and drive home. I glance at the weather forecast and one last grin crosses my face. There’s nothing but freezing temperatures for the weeks to come. We’d literally grabbed the last window of the year. Nothing like waiting to the final minute. Professional procrastinators.

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These are the Places You Will Find me Hiding

In a land defined by mountains, Gustavus stands alone. Gustavus, prairie country. Well, as close as you can get to prairie country up here. At the mouth of Glacier Bay is a strip of land. An old glacial outwash that the glaciers of old used as a dumping ground for the remains of the rock they had ground to a pulp. What remains today is a stretch of land so flat the bubble on the level falls dead center. All around is regularly scheduled programming. Chichagof Island and its mountains to the south, the Fairweathers to the west, the Beartracks to the north, and the Chilkat mountains and Excursion ridge to the east. Distant yes, but never out of mind, even when shrouded in the blankets of clouds that dominate the sky.

It’s fitting that Gustavus is southeast Alaska’s little geographic rebel. One of the few towns that don’t have to concern themselves with building into a mountain or around pesky fjords or bays that jut into sharp cut glacial rock. Nothing but sand, trees, and moose to build around. Because like the land, the people of Gustavus are unique. A cast of people that have chosen love, laughter, cold beer, and blue grass over profit, capitalism, manifest destiny, and Justin Bieber.

This is a town where people still wave as they drive by, failure to do so the highest of insults. Where a run to the local store for a bag of oats turns into a 45-minute conversation about everything or nothing. No one brushes past with downcast eyes, avoiding contact. Smiles are plentiful, good vibes abundant, the people seem ageless. Yesterday I learned that a lady I’d took for somewhere between 30 and 35 was celebrating her fiftieth birthday by traveling to Iceland. In a nation obsessed with youth, with looking young, and banishing wrinkles, maybe Gustavus is the fountain of youth. Maybe smiles, a gracious heart, and a quick laugh can do what plastic surgery cannot, and for a much more reasonable price.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the normal American lifestyle. But from my limited exposure in what many would perceive to be a normal existence, the term community has become little more than window dressing. A way to lump together a group of people that happen to live in the same area. This is not Gustavus. Gustavus is a place where community is still community. To enter into this place is to become part of a family 400 strong. Want to spend a winter here? We’ll help you find a place, chop wood, fill the chest freezer with halibut, salmon, deer, and moose.

A couple of years ago a young man moved here. He knew no one. Two weeks after arriving, his house burned to the ground. Within hours, someone had moved a yurt onto his property for shelter. Food was left on the front porch, money and building materials donated.

“I don’t know any of you folks,” read the thank you letter he posted at the store, “but to all of you, thank you. I am truly moved and touched.”

Home. This is home. How can it not? How can we—myself and Brittney—not want to be a part of this? Suburbia? Fine for some I suppose. Who am I to say how others should live? But give me the place where I know everyone by name. Where, should the worst ever happen there will be 400 pair of hands to pick me back up. It’s impossible not to feel happy and blissful here. We’re isolated, but never alone. We are a people of guides, fisherman, businessmen, woodsmen, parkies, lodgies, seasonals, and locals. Democrats, Republicans, Christian, Mormon, Druid, Pagan, Atheist, John Muir apostles. But we are all residents of Gustavus. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.