By Hal Walter
I grew up moving around quite a bit, with my family setting up a new house six times from the time I was six until I turned 18 and left for college at University of Colorado in Boulder. After that I lived in 11 different homes over the next 13 years.
And thus it’s somewhat a mystery to me that I’ve now lived in the same house here in the Bear Basin area of Custer County for most of my adult life, nigh on 21 years. It’s also amazing that someone who doesn’t really like cold weather has made it through two decades of winters here at 8,650 feet elevation.
But here I am. Actually here we are. My wife Mary and son Harrison also live in this smallish gambrel-roofed house of about 1,200 square feet on 35 acres. Outside there’s a barn of questionable construction, a tack shed, and a two-car garage.
When we first moved in here in 1991 we’d made what we then considered a small fortune of $8,000 profit on the sale of our swank Wetmore farmstead, and after putting a whopping $5,000 down on this place we put the rest of the windfall into replacing the 1980s shag carpet and mustard-yellow linoleum floors that came with it. We put in industrial-grade carpet and asphalt tiles, figuring that would last forever, or at least as long as we’d be here.
Recently it was decided, despite my lack of enthusiasm, that after 20-plus years we needed new flooring. I tried to ignore this as the samples of carpet and laminate came home, a nightly barrage of new materials and color combinations, price considerations, installation alternatives. I didn’t see the necessity, couldn’t justify the expense, thought the old floor would be just fine for another 20 years. If I ignored it long enough, I believed, eventually this would pass.
But it would not. The next thing I knew a salesman from Pueblo pulled his Cadillac into the driveway one weekend. With a tape measure and notepad, he mapped out the house. We were getting new flooring.
Since Mary had been looking at laminate for the kitchen and utility room, and new carpet for the rest of the house, I decided that if we were actually going to do this I should at least lobby for something we both would like. I suggested we instead put tile in the kitchen and utility rather than laminate. It would cost more but would look better and last longer. I could offset the extra cost, and even save money, by doing some of the work myself and hiring a local handyman I knew.
And thus began my long December nightmare. During this time my family would live in luxurious but chaotic exile for 17 days – fortunately, the owners of the small ranch I manage were very gracious in allowing us to live in their vacation home for the duration of the project. At the height of my frustration I would furiously shovel a pathway through the snow for the handyman to pack his stuff and leave when I found after four days of demo and prep work he and I simply did not work well together. And extremely cold and snowy weather would do everything it could to make my life difficult and hamper the project.
Looking back, it’s all a blur. In the 21 years I’ve lived here, this was the longest period of time I’ve slept away from home. But it was not exactly a vacation. Sure, the house we were staying in was nicer and larger than our house. But at just a mile away from home and the daunting project, we kept finding we needed something else back over at our abode. Gradually, our most-used clothing, kitchen gear, tools and other items migrated over there. Our dogs also were totally confused, traveling back and forth on their own, trying to figure out where we lived.
I wasn’t so sure either, as the living room began to look like a Weather Channel post-tornado shot, and the front yard took on overtones of rural Appalachia. The hot water was disconnected. Getting to the phone required climbing over upended furniture and large appliances. I couldn’t really work very well in my office even when I found the spare moment to do so because of the noise and general state of disarray. At one point I thought since we’d already moved everything we used on a regular basis, I should perhaps just move my office and ask if we could rent the other house long-term. And then there was the dust. To borrow from Thomas McGuane, we’re talking about a property realistically worth less than $250,000, and I had grown willing to just walk away from it.
But gradually the uphill battle that would get us back into our house began to take shape. I met and hired John O’Brien, a master craftsman, to lay the tile. I finished putting down the Durock cement board, driving in more than 1,000 screws in the kitchen, breakfast bar and utility room areas where the tile would go. A week after hiring John, the tile was installed, grouted, and cleaned. Additionally, he tiled a bathroom.
And then the carpet installers showed up.
I thought the tile had been a hassle, but the carpet installation proved to be yet another epic challenge, a bad game of musical furniture as one room after another had to be cleared of everything so the old carpet and padding could be removed and the new rolled out, cut, seamed, stretched. We carpeted three rooms and it took three days. My back still aches.
How could we have accumulated so much stuff in 21 years? The previous week I’d filled the dumpster with the old flooring materials. Now I was fast filling it again with forgotten or unneeded possessions that we found in closets, under beds, in corners where this stuff can become practically invisible over the years. After all, anything we actually needed and used regularly was now over at the other house.
At last the carpet guys handed us a sheet to sign and the flooring project was complete. But we were far from done. Boxes of books and other odds and ends had to be put away. All of the kitchen cupboards, drawers, utensils, dishes, silverware, pots and pans had to be washed. A toilet needed to be reset. The moulding and door trim needed to be reinstalled. We still needed to move our stuff back from the other house and clean over there. The holidays were looming. I was two weeks behind in my professional life. And it was time to go home.
All of this notwithstanding, the Winter Solstice dawned after our fourth night back in the house. The days would be getting longer. The stuff would get put away. The dust would eventually settle. We were back home, and there was something new beneath our feet.
Hal Walter writes and edits from the Wet Mountains. You can keep up with him regularly at his blog: www.hardscrabbletimes.com