Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Small Town Living

When we aren't travelling the world we have to take vacations closer to home. And for the last five years, that's often meant southern Utah. It's the most amazing place I've ever been (except for Tajikistan, that's now the top of my list). And it's only 20 hours drive from Calgary.

We liked it so much that we decided we'd like to have a place down here. Lara's always wanted a place backing on wilderness, and I liked the idea of being able to leave stuff down here, and have a place to return to between hiking and canyoning trips. So we settled on Hanksville, Utah, which is right in the middle of nowhere.

That was a couple of years ago, and at the time there was only one house available in town, which was out of our price range (we had a VERY low price range). But there was an abandoned property, and we did have some tools and renovation knowledge. We contacted the owner, and she wanted to sell. So we bought the house. We paid the local contractor to put a new roof on it for us ( it had leaked badly, knocking down all the drywall inside). And there the house sat.

We went around the world for a year, and when we returned it was time to get the house ready to live in. It was almost like a job for us, after a year of travelling. Take this abandoned house and pay ourselves to fix it up and make it nice. The downside was that we ended up here in July and August, when daytime temperatures are often well into the 40s.

The house had no water or electricity when we arrived. Water was hooked up quickly. I went to the town clerk, paid her, and she called the town fix it guy (also her husband) and he came out right away. They needed a backhoe to dig out the old lines, and unfortunately our side of the line was totally ruined. Just a broken plastic pipe.

"We're not responsible for your side. Just ours." Which is where it would have ended in the city. But Hanksville is small, with only 200 or so people.

"I think I have some parts", said Stan, who was driving the backhoe.

"I used to do plumbing in Salt Lake", said Jeff. "We'll get you hooked up."

So they came back and forth all day until the water was running. We turned it on in the house and it sprayed out from several places. The old copper pipes had corroded or frozen. Again, no problem. Curtis, the major, contractor, owner of the local store, paramedic, firefighter, and owner of one of the hotels, had some spare parts. He ran to get them for us, and we managed to cobble together a working toilet, two sinks, and a cold shower. We were in business!

The power was the next challenge. We'd expected to replace the panel box and be done with it. Lara know how to do all this stuff. I don't. But unfortunately, the new box was bigger than the old, and the previous people hadn't left loops of wire. For those of you that don't know, electricians routinely leave extra wire in any fixture so that you have something to work with if you change things out. Professional electricians, that is. But these people had simply been decent amateurs.

Fortunately Gary, our next door neighbor, was more than happy to let us plug into his plug. At least we could run tools. We'd brought a generator along as a backup, but power tools are real hogs, and they kept tripping the fuse on the generator. Drill. Drill. Poof. Damn! The power cord was life-saver.

Back to our wiring problem though. Unfortunately, wires don't stretch. And building codes are pretty specific about connecting wires together. Don't do it. And if you do have to do it, it has to be in a junction box, protected and properly supported. Unfortunately, you can't fit 20 junction boxes into a wall, so Lara ended up buying a bunch of fancy hardware when we visited Ineke, Brad, and their new baby Levi in Colorado. It would have been a great solution except that one of the boxes she got was too small.

Hanksville is, to put it mildly, remote. The nearest home Depot is 200km away, in Richfield, over several mountain passes. Curtis runs a decent hardware store in town and he's great for getting standard supplies, but it's no substitute for Home Depot when you need weird parts. So when something like this happens, you are stuck. Luckily people cooperate, and if somebody is going into town they're often more than happy to pick stuff up. Curtis's crew run into town for hardware pretty regularly, and we've had him pick up several bits and pieces we were missing. He even brought us 30 sheets of OSB so we could replace the rotted floors.

Along with the wiring we also had to repair all the damaged drywall. Caleb, Curtis's son in law, came with a couple of Curtis's kids and they hung and taped and textured all the new drywall. And that was the end of our first trip down. We had to get back to Calgary for a wedding. We had water, but no power yet. And lots of work to do.

We ended up delayed a bit because Lara was sick, and returned in mid July to soaring temperatures. It was disgustingly hot in the house, especially on a ladder, which is where Lara had to work most of the day. She got the panel in though. Getting hold of the building inspector was a challenge. Because the lines had been cut we had to get the place re-inspected. And while he had a phone, we didn't.

The solution was Skype. There is internet in Hanksville, via a tower on a hill overlook town, and even though we had no power we got the internet hooked up. As usual, it was super-easy. Small towns are great that way. We talked to Dan, and he sent someone by the next day to get us all set up. Lara was finally able to make phone calls, but she still had nowhere for people to call her back. She ended up buying a US number through Skype.

We ended up getting the inspector over because he was in town anyway, looking at a job for Curtis. He dropped by our house, looked at the wiring, and was very impressed by how professional a job Lara had done. We were good to go. Caleb came over in a back hoe and dug a big trench for us, and two days later Garkane came to hook up our power. They were likewise impressed. Apparently homeowner jobs are a bit unpredictable. They told us that a while earlier they'd done a job and had the meter-base fall right off the wall on them. They came in 3 trucks, and ran new wires the size of my wrist to our house. We were in business! Lara turned on the fuses. And everything worked!

While all this was going on I was doing what I was best at, which is destruction. I tore out the carpets and old rotted floors and put in new OSB. I tore out plumbing we didn't need. And I tracked down all the places where cats had lived. While the house was abandonded the basement door had come off have a very distinctive odor. Not a good one. The basement door had come off while the house was abandoned, and the house had become a big den. One of the basement rooms was full of feathers even.

As I sit here, Lara has gone to town for 3 days. She borrowed a trailer from another neighbor. It's probably a $2000.00 trailer, and he just said "No problem. Take it." So now she's gone to Salt Lake to pick up carpets, a water heater, a new stove, a fridge, and hopefully a swamp cooler to keep the place more comfortable. Salt Lake is 4 hours drive away, so she spent a few nights there.

Everyone has been incredibly helpful so far. We really enjoy knowing all the people in town, and all the ones we've met have been very friendly. Many people here are pretty conservative. This is Mormon country after all. But there are enough tourists coming through that the community doesn't seem insular. It's nice people, helping each other out because that's what you do in a small town. And if we need something, then people stop what they're doing and give us a hand.

Things are looking really good here now. The ceilings are painted, the new plumbing is all run and is just waiting for some parts. There are clean new floors waiting to be covered. It's starting to feel like a home. We're looking forward to being able to share our place with people.

This will be our vacation home. But we want to share it with our friends. If you ever find yourself in Southern Utah (and believe me, if you like outdoor stuff you really need to do this at some stage of your life), then you should give us a call. We'd be happy to lend you a key.