Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Crappy John

the mini tank inside the bigger one
When we put in the new bathroom about seven years ago, we were under the (now identified as mistaken) notion that we couldn't do the laundry and the dishes on the same day, or we'd run the well dry. AuntI refrained from doing those things on her shower day. And in no way could we do multiple loads of either.

now there are two!
So we had installed a low-flow toilet. A seemingly ingenious design for less water consumption, it had a smaller, inner mini tank that would flip and dump its contents with each flush. The mini tank set at the top of the toilet tank to create more pressure and thus evacuate the bowl more efficiently. The seat had a lovely design where I could remove the bolt covers to wash underneath. We were excited to have found a working solution.

We were misled. We have had nothing but problems with that thing for seven years. And as other people in our region began reporting on how bad these things are, and contractors began blaming them for all sorts of system-wide plumbing problems (especially in multi-story buildings), we began to despise our throne.
scraping up old sealant

We replaced the toilet seat at least once. We replaced the flushing handle twice. And then, the float valve in the tank failed... almost two months ago. The lid came off. We were instructed to wait after use for the tank to fill, and make sure the float valve shut off the water. Then we were instructed to make sure the tank even sealed for filling. It was all becoming ridiculous, and we'd forget to mention to guests what the problem was. I can just imagine the anxiety of sitting there, not knowing what part has failed and how it will affect your resting experience. I can imagine it because I was experiencing it every day.

clearing the old wax
So we bought a new one. In pieces. Each part arriving a few days after the previous one was delivered. In the meantime, it all sat in our living room. The cats played in it. We took pictures with it. Mail filled it. For a few days, it even held a watermelon. But eventually, I couldn't stand the sight of it in my public space anymore. I asked Dude what part we were still waiting on. "The block of time part," he said.

almost done!
We finally found a block of time last week. Dude said something about emptying water out of the tank and disappeared. Next thing I know, there's two toilets in my living room. Ick. I put away my vacation planning (so much nicer of a job than bathroom duty), and began cleaning the footprint on the floor. AuntI wasn't much of a housekeeper by the time I met her, so we had been doing the best we could after our only-weekly visits for five years. It was nasty.

weirdly cute
Eventually, though, we got the floor cleaned and sealed, the new wax ring and screws and pedestal in place. Then the tank, and finally water. Hallelujah, it works! More like a typical toilet, it fills in the physical tank, but only uses 1.3 gallons per flush, and only uses half of what actually sits in that tank. Nice. The seat has a slow-closing feature (no sending Dude on the other side of the wall into the ceiling in the middle of the night), and openable bolt covers for cleaning purposes just like the last one, but of better construction. Low-flow, but not a cheap bunch of plastic crap (pun definitely intended) to break at every turn... or flush... I'll stop there.
new reading chair
making the best of a crappy situation

And of course, nothing can be done out here without a bit of humor!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Proof of Life

I know I just said last week that we were working to get the garden in... still. In July. I changed my mind.

At some point, every gardener has come to a wye in the proverbial road, and had to ask: am I planting this for the harvest I can reap, or just for the proof that I don't have a black thumb? I don't know about you, but I've been there many times. And I always answer, "It's the harvest!"

Of course it is. No, really. I believe you/me.

I knew it was going to be a lot of work to get the water system fixed and the fence up. I knew we could be working on it a little later than the typical set-out date. I planted test cups (my cheap styro alternatives to peat pots), so I would know which seeds were dead and which still retained viability despite decades in this old homestead basement. I put my greenhouse on top of the heater in the living room and tended to it daily (or at least instructed Munchkin to tend it). I replanted cups when the seedlings gave up the fight. I just knew there was going to be a lovely plot waiting for them soon, and they'd grow up big and strong, and move out on their own... No, wait... that's Munchkin...

About a month ago, just before the sweltering temperatures hit, we moved them all outside. I put up another mini greenhouse next to the porch and left the poly cover unzipped. They whined, but began to grow and leaf out more. Chickens and cats tried to kill them (the selfish monsters), but they survived (most of them) and flourished.

But still no garden.

So, with Munchkin away gaming with her bestie and Dude pushing chips in town, I created the 2015 Mini Garden. In the metal pile in the front yard (don't we all have one? Hmm... must be me...), I found a few old shelving pieces waiting for a trip to the recyclers and repurposed them as five-foot walls around my green babies. I found the family's collection of twist ties (I knew they'd be useful someday), and bound all the walls together in a sort of pentagon shape (I didn't organize the pots well... so unlike me). And I sat back and declared, "It is good." (No offence to God, who clearly has a greener thumb than I do.)

It's all of less than five square feet. It looks ridiculous. It doesn't give those poor greenies the chance to spread their roots and bloom. Maybe they won't at all, and I'm just planting to prove I can. But there's green in my very brown driveway. There's life out my living room windows besides the kitten horde (20 babies now!) and obnoxious swallows and evil plant-eating deer. As a friend said, it may be the only green spot in the state at the moment.

And that makes me happy.

Friday, July 24, 2015

All For a Drop of Water, Part 3

When we last left our brave homesteaders, they had just survived an unfortunate fire while rehabilitating their old well. In today's installment... the cleanup.

Okay, so it's a bit dramatic, but life seems to be out here.

We let the ash and wood cool for a few days so we could walk on it, and went out to assess how to proceed. The sawzall and chainsaw saw plenty of work, cutting the smaller logs (still a foot or more in diameter) and branches away from the bigger ones. The backhoe saw plenty of work too, clearing larger logs from fencelines and to more manageable locations for cutting. And then we couldn't do any more ourselves.

So we called in an expert. Woodstock is the hubby of Dude's co-worker, and in a former life, worked as a lumberjack of sorts. He's also far younger (read that "agile") than the Arborist, less busy than Bunyan (who topped some of our other trees), and willing to work with our more difficult cutting jobs. He really saved our bacon.

In a couple of non-consecutive days, he was able to cut up all the big logs into chunks (which are still too big to move by anything but the backhoe), nearly strip the largest rootball in half vertically (even the 3' chainsaw can't cut through the 8' stump), and not harm himself on any hidden metal. He didn't even get crushed under moving logs! I would have.

Dude and Munchkin moved the chunks out into the salt flat, and moved more wood into safe zones for Woodstock as needed. (You'd think I didn't do anything, but sorting is a major task. Really.) I killed another rat baby (not quite so little now). Soon, we had done all we dared until the snakes go away this fall. And in the midst of it all, the willow well emerged.

hip waders don't temper cold water
It was nothing like we'd imagined. At roughly 6'x12' in an L shape, there was far more volume than we had thought. Had the Homesteader designed it to bathe in as well? The Miner came out with his family and used his superior backhoe skills to speed the process, digging out chunks of fallen concrete, rotten logs, and various other objects that had ages ago sunk to the bottom. He left us a ledge in the L, just a little lower than ground level, to more easily access the water; at the time, the water was even with that ledge (it's currently about a foot or so down, more than a month later). We then drained the well, dumping the water into the overflow pond; I've never seen it that full!

playing with the snake, of course
Dude donned the hip waders, and lowered himself into the well on a ladder. Ignoring the ledge, it's about 6' deep. The water is coming from a corner, with a steady enough trickle to refill the entire volume overnight. Dude cut willow rootballs from the concrete walls (only four feet down, then rock and black clay) with the sawzall. The Miner cleaned these out of the hole. And then we left it to refill, hopefully clearing the stink and the mud.

It didn't. There is a more-clear layer of water at the top, but the whole thing is still murky. A thin layer of oil spots the surface; those old engines didn't do us any good in that regard. Some rootballs still exist. The concrete is bowed and caving in. All jobs to tackle in the fall when the water table is at its lowest and I can still dare to get in the water, although I'm considering a wetsuit.

Proud of her pile of rocks
We located a solar pump dealer who builds them himself, and unfortunately, he's swamped at the moment, so we still wait for that to arrive. Then there's the structure to build, since the well is at the lowest point at that end of the valley. We had to rebuild the fence, which we will post about later, to keep the cows out now and the deer out when it's finished. That included putting in new rock corner posts like D.O. and the Hillbilly did ages ago -- rock talus wrapped in chicken wire to hold t-posts in rocky ground.

hillbilly water tank transport
Almost done with one corner post
We also located water tanks in which to store this well water for a gravity irrigation system. That's a story in itself: friends from out of town with their own ranch suggested "orange juice containers." Contacted one of our leaseholders who used these IBS totes for water for his cows over last winter when their well went out. They suggested a local farm chemical company. We just happened to stop by to ask what the cost would be. The young guy on duty swapped three of them that just needed bleaching and a power spray for one of Dude's books. And we brought them home like the hillbillies we seem to be. As of yet, they still haven't been cleaned out or moved to any structure. But we have them!

And that's where the project sits for now. We'll update with Part 4 when it occurs.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

All For a Drop of Water, Part 2

*Pics will be added later, if we can extract them from my destroyed hard drive. I know, I'm bummed too.*

As I said in Part 1, water is important, especially in the desert. Especially if you want to grow something. Especially if you want to live. That last bit is essential.

So, after owning this place for seven years, two of that onsite, we finally got enough time, money, energy, and equipment together to update some of our water sources. We tackled the well below the house (part of the old military barn complex) two years ago just to get water for our animals, but that was minor compared to the Willow Well. This is the most ancient well on the ranch, and probably the most mysterious to us, despite being in use more recently than some of the others.

The current garden plan involves fencing the northern end of the valley in its entirety to protect from deer and other munchy critters, and then running water from two wells and a grey-water system through an expertly designed and entirely collapsible irrigation system. Nothing can happen in the garden until those are accomplished, or it will just be a giant waste of time. When deer eat your strawberries right off the porch in front of you, they have no qualms about decimating any living thing not under your constant scrutiny and protection.

The grey-water system is at the south end of the garden, next to the nursery. This year's water was going to be solely based on that source, until I read that you don't want even that minor residue on anything you might eat fresh. Great for fruit trees, not so great for tomatoes or green beans.

The Orchard Well is on the north of both the garden and the orchard (hence the name... duh.). When we checked it this spring, it had two feet of mud in the bottom. Besides, Hillbilly busted the shaft on the windmill decades ago in a fit of anger, and that's a repair we didn't have time for.

The Willow Well is on the west end of the valley, across the salt flat from the garden and orchard. As I described it last time, it's broken down, fallen in, trashed and ancient. So which one did we choose to fix up? You guessed it. The Willow Well.

As the weather began to warm up this spring, and in our ADHD jumping from pruning project to pruning project, Dude decided to start taking down the ancient willows closest to the willow well. Remember that some of these are 8' across at the base, are decaying before our eyes, and include huge snags that could take out the backhoe if they fall wrong. But like the apprentice hillbillies we are, we surged forward anyway.

We took down the fence between us and the neighbors (with their permission), knowing the cows weren't in that pasture at the time. Part of the problem was that the willows were falling and taking out the fence anyway. Dude used the backhoe to pull out the motors, the old car carcass, the boxes of ancient oil, the piping (that we cut with a sawzall), and most of the old fence (in which we found wood marked with the name of a local railroad -- one of Dude's non-ranch passions). And then he set to knocking the trees around. Literally.

the rocking tree with no roots
He pushed from one side, then the other. He pulled from one side, then the other. We killed a baby rat (my goodness, how many are out there? Ick.). He pushed again. This time I got video of giant, ancient willow trees -- so inadequately rooted -- wobble back and forth. Maybe wobble isn't the word... how about sway? The tops were literally moving in a 20' arc. But Dude is no average hillbilly, and his ability to gauge the physics of those trees saved his life and mine, with only a few scary moments. Some trees required cutting of a major root; others toppled with only twig-sized roots anchoring them to the ground. Soon we were catching glimpses of a much larger well than we had imagined.

tree mess to clean up
thinned, but you'd never know it
After a few days of "play," we had a huge pile of wood scattered every which direction, looking like a giant's game of pick-up-sticks. Excited by his progress, Dude got up early on his day off and decided to burn off some of the smaller stuff, so we could get to chainsawing the big stuff. Being a former volunteer firefighter, he carefully isolated a small pile of wood, created fire breaks, located what little water source was available to him, and leaned in with a match. Upon ignition, the wind suddenly came barreling down the valley, setting the entire area on fire.

Not the way I like to wake up. I was sound asleep when the phone rang. Dude was standing by the fire, calling to beg for help... and NOW! Munchkin and I drug ourselves out to the well, not knowing how bad it really was until we arrived. Ten foot flames threatened from behind the few young willows blocking the view from the house. Dude was armed with a shovel, a rake, and a bucket, which he was frantically filling from the overflow pond (not quite in the fire yet). He had already created new fire lines, and had decided we couldn't stop the fire -- just control and contain it. That's training for ya. Thank goodness the valley was still green at the time.

Dude, Munchkin and cat chillin' at the fire
Dude and Munchkin managed the east side of the fire to keep it from spreading. I hung out on the west side, watching for the rebellious flame that might head upwind, and throwing branches from the non-burning zone into the contained fires. Just using a bad situation for good... I'd have to burn them eventually. As the huge flames died down and we were able to isolate certain fires for continuation, Dude began scooping water from the pockets of well below the detritus. Yes, it was a better volume source, but it stank to high heaven. Rotten plant material and black clay colored the water red. Sometimes water was available where a root had been, and access was down a steep dirt slope of about 2'; sometimes it was available between logs and boards in the well, which moved when you stepped on them, but hinted at a shallow well.

Notice we''re busy playing too
Doggie selfie
As we ended our activities for the day, it looked like a moonscape. Everything was white with ash and barren. A few giant logs were still smoldering internally, but nothing was nearby to catch on fire again. Open flame had been doused. And we were exhausted. A patch of about 20'x30' had burned, leaving only the northern willows untouched. I didn't sleep well that night, getting up to check out of windows for any glow.

Enough for this post. More to come in Part 3, the Cleanup. I'm sure you're holding your breath....

Monday, July 20, 2015

All For a Drop of Water, Part 1


So, every homesteading book will tell you that water is priority number one. Personally, I think having land is one, and water is two, but that's splitting hairs. On over 2000 acres, we have eight wells, five of which are here in the main homestead. Yes, they're all hand-dug, no more than 10' deep max, and the water is usually about three or four feet down. No, they're not all potable, and no, they're not all clean. They were all reported and recorded in the 1970s, but they were all in use before the 1930s, and at least one of them dates from the 1800s.

cave, to the right of post
Let me remind you that this 2000 acres is all sagebrush and rattlesnakes. It's not like there's a stream anywhere, or springs of cool, clear water dribbling out of a hillside. We do have several surface water ponds and one artesian spring, but they are all muddy and used for cattle (nasty to even think of drinking that). Here in the valleys, the water table is clearly pretty high, but up on the bluffs, water is usually a couple hundred feet down (backwards, I know, but that's reality). Right now, very little is green, even around the ponds. So, while water seems easily accessible with the shallow wells, those shallow wells easily dry up in drought conditions. Like now.

There are multiple avenues of attack on the water front in the works. Solar pumps are being ordered for every well (some are over a mile away with no electrical access), hillbilly irrigation systems are being designed, and troughs will be repaired for livestock usage. After all, the cattle pay the bills, but we'd like some crop usage out of all this land too. The domestic well is going to have its strange well-in-one-building-pump-in-another system simplified, a larger pressure tank installed, and a backup solar/gravity-fed system added. The horses' well seems to be okay for now, minus a solar pump. And the remaining wells near the homestead need to be hooked up to active systems -- solar, irrigation, livestock feeding, gardens. We do have a few windmills, with a few pieces missing, but we have the original manuals (thanks to the family never throwing anything away) and can get them going too. The orchard well has mud in it that will need to be cleaned out. The wells by the old military building need to have the concrete access replaced and the structural mess cleaned up. And the ancient willows well... well, that's the story I'm about to tell.

willows and wellhouse
Back to a historical story we've told before... the official homestead we live on was 'steaded in 1888. At the north end of the valley is a small cave, 6' wide, 5' tall, maybe 4' deep. Homesteader lived in that cave during the winters, adding a small lean-to to the front to add floor space. I can't imagine -- it can get to -20 here. During the summers, though, he lived on a hammock under the willows nearby. Now, considering they had to have some strength to handle a hammock, we estimate their age to be 150+ years old. In some places, the trunks were 8' across. Notice the past tense...

wellhouse, cave in hill at right
At some point, Homesteader put in a well. Ten feet from that well is a depression that fills with the water table in the spring, and we can generally gauge the depth of water by it. I don't know if that was there originally and thus led to the digging of the well, but it's an easy assumption. Up until this year, I know of only reddish muddy water and a dead porcupine there. Homesteader ran some kind of cattle operation (maybe just his own), and clearly had a horse, so there was a need to water livestock, as well as himself. I'm sure he watered a few porcupines, deer, coyotes and other wild critters there too over the years.

Dude remembers the well looking much like it did this spring. It's always been a dilapidated shack on top of a well of unknown proportions, filled with dead leaves and branches, surrounded by large rocks, and adorned by numerous old motors and equipment. He helped Unc run new pipes from this well to the orchard as a youngster.
note orange tail mid-pic
As we inherited it, the pipes were rotted out and broken, and what little water showed up in the spring (if we were brave enough to wander through the grass) was covered so thickly with detritus that the cats and dogs could walk on it. Yes, there was water, but it would clog up any attempt to remove it. Looking across the front of the scene, there was a 5'x3' rectangle of open well at the north side of the structure, comprising what I came to know as the Willow Well.

Stay tuned for Part 2, The Demolition...

Friday, July 17, 2015

When It Rains, It Pours

Well, not in the desert, but that's another blog post....

I was so excited to stay home this year and get all these projects done. Demolition, construction, canning, gardening, design, remodeling... my dreams were so big! But alas, life happens. I've already posted about the car accident in the Gauntlet; I'm done with treatment, but that finger is now permanently deformed, making opening jars even harder, let alone any other jobs requiring hand strength or dexterity. Minor repairs to our backhoe have gotten in the way of doing certain things at various times. The gleaners program in Big Town keeps taking me away from my to-do list, and then the massive plunder I return with has kept me busy outside of my to-do list for weeks at a time (at least my pantry is being stocked). We're ready for water in the garden, but the manufacturer of the solar pump system we ordered is behind schedule as well, so there my empty dirt plot sits. 100+ temps two months early have driven animals and humans alike into shade and temp-controlled environments, while plants bake in the sun and crops mature faster than normal (our wheat was done being harvested ten days before the normal harvest start time -- unheard of in the last two decades at least). With the Parson and his family moving in next door, we have even more to do, and no time to do it. My tablet was destroyed by a well-meaning, but uninformed youngster, and for a time, all three of us were sharing one computer -- I had forgotten how difficult that was! In that disaster, I lost most of the spring's pics of our work, which really makes me not want to post about them. And honestly, as much as I love teaching Bible studies, it's another thing right now that is sucking time and energy away from the ranch -- important to me, but just wondering how far I can be stretched.

I'm overwhelmed. That phrase "this much to do" is currently not a favorite.

But on we work, as heat, schedules, health and God Himself allow. So, forgive us if posts aren't a priority right now. I'll try to get some notes in for you now and then... maybe on rainy days.

Yeah, right.