Friday, August 31, 2012

Happy Weekend

I got to take the day off today. So I was able to go hiking before it gets too hot. I walked from our rental house up to our building site (its just a few miles up) and spent time taking measurements and contemplating furniture sizes and placement. Then I got to hike back home and here was my view.

Seriously. Its like heaven. Am I lucky or what? What a great day off - what a great place to live!

My life is a very, very scenic byway every day these days.

Have a wonderful weekend and get out there and see your scenic byway.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Desert Holes

Desert Holes. I am obsessed by them. Go ahead and laugh. Yes, it is funny. But these desert holes are everywhere out here - various shapes and sizes and no clue as to who dug them and who lives there. I walk around wondering about this quite a lot. I want to know what lives in those holes.

Bed time reading
We are hiring a local biologist to carry out an assessment of our land - we are required to do this, particularly a search for the endangered and protected Desert Tortoise. I don't think we have any tortoises on our land anywhere, although I would love it if we did. This area just isn't a hot spot for the tortoise like some other areas.

Anyway I shared with him my fascination of desert holes and he graciously loaned me this book - A Field Guide to Desert Holes. I am so glad someone did this book. I've read it and its very informative and interesting. It not only covers holes, it talks about depressions, mounds, elevated holes and borrowed/modified shelters (a lot of creatures steal other creatures holes and change them for their own needs).

I don't think we have any desert tortoise holes on our property. I think a lot of these holes I see are for small rodents (we have cute ones out here) or spiders. Not just tarantulas, but other smaller ones. I have a bit of a pickle with spiders. I know they are important and I appreciate that and I don't want to ever kill them. I just do not want them in my house. Or touching me.

I've never seen a tarantula in the wild and I am actually looking forward to seeing them. Outside. Just not in my house. You don't see them very often out here. My husband says he has only seen a few in the 20+ years he has been coming out here. They stay under ground. They stay in their desert holes. (And now, thanks to my little guide on Desert Holes, I know which holes might be the ones inhabited by tarantulas.)

When they were digging up the ground for our septic tank last week they pulled up a little tarantula buried like 5 feet under the ground. I had no idea they would go that deep. I wasn't there to see it. I am still waiting to see the photos he took. I felt bad for the little guy.

The male tarantulas migrate in the Fall in search of females and sometimes if you are lucky you will see a large mass migration. I would like to see that. Just maybe not right outside my door. Someone was telling me that tarantulas have migration patterns and if one of those paths goes through your yard, you have to disclose that when you sell your home. Unique things you have to think about out here in the west.

Yesterday I learned that they sell the Desert Holes book at the Joshua Tree Visitors Center gift shop. I will be buying my own copy soon so when you come to visit us you can read it and be in the know about the holes.

Building a Home as an Owner-Builder

We are building a very unique house off-grid out in the California desert and I really love the way we are doing it. In home building terms we are doing this as an owner-builder. We already owned the land so we started with that big hurdle already crossed. We have a family member who is not an architect, but who has a lifetime experience building homes, who happened to live in the area, who happened to not have any other projects going on, and who happened to be making a life change that allowed him to take on leading and managing our project, and to reside temporarily up on our land to be right there at the construction site for convenience and security. Our wonderful families were able to step in and help us with financing the construction (when we are built we will secure a mortgage with a bank and pay them back). All the stars aligned.

We could afford hiring our family member to design our house - doing it all on our own, just the three of us. He did it old school. No computers and fancy software. He sat at a table and drew and drew and drew.

We worked on the house design and plans for many months last year. We started in the summer of 2011 and design work went on until January. Version after version, slowly morphing into what became our final design. We were still living in SLC until July so every month we would drive down here to the desert over a weekend and sit and meet with him in his little work room discussing the plans and making changes. When our design was final, he then drew all of the many plans you need to build a home  - elevation, electrical, plumbing, etc. - again all by hand. His skill is amazing. This is a man who never went to school for this, but he knows all of this from years and years and years of real life experience building homes. A true craftsman. When those plans went in for review (they have to be reviewed and signed off on by an official engineer before you get a building permit), they were in fantastic shape. A tweak here or there was all that was required.

We submitted our designs for permits in January. We broke ground in March. We poured the concrete slab in May. We moved here in July just after the framing started. Framing is almost done as is the plumbing. We are now designing our electrical plans. The roofing starts on Monday. Then windows and doors and drywalling inside and siding outside. We are about half way there and there is A LOT still remaining to do. We hope to move in by December. Fingers crossed.

My husband is managing the overall project - its a full time job and now that we are down here he spends every week day up there from early in the morning until late in the afternoon. Our family member noted above is managing the construction and our small work crew is composed of friends and friends of friends.

We were going to hire a company to do the framing and at the very last minute they started talking about how they weren't sure they would be able to do the work for the price and the costs would go up and they weren't sure how much, blah, blah. We said forget it and hired our own crew of individuals. So now we have this group of local guys, friends and long-time acquaintances doing the framing. Actually it has been a crew like this since the beginning. It is probably taking a little longer than it would to just hire some company to do it, but we feel really good about the work that is being done. The cost will be the same, maybe a little more, but part of that is us having to buy all the scaffolding and tools, which isn't such a bad thing because now we own all of that stuff and we can use it again. And the other great thing about this situation? We are providing some good, steady work to people we know and care about. This whole arrangement feels so good and so right. It really feels like we are keeping this building process in the community and sharing the wealth so to speak. If we are going to spend money, I like spending it locally and with good people.

In addition to the beauty of engaging good people to build the house, we get to be intimately involved in every aspect of the construction process. We are renting a house only minutes away from our land. My husband is at the construction site every day, involved in every decision. I do my work at home as a telecommuter, following an east coast schedule which means I work from 6 am to 2 pm. That allows me time to go up to the construction site in the afternoons to see the progress and participate in some things. Unlike buying an already existing house, we get to make the decisions on every square inch of the house inside and out.

Building a house is a huge investment, but in terms of cost it can be the same or less cost as buying an already existing house. We figure the way we are doing it this will cost us less than what we would spend to go out and buy a similar type of existing home and it is costing us about half of what it would cost to go the more formal route with new construction of hiring an architect, construction company, etc. We've done an early appraisal and the planned house is valued at about double of what we are building it for. Plus, we are going to have a unique house, designed by us, the way we want it.

I feel so blessed by our good fortune.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Rattlesnake Catcher

Some rattlesnakes have started coming around the construction site lately. So Paul created our very own rattle snake catcher. There it is on top of the bucket where you put the snakes after you catch them so you can drive them far away from your space (apparently they are territorial).  As I look at this photo I am thinking we might need a deeper bucket.

Rattlesnakes are our neighbors here. That is just the reality. You don't see them often, but they do come around now and then. About two weeks back we spotted a baby rattler one evening. I wasn't even paying attention (and I was wearing flip flops) and I walked right on past it without even seeing it. Thankfully he wasn't in attack mode. He didn't rattle until we tried to chase him away so we wouldn't run over him with our car as we were leaving the building site.  Then our friend spotted a different one the next day which got me worried that we might have a rattler family around the house.

When the little guy we saw finally moved out of the way and coiled himself up and started rattling to warn us, my adrenaline was racing. Its scary when they get upset like that. Plus I have learned that they do not necessarily have to be coiled up to attack. That is a myth. They may attack you from any position.

But they tell me that rattlesnakes aren't aggressive and tend to stay away and keep to themselves. Its the green mojaves you have to worry about. I knew there were rattlesnakes out here but I had never heard of a green mojave. You can survive a rattlesnake bite, but apparently you are at great risk if you get bit by a green mojave. Shit. Thankfully very few people claim to have seen them out here. I am hoping they just don't exist around where we live. Because apparently they are very aggressive. And they climb up in trees and bushes. And did I mention they are way more poisonous than a rattler?

Anyway, we have a lot of people working on the house right now and piles of wood and things around the construction site, so if we see them again, we need to remove them. The funny thing is we haven't seen them since, so either they are hiding (there are lots of places to hide near by) or they've moved on. I would prefer to find them and remove them as I tend to think they couldn't have moved that far away.

Pretty clever that Paul crafted that snake catcher himself. I knew what a snake catcher looks like, but where do you get one if you don't make it? Is there a place where you go to buy this thing? You need a long stick with a loop at the end that you can use to tighten around the snakes head or close enough to keep the head away from you. I've never been around to watch someone use one of these and catch one. I can just imagine how agitated the rattlesnake is going to be when you do this to him or her.

I've learned that the baby ones are the most dangerous. When I asked why, the answer I got was because they haven't yet learned how to deal with situations when they are confronted with animals or humans that might threaten them, thus they might attack more readily or use way more venom than they need for the size of the animal or human. Nice. I am on the look out. And remind me to do some research about what to do and where to go if you get bit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bath Tub Shopping

This is the kind of thing you end up doing when you are building a house.


This is fantastic. I found it in a local shop in Yucca Valley. I love love love bad art. I did not buy it. I admire bad art from afar.


Cottontails to be exact.

We have many in our back yard. They are so sweet and tame.

Bunnies love veggie scraps

It was a hot day for the bunnies. (I think this one was a Jack.)

They love corn chips.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Desert Living Life Lessons, Part 2

  • Eventually the ants will find the pet food bowl inside the house. Its only a matter of time. Those ants are crafty little buggers. So smart. The other day I walked over to check on the cat food bowl and it was crawling with tiny, tiny ants. They had made it through the door near the bowl and found treasure. Sigh. I cleaned up and moved the bowl to another part of the house and now I will be more diligent. A friend gave me a good tip. If it keeps happening you sit the food bowl inside of a larger bowl with just a small amount of water all around. Clever,  and good to know.
  • And of course - after an evening with friends outside on the porch, always remember to bring all the glasses inside. Especially if they contained sambuca! I know this, but I went to bed early before the others and wasn't there to clean up. I woke up in the morning and looked outside to witness the ant party going on all over those glasses and the table. Do ants get drunk? I have to think these ones were.  
  • Don't get complacent just because you haven't seen any rattle snakes around for a long time. Because when you aren't paying attention, and least expect it, and are foolishly wearing flip flops, you will almost step on one. That happened to me one evening last week on our building site. We were there with a friend discussing design things and walked out to the car and oops there it was, right by the car. I didn't even see it because I wasn't paying attention. Lesson learned. And I need to read up on what you do if you do get bit.
  • If you put vegetable scraps out for the cottontails, they will become very bold and trusting and show up regularly. We have bunny entertainment every evening in our yard. 
  • If you use too much water at once - for example we water the landlord's plants and trees frequently - you might drain the water down too low in the well tank and then you are going to have some pretty unsightly brown water for awhile until it refills itself because you will hit dirt and mineral residue at the bottom.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Desert Christ Park

Desert Christ Park sits on a hill overlooking the town of Yucca Valley. It is a small park (3.5 acres) with 40 bright white statues depicting Jesus and his teachings. The park has been around since 1951, the work of sculptor Antone Martin who started sculpting the statues during the cold war, hoping they would inspire world peace. You can walk or drive around the park every day during daylight hours. Its an odd little place and worth a visit.

Yucca Valley Attraction!

The gang's all here!

I call this one Sassy Jesus!

Teaching Jesus.

Wild with this desert back drop.

Hallelujah Jesus

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Wonders of the West

We are so fortunate to be living out here in the high desert, in Pioneertown in the Pipes Canyon area, and to be living in the most amazing rental house while our house building is completed. The house sits in this amazing desert valley area, surrounded by Joshua Trees and a natural landscape of desert plants stretching out as far as you can see. There are neighbors, but they aren't close. The house is full of natural light. Ceiling fans and the occasional swamp cooler run keep the house cool even at this hottest time of the year. Inside the house it is shaded all the time, so it stays cool. And we have a back porch that is always shaded, welcoming you to sit outside, especially in the evenings as the sun starts setting. Out here in the high desert the sunsets are amazing. 

Life feels so much closer to nature and the environment, the elements, out here in the high desert. You tend to want to go to bed early and 6:30 am feels like sleeping in. It is so quiet. Most of the time you do not hear anything but the birds. Can I tell you how much I love that? How rare it is to find that in this day and age in the US? Even out in the mountains and the forests on the east coast I could often still hear traffic far away in the distance from some highway. But that is one of the beauties of the West, right? Its the last place of wide open spaces here in our beautiful country. You may know this, but you don't really feel it until you actually come here and spend time moving around these big, beautiful, desolate states - Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana parts of Colorado and California. 

As a life time east-coast resident, this has been such a beautiful new world out here. There is so, so much to explore. We lived in Utah for two years and barely scratched the surface of seeing the parks and wild lands there. I look forward to seeing all of it, spending the rest of my life seeing everything out here in Utah, Nevada and California and Arizona and other states. It is so funny that I was such the east coast person and now I find myself in this whole other world. I do love the east coast - so much beauty in those mid-Atlantic states and up into New England. I adore the landscapes of my home in Pennsylvania, and still have small dreams of a small farmhouse and farm out in the country or a cabin up in those gorgeous woods, but I can't really say I miss it back there. 

People are always asking me if I miss living in Washington, or miss the east coast, and without hesitation I can say no. I do not. I guess its because there is so much to see out here. I am too busy exploring and being in the now to miss my past.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Look out the Window

Every day out here in Pioneertown I see something beautiful. I am fortunate to work from home and my desk here in our cute little rental home looks out sliding glass doors onto a porch and into the desert. Occasionally I look up and a different, little surprise awaits me every day.

Yesterday I saw a road runner walking around the yard. I haven't seen many of them and usually if you do see them they are running madly across the road so you don't get much opportunity to really see them. This little guy was walking slowly around the yard giving me a chance to really watch him.

The day before that I was washing my face in the bathroom and I looked out the window to see a swarm of dragon flies. I don't know where they came from but for several hours that afternoon we had dragon flies everywhere around outside. It was amazing. I also saw a hummingbird.

Twice I've seen coyotes run through the back yard. Every morning and evening the yard is full of cottontail rabbits. The best is when they play with each other, hopping almost a foot off the ground and chasing each other. We have a number of scrub jays who hang out. And we have two quail families with rapidly growing young ones who noisily march around the yard mornings and evenings. Occasionally we see lizards and chipmunks. The desert is full of life.

Its a good reminder to stop what you are doing every once in awhile, get up and go look out the window. Even if you aren't sitting in the desert, or in nature, there is usually always something beautiful and interesting out your window.

Rancho Mirage

I visited Rancho Mirage yesterday for the first time. This Coachella Valley area includes a number of small cities that all flow together including Pam Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indio and Coachella. Its like this long swath of development in the middle of the desert. This area is only a short drive from our home in Pioneertown - about 30-40 miles.

What an odd place. Its this green oasis (just like a mirage I suppose) in the middle of the low desert. Streets are named after Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Dinah Shore and so on. It reminds me of the 70s - I guess because when I was a kid in the 70s those stars were still very much around. The place is full of beautifully manicured, and very green, streets,  massive gated communities, so many golf courses and country clubs (12 of them!), Indian casinos, and many, many, many doctors offices and hospitals. I saw endless dental and plastic surgery places and the Betty Ford Center. Its good to know that if I ever find myself with a substance abuse issue I can head on down to the BFC.

Lots of spas too, and you can get very good deals in the summer when its too hot for tourists. And the whole place is full of retirees. Its one big retirement party. Everywhere you go the place is full of people my parents' age. Yes of course there are young people in these areas, but you see a lot more elderly people than you in other places. Its just unusual.

As odd as this area is out here in the desert, I am grateful to have this area exist, and so close to our home. I wouldn't want to live down in there - too developed and too hot - but being able to easily access this area for shopping and restaurants and entertainment is a very nice perk to living out here.

Pioneertown has Pappy & Harriets, which is awesome, but sometimes you want some variety. Yucca Valley is a fairly big town, but it lacks a lot in the way of shopping. It is a very functional town. It has a decent grocery store (Vons), drug stores, a Home Depot, a Walmart, a movie theater, and a Starbucks. It has a number of fast food places and it has an Applebees (that apparently has a very active bar scene), but generally the eating out situation leaves a lot to be desired. We do have our favorite Mexican place, and there's always Ma Rouge (but not open for dinner), the Rib Co. has a decent italian place in the back, and there is a Subway, but it gets old fast. I like to cook and eat in so its ok, but sometimes you want to go to a nice restaurant or need to do more specialized shopping and the Palm Springs/Rancho Mirage area offers all of that. They have a Trader Joes! I was excited to learn that a Whole Foods is coming to Palm Desert in the Fall of 2013. That is a long way off, but it will be good to have that. Yes, WF is expensive, but I like to buy meat from there. Its nice to have options.

The Rancho Mirage area is not the best place to head to in the summer. Seriously it was 104 yesterday when we were there - which actually isn't bad given that I've heard about 118 degree temperatures down there of late. I listen to this classic rock station on the car radio that comes out of the Coachella Valley (one of the few radio stations I can get around here) and I love to hear the weather report. Its always talk about the temperatures down there in the valley being like 109 or something. It can be hot up here in the sun, but even here in the height of the summer heat its more like in the 90s. Our temperatures up here in the high desert are always 10-20+ degrees cooler than down in the valley.

Our trip there was a quick one to visit a bathroom and kitchen showroom - we have to decide on our bathroom plumbing valves for the house we are building - but we will be heading back there soon for some more home building and other shopping.

After the bathroom showroom visit, and full on jalapeƱo martinis and Hawaiian fusion food from a place called Roy's, followed by Ben & Jerry's milkshakes (which probably was an unnecessary and not so great idea), we headed back up to our home in the high desert, grateful for the drop in temperature as we climbed in elevation, and I caught this shot of the sun setting behind San Jacinto, the big mountain that sits over Palm Springs. Beautiful end to a nice little afternoon Byway adventure.