Archive for May, 2010
A month has passed since our arrival here at the house in Round Hill, Nova Scotia. The weather hasn’t always been pleasant, but I’ve worked away at the place, mainly trying to get the yard in order, and assessing which projects to tackle this season. The goals that I set have to be realistic. I’m one person working alone. If I push myself too hard, I’ll risk injury and it just wouldn’t be as pleasant here. This is a wonderful area and it’s good to remind myself of that from time to time so that I’ll make time to get out and about occasionally.
Sage and Sabrina have begun to settle in. There was one bad scare after Sabrina wandered off the second morning here. I found her walking along the far side of the highway just a minute after turning my back to move something from the van into the house. Sage was standing by the van with a rather shocked and “oh no!” look on her face. My spider senses told me Sabrina must have gone to the road so I ran straight there to look for her. Sure enough, she was ambling along as though she knew where she was going. I felt sick at the thought of how she could have been hit by a car. Sabrina used to be great about staying around the house, but over the past couple of years, she’s developed an odd tendency toward going off exploring on her own. I’m not sure if it’s an old dog thing, or if it’s that we’ve traveled so much that she feels all the world is her oyster and its calling her name. Whatever, it’s become a problem. That afternoon, I paid my first of many visits to the local lumber yard to buy materials for construction of a “dog fence”. It’s a work in progress, but the main section is up now – and visible in the above photo. Also visible are some perennial flowers which I bought from a woman who was reducing the size of her cut flower operation. I suppose that digging up new garden beds for flowers is about the last thing I needed to be doing over the past couple of weeks, but the work will seem worth it once the flowers begin to bloom later this spring.
Outdoors, I’ve been cutting back tree branches and brush that was pressing on one side of the house, making a couple of trails through the wilder parts of the property to allow river access, and generally just keeping the yard tidy.
As for the house – what can I say? There is a ton of work to be done. So many things calling to be taken care of, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. My priority for this season is to get the outside of the house closed in — and by that I mean, to repair and paint all of the siding and wood trim so that things won’t deteriorate any farther than they already have. On sunny days, I can be found scraping, repairing, renailing and painting the old shiplap siding. The house will be painted with something more colorful, but for now, it’s gradually acquiring an expanding layer of white primer. I’m beginning with all that I can reach from the ground and will set up some scaffolding when it’s time to work on the higher sections.
I’ll be the first to admit that there have been some “SHRIEK” moments as I’ve uncovered or opened certain things around the house. The outside basement stairwell is probably about the scariest thing so far. They are a crumbling mess of boulders and cement. I’m sure that most people would be cursing at some of the things I’ve seen over the past four weeks of getting to know this place, but most of the time I just laugh. In fact, last week, I told my nearest neighbour that if he hears me laughing, it’s probably because I’ve discovered some new disaster. I suppose the strange part is that I really don’t mind these small catastrophes. After all of the things I’ve been through in recent years, it takes so much to faze me that it’s pretty hard to take any of this too seriously. I will deal with each thing in time – when I have the time, inclination, and energy. That’s the only way I know how to operate anymore.
Of course, a place as old as this (c. 1867) has plenty of small surprises lying in wait. I’ve set up a couple of “museum” areas in the yard – atop old stumps – where I display the most recent treasures unearthed while digging up perennial beds or clearing the yard of old chunks of wood and other detritus. There’s so much of this stuff all over the place on the hillsides that it’s sure to be almost like an archaeological dig as I gradually work my way over the whole property. So far, no treasure chests have been found – but plenty of square-headed nails and odd bits of hand-forged iron. I’ll try to remember to post more photos sometime soon. The shell was a bit of a surprise, but I found other fragments of shells around the same area of the yard and can only surmise that someone had collected shells and they were then tossed out onto the hillside.
Over the past week or so, I’ve spent rainy days running errands, or working on the Room of the Scary Athletic Wallpaper. There’s something about it that reminds me of those rooms at Pompeii, or the Etruscan tombs, which are named after some motif found on the walls. With hammer, chisel, scrapers, and crowbar, I’ve been gradually removing the old chunks of plaster from the lath. Of course, that process has revealed other horrors – no insulation in the walls (no great surprise in a house of this age), and being able to see the grass growing outside through some of the cracks in the shiplap siding. Needless to say, my decision to prioritize fixing the siding and getting the house properly weatherproof has already been vindicated.
So, that’s how things have been going for the past month. I may be biased, but I’d say that things are already looking a little nicer around here. If I don’t lose too much momentum over the summer, the place should be at least half-way respectable looking by autumn. As for me, I’m doing okay. It’s difficult being here alone, wishing that Don were here too. This is the future that we had worked toward. Last week, I drove over the central highland area of Nova Scotia on my way over to Bridgewater. There are lakes and rivers scattered all along that route – most with a nice access point for canoes and kayaks. If Don were here, I know that by now, we would have put down our tools and loaded up the canoe to go out tripping around at least once or twice already. However, I’m here alone and the canoe is back in Ottawa. At some point this summer, I’ll make a trip back to Ottawa to pick it up. It would be nice to get out on the water at least a time or two this season.
In an update at the foot of my last post, I mentioned that Sabrina, Sage and I had completed our eastward journey to the new-old place which I bought in Nova Scotia. Without some background, the entire relocation project might appear to have been seamless. However, it was anything but that. In this post, I’ll try to give a rough outline of how we got to be here. If nothing else, this story might illustrate how much I’ve come to trust instinct, luck and fate over and above caution and careful planning. I wasn’t always this way, but the past couple of years of dealing with Don’s illness, death, and my “going it alone” have radically altered my decision-making process. I no longer steer in the direction of that which seems sensible, practical, safe or easy, but plot my course based on what “feels right” to me in spite of how off-the-wall it may seem. My path is rarely ever easy, but more often strewn with countless obstacles and challenges. I can’t recommend this way of thinking for everyone, but it is the only way I know how to carry on and make sense out of what has happened to my life.
To begin, if you’ve followed this and my older blog, Burning Silo, you will know that Don and I felt a strong connection to Nova Scotia. Our long range goal had always been to work and pay off our farm near Ottawa, then semi-retire somewhere in Nova Scotia when Don turned fifty-five. The disparity in land prices in the two regions remain such that we knew we could sell our Ontario farm and buy a suitable older place in Nova Scotia for a fraction of the price. As Don approached his target retirement age, we began to gear up toward selling the farm with the intention of moving in the spring of 2008. In summer 2007, after recovering from my surgery in 2006, I began work on repairs and clean-up around the farm. Don continued to work that year, looking forward to 2008 with great anticipation. Of course, most of you know the story of what actually transpired. In summer 2007, Don began to have respiratory problems which were initially thought to be related to the asthma and allergies which bothered him more some years than others. After a series of attempts to cure the problem with inhalers, he was eventually diagnosed with a form of lung cancer – already stage 4 – and given a prognosis of just a few months at best.
In one afternoon, our long-cherished plan to spend our retirement years together, hiking and canoeing, gardening, and restoring an old farmhouse in Nova Scotia were entirely dashed. All that remained to us were a few precious months during which we spent every second together as Don gave chemo and radiation treatments a try in order to stave off the inevitable. With Don’s death in early September 2008, all of our hopes and dreams and a large part of the person I was, died with him. A month or so later, with our weak and aging dog, Sabrina, I set out in an somewhat decrepit Windstar van, bound for the west and then southwest U.S. to spend our first winter “on the road”. Last summer, I returned to our farm to ready it for sale while disposing of many of our possessions and moving the rest into storage. Sabrina was much improved after our winter in the south, and we were now joined by a new collie pup, Sage. Due to some unforeseen glitches, the sale of the farm took longer than expected to complete. I had hoped to buy a place in Nova Scotia that summer, but the uncertainty of the farm sale caused me to delay until there was no practical point in trying to find a place so late in the season. Instead, I packed up our newly acquired used van, and departed to spend a few months traveling west and then back for a second winter in Bisbee, Arizona. That’s the back story – the ancient history – that brings us to the story of the new-old Nova Scotia house.
Last winter, in my spare moments, I perused through online real estate listings for Nova Scotia. My goal was to find an older house on a quiet, out of the way tract of land. I was looking for a house that needed plenty of work and would keep me busy as I have found that the only way to manage the pain of loss is to throw myself into almost-impossible projects. I was not looking for a house that needed a new porch and a coat of paint. I wanted something that was still standing, but just. A place that was of architectural interest, but that was in need of serious restoration efforts. I bookmarked a number of potential places and began making inquiries with real estate agents. One or two responded quickly, but I found that most did not seem to be interested – perhaps feeling that my inquiries were too insincere. Fortunately, I lucked onto a new agent to the Annapolis Valley region, Lynn Drennan. I told her my story and what kind of property I was looking for. After several back and forth emails, she quickly intuited the kind of information I needed. I sent her a list of URLs to the properties I had bookmarked over the winter. She began going through it, making inquiries to listing agents, and sending me whatever bits and pieces she could dig up for each place. One of the houses appeared on my list as a “possible but probably not”. It was a very poorly maintained old place set on a couple of acres of land bordering on a creek. I had included it mainly out of curiosity as it had been for sale for several years – Don and I had both noticed it probably as long as 3 or 4 years ago while looking through the MLS listings. The problem was that it had only 2 acres of land. While I was more than willing to consider a house in very poor condition, I wasn’t too keen on a smaller property as it probably would not have the solitude and privacy I was looking for. However, there was just something about this place – the way it seemed comfortably set among mature trees (photo from original listing file). Lynn checked it out and sent some information along with a batch on a couple of other places on my list. When I saw a lot plan of the property, my curiosity turned to excitement. It looked as though the house was set back quite well from the road (a rarity in Nova Scotia) and had an irregular-shaped lot with a long frontage on a brook – one that went on and on back out behind the place as the property became increasingly narrow toward the back end.
I quickly wrote back to Lynn to ask if she’d ever actually seen this property. She replied that she’d noticed it in the listings and had been curious as it was a somewhat unusual old place. She knew it wasn’t possible for me to come out to see the property (I was still in Bisbee), so she volunteered to go out and take a look, shoot some photos, and report back to me. A day later, I had the first batch of photos of the place. Let me begin by saying that I thought Lynn was pretty brave to go out to this place in February, walk around in the snow outside taking photos, then go indoors and shoot photos and little video clips of what actually seemed like a rather spooky old place filled with old stuff. In a matter of hours, she uploaded and sent me the photos and videos. Although there were a few somewhat scary things about the house – structural problems that would require work – I was not deterred by the images. In fact, the photos of the property convinced me that I could almost entirely overlook the house’s shortcomings. I decided to submit an offer on the property. All of this was done over the internet and by emails. After making my offer, Lynn volunteered to go back to the house one more time to shoot a few more photos and video clips. I had made a “wish list” of things I would like to see in better detail so that I’d have a better handle on the condition of the place – the electric panel, the water pump, the basement and foundation, certain views of the property that would give me a better impression of the proximity of neighbouring houses, etc.. Lynn went out once more and shot more photos and videos to send. After viewing the second round of images, I was quite sure that I liked the property – in fact, I was even more sure about this – but admit that there were a few “Yikes!” and “Egads!” moments from the logistical side of me. No matter — that was what I was looking for in the first place.
I suppose the rest is now history. After more back and forth emails and forms being signed, witnessed and sent from Bisbee, the transaction proceeded. It looked as though we would have a “home” for the summer after traveling north and east in the early spring. However, the trip home was not without its own difficulties. We ran into snow and cold at almost every turn. Just before Brandon, Manitoba, I noticed that one of the van’s front tires was looking “weird” so I searched around town that evening and could not find an open tire shop. Then I thought, “What the heck, I’ll go to Canadian Tire Store!” The other three tires were looking pretty rough too, so I had them all replaced that evening — the service people managed to fit my truck in and get all of the tires changed so that I would be ready to roll again in the morning. We stayed a night at a motel in Kenora, then another camped in the yard of a friend’s cabin up on Lake Superior – they are in Ottawa until spring. The next day, we drove through snow for several hours and made it as far as Sturgeon Falls by night. In the morning, the van wouldn’t start. I called CAA and they sent a tow truck out to try giving it a boost. The van sputtered a bit but would not start. There were no garages open in town as it was a Sunday. Resigned to being stuck in town another night, I checked with the motel I had stayed at and registered for a second night. However, just before going to my room, I gave the van another try and it started up. I canceled the room and began the last leg of the journey to my mom’s house in Ottawa. We made it there by late afternoon.
I’d like to say things went smoothly from there on out, but what kind of story would that be? I took the van for an oil and transmission filter and fluid change and they accidentally broke the speed sensor off the transmission and had to order another one. Then, the next morning, the van wouldn’t start – acting the way it had up in Sturgeon Falls. My brother and I deduced that the ignition wires might be the problem as the battery showed plenty of charge. He drove me to an auto parts place where I bought a set of wires, distributor cap, rotor, and air filter. The next morning, I pulled the dog house (console) out of the inside of the van and changed all the parts. At one point, my mom came out of the house and peered in the door of the van at me. I was kneeling between the front seats of the van, wearing my reading glasses, and tugging on a plug wire that didn’t want to come undone. I looked up and said, “Don’t worry, mom, I can’t get electrocuted doing this.” Satisfied by my answer, she said, “Amazing” and went back indoors. I think the problem was actually the rotor as the contact on it looked pretty ratty. After replacing everything, the van started up smoothly as soon as I turned the key. I’d bought a trailer while in Ottawa and took it to a friend’s farm to pick up the lawn tractor and its wagon stored there since last summer, then to the storage locker place to get my power tools and other necessary stuff for working on the house.
A week after arriving in Ottawa, I was back on the road to Nova Scotia, driving through Montreal with a trailer in tow. It seemed a long trip for me – even after all the miles I’ve driven crossing North America. I’m not sure why this was so. A slight apprehensiveness over the house? It’s something like 1200 kilometers (750 miles) from my mom’s house to the new-old place in Round Hill. I made it in two long days of driving. Lynn met me at the off ramp for Annapolis Royal and led the way to the house. It was great meeting her “in person” after all of our emails. Until that point, we had not even talked on the phone. I suppose the whole transaction is a testament to how completely I function using the internet – finding and renting the Bisbee house, buying my van, finding my latest Collie, and now buying our home – using the internet and following my instincts when emailing back and forth with people. Some people are amazed and think it strange, but for me, it all seems pretty normal. I suspect I may be more comfortable and better at reading between the lines of an email, than at reading people’s voices and body language.
And so it was that we came to our new-old home in Round Hill. I’ll have more to write about the house and the region, but that will be the stuff of future posts. For now, all I wanted to say is that at just under three weeks after arriving here, I’m still feeling good about the decision. Yes, there are problems that have to be sorted out, and the house will need a terrific amount of work over the next few months. However, I love the old place already. It’s got a lot of character. Unlike many old homes, the inside has not been messed with terribly much since it was built. Although rough, the exterior is actually in reasonably good shape and all of the millwork is in place. That which isn’t good enough to restore can at least be used as a pattern. I’ve done some work on the shiplap siding and have begun applying a primer to several sections over the past week or so. I’ve begun removing windows and repairing them as needed. Meanwhile, on rainy days, I’ve begun doing some work on the interior as well. The dogs follow me from place to place, lying down to watch. We take time out to walk down to the brook at least a couple of times a day. The night skies are good, as are sunrises and sunsets. The Spring Peepers begin calling in the evening and we hear Loons calling from the marsh behind this place at night. Great Blue Herons fly up the brook to fish, or to perch on the topmost branches of the spruce trees. All in all, its a good place to be. I believe we may have found our heart’s home.