When I was growing up, my Mom and I would drive from Richmond, VA (where we lived), to Gilmanton Iron Works (GIW), NH, to spend the summer at the family cottage. Our first trip was in 1960 – the year we moved to Richmond in January – and our last was in 1969 – the year I graduated from high school. The trip initially took two days, but as the Interstate system was built, we eventually managed to do the entire trip in one (long) day, leaving Richmond about 10 AM and arriving in GIW around midnight.
It was always a jolt to get out of the car at the cottage. That very morning, we had left hot, muggy summer weather (we left very soon after the school year ended). By the time we arrived at the cottage, it was completely different. The air was cooler and crisper; the sky was darker; and the sounds were rural instead of suburban. I still remember getting out of the car and just standing for a few moments, drinking in the sigh of the wind in the pines, the uncountable bright stars in the dark sky, and the scent of the New Hampshire woods. And, often enough, shivering because I was dressed for hot, muggy Virginia and not cool, dry New Hampshire.
For many years, I called that cottage “home.” I first went there at age 6 months, and I spent every summer there except one (when I was in Europe for two months) until I went off to the Air Force in 1973. I’ve been away long enough that I no longer call it “home” – Arizona has taken that spot – but I still relish those memories.
And it’s a good thing, too, because they’ve been resurrected twice in the past year.
The first time was last June, when Wynne and I traveled from Tucson to Silver City, NM, for a conference. We got to our lodging well after dark, and when I got out of the truck … WHAM! The wind in the pines, the scent of the trees, the stars in the sky, and the MUCH cooler temperatures took me right back to GIW. We spent a great weekend in the cabin (well, some of the time was in the cabin – the rest was at the conference) and plan to go back someday, simply for the pleasure of the location.
The second time was tonight, and it was tonight’s tug on the memories that prompted me to write this. Once again, we left Tucson’s heat and drove through the afternoon to get to our lodging for the weekend. When we got to Pine, AZ (yes, there is a town called Pine – go look it up) and found our room, I was again pulled back to a late-May night in the 1960s, at the end of a 13-hour drive with Mom from VA to NH. The temperatures were similar, the stars are the same, and the scents and sounds are close enough. Additionally, the first thing we did was unload the truck and bring our clothes, food, and other weekend supplies into the room (just like Mom and I used to unpack the car and get the essentials into the cottage the night we arrived). It’s one of three in a small cabin with a wide front porch and some steps up from the gravel drive. There were so many similarities between tonight and that May night 50-odd years ago that it was easy to drift back in time and pretend, for only a moment or two, that I wasn’t in Arizona at all, but at a cottage on Crystal Lake in Gilmanton Iron Works, New Hampshire.
I hope your childhood memories, or at least some of them, are as good as this one is for me.
No, this isn’t one of my usual travelogue posts – not that I’ve actually *written* any “usual travelogue posts” (or any other posts, for that matter) lately…
Instead, this is about the current resident of the White House, and something I decided to do.
Warning: If you are just fine with the 45th President, you might not like the rest of this post. If you read it anyway, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
There have been, and will continue to be, many many different ways to protest against this person – ranging from marches to rallies to postcard campaigns to get-out-the-vote campaigns, and many more.
But I decided to do something different. In addition to sending postcards and emails to my Representative and Senators, I decided to write to all five living former Presidents (Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, and Carter) and ask them to stand up, as a bipartisan group, and speak out against the worst excesses of the current Oval Office occupant.
Here is my letter:
“Dear President [ ],
“I’m writing to you and your fellow Presidents Emeriti and asking you, as a group, to please speak out against the worst excesses of President Trump.
“I realize there’s an unwritten rule that past Presidents don’t comment on their successors’ policies, plans, or actions. I respect that. But the current occupant of the Oval Office is so totally at odds with everything our nation should expect a President to be and do that I hope you’ll consider my plea.
“Each of you has been my President. While I disagreed with some of your policies, I never felt that I, my country, or the world was in any particular danger from your Presidencies. I *do* feel this way about the Trump Administration – the man himself scares me, and the actions he and his Administration are taking are truly terrifying.
“You and your fellow Presidents Emeriti are members of a very exclusive club. You are from both major political parties and collectively have more than 30 years of experience in the White House. If there are issues that you all agree on, whether it be Trump’s constant lies, his nepotism, his narcissism, his misogyny and sexism, or any other personal traits, including his appalling inability to control his impulses; if it’s one of his policies or initiatives – such as the National Monument review, the immigration bans, the gutting of agencies like the Department of Education or the EPA, or any of dozens of other actions; or if it’s personal decisions he has made, like his refusal to release his tax returns or divest himself of his businesses, I ask you this:
“Please speak out with a unified voice. Do not remain silent. Let it be known that you are still engaged in the world’s affairs.
This is where I sent each message:
Obama 2012, 2008
Contacted through website: https://barackobama.com/contact/
Bush II 2004, 2000
Contacted through email to Office of George W. Bush: firstname.lastname@example.org;
Clinton 1996, 1992
Contacted through Clinton Foundation website: https://www.clintonfoundation.org/about/contact-us
Bush I 1988
Contacted through email to Bush 41 library: email@example.com
Contacted through email to Carter Center: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please copy, share and use this letter, or write your own. The more people who contact the former Presidents, the more they may see the value in speaking out as a group.
Notes from the field – er, beach – for Thursday, October 27, 2016:
*sigh* 😉 Back to paddling again…(Oh, a note: people paddle canoes and kayaks with paddles; they row boats with oars. Now you know. So there.)
On our final paddling day, we moved from Isla Espirito Santo to Isla Partida. It’s no big deal, because the channel separating them is *really* narrow, and I think you can wade across it at low tide. But nonetheless, we were going to explore a new island!
Along the way, we were introduced to a narrow fissure at one end of an inlet, into which it was possible to paddle our kayaks. My paddling partner, Wynne, and I chose not to go in it, but some of the others did. Going in was no big deal, but depending on their level of experience, it was either uneventful or comical watching them back out.
One thing that has always grabbed my attention, whether while I’m driving on an Interstate or paddling a kayak, is geological displays. Highway cuts are always a great place to see how the rock layers under our feet can be folded, curved, squished, or otherwise changed from how they were originally laid down, but there are other places to find these layers as well. One such place was the shoreline of Isla Perdita, which has eroded away to show several distinct layers – not of sedimentary rock, but of volcanic. Since different layers typically erode at different rates and in different patterns, their juxtaposition can be quite beautiful:
And with this particular kind of volcanic rock, the erosion patterns within a layer can be other-worldly:
Alas, all good things must end sometime – but sometimes they’re replaced by *other* good things! In this case, the paddling was replaced by some hiking into the island’s interior. If you remember my description of an earlier hike as being “2” on a presumed scale of 1-10, this one rated a “7”. We walked up the beach to where the island rose from the sand:
It turned out not to be *quite* as hard as it looks in the photo, but it was no cakewalk, either. But we persevered, and along the way found a couple more fresh pitahaya fruits to savor. Partway up, we had this gorgeous view of “our” beach to enjoy (the mountains in the distance are part of the Baja Peninsula):
When we finally reached our destination, it was at the edge of a cliff that fell off to a dry lakebed. On the other side of the expanse we could see through a gap to the Sea of Cortez, on the far side of which is mainland Mexico.
When we all got tired of staring off into the distance, we retraced our steps and returned to our beach.
We discovered that the crew had not been idle during our absence. Rather, they had taken the panga (you remember what a panga is, right?) and gone offshore to catch our dinner! I’ve never been good with fish names (Grouper? Cod? Frank? Carl?), but fresh-caught, fresh-cooked fish was on the menu – and it was DEE-LISH-US! There was plenty of it, and we all, including some laughing gulls (seriously, that’s what they’re called), ate our fill.
But do you want to know what the highlight of the day was? ICE CREAM! Real, fresh-churned (well, fresh-shaken-in-a-Baggie) ICE CREAM! Although we only had about a spoonful each, it was a real treat!
And then, for the piece de resistance, we saw a black jackrabbit!
With that, Dear Readers, I’ll bid you a good night. We have to rise early on the morrow for an extra treat – another swim with the sea lions! – before returning to La Paz and civilization. And whale sharks. Mustn’t forget the whale sharks!
(…as remembered three months later…)
October 26, 2016, dawned clear – as did all our days on the trip. There was no need to pack our gear this morning, though, because we weren’t going anywhere. Instead, today involved a couple of “expeditions.” The first one was to a sea lion encampment (rookery?nest? whatever the place where a bunch of sea lions live is called) where we were given the opportunity to snorkel with them! Regrettably, my camera isn’t waterproof and I don’t have a watertight case for it, so I don’t have any great photos (or even any lousy ones!) of anyone swimming with the sea lions. Rest assured, though, we did. They were quite playful and inquisitive, even to the point of trying to nibble our flippers, fingers, or anything else they could get their mouths around. But just like friendly puppies, they never bit hard. They were just using one of their standard methods of getting information from their surroundings. These were some of our playmates.
I found out something interesting about myself today, too: I get seasick while snorkeling. (ergh…) I think it might have something to do with my nearsightedness, because I can’t wear my glasses while swimming and I don’t have contact lenses. I know I missed a lot of beautiful fish and other great underwater sights because of that, and I suspect that not being able to see anything clearly may have contributed to the nausea. *sigh* I’m told that it’s possible to get prescription diving/snorkeling masks, so I may look into that … eventually.
After our playdate with the sea lions, we motored (panga’d?) back to our campsite for lunch. As usual, the crew laid out an impressive, and delectable, spread for us. They really know how to treat their guests right!
Lunch over, we took off in a different direction for the afternoon – instead of being on the water, we walked inland (if you can do such a thing on an island) along a well-marked trail. It turns out that the cove we were staying in had been used at one point by a Mexican Army garrison, and they had dug a well. This well is still viable today, and we all took turns getting ourselves soaked by buckets of cold, (almost-) fresh water.
After refreshing ourselves, we walked the rest of the trail (one of the crewmembers rated it a “2” on a [presumed] scale of 1 to 10), past fig trees and other plants growing in the oddest places. The tree on the left originally took root – I think – at the top of the cliff, and then the taproot just kept growing down until it found somewhere to dig in. The small one on the right hasn’t quite gotten to that point.
We also walked past fantastic erosion-created vistas and got our first taste of fresh pitahaya! (Pitahaya is the name for both a cactus and its fruit. We ate the fruit, which tasted sort of like watermelon, and not the cactus.)
At the end of the trail was a perfectly-framed view back to the cove and the beach where we camped.
Our “hike” didn’t take all that long, which left us with plenty of time for floating in the water, paddleboarding, or other leisurely pursuits (most of which involved doing a lot of nothing). At bedtime we simply crawled into tents that were already up, with gear that was already unpacked.
And so ended Day Three of the Great Baja California Sea Kayak Vacation!
Not to worry – that’s the scientific name for the black witch moth, which I’ll get to later in this story. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up to the midden we explored on the morning of our second full day.
It wasn’t located in the same bay as our camp, so after breakfast we loaded up our gear and paddled off. The water was a beautiful, clear blue, lighter close to shore and darker as it got deeper. Naturally, no photograph can do justice to views like these, but here’s a try. This shot was taken from our lunch stop. [Pay no attention to the dark smudges at the upper left and lower right; after we got back to La Paz – or even as late as Cabo San Lucas – I finally discovered that the camera’s lens covers were sticking when I opened the camera. Humid, salty air will do that sometimes… They always seemed to *close* completely, but frequently didn’t *open* completely.]
After lunch, and before the afternoon paddle-session, we explored the shoreline along the bay we were in. At one end of it, where the dried-up estuary from the upstream canyon met the beach, was a huge, long, wide pile of shells and dirt and bones and … stuff. It extended for maybe 50 yards or so inland from one end to the other, was perhaps 20 feet wide at its widest, and from the erosion off the front edge, looked like it might be three or four feet deep.
Our guides picked up what seemed like random stuff, but it turns out that pretty much every piece of “trash” in the midden had its own story to tell – or was part of a larger story – about pre-Columbian visitors to / residents of the island. [Regrettably, I don’t remember enough of any of the stories to be able to relate them to you, but this should serve as an incentive to go see these places for yourself!] Various kinds of bones, shells and horns were readily available to examine.
Some of them, like the shell fragment on its own rock above, merited their own pictures.
After we all became “certified garbologists” (or maybe just “certifiable?”), we piled back into the kayaks for the afternoon’s paddling. Grant declared he wanted to try one of the solo boats, so everyone shifted around to give him that chance. He took to it like a duck to water and was soon paddling quite smoothly. The biggest thing he noticed about solo paddling, he said later, was that when you stop paddling, you stop moving. There’s no one else to keep going while you take a drink / take a photo / have a snack / adjust your foot pegs / do anything but paddling.
While paddling in the afternoon, we passed some fascinating erosion patterns in the rock. One looked like petrified foam, while another looked like … well, I don’t know what it looked like. Decide for yourself:
Our last activity of the day was a snorkel session in another small inlet, before we reached our campsite. Since I don’t have a waterproof camera, I didn’t take any photos of my own (and because of my nearsightedness, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make decent pictures anyway). But trust me on this – even being 2/3 blind, I was blown away by the beauty of the fish, rocks, and corals.
Our camp for the night (the next two nights, actually) was on a large beach that accommodated several groups simultaneously. We were just there for two nights, but the group to our north was a (summer-long? month-long?) class in which the students learned by actually exploring, touching, and feeling the world around them. I was envious! The group to the south changed each night, and the interesting thing about that side was that it was cut off from the rest of the beach by a rock promontory. So if they wanted to take the trail up the canyon, they first had to scramble over the rocks to “our” beach and then head inland.
The neatest thing that happened at dinner that night was the appearance of the aforementioned black witch moth. Someone saw it fly over to the kitchen (we were about done with dinner anyway, so it was welcome to our leftovers) and land in the fruit salad. We all rushed over to take a look, while at the same time trying not to scare it off. (We succeeded at that!)
We watched it for quite a while, as it eagerly sucked the fruit “nectar” from the bowl through its proboscis. (The big black object to its right and under it is the serving spoon.)
So another wonderful day among great friends (both old and new), topped off by a beautiful sunset and the appearance of a black witch moth, made for a happy guy.
No, it’s not what you’re thinking – Monday, our first full day on the sea-kayaking trip, was anything *BUT* blah! “Blah blah” refers to all the talking that Sergio told us he would be doing during the day – how to get into and out of the kayaks, how to load our gear, what not to do while in the National Park, how to pee and poop (yep, there are rules on how to take care of bodily functions), and many more.
I’ll get that one out of the way right here: Men pee in the ocean. Women pee in the ocean if they’re comfortable with it (like when they’re swimming); otherwise there’s a portable toilet they can use (which will be emptied into the ocean by the crew). Everybody poops into a *different* portable toilet – and DON’T PEE IN THAT ONE. Used toilet paper is burned in the metal can the crew provides.
TMI? Probably. But those are the kinds of things tourists need to know in order to preserve the environment of the islands.
So that’s what “blah blah” was all about: basically, the rules of the road – er, ocean.
Amazingly, we actually all gathered in the hotel lobby at the appointed time (although I no longer remember what time that was) and piled into the van for the ride to the jetty where the boat was tied up. We had been given dry bags at the previous night’s meeting and had packed our gear in them before going to bed, so all we had to do was store our extra stuff (and our luggage) in the hotel’s secure room and then depart.
The panga (aka “boat”) was sitting in the calm water, loaded with kayaks, coolers, etc., and waiting for us. We posed for the requisite “last known location” photo before boarding (one must, after all, leave behind a camera with a final photograph if everyone disappears at sea):We rode for about an hour before reaching our first stop, where we unloaded the kayaks and our gear, and made various preparations for doing some actual (gasp!) paddling. The main things we had to do with the kayaks were adjust the foot supports [the bow paddler has static supports, while the stern paddler’s supports control the rudder] and figure out how to attach the spray skirts. Our gear filled the hatch areas, but since we were supported by the panga, we didn’t have to carry the food or water we’d need for the trip (or the tents and bathroom!). There were two solo boats and three two-seaters. Rosa and I were assigned a two-seater; SO and Grant were given another; Mike and a crewmember took the third; and a second crewmember had one of the solo boats. The other solo boat wasn’t used until Frank, our other tourist, caught up with us on Tuesday. [Some of these details might be wrong; I was having too much fun to really pay attention to everyone’s boat assignments.]
The panga then abandoned us to our fate and we were on our own.
As we paddled north along the west shore of Isla Espiritu Santo, we made several stops to learn about the ecology of the area. We saw mangroves (or “mangos”, as one of our group insisted on calling them), crabs, and really interesting rock formations. And puffer fish skeletons. LOTS of puffer fish skeletons. Apparently, sometimes they puff up and can’t unpuff, and then they die. What kind of evolutionary advantage does *that* give you???
So we paddled for a while and came around a point of land, and lo and behold, there was our panga! And lunch! I have to say, the crew did a magnificent job of feeding us! Every meal was different, and the treats they whipped up were oh-my-gawd delicious! One night we had Dutch-oven pineapple upside down cake; one night it was peach upside down cake; and one night it was chocolate cake. Lunches always included the Gringo staple (PB&J), but if you ate the other option you were guaranteed a treat.
After lunch, they let us relax in the shade for a while, but Grant chose to try paddleboarding instead. He got really good really fast, and thereafter he spent almost all his free time on a board.
After playtime was over, we loaded up the kayaks again and headed north toward our first night’s camp. Along the way, we passed a frigate bird rookery. They’ve been raising their young there for a long time – you could tell by the amount of guano lying around.
We reached our campsite in late afternoon, after several hours of steady paddling. The panga had gone on ahead, of course, and when we got to camp, our tents were all set up and waiting for us. We had the first of four scrumptious dinners and then spent the evening relaxing and watching the world go by. That day’s sunset was truly awesome:
Notes from the first day:
- A two-seater kayak is much more maneuverable when you use the rudder.
- If you don’t paddle, you don’t progress. There’s no helping current like you’ll find on a river.
- The sit-in kayaks they had weren’t as comfortable (for me) as my sit-on-tops. It was awkward folding myself into the cockpit, and I never could figure out exactly how to adjust the footrests to make my legs comfortable.
- On the other hand, the gel seats they had were *way* more comfortable than the seats I have! Imma hafta look into getting gel seat cushions for my kayaks!
- Make sure you get all your “tent-arranging” done before bedtime, so when it’s time to retire that’s all you have to do. Otherwise, you’ll get yourself all sweaty and hot, and likely be miserable most of the night.
- Sleeping under the stars (even in a tent) is wonderful, and when you combine it with gentle surf noises it’s a really great way to sleep.
Y’know how, sometimes, you’re on the Interstate and you see something off in the distance ahead of you? And it never seems to get closer? Until suddenly it’s RIGHT-THERE-and-*BAM*-you-passed-it-and-now-it’s-in-the-rearview-mirror?
Have you ever felt that way about an event of some kind? Like, maybe, a much-anticipated vacation trip? It happened to me just a couple of weeks ago.
Last May I first became aware of the possibility that I might be able to go to Baja California this fall – specifically, La Paz, where my Significant Other (hereafter referred to as SO) was planning to take the son of a longtime friend of hers for a sea-kayaking adventure. I won’t bore you with all the details (actually, I don’t want to bore *me* with the details!), but by August it got to the point where I actually *had* to go (I know, we all have to make sacrifices) in order for the trip to even happen, so I signed up. At that point, the trip itself was still almost two months away, and I had a lot of other items on my plate, so it became like that distant object on the Interstate. (NOTE: Our trip was run by Sea Kayak Adventures, an outfit I highly recommend.)
Then, *BOOM*! It was October 22 and Grant (the young man I mentioned) arrived from Montana and we (SO, Grant, a “recruited friend” – Mike, and I) were actually GOING TO BAJA!
October 23 started early: I woke at 1:30 because the plane lifted off at 5:15 and, since I lived farthest from the airport, it seemed logical for me to pick up everyone on the way. I only missed Mike’s house by a little bit on the first pass, and managed not to hit any walls or other cars or objects between there and SO’s house. The four of us arrived at Tucson International Airport with plenty of time left for checking bags, getting through security, and buying “breakfast” (snacks and coffee) at one of the concessions on the concourse.
In due time, we all boarded our first flight of three. To get from Tucson to La Paz, we flew first to Houston, then Mexico City, and finally to La Paz, arriving there about 4:30 in the afternoon, in a time zone one hour ahead of where we started!
Once we got to the hotel (the Seven Crown – Central) and checked into our rooms, our first order of business was DINNER! We quickly found our way to the Malecon and then to the Bismarck restaurant. We never discovered exactly why a seafood restaurant in La Paz was named after a sunken WW II German battleship, but it was. And the food was great!
By then it was 7 PM and we had to hightail it back to the hotel for the introductory meeting for the trip’s attendees. Since we four were the nucleus of the trip, we weren’t *too* worried about being late, but we didn’t want to abuse the privilege, either.
The gathering was in the hotel’s courtyard, near the pool. There we met Rosa, one of the two others on our trip (the final person, Frank, had missed a connection and would join us a day late), and our crew: Sergio, Ruben, Lino and Tico. The meeting was informative and fun, and we got to try on our snorkeling gear to make sure it would fit. The wet suit I was given was too small, but they promised there’d be a bigger one on the boat. (As it turned out, the water was warm enough that I never used the wet suit, but it was good to have along just in case.)
Here’s a nighttime shot of the hotel’s front door:
Having gotten ourselves fed, introduced and informed, we trooped off to our respective rooms for the night. SO and Grant were together, while Mike and I shared the second room.
(Next up: The “Blah Blah” [as in “I have to talk a lot about stuff that you need to listen to”] Day.)
It’s said that you can never go home again, and in many ways that’s true. The places I have called “home” over the past six-plus decades vary from a small rented house in New York State to a (too-) large house here in Tucson, with a stop in Richmond, VA, and “visits” (places I lived but didn’t call “home”) in State College, PA, and Fort Walton Beach, FL.
As an adult, I have really only called two locations “home.” One is Tucson, where I have lived since 1978 (albeit in three different houses), and the other is a small town in New Hampshire called Gilmanton – more specifically, it’s a small summer cottage on the shore of Crystal Lake, which is in Gilmanton Iron Works (GIW). The cottage has been in the family since 1911 and now belongs to my brother. This is the front of the cottage, facing the lake.
This is the back.
From third grade through high school, as soon as school let out for the summer Mom and I would pack up her car, load in the dog and the kid (me), and head for the cottage. Because we lived in Richmond during those years, it was a Big Trip. In the early ’60s it took two days to get to GIW, but as the Interstate system grew, we eventually got it down to one long day. We would typically arrive around midnight to a dark cottage and pull up by the back porch. We’d open the doors, get out, and breathe in the fresh, pine-scented air and listen to the breeze off the lake and in the pine trees. It was *always* cool, too – in contrast to the heat and humidity of Richmond.
While the cottage (and its garage/barn) are still there, the overall property is vastly different from when I spent summers there as a kid. The cottage is no longer used; when my brother built a year-round house on the property, the town’s zoning didn’t allow two active residences on a parcel of land the size of ours. So it’s not possible for me to “go home” any more, in the sense of living in that particular structure.
Sometimes, circumstances will conspire to create the *illusion* of being back home. I found this out quite by accident this past weekend, when I went with Wynne to Silver City, NM, for a conference in which she was a panelist. We stayed at a place called Bear Creek Cabins in Pinos Altos, which is a few miles north of Silver City on NM 15. We left 100-plus-degree heat in Tucson about 5 PM on Thursday, and arrived at the cabins about 10 PM (including the one-hour time change from AZ to NM). I had driven; when we got to the office we stopped, opened the doors, got out, breathed in the fresh, cool, pine-scented air and heard the breeze in the pine trees …
And I was INSTANTLY back in GIW on a late-May night in 1966 or so. It was so overwhelming that I literally got goosebumps (and they weren’t from the cool air, either!). If nothing else memorable had happened that weekend, that one instant would have made the whole trip worthwhile.
Here’s a photo of our cabin. It’s actually a duplex, with one half opening on this side and the other (identical) half opening on the far side. There’s no lake anywhere nearby, and the ground is rocky instead of covered with pine needles. BUT THE SCENT AND THE SOUND took me home!
So, sometimes, you *can* go home again – at least in your mind. It reminded me of the James Taylor song, “Carolina In My Mind.”
Oh, and the “Up Country” of the title is what we always called both the place and the trip. It stemmed from when my forebears would make the trip from Boston “up country” to the cottage. When they went home, they’d go “down to” Boston. So every year, at the end of the school year, Mom and I went “Up Country” for the summer.
Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re a fact of life for many of us. I think most of you probably have a love/hate relationship with yours; I know I do with mine.
My HOA does some good things – well, at least one. For my monthly dues, the HOA takes care of both the common areas in the neighborhood and the front yards of all the houses. When I moved in, 18 years ago, I was (and still am) perfectly happy to have someone else take care of my front yard without any effort on my part. Granted, the “yards” are all xeriscapes, with desert-adapted plants, but even those have to be trimmed and maintained. The irrigation bill is also part of the monthly HOA fee, and I’m fine with that.
But they can be pretty pissy, too, and last fall I bumped up against one of their taboos.
Back in 2010, when Toni and I were creating an actual landscaped back yard out of the dry, dusty nothing that I had lived with since 1998, one of our projects was to include a rainwater harvesting system so we could reduce our need for city (paid) water. The house has a flat roof with four scuppers along one side. You can see them here. The water simply flowed through the holes in the wall, fell to the ground, and then flowed out to the street.
I was a good boy and submitted an “Architectural Change Request” (ACR) form to the HOA, asking to replace those with collectors that would empty into downspouts which, in turn, would drain into barrels. The request was approved. The next photo, taken from about the same place in May, 2014, shows the final arrangement of the new collectors and downspouts. The nearest tank is 500 gallons; the two closer to the front of the house are 50 gallons each (connected, for a total of 100 gallons from that scupper); and there is a 50-gallon barrel under each of the downspouts beyond the block wall. The small barrels were part of the original 2010 project; the 500-gallon tank came later.
And there it was – 700 gallons of water available for irrigation.
Everybody was fine with it for five years. FIVE. YEARS.
Last October, I got a call from the HOA’s manager, who wondered if I would let the Architectural Committee come take a look at my system. The Committee was finally getting around to writing guidelines for water-collection systems and they had heard about mine and wanted to use it as a sample. I said sure, no problems.
The next thing I heard from the manager was that she found the ACR for the downspouts but couldn’t find one for the barrels. (I had never submitted one.) So I took pictures and got my neighbors to sign the request and crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s and sent it in.
It was rejected. The barrels in the front yard were visible from the street and therefore not allowed. This is what they had looked like FOR FIVE YEARS.
This is not the street view. There is a big tree and a large shrub between the barrels and the street. Nevertheless, the HOA wanted them gone.
Not one to take things lying down, I took a walk around the neighborhood to see whether anyone else had any kind of collection system. I found some homes with standard gutters (we have both flat roofs and pitched roofs in the neighborhood); I found one with a basic barrel sitting under where the water would flow out of an existing scupper; I found several homes where the plants had grown up so much in the past two decades that nothing could be seen from the street; and I found a lot of homes where it wouldn’t be practical (or even possible) to locate a collection barrel behind a privacy wall. I documented all this and sent it to the Architectural Committee, suggesting that instead of a complete ban on barrels outside the privacy walls, perhaps they could implement a size limitation – like, oh, 50 gallons – or require some kind of screen (like a wall or shrubbery).
The appeal was denied. I learned later that the Architectural Committee had split their vote, so it went to the HOA’s Board.
I had actually anticipated this outcome, so I had already bought some of the pieces I’d need to run downspouts from the front two scuppers at an angle to get their outlet behind the privacy wall.
Then I discovered that my solution wouldn’t work. The downspout elbows come in 30-, 45- and 75-degree bends, but even using the 75-degree elbows, the downspout from the front scupper would run into the wall. So I took lots of pictures of my efforts, and showed how it wasn’t going to work, and re-appealed their denial. This picture summarizes the problem: If you extend the straight line (it’s actually a tape measure) to the left of the lower white elbow, it’ll run into the wall. Since that line represents the bottom of the downspout tube, there’s no way the downspout can be routed from the front scupper to the back yard. And even if I *could* get it over the wall, by the time it turned down and away from the wall to be over the barrel’s opening, the barrel wouldn’t fit under it.
At this point the HOA finally said I could keep the barrels in front of the wall (YAY!) if I put a wall around them. -sigh- Well, I had to find out what they meant by “wall” – could I just put a curved wall of dry-laid decorative blocks around the front barrel? Nope. I had to build a wall that matched the existing block wall and completely surrounded the barrels, with a gate in it so that utility readers could get to the gas and electric meters (which, IMO, are at least as ugly as the barrels!).
I priced that wall and the two quotes I got ranged from about $850 to near $1130. I decided that, if I had to spend that much money to protect 50 gallons of rainwater capacity, I’d go another route and spend the money on bigger tanks that fit behind the wall completely. I bought a 200-gallon tank that will sit directly behind the existing block wall, will not be visible from the street, and will collect water from the left-hand downspout, and brought the right-hand one, which produced the smallest amount of water anyway, down to ground level to drain into the street.
This photo shows the current status. I got the street-visible parts done right away, because I was given 90 days from one of the denials to remove the barrels and I didn’t want to get in *real* trouble with the HOA.
I still have to rebuild the left-hand downspout to supply the 200-gallon tank, and I’m going to get a 400-gallon tank to replace the two 50-gallon barrels you saw earlier. My total capacity will grow from 700 gallons to about 1100, even after losing the 50 gallons from the front downspout.
Now all I have to do is figure out how to plumb the tanks into my irrigation system so the rainwater will be automatically used when it’s available.
Sometimes I just hate HOAs.
Have you ever noticed that long-time vacant land will sometimes spontaneously sprout a new subdivision or office park or other structure, seemingly overnight? I think I’ve figured out what happens.
Backstory: A little over a week ago I went to Phoenix to participate with my eldest daughter in the annual JDRF One Walk. This 5K walk is an annual fundraiser for Type 1 Diabetes research. Last year I supported Ali in her walk; this year I also walked the 5K myself.
The walk took place around the Chicago Cubs’ spring training park. As we walked, Ali noticed that a parcel of land that had been vacant about 6 months ago was now fully-built with an apartment complex. Shortly after that, we made a turn and I saw vehicles rapidly moving along the 202 Loop. Without prompting, my brain came up with this obvious conclusion:
Cars and trucks are the method that existing buildings use to spread their seeds to vacant land and therefore propagate their species!
As proof, I offer the following:
- You very rarely see a building that isn’t near a road of some kind.
- Buildings that *aren’t* near a road tend to be run down and decayed, as though they’re not being pollinated or fertilized to maintain their health.
- The larger the road, the more buildings there are near it, and the faster they grow. As an example, a dirt road, with few cars or trucks traversing it, will likely only have a few, widely-spaced buildings (farms or ranches), because the seeds can fall off the vehicles anywhere. At the other end of the spectrum, an eight-lane limited-access highway will have lots of cars and trucks on it, with only certain places where they can exit and deposit the building seeds. This is why so many buildings are seen at the on- and off-ramps.
- The higher the speed limit on the roads, the faster the building species spread. This is because, like water, fast-moving cars and trucks can carry more and larger seeds than slow-moving ones. This further explains why you’ll see clusters of buildings near the on- and off-ramps – as the vehicles slow down, they drop their cargo of building seeds, which then take root. It also explains why you don’t see many buildings in between the ramps: the cars and trucks drop the heavy seeds at the ramps, while those on the highway continue to carry their seeds past the fallow ground between the ramps without dropping any.
- Buildings compete with each other for sunlight and water, just like other species. This explains why they grow taller and taller in crowded areas, and not as tall where there isn’t as much competition. Instead, they tend to spread out and stay closer to the ground. Tall buildings know they can’t propagate as well in a crowded area, so they deposit their seeds on cars and trucks that circulate around, under, and through them, hoping that these seeds will eventually be deposited on a fertile piece of vacant land.
I admit this isn’t a fully-developed theory, and that it needs more research. But I think I’m onto something, here.