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The Shack

When someone asks me what I’ve been doing this year the answer that pops into my head is, “Nothing practical.”

That’s not completely true. In my daily work existence, I am the very model of boring practicality. But in my spare’s a little hard to explain.

I’m choosing to blame my great-grandfather.

It’s his fault, and also the fault of a literary contest I almost entered twenty years ago.

First, my great-grandfather. When he built his barn 125 years ago, he chiseled “1897” into the granite cornerstone. Over the past century or so, the soggy pasture where he built the barn slowly turned into a shallow lake. It makes the place more scenic, but made the barn slowly collapse. When I acknowledged that the old barn was beyond redemption, I pulled out all the dimension lumber and whatever else was useable and set the rest on fire. In the end, all that remained was a fieldstone foundation and that granite cornerstone.

The literary contest? About twenty years ago, back when I still cared, I investigated entering an essay contest. Then I checked out the prizes. The grand prize was a week’s retreat at a house set deep in the woods with no close neighbors and plenty of room for walks and inspiration.

I said to myself, “Son of a gun, I won the grand prize, and I didn’t even have to enter.”

I think about that every now and then. Over the years, we’ve invented the place where we live. The only original buildings are the house and garage. The garage is in a different place and the house is almost unrecognizable. We’ve doubled the size of the grove and planted a sizeable fringe of prairie grass and wildflowers around our slough.

I can’t say there was a plan. If there was, it was in the deepest recesses of my brain.

Last fall we went to the Faroe Islands and in a tiny hamlet far off the main roads, I saw a small black house with red trim and a sod roof. I was smitten. It didn’t hurt that its location included a thousand-foot waterfall tumbling over rocks into an icy fjord, but take those away and it was still pretty.

The last piece to the puzzle is that I’m getting old. I hate it. I don’t hate aging, I just loathe feeling limited, that I can’t force my body to do whatever I want it to.

So, I started telling people I was going to build a house.

I’ve always kind of believed in the motto, “First you see it, then you be it.” What goes along with that is once you’ve said something out loud, it’s harder to walk away from it.

My grandchildren and I poured a concrete floor about the size of their great-great-great grandparents claim shack. I started stacking 500-pound foundation rocks using our backhoe. It was about that time that a friend of ours gave me a book by Michael Pollen titled, “A Place of My Own.” He’s also a writer who wanted a shack. He and I had a brief unpleasant encounter a few years ago, when I thought he was disrespecting some journalists in the Midwest. He’s about twenty rungs above me on the literary ladder, but there’s nothing that turns my crank like seeing my people disrespected by someone living on one of the coasts, and I called him on it. He’s a good guy and a good writer, we exchanged a couple letters and then we both moved on. Well, I moved on. I doubt he even remembers.

What I found fascinating is that we started our projects in the same place, and ended up in the same place, but nothing in the middle was the same. He hired an architect, a carpenter, and got insight and advice from a dozen books and about the same number of experts in a variety of fields. He worked from a detailed set of blueprints and had a philosophical justification for every nuance of the building.

I just started piling up rocks.

Really. The only drawing I made was a sketch when I was losing track of how much rebar I needed for the foundation. A buddy with a sawmill turned a bunch of utility poles into 8 x 8 beams, another friend tracked down some rough sawn pine boards for vertical siding. We salvaged a beautiful stained-glass window from a house being demolished, and then there was that cornerstone, which is now in the center of the new rock wall. Technically, I should have used birch bark to waterproof the grass roof but the first building on that exact spot lasted 125 years and I aspired to match the same timeframe, so I opted for a rubber pool liner on top of three-quarter inch treated plywood.

My brother-in-law brought me on old piece of marble that is now the desk and once I find a cheap recliner, I’m declaring construction complete.

It’s a nice shack.

That doesn’t mean I’m not still getting old, but I’m not useless either.

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson

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