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  • March 24th, 2016


It’s doubtful Whiskey Jack and Yukon Pete called their cabin “Honeymoon Cottage” before they assaulted each other with hand axes, victims of cabin fever during the Klondike gold rush. Winters get long and tempers short up there on the targa.
We don’t live north of the Arctic Circle, but our winter also had been long, snowy and dreary and while Marty and I were not surreptitiously pawing among the sharp instruments in the kitchen utensils, we did need some sort of project, a break not only in the weather but in our seasonal affective disorder.
“Let’s build a cabin on the glade,” I proposed. “A place where we can sit on the deck in the evening, listen to Frankie sing “My Way” and sip at a glass of that healthy red wine.” We live on 40 acres in mid-Missouri, an acreage shrouded in oaks and hickories and overlooking a small lake. The glade is a rocky opening at the far northwest corner of the property, accessible only by a dirt trail that circumscribes the property. I envisioned a cabin facing the woods and a procession of deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife parading past what I’d come to call the Honeymoon Cottage (our honeymoon was 59 years ago, but who’s counting?).
Other than Marty’s immediate response, “Have you lost your mind?” the idea languished until I broached it to Eddie, our master builder son who never saw a chunk of wood he couldn’t turn into art. “I’d love to!” he cried and Marty sighed heavily, knowing the battle was lost.
Gradually the snow and ice melted and the thermometer rose first above the zero mark to more normal temperatures. The clouds rolled away and, as Eddie ordered materials, so rolled away my bank account. He stacked building materials on the glade; I ordered the “Best of the Ink Spots” compact disc in anticipation and laid up another couple bottles of Apothic Red. All we needed was a cabin and a soft summer night.
Within three days Eddie had the foundation in place. The ground was too rocky to allow digging for piers except with a jackhammer. “It won’t be anchored so if a really big wind comes along there’s a problem,” Eddie said. I had a vision of Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse spinning into Oz and said, “If a wind that big comes up we’re all in trouble.” Nonetheless I kept my eye out for flying monkeys during the construction phase. One can’t be too careful.
Gradually the cabin took shape as Eddie did arcane things with a square and level. I would have helped but my carpentry skills are limited to hitting my thumb with a hammer and swearing. The scraped out hole became a foundation. Walls and a roof loomed in the future, depending on weather and Eddie’s schedule—real work took precedence over unpaid family commitment. Aside from adding seductive photos to his portfolio, my cabin was low priority.
If you’re thinking of a similar project, be sure to father three sons, all of whom are proficient in carpentry. J.B. the oldest is an experienced electrician, Eddie is the master builder and foreman and the youngest, Andy does siding for a living. Come to think of it not that many families are blessed with such professional expertise, coupled with family duty (free labor). Perhaps families with children who are accountants, lawyers or brain surgeons should rethink their retreat whims.

The cabin is 16 x 24 feet and here’s a beware. The plywood panels that covered the joists—in other words the floor, are not 4 x 8 as you would expect so they coincide with a joist….but 4 x 7 7/8. Which means that sooner or later you must insert an apprentice joist to screw the flooring to. But then a 2 x 4 isn’t two inches by four either but only 3 and ¾ inches, one of those packaging practices that means you only get 3/ 4 of a package of Milk Duds at the movie instead of a full, brimming package as God intended it.
Despite the vagaries of lumber, the cabin escalated from a hole in the ground to a structure. It is rustic and primitive in almost every sense of the word. There is no water, no electricity and no bathroom facility. Running a power line would be obtrusive and difficult as well as expensive, drilling a well would cost the equivalent of the famed Spindletop oil well with no guarantee of a gusher and digging a pit for an outhouse would require jackhammers and the know-how of a sandhog working on a subway tunnel. I investigated composting toilets and the price made me feel that I had to go to a bathroom I would never have without a legacy from a rich uncle, whom I also don’t have. We hand visitors a shovel and directions to where bears go.
I grew up in a home without running water or an indoor toilet, so our cabin was almost a step up. My father had to get water from his tenant farmers which must have been a source of embarrassment to him—the boss is supposed to furnish amenities to the tenants, not the other way round. We bathed in a galvanized wash tub which brings new meaning to the word “contortion.” And the facility, as we delicately referred to it, was a haven for various stinging insects, only dormant in the dead of winter when a midnight trip was less fun than fighting off yellowjackets.
We bought a small generator with four hours of juice and I declaimed “Let there be light and there was light. The pioneers made do with smoky, dim oil lanterns powered by whales, bears and assorted oil-bearing critters and except for Abe Lincoln, poring over his books by candlelight, went to bed with the chickens (although one would hope in separate houses). If we wanted to pore over our law books we would have four hours of Mr. Edison’s legacy or resort to a Coleman lantern (whales being in short supply in mid-Missouri).
The roof is metal which should last longer than we do. Likewise the cedar siding we opted for in place of metal siding which, though a third of the cost, would have made our woodland cabin look like a storage shed. The back wall, however, is metal since it fronts a fence and I don’t care what the neighbor’s cows think of the place.
Check your local wildlife regulations, but we saturated a bed-sized spot at the edge of the woods with salt, creating a place for deer to come and munch the salt-rich dirt (bagged salt is better than a salt block. And we also heaped shelled corn nearby for wild turkeys. Baiting for hunting may be illegal some places, but we just wanted to see the wildlife, not reduce it to dinner. We installed a motion-activated camera on a tree facing the cabin and so far we have reduced to pixels deer, turkeys, squirrels, crows, a bobcat and the family dog.
One of the deer regulars is a massive 12-point buck whose head would be impressive on an inner wall of the cabin, but whose head looks better to me on his burly shoulders at the feeder.
Since we live on a dead end gravel road, our house is pretty much a retreat, so Eddie’s boss came up with the ideal description of what has come to be known as Vance’s Folly—a retreat from a retreat. If we retreat any farther we’ll be living in a hole in the ground.
Finally the cabin was done. Final cost is yet to be determined but double that for the labor had we paid for it (the boys got burgers and fries}. It’s not over. It’s not over till it’s over. In the miasma that is my imagination we will have a spiral staircase to the loft, solar panels outside for power and a fire pit for campfires and watching sparks eddy into the night sky.
The last several trail cam photo assortments, post deer season, have been notable for the absence of the big buck. I suspect he’s residing in someone’s freezer That’ll teach him to stray from the Vance sanctuary—not that I wouldn’t reduce one of his chunky doe girl friends to backstraps and succulent roasts, but not the king buck. Besides I wouldn’t shoot a deer over bait anyway.
I think I’ll stroll up to Vance’s Folly, retrieve the card from the trail cam and see who has been visiting….
– Joel Vance is the author of The Exploding Elephant {$14.95}, Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15)); Tails I Lose (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition $45). Available from joelvance.com or Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $3,50/book for S/H.

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