Homesteading in an Airstream Water, Electric, Sewer and More

an Airstream parked in the snow by a lake in the mountains

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We showed up in April, hoping we might be able to get to work. We were greeted instead by snow up to our knees.

That was April, 2018. The summer before, we’d scouted all around Colorado, camping out of our Ford E-350 and looking at every small town, every national forest, for what place we might like to call home. The ten years prior we’d spent on the road, traveling full-time as a family all across America, Canada, Mexico and Belize.

By that time, we had three sons, two much younger but one who was 16 and, after spending more than half of his life on the road, he was ready to settle down for his last two years of high school. Make some friends, maybe meet a girl. We decided Durango was a town of perfect size, amenities and surroundings. While driving around a lake full of just so-so properties for sale, none particularly exciting but all relatively near a lake, we were about to give up on the area and look elsewhere. Then we saw a sign, nearly knocked over, that read, “Property for sale. Call Kristen Daily.”

It was a small piece of land, situated immediately on the lake itself, and it was beautiful. Undeveloped, surrounded by firs, spruce and aspen, something that could truly be referred to as a hidden gem.

We closed in November of 2017, but by then it was too late and too cold to continue living in the van in Colorado, let alone on a plot with nowhere to park, at 9000′ in the San Juan Mountains. We migrated to Texas for the winter, but here it was, spring of 2018 and we were ready to get to work.

April being a bust, we took one last loop through the American Southwest, just waiting out the snow. By the time we returned to the property in May, the snow had melted. We were ready to break ground.

The Concept

Eventually, we would build a cabin. Eventually, this would be a rental property, something to bring in a little money once our oldest had gone off to college or the Navy or wherever his future took him, so that I might work a little less as we continued our attempt at seeing as much of the world as possible.

We also knew we wanted the property to remain somewhat like a campground, a simple place, a spot in the forest, not a forested spot that we would level and bend to our will, but one where everything we built worked naturally with the features the land and plants there upon had developed over the eons before us.

We would install electric, water and septic. And we would live here, even before the cabin was built, in a vintage Airstream which we once called home, but which had now been in storage for several years.

When we arrived, nothing had been touched. Willows grew at the front of the property, aspens behind them, and firs and gamble oak coated the granite cliffs that fell down to the lake below. And so, we got to work.

A Spot to Park

It seemed obvious that the first step was to determine the best spot to park our van, our now home and the one we’d continue to live in for the foreseeable future, as we began carving our way carefully into a life of homesteading.

The ground beneath the willows was still, only slightly, damp, and I realized immediately that working with the land would not simply help us remain stinky hippies, one with nature, but it would also save us a ton of headaches. Willows love sucking up water, they’re essentially straws, and as feet worth of snow melt here every spring, as the front of our property essentially serves as a drainage valley for the rest of the mountain beyond it, leaving them in tact would mean they’d continue to do the job of slurping up mountain runoff, preventing us from being washed away, surrounded by mud or, worse, some future cabin we’d build from being flooded regularly.

And so, with a clear plan of how we’d cut enough space to park our van, to make a driveway, a spot to camp, we bought a chainsaw.

a man, wearing ear and eye protection, holds a chainsaw up in a thicket of willows
Chainsaw posing, it’s a thing.

To be clear, I’m not a “chainsaw” type of guy. I like a good cry, enjoy craft beer, and hug trees before I cut them down. My goal was to never cut anything larger than 2″ in diameter. To be conscious of every cut. I knew I would likely get drunk with the power of a spinning, cutting chain, and even more intoxicated by exhaustion after working hard to clear a spot large enough for our van, to clear a small path to the nearest next neighbor with power, and a space large enough for what we planned to live in come winter. But I swore I’d be careful, and I was, both with the use of the chainsaw itself and the frequency of how often I sliced trees to the ground.

a young boy stands above a massive root ball
“Yeah, Wylder, figure that one out.” 🙂

And then we had a place to call camp.

a van parked near a dirt road in the forest
Camp.
a small camping table with various pots and water jugs on it, a large pile of sticks, a boy, and a camp chair
Dish station and stick pile.
a stone fire pit and a gnarly root system
A place to cook.
a lake through some fir and spruce trees
The backyard.

And then, it snowed. Setbacks would be a recurring thing for a family of travelers who’ve now decided to pursue the polar opposite.

a family camping at a national forest, sitting around a fire on a picnic table
Camping 30 miles, and 6000′ elevation drop, away, dodging the snow.

Luckily, our entire home could roll away. One of the largest head starts we had to this concept of creating a homestead, was that we were adaptable, able to pick up and go, come back, and know the difference between when it was bad enough to evacuate and when we were just in need of a little sit back and relax around the fire.

a man with a chainsaw carving out a campfire bench
A few more improvements, setting up a campfire away from the road.
sticks arranged like a teepee
At some point a teepee was created…
a canvas tent set up near a camping dish station
A place for the teenager to sleep. His largest tent ever, I might add. 🙂
a man looking at a phone near a fire pit
Campfires and YouTube videos on how to start installing electric, water and sewer become the evening routine.
a teenager rakes dirt flat, his younger brother points into the forest
Prepping for a more secure driveway…

The Driveway

After getting caught up in the snow, with our 2-wheel drive van, we realized that an essential ingredient to this homesteading life would be a solid driveway. That meant having about 45 tons of road base delivered by a big truck from a quarry back in Durango. If you’re wondering, 45 tons of road base is delivered in three truckloads. Big ol’ dump trucks. It cost about $800 for the whole batch, which was sufficient for a thirteen foot wide, 46′ long driveway.

Even if we had a 4-wheel drive vehicle, it would be necessary to create a driveway. Otherwise, spring rain makes for mud pits and dollops of goo on shoes when living in a van gets old, quickly. Not to mention the large trucks that, if you don’t plan to dig a well by hand, will be necessary to get your water flowing.

Our goal here was not a paved driveway by any means. We simply wanted something akin to what you might find would you pull into a national forest site. Solid dirt, able to hold up a tire and keep small babies from being lost in muddy sink holes.

a man pushes a compacting machine across dirt while his boys play in the background
Some of us work, and some of us play football.

The general concept is, after clearing the area of bushes, and removing roots that will just sprout back up through the driveway you’re about to work hard to, you rake your proposed area flat, and then compact it with a machine like this, called a vibratory plate. Fortune turned its gaze our way here in Durango, as a local company by the name of Target Rental had basically every machine we’d need to create our little homestead, and they’d even deliver the bigger boys. But more on that later.

a boy climbing a tree
Always time to remember that we’re not just here to work, there’s a forest to be explored, too!

Next up, “road fabric,” more officially known these days as geotextiles.

We found a company by the name of US Fabrics, and a simple phone call, no high pressure sales I might add, had the rep listening to our needs and recommending exactly the right amount of material.

geotextile fabric strewn across a driveway prep
Geotextile lay before the road base showed up by the dump truck load.

Once placed, held down with some stakes and large rocks, this material was sturdy enough for the dump trucks to carefully back over. Thanks Tim the dump truck driver!

a dump truck delivering rock
C & J Gravel for the cheap road base win.
a young boy watches a dump truck drop road base
Watching rocks.

All of this work, the shrub removal, raking, planning and shovel after shoveling, was done by the whole family. Just as setbacks would become a recurring theme, doing this with my lady and sons would as well.

a young boy with a shovel
Wylder is ready to toss rocks.
a young boy rakes and measures the depth of the rocks
Winter always looking to make sure we stay around 6″.
a teenager compacting a driveway in progress
Tristan on the vibratory plate.
a family working on a driveway
people walking down a driveway
Break time sounds about right.
mom and her boys tossing a football
Layer one makes for a great came of catch.
a compacted, flat road base
Layer 1 is finished.

We went with two 3″ layers of road base. As you compact each layer, with the vibratory compactor, you’re supposed to add water, keeping it wet so that it really smashes itself into a wet dirt, rock and clay hash. Given our lack of a water source at this point, we did our best with chucking water via five gallon buckets.

a dad walks next to his son using a vibratory plate to compact road base
Teach ’em young. When you let them do things that would probably be easier if you just got them done, you get them interested in not only helping you do the work, but being your best buddy while they do.
a canvas tent on a cliff
Tristan decides to relocate his tent away from the driveway, to a cliff overlooking the lake.

At this point, we have a place to park the van we live in. We have a sturdy foundation for additional big trucks to roll in, when needed, and summer is just getting started. Our goal is to next have a well dug, dig our own ditch to run electricity from the nearest neighbors’ telephone pole, and have a working septic system by the end of the year. Friends of ours have also been hired to renovate a vintage Airstream we once traveled in, but which had been in storage for several years. With May only now wrapping up, we felt quite on track.

And then, setbacks.

smoke engulfs the sky as a forest fire begins over the san juan mountains
The 416 Fire began June 1st.

The 416 Fire, as it would come to be known, sparked the first day of June. Everyone knew, and eye witnesses confirmed, that it was started by sparks from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a scenic, steam engine driven train which shuttles tourists–and brings in their dollars–from around the world up through the San Juan Mountains. We took this picture on our way to dog sit for some friends. Driving down the mountain that day, we had no idea it would completely change our next several weeks.

Again, being vandwellers whose home went everywhere they drove proved such a boon for our little escapade.

Fire from the 416 two towns over.

We setup camp over forty miles away, but could still see the smoke plumes, still wake up with the feeling of sleeping too close to a campfire in our nostrils.

a father sits with his kids in front of Ska Brewing in Durango Colorado
Nothing a brewery and a few weeks of camping can’t deal with, though.

And soon enough, smoke still lingering over the next mountain ridge, we were home again.

I’d note, finally and with regards to the driveway, that this required approval from the local county here. Would my driveway have been longer, I would have needed to pay for a permit, since they would need to more thoroughly review the width and length of the driveway in relation to the future home site, primarily to ensure fire trucks would be able to access everything easily and without putting those good men in danger.

a forest near a lake
The beavers and ducks didn’t feel the need to evacuate.
a smiling boy identifying flowers
Winter, glad to be out of the desert, went straight to identifying flowers.

Water, from a Well

Digging a well was not an endeavor we were equipped to do on our own. It’s a damn near impossible feat, frankly, considering we’d need to go down at least 200′ to hit the type of water that would prove reliable over the years. So, we hired a guy who does have the machinery.

He bid $15,000 to do the job. His was the lowest of all bids, and though we’d heard he had old equipment and rarely got the job done on the timeline he proposed, we went with him anyway, as he was born and raised in the area, and came with good recommendations if we didn’t mind him being late to his own funeral.

In the end, the job came with a bill closer to $8000.

a trail lined with old logs
Irrelevant to getting water setup, trail building was one of the more enjoyable of jobs.

Next up was getting that water connected to a place we could actually access it. For this, and to pipe electric down from the nearest telephone pole, we’d need this guy.

a Bobcat E20 excavator
Bobcat’s E20 Excavator. Fun.

It was a ton of fun, and a little scary, to use. We chose it over a larger excavator as that meant we could snake through trees instead of wiping them out all along the way. Renting one of these cost around $200 per day, or closer to $300 over the weekend where our local rental place does “weekend specials,” basically three days to operate the unit, as long as you don’t use it for more than a total of 8 hours. Easier for the novice than trying to pack a full 8 hour day into a single run.

a teenager sitting a picnic table covered in shade sails
Side projects came on Fridays. Everyone enjoys a wooden table when dinner time comes around.
a trench dug into the earth
The trench in progress.

Since it would hold water lines, as well as electric, and we’re at 9000′, the trench needed to be 6 feet deep. That’s deep, especially when you get to granite that doesn’t want to be used by “the little baby man’s excavator,” as a neighbor once called it.

a trench leads up to a well head
Close calls.

The white stuff in that photo is a combination of what came up when they drilled the well, and flakes of my knuckles after digging the trench so close to the well head we’d just paid to have installed. No issues arose however, and we celebrated with beers and a campfire that night.

Trench dug, pipe laid and wiring from the well’s pump all in place, the next step was to set one of these frost free hydrants up where we’d eventually park our forthcoming Airstream home and have real, running water. Quite the treat after years living out of a van with no such amenities.

a frost free hydrant
A frost free hydrant.

The way these work is simple, when you push the handle back down, the water falls down through a trap and into the ground, preventing the pipe itself from freezing.

the hydrant in place
The hydrant in place.
the back doors of a van open, loaded with wood
Turns out the van doubles as a work truck.

At this point, we had working water, and great water pressure, I might add, a lucky thing in the world of homesteading! The water was quite silty though, a problem we’d need to deal with down the road.

Electric

Before the homesteading operation, we’d existed primarily on solar power for the past several years. In vanlife, we simply needed to power a small fridge, keep our phones and iPad charged, and provide enough energy to keep my laptop going for work. We also had a small 12v fan, but this was the extent of the electricity we’d need to consume.

I considered solar, briefly, for this homesteading excursion, but quickly shot the idea down–at least for now–when I realized that it would be best fitted atop the roof of some future cabin, and didn’t want to waste the investment initially with a temporary panel install.

Plus, we’d be using loads of power tools and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, electric heat when winter fell. To that end, and since we had a trench dug for the well anyway, I contacted the local electric authority and got to work.

The process was significantly more involved than anything we’d approached previously. The general steps were:

  1. Contact the electric co-op for our area.
  2. A rep would come out and discuss our building plan, measure the distance from the nearest telephone pole (our neighbor up the road, who already had power.)
  3. Get a permit from the county for it all.
  4. They would have me run this by the electrician who oversaw it all.
  5. He approved everything and created the plan for what type of cable would need to be run.
  6. The two of us installed the cables themselves, they would all run underground, no power lines on our property at all.
  7. A county inspector came to approve all of the work, before I covered it back up with dirt.
  8. Once it was approved, I covered it with dirt.
  9. A final inspection sent word to the electric co-op that we were good to go.
  10. They flipped the switch and we had power!

The electric co-op was fairly quick to move, from setting up appointments to calling me back. Results may vary in other regions.

The best part of this all was the electrician I found. He was an older man, self-employed after decades of working for government agencies, a kind fellow who didn’t mind me asking questions and allowed me to work beside him the entire time. He even took me to Home Depot where we picked out everything we’d need to get the job done, I paid for it, and all of this on a Sunday. His entire cost was $400, by far the cheapest thing we’d pay someone else to help with.

From the neighbor’s telephone pole, the electric co-op installed a meter on right-of-way and I was responsible for everything after that. The cable we ran held hot, neutral and copper ground wire. Local codes dictated how far underground the wire needed to be buried, and the electrician assured me that it wouldn’t need to be run in a “pipe” (grey PVC pipe made for just such an application) though I now wish that I had, in case anything eve goes wrong it would be much easier to replace the wire that way. Instead, he simply insisted that I make sure there were no rocks directly touching the wire’s casings, which could lead to significant issues should corrosion kick in.

After we were done, he told me a story of his own property, where a rockchuck (aka, marmot or whistlepig) had chewed into his wires underground, forcing him to redo the entire outside electrical setup at his home. This is when I really wished I would have shelled out some additional cash for the pipe.

Without it, all of the wiring, breaker boxes, breakers themselves, the RV outlet panel we’d install while we lived here temporarily (before the cabin was built) and various odds and ends that were necessary ran just under $600.

I dug the rest of the trench, which would continue from the wellhead to the meter, with the same Bobcat E20 I’d rented previously, so no additional cost there.

Permits, labor and materials, the electrical install came in at around $1300.

Suddenly, we had power, and the whims of the sun’s shining were replaced with a regular electric bill, something I hadn’t had in over a decade.

A Place to Live

At this point, we had running water, power and space to park our van, pitch our oldest son’s tent. We had this vintage 1976 Airstream we had traveled in years ago, now in storage in New Mexico. Neither the tent nor the van would be enough to make it through a winter here in the San Juans, at 9000′, with well over 300″ of snow on the way (which we couldn’t know at that time, but was very much in our future.)

The Airstream wouldn’t be large enough for all of us, either. The younger boys could share a bunkbed, we imagined, and another short queen would more than suffice for us parents, but we’d need a place for the teenager to grow into the things that teenagers become. We planned to renovate the Airstream, to meet our needs and because it was full of 40 year old insulation, mold and mouse shit. And we’d build a shed for Tristan to live in.

The shed would double as a building experiment, a chance to learn how to do the basics of constructing a building before trying it out on the cabin some day.

So, we got to work.

Building the Shed: Part 1

I first decided that I would try and construct a garage to involve as few cuts as possible. Heights and widths would be based around existing lengths two which 2x4s and plywood were precut. This was a brilliant plan, and one I quickly abandoned for much of the work after I realized how much a permit would cost to build a proper garage. Not to mention, how slow the county was at issuing such permits.

If I kept the garage under 200 square feet, I wouldn’t need a permit. Thus, the garage became a shed, which we began lovingly referring to as our visitors center.

It would still be large enough to house our old VW Bus, so that once the teenager was grown and off to college, we could store our beloved former home on the road until some date at which we were ready to fix it up and travel in it again.

The main room in the visitors center would be 9′ by 18′ and a small off-shoot, the bottom of which would serve as my workshop, the top a loft for the oldest boy, would be 5′ x 7′.

Step one was to make sure we had enough space cleared. I marked the outer dimensions of the shed with stakes and string, raked the ground beneath as level as possible, removing all of the big trunks and root stubs sticking out of the ground.

I then dug holes at each corner, in preparation for a post-barn construction. Used ready-mix concrete, I put four or five inches of cement down into those holes to help support the posts.

I did the back wall first. To give the main room of the visitors center enough height so that the Bus’ pop top could go up fully even while parked inside, I calculated the roof needed to be 10′ high. You may know already that, for most wood, the dimensions by which it’s labeled are not the actual sizes.

For example, a 2×4 is actually 1.5″ thick, 3.5″ wide. The length, however, is true. To frame a wall, though, you need another 2×4 on the top and bottom each, for a total wall height of 120″ (10′) + 1.5″ + 1.5″ = 123″ high. Some of this would be lost, should we put down flooring (which we would not) or when we added drywall to the ceiling (which we did.) Drywall is about ½” thick though, so it’s a minimal loss.

a 2x4 wall being constructed on the ground
Beginning the wall.

I bought some plywood as well, to help with a somewhat more flat surface than my dirt driveway would afford. Two build a 2×4 wall, you basically just make a rectangle, placing the studs that will go vertical between those which go horizontal (so the end studs rest atop and beneath, not on the outsides, of the top and bottom studs.) They should be spaced 16″ apart, because, well, that’s how it’s done. I did my best to keep these spacings accurate.

lengths of 2x4 wall built in sections
More wall
a 2x4 wall standing
The wall, now attached to the poles.

I then placed the poles, using 16′ 6x6s, so that there would be ample post to go into the ground and still reach the tops of my 10′ 2×4 walls. If they ended up being too tall, I could cut some off, but I didn’t want the posts to be shorter than the walls themselves.

Getting the posts square and plumb was difficult, but you can nail 2x4s into them, angled down toward the ground and then staked into the ground. You just place a stake directly next to the lower part of the angled piece of wood, pound it into the ground, ensure you’re plumb (plumb is the vertical equivalent of level, I learned) and then screw the supporting, angled piece of wood into place. It’s at least a two man job, but can be done by one man should he wish to lose globules of hair.

See the top left of this picture for an example of what I’m referring to with the angled support.

young boys mixing concret3
Top left, an example of the supporting stud.
a construction area full of wood
Junky sawhorses.

I built this back wall, including adding some plywood, first, so that we could install a breaker box while the aforementioned electrician was up here. We were able to install this, so that the visitor center would have power inside, and the RV box at the same time, saving the electrician round trips to my place and us money.

Saving money was a major theme, as you can see by the cheap plastic sawhorses I purchased. They got the job done though.

An RV Pad

Not wanting to sit on level blocks, or live at a tilt, and after the shed was started and the RV pad’s water and electric hookups were completely in place, I ordered a bit more roadbase and created a level spot on which our Airstream would rest, hopefully preventing it from rolling downhill and into the lake, even as spring’s future thawing of the snowpack created rivers out of our land.

a level patch of dirt on which to park an RV
RV Spot #1. Partial hookups, for now.

At this point, it was July 15th, and I felt good about where we were at. We still needed to finish the shed, renovate our Airstream and come up with a plan for a septic system. A friend dropped by in his van though, and we spent the next month or so doing very little work, instead drinking around fire pits, exploring far off towns by way of mountain passes, jumping off of rocks into rivers, and skateboarding.

a man looks at an atlas
Devising routes across mountain passes.
large rocks, people about to jump from them into the river below
a man skateboarding in a cement bowl
Skating Ridgway, CO.

Our little community on Camp Wand’rly was growing, as we finally retrieved the Airstream from New Mexico in preparation for its restoration.

an Airstream and two vans parked in the forest
Our future home, our friend’s van, and our current vandwellable home in the background.

The Airstream Renovation

Friends of ours, who’d been living out of their own Airstreams for a few years, mostly parked in driveways as their business was to renovate their clients’ own Airstreams, were to come and renovate our Airstream for us. We paid them to do so. They did not. We’ve written all about that experience here, so I won’t rehash it all.

What I will say is, between these “friends” who essentially left us with a half-finished project, landscapers we’d spoken with back in May only now sending quotes (we’d done the work ourselves, weeks before) and the upcoming situation with a licensed septic installer, we realized that if we wanted to get things done, if we wanted to be satisfied with the work, and if we wanted to have any mistakes put on us, our responsibility to fix, we’d need to do everything we could on our own.

Gutting the Airstream was our responsibility, though, and we pulled together as a family, renting a large dumpster which sat just outside of it, and got to work.

a van, airstream and dumpster in a tight space
With our good friends, not the ones who’d end up shanking us on the Airstream renovation, still hanging out, and a trailer and a dumpster on the lands, things got tight.
The Airstream, walls ripped out, still a before in progress.
The Airstream, Before #2.
The Airstream, walls ripped out, still a before in progress.
The Airstream, Before #1.
a young boy with a hammer
Winter on the job!
friends at Camp Wand'rly
The good crew! Taking a break from washers and demolition to laugh a little.
a young boy in a construction zone
Wylder doing his part.
the empty shell of a gutted Airstream
We took her down to nothing, though didn’t remove the shell.

Should you ever hear the name “The Modern Caravan,” though, and think their work looks pretty, you’d be right. If you’re considering hiring them, though, we encourage you to read the article linked above before you get into the mess. There are times when I wish we’d have continued taking the job from this gutted stage ourselves, and though I’ve since repaired most of their total disasters, such as leaving our plumbing to all completely freeze, full of water they put into it, and other major issues, it’s still an example of why doing it yourself is the best way to go.

Building the Shed: Part 2

Before The Modern Caravan arrived, we made friends with some neighbors, the husband of which was a carpenter, but really a jack of all trades-construction related. He offered to help with pouring the concrete floor of the visitor center. He helped ensure that my molds were correct, help erect the poles in the remaining corners of the shed, and turned out to be a wealth of knowledge. I probably wouldn’t have accomplished half as much as we did without his help.

a large cement mixer
I found a company in town that can mix it to order, right on the construction site.
men watch concrete pour from a cement mixer truck
Getting started.
men working on concrete
There’s a lot of shoveling.
The job doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty intensive while it does.
a man standing in wet concrete
Ankles deep in concrete.

Note above, where I placed 4″ PVC pipe around the wiring and pipes that would come from the well’s pump and water supply up through the concrete.

men screeding concrete
Learning to screed concrete.
men screeding concrete
Even the concrete truck driver got in on the job.
a smooth final product for the concrete pour
The final product, still a bit wet, and with rain we tarped the operation.
a man pressing his hands into wet concrete
Obligatory stamp.

I would have significantly screwed this part up without our neighbor’s help. Instead, thanks to relying on his past experience, we had what I considered a perfect floor by the end of it all. If half of all contractors and tradesman had this man’s dedication to getting the job done right, the world would be a significantly sturdier, more beautiful place.

Both his and our family, kids and all, stamped our hands into the concrete, a testament forever as to who all contributed to this project.

A couple of days later, the concrete was fully dry. We built the walls, leaving the proper openings for the large door by which the Bus would enter, a side door for easier human entry, and a single window opposite those doors for additional light.

2x4 walls framed up
The visitor center, coming together.

You can see how plans don’t always come together here. The post closest to the camera in this photo was still a bit short. The walls came together though, and we accommodated for it all in the end. Note that the openings, above where the doors go, get additional support in atop since they can’t have studs going all the way to the floor (you know, since that would not make a doorway.)

While we theoretically had a well, with a pump, and lines running to the RV pad and the shed, the water wasn’t working just yet.

The pump needed to be connected to the electrical box attached to the back of the visitors center. This required the concrete and walls to be in place, and a compression tank (the blue thing in the background of the next photo.) This builds water pressure, and the grey box is a switch telling the pump to turn on and off.

a compression tank and switch to control water pressure and tell the well pump to turn on and off
60psi is the goal here. This setup prevents the pump from running endlessly, maintains water pressure, and even sets us up for running plumbing into the visitor center should we ever decide to do so in future.
plywood walls on the structure
Next, we covered the outer walls in plywood.

With the compression tank and pump switch in place, we finally, actually had running water. Just in time for the Airstream renovators to show up and take over the RV pad. We were still living out of the van, relying on body heat at night and our usual outdoor living during the day.

The Trusses

Aside from drywall, the trusses were the hardest thing to do, and do right. I never did get the drywall part right, actually.

Hanging trusses, without a crane, meant two people dangling precariously from the tops of walls, or ladders, hammers and nails at the ready, but both arms available as another person hoisted one end up.

For the first truss, you nail boards sturdily to the outside of the wall. This allows you to somewhat lean your first truss against those boards, giving you a little more wiggle room to get it safely installed, and then the next one, to which you can connect the first, beginning the process of securing them all. And there were a lot.

hanging trusses
The trusses were by far the hardest part. Me and another adult, plus our teenage son, hung them. Without cranes. A real balancing act that had me losing my nerve no doubt.
hanging trusses
Three people seemed to be the minimum for this task.
hanging trusses
Or two, sometimes.
hanging trusses
Teenagers, what a big help.

Above, if you look closely, you can see where we’ve nailed 2x4s from one truss to the next. This keeps them secure as you move on down the line. A little wind, or just one of them feeling off balance, and people could be crushed, the trusses destroyed, the project highjacked. I hated doing the trusses.

hanging trusses
Trusses coming together…
hanging trusses
Close to finished…
hanging trusses
Trusses, accomplished!

They were quite pretty actually, when finished, and the relief I felt was beyond measure. Too bad they’d eventually be covered completely. When we build our cabin, I’ll find a way to have them more exposed, I think.

the outside of the shed
The shed was now moving along much more quickly.
autumn leaves and an airstream
And then Autumn came…
an unfinished airstream restoration
…the Airstream wasn’t close to being livable…
snow on the roofs of cars and mountaintops
…and then Winter showed up early.

I continued to ask the Airstream renovators if they needed help. Only one of them was working on our project at this point. They declined help, ensuring me the project would be finished on time. It wasn’t.

In the meantime, we continued work on the shed.

Roofing the Shed

We chose a tin roof, and I liked the idea of red.

wooden siding
Materials show up by truck, from Denver.
Installing the insulation and interior pine paneling.
a dad holds a ladder for his youngest son
Work doesn’t even seem like it with a crew like this.
a teenager installing roofing
Our teenager was invaluable…when we could get him to swing a hammer.

The first step to the roof, now that the trusses were in place, was to install ⅝” plywood. We rented scaffolding, not wanting to store it for the years it might be until we got started on the cabin. This was heavy, hard work, indeed, and a fear of falling was ever-present.

a man installing tin roofing
Galvanized steel they call it, though its often affectionately referred to as a tin roof.
a man installing tin roofing
Finish the roof. I’m deathly afraid of heights, it turns out.

I put most of the tin on myself, with my lady or our teenager handing it up to me. I am, I discovered, deathly afraid of heights. This was a gratifying but stressful affair.

wood stained
At first we stained the wood before putting it on. Then we hated the color….
a woman staining wood
So we switched up the process, and shade.
tools hanging from a wall
Inside, I finally had a place to hang tools.
a loft
And the basics of the loft were built. This would be our teenager’s bedroom for the next two years.
the shed, finished
The final product.

The Airstream renovators would have a break down. We needed some space and, with the shed finished and not being allowed to help with the Airstream, we went on a road trip. When we returned, as mentioned, the Airstream was broken. The bathroom had frozen to pieces. The plumbing was all useless. Several other components hadn’t been finished, such as the hot water heater’s electrical work. Paint was splattered across the windows. The brakes hadn’t been hooked up nor the aluminum skin beneath the trailer reattached. The wood stove was in the middle of the floor, making the kitchen nearly impassible. Most of what we’d agreed on hadn’t been done, but it was livable enough and fortunately I had a few weeks to do most of the repairs before winter really hit.

a young boy plays with a record player
Record playing.

With the snow, work on the land was paused and we spent the months shoveling, traveling, snowboarding and playing Uno inside, near the wood stove.

Septic in the Spring

By April, the snow was melting. By May, it had dumped several times again on us, so we didn’t get back to work until mid-June. Mosquitos were everywhere. We had basically one primary goal, to finish installing our septic system.

The prior fall we had hired a company by the name of Waldo here in Durango to do this job. I asked, several times, which trees needed to come down and when they said none, I decided to use them. Instead, they wiped out a large swath of our aspen grove, simply because it was easier, I suppose.

I went and got my septic installers license and decided, again, to finish the job myself.

an airstream travel trailer, shiny, with a striped awning, parked in the forest
Airstream life as of Summer 2019.

The work done to date, by Waldo, was essentially to blast away some of the granite bedrock where the septic field needed to be, and install a tank we were able to use as a holding tank the previous winter.

From there, we needed to dig out all of the rock, have it inspected by the septic designer (an engineer required for projects so close to a lake and with such difficult soil, which in our case was purely rock.)

a large hole in the ground
Digging into granite.

The hole needed to be 5′ deep, but it also needed to drain, so in some places it had to go as deep as 7′. Digging a foot deep into granite feels impossible. Digging 7′ into it…

a woman sits beside a deep hole
Perspective.

Even at 7′ deep, the water still didn’t want to drain through the solid, crack-free granite below. We then needed to install drainage through the wall where you can see my lady sitting, for perspective on how massive a project this was. We literally scrubbed the rock at the bottom, shoveling dirt into buckets and carrying it out by hand, trying to clear away any muck that might be preventing the water from draining through the cracks in the floor of the hole.

a bobcat excavator
An old friend returns.

We rented the Bobcat E20 again. It couldn’t do the full job, so we had to get the next size up. The job was a major pain. Not as physically demanding as the trusses, but at times we wondered if it would ever be good enough to pass inspection.

And then one day, it was! We were given the all clear to fill it back in and complete the process.

If you’ve ever spent two months digging a hole, the feeling you get when chucking rocks and sand back into it, essentially undoing all the digging you’ve done, is quite strange.

septic installation as described
Filling it in with pea stone for drainage.
septic installation as described
Just add sand!
septic installation as described
Then level the sand…
septic installation as described
You’ll need a pump tank to pull from your main tank and feed the septic field.
septic installation as described
These elgin pads essentially expand the filtering process by 100x.
septic installation as described
Run PVC pipe to it all.
septic installation as described
Add valves, divert it equally to the three rows of elgin pads for a uniform dispersal.

This system works like so.

You use the sink, toilet or shower in the Airstream, this all runs into a holding tank.

When that tank gets full to a certain point, it reaches a pipe that drains the liquids into a pump tank. The pump tank has these things called “floats” which are designed to tell the pump when to turn on. “I’m 75% full, fire the pump!” The pump then pushes that water into PVC pipes at force. These PVC pipes have holes drilled into their bottoms, and the water goes out through those, into those black pads. “Elgin pads,” as they’re called, then filter much of the bacteria in the water before it seeps down into the sand, which is super fine, masonry grade they say, where the bacteria is filtered even more. The water is then theoretically safe enough to drive again, and it shuffles on downhill back to the lake or groundwater where it begins its long journey of renewal again.

From there, we needed to simply cover the sand with dirt, making sure the flow of spring’s water would divert from the field itself, and do any landscaping we had in mind.

Not that we got a chance to fully compete that before this happened.

an Airstream surrounded by snow
Winter came early last year.

From Here…

We still have plans to build a cabin. But, our teenager, largely the reason we did all of this, will graduate before the snow melts, and we’ll likely be off in our van again, traveling the world, until some future period where building a cabin sounds like more fun than exploring Australia or driving from Alaska to Argentina.

When that cabin comes around, we’ll be sure to update you here!