Three years ago today, we saw the land that we now live on for the first time. I think of it as a birthday of sorts. Below is an essay that I wrote then and never shared until today..
Come join us at The Studio at Dancing Water on Thursday, July 11 from 9-1015am. If you’ve not been out to the space, this is a great week to do it! We’ll move in the trees by the river and then, if you like, sit on the porch with tea and potluck snacks! I would love to have you there to be part of the nourishing movement and a little celebration.
This weekend, I fell in love. Which is crazy since I’m nearly 52 and I’ve been happily married for almost 17 years and we just moved into a new house he renovated less than a year ago. But love is like that. Love sneaks up on you at inappropriate times, and takes your breath away and there is just not a damned thing you can do about it.
My husband, Frank, fell in love this weekend, too. He looked at me with wide eyes and said, “I can hardly breathe.” I said, “I know” but really, it’s not my breath… it’s my heart. My heart is beating out of my chest.
We could hear it before we could see it. We walked through the ironwood trees and over lichened rocks and skittered a little down the steep hill and then there it was. They are called the falls at Natural Dam on the North Fork of the Hardware River and they are part of a property that we now very much want to buy.
I started laughing and shaking my head. Unbelievable. Only Frank could do this. We shucked off our clothes and stepped into the frothing water. I let the cool green current swirl around my shoulders and between my fingers and I looked at Frank with tears in my eyes and said, “You did this.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Two weeks before, we’d been traveling with our little camper in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There are mountains there, of course, but what we were looking for, what we always look for, are rivers and waterfalls. Most days found us hiking along creeks and rivers, doing dramatic crossings over rocks, sharing a granola bar while perched on a miniature island, playing in found swimming holes and whenever we could being near water falling over stone.
Near the end of our trip, we were in the middle of a river on a mossy rock dappled with sunlight alternately snapping crisp bites off an apple. My shoes were off and I let my feet play on the moving surface of the water.
Frank said, “I know we just moved into our house and we both love it but we both also love water. Have you ever thought about living near water? Near the ocean or a lake or something?”
I laughed and closed my eyes and leaned against him. I smelled his rich sweaty dirty smell after hours of hiking.
“I love the ocean and I love lakes,” I said, “but the only water I would consider living near is a river. I love this sound. I love the feel of it. That’s the only water I’d move for.”
“Well, then we should manifest a piece of land on a river within 10 miles of Charlottesville for the money we have that I can build a house on!” he said, just like that, as if there are such things.
I laughed in a hard burst since it was the silliest thing to even say, let alone pretend to manifest.
“Yeah, okay Frank,” I said, closing my eyes again and feeling the warm sun on my face and the strength of him sitting next to me. “We’ll do that.”
But I should know better. After all these years, I should know that he can do it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Since we’ve been home from the Smokies, I’ve been working like a wild thing – teaching more classes while my colleagues are out of town and working on writing and art pieces that had been neglected while we were away. Frank is looking for a house to renovate. He finds one that looks promising but it’s already got an offer on it. And then another, that could work but no, it’s got not only an offer but back up offers. He tells me he’s going to check out Craigslist just in case there is something there.
On Saturday, when I come back from teaching I’m famished and making lunch. He walks into the kitchen holding open his computer and hands it to me. “What about this?” he says.
I’m chopping an egg and I’m distracted with hunger and I lean over to see what he’s showing me. It looks like a waterfall.
“Wait, what?” I say, “What is that?”
“It’s a property. It’s for sale. It’s got a waterfall on it.”
I’ve driven to dozens and dozens of houses and properties with this man. He renovates old houses and he’s got vision. So when he sees something that looks like it might work he says, “Want to drive out and see it with me?” I always say yes. Almost always, it’s in a terrible neighborhood or built on top of the train line or it’s falling right down to the ground. Almost always, it doesn’t work.
We drive to where we think this property “where you can hear the water from anywhere” is and we can’t see or hear a thing. We wander around and we both find ticks crawling on us. Another disappointment. Oh well.
But when we get home and he calls the number on the ad. The man tells us we were in the wrong place. So we put on our hiking boots again and as we head back out. Frank drives and I hold the hand-drawn map he’s made: past the old farm house and the meadow and down the gravel road and under the power lines and there’s the turn out.
We get out of the car and I can hear the water.
It’s 9 miles from Charlottesville. It costs exactly the amount we have. And it’s got a waterfall.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Love is a funny thing. Maybe the funniest thing there is. Even after being struck with lightning-bolt love, it’s never simple. Even when your heart pounds and your breath catches, maybe especially then. Love is full of everything and drags you all over tarnation.
Two days after seeing it, less than 48 hours after we slid down the hill and into the green water, we placed an offer on the land. Early that morning Frank came into the kitchen and said, “Here’s what I think: I think we should put in an offer. My whole life, I’ve made decisions with my heart and I’ve never once regretted it. When I met you, I could have said it was too soon and you didn’t really want kids and it was too complicated, but I didn’t. You could say the timing isn’t right on this land and it’s going to be complicated to build, but I just looked at the video I took on Saturday and I saw this…”
He handed me his phone. After we’d swum in the river on that first day, after we’d stared in wonder at the woods and rocks and water, we got dressed and Frank took a video. I hadn’t realized it but in the first split second, he caught me in the frame. I was beaming.
“Look at your face,” he said. “That’s why I think we should make an offer.”
The offer was contingent on figuring out the road into the property. Maybe we could share the existing road that led to two nearby houses. The property has a right of way through a neighboring property but it would require taking out dozens of trees. Or we thought so but the actual location of not only the right of way but the property itself wasn’t clear. We knew we couldn’t build near the river or at any grade of 25% or more. We knew we needed 30,000 square feet of buildable land on this side of the river. But the deed and the county’s on-line topographical maps were full of discrepancies. The county said we didn’t have enough space to build on. The owner assured us we did.
While the owner made arrangements for a surveyor to come re-measure the property and the right of way, Frank started learning. He learned about county regulations. No, you can’t share a road with two other houses. He learned about how much tree removal and putting in culverts and buying tons of gravel would cost. He learned about how the county’s topographical maps were drawn and that maybe they weren’t particularly accurate in forested areas. He learned about challenging interactions between adjoining property owners and arguments about how the land could be used. He learned about engineered septic fields and how much it would be to dig a well. In the first week he designed and redesigned the house four times. He measured and remeasured where he would position it on the land, shifting it again and again to avoid the biggest hardwood trees. He relearned the Sketch Up software so he could see the design in 3D and how the sun would come in the windows.
He learned about chiggers. After a couple of times to the property, we both discovered our bodies – especially our most tender places – covered with wildly itchy bites. Chiggers are nymph-stage arachnids that hang out on long grasses in wet places. They hop onto birds and turtles and people. They are so small as to be invisible and can go right through most fabric. They find a tender spot, inject an enzyme that liquefies the skin which they then drink down and hop off, leaving an irritated bite that made us want to take belt sanders to our ankles and crotches.
After reading a series of alternately disgusting and hilarious sites about chigger avoidance, we determined where we were picking them up and how to stop the itching. We’d have to keep the grass by the river cut short but we figured we could even work around the chiggers.
But we couldn’t work around anything if we didn’t have enough buildable land. Without 30,000 square feet on the south end of the property, everything else was moot.
The owner arranged for a surveyor to come out to measure everything the day before we left for a trip to Minnesota to visit Frank’s family. Frank went out with them in the hopes of getting a definitive answer before we left but all the measurements had to be fed into a computer for the final results.
We’d been with his family for 24 hours before we told them about the land and our hopes to build. As Frank showed his design to his parents, sister and brother-in-law, my phone buzzed with a text. It was the owner. We had 30,000 feet and more.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At least a million things have happened since we got confirmation that we could build Frank’s vision. At least a million problems that looked like they made the whole proposition untenable. And yet one miracle after another kept happening: financing, a genius road builder, a hard-working creative engaged crew, materials off of Craigslist, a genius septic system installer (even if he was a teensy bit late), and Frank there all along working and creating every minute. A whole cascade of miracles leading up to today and right now. I am writing these words in the house the Frank manifested, designed, and built with his two hands. I can hear the water outside the window. And I’m beaming.