I grew up in the middle of nowhere, which is in Maine. The nearest outpost of civilization was Portland, and back then Portland was just a guy who looked like the Gorton’s fisherman yelling at a moose to get off his dock. But land in the boonies was Louisiana Purchase cheap, and so I grew up on 30 acres with the trappings of farm life, including pigs named Lenore and Bernice, a murderous pony named Miss Piggy and chickens that got methodically abducted by a local raccoon. I guess we tend to mythologize our own childhoods, but it still seems pretty awesome that I was driving around the woods in my own car at age 11.
Thus, I suppose it’s unsurprising that lately I’ve caught the bug for country life, in the form of a gnawing feeling that my ambitions cannot be contained by a suburban house lot. To cite just one example, my neighbors are probably not huge fans of my snow gun. To create on-demand sledding for my kids, ages 6 and 7, I bought a mini version of the snowmakers you see at ski resorts. Then I constructed a giant ramp that I named Mount Diablo. It all worked great, with the exception that the snow gun requires a massive air compressor and a pressure washer, and I hadn’t fully considered noise abatement when I developed my plan for a driveway ski resort. But suffice it to say that if you had a neighbor who left an air compressor and a pressure washer running all night outside, you might wish that person would move to a more remote location. So that’s what we’ve been investigating.
Given our desire for a reasonable financial outlay, we have two potential courses: either buy a cheap piece of land and build on it, or buy a fixer-upper with some acreage. The latter option is what my parents did back in the day, although they never fully got around to the fixing. Their plans went from, “We’ll definitely move the water heater that’s sitting on cinder blocks in the middle of the kitchen,” to “You know, after a while, you don’t even notice the water heater on cinder blocks in the middle of the kitchen.”
But even empty land can be problematic. Early in this process, we scoped out a seemingly attractive plot. But when the real estate agent sent us the document elaborating on “restrictions,” it turned out that the property was part of a homeowner’s association, with an architectural commission headed by someone with a name like Florence Witherbuckle. And Florence would decide acceptable fence colors and whether you were using your property in a “noxious” manner. I have a feeling that Florence and I would have differing ideas on the topics of, say, backyard motocross parks and offseason fireworks, so we crossed that place off the list.
Another piece of land was far down an unpaved road that led to a single house, which was festooned with all manner of signs and flags that seemed intended to let potential buyers know exactly what their closest neighbor is all about. My wife, Heather, took one look and said, “I’m not living next to this gosh-darn chucklehead.” She didn’t use those exact words, but you get the idea. Let’s just say that if that guy were a Civil War re-enactor, he definitely wouldn’t own a blue uniform.
So we moved onto the fixer-uppers. One place had a gorgeous setting, surrounded by woods and fields. But when we visited it with a contractor, reality set in. There would likely be asbestos. A nearby tree was threatening the foundation. There was a pond, and even that was a problem. “As you can see,” he said, “the pond is leaking.” I nodded gravely, as if I knew that ponds can leak. Of course it’s leaking. Probably need to go in there and caulk the pond drain, I reckon. “You could get this place in pretty good shape for $300,000, though,” he said. You know, maybe my neighbors could just get used to the snow gun.
The next place we looked at was less tragic but still daunting. It was an ex-bed-and-breakfast that now had tenants in various rooms. We made our way through the house while annoyed renters scuttled to and fro and the real estate agent said things like, “Oh, that’s Dave! He’s very private. OK, let’s go in his room.” The house was dated, but I could see it renovated, with chickens running around the backyard and the distant next-door neighbor riding past on his ATV. That didn’t take much imagination, since there were chickens running around out back and a distant next-door neighbor riding past on his ATV.
As it stands, we’re still looking, unsure if we’re totally serious about all this. I’m simultaneously excited about this idea and half hoping that the fever passes without action. After all, I hate moving and I like being within five minutes of a Starbucks. But I have a feeling that next winter, I’ll be shooting fireworks off Mount Diablo. While the kids drive past in their car. ◆
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