Notes from Windward: #55

Playing with the big toys!

Way back when, back when we were looking for just the right piece of land in just the right place, we had a number of things we wanted to find. It's in the order of things that some of the things we wanted were in conflict with other things we wanted. We chose this place for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the foremost was the way this particular piece of land combined terrain options that we had previously thought to be mutally exclusive.

The planning part went on long before as we spent two years searching and researching our options in the Pacific Northwest, and we actually selected this county more than a year before we selected the actual property that became Windward. When the land agent first brought me to this place, I already knew what we were looking for; once here, I knew that we had found it.

Windward is 106 acres of highly varied topography. We've got pasture and woodlands, flat places and a ravine. Our highest point is around 2,040 feet above sea level and our lowest about 1,860 feet, a drop of almost 200 feet. That amount of slope in half a mile's distance isn't very much, and mostly insures that Windward has good drainage. Most of that change occurs on Windward's northern third, where we've located the buildings and housing, and while we're set up to deal with the usual runoff, there wasn't anything usual about last winter.

An area of some five acres drains down toward our entrance road, and when the snow finally melted off this spring, that runoff had cut deep ruts into portions of our road bed. The road is wide enough that we've been able to drive along side the ruts, but it's been one of the things that's been on our "Things we have to do before winter comes" list. And just filling in the ruts with dirt wouldn't do it, because dirt by itself, no matter how hard you pack it in, will just wash back out next rain. For a repair like this, only rock will work.

Some of the families around here go back almost a hundred years, and the heavy equipment contractor we use is the fourth generation of his family to live in Klickitat County. One of the differences between city life and how things are done in the country is that out here you learn to work with your friends. In the city, there's an "arms length" relationship between customer and vendor that doesn't exist out here. Also there's a continuity to work here that's missing in the urban world. In the city you'd have lots of choices of people to hire to get work done, and a contractor would have a large pool of potential customers to draw from. Out here, there are only a few people who can do the work that's too big or too specialized for us to do for ourselves, and there's a limited number of people that a contractor can look to for work needed to cover the cost of owning and operating big equipment. The result is that in this culture, there's a substantial incentive to find ways for contractor and customer to work together on an on-going basis.

It's the old question of whether it's best to shear sheep or skin them. If you skin sheep, you get a pelt and meat, which constitutes a sizable return in the short run. If you sheer sheep, all you get is a bag of wool. but that's offset by the fact that you still have a productive relationship with the sheep, and you can look forward to another wool crop next year. In actual practice, managing a flock of sheep involves a combination of both; some lambs go for slaughter and some become productive members of the flock. When some Californian moves up here, with pockets brimming with cash from the sale of their home, I expect that you can guess which category the construction contractors are naturally going to see them as fitting into. It's almost amusing since most of these newcomers will think that they got a really good deal, and when you compare with what things cost in California, you can argue that they did. Still, one of the unwritten rules in the Pacific Northwest these days is "e caveat californian."

John, the contractor we rely on, is one of the old-timers who takes a longterm view. He knows that he can count on us for some work every year, and he also knows that we know that there's a time to do the work and a time to do something else. For example, late spring is when you should put in a septic system at Windward. Earlier than that, the ground's too soft and you'll bog down. Much later than that, and the high clay content of our soil makes digging very hard. If you do the work at the right time of year, there's a lot less wear and tear on equipment and operator, the work goes faster, and the job costs less. Same work, same result, cheaper price, all because of better planning.

While we could haul sand, rock and gravel here a ton at a time, it's cheaper for us to arrange with him to deliver materials to us in August and September. Those months, the ground is hard and his 10 yard dump truck can drive anywhere without worry of either getting stuck or of doing damage to the ground. On the other hand, in December there are places where our four wheel drive pickup has sunk to the axels. The more we learn about our land, the better we're able to schedule work and activity for those times when they're going to be the most effective. Working hard is good. Working smart is better.

Rock comes in all sorts of flavors, and we're currently stockpiling four different types of rock products for use in Windward's development. They range from the decorative red rock that is mined from the funnels of extinct volcano vents nearby, to the specialty items as the one-inch round river rock that's used to make drain fields. Red rock is nice for creating walkways and for putting a floor in sheds or other areas where you want to keep the dust down and prevent mud, but it crushes into powder under the heavier load of vehicle traffic. Round rock is used because the voids between the rocks form pockets where water can accumulate, something that's critical to the functioning of a drain field.

Then there's the rock and sand that we use for mixing concrete. This "sand" is actually a class of rock, and it's quite different from what you find laying around, although you'd have to use a magnifying glass to spot the difference. Surface sand has been blown around and abraded until it's just an extremly small, round pebble. It's good for use in a garden where the tiny voids create tiny pockets of air and water that are needed for good root growth.

Sand for use in concrete is mined out of the ground and hasn't undergone this weathering process. It still has sharp edges which play a role in determining how strong the concrete will be when it's fully cured. Imagine a stone wall made with round rocks, and compare that to a wall made with angular, brick-like rocks. It's fairly obvious that the round rock wall wouldn't support as much weight as would a wall made with rocks shaped like bricks. One of the little ironies of this world is that Saudi Arabia, a land with vast tracts of sandy deserts, imports sand for use in making concrete.

The rock product that we buy the most is called "3/4 minus." It's pit-run that's gone through a screen that separates out anything that won't go through a 3/4" mesh. It's a mix of rocks, pebbles and sand, and it forms the basis of our road beds where you want exactly the opposite effect that you create in a drain field. In a road bed, you don't want any voids at all. You want all the spaces between the rocks to be filled with pebbles, and all the spaces between the pebbles to be filled with sand. Once everything has been shaken down and compressed, the result is a subsurface that can carry substantial loads by spreading out the weight.

The first thing you learn doing road construction and/or repair is that it takes a lot of rock to do the job. You've all seen the really big equipment that they use to build roads. That's not just the product of some male compulsion to use big tools, that's what it takes to get the job done. While you can do some parts of the job using smaller equipment and lots of hand labor, there are other parts where you're really just wasting your time. Self-reliance is a core value here at Windward, but there are times when that needs to step aside so that the heavy iron can get the job done. While we have a core vision of being able to meet our needs ourselves, there are times and places where practicality dictates that a certain task should be handed over to others.

John gives us a good deal on our rock. It's mined in his family's quarry with his own equipment and he delivers it himself. We have a standing order with John for things that we need doing, and he fits us in when things work out for him, and he charges us less than he would if we were specifying the time of delivery. We're never sure when things will actually get done; since he's using old equipment, things break down and now and then, or some lucrative opportunity will come along and he'll shift resources in order to take advantage of it, but over time the work does get done and the cost remains low.

As a result of the flooding and the availability of money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there's been a lot of work available at top dollar rates, so we haven't seen much of John for awhile, but with the coming of fall, every country soul knows that the coming of winter won't be far behind. So John hooked up his belly dump and hauled thirty cubic yards of 3/4 minus up to fill in the ruts and another twenty yards to extend the road bed toward Finney trailer.

John's belly dump trailer was especially nice for this job since he was able to open the belly grate and dribble out the rock as he drove over the damaged area. That left some raking and scraping to do to level things out, but doing it this way made that part of the job much easier on us.

Once the rains start, we'll start the process of packing in the gravel to finish the repairs to the road bed. This problem shouldn't recur again since we know where and how we need to divert the run off in order to protect this bit of road. However, that doesn't mean there won't be a problem somewhere else. Life close to the land is a constant process of trying to keep up with nature,

and, no matter how well you lay out your game plan,

"Mother Nature always bats last."

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