Making Scarlet's Run
In that last entry, I told you how I was in San Francisco in the 90’s, started a tech company, got sick of it, moved to an out of the way place and met Jenny along the way. There we were on this little ranch named Scarlet’s Run in Whitmore California.
Starting in 2006, and over the next ten years, Jenny and I made a home there. For a while, we were having so much fun that we accidentally made a full time job out of it.
In Whitmore, it was green and beautiful in the winter. It would snow a bit at our elevation, but mostly there was an abundance of green. In the winter, the oak trees dropped their leaves and the grass grows low on the ground. The cold, clear, dry winter air would create what pilots call ‘severe clear’ visibility… you could see forever. The winters in Whitmore were glorious.
When the Earth started to warm, sometime in April, everything would start growing. The grass would grow fast and tall. Wildflowers bloomed along the road and in open pastures. The landscape was painted an electric green with splashes of color everywhere you looked. The oaks would start to fill in with young pale-green leaves that would turn a deep color when Summer settled in. Spring would start at five-hundred feet in elevation in the California Central Valley and take a leisurely stroll up into the foothills and then on further up into the mountains. Spring would wash over Whitmore about two weeks after it came to the valley. It was so thrilling to see it climbing up the hills towards Scarlet’s Run. After the wave of spring would crash over us and continue it’s climb,Jenny and I would take weekend drives up to higher elevations to chase the tide of wildflowers.
The first year I was there, I was fascinated by all the growth but didn’t realize I’d let myself get surrounded on all sides by tall grass. The green grass, having grown to four or five feet high, as far as you could see, would turn brown almost overnight and become dangerous. Scarlet’s Run was in fire country. For every one foot of burning grass, you’d get a four to six foot wall of fire
While we lived there, there would be years when we stand on our deck and see smoke from fires rising in every direction. There were several times where they came close enough to see the flames. Fire was a constant companion in the summer. I never made my peace with it.
That first year, I started cutting the grass too late. I went to Home Depot and got trimmer and started trying, hopelessly as it turned out, to cut a firebreak around the house and other structures. That year, I learned about the difference between equipment you buy at Home Depot versus equipment you purchase at a farm supply, rigger or saw shop. A string trimmer at Home Depot might have a usable life of 150 to 200 hours. That equates to a decade of trimming at a typical household. But on a rural property, that’s not even one year of operation. And the build quality of the trimmers wasn’t made for operating on rough terrain. The trimmer I bought in May was dead before the end of June. Same for mowers. While it was too late to mow by the time I woke up to the problem with the grass, I did end up doing major damage to, and then having repaired it, promptly destroyed a John Deere riding mower the next year. I spent that first summer anxiously hoping that we’d get away with letting the grass get ahead of it and I vowed to never let that happen again.
Just for some perspective, an acre of land is a pretty good chunk. I didn’t know what one looked like when I first showed up there.
Consider the block that the Going Queen is on. If you were to draw a box that encompassed the area between Going and Prescott and the area between the alley that runs behind the Queen and 27th, you’d have one acre. There are 5 houses on that particular acre.
Scarlet’s Run was about the size of the area between 25th Ave and 28th Ave between Alberta and Prescott. In that area, there 9 residential blocks and about 130 properties. That is approximately 20 acres.
I would cut back the grass on about 1/3 of that area. I had to cut all the grass that was 10 feet on either side of a road or path and then cut back the grass about 100 fee around any structure. Most of that area had to be cut with a string trimmer. The remainder was left for the animals to eat. To imagine the area we mowed, just imagine the land between Alberta and Prescott as being steeply sloped and covered in rocks and trees. Now fire up your string trimmer and cut all the grass between 27th and 28th Avenues from Alberta to Prescott. You need to do this about three times during the growing season (grass keeps growing). Careful of the rattlesnakes. You are definitely going to run into them. Get this done before temperature get above a hundred and it turns too brown and dangerous to operate a gas powered string trimmer.
As long as we are on the subject of perspective, Scarlet’s Run was a small. I couldn’t refer to it as a ranch while I lived there unless I wanted to embarrass myself. The ‘medium’ sized ranches were between 500 and 1,000 acres.
Here's what 1,000 acres looks like.
There were two large ranches nearby. The smaller of the two, Cow Creek Ranch, was near the southern border of Scarlet’s Run. One year, the Cow Creek Ranch needed to do some work on their irrigation ditch which ran along the border of my property and they asked if they could use our front yard as a staging area. They landed a helicopter in my driveway and used it to pick up large metal culverts that they needed to suspend on the hillside while workers installed them. You know you have a real ranch when your tools include a helicopter.
The largest ranch in Whitmore, at 22,000 acres, would fit between the airport to the north, Sellwood to the south, Forest Park to the west and Tabor to the east. About 7 people lived full-time on this ranch.
Scarlet’s Run was just a silly little property about the size of 9 Albertan blocks, but I still had to mow it. After going through a couple I purchased from Home Depot, I had to get one that is typically used by municipal workers that have to mow city parks.
And if anyone wants to know which string trimmer can mow a city block, every year, year after year, it’s a STIHL FS 240. You’ll need two of them because if one needs to go out for service, you won’t get it back fast enough to keep grass in check that season. If you want to know how long it takes to cut all the grass between Alberta and Prescott, one block wide, it takes about 200 hours or 6 to 8 weeks of running the weed trimmer like it’s a full time job.
The growing season comes to an abrupt end as the warm weather turns to hot to support life on Earth. Once summer came to Whitmore, unless you poured a lot of water on it, it was going to die.
I love weather. I’m fascinated by it. I think it stems from growing up in Orange County California where weather doesn’t exist. When I moved to San Francisco in the early 90’s, I got to live somewhere with seasons. They went spring, winter, fall, slightly colder winter.
In Whitmore, we had four real seasons. It was cold in the winter. Shit froze. Snow fell. When spring came, it was an explosion of color. And then that goddamn summer came. The worst time of the year. It would be so hot some days that it would hurt your eyeballs to go outside.
Being interested in the weather, I installed a weather station. It was a professional station purchased from an agricultural supply company. I used NOAA guidelines to install it. I took temperatures, in the shade, using a shielded and fan aspirated calibrated temperature sensor. I registered the weather station and connected it to the internet so it would automatically load readings so the data could be aggregated for weather reports. The hottest calibrated temperature I recorded was 119 degrees Fahrenheit. The highest nighttime low temp was 105 degrees. The hottest month I survived was a July where temperatures were over 110 degrees for 9 days that month and over 100 degrees every single dingle day.
In the summer, we didn’t go anywhere. We stayed on Scarlet’s Run just trying to keep things alive. We’d dump water on a fruit orchard and a large garden. We’d check our animals multiple times each day to make sure they were staying hydrated. Did you know, on a hot day, a horse will drink five gallons of water in a single drink? It’s impressive to watch.
As usual, I’m so off topic that there is no way back. Let me abruptly get the point and jump to the house on Scarlet’s Run.
When I purchased the house on Scarlet’s Run, it didn’t fit the property. It was perched on a hillside overlooking the creek.
It was sprayed white on the inside. It had linoleum and Pergo flooring, brass coated plumbing fixtures, beige carpet, blown-stucco walls with round corners and teal Corian counter tops. It was a 2,500 square foot, clean, in almost new condition but it looked like a track home that got lost in the wilderness. It was only 5 years old when I bought it but it felt like it was in conflict with it’s surroundings.
Over the next four years, Jenny and I remodeled it and made the house feel like it belonged there; standing watch on the hill over the Cow Creek. In doing so, we enlisted the help of our neighbors and used things that were made, built, harvested or milled nearby.
I like wood, metal and rock. We found people that knew how to work with these materials to help us make our home.
Dan, a lifelong local who lived up the road from us, helped with the metal work. Dan was a mechanic and a welder. He’d been welding all his life and had that kind of skill that you can only acquire if grow up doing it. His passion was building ‘rock crawlers’. He built them from scratch using metal tubing and bars. He used a hydraulic metal bender he’d built from tractor parts to shape the rock crawler’s framing. He’d source engines and various parts from salvaged vehicles, and if he needed a part that didn’t exist, he’d fabricate it himself.
He did a lot of work on my house. He welded metal brackets to hold up a ‘post and beam’ system, he custom built metal staircase risers and railings and he built a beautiful metal back splash that ran through the entire kitchen. He was an artist.
Consider the metal backsplash. Dan cut and bent ¼ steel metal plates for the backsplash. He used a plasma cutter to make openings in the plates for power receptacles and light switches. He’d ‘burn’ the openings with a welding torch which gave them a blackened rainbow effect. He beat the metal plates with a chain and various tools, roughed them up with a grinder and then left them outside in the rain for a day or two to pick up a light rust. He then took them to a car builder that had a large paint booth to powder coat them with a clear matte finish. It took several people to lift them up into place. The backsplashes weighed a few hundred pounds and were thick enough to stop a bullet.
I love wood and I used a lot of it in the house. There is a treasure up in the mountains near Scarlet’s Run called Phillip Brothers Mill. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It would be museum if it wasn’t busy being used everyday. It’s a working lumber mill that is one-hundred percent powered by steam and has been in continuous operation since 1897. At 3am, the Phillip Brothers start feeding the massive wood fired boilers that spin the big saws and turn the belts that run everything from drill presses, bandsaws to complicated fully automatic wooden box making machinery built over 100 years ago.
I know, you are probably not believing me that the mill is 100% steam powered. You are probably thinking it’s between 43% and 61% steam powered. You think you are about to get me on a technicality. You are wrong. Here is a picture of a two-story steam powered tractor, made by Caterpillar, they use this to pull trees out of the woods and drag them over to the sorting pond where steam powered pulleys drag them up a ramp to the steam powered saws.
Have you ever seen the Rogue Brewery wooden box crates that have the logo burnt into them? They are made by the Phillips Brothers. I saw this with my own eyes. Think of the oldest, and most steampunky machine you could conjure in your imagination. You feed it wood and nails and after a lot of rattling, steam and banging about, out comes a Rouge Brewery bottle crate.
Anyway, we had a lot of wood products in the house milled by the Phillips Brothers. My desk at work here in Portland is a thick live-edge slab that I picked out while walking amongst the stacks of wood and abandoned antique trucks that are all over their property. In the house on Scarlet’s Run, we had some gorgeous barn wood from the mill. The year before we started remodeling, there was a windstorm in Whitmore that damaged a lot of old barns. We purchased the barn wood from a structure that was destroyed in the storm. The barn was built in 1905 from cedar milled by the Phillips Brothers. We had a large wall in the great-room that overlooked the creek and we covered it in the barn wood. We carefully cut and installed it exactly like we found it in a jumbled pile after the storm. It had lichen growth, moss, dirt and a hundred years of abuse by the weather. We put it up exactly like it was.
We were surrounded by wood and the Phillips Brothers weren’t the only source.
A local woodsman named Bucky lived in the woods with his wife and kids and was known for split-rail fencing. He would go out into the woods and harvest and split the rails with his family and then build you a fence out of it. We fenced in a ½ acre immediately around our house to get the dogs under control. By this time, we had 5 dogs and they roamed free. After we fed them in the morning, a couple of them would always hike over to my Mother’s house about a mile away to get fed again. They’d lie to her about how hungry they were and she’d fall for it. My black lab Mollie would then walk across Whitmore Road and hike out into the cow pastures to hang with the herd. I’d be driving up the hill towards my house and see a little black speck up a hill in the distance laying down amongst some resting cows and would have to pull over and yell for Mollie to ‘git home!’. I worried about them all the time. They were going to be run over on the road, eaten by a mountain lion, get in a fight with a pack of coyotes or bitten by a rattler. Then someone told me about something called fencing. We had Bucky and he built us a split-rail.
While he was working on our property, Bucky showed up with a mobile sawmill he’d built on a trailer that he towed behind his truck. He had all equipment necessary to harvest, saw and plane, finish quality lumber. That got us thinking about what else he could do. He ended up building the staircase in our house. In collaboration with Dan the welder, Bucky went out and found ‘blued pine’ which is typical pine wood that is diseased with a beetle borne fungus that causes the wood to turn blue. He built live edge stairs out of blued pine. The stair treads were six inches thick, and after it was installed, beetles were coming out of the face of the treads for months. This was not an OSHA approved staircase by it was so beautiful.
We put solid hickory floors throughout the house. We picked hickory because this was a working ranch house. Jenny and I, the kids, and the five dogs, were going to beat the hell out of the floors. Hickory is one of the hardest woods you can use for flooring.
Ok, I will admit to you now that we also had goats and baby lamb running across these hickory floors at times. Lamb in diapers mind you. I would have brought my donkey inside for movie night if she wasn’t the suspicious type.
We had wooden furniture made too. In 2004, a big fire ravaged the area. It was called the ‘Bear Fire’. A few months after the fire, a guy in my town was driving by some workers and there was a huge root-ball (the part of the tree that is under the ground) from a giant cedar smoldering away in a burn pile. He pulled off the road and the workers told him that the root ball had been burning in the pile for weeks and was showing no signs of going anywhere. He asked if he could have it and they said sure. He came back with a big trailer and they used their dozer to roll the burning and smouldering twelve-foot high root ball onto his rig. I heard about this from someone in town and went over to talk to they guy. He said he wanted to slice it into big slabs and make furniture out of it. In his yard, he also had this giant burnt up Manzanita stump. We agreed that a charred slab of cedar would look great sitting on that manzanita trunk and a deal was made. We still have that table and you’ll see it looking out of place at the Going Queen some day.
The property was covered in rocks. I tried to use them whenever possible. In one of the bath rooms, we took a oddly shaped rock, cut it in half, drilled it out and installed the bathroom sink fixtures into it.
We bricked in a walk-in chimney structure with a large opening, installed a commercial range in it and used the chimney flue as a vent hood. And because I couldn’t help myself, I bought a three-blade airplane propeller that had failed a flight-worthiness inspection and had been condemned. While not flight-worthy it was house-worthy so we installed it on the face of the chimney structure above the range. This is a big prop with a 10 foot wingspan. Dan the welder made a custom mount for it so it would spin.
Not to get ahead of myself, but you can buy anything on ebay. I have a certain soft spot for ‘yard art’ that I got from my mother. She always had flamingos, gnomes and fairies in the yard. It was embarrassing. She tried to play it off as ironic yard art but it was legit tacky. She’s just one of those people that is addicted to tchotchke. Eventually, I became infected by this same problem. I realized that when you have the space, you have opportunities for larger and larger yard art. I like airplanes so I went looking for a wrecked airplane on ebay. I wanted to install it in the upper pasture that was adjacent to the road. I found one for sale in Palo Alto California (Silicon Valley) at a defunct flight school. I drive down there with a flatbed trailer, brought some tools, dismantled the wings and tail, tied it down on the flatbed and hauled it back to Whitmore. I dug a hole with my back hoe and installed that airplane nose into the ground with the tail sticking up at an angle. People would drive by and think a plane had crashed. The fire chief at our little volunteer department came by to talk to me about it because he keep getting reports of a downed plane on Whitmore road. We agreed that art is in the eye-of-the-beholder.
As long as we are already outside, I should tell you about the chicken coop. Like a lot of Portlanders do today, we had a ‘backyard’ chicken coop. The only difference being that our coop was more time consuming. It consisted of an 800 square feet structure with wire walls and a metal roof connected to a secondary 150 square foot egg laying room. These two structures were connected by a wooden above ground tunnel so the chickens could securely pass between them. The walls of the coop were double lined with chicken wire on the inside and horse fencing on the outside that was dug in three feet deep into the ground to dissuade predators from digging under the walls. Everybody loves chicken! Especially the foxes, raccoons, mountain lions and skunks.
In this coop, we kept 120 chickens. I guess I should also mention the 15 ducks, 5 snow geese and 10 turkeys.
Jenny loved her birds. Here she is at two years old in 1973 on a hippie commune outside fo the Bay Area tending to her flock. She's taller now, but no less enthusiastic about birds.
We let the birds out every morning at sun up. They would hike all over the property eating grass, bugs and shitting on everything. When the sun started to go down, they’d all march back into the coop and we’d lock them up.
When I tell people my wife had 120 chickens in her coop they ask if we got a lot of eggs. The answer is about 100 eggs per day. So, about 700 eggs a week or 3,000 per month. It was like that Disney classic the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, where Mickey Mouse pushes the limits of his magic and then the next thing you know all hell breaks loose. Same here. Except it was eggs instead of buckets and mops.
Look, I have to wrap this up somewhere. I can’t keep going on about this. I’m not going to go over every detail of feeding the 208 mouths on the property, twice a day. The goats, sheep, horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, chickens, turkey ducks, geese .. all of them pets (except for the few we tried to eat). Or all the other shit. Here's the thing… shit happened on the farm! Let’s move on already.
The point of all this? We remodeled the hell out of that ranch. We did it by collaborating with and utilizing the skills of our neighbors who manufactured, harvested and built stuff. We sourced materials from the surrounding area. This is the thing that I loved most about Scarlet’s Run. It told a story. I knew the names of the people that worked on our project, where they were born, raised, what they liked to eat. It felt good to be surrounded by a home that was made by people I knew and built from things that I could trace the journey they took to get to our door.
This is the last post about Scarlet’s Run. It’s taking me a long time to get to the point. Apologies to those of you who read this for thoroughly wasting your time. The point...
Don’t we have some highly skilled artisans in our neighborhood? Don’t we make stuff in Portland?
Our neighbor John Nurse Mayes walked over while Jenny was working in the yard and told her he would like to do the the tile. That's what John does to pay the bills. John doesn't yet know how strongly we feel about these things but he’s definitely doing the tile work in our house. A few others have reached out to us as well. So far, it seems like Whitmore and Portland are equally endowed with skilled labor and artists that can help revive the Queen. We are hoping for more Johns.