One heck of a year

Hmmm… It’s 2021. The Earth tilted over a year ago and we managed to hang on. How about you? What’s been your handhold?

We gave our last update about off-grid life at Sahalee last May (though we will continue to add post-dated content to help maintain a chronological timeline). That now seems like another Universe and in a lot of ways it is. Last February marked a major transition for us, not just because of COVID, but because we essentially left Sahalee for Ben to pursue his fire career and for us to renovate a traditional adobe home to be a rental property and office in town. You can catch up on that news at  

Again, we find ourselves managing a major lifestyle change. While exciting and advantageous in so many ways, the transition has had some pretty significant challenges. Ben’s lifelong dream to be a firefighter is now a reality. This means that not only does he get paid to start and play with fire, go camping, travel to beautiful places, and join a community of like-minded people, it also means that he is at the mercy of emergency calls, pushing his middle-aged body to its limits, and leaving home for indeterminate periods of time. Our meals together are often interrupted by startling radio tones and our weekend plans are regularly put off for another time. His joints ache and his eyes are hard to keep open when he finally does make it home. On long assignments, like working the Willow Fire in California, it’s hard to know when we’ll be able to talk next.

From us spending literally every waking minute living, working and playing together over the past twenty years, it’s been a huge adjustment for us both. All of this being said, Ben is as tough and determined as ever, quickly rising in the ranks, earning respect from his colleagues, and adding credentials like Sawyer and EMT to his fire resume, proving that you’re never too old to achieve your personal and professional goals. And, still a damn good recruiter, he continues to mentor and guide aspiring young firefighters to do the same. As Lieutenant in our local volunteer fire department, Ben has already brought two rookies into the fold and opened up the door for them to sign on for paid fire jobs.

Back at the ranch, we’re torn between spending time at Sahalee trying to keep the basic systems operational and making improvements on the property in town. At Sahalee, we still have yet to finish the shop we started in 2019, start on the solar hot water heater, or make any headway on a real garden. Big projects aside, it’s just as hard to keep up with clearing the forest and cutting wood to make sure we have enough for heat when we do stay in the yurt. We’ve found that our Berkey filter doesn’t like to be left unattended in freezing temperatures, so that has been a lesson-learned to make sure we can have clean “running” water for drinking and cooking when we’re not at the yurt full-time. If Ben is away to work a fire, it’s hard for one person – me – to take on all the heavy lifting that’s required, from hauling water and wood to replacing all the furniture on the deck that’s been blown off by big winds. So often when we do make it up the hill together, we just want to relax and enjoy some down-time, soaking in the peace and quiet of Sahalee to reset our souls. Our little slice of heaven likes company and needs to be cared for… The hummingbirds have been quick to remind us this season, and so the nectar-making begins!

In town at ‘Casablanca’ it’s been gratifying to see the place take shape and become more of our own, to serve the purpose of being a comfortable vacation destination and efficient office space. Building simple furniture, fencing the dog yard, renovating sun porches, tearing out walls and carpet, installing new heaters and light fixtures, upgrading electrical service, and sizing up major bathroom and kitchen remodels has been a great way to divert pent up energy during COVID isolation.

Uncovering water damage in the casita kitchen
Simple bed we built the day we closed for our first night in town
Simple futon couch for the casa
Upcycled wrought iron window grates make a fine double-swing gate

Speaking of energy, it’s been a thrill to make use of passive solar heat in the house during the winter, reducing our use of natural gas. When the temps were 30 degrees outside, we often saw 90 degrees on the porch and let that heat roll through the open doors to the kitchen and living room!

As you know, these things take time. And money. With Ben working more away from home, Carey will be staying put to turn his paychecks into renovations. (I’m still consulting and welcome new business inquiries.) We’ll be posting more about DIY projects at Casablanca and updates about off-grid improvements at Sahalee as time goes on. We have plans for water catchment in town, setting up a little brewery in the shed, and putting solar power on the casita. Of course, we have a big learning curve when it comes to repairing and plastering adobe on both buildings. Is there anything special you want to see?

Just like everyone else, we’re learning about living life in a post-COVID world and that has certainly affected our love for travel. Big trips are definitely on hold for the foreseeable future, though we did manage to squeak in a previously planned ‘last hurrah’ to Florida in November. We donned our masks and apprehensively flew one-way on a full plane to Key West to spend Thanksgiving at the condo, had a short socially-distanced visit with Dad in Cocoa, and then rented a U-Haul to drive back to New Mexico with the rest of our treasured belongings that we left behind – bicycles, grandfather clock, and rocking chair.

Emotional Support Animal
Masks be damned when it comes to puppy kisses

It was a similar trip to making our arrival at Sahalee in 2016 with our best friend Mark and Radar Love along for the ride. (Sweet Pete stayed with Mamala in Colorado… She’s not airplane-ready, yet.) We took almost the same route on US-84, but this time we stopped overnight in Hattiesburg, MS and Wichita Falls, TX where Marriott was rolling out their new no contact check-in, keyless entry, and TV remote-by-phone systems. Not only did we drive through the Gulf Coast hurricane-damage, but we weathered the varied range of coronavirus precautions and attitudes across the country. One sign inside the open dining room of Mom’s Kitchen in Dothan, AL read, ‘While we love our customers, there will be no more hugging, handshakes, or high fives with our waitstaff.’ So sad. Standing at a deserted corner of the building under the awning to let Radar pee while the rain started to come down at a hole-in-the-wall truck stop/casino somewhere in Louisiana, the few truckers going inside the door 10 feet away gave dirty looks and made under-the-breath comments about me having my mask in-hand and not on my face. Tough bunch.

Wearing a mask has become normal now, and actually quite a comfort in a lot of ways (especially welcome with my social anxiety). In February, I underwent surgery for basal cell carcinoma on my face and shoulder. It was not fun. Now the mask not only conceals my scar, but also helps to protect me from the sun. It’s wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves all day long for this sun-loving gal.

Being more health-conscious is certainly a theme for us in 2021. Following the course of vaccinations, taking care of our mental health, and exploring sobriety are helping us to get through some difficult times. Finding comfort in herbal teas has expanded our horizons to self-soothe while we’re alone and also to celebrate quiet moments while we are together. It’s interesting to compare the big blowout events of past years to how we mark birthdays now. We appreciate the simple things more than ever before and find greater satisfaction in being close to home and making friends with ourselves instead of strangers. I’m slowly learning about natural medicines and am trying to be more mindful and present during the day, watching for changes in mood and thoughtfully adjusting. Writing this blog is a tool for healing and it’s been missing from my toolbox for much too long. What are you learning about yourself these days?

The author, aspiring to write, awaiting discovery