Polymecca’s last ride

10 May 2014, from Housetruck

My leisurely early-winter ride through the west climaxed in a somewhat frantic drive the last few days of the journey. I had hoped, maybe even prayed, that the housetruck’s transmission, hinting of pain by Texas, moaning by Memphis, would hold out long enough to make it to the eastern edge of West Virginia, to the little Back Creek Valley and the even littler town of Shanghai, and up the winding mountain road that leads to my family’s apple farm.

Fortune was with me, or wasn’t noticing, and both the housetruck and I made it, carefully chugging up the last rise of the steep driveway, where I switched off the ignition and let the diesel engine shiver itself to a grateful silence.

This was just before the winter hit, and hit hard: the worst winter in years, everyone said, snow and ice so frequent that I felt like I was stuck up on the mountain for six days out of seven. On the rare days when the weather cleared and the roads were passable, I hurried into town (in another, smaller vehicle), stocked up on provisions, and retreated back to the farm. The months were long, calm, uneventful, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Outside, the housetruck rested, sometimes in sun, often in snow. I slept there once or twice, in a rare bit of good weather, but mostly kept to the basement, where I put together a little apartment, along with a growing printing studio.

Now, long after the long drive, and the longer winter, the future of the housetruck seems uncertain. Not that I think of passing Polly on — in the five years she’s existed, I’ve never once regretted building her, and have always loved living in her comfy confines.

My quandary, rather, is one about movement, and of place. My place, for the moment, is a bucolic few hundred acres of apple orchards and woodlands. The housetruck could easily stay here, rest its weary wheels for an indeterminate time. Over the winter, I’d taken many walks, scoping out possible landing places around the hillside: in a natural clearing above the pond; at the top of an orchard; behind the old house below the road; and several more.

Yet when I learn of the Tiny House Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, I can’t resist offering to bring the housetruck to the conference.

And so, in the first week of April, having just come back from another road trip to Austin (again, in a smaller vehicle), I find myself hurriedly preparing the housetruck for yet another journey. I have grand plans to finish the refinishing of the siding which I’d started in the fall; to fix the roof which I’d replaced with a temporary yet surprisingly durable layering of plastic tarps; to finally lay down the cork flooring — and in classic fashion, none of those things happen.

And so one morning I nose the housetruck down the driveway and down the winding mountain roads towards Charlotte. Everything is going well. The truck is moving along, I’m excited about the conference, and fellow travelers are doing their customary wave-and-photograph ritual from passing cars.

And then, an hour into the trip, while barreling down Interstate 81, the transmission suddenly and unexpectedly downshifts. I’m near a freeway exit, and immediately pull off, stop on the side of the road, jump out, and discover a steaming pool of red oil gathering on the asphalt under the transmission. Again.

This, sadly, has happened before: first, in Portland two years ago, as I was preparing to leave for a long winter journey, and ended up with the truck in the critical care of a neighboring mechanic for months while he expensively rebuilt my transmission; second, at a rest stop near Memphis, after which I spent two days watching huge men wrestle the transmission to find an errant seal; and now, third, at the very beginning of a six-hour trip to a conference where I am making the first presentation the next morning.

I know the ending of this story far too well, and am frankly tired of the telling. I know this is no quick fix, and even the heroic ventures by mechanics had not uncovered the mystery behind the transmission failures. I, or the housetruck, am done, finished. Three strikes, you’re out. A strange calm comes over me, a sense of completeness, yet I’m unsure what I’ve completed.

A tractor-trailer pulls over on the exit ramp ahead of me, and I go fishing for advice. The driver recommends I call Stanley, the shop foreman at his trucking company, just down the road. I take this as a good omen, as Stanley is my middle name, and was the name of my grandfather. Sadly, Stanley cannot not spare their wrecker, but calls Jason, the dispatcher at a nearby towing company, who happily assures me that it is no problem to tow me — for a price — back to the quietude of Back Creek Valley.

An hour later, a burly young gent named Chris wrestles the housetruck onto his behemoth of a vehicle — a vintage 30-ton Mack wrecker that regularly tows loads twice its weight. Although unfamiliar to Chris, my Isuzu is a lightweight; he says he can hardly feel it as he charges back up the freeway at 60mph. On the winding roads through the little valley towns before heading over North Mountain, he shifts between his thirteen forward gears while ignoring the clutch. ‘It’s a waste of time,’ he explains, as the huge truck shudders through the gears. I visualize a utopic transmission, one so perfect in its operation that it doesn’t even need a clutch, the eternal transmission of the ages.

Chris deposits the housetruck in the wide place behind Shanghai Storage, where I rent space to hold an expanding collection of obsolete printing equipment. On the ride up, bouncing along the freeway in passenger seat of the tow truck, I had hurriedly phoned Ella, whose family owns the storage unit, and asked permission to drop the housetruck there until I knew what to do next.

When we arrive, we’re met by Gary, Ella’s husband, a nearly-retired farmer and old family friend. Gary glances at the housetruck, lights a cigarette, and offers only a bemused silence. I take it as a compliment. We talk of other things — my family, his family, neighbors, the apple business, the long winter, deer hunting — the way one does in the country, moving slowly around the topics, not too much eye contact, leaving space to look at the sky or the hills, or to light another cigarette. Keeping the housetruck there behind the storage units isn’t a problem, he says, and when I’m ready, he’ll even haul me up the hill with his tractor.

A week later, I phone Gary, gently inquiring about the move. ‘Let’s just do it today,’ he says, bluntly. I offer to come down in an hour, after I’d had lunch, figuring I’d give him a bit of time. ‘What are you talking about? Let’s do it now. Get down here.’ I gobble a few bites and head down. A few minutes later, Gary, atop his big blue Forrester tractor, tires as tall as me, rumbles into the lot.

‘I’m not in a good mood,’ he says. I ask whether that’s got anything to do with me; he is silent, and throws me a chain with a large hook on the end. I crawl underneath the truck, hook it to a likely likely point on the undercarriage, and we head off.

Driving while being towed by a slackened chain is more difficult than it sounds. The forces of momentum, when sitting in a 7-ton vehicle in neutral, are strong, and I find my attention focused on three feet of chain I can see between my truck and his tractor. It’s a bit like silent meditation, the hauler and the hauled, the tension or lack of tension, on ego and letting go, the id versus the other. Cars pass us coming down the mountain, drivers smiling at the sight of a huge blue farm tractor pulling this strange gypsy wagon.

At our farm, we pull off the main road, slip between the shed and the barn, and head down to the orchard. I’ve already checked and cleared the road of stray branches and rocks, and it’s an easy glide down to the orchard. The ground is soft, and the tires don’t grip, and I slide the last twenty feet into more or less the position I want. Behind us, long tracks of mud mark our journey.

Back at the house, I gather enough provisions for a night. Simple stuff: mostly bedding, and coffee and breakfast. A couple of beers for the evening, and a mason jar of milk for the coffee, which I plan to store in the refrigerator in the housetruck.

I’ve had the refrigerator longer than I’ve had the truck. It’s a small chest-sized unit, only a couple of cubic feet, and runs on either electricity or propane. Before the housetruck was finished, I used the refrigerator in a sort of ‘what if’ experiment, storing the contents of my larger refrigerator, and getting rid of anything that didn’t fit. It’s done me well, and I figure I can rig it up to be used in the orchard, too. I won’t have enough electrical power, but it will run on propane, and if I keep it outside, maybe under the overhang of the truck, it could be the start of a convenient outdoor kitchen.

I hook the propane tank to the refrigerator, and try to start the pilot light, but the piezo lighter refuses. Finally, I light the gas with the butane fire-clicker I use with my stove, and with a small whoosh, the burner starts up. I turn the flame down, and wait for the refrigerator to start its magical cooling process. I open a beer.

But before I have time to be patient, I hear an unfamiliar hissing, and smell gas. Crap — a leak. As I reach over to turn off the tank valve, orange flames emerge from the guts of the refrigerator. I hurriedly disconnect the propane hose, and yank the refrigerator out from under the truck. The flames are now larger, and clearly the plastic of the enclosure is burning. I dash into the housetruck and find the fire extinguisher I’d bought years ago, fumble with the pin, and finally am able to shoot a spray of white dust at the orange flames — which disappear immediately.

All is silent, the silence that comes after a storm, or after an auto accident. The refrigerator is a mess of melted plastic and white powder, clearly as gone from this world as the broken transmission. My hair and eyebrows are singed from the flames. Before me lies a battlefield of dead technology, and I am happy to be among the living. I hoist my beer to the orchard: cheers to the trees, to the deer, to the wild turkeys.

There’s a creek a few hundred feet to the east. I requisition a milk crate from the cargo hold of housetruck, throw in my beers and the mason jar of milk, and walk into the woods. It feels oddly natural, a normal, everyday chore of heading out to nature’s refrigerator: the cool water of a mountain stream. I find a little spot in a pool for the crate, and walk back, thinking about tomorrow morning when I’ll do the same walk to come fetch the milk.

Back at the housetruck, I settle in, the way I’ve settled into the place so many times before. The coffee grinder and french press find their usual place on the kitchen counter, next to the alcohol stove. My toothbrush sits on the windowsill, where it will very likely fall out onto the moss below. The porthole-style clock and my grandmother’s weather gauges hang in their respective spots. The lights are hooked up to the half-charged battery (I’ll put the solar panels out tomorrow), and the cedar and fir interior reflects that warm, friendly glow which I’ve come home to so many times.

I sit on the steps of the housetruck, among the smells of the charred refrigerator and dusty transmission oil that coats the rear of the truck. I strum old familiar chords on my Yamaha guitar, found some twenty years ago in a tiny shop near Taos, New Mexico. Out of the purple velvet backdrop of space, the stars appear, and like a cheery musical, all join in to sing the chorus.

A few days later, rain comes in the afternoon. Hail is predicted, but what arrives instead is a soft spring shower, glancing off the young leaves of the awakening trees. I work late at my studio in the basement of the ‘big house,’ and with a dim flashlight and an umbrella find my way down the soggy path to the orchard. I open the door of the housetruck, and am pleased to find it still warm from the day’s sun. I flick on the lights, mix modern LED lamps with a beeswax candle, and the wooden walls illuminate a light, honey-like brown.

The raindrops tick-tock on the roof above my head, and it reminds of the very first night in the housetruck. I’d just brought it home from Jim’s workshop, where that now-glowing interior was laid in. It was March, deep in the damp, early spring of the Willamette Valley. The built-in cabinets and desk and window seat were still a dream, and above me was only the roof: thin plywood, topped with a layer of roofing felt and the sheet metal above that. The heat from my temporary space heater dissipated quickly, and each drop of rain was a tiny hammer pounding over my head. I slept badly, dreaming feverishly of ceiling insulation.

I knew the housetruck would evolve, but even now, in its bare and noisy shell, it seemed whole, like a holograph is whole in each of its parts. It was, quite literally, a dream becoming true.

And now, five years on, I look around at this this little house, not only evolved but now metamorphosed, thousands of miles away from its birthplace, nestled snugly in a different valley, under a different rain, and feel, like I have always felt within its bounds, that I am home.