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Can’t We Just Stay in Our Bubble?

I think hermit crabs have the right idea.

It’s official – COVID lockdown has ended. I know this because I’m pretty sure we were the last holdouts and we have finally loosened up our protocols.

We are no longer sheltering in place, just the two of us and the cats. We’ve slowly peeked our heads out of our collective shells and gradually started to return to a semblance of our previous lives.

My non-husband XFE has gone into his re-opened office over the summer with increasing frequency and also attended some work events. I attended my first work-related conference in person in DC last week. We’ve gone on a couple of small trips, including our first international trip (a week in Mexico in July). We’re even going to a wedding this weekend.

Our assimilation has been at a slower pace than a lot of people we know but it all still feels super weird and risky to us. As far as I can tell, most folks have already had COVID at least once so they feel slightly safer than those of us who never caught it. And, with vaccines and boosters, it seems like we all feel comfortable that even if we do get COVID at this point, we won’t likely die from it (This is the group we’re tentatively in. However, we are still very afraid of the unknowns around long COVID).

In many ways, we had to loosen up. We didn’t really have a choice. The world was starting to move on without us. XFE got promoted this summer, which continues to produce many celebratory get-togethers. Conferences went back to being in-person and no longer offered a virtual option. Offices have gradually opened and companies are encouraging/pressuring people to come back in the name of “culture.” Family health issues came up that needed to be addressed immediately and in person. Despite XFE’s best hair-cutting efforts of the past two-and-a-half years, I could no longer ignore the state of my hair. And we keep getting invited to things we really didn’t want to miss.

So that’s where we are — nervously tiptoeing our way back into society.

But I have to say: I kinda miss our pandemic lockdown bubble.

I actually liked not feeling pressured to socialize. Right before the lockdowns, I had a ton of work and personal travel planned, and to be honest, I did not want to attend all of it. I liked having that built-in excuse for bowing out – “No, sorry, we can’t go. We’re still being very COVID cautious.”

I liked how we all slowed down, reprioritized what was important, and focused on self-care. Of course, I didn’t like being scared—even downright paranoid—about catching COVID. But I did like feeling like the safest thing we could do for everyone was to just stay home.

Plus, I learned a lot about XFE and his job while we were both working from home. While we worried about ourselves, our loved ones, and the country (A LOT) over those two-and-a-half years, we also had fun and laughed and ate awesome homecooked meals three times a day and watched a lot of really bad TV.

We bought a cabin and hunkered down in a place that felt spacious and safe. We got to enjoy a slower pace of life in a place that still stuns us with its’ beauty. We quickly established a routine and fell into a nice rhythm. Right now, things feel very much up in the air as we try to figure out where we need to be and when.

So after an already busy September and a hectic-looking October, I’m ready for another lockdown bubble. I don’t want another pandemic (obviously), but I’m not ready for the world to go back so quickly to the way it was before.

West Virginia Trips: Hatfield & McCoy Trails

Even though my non-husband XFE and I are fully vaccinated, we have still held off on traveling. Which, if you’ve read this blog before, you know it’s a big, big change for us.

And, as the COVID breakthrough cases went up over the summer, and news of ICUs being full and hospitals overwhelmed, we wanted to stick with that decision. We did not want a breakthrough infection and we did not want to potentially expose anyone else.

Still, we needed a vacation. Not a ‘work 12-hour days AT your vacation home’ vacation, but a real break. A COVID-safe vacation. Preferably something outdoors with minimal human interaction.

So we went ATVing on the Hatfield-McCoy Trails System, a network of off-roading mountain trails in southern West Virginia.

I take no credit for this vacation. It was all XFE. He found it, he researched it, he booked it and he was very, very excited about it.

I was a bit more reticent. After all, we’ve never really done anything like that before. There was that one time we went dune riding in Peru, but we were not allowed to drive those dune buggies. This would be a total self-driving situation. For three full days. On muddy trails. Plus, we’d be staying in a cabin, which seemed silly to me since we HAVE a cabin. And a really, really nice one at that.

This whole thing was not exactly my typical luxury travel vacation. Still, it was a vacation and a chance to unplug from work and other distractions.

We packed up the SUV and drove five hours west towards the border of West Virginia and Kentucky for our ATV adventure.

Day 1

We (and by we, I mean, XFE had actually timed it perfectly because there’s a huge festival – National TrailFest – that takes place every October and brings in thousands of people from all over the world.  This year it took place October 7-11. XFE arranged our vacation for the week before, which was perfect. The trails weren’t crowded at all, especially on the weekdays. By Thursday afternoon though, you start to see an uptick in traffic.

We chose Gilbert as our home base and rented a self-catering cabin at Canebrake Cabins, which is just across the street from a trail entry point (RockHouse trail entry #17). Our cabin (the Willow) had a grill and a full kitchen, and it was clean and well-equipped, if a bit noisy (it’s right on a busy road), but it was perfect for our purposes. It also had an ATV washing area in the parking lot, which we definitely needed at the end of each day.

Gilbert wasn’t much to look at. In fact, considering it’s such a tourist destination, it seems a bit run down, if I’m being honest. Since we’d brought all our own food and beverages, we didn’t spend much time in town, so I can’t really speak to any of the amenities there.

The first morning, we picked up our super fancy Kawasaki KRX 1000 side-by-side from Mountain Top Adventures at the Twin Hollow Campgrounds. After filling out some paperwork, purchasing all our trail permits ($50 for non-residents), and a brief run-through of how to operate the ATV, we were allowed to drive off and start getting muddy on 700-plus miles of trails.

End of Day 1

I will say, ATVing is a lot more fun than maybe I had expected. Yes, it’s loud and bumpy and even muddy, but it’s also really fun. It feels a lot like being a kid again and riding the rides at a carnival or amusement park. Getting dirty was just part of the fun. And, there’s no cell service on a mountain trail, so nobody was checking phones or replying to emails. All you can do is hold on and ride (or drive, which was mostly left to XFE. )

I only drove the ATV for about 20 minutes, which was more than enough for me, as you can tell by my face.

We obviously didn’t hit all 700 miles of trail, but we did rack up 200-300 miles each of the three days we were out there. We made it out east to the Buffalo Mountain system in Delbarton and Devil Anse system in Matewan. We got up early on those days and drove the ATV on the highway (albeit, slowly) to get to the far side of the system and work our way back towards Man or Gilbert via the connecting trails. But our favorite trails turned out to be in the system closest to our cabins, RockHouse.

Great views, guaranteed.

And ladies, if you are worried about whether ATVing is for you, just think of it as a very primitive spa vacation. You start early in the morning with a cryo-therapy treatment (those mountains are cold and foggy in the morning). This is followed by alternating treatments of microdermabrasion (in the form of sand) and organic mud facials, all while receiving an all-over body massage via the constant rumbling. Aromatherapy comes in the form of the forest plants and shrubs whipping past you at 25 miles an hour. Plus, there’s the adrenaline flush you’ll receive as you look over the side of steep mountain inclines sans guardrails.

If that doesn’t convince you that ATVing is for everyone, I’m not sure what will.

We survived the Hatfield-McCoy Trails

What is the Deal with Toilets: A Reluctant Buyer’s Guide

Over the past year at the corona cabin, we’ve been making quite a few updates and changes to our little chocolate box.

We gave the front porch a refresh, replacing the old-fashioned wood balusters with a cool wire system and painting the door and railings black.

We swapped in new appliances throughout the house, including replacing the original water filtration system and the original, incredibly noisy HVAC.

As I write this, someone is outside replacing and staining pieces of cedar siding that got destroyed by the woodpeckers and carpenter bees.

We’re slowly coming to the end of the initial list of projects we wanted to undertake here at the cabin.

But there is a project that is still on our not-immediate-but-eventually project list: replacing the toilets in our two bathrooms.

New meaning to “flushing money down the toilet”

And, oh my.

As someone who has never shopped for toilets before, I had no idea there were sooooo many options. Like, a lot of options.

  • Do you want a one-piece toilet or the traditional tank and seat setup? Or what about a tankless option?
  • What sort of flushing options do you want or need? Gravity flush or pressure assisted? Or you could really splash out and get a dual flush model.
  • What bowl shape can your space accommodate? Do you want a round or elongated bowl? Maybe even square elongated? How about that?
  • What about the height? Should we get the traditional 15 inches or maybe a taller 17 or even 19 inches?
  • How much water will the new toilet use (that would be “gallons per flush,” for all you lay people out there)?
  • Do we want floor mounted or wall mounted (that one is pretty much already decided by existing plumbing and all)?
  • What color do we want (again, this one is pretty much already decided – we have one white and one “almond” toilet already in the house, but maybe we just want to live less wild and go for two whites? Or one white, one biscuit? Or linen? What is the difference between biscuit and linene? I don’t know!)
  • Do we want a discreet quiet flush model?
  • Where do you want the handle? Right, left, top? If we go with top flush, do we want oil rubbed bronze or brushed gold?
  • What about slow close seats? That seems like it might be nice, right?
What about a gold throne? This one at the Guggenheim is actually art.

This is a lot more than I expected to have to ponder. And the stakes feel very high here. It’s an important part of your daily routine, so you want it to be the best you can afford. But—and here’s another thing I never knew—toilets can get really, really expensive. Sure, you can go with a pretty basic model at around $100, but once you start adding in all these nice-sounding features, it can really get up there, like, $1,500 range. Generally, for a one-piece, elongated, single or dual flush, comfort height, soft-closed seat model, it’s around $400 to $600.

A fully-loaded TOTO toilet with dual-flushing system, heated seat and air purifying system? That will set you back $14,000. (BUT, it does clean itself, which I argue makes it totally worth it.)

Bling, bling, poo, poo.

Plus, I mean, how often do you really replace a toilet? Not very often. So you want to make sure you get it right. You don’t want a toilet that’s going to be obsolete in a year or two. You want the latest toilet innovations and a commode that’s built to stand the test of time.

There’s also the tricky issue of disposing of the old ones. How? Where? Will the trash guys just take them?

And so, the toilet replacement project is at a standstill. Clogged, if you will, by indecision on my part and an unwillingness to spend silly amounts of money. Maybe we’ll get to it in the spring.  

West Virginia Day Trips: Blackwater Falls & Canaan Valley

Our corona cabin in Hardy County is surrounded by lots of great hiking. We’ve got, of course, all the trails at the Lost River State Park, the Wolf Gap Recreation Area and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Plus, we have our own five acres to tromp around on.

But one of our favorite day trips is to Canaan Valley and the Blackwater Falls State Park. Located 47 miles west of our cabin, Canaan Valley is a national wildlife refuge at the headwaters of the Blackwater River, and home to a major ski and golf resort.

Canaan Valley has a pretty standard story for this state: It was full of wild and beautiful forests until logging, railroads and coal came into the area and all the forests were cut down for industry. By the 1920’s, the Canaan Valley was completely barren. In the 1930s, after plans fell through to establish a hydroelectric power plant, the West Virginia Power and Transmission Company donated the canyon and falls to the state and the park was formally established in 1937. All the forests on view today are second- and third-generation growth. 

We’ve not been to Canaan Valley Resort in the winter, but in the summer and fall, you can pay $8 to ride the ski lift up to the top of the mountain and hike down to the valley. We did this in July, hiking the provocatively named Bald Knob Trail and the wild blueberries were out of control. We were wishing we had brought a Ziploc bag to haul some out with us. I’ve heard it’s even more gorgeous in the fall when the leaves are turning and the whole valley is ablaze in color.

We did not see another single soul out on Bald Knob Trail in July, which was a moderately challenging hike. At the end of the hike, back at the chairlift base, is a bar and restaurant called Quenchers, which has some outdoor seating. The service is meh and the chef is usually completely missing in action (I guess summer hours are a bit lax?). But the local beer, Big Timber Blonde Ale, is very satisfying after the hike, as are the sidewinder fries (which the waitress can fry up, even if the chef isn’t in yet).

We’ve also hiked and fished along the Blackwater River Trail, which was a nice easy 1-mile loop with beautiful wetland scenery right off the parking lot near the golf area. There are a ton more trails (I think about 18 miles worth) within the resort area to explore, either hiking or via mountain bike.

Just three miles down the road is Blackwater Falls State Park, which is a pretty popular tourist destination. The falls are five stories high and are named after the amber-colored water that’s a byproduct of the tannins picked up from all the fallen leaves and pine and spruce needles along the river’s 31-mile journey.  

The park has several overlook platforms to view and photograph the falls, including a handicap-accessible platform. In addition, the park has a 20-mile system of hiking trails. We’ve hiked the short, out-and-back Lindy Point Overlook a couple of times, which has an amazing view of the Blackwater Canyon, and the Elakala Falls Trail, hooking up with the Yellow Birch Trail to create a 4-mile loop that started and ended at the Blackwater Resort parking lot.

Lindy Point in the Fall (via Friends of Blackwater)

The Blackwater Resort has been closed for renovations throughout the summer and fall, so I cannot comment on their waitstaff or the fries.

So there you have it. A nice little daytrip in West Virginia’s Tucker County. As for us, we do plan on visiting sometime during the snow season to check out some of those activities as well.

Where to Eat in West Virginia: Farmer’s Daughter

Crazy but true: We’ve been here at our West Virginia corona cabin for a year now. And it has been great. A real respite from our hectic city lives. But the fact is, we don’t get out much. We are pretty isolated, and due to COVID, we have not gone to many restaurants, bars, or stores over the past year.

There is, of course, one exception. One place that we have dared to venture into — several times in fact. A place that we willingly drive 45 minutes to get to, and where we mask up, go inside around other people of admittedly unknown vaccination status, place an order to go, and pay and wait anywhere from 15-20 minutes for said order. And then, of course, we lather up in hand sanitizer that we keep in the car.

That special place is Farmer’s Daughter Market & Butcher in Capon Bridge. 

Farmer’s Daughter is a small, family-owned store and butcher shop selling a limited inventory of locally sourced meat, produce, dry goods, dairy products, and assorted sundries. You won’t fill up your pantry with a stop at Farmer’s Daughter, but you could put together a simple meal, and the wine and beer selection is pretty good considering the store’s small footprint (they even have Shiner Bock sometimes, which warms my Texan heart to no end).  

But what Farmer’s Daughter is famous for is their hamburgers, which the Washington Post describes as “world-class.” They are not wrong. These burgers are dry-aged, meaty poetry between two delicious brioche buns. We had our first Farmer’s Daughter burgers in April, to celebrate the two-week anniversary of our vaccine shots. We have been back every few weeks since.

In addition to a rotating selection of meats, including lamb bacon and some seriously kickass sausages, the Farmer’s Daughter butcher counter has a small, three-item menu of sandwiches prepared while you wait.

You can (and absolutely should) get the already mentioned House Burger, but they also have a really good Italian sub. But where things get really inventive and interesting is their special sandwich of the day. Recent special sandwiches include a tasso ham and pimento cheese with fried egg, beef bulgogi with kimchi, scallions, gochujang mayo, and beef and cheddar with caramelized onions and pickled jalapenos.

We usually order one specialty or Italian sub (wrapped to go) and two burgers, which eat right away, while still hot, at one of the outdoor tables on the side of the building. We have eaten those hamburgers at those tables on hot, sunny days and on spring-sprinkles-of-rain days. We’ve also eaten them right there in our parked car when the wind got too gusty, like that first time in April.

I remember that first trip: I was a little disappointed that they didn’t sell fries to go with the burgers. After that first burger, I realized, they don’t need them. These burgers don’t need any sides. We don’t even bother with a bag of Route 99 chips, which are sold at the shop. Each bite is the perfect mix of meaty, salty, tangy, creamy, vinegary, cheesy goodness and nothing could elevate their perfectness.

I sometimes toy with the idea of becoming vegetarian again, but Farmer’s Daughter burgers have made that impossible. Literally, every time we go (including this past Saturday), we each swear that it was an especially good burger that day. Because it always is.

Lot’s to Love About Lost River

We appear to have won the battle of the carpenter bees and are now settling into full spring at the cabin. Which, while carpenter bee-free, is not at all bug free. In fact, it is very, very buggy. But that’s what you get when you plunk a cabin in the middle of five acres of woodland.

So how did we get here? And, specifically, how did we end up in the Lost River Valley in the wilds of West Virginia.

Wardensville Garden Market

I first read about the Lost River Valley in this 2017 article in the Washingtonian about this gay DC power couple who were revitalizing a town in rural West Virginia and attracting other DC transplants to move out there. Everything started off well but then things got a bit contentious with the locals and the battle was on. Pretty juicy stuff.

I’m sure I was on deadline or had other things to do, but I thought the whole thing was fabulous. I went down a rabbit hole reading everything I could find about this LGBTQ friendly outdoorsy outpost in (of all places) West Virginia that I had never even heard of. Apparently, it had gotten a fair amount of press coverage, including in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Charleston Gazette and West Virginia Living

I finally dragged myself out of my rabbit hole and filed the information away with the idea that maybe we’d visit this quirky little place someday and show our support for the guys by buying an artisan candle something at the Lost River Trading Post.

Lost River Trading Post

Then we took a couple of spring trips to North Carolina, renting cabins, enjoying the beautiful mountain views, trying out different hiking trails, and just embracing the idea of a much slower vacation pace. As we sat on the deck of one cabin near Asheville, we began to talk about maybe, someday, in the very distant future, buying a mountain cabin of our own. Then the pandemic hit, and well, someday become why not now?

Still tucked away in far corner of my mind was the memory of this rural town in West Virginia where a lot of DC people went for vacation. It was close (only 2 hours away) and after finally doing a little research, we found out that it had all the things we loved about North Carolina – lots of hiking, beautiful (and plentiful) state parks and national forests, lakes and streams for fishing or other water sports, plus, at least a couple of cute little country towns with restaurants, shopping and farmers markets catering to tourists and vacationers.

Wordplay Bookstore in Wardensville

We were right. The Lost River Valley has been all those things for us (although, we haven’t done much shopping or going to restaurants yet). But it’s actually been so much more. For one thing: the people have been so very nice. Everyone is curious and quick to find commonalities, and from what we can see, are really welcoming and tolerant of us interlopers.

And there are actually a LOT of us interlopers. Like I said before, I think we all had the same idea at about or around the same time. One of the other homes in our small “subdivision,” sold in February to a young DC couple who commutes out here weekly. One of our runner-up houses sold in December to a couple from Maryland who have become Instagram friends. Speaking of Instagram, I used to follow a photographer from our neighborhood in Alexandria. I noticed about six months ago that he changed his Instagram handle to @greatappalachian. Turns out he bought a farmhouse in Wardensville and is currently renovating it.

It goes without saying that it is breathtakingly beautiful here. Whenever we’re driving somewhere, I am just blown away by how beautiful the mountains and sky are. Right now, with all the trees full of leaves, the mountains and hills look like they’re covered in little broccoli florets. When I go with XFE to his favorite fishing spot, I’m in awe of the sheer rock cliffs and hypnotized by the sound of the river. And the hiking has been just gorgeous. Challenging, but gorgeous.

Eagle Rock on the South Branch Potomac River

Even the two-drive from our house in Old Town to our cabin is beautiful and peaceful. Once you turn off US 66, you really start to decompress and it feels like you are in an entirely different, much less rushed world.

Then there’s our little five acres. I’ve loved watching the landscape and views change from late fall to full on winter to early spring. My favorite (so far) is watching the fog roll in and engulf the whole cabin, making all the woods extra mysterious and spooky. It feels like we’re wrapped in a cotton ball.

Or, maybe my favorite is seeing all the stars at night so bright and so clear from our little mountaintop? That’s pretty magical as well.

Oh, and the other morning, I woke up early and sat out on the screened in porch for just a bit, and the silence and the stillness (no birds chirping yet at that hour) and the heavy, humid green smell of the grass and trees right before the sun came up was pretty amazing.

So maybe that’s my favorite thing about being out here? I don’t know. I honestly cannot pick one. 

But I do know my least favorite thing: carpenter bees. And all the other bugs. 

A Few Lessons From Living in the Country

There are a few things no one tells you about living in the country

  1. If you live at the top of a mountain—even a small one—it will be very, very windy a lot of the time.
  2. Get used to the sounds of gunfire. Even if it’s not hunting season. At first I thought there must be a shooting range nearby, but no. People just like to shoot out here as a form of entertainment.
  3. Also, get used to random animal noises, in general. Geese, cows, dogs, roosters, hawks overhead. We are constantly looking at each other and going, “What was that? Was that a donkey?”
  4. The sparkling water selection at the local Walmart is small. Tiny, really. There is no Perrier, no San Pellegrino, no La Croix. XFE found Poland Springs one time, but never again. Also, the cheese selection is less than stellar, which is such a surprise because there are cattle, goats and sheep EVERYWHERE.  
  5. No one uses electronic payment methods. It’s check or cash. No Venmo, no PayPal, no Zelle, no Cash app. We recently coordinated payment collection to regrade/resurface the gravel road in our “subdivision”. Every neighbor brought over a check for their portion.
  6. Contractors work on their own schedule and it is not quick. This is actually universally true, but especially so in the country, where distractions such as various hunting seasons can come into play. For example, as the road contractor was finishing up the neighborhood road, we asked him to add our driveway to his work schedule. He gave us a quote and said he’d start the next day. That was two weeks ago. He did drop off a culvert last Wednesday, but no idea when actual work will start.

But the biggest lesson we’ve learned is that when you live in the woods, your house is constantly under attack.

We had a glimmer of this truth when we had the home inspection at the cabin in early October. We noticed a few small holes in the cedar wood siding. The inspector said they were woodpecker holes and probably caused by woodpeckers looking for carpenter bees. Nothing too alarming, we were told, and they’ll probably stop once humans are living in the cabin full time again.  

By the time we closed and moved in on the 22nd, there were actually quite a few new woodpecker holes in the cedar siding.

Early woodpecker damage we tried to patch up.

And they did not stop once the humans came. We could hear them during the day and would run out of the house waving our arms and yelling at them. We patched holes again and again with wood putty. We googled “how to get rid of woodpeckers” and bought these hanging icicle dazzler type things that would beat against the house during particularly windy days.

Finally, as real winter set in, the woodpeckers stopped attacking our cabin.

Then spring came, and with it, a new but related menace. Carpenter bees. Dozens and dozens of these slow-moving bees were suddenly buzzing around our front porch and back deck, thwacking themselves into our large windows. Tons of them, steadily gaining in numbers as the days warmed up and the sun came out.

At first, I was charmed by them. I knew the pollinator ones we were seeing don’t have stingers (only the queen bee does). They’re chubby and cute and flying around all drunk on pollen and drowsy. They totally fit in with the #cottagecore, country cabin vibe I had in mind.

But they were certainly increasing in number and they were slightly annoying, buzzing aggressively around us every time we stepped out the door.

Let me tell you something about carpenter bees: they don’t have a hive. Instead, carpenter bees bore these perfectly round holes into your unpainted wood siding (preferably soft woods, like, cedar) and that becomes their home.

Sawdust from a bee hole under our deck railing

They then make tunnels and chambers throughout the wood and that’s where the queen bee comes in in the springtime and lays her eggs in each individual chamber. The male bees come in and leave pollen in each chamber and close them up with regurgitated wood so the eggs can hatch and the baby bees can eat the pollen before boring their own hole to get out.

These new bees then go flying around all summer, bringing pollen back to their birthing chamber/home so they can hibernate there—inside your siding–throughout the fall and winter and attracting woodpeckers who just love to find and eat them. Ergo, get rid of the carpenter bees and you get rid of the woodpeckers and save your cedar siding.

The bees had to go.

More googling led my resident bee slayer/partner for life, XFE to a bunch of different nontoxic remedies, including citrus oil and bee traps that look like little bird houses. But most online advice said it’s best to use these efforts BEFORE the bees have fully constructed their tunnels, and well, we just couldn’t be sure where the bees were in their construction process (maybe they’re like the area contractors out here and take a really long time?) and we couldn’t risk another season of woodpeckers.

Since we were starting a bit late in the season, we knew we had to go full max: strong insecticide spray applied directly into the tunnels. Then, an allover application to the entire house. Finally, after 24-48 hours, when all the bees have abandoned the chambers, plug all the holes.

So for several days last week (actually evenings. They recommend doing this at dusk when the bees are less active), XFE suited up and slayed bees. It was bonkers. First of all, the sheer number of holes we found all over the house was shocking. I figured there were maybe 8-10 holes, but there were at least a couple of dozen, maybe even close to 30.

And each hole seemed to have at least 3-4 bees in them. There was one front porch pillar in particular that was vibrating with bees after XFE sprayed the cyfluthrin into the tiny space where the wooden pillar met the vinyl underside of the porch ceiling.

It was a bee massacre. The bees would come staggering out of the holes and fall to the ground where XFE and I would stomp on them to put them out of their misery. The crazy thing is we still have bees coming back—although a LOT fewer of them– looking for their home, even days after we did the individual treatment, the allover treatment and plugged the holes with wood putty.  

We are still getting the birdhouse/bee traps as a maintenance maneuver and we’ve contracted a handyman to replace some of the wood siding that’s been damaged by the woodpeckers. Hopefully. Eventually. When he gets around to it.

Part 2: Holy crap. We bought a cabin.

covid cabin

Picking up where I left off: By September, we were getting pretty frustrated with the whole “let’s buy a vacation cabin” experience.

When we began looking in June, we had visions of spending late summer all settled in the country. After all, our rowhouse in Old Town was literally the first house we looked at when we were looking at houses. We looked at like, three other properties (just to be sure) and put in an offer right away. We know exactly what we want in a property and are pretty decisive when we see it.

So when September rolled around and we still couldn’t find our dream cabin, we did what any nervous buyers would do in our situation. We increased our budget. Which brought us to our little chocolate box in the woods. A three-bedroom, single story cabin set on five wooded acres at the top of a mountain with views, decks and a screened in porch.

Side and back view

I’ll admit: for me, it was not love at first sight. Even though it most definitely did check all of our wishlist boxes, it just did not have very good curb appeal. But as XFE points out, we don’t have many people driving by. Our “subdivision” has four other residents spanning six homes (two AirBnBs owned by one of the long-term residents).

It also seemed like too much space for a vacation house (it’s 1900 sq ft versus our 1200 sq ft rowhouse), but it turns out, it’s perfect, especially since we’re both working from home. XFE has his own office and I work out of the guest room/office. And the internet is shockingly good out here, thanks to a $31 million federal grant to build out high-speed fiber-optic infrastructure in the entire county in 2010.

The cats love it too. There’s a screened porch for them, plus huge windows throughout that are also close to the ground. Pinot, our older cat with an old back/hip injury really appreciates the lack of stairs.

Cabin cats

We put our offer in on September 2 and after a delay in the appraisal process, we finally closed on October 9, with a move-in date of October 22.

We had hoped to find a cabin that was furnished, but the furniture at the chocolate box did not convey. And, because of the pandemic, we did not want to go into any stores at all.

The solution? We literally bought an entire household online and had it delivered to our city rowhouse. That included furniture for the living room, the dining room, the kitchen (including a 300-pound table), two offices, two mattress sets and all the bedding. Rugs. Artwork. Dishes. Pots and pans. A new grill. New cleaning supplies. New vacuums. New cat stuff (litter boxes, cat towers, scratching posts, food, toys, grooming supplies). Everything was purchased online.

Another wrinkle: the address for the cabin had never been registered with the post office and didn’t show up on most mapping services, such as Google Maps, so we couldn’t risk having things delivered out to the cabin. In fact, we didn’t even have a mailbox. We had to buy one (and a post) and install it ourselves at the end of the road (after we finally got the address registered)

So we had everything delivered to our rowhouse, we moved the furniture close together and piled boxes in every available space, all unopened, until move-in day. We had UPS, FedEx, Amazon Prime and sometimes DHL at our house every day from October 9 (ok, maybe a bit earlier) to October 21. It was insane. Anyone walking by our front windows thought we had turned into some kind of crazy hoarders.

Just a small sampling of the box fort that was our home.

It took the movers about an hour to load everything into the truck and drive it to the cabin. We also rented a small dumpster to dispose of all the boxes and packing materials, which we filled to the brim. In one day. Let’s just say, we do not play around when it comes to unpacking and getting settled in.

Again, just a glimpse of the boxes.

And now, six months later, we’re still out here. We got to experience late fall and watch the leaves changing right from the Adirondack chairs (purchased online) on our front porch. We had Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas tamales, and a million other meals. We’ve gotten tons of snow and even got snowed in (we literally could not drive down the ½ mile gravel road from our house to the main road). Right now, we’re watching the trees start to bud and the hill behind our house is turning green with moss and plants and teeny tiny flowers.

We’ve learned about septic tanks, well water quality, propane maintenance, cast iron gas stoves, what works for fire wood, and all sorts of pests, including woodpeckers, carpenter bees, and yes, country mice. We’ve seen a rafter of turkeys in our driveway, chipmunks darting in and out from under our deck, tons of deer, and even a couple of cows in our front yard one recent morning. And the squirrels here? They’re on steroids. HUGE. Plus they have these black squirrels out here. I’ve only seen one once, but yeah, he was definitely black as night.

We’ve done a ton of household projects and upgrades, and still have more planned.

We bought a wood-fired hot tub and an outdoor gas-fired pizza oven. XFE has become obsessed with trout fishing and I’ve become obsessed with cabin sweaters. We’ve gone on amazing hikes at Lost River State Park, Trout Pond Recreation Area, Short Mountain, Wolf Gap, Seneca Rocks, and Blackwater Falls. One of our most challenging hikes is that roundtrip one-mile trek to the mailbox, which is down-the-mountain on the first leg, but a grueling climb on the way back up.

Eventually, XFE will have to go back into the office and our cabin will likely become the weekend and holidays escape it was intended to be. We just feel lucky to have it and to have had all this time to love it and get to know it. It’s been weird. It’s been wonderful. And it has definitely been an adventure.

By the way: if you are looking for a cabin in West Virginia, I highly recommend our realtor, Kim Eggert at Lost River Living. I found her on Instagram at @lostriverliving and she was fantastic to work with.

Part 1: Holy crap. We bought a cabin.

Hello from the other side, my fellow vaxxed and inoculated pandemic people. We made it. I mean, we’ve still got a ways to go to make sure we reach herd immunity, but there seems to be a very dim light at the end of this long, crap tunnel of death and illness and isolation.

We got our second shot of Moderna about a week ago and while I feel a great deal of relief, I’m definitely not ready to venture out into the world again. My only concession to being inoculated is that I now feel ok going maskless when I go outside to greet our non-vaxxed UPS driver, Mike (he’s got some….theories).

Luckily, I’m in the perfect place to retreat from the world. Because we bought a cabin in the mountains of West Virginia and we’ve been living here full time since late October. (If you follow @thepoelog on Instagram, you already know this)

Our corona cabin on the day we closed in October

It. Is. Crazy. All of it. The fact that we bought a cabin. During a pandemic. In West Virginia. And we’ve been living here. For the past six months. All of it is nuts. Just nuts. I still can’t believe we did it.

Let’s back up a bit and I’ll explain.

Before the pandemic, we used to travel. Like, a lot. Big travel. Big, extravagant, long vacations to places very, very far away a couple-few times a year. We wanted to see as much of the world as we could and we wanted to do it while we were reasonably young and physically able. And I think we both still feel that way.

For the last couple of years, we had taken our spring vacations a bit closer to home, renting AirBnB cabins in North Carolina and focusing on relaxing and hiking. They were great way to unwind and spend time in nature. In fact, we liked them so much, we started talking and daydreaming about buying a vacation place of our own. Someday. Way down the line when we were tired of our international travel.

But when the pandemic hit last March, that was the end of travel for us. For everyone. We cancelled a beach vacation we had scheduled for July in Antigua, and for the first time in a while, we didn’t have anything on the books as far as international travel. 

We were working and living in our 1,200 square foot row house in the middle of our great walkable urban neighborhood and it was fine. Except. Everything we loved about living in that neighborhood was basically gone. We couldn’t walk to shops, restaurants, bars, salons, anywhere because everything was closed. And suddenly, with everyone, all our neighbors working from home as well, it began to feel very crowded.

By the time summer rolled around, we were spending lots of evenings outside on our patio, listening to our neighbors on either side of us, doing the same thing. And we started talking about the cabin dream…..

One of the ones that got away.

Let me just interject here to say: I know that we are incredibly privileged and lucky to even be considering such a thing. A lot of people suffered economically during the pandemic, including people close to me. I’m not insensitive or immune to that reality and my personal privilege. XFE and I were both able to continue to work from home during the pandemic and our financial situation allowed us to do this. Sure, I lost a couple of clients when the pandemic hit, including a big client, but I was able to keep going and find new work from existing clients and even previous clients. I also knew going into the pandemic that I had put aside enough over the years in my savings to cover living expenses for up to a year, even if I lost all of my freelance clients, which I did not.

I had originally (in the back of my mind) planned on maybe buying a vacation place in my home state of Texas. But if the pandemic showed us anything, it was that having to fly to a vacation home might not always be an option.

We thought about North Carolina, which we loved so, so much. But at best, it was a four-hour drive away. We decided we needed something closer, maybe about two hours away so we could take the cats with us as well. That would mean Virginia, Maryland or West Virginia. We knew we wanted something with some land, in the woods (low yard maintenance), near hiking and outdoor activities, that felt safe and private above all else. Oh, and good wifi. Of course.

Another one that got away

We really had our hearts set on the Lost River Valley region of West Virginia, right over the state line. There are a ton of hiking opportunities nearby, a state park and national forests; lakes, streams, rivers for fishing, and a couple of really cute towns (Wardensville and Lost River) that have been built up as tourist destinations by DC transplants. So we started by putting our focus there, but there wasn’t much available.

We began looking in June and it was so stressful. Apparently, a whole lot of DC people had the same brilliant idea as us and everything with land within a two-hour drive was getting snapped up as soon as it went on the market. It was competitive to say the least.

Plus, we just really did not want to go see houses in person. Even with all the precautions. We didn’t attend any open houses, only private showings. We wore masks and insisted the realtors do the same. We opened all the windows and doors and didn’t touch anything. We brought our own lunches and drinks so we didn’t have to stop anywhere and hand sanitized like crazy. I think, all told, we looked at nine houses in person and each time was so stressful.

We put in an offer on a place in Berkeley County, West Virginia—an adorable A-frame with a completely dangerous spiral staircase and no washer/dryer–but backed out after the inspection revealed some serious problems, including foundation. We also put in an offer on a log cabin in Mount Jackson that we weren’t totally in love with the day it came on the market but we got outbid.

So pretty yet so full of problems.

We had put in offers on two houses in our preferred area. We got outbid on one of them. The other house (again, with a totally unworkable spiral staircase we planned to replace) had an even more disastrous inspection than the Berkeley A-frame. In addition to a bunch of other issues, all the pipes in the house were made of polybutylene, a material that was banned in the 1990s and would have to be replaced. The seller didn’t want to budge on the price or any other concessions, so we walked away.   

I’ll leave it there for now and pick up the rest of the hunt in my next post. But, spoiler alert: we did eventually buy a cabin.

Reality TV Time: Escape to the Country

If you are a reasonably cautious person, you are now well into your fifth month of quarantine/self-isolation/stay-at-home/work-from-home-ness. Congratulations on caring not only for your own health, but for your community as a whole.

I’m sure, like most of us, you are hankering for a getaway. Maybe a trip abroad (HA!). Or, slightly more realistically, someplace serene and peaceful, with lots of fresh air and rolling hills dotted with quaint cottages and rustic cabins.

Maybe you yearn to go someplace far from the bustle of urban life full of all these people going out maskless to restaurants and bars and Costco because, in reality, those people are idiots who don’t believe that COVID-19 is real, or at least, not as bad as the media is making it out to be and, goddammit last time they checked, “America was the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and they’re “not going to be told what they can or can’t do,” and by the way, “it’s a proven fact that masks make COVID worse!”

I’m already hyperventilating. I feel you. I, too, wish to escape. In fact, a lot of us do, which has given arise to a whole new, back-to-basics aesthetic trend known as cottagecore.

Along those lines, I have found a (very) safe way to give in to that vibe. Let me introduce you to the quarantine viewing wonder that is the BBC One’s “Escape to the Country.”

There is no coronavirus on “Escape to the Country.” Mostly because the only season we seem to be able to track down is Season 22 on Amazon Prime, and, lucky for us, Season 22 was filmed in the quaint olden times of 2014.

I had read that the show was available on Netflix, but I can’t find even one other season, either there or on our YouTube/Roku TV.

The beauty of this program is that it combines the desire to travel abroad (safely) with the yearning for beautiful, peaceful landscapes. In this case, in England. Without leaving your house.

We’ve been watching Season 22 for the last week or so and let me tell you, my heart swells and my stress melts away just hearing the dulcet string instrument intro and watching the camera pan over hills and valleys and dales before settling on a close up of some yellow flower in the field (Is it a daffodil? I think it is).

Nope. Not a daffodil.

The format is a lot like HGTV’s House Hunters, except, decidedly rural: A couple or family is looking to trade in city life for a slower paced life in the country.

Many of the house hunters on the show are also looking for more independence, and want a property that also presents a business opportunity, like a separate apartment or cottage to rent out.

And, they all want properties that combine character and Old World charm with some modern conveniences.

To me, it sounds like a ridiculously tall order. But, literally, in every episode, our hosts of “Escape to the Country” deliver, offering up two properties that fit the bill (and, unlike many house hunting shows, actually come in around or under the couple’s stated budget).

They also offer up a third “mystery property,” that challenges the home hunters to think outside of the box. Sometimes that’s like, a church conversion, or a huge property with lots of outbuildings and barns waiting to be converted into apartments or rental units, or a miniature airplane modeling and sales studio (that was the stated professional goal of one of the gentlemen house hunters in a recent episode).

After a walk through each property, the house hunters meet up with the host and give their best guesses on how much the property is on the market for. Then the host reveals the actual price, which, again, is usually under budget or very near the top but almost never over.

At the end of two days of looking at the three properties, the house hunters sit down with the host and tell them which property was their favorite and what they’re next steps will be.

The houses are charming and sometimes quirky or historic (I now know exactly what a snug room is and am thisclose to demanding we buy an AGA range), there’s a little local history lesson in each episode, the hosts are gentle, patient and helpful. The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a great, great show.

My only quibble is that Brits are just too cautious for my taste. They almost never agree to just put an offer in on one of the houses! They always say they’re going to do some more research about the village or the area and visit the property again. Even in instances where they’ve already sold their own city homes and only have like, a month for find something. They’re just so timid!

It is beyond frustrating. My TV co-partner, XFE and I always end up shout incredulously, “But you LOVED the mystery house! It literally had everything you asked for!! And was way under budget!!! What are you waiting for? Get to the estate agent before someone else snatches it up!”

As XFE recently put it, the show should be called “A Chinwag in the Country.”

But it is a really great show that seriously plays into my recent cottagecore/cabin fever feelings. Now if we can just figure out how to get the more recent episodes. I saw on Twitter that one couple with a sizable budget was looking for a country house with a helipad!