How Is Summer Almost Over?

Whelp, it’s finally here. Sheryll’s Solo Summer (SSS) is coming to an end next week, as my schmoopies-for-life comes back from his sabbatical taking care of his father.

It truly has been a long three months.

And a lot of physical and emotional work for my beloved XFE in the midst of an unprecedented heat wave. Now he’s coming back to me and the cats and I will be running around this weekend trying to prepare and cleaning like a fiend. My lackadaisical summer cleaning schedule is probably not going to impress him.

But it’s been a fairly good summer, overall. I did not write as much as I had hoped but I did read a lot. I made jam for the first time (turned out well) and pickles (not that great – not enough snap, I think). I cooked and ate all my favorite things (lots of cheese and veggies and beans) and binged on true crime documentaries.

I was socially engaged with friends out here at the cabin – including volunteering for our Lost River Pride Festival in June and attending all the fun activities around that event.

I wrangled up the cats, closed up the cabin and drove the 2 hours into the city all by myself in early July so I could fly out to Vegas and visit XFE and his dad. Then I came back to the city, grabbed the cats and returned to/opened up the cabin again. I used to think it took both of us to snag the cats (without a major incident), but I’ve gotten pretty good at it on my own.  

I had out-of-town guests for four days in late July and we did all the fun things, including tubing, wine tasting, vintage shopping, hiking and more wine tasting. I even fired up the hot tub for them (literally. It’s a wood-fired hot tub) and cleaned it out all by myself after my guests had left). I did all the planning and cooking and prep cleaning for the visit, including cleaning the grill, which I was also in charge of cooking on (again, usually XFE’s domain).

My favorite picture of the whole weekend.

I caught and relocated a mouse and took care of car maintenance. So, I managed okay. I’m actually pretty proud of myself. But I do miss my partner-for-life and I’m very much looking forward to having him back in the driver’s seat – both figuratively and literally.

Plus, we have a nice Mexico vacation coming up, before we jump into fall work schedules with both feet. XFE already has work obligations piling up in September, as well as ongoing dad care, so I suspect the rest of the year will be busy.

But, the main thing is: I survived. XFE survived. We are all going to be okay (I think).

We’ve never been apart this long. Especially during the pandemic – we didn’t have family nearby or a pandemic bubble. We spent every waking minute together for 2.5 years. What if things have changed in our relationship? Will I be willing to relinquish control of the remote? Will I step up more on the meal planning and cooking? Maybe XFE will be so exhausted he won’t want to be in charge of everything anymore? Then who’s going to make sure things run smoothly?

I guess we’ll just have to figure it out – starting next week. This weekend, I’ll be watching all the true crime documentaries while eating roasted veggies off the grill that could really use another cleaning. Who knows? Maybe I’ll fire up the hot tub again just for me.

Lessons in Living from ‘The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning’

Last week kind of got away from me. It was eventful. Our cats chased a mouse from the screened in porch (we have a crack under the door) and into the house during the final Vanderpump Rules Reunion episode.

Mouse hunters. Not catchers.

This has happened once or twice before, and usually, my live-in mouse remover/exterminator XFE takes charge and captures the intruder, while I hold the cats back and squeal and offer (unwanted) suggestions.

This time, the mouse ended up hiding in the water filter closet and, for a variety of reasons, including a few glasses of celebratory Vanderpump rose, I could not catch it until the next morning. Which meant blocking off the closet with a variety of rugs, blankets and any movable furniture for the night. BUT, I did manage to catch it the next morning all on my own and relocate it to the woods.

High on my success, I hopped into my fairly new and hardly driven car (we bought it in 2021 and it has 7,000 miles on it) to go to the grocery store (again, my personal chef, XFE usually does the grocery shopping). But poor Jolene the Jeep started making the loudest, screechiest racket that was echoing off all the hills and nearby valleys nearby.

I recorded a video of it and showed it to the dealership repair people the next day, who agreed that I should not drive it and sent a tow truck to the cabin to take it in for repair (it’s most likely a large rock or some gravel caught in the rotor cover or brake dust shield).

Car repairs are generally something that my darling XFE takes the lead on (Not that there have been many occasions on my part. This is the first car I’ve had since moving to DC in 2002. But his car, is what I’m speaking of).

Anyway, while I’m here brushing up on my adult survival skills, XFE is toiling away in the Las Vegas heat, taking care of his dad. XFE is not only helping him with some immediate medical things, he’s also trying to help him deal with a lot of possessions, simplify his finances, and get him on a path to an easier, less cluttered life.

It’s no secret that Americans, on general, have too much stuff. According to one statistic that’s all over the internet, the average American home has over 300,000 objects in it. And while our homes have grown – today, the median single-family home is 2,355 square feet while in 1970, it was 1,500 square feet – we’re actually paying to store stuff. There are over 51,000 self-storage units in the United States and the entire self-storage industry rakes in $29 billion a year.  

We are, figuratively speaking, drowning in stuff.

Meanwhile, over in Sweden, they practice something called, “döstädning” which literally means “death cleaning” in English. While death cleaning is supposed to take place before you die, it’s really about living and maximizing your living space and really taking stock of what’s important and deserves space in your life.

But it’s also about getting rid of all your unnecessary stuff so your children don’t have to do it when you die. And seriously, we need more old people to do that.

There’s a reality show about it on Peacock. It’s called “The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning,” and it is charming, amazing, uplifting and funny. I loved it and binged all eight episodes in a weekend. If you aren’t sure you want to watch the whole thing or don’t know where to start, just watch episode 3. It’s relatable and it’s a great overview of the whole show and philosophy.  

I bet you would’ve never guessed they were Swedish.

Here are seven tips I got from the show:

Do not pay for storage. — Especially for items you are holding onto for other family members. Do not hang onto stuff for other family members, past or future. You don’t need to keep things to keep the memories. You and the life you have built are the family legacy. You don’t need to store and pass down old stuff. And for all that is holy, do not keep things that bring back bad or sad memories. Seriously, who needs that?

Godfrey from episode five was drowning in a grief pit.

Only you know what is a family treasure. – Do not send a whole box of stuff to your family members to sort through or invite them to the storage unit to go through a mountain of stuff. If you think there’s something collectible in there, take the time to go through and research each item and send the valuable item to the beloved family member. They do not have time to go through your stuff to try to decipher what’s valuable.

Actually, give up on the idea of collectibles all together. — Most shit that was supposed to be collectible when first purchased, really isn’t. I’m looking at you, Beanie Babies. If you like to collect something, fine. Enjoy it and then let it go to someone else who actually shares that passion. You really see this at work (hilariously so) in episodes one and seven. Do not leave it to family members or friends who do not share your passion.

If you have multiples of treasured items, just keep one or two of the very best and let the rest go. In one episode, a woman had a bunch of crocheted or knitted blankets that her mother had made, but most of them were in horrible shape. She kept one or two of the best ones and prominently displayed them in her house.

Treat the “treasured” items like treasures. When you do pass them along to a family member, treat the item like a true gift, with a box and a story. This is something you’ll see pretty prominently in episodes three and six, and it is very touching. Your family members don’t know why something is important unless you tell them the story behind it.

If you really just cannot let something go, make a plan for it. Either display and enjoy it or put it in a purgatory box to revisit at a later time. But have a concrete plan to deal with it at some point.

The Dilemma Box. Notice it is limited in size. You cannot make your whole house or garage a “dilemma box.”

Clean up your finances and technology. – This one isn’t so much from the show, just from life itself. Consolidate bank and investment accounts, credit cards, have bills sent and paid electronically, get rid of catalog clutter, factory reset and recycle old electronics like phones, tablets and computers at the appropriate facility.

By the way, I’m actually a pretty unsentimental minimalist who is not emotionally attached to my stuff.  We don’t have a garage and have never paid for self-storage, which definitely helps keep the stuff in the house to a minimum. That, and no kids, which I hear helps.

Even still, I am always working on having fewer things and only keeping things that I really love and use. I’ve gotten much better — and much less materialistic overall — as I’ve gotten older, so I guess that’s one perk to getting older.

Life and Mountain Laurel in West Virginia

Whew. It’s been a long-ass six (or seven?) months since my last post. Not like a whole second global pandemic long, but not too far off the mark.

For the last – gosh, I want to say, for 10(!?) months — my lovable and wonderful non-husband, XFE has been dealing with aging family members’ health issues. Since August of last year, XFE would go out to his parents’ house in North Las Vegas and stay for a few weeks, or even a month to help out, while trying to work remotely at the same time. And then when he was here at home, he would try to work at his high-pressure, stressful job while dealing with his parents’ health issues remotely.

It all felt like failure, all the way around and we knew it would not be sustainable at some point.

Over the past two months, his dad’s health issues and the associated responsibilities have ramped up to the point where XFE has had to take a leave of absence from work and move out to North Las Vegas to help care for his dad. We went out in mid-May and XFE stayed behind while I came home.

So, I’m spending the next three months without my own caretaker, my partner, my support system, my best friend/co-cat parent/personal chef/comic relief/entertainment coordinator/activity planner/handyman/chauffeur/remote-control pilot/accountant/weekly shopper/emotional sounding board/gut checker/work advisor/ride-or-die/partner in crime and all-around motivator.

Basically, I am having to go without my everything and all the things.

I feel entirely unmoored while having to pretend that everything is fine. Just fine. Because there’s someone close to us right now who really needs him more than I do. And I’m an independent and self-sufficient adult (allegedly).

As we were preparing for this time apart, we talked about all the things XFE was going to miss while he was away. One of those things is mountain laurel season at the cabin here in West Virginia.

It is truly a gorgeous time of year out here in Lost River. The mornings are still pretty cool (in the 40s) but it warms up to the high 70s by mid-day and it’s just a pleasant, comfortable time to be here.

The trees are all filled in, creating this little green oasis that feels so private and removed from the rest of the world.

There’s also the sound of constantly rustling leaves as deer, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and who knows what else move through the underbrush completely invisible to the human eye. You hear a rustle and turn your head but can’t see anything. Then you wonder if you really heard anything at all but now you hear another noise and it’s from a different part of the forest, so maybe that’s what you heard the previous time? Who can tell?

The early birds are nesting and having baby birds. We’ve already had round one on one of our drain spouts. Miss Bird was still nesting some eggs when we left. There were at least three little fuzzy-headed baby birds by the time I got back out here. I accidentally scared them all out of the nest the other day after returning from the grocery store. I hope they’re all ok.

More and more mountain laurel are popping every day, going from tight pink buds to fluffy white blooms. The air smells just gorgeous and spring-like, especially as the day warms up. Bees and butterflies are flying around them lazily.

There’s a little bee friend on the middle left.

We’ve got a lot of the mountain laurel on the hill behind the cabin and last year, XFE and I sat on the back porch in the evenings with a cocktail or some wine just listening to the bees and the breeze, taking tons of pictures of the flowers.

This year is very different and I’m sad that he’s missing it. I know there are bigger things to be sad about – in particular, his dad’s health and what’s going to happen next – but I am sad. I just am.

Anyway, XFE has asked me to use this time to get back to blogging, so here I am. I don’t think this is what he had in mind, but it’s at least a new start. Like a mountain laurel bush in the spring.

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.  

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.