In June we packed up the house and drove West.
When he was twenty-two, John built a tiny-house from scratch on a 30 foot flatbed trailer. He used primarily salvaged and recycled materials and set it up to be off grid. It is powered by solar panels and recycled batteries, and supplied with water from rain catchment. While he had never moved the house more than a mile down the road in the past, he was confident we could move it from North Carolina to Oregon. The house is not exactly an RV though.
“It probably weighs 15,000 pounds, my truck can haul it no problem though,” I had heard him boast countless times to various people in the previous 10 months. I had no reason to mistrust him. John is one of those people who can do things. I’ve heard him described as an engineer without a degree. People who have known him for a long time simply chuckle when he catches them up on his most recent projects. He’s always busy with something, and it’s almost always useful in some way. He built a suspension bridge and a waterwheel on his friends property, and a cabin for his mom to live in in North Carolina. He can always figure out a way to fix something. It may not be glamorous, but it will work.
“I do practical things. Most of the time,” He agreed with me when I described his character to him.
One time he bought a solid copper bathtub, which was never used once before he sold it for $1500 to an acquaintance of his who asked him to help design the luxury, 2,500 square foot home she and her husband were building on a mountaintop property.
He had kept the bathtub in the outdoor, open concept (as in, only three walls and no door) bathhouse. He doesn’t want to put a bathroom inside the tiny house, although there is space and he is highly capable of doing so. He is opposed to any sort of moisture inside the house, having built a different cabin when he was 20 and having the thing fall apart due to rot. This is why we cook exclusively in the sunroom. If I use our instant pot to cook in the house, I take it outside to relieve the pressure.
He built a 100-foot high ladder up a tree. Because he could.
The steps leading down to the bathhouse were growing slippery, so he stapled some old shingles we had found in a ditch somewhere along the highway to them, for safety.
The bottom step leading up to the house broke. I asked him to fix it, and he paused in the middle of the other project he was working on, glancing about the yard as if the answer to the problem would present itself to him. Sure enough, he grabbed a couple spare bits of wood laying around and, using the drill that might as well be an extension of his arm, screwed a couple blocks to the bottom of one side until it was level again.
One of his eccentricities is admiring, collecting, and using materials. I once helped him pick up a trailer load of heavy duty electrical pipe from a previous jobsite he worked on because they were just throwing the stuff away. That load was probably worth $10,000, but being a specialized material he couldn’t resell it. He used it to build a frame for the waterwheel.
At a bonfire at my parents house, my dad was explaining how he wanted to build an in ground firepit with an excavator. It was surely needed, the bonfire was spilling over from the spare tire rim we used as a burn pit. John took it upon himself to dig a hole and, using a shovel and a rake, pull the rim full of hot coals and burning wood into the hole.
Sometimes I am bewildered, sometimes fond, sometimes annoyed, but mostly I am just astounded but what he can accomplish. I’ve seen him fix things that would have left anyone else I know scratching their heads. I’ve seen him fix things that I didn’t even know were broken, but sure enough the contraption he came up with improved the situation. I don’t know what it must be like inside his brain, but I’m positive it’s never boring.
With this in mind, I had no doubt that he could move the house he built out of the narrow, steep driveway where it had been parked for four years, and tow it across the country.
The first step was getting it on the ground.
The house was parked on a hill. I gradually pulled the story from him bit by bit of how he had jacked the back end up using four different jacks, and rested it on stacks of cinderblocks and smaller hunks of wood. Over several days he had made the thing perfectly level, despite all odds. Not until we had to lower the thing did I realize how much of an accomplishment that had been.
Painstakingly, I watched as he used a bottleneck jack to jack up first one corner, then the other, working back and forth one side at a time. My job was to pull out one board the house rested on once he jacked it up. Just one board at a time, sometimes replacing them with smaller boards so we didn’t let one side down too far. Then he would release the jack and I would hold my breath to make sure the stacks of cinderblocks and wooden blocks held the house once more. Each time the house would sway in such a way that I found to be incredibly precarious, then settle back on it’s stack resolutely. My heart was pounding, John seemed unfazed.
“Can you handle this?” He asked me, seeing the look on my face as the house came down, inch by inch, and I would stand, wringing my hands and begging him to be careful.
When the wheels finally touched the ground, I let out a huge sigh.
“That was nothing compared to how jacking it up was,” John just laughed at my nerves.
“I think you need someone around to be worried for you,” was all I said.
We were eager to get on the road, so there was no time to dally once that job was done. After loading the last few odds and ends (mostly John’s tools, as well as an oil barrel of bio-diesel John bought from a local company and was using to fuel his F-250) into the house, we had to get the thing hooked up to the trailer. This involved John using a different jack on the fifth-wheel pin to take some of the weight off while I viciously cranked the landing gear handle. We were both panting and sweating in the North Carolina humidity. It probably took forty-five minutes to raise it up high enough to back the truck under and lock in the fifth wheel with a satisfying clunk.
John wanted to take the trailer somewhere to get the tires replaced before we left town. In hindsight we realized it would have been much simpler to take the trailer tires off while it was still securely stacked on the cinderblocks. But we had bigger problems to deal with before we would come to that conclusion. First, we had to get it out of the driveway.
First, we tried driving the truck straight forward, winching the truck to a tree to help. But the driveway made a sharp turn which also happened to be the steepest grade in the drive. There were no trees to winch the truck to after he began the turn, so we parked my Subaru up the driveway and I got in, holding the brake pedal and with the emergency break on while John tried to winch himself and the house around the corner and over the bump.
Before he had parked the house he had rented an excavator to push back part of the hillside to create a large enough flat(ish) spot to park the house. But in the years that followed the hillside had eroded somewhat, and we didn’t get too far before the side of the house hit the hillside. We both grabbed shovels and spent another forty-five minutes digging out the hillside so the house had enough room to make the corner.
Even so, the bump proved to be too steep. The truck struggled and my car was no match to the weight of the house, it was continually pulled backwards down the hill. John was ready to give up and call a tow truck to get us out of the driveway. I pointed out that if we could get the house moved over just a foot or so, back up to the right until he was in the gravel instead of the slippery clay of the eroded hillside, he could angle so he wasn’t going up the steepest part of the hill and would have more traction.
Ready to try anything, he agreed to my plan. We threw down some plywood scraps where the tires would roll over the clay and I dug out some of the ground to smooth out the hill. John backed up hard to the right then pulled straight forward. It took three tries. On the third run, the house bumped smoothly over the hill and I let out a whoop as I followed the house up the rest of the hill and to the top of the driveway.
The moment of victory was short-lived. We went to two separate tire shops in town and called several others. None of them had equipment heavy duty enough to jack up the house and replace the tires. Exhausted from a week of labor to get the house ready to move, on top of the day’s activity and stress, John was beginning to fret about the trucks ability to tow the house.
“It didn’t sound good coming up that hill,” he worried, staring at the cracking tires on the trailer forlornly. We were parked in the tiny parking lot of the local tire shop, taking up a lot of space and drawing a lot of attention. If I hadn’t fully grasped what it was we were about to do before, I certainly did now. The tiny house is very much not an RV.
“Look, that’s a problem for tomorrow,” I tried to focus him on the task at hand. We ended up going back to John’s property and parking at the top of the hill for the night.
By the next morning his friend had told him about a trailer shop in the next town over. On the phone they said they weren’t sure if their equipment could handle it or not, but they were willing to try.
We ended up getting new tires for the truck and trailer, and by that afternoon we were leaving town. We were tired and emotionally drained, but beyond relieved. We could finally get out of town and begin our drive across the country. By that night John’s fears about the truck were lifting, having seen how the truck was behaving pulling the house.
We were confident that we would make it to Oregon. We didn’t yet know what the trip would entail, or what sort of life we could make for ourselves in Eugene. But I often tell myself that life is not about the destination, it is about the journey.