Rough Times

Even though we don’t have rent or an electric bill or most of the fixed expenses that regular folks have we are still hard pressed to survive on what we earn. By this time Karl has set up shop as a carpenter, the kind that desperately advertises no job too small, but he doesn’t earn much, he never charges enough and always works until everything is perfect, that’s the kind of attitude that leaves you earning 25 cents an hour.

I go from cleaning houses to managing the food coop in town. By the early 1970’s food cooperatives spring up all over Vermont. In our case, a group of people start getting together to order grains and beans and nuts and dried fruit, flour, just about any unprocessed food. The goods are delivered in 50 pound bags and 20 pound boxes to someone’s garage, and we all bring out scales and divvy up the food. After a few years of doing this, more and more people want to be involved and the group decides to rent an empty storefront and offer natural foods, retail, to anyone. If you volunteer in the store or in the back room, you get a discount, turns out to be a viable business model and most large towns in Vermont still have thriving coops, some even supermarket size.

Our store is on a side street in Randolph in a former coffee shop. I am paid to organize everything, keep track of the volunteers, order from wholesalers, go to meetings, run the cash register except we don’t have a cash register, just a tin money box. But I run that.

Because Karl and I are both working full time, progress on building our permanent house goes painfully slow. That plus the fact that we construct it using the most labor intensive and time consuming method imaginable, it feels like a lifetime project. First, we buy a forest-full of logs which we stack next to the garden. Next, we take the bark off each log by hand using a two-handled tool called a draw shave, you straddle the log and peel. Then Karl scribes each log so that it cups the one underneath all along its length, which involves intricate outlining and careful chiseling. The idea is that then you have no gaps between logs that need caulking, and a very fine seal.

After five years we only finish the foundation and build the house up to window level, we still have so much more to go and at this rate it will take forever. Sadly we acknowledge the need to move faster. We switch to using more standard construction methods with two by fours and plywood and make magically rapid progress considering how slowly everything went before. Within a year we have a roof and windows, within eighteen months we move in. It isn’t quite finished but it is livable, so we relocate our wood stoves and rocking chair and tear down our little temporary quarters which served its purpose far longer than we originally anticipated.

Caitlin starts the first grade. Each morning she walks almost a mile to the nearest road to catch the school bus, and walks back in the afternoon.  She crosses an old wooden bridge on her way and lies down flat on the planks to peek through the gaps into the stream below.  She takes her own sweet time.

When people talk about going on a camping vacation, I think to myself that I’ve done my lifetime quota of living rough. My idea of camping out, nowadays, is going to a hotel that doesn’t have room service.

About Karen To and Fro

Everything you didn't want to know about me!
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