Buying land, building a house
A dispatch from New Hampshire in October, where the leaves are glorious and the climbing even more so
I’m going to make it a short one, because I’ve been working on Big and Important pieces and I’m still not satisfied with them, but also I haven’t published in a sweet minute and I need to stop thinking of every weekly newsletter as so essential to get right.
It’s ok to go short, I’ve decided. Or to go shallow, however you want to think about it. I’m more than capable of writing every day (see, 31 days to climb 5.12), but I do have to alter the concept a bit to deliver: away from Big and Important and toward the daily diary variety.
Besides, I tend to forget that it’s often in the mundane everyday events that the important stuff happens, and then gets overlooked, and only in retrospect do we realize that something we thought was unimportant was actually quite consequential. One writer I admire enormously, in part for his ability to ship a newsletter so consistently over such a long time, is Paul Millerd, author of Boundless and The Pathless Path. So, inspired by his format, this week I’m just going to share some things I’m working on and thinking about:
#1: I bought land to build a house
As of two weeks ago, I’m under contract on a vacant piece of land near my house in New Hampshire. I’ve been thinking a lot about buying another property this year, and I finally had some spare bandwidth to think through my priorities and how another property might fit into them.
One thing I’d been considering was to buy a fixer-upper—over the past three years, I’ve become fairly adept at renovations, including framing, carpentry, drywall, and enough plumbing and electrical to take care of basic stuff myself or intelligently chat with subcontractors if I need larger work done. I also really like doing the renovations. I like the way my body aches after 6-8 hours of actual physical labor, and I like the satisfaction of knowing how much value I’m adding to a property on a daily basis through that labor. There’s nothing quite like making something with your hands, that you can see in the physical world right in front of you. It’s something you miss in a lot of knowledge work.
BUT, buying a fixer-upper would’ve tied up a lot of my cash reserves and available credit, sucked up a heap more, and would have given me timeline pressure to finish the renovations quickly in order to recoup the investment.
Buying a vacant piece of land, on the other hand, will require less upfront capital, and let me go at my own pace as I have the time. As a side benefit, it’ll force me to learn aspects of the building process I don’t have any experience with yet, starting with site planning, septic design, and negotiating the town permitting process.
There is lots to learn, and I promise to share as much as I can as the process develops. First off, I actually have to close on the property, which is a week from today. The land is one acre, about 15 minutes from the climbing in Rumney, but located in Dorchester, NH (the next town south from me). And, it’s completely wooded and undeveloped: a true blank canvas, starting from scratch.
Does this mean I’ll become a builder? I don’t know what the future holds—but I’m excited about having this project and doing it on my own timeline, with no financial pressure.
#2: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry & the meaning of life
This week I’ve been reading Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (who wrote The Little Prince). It’s been on my reading list for a while because I have a soft spot for memoirs of adventure and exploration. The book is about Saint-Exupéry’s time as a pilot in the 1930s, flying extremely dangerous mail routes over the Pyrenees, the Sahara and across Africa, and over the Andes.
It’s one of National Geographic’s “Top Ten Aventure Books of All Time,” and so far I’m really loving it. There’s a chapter early on about Saint-Exupéry having landed to rescue a friend who had crashed somewhere in Africa—they could take off the next morning, but first, they had to survive the night, and they were in a spot where it was known that locals would gladly murder a handful of out of place Europeans. Still, Saint-Exupéry and his pilot friends seemed to have enjoyed an epic night:
We had met at last. Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence or exchanging those words which carry no frieght—till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family. They wax and bloom in the recognition of fellow beings. They look at one another and smile. They are like the prisoner set free who marvels at the immensity of the sea.
Happiness! It is useless to seek it elsewhere than in this warmth of human relations. Our sordid interests imprison us within their walls. Only a comrade can grasp us by the hand and haul us free.
And these human relations must be created. One must go through an apprenticeship to learn the job. Games and risk are a help here. When we exchange manly handshakes, compete in races, join together to save one of us who is in trouble, cry aloud for help in the hour of danger—only then do we learn that we are not alone on earth.
Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something moulded.
That bolding at the end is mine.
I remember when I was young, I really wanted to know the meaning of life. I just wanted to know it, to be told, or to learn, or discover—there was no time to be wasted in understanding.
If only I’d had Saint-Exupéry’s words, and taken them to heart. Possibly I could have understood that the meaning of life cannot be discovered—it can only be molded through time.
#3: Wine-soaked dinners with friends
I have this dream of owning an Italian villa with a large veranda and one of those gigantic outdoor tables crammed with fresh olive oil and red wine, and gigantic bowls of pasta, or pizza fresh out of an outdoor pizza oven. Like the scenes set in Sicily from mob movies only without the mob (or I suppose from romantic comedies where Julia Roberts or Diane Lane changes her life to go find love in Tuscany?).
I don’t have the Italian villa with a veranda yet, but this past week I did host my Ottawa buddy and a friend of his visiting from Canada. One of the nights they were here, I made pizza from scratch, sourdough starter and all. A friend of mine came over, and the four of us and my grandmother, who is living here at the New Hampshire house, gorged on delicious pizza and polished off more than a few bottles of wine.
There wasn’t a veranda, we weren’t in Italy, and I had to broil the pizza in a regular old-fashioned propane stove rather than charring it in a pizza oven, but still—I had to pause and give thanks. These were the kinds of wine-soaked dinners with friends I dream about.
Also: if you’re interested in someone’s journey toward purchasing an Italian home, I recommend following Jan Peppler’s Substack, Finding Home. She purchased one!
#4: Glorious weather, time spent outdoors
Finally, it cannot be ignored that a big part of what I’m doing here this month is climbing at the Rumney crags near my house. I try to make time every afternoon if the weather is good (and if I don’t need a rest day… these joints ain’t getting any younger!)
Several of my regular climbing friends have left—off on travels to other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, or moved away for good. Thankfully, the climbing community is strong and there are always new climbers looking for partners. A few friends are also coming to town for climbing trips of their own.
I haven’t been climbing as strong as I was last year when I sent half a dozen routes rated 12a or 12a/b—but I’m looking forward to changing that in the next few weeks, and getting strong enough to push my grade a little higher before cold weather sets in and another season ends.
I was also reminded while out at the crag that Time spent outdoors was one of the “key performance metrics” I used to track as part of my annual Strategic Planning for Life (which I stopped doing this past year, for reasons I’ll save for another post). That was back when I lived full-time in the suburbs outside DC, and it was very tough to plan whole days outside.
Here in central New Hampshire, it’s easy to get outdoors. Here, getting outdoors can be a way of life, and not just a metric to track because you get so little of it. We sit outside on the front porch in the mornings when the sun hits the front of the house, and we sip our coffee and warm our hands on the mugs against the cold October air. And, in the afternoon, perhaps after working in the garden, we sit on the back deck and watch the sun fade over the trees. I hike Rattlesnake with the puppy, or I climb in the afternoon.
When I’m up there near the cliffs and looking out over the Baker River Valley, it’s hard not to be happy and content with life, and to be grateful for it all. I can share a picture, but the picture doesn’t do it justice—you have to come see for yourself :)
Always love reading you, Russell! A practical question: have you considered building your own outdoor pizza oven? Lots of love from one rural area to another across the world. 🌍🌎