I'd always wanted to own some property up in the desert mountains. When the government decided to sell off some parklands to make up for their profligate spending (All governments are profligate, aren't they? i.e. are total believers in deficit spending) some property less than twenty miles south of Tucson came up for auction.
Mt. Wrightson is a volcanic mountain with a sedimentary overlay which is contiguous with the western edge of the Coronado National Forest. Using aerial photography I located a small parcel a bit up the mountain that had a nice view over part of the national forest, which by the way was not being sold. Buying the mineral rights allowed me to do some rock work, namely road building to get to my 'homestead'. The bidding was fierce and the outcome was expensive. Luckily I had planned for this sort of expenditure long before.
The area which I wanted to build was on an inaccessible lookout with a million dollar view of the national forest. A lot of hard-rock road construction would be necessary to provide access to the site, and the site itself required reshaping of the native rock to make a small plateau.
I had a leg up on the whole make-a-road-out-of-a-mountainside thing though. I was twenty-eight and owned my own rock cutting business. I had a portable ultrasonic rock cutting rig in the back of my truck and had quite a bit of experience using it, commercially. That's how I made the nest egg I used to buy the property. The cutter wasn't hard to use. The difficulty lay in protecting the environment from the noise and high-pressure over spray as well as precisely controlling the cuts. I have to wear a helmet and a thick, stiff kevlar suit to use it. Once I survey the area to be cleared the blasting blankets go down and I assemble the frame that holds the other hanging insulation pads as well as the jig that controls the direction of the nozzle. Then I fire up the diesel, engage the pump and carefully sweep the nozzle across the rock face. If it's not hit at ninety degrees then a large percentage of the power is reflected in a nearly coherent stream to trash whatever it strikes.
It's a delicate, nerve-wracking process that, if you're good, will make you fabulous gobs of money. Of course, most of that is eaten up by the insurance. Hell, I had to show my notarized insurance bond documents just to buy the equipment and spares. It was more trouble getting the ultrasonic mining license than it did to get the explosives blasting license.
I use little gel charges to break free blind blocks then haul them out of the holes with fast flowing water acting as a near-frictionless bed. I used the truck to pull the blocks away, then break them up and toss them over the side or into the slash pile. On this job, I lined the steep side of my access road with stone blocks. Even though it's pretty far south, at that altitude (six thousand feet and more) I figured that I could get some slick spots where dew on the road could freeze into a skin of black ice. I didn't want to try paragliding without a parachute, eh?
The road cutting process was computer intensive. First I mapped the area with an ultrasonic scanner, transcribed the plots into a CAD program to create a 3D image, did a geological survey to see what sort of fooling around the rock would put up with, mapped out my grades and curves, figured out where the refuse would be placed and only then started cutting. Sometimes I had to get the government involved in the form of an environmental impact statement. Digging out tunnels, not so much but in those cases the geological survey had to be much more detailed. Opening up the bottom of an underground river would mess up your whole day, if you know what I mean. It was a good thing that I'd stayed in school to get my Master's in geology or I'd have had to hire a partner to do that part of the job for me.
The process uses a lot of water. Hauling around a 500-gallon water buffalo behind a two-and-a-half ton truck takes a lot of fuel. If there wasn't a local water supply my employers usually got quite a shock at the prices I asked for. The light went on when I showed them an itemized bill, though.
I took my time, joining highway 62 to 229, about three miles of road. I didn't do all this at once of course. I worked under a lowest-price federal bid that had a three year completion built into the contract. It was done over several summers when I could afford the time and money to get out there and work. I dug out my driveway up into the side of a dome from the service road off of 229, about three hundred feet. It gradually climbed and turned until I finished it by planing off part of the dome peak into a little plateau on the east side of the mountain, with a marvellous view of the forest below. I trenched out a thirty-inch-deep channel for electrical and data lines at the side of my road, planning to backfill and seal it once the services were installed. Once I had the flat area finished I asked myself, "Should I build a home here or jut continue digging one out of the mountain?" The refrain from an old orchestral work came to mind--The Hall of the Mountain King. This was good, solid stone. I could do some really cool work here. I began to design a majestic home carved from the mountain itself. I planned on an eighteen foot tall ceiling to the entrance hall and first chamber, then hallways and rooms leading off of that with eight foot ceilings. I had to find a place to drop all that rock, though. That was a lot of cubic!
One of the first things I did was to hire a guy to drill a water well for me. It would have to be a respectably deep well to bring up sweet water in that area. I'd have to work a couple years to put away the cash.
I was thirty-three and at the top of my field. I'd cut flues for hydroelectric turbines out of live rock and digging subway tunnels through mixed media was one of my specialties. I'd participated in a few mine rescues where I'd cut water diversion channels to empty flooded mines. Once rising water was out of the picture many mine rescues had vastly greater chances of recovering the miners alive.
My well was dug and capped off, ready for me. The job was paid for and my gear had been refurbished. I had my plans in hand and the results of a geological survey. The survey had one feature that disturbed me. There lay an acoustically reflective plane straight in some forty feet, buried deep within the stone. I would have to be exceptionally careful approaching that area, probably using a remote-controlled drilling head.
My attention was so taken by this job that I scarcely paused for sleep and refreshment. Once I passed the outer two feet I found the sedimentary rock making up the mountain top had shifted from a mottled brown to a pure white limestone. I was fascinated. At the back of the main hall I finally came upon what showed up so oddly on the geosondes--it was a block of crystalline quartz embedded vertically within the limestone, its widest plane perpendicular to the doorway I'd cut. It formed a heavy wall. The top reached the ceiling of the room--eighteen feet--and kept on going, both up and down. According to the sonogram it cleanly ended just a few feet past the wall of the room. I placed a quartz work-light at the bottom rear of the exposed structure and covered it with one of my blasting mats, then retreated towards the door to turn off the other lights. Magnificent. It glowed like a cut gem. I'd never seen anything like it before.
I slowed down after that, digging a cylindrical septic tank, running the hallway and digging out the four bed rooms and one larger gallery one by one. Each room was positioned in such a manner as to give it a gorgeous window view of the forest, except for one. I excavated an un-obvious room behind the quartz wall. The entrance wasn't so much hidden as obscured by a recessed stone wall panel in the hallway leading off to the bedrooms which served as a sliding door. I had plans to make that room into a library. The gallery had four large windows. I didn't know quite what I'd do with it yet, but it would have its purpose. There was plenty of stone still behind the end of the hallway for further excavation. Perhaps a studio with a high ceiling that would get north light, and its own little patio. Maybe a hot tub room where I could lay back enjoying a drink while looking at the lights of Tucson at night. It had possibilities that I hadn't even thought of yet.
The passageway, windows and doorways all had arched ceilings or lintels. I fashioned a hand-held water jet that allowed me to go where the big cutter couldn't and to delicately surface carve the limestone. I used a rule or compass to draw the lines and arches, then etched the surfaces to look as if they were blocks set in place. This allowed me to hide the electrical and water runs among the other obscuring surface details. The interior and exterior walls were left quite thick in order to support all that stone as well as to provide a massive thermal reservoir for the place--on the order of three feet thick. The generous window ledges gave plenty of space for window planters. I considered planting dwarf fruit trees in the two huge windows on either side of the main entrance.
Getting that bathroom designed and built was a real trial I built it as the second room along the hallway, the first being the master bedroom. It was only practice for the kitchen though. It was located on the left side of the great room at the end of another passageway. I stocked it with commercial units and a stainless steel work table. Commercial stuff is easier to set up than built-for- home-use appliances. Every piece that I've seen has leveling feet. I had home runs for all the plumbing and electrical lines fed back to a utility room off the kitchen where the water heater was kept. Since all that limestone was slightly porous I sealed every single surface, including the septic tank and its feeder pipes, with a product that went on as a high-temperature, high-pressure gas which penetrated and sealed the surfaces. Once I got the electrical and data lines run I back-filled the trench with finely crushed limestone, then capped it with a plastic that solidified into a tough semi-elastic mass that waterproofed the trench for all seasons.
I backed out the drilling truck from the house for the last time and hung the doors, both interior and exterior. The water and electricity were connected and the data lines were terminated to a patch panel in the utility room. I put down a few rugs, brought in a small load of furniture then installed all my kitchen appliances. After bringing in a load of groceries I relaxed in a nice, hot tub. I was home. I looked out of the bathroom window to the convoluted land below of intermixed upthrusts of rock and forests of pine and smiled.
Eventually it had to happen. A nosy zoning commission member from Tuscon paid me a visit with an inspector trailing along behind. He started out condescending and it went downhill from there. He tried to pay the old 'unanticipated fees and permits' game with me but I was an old pro at that one. I proved to him that Tucson had no remit over the property or its use as long as I met certain federal guidelines. I brought up the permit and use model founded by the U. S. Government for the Civilian Conservation Corps projects. That's when it got ugly. I had to toss his greedy little ass off my mountain.
The inspector? I showed him around, including the septic tank and a can of the product I'd used to seal both it and the rest of the place. I pulled the face plate off of an outlet that he pointed at, showing him the type of wire used and the grounding, then showed him how the lines were held in grooves in the stone by silicone caulk covered in stone dust to make them blend in. He measured the wall thickness for R-value equivalence, verified that thermopane was installed properly and signed off on the place with a smile. I was thirty-five when I was--finally--legally in residence in my home.
I paid a visit to a lawyer in the state capitol- Phoenix. He did a little research for me about state versus national oversight over federally released lands. It was a real wasp's nest. There were test cases all over the place. He thought that it boiled down to who I paid my property taxes to. Well, I paid federal taxes, not state. I received no state aid to maintain my roads or to provide fire protection. I put the man on retainer in preparation for the lawsuit which was bound to arise. I could feel it coming, like bad weather.
I'd gone back to work doing cutting rock for the Canadian Railroad. They wanted to expand a tunnel from single to double-track. It was a pretty straight-forward job. The geological survey was only a few years old from previous cuts done on the same area. I did a fast, professional job and collected my pay for an eight mile cut. It was almost a let-down to find my driveway chained off, held up by two brand new three inch I-beams set into concrete plugs. I shrugged my shoulders, put on my helmet and armor, fired up the engine and pump then cut the I-beams off flush with the ground. After powering everything down I drove over the wreckage and headed up the mountain.
I brought in another load of furniture and a couple face cords of firewood. I'd managed to dig a flue, smoke box and fire box out of the mountain for a nicely proportioned fireplace. It sat in the library. The only way I could figure out how to do the smoke chamber was to carve off the entire face, dig it all out to the proper proportions, slip in a damper at the bottom of the smoke chamber, cement a face stone over everything and bolt on a mantle. It worked well even though its construction was unconventional.
I mounted a few signs around the property including one at the gate. They said, "Warning! No Hunting No Trespassing. This land is under federal jurisdiction". I figured that I may as well set my precedent to begin with.
I found myself summoned to appear before a grand jury to give evidence. I called my lawyer to join me, dressed up in a nice suit, brought along a copy of my Master's degree and my permits, the deed to my property, the signed approval of residence that I'd gotten from the Tucson city inspector and the geological survey I'd made of the site before beginning the first cut. My lawyer brought his notes and a notarized map illustrating the current city limits of Tucson.
My strategy wasn't to prove or disprove culpability but to prove the limits of jurisdiction. If the city didn't have any dog in that fight then what the hell were they doing wasting money? My lawyer was pretty smart. When the issue of fire protection and road maintenance not being the responsibility of the city, county or state the bill of indictment fell apart. The judge dismissed the grand jury, I paid my smiling lawyer a hefty fee and the local lawyers had gossip sufficient for the next year at a minimum.
I wasn't getting any younger. I thought that it might be time to fly closer to the nest and find a wife. However, I'd pretty well depleted the kitty working on my home. I wanted to get a few well-paying jobs under my belt to rebuild my finances before I started really looking for a companion.
Some idiots had blown a couple of commercial cargo ships up while going through the locks of the Panama Canal. Their cargoes were potentially explosive and the loads were destabilized by the explosions, so cutting torches couldn't be used to chop up the ships. I entered a bid to cut the heavy hulls into manageable sections. After getting my truck flown down to Panama I talked to one of the engineers. I had to know what the largest size of hull section they could handle. It varied by the location of the hull segment, the bow being the thickest and having the keel bulb protruding. They marked everything off for me then I got busy and made over a million and a half in two weeks, plus the price of a new pump, hoses and nozzles. I had added a little grit to the water jet to make it cut the steel like butter but it chewed the hell out of the equipment. The insurance company was ecstatic, the port authority was cheering and the captains were happy that none of their crew were injured in the operation. Only the ship's owners were cheesed off, but they at least received compensatory value from the insurance.
Once back in the states I paid my withholding taxes on all that income and rebuilt my equipment. I asked myself, what would a woman want added to the place? There wasn't any hope in hell of having a back patio or a real garden, but a garage sure would be nice. I tested out my new rig by cutting a ten foot high, four bay garage out of the mountain that would connect to the hallway if I extended it a touch. I invited the city building inspector that I'd worked with out to watch the operation. He was impressed when I pulled out a 12' tall x10' wide x14' deep solid stone slug, then pushed it over the side of the mountain. I did it four times then used my hand cutter to put doors between the bays and connect the hallway to the garage. Four heavy personnel doors and four heavy powered garage doors later, I was almost done. I covered all the exposed surfaces in the garage with epoxy paint and wired in some lights. That was it! I had the inspector help me, as he held two blasting mats against the interior wall of the room while I drilled an eight foot passage through the wall for the power feed. He seemed suitably impressed.
I bought a medium-sized tractor with an end-loader for snow removal and a rotary brush on the back to keep the driveway clear. I parked my work rig in the next bay. That gave me two spare vehicle bays that could hold a short semi-tractor trailer. I thought it was kinda overkill unless a camper became involved.
I figured out where to put the outside heat exchanger for an air conditioning system. I ran ducts to the kitchen, the library, the bathroom, the main hall and the hallway. I planned to use fans to exchange the air between the hallway and the bedrooms. After reading about what they described as the 'monsoon' season I thought that I'd damned well better provide some way of wicking the humidity out of the air and keeping the temperature inside under 75 F to 80 F.
You wouldn't think finding someone to marry would be such a pain in the ass. I visited a lot of street fairs and festivals. The gem and mineral show was bloody excellent. I joined a dating service which turned out to be a 'bump uglies' group. That wasn't what I was looking for, so I dropped out. I hung out around the university and the watering holes that the military hung out in. No matter what I did, I was suckin' sand. Eventually I resolved to stop trying so hard. The rodeo was a good time, as was the folk festival. I discovered a couple places downtown that had live music. I bought one of the more nondescript vehicles to be seen in town--a white king cab Ford F-250 pickup truck with tinted windows.
About quarter to six one morning I was checking out the strip at the gem and mineral show. It wasn't held in any convention center--it was set up like a road-side flea market. It must have had over a mile and a quarter of displays on both sides of the road where people had parked, set up a sun shade, put up a card table and sat there all day sucking down cold water. They left enough room between their displays and the road for browsers to park. I was wandering around with a magnifier and a collection bag looking for nice samples. I was bent over looking at a table in the bright morning sunlight when I noticed a kid out of the corner of my eye. He was running here and there, excited by all the samples. I saw him start to dash across the highway. I shouted out, NO! and kicked off of the car bumper next to me. Next thing I knew I was holding that kid around the ribs tearing across that last lane as a tour bus bore down on the both of us. All I heard was screeching breaks and the sound of an air horn going off in my ear. When everything came to rest I was lying in the dirt, half cover that kid. My legs were shaking and I was breathing like a bellows. Hell, my hands were shaking too. The kid was whimpering and had pissed himself. If I had the foresight, I would have done the same thing.
I rolled off of him and sat there in the dirt and gravel with my elbows on my knees. I looked over at him for a little while, then hauled off and gave him a good swat across the ass. "You little dip shit. You almost became road kill. And I was stupid enough to try to save you. If you ever pull that stunt again and get turned into bloody nuggets I'm gonna stand there and say, 'Shoulda known better. Got himself a Darwin Award.'." He wrapped himself around my leg and lay there, shivering. He must have been facing just right to see that big goddamned bus bearing down on us. I'll never see another Trail ways without remembering that. I doubted that he would, either.
After a bit I noticed a younger couple standing in front of me, hanging onto each other for dear life. I looked up at 'em. "This your spud?" They nodded. "Better teach him to pay attention. There's no such thing as a second chance." Dad picked him up by the slack of his shirt. He obviously didn't know whether to beat the kid or hug him. I shook my head.
I got up, dusted myself off, found my triplet, checked the highway and walked back across the longest highway crossing I've ever been on in my life. When I got back to the table I'd been looking over another guy was looking at his bumper. There was a boot print in it. I asked him, "you want me to pay for that?" He just said "Nope." and shook his head. The guy I was dealing with said, "Mister, I don't know where you've been takin' flyin' lessons, but they took. You didn't hit the ground until you had that kid. Never seen the like."
I was still shaking. "Probably never will again, either. I'll be payin' for it for a few days, I think. I'm gonna go lie down now." I carefully drove home, figuring that I'd used up my fair share of luck for the day. I lived on hot tea and Advil for a couple days. Then I went to the hospital to see if I crushed anything in my foot. It seemed that all I did was bruise the hell out of the arch. I was thirty seven and no longer believed in my own invulnerability.
I went downtown to have some pastry and read the Sunday paper. There it was in all its glory--my boot print in that bumper on the front page. The title was "Superman wears a size 13 RedWing". There was a fuzzy cell phone picture of me taken from a distance lower down on the page. I read the article and found it pretty factual. I bought a copy to take home and keep as a reminder. You can't buy luck like that, and you sure can't depend on it. All you can do is marvel at it when it happens.
Like all news stories except for where Jimmy Hoffa's concerned, the story became yesterdays news and people pretty well forgot about it. One good thing did come of it, though--a purely voluntary group of guys decided to patrol dark places where robberies, muggings and rapes had occurred. The thing they had in common? Size 13 boots. I even put in some time near the university where the girls got into trouble on party nights and everybody got stupid during homecoming. All I carried was a 6-cell Kell light and a message: "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
The nice part about living around Tucson was that I could barbecue all the year through. I picked up a Weber kettle and some charcoal. I bought a couple adirondack chairs, put up a little roof and built up some walls a little bit away from the kitchen window. I had a barbecue patio. All I had to do then was to cut another door into the kitchen to get back and forth to the patio. I had some big 'ol concrete planters delivered and put here and there that would support some sort of plant that smelled nice--I'd have to talk to the nurseryman about that.
I figured that I was on a roll, so I furnished the great hall just after that. A great big twelve seat table and chairs fit into the 'big room' without crowding. I bought a couple of big, heavy two-drawered serving tables to match the main dining table. They were all reproductions of Spanish colonial style pieces. The candelabras weren't hard to find but the pulleys to hang them sure were hard to install. I didn't want anyone to get cold cocked by a two hundred pound ironwork candelabra.
Winter was coming on. The larch and aspen down on the plain provided spots of yellow in amongst the deep greens of the pines. I missed the reds and oranges of fall in the mid-west, but plants like sumac didn't tolerate the climate that well. Hell, within fifty miles of the mountain was a Saguaro cactus preserve! I went into town for a good Saturday night dinner that I didn't cook myself, and maybe some entertainment before I went home. As I waited for my table I noticed some guys wearing a small pin on their lapels, with a red background for the number '13' in yellow enamel. What, had marijuana culture penetrated the local culture that thoroughly? Only guys wore 'em, bigger guys. I got a measured look from a couple of 'em after they didn't spot a badge on my jacket. Oh, shit--could it be? I felt disgusted. The goddamned '13' group became a status thing. After dinner I knocked on the door of the local Methodist ministry. I told the preacher that I wanted to get something off my chest.
I told him about seeing that kid and feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, kicking off that bumper and coming face-to-face with that bus. Then the feelings I had when it was all over. I didn't pose, I didn't do a 'look at me!'. I went home to take a hot bath because I knew from the creaky way my joints felt I'd be paying for my deeds soon.
I told him about my feeling that a good thing came out of it when civilian patrols of big guys with flashlights hung out around places where the college kids typically got into trouble--Hell, I joined 'em for a while.
Then I told him how I was taken aback, then felt disgust in seeing how a respectable oversight group turned into a mutual admiration society. What next, would they take donations? Make like the Legion and build a hall?
He said that what I told him would make an excellent sermon by a guest speaker that Sunday, if I were willing. I thought about it, then agreed if he'd preach on the Good Samaritan.