We Built a Cabin

In mid-October, Peter and I decided we didn’t want to leave Wyoming. We been dry-camping in the shadow of the Snowy mountains and had plans to drive to New Mexico for the cold, winter months. But even as the nighttime temperatures crept lower and lower, we kept finding reasons to stay.

Maybe it was time for stage two of our plan: buy some land in a remote location and build a small cabin. It was the “frosty mornings and front porch nights” goal. The “real home with a cat and a piano” goal. Did we have enough time to make that happen? We didn’t know. But we decided to go for it anyway.

Though we got a lot of help with the design of our cabin from architects, an engineer, a indoor air quality professor, and a seasoned building inspector, it turned out that since we were trying to build such a teeny-tiny cabin, it was pretty much impossible to find anyone to help us. The project was way too small and every contractor we called was booked solid.

And so the two of us – whose previous building experience was limited to a couple of CD shelves and my super-easy van conversion – began building an off-grid, solar-powered cabin all by our very own selves.

For two straight months, we worked from sun up to sun down. With just a hint of light in the sky, we’d start a new day of problem-solving and climbing steep learning curves. When we got tired, we’d stop, drink chocolate milk and watch the antelope roaming across our land. We’d keep working until the sun dipped below the horizon, then stumble back to the van, strip down, wash our clothes by hand, and hang them on the line to dry. Exhausted, we’d crash into our bed in the van, but amazingly, we’d awaken the next morning ready to work again. I can’t remember ever seeing my husband so happy. The incredible healing of the last year for both of us had never been more apparent.

My previously crippling fear of heights now completely gone, I was scrambling up ladders like it was nothing. That was something I had never in my life been able to do before. I used to have to count my steps just to walk across a bridge without spiraling into panic. And now, I felt completely at ease at the top of a 12-foot ladder.

I kept being stunned at how strong and resilient my back had become from the previous year of mold avoidance. There is no other time in my life I would have been capable of working that hard, of lifting that much, of twisting and reaching and holding with all my available strength hour after hour. Day after day. Though I had been a Pilates teacher and cyclist in Portland, my back had been incredibly fragile since I was fifteen. I always had to be super careful. Even to pick up a piece of spinach off the kitchen floor required focus and proper biomechanics.

It was also clear that all the chronic fatiguing remnants of my illness were over. I was back to my old self. I’ve always loved things that are fun, hard, and really challenging. And this was definitely that. It felt great to have back that part of myself that gets a huge burst of strength from hearing herself say, “I can’t.”

As winter got into full force, we had to abandon our efforts several times and stay in hotels. But a break in the temps came just long enough to install a heated floor and a wood cookstove. December 31, 2016, we fired up the stove and toasted the New Year in our new cabin. A week later, the temperatures plummeted to -40 degrees and we stayed toasty warm. A few days later our little cabin stolidly withstood 60 mph winds. We couldn’t have been prouder!

The last several months of my life are chock-full of incredible stories. I think they are most interesting stories of my life. And I am so far behind in writing them down! As an extremely introverted person, I have to be really careful about sharing stories before I write about them. An audience of just one person can be satisfying enough for me and then the stories lose all their punch.

I’m not sure if I will share the technical details of how we built the cabin in the same way I did in Camp Like a Girl. For one, after so many people read Camp Like a Girl and Migraine, I felt myself slipping into some pretty serious sharing fatigue that anyone in the world could see exactly what my bed looked like and knew so many intimate details about my health. As someone who has never had the desire to be a “known person,” it was a lot to take. It was a nice break to have the cabin be my own little secret for a while.

Building the cabin was also at least ten times harder than converting the van. It required us to be belligerently optimistic on a daily basis. If you want to make me cry, tell me I have to cut corrugated steel with tin snips again. Dear god, that is hard!

I also have my book of mold avoidance stories that is getting close to being finished. I hope to share that one soon. So I have to ask that you let me keep most of the details of our cabin – including exactly where it is – to myself for just a little while longer. It’s something my introverted self just needs in order to function. I hope, in the end, the stories I write will be worth it.




Support for my writing has come almost entirely from patrons and donors. One of them asked me to add a donate button to the end of each post. Thank you for all of your support!

Sara Riley Mattson is the author of Camp Like a Girl and Migraine: Finding My Own Way Out. Sara has a bunch of stories at her Patreon site, too.

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By | 2017-08-10T15:41:16+00:00 February 19th, 2017|Favorites|Comments Off on We Built a Cabin