"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Vanquishing the restlessness by rehabbing a house

By on April 27, 2020 in Featured Homes with 0 Comments
Mary paints the kitchen. The finished job is below.

By Lief Carlsen

This is not a story about a magnificent new house with gorgeous views and impressive landscaping — you know, the kind The Good Life regularly features. 

It centers around a house, to be sure, but the house is more of a backdrop than the central character of it.

It’s a story about how two people (my wife and I) went about making the most of one winter of our lives; it’s about our ongoing pursuit of the good life.

Mary Carlsen bicycles up to a vacant home In Ajo, Arizona. A project house for sure, but it does have a fenced yard.

We’re retired. We like being retired. But we’re not the kind of people who can sit around and do the same old thing day after day.

We have an RV. We’ve been wintering in Arizona for the last seven years, living in our current RV for the last two winters and its predecessor for the five winters before that. 

We look forward to escaping the icy weather of north central Washington every January. I still get a rush every year on our annual migration south when we cross the Siskiyou Pass and descend to the balmy lower elevations of California.

From there we move on to Quartzsite, Arizona where thousands of “snowbirds” like us gather in the desert for the giant annual RV show. For about two weeks I’m content to ride my bicycle and hike through the cactus-strewn landscape. 

But then I get restless. I start looking for new diversions.

Before and after photos of the bathroom — just behind the shower enclosure wall was an active beehive.

One winter, I hiked a large section of the Arizona Trail. Another winter I worked on my German conversation skills by meeting regularly with a German exchange student at the University of Arizona. 

These activities helped staved off boredom — but just. I was always on the prowl for something more. I kept my eyes open for part-time employment but nothing seemed like a good fit.

We have visited the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona several times on our winter sojourns. We’ve had some enjoyable bike rides there. 

Nearby is the small town of Ajo. Ajo, once upon a time, was home to the giant New Cornelia copper mine. When the mine closed in 1984, hundreds of houses that had housed New Cornelia miners and their families became vacant. Some of them still are. Many of them are for sale — cheap.

The backyard before and after: Lief wheeled a wheelbarrow a quarte mile to collect the rock for the retaining walls.

Putting two and two together, we realized a golden opportunity was presenting itself. Here were the ingredients of a solution to our restlessness: warm winter climate + cheap (if somewhat dilapidated) houses + time on our hands + restlessness = ideal project!

And so this year so we bought as a fixer-upper a two-bedroom, one-bath house that was built in 1948. Total cost: $24,000. 

As you would expect, it was no mansion. No one had lived in it for years. The lot was weed-strewn, the exterior paint was peeling, the interior was graffitied, the bathroom was execrable. 

On the plus side, New Cornelia had built their houses well. The roof, plumbing, wiring and foundation were all solid.

Rubbing our hands together in anticipation, we got right to work. 

I’m no professional, but I have acquired a few building skills over the years. 

Our first objective was to clear the weeds and trash from the yard. Next, we ripped out the dingy carpeting and the rusted water heater among other unwanted remnants of the former residents. 

Soon we had a towering pile of trash in the yard, which we hired a local guy to haul to the town dump. New windows and doors came next. 

Then I set to work on that bathroom. After ripping out a fiberglass shower enclosure I discovered an active beehive in the wall — complete with several quarts of honey. I know honeybees are having a hard time these days but they had to go!

And what is that tar-like glue they used to adhere linoleum to the subfloor back then? That stuff took several brands of solvent and a lot of sweat to remove. It took a couple of weeks, but the bathroom came together nicely.

Mary was in charge of the painting — and a good thing she was. Since we kept most of the original wood trim, she had a lot of refinishing to do. 

Seventy-two years of being lived in had left their marks on the house. Showing infinite patience, Mary filled voids and cracks in the walls and trim and applied coat after coat of paint and primer until the old house took on a fresh new look.

In place of the dingy carpet and faded linoleum, I installed tile floors throughout the house.

Something had to be done with the backyard. The house was built on a slope and the slope ended at the back door. 

I would have loved to bring in an excavator and several dump truck loads of rock to reconfigure the back yard but we were operating on a limited budget and, as Mary reminded me, “What else do you have to do?” — so I opted for a wheelbarrow, a shovel and a pick and got to work. 

The rock I needed for my retaining walls was a quarter mile away in a dry wash. 

Sweating, groaning, and reminding myself that, after all, I had wanted a project to keep busy, I wheeled about 30 loads from the wash to our backyard and reshaped the former slope into a usable space.

Over the years, the brutal Arizona sun had reduced the wood siding at the rear of the house to a frail remnant of its original consistency so I built a veranda to shade it. 

After six weeks of non-stop effort, we decided to save stuccoing the exterior and some of the landscaping for next winter’s project. 

Catching our breath, we assessed our progress. 

Without furniture, the house sounded like an echo chamber inside but it was a world apart from what it had been. We were very proud of ourselves. 

Best of all, we had thoroughly enjoyed the process. We had taken a dilapidated old house and reworked it into something pleasing to the eye. We had worked as a team to get the job done. 

Boredom had never crossed our minds. 

When the job is finally completed we don’t know if we will use the house or sell it but that is beside the point because we achieved our original objective — we had vanquished the restlessness; we had lived the good life.

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