Tommy and his backhoe cutting into the bank to begin the footer trenches

Breaking Ground

Tommy and his backhoe cutting into the bank to begin the footer trenches Tommy and his backhoe cutting into the bank to begin the footer trenches for my new house.

Today at mid-morning, we broke ground on my new house. No ceremony, no photo ops with celebrities welding golden shovels. My laconic excavator simply took a pinch of chewing tobacco, fired up his backhoe and begin digging. I shot a few photos and went back to my office to write. It was such a balmy day that I opened the window in the bay over my desk facing toward the excavation half a block away and worked to the sound of the backhoe motor grumbling and the bucket clanking as it dug through the layers of industrial junk and rounded river-worn rocks that comprise my “soil.”

The results of Tommy’s backhoe work are a rectangle of wide trenches about five feet deep that will hold the ICFs, insulated concrete forms, into which concrete will be poured for the stem-walls of my house-to-be. This is the below-ground part of construction, the underpinnings to support the exterior walls of my little house. (And I do mean little: 725 square feet.)

Looking down into the footer trenches from above. Looking down into the footer trenches from above.

It’ll be one level, built on a slab (the slab will store the sun’s heat to keep the house warm in winter and stay cool underfoot in summer). The ICFs will be set in the trenches after the soil in the bottom is compacted. The top of the trenches marks the approximate floor level of the house.

Note the slanting layers in the trench to the left of my shadow. The deepest part of the trench reveals the rounded cobbles and even layers of an old river bed (old in geologic time, when the ancient Arkansas River wandered back and forth across the valley). Those slanting charcoal-colored layers may be mud-flows, perhaps from volcanic ash, or perhaps glacial-era sediments. There are stories in my ground.

The wide footer trenches from below. The wide footer trenches from below.

Standing below and looking up, my neighbor’s house gives an idea of the floor level of the new house, which will sit about that high in order be above the sewer line in the alley at the back of the lot. My lot currently slopes downhill from that sewer line, which is not good. (Water in the West is said to flow uphill toward money; sewage, however, does not.)

The next photo, looking back toward the alley, shows the slope. (The red brick building with the asymmetric roof-peak in the far background is Richard’s historic studio, built in 1902.)

Looking west-southwest toward the back of the lot. Looking west-southwest toward the back of the lot.

This lot has sat vacant since the town of Salida was platted by the railroad in 1879, probably because of its challenges. Not only does it slope the wrong way (although the sewer did not exist in 1879), it’s an odd shape: 150 feet long, but just 26 feet wide at the alley and 58 feet at the street. The scalloped wooden fence marks one long side of the lot, the other is the creek bank on the left edge of the photo. The creek, fed by snowmelt from Mount Shavano, one of the Fourteeners, 14,000-foot-tall peaks that line our valley to the west, has been dry since July, a consequence of our long drought. The willows on my bank of the creek are turning spring-red regardless, their roots apparently tapping groundwater.

Scarlet gilia, a native wildflower beloved by our hummingbirds. Scarlet gilia, a native wildflower beloved by hummingbirds.

Perhaps you can’t see the small blue and sage green house with the cranberry-red-framed windows and the big deck overlooking the creek and the mountains on the skyline in these dusty trenches, but I can. Which is why I worked with the window open today, smiling at the grumble of the backhoe engine. That’s the sound of my home for the rest of my days, however many they may be, taking shape on what was once an unloved vacant lot.

I never thought I’d leave this house that Richard built for us. But then, I never imagined that “us” would end so soon. Now that it’s just me, finding my way as Woman Alone, I can’t wait to move to my little house, plant wildflowers, hear the song sparrows practice in the willows, and watch the seasons change.

That’s really what Tommy’s backhoe broke ground for today: the rest of my life.