Finding the Guest House

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

We had some time before catching a ferry, so we stopped by a place we’d targeted only a few days before: an RV dealership on the side of Interstate 5. You’ve seen them in your area, too. A parking lot full of vehicles, a patriotic themed sign and maybe a giant helium balloon with little flags on the cord holding it down.

A friendly guy named Bob, who had run out of business cards, wheeled us around the lot in a golf cart with a bench seat facing backward. We passed rows and rows of RVs of all shapes and sizes and eventually stopped at the section of trailers that go by the name, “fifth wheel”. These are trailers that require a special attachment in the back of a truck to transport because they are big enough to be a home.

Being new to camper shopping, we asked what we should consider. He said that, in our price range, they all have the same basic features, like a kitchen, built in stereo, TV, shower and bedroom. The big difference was layout. I thought to myself that most homes, wheeled or not, come down to this basic element.

We tried to imagine living in this kind of trailer for a year or more with two big dogs. More so, we imagined living through a dark and wet northwest winter. Given the situation, we were prepared to do it. We can do nearly anything for a year.

We faced a problem that is familiar to people on Orcas Island: housing. There is a constant shortage of options for people who need long term rentals, in part because many property owners have switched to short term Airbnb-style services.

This was a problem for us because our beloved yurt would need to be demolished if we moved forward with building a new home. Given that we’d put the Hunter House on the market and moved out of Seattle, we needed a place to live during the construction. Like many others before us on the island, we saw a fifth wheel trailer as a temporary home we could park on our property, rent free. A part of me looked forward to the adventure of it all.

That all changed over Christmas. A neighbor has a Christmas party that, over 25 years, has achieved legendary status among islanders. They are kind people who have become neighborly friends.

After meeting them early on, they gave us their contact information and we encountered a confusing bit of quaint island history. They grabbed a pen and paper, wrote a quick message which I immediately deposited in my pocket. When we returned home, we looked at the note and saw their number was “5938” or something similar. We both looked at each other and then back at the number. 5938? What are we supposed to do with that? Then it hit us. On the island, the landline phone numbers all have the same prefix. As a shortcut, residents with landlines only use the last four digits. A cute lesson learned.

Their Christmas party was something we couldn’t miss. They prepare delicious tapas for days and bake hundreds of carefully decorated cookies. As we drank mulled wine and hot cider with brandy, we found ourselves surrounded by curious neighbors and other guests. We explained our plan to move to the island permanently and someday build a house. We told them about the Yurt, its eccentricities, and our plan to demolish it some day. They nodded in knowing agreement.

But, our story had a gaping hole and they saw it quickly. “If you’re going to tear down the place you have now, where would you live?” they asked.

You could almost feel the anticipation because the answer to that question is more difficult than it should be. We told them we were planning to park a fifth wheel trailer on the property and live in it during construction. More approving nods. It’s the island way.

At the end of the evening, Sachi and I were grazing the cheese plates and meatballs when a couple approached us who we had briefly met that night. The tall, soft spoken man introduced he and his wife again and reminded us that they were neighbors, just walking distance from the Yurt. He said they heard our plans for RV living and had an idea. Our ears perked up.

You could tell they had discussed the idea in private, agreed on a course of action, and prepared to approach us by writing their names and a seven digit phone number on a cocktail napkin, which they handed to me during the discussion.

The idea was this: They have a “guest house” above their garage that’s not being used and if it suited us, we could rent it from them during the construction. They said they were leaving the island the following afternoon, but if we wanted a tour, we could see it the next morning. We were a little stunned and not sure what to say other than yes, please, and thank you so much. We went home that night walking on air.

The next morning we arrived at a piece of property on the top of a hill. The main house faces west and looks over trees that have grown into the view over the past 25 years years. Behind the house is a two car garage with a second story. I looked up at the windows over the garage doors and thought to myself: this is where we’ll soon live.

garage doors

The couple came out to meet us and we quickly moved into tour mode. The guest house is essentially a 500 square foot studio apartment with a bedroom area separated by a six foot wall. Once again, our bedroom would not have a ceiling or offer any privacy. But it didn’t matter, our entertaining would be reduced for a while.

linoleum floors

There were linoleum floors, a tiny electric range and dorm sized refrigerator. The sink was a deep circular bar sink, and it didn’t leak, so that was a solid upgrade. In fact, nearly everything was an upgrade compared to the Yurt. The shower was full sized, there were nice big windows, closets aplenty and a loft which we needed for all of our stuff. And just outside the kitchen, there was room for a larger fridge, if we wanted it.

dorm sized refrigerator

The guest house was perfect, a gift. We told them we’d love to rent it, if the project actually commenced. They agreed to hold it for us.

With the guest house, a huge piece of our puzzle had fallen into place. We had a place to stay during the construction at a price we could afford. There were more pieces to go, but that was a huge relief, in part, because it was far simpler than buying or renting and transporting a fifth-wheel trailer.

We talked for a bit and he asked about our story. Having recently discovered the guest house, I told him I was in awe at how the pieces were lining up. He said something I’ll never forget: “It’s crazy, this island. Once you decide you want to do something, it just opens up for you.”

That was a sentiment we felt, but had never put into words. Orcas is a small place, but it’s mostly inhabited by people from elsewhere who forged their own way. They hear stories from newcomers like us and easily empathize. They’ve been there and have advice, resources and in some cases, a shoulder for commiseration. More than anything, they want to help and with a possible house project on the horizon, that’s exactly what we needed.


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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