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We Bought a Yurt-Shaped House ⛺️?

We Bought a Yurt-Shaped House ⛺️?

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


Less than three months after our fateful camping trip, we bought a yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island.

To the casual observer, this decision might have seemed rash. The Yurt was three and a half hours from Seattle and the only house we visited on a one day tour of vacant lots. We went from car campers to yurt-owners in a matter of weeks. What were we thinking? That’s a good question.

After meeting the Yurt, we both became more infatuated with the idea of having a little place on Orcas. It was all we wanted to talk about and in the abstract, it was rainbows and unicorns. We’d get a cozy place, catch dinner from the sea and live happily-ever-after.

This feeling, of course, was fleeting. While Sachi was full steam ahead, I was bothered by the idea that we could rush into buying property, get locked-in, and then discover a reality we didn’t expect. I worried that the only people we’d know were retirees and vacation rental tenants. I worried that, without a community of people who shared our age, perspective, and interests, we’d never feel truly connected to the island and end up regretting the decision. Visiting the Yurt could become more of an obligation than a desire.

So I started asking around. I asked our realtor and a few people I know on the island. They all said the same thing: The community you’re looking for is here. You will find it, or it will find you. I asked one person our age, who moved in the last year, how long it took before he and his wife made friends. He said, “almost instantaneously.”

I was relieved and at the same time, curious. I didn’t expect this level of confidence. What was going on?

Orcas Island has always been known in the region as a tourist destination and a place where one retires. Living on the island full time, for most people our age, has never been all that practical. It was costly and small and disconnected. Most residents needed to find a job on the island to pay the bills, and full-time, permanent jobs were few and far between. How were so many people in their thirties and forties making it work?

We came to see that Orcas Island was slowly changing and that change may be part of a much bigger picture.

Orcas Island was slowly changing
Source: visitsanjuans.com

Despite the island offering only 57 square miles and having a population of about 4,000, it had far more features and amenities than you’d expect. Along with three grocery stores, a movie theater, cocktail and wine bars, miles of hiking, boating, fishing, etc., it had world-class chefs and restaurants. For an island, it covered the basics and then some.

The problem was that much of the economy was seasonal and based on tourism. To counter this, the residents of the island started working toward creating a year-round economy that worked for everyone. More jobs, affordable housing, etc.

One of the big factors in supporting all kinds of residents was internet connectivity, which has, until recently, been of the frustrating variety for most residents. As I mentioned in a previous update, the Yurt came with a newly buried fiber-optic internet connection that was faster than we could get in Seattle. The Yurt’s neighborhood was one of the first to receive it, and fiber optic connections were slowly but surely reaching new parts of the island. Cell coverage had also improved significantly. So, yay for the internet.

At the same time and from a much bigger perspective, expectations about work were changing. First, there were more remote workers than ever before. It was now possible for people to do the same work they did in the office from the comfort of an internet-connected house (or yurt) on an island. This is especially true for technology workers. Second, there was a growing focus on lifestyle. People seemed to be looking for alternatives to city life and all that went with it.

All these factors gave us a gut feeling that Orcas Island was becoming a more interesting place and attracting people for whom it couldn’t have worked in the past. We had seen the glow and knew it was likely visible from the mainland; a beacon.

The final decision came with a slight sense of urgency. The Yurt was far from a dream home, but we grew to love it and especially the property. It felt like we’d stumbled onto an opportunity we couldn’t pass up and the clock was ticking. If we didn’t act, we risked losing it. That’s our Yurt!

So we did it. We reserved our little corner of the island; a base outside the city from which we could work, play, and hopefully find a new community of our own.

The Yurt-Shaped House on Orcas Island ⛺️?

The Yurt-Shaped House on Orcas Island ⛺️?

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


The Yurt

We anticipated the affair we had with Orcas Island would disintegrate upon contact with our normal lives. We’d arrive back in Seattle with stories of misguided property searches or bullets-dodged. We could imagine saying, “Remember that one time when we almost bought property on Orcas. Phew, that was weird!”

But it didn’t happen. It stuck and Sachi was the glue. She became increasingly convinced that Orcas Island was a reasonable goal to have. Being our de facto CFO and chief party pooper, I often look to her for restraint. I propose dumb ideas to her often, and precious few make it through the Sachi filter. But this time it was different. She was now convincing me it could work, that we could afford it and that it could contribute to our happiness. While Sachi was 95% sure, I was slightly less so. We’d toyed with the idea for years and I loved the idea of island property, but was now the time?

A few weeks later, we were back on the island and driving around with the nice lady who originally printed out the flyers we sorted by the campfire. She is a longtime resident who plied us with island culture as we toured vacant land and tried to imagine the outlines of a future house among the trees. One of the quotes that stuck out was regarding the island’s ability to weed people out over long, dark winters. She said, “In the summer, it’s Orcapulco, but in the winter, some people think it’s Orcatraz.” We took note. The northwest winters aren’t for everyone, but they work for us.

Most of what we saw that day was a bit disappointing; pieces of land squeezed between two homes, overly steep slopes, difficult approaches. But we held out hope and saved a place on the west side of the island for our last visit of the day. It was priced similarly to most of the vacant land we were seeing, but included an unusual and intriguing house.

To find this house, we drove up a long dirt road and turned into a driveway between two huge cedar trees. After we parked, something happened I’ll never forget. Just as I stood up, a bat flew directly into the center of my chest. A bat! In the middle of the day! Was this a bad omen? Is this place haunted? It even left a little spittle on my shirt.

The realtor led us through the deer fence and to the light blue house with a conical cedar roof sporting an ecosystem of moss and lichen. The first thing we noticed walking in was a dated kitchen, a foul smell and a few rat droppings on the counter. This was that kind of house, we thought. In looking around, the true strangeness of the house was revealed. It was essentially circular; a fifteen-sided house with a conical ceiling that reached up to fourteen feet at the highest point.

DCIM/100MEDIA/DJI_0113.JPG

The house was one big room with two pie-shaped bedrooms and a bathroom. And the bedrooms had no ceilings. Instead, the walls of the bedrooms were like cubicle walls that reached up to eight feet and stopped. Privacy was not a feature of this house. Thankfully, the bathroom had a ceiling.

With the exception of some appliances, it hadn’t been updated since 1985 when a family ordered the parts and built the house themselves. It was a “kit” house that might have lasted longer than expected. Plant-themed wallpaper from the eighties peeled off the bathroom wall, burn marks on the aged carpet told a story we couldn’t fathom and a mustard yellow refrigerator from 1977 hummed in the kitchen.

Construction photos from an album left by the original owners
Construction photos from an album left by the original owners

The house was built on a slope with a daylight basement that was left unfinished since the eighties. Walking through it, it felt like no one cared enough about the house to finish the basement. From the beginning, it might have seemed like a mistake that didn’t deserve more investment. The realtor described it as a “yurt with a basement” and the more we looked at it, the more it was yurt. A yurt-shaped house.

The house, we all agreed, was a bit of a liability. But, the property had a nice west-facing view and lots of trees. To our surprise and delight, fiber optic internet had come to the road only weeks before.

Despite the negative impressions, the house had bohemian charm. It felt like an oddity, left over from a time when this kind of kit home was a fad and people marveled at the amazing potential of living inside of a circle.

And it was a fully functioning home, complete with a dishwasher, washer/dryer, etc. The decking had recently been replaced and we didn’t see evidence of water damage or foundation issues. With a little shaping, it could be a neat little island place.

Up to this point, we had assumed that a house of any sort would be out of reach. Yet there it was, a Goldilocks house. Too run-down for people looking for a vacation home and a liability for those looking for vacant land. For us, it could be just right; a place that reserved our spot on the island for whatever we could conjure in the future. And in the meantime, it could provide a way for us to test life on the island on an intermittent basis.

We left the island that afternoon. As the ferry to Anacortes tracked its way through the archipelago and across the Rosario Strait, I sat across from Sachi on booth-style seats next to a window with a big question hanging in the space between us. It was the middle of July, less than three weeks from the camping trip and we’d only seen one house on the entire island. Yet, the momentum we both felt was unmistakable.

Dreaming of Orcas Island – As The Salmon Sizzled ?⛺️?

Dreaming of Orcas Island – As The Salmon Sizzled ?⛺️?

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


As The Salmon Sizzled

In June of 2017, Sachi and I left Seattle for a camping trip and came home with an idea we assumed would blow over. Surely, time and debate would see it whither. Surely.

We started the trip with expectations of a few days of camping at Moran State Park on Orcas Island, which is about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, BC in the Salish Sea. We boarded a ferry around midday on a Tuesday, which made highway and ferry traffic bearable. Sachi and I, along with our Bernedoodle, named Maybe, and a car packed to the gills with camping supplies, rolled onto the ferry with thoughts of campfires, hikes, and a few days of carefree outdoor living.

Our decision to leave early in the day came with a nice side effect: we would arrive on the island before our campsite was available. Knowing we had time to kill I made an off-hand suggestion that I expected Sachi to wave away. I mentioned the potential to visit a real estate office, just to see what was happening on the island. She thought for a bit, nodded affirmatively and we decided it would be fun to look. We could dream.

Orcas Island had always been a part of our story. The first time Sachi and I spent a weekend away in 2000, we went to Orcas Island and stayed at West Beach Resort. In the following years, we came back to West Beach to stay in its tiny, sparsely-appointed seaside cabins with friends and built fires in makeshift rings overlooking the beach.

Westbeach Resort in ~2002 (Me and Sachi on the left)
Westbeach Resort in ~2002 (Me and Sachi on the left)

In 2011, Sachi and I spent about a month at Orcas as a kind of writing retreat. Most of my book, The Art of Explanation, was written there. We visited multiple times in between and always left shaking our heads in wonder. What a place.

After the hour long ferry ride, we arrived on the island and walked into the real estate office that helped us on the month-long trip years before. We told them we were dreaming and curious. The kind woman listened, printed out a dozen listings and sent us in a few directions. At the very least, we had paper for starting a fire.

That afternoon we arrived at the campsite, set up the tent and arranged the prodigious car camping supplies we had accumulated over the years. After a short hike, we settled in with a box of red wine and a roaring fire as we prepared dinner. As salmon skin sizzled over the fire, we studied the listings. We discussed, we debated, we proposed. Tiny sparks of a different fire started to fly.

As the light grew dim and the box of wine emptied, we let ourselves dream about what was possible. We both went to sleep that night on our queen-sized inflatable mattress with Maybe keeping us warm and possibilities spinning in our minds.

The next morning we awoke expecting the light of day to have washed away our drunken dreams. Rarely do late night ideas survive the morning. But these did and it was all we wanted to talk about. Over breakfast, the listings were filtered and organized by potential. We traded a morning hike for a few hours of driving around the island, trying to find the vacant land and modest houses we had idealized by the fire.

Our night of dreaming eventually came face-to-face with the realities of our lives and the availability of properties that we could afford. It felt like we were forty years too late and left to sift through scraps of land that were left after generations built out the island. Our dream seemed to be realized by someone else in 1979.

We were still living firmly in dreamland, so our disappointment was simply a return to reality; a reality that came with financial and lifestyle commitments. Did we really want another place, hours away, to manage and maintain? We tempered our excitement with visions of leaky roofs, aging septic systems and debt.

Returning to the campsite that second evening, we talked not about property, real estate listings or the market, but about our lives. Aside from Orcas Island, were we looking for a change? Were we prepared to shake things up?

We weren’t entirely sure, but the possibility created new space in our lives for endless speculation. These are the ideas that spin in the background and come to the surface when work is over or there is a break in the conversation. What if? How would it work? When could it happen? We began to start discussions with a disclaimer, “Sorry to bring up Orcas again, but…” If we were honest, we weren’t sorry at all.

Being animated by a big idea like Orcas Island has a way of lifting our entire outlook by prompting us to think seriously about the future, near and far. The mere possibility of owning property forced us to ask big, philosophical questions about what we want from life and what will truly make us happy. For us, happiness lives in anticipation and in this case we saw an opportunity, however faint, that we could decide to change our lives. If we wanted it bad enough, we could take the risk and deal with the consequences.

On the ferry trip back to Seattle, we looked out the window at all the homes along the shoreline and in the hills of the San Juan Islands. Rustic cabins, glass-and-steel moderns, moss-covered cottages. They all had stories. Many of them represented, at some point, a dream that started on a visit, not unlike our own. What would those dreamers say to us? Would they tell tales of dreams realized, or perhaps, regret?