In the James Cameron movie Avatar, soldiers use something called an Amplified Mobility Platform suit or AMP suit. It’s a huge, powerful robot that’s controlled by a human who sits inside the machine. It can move around like a human, control weapons and lift heavy objects.
AMP suits are mostly science fiction, but I can’t help but think that excavators, like the machine that demolished the Yurt, are the closest thing we have to those suits. With a small move of the wrist, a human can wield a 30,000 pound beast to demolish a wall, lift a 30 foot log, or break through rocks. Excavators feel impossibly powerful to me and I figured I’d just have to watch from afar.
Then, just as the garage demolition started, Drew asked if I wanted to take the excavator for a spin. He didn’t have to ask twice. I got in and he showed me a few of the controls, which felt like using a giant video game controller. I could swivel back and forth, extend the arm and move the bucket. It was easy to see how quickly the controls could feel like second nature. Soon enough, I asked Sachi to record a video as I smashed the garage. For a moment, I was twelve years old again.
I had been anticipating this day for weeks. After so many months of planning, the real work was beginning and I wanted to make the most of it. I imagined having a way to capture both photos and video of the entire project, starting with the demolition. What I needed was another bit of science fiction in the real world: a little drone called a DJI Spark.
As you’ll soon see, the drone is making Ready for Rain a more multi-media experience, complete with a new YouTube channel.
With the drone ready and the real operators at the helm, the proper demolition could begin, starting with the garage. Before we knew it, the building was a pile of rubble.
The main event was the destruction of the main house and Drew did the honors. For the videos to come out the way I wanted, we had to work as a team; him behind the machine and me piloting the drone. After a quick thumbs up, the southern end of the roof was the first to go.
Next was the main house and the moment the claw of the excavator crushed the ceiling, I thought to myself that there’s no going back. In an instant, the Yurt, our home, officially became unlivable.
Before the main house could come all the way down, the metal cable that encircled the entire structure needed to be broken. From there, the main house went quickly.
Eventually Drew handed control over to an operator to finish the job. Over a number of days, the property became more apocalyptic in appearance and hazardous in practice. Broken glass, insulation, shattered wood, and random refuse was everywhere.
I started to see that breaking down walls was a small part of the process. A lot of the time is spent making piles and crushing the piles into small bits that could fit into the succession of container-sized dumpsters that appeared on the property. Dumpster by dumpster, the Yurt disappeared.
And of course the always-present deer had to inspect the wreckage.
Within a week the house was gone and all that remained was the circular foundation.
Soon enough, it too disappeared, and the property became devoid of nearly any trace of the Yurt.
The entire building was hauled off over the course of a week and it was hard not to feel a little nostalgic. We owned the Yurt for just under two years. It was our second place for a while and allowed us to sink our teeth into the island and formulate a plan for moving.
But more than that, it was a place to be with friends and family. Even though it lacked interior privacy, it performed admirably over weekends and holidays when visitors would arrive from Seattle and elsewhere.
One of the traditions we started was marking peoples’ height on the wall, along with their name and the date they visited. All that was required was an overnight stay.
Over time, it became a list of friends and family who experience the Yurt in all its glory. No one will ever sleep in the Yurt again, but we’ll always have memories of its strange shape, odd fixtures and 1980s style . It was our yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island.
Demolition Highlight Video
Bonus video: Watch the entire house move as the metal cable snaps under the weight of the excavator.
There was no way around it. To build the new house, our yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island had to go, and this weighed on my mind more than I expected. Sure, I had grown to love it and we’d made memories there, but that didn’t bother me. What I felt was a sense of finality.
Throughout the planning process, there was always an escape hatch. We could simply decide not to build and make the Yurt our home on Orcas. The plans were just that, plans. By moving out and demolishing the Yurt, the hatch would be sealed and we’d be locked into the house project.
As this lingered in my mind, Sachi was predictably undeterred. From her perspective, we would make the project work, one way or another, and the clock was ticking. The second-guessing was a sideshow. Her confidence helped me over the hump and soon enough, the demise of the Yurt became inevitable. Always forward.
Before demolition could commence, we had to move out. This was move #2 in a matter of months. After moving nearly everything from Seattle to the Yurt, we now had to figure out how to fit it all in the guest house that would be our home for another year or more. Thankfully, Sachi was born to move and planned storage for every square foot of the guest house.
I’ve found that moving is like a filter. Every time I do it, some things make it through and others don’t. This is especially true when moving to smaller and smaller places. In this journey, we moved from a 3500 sq/ft house in the city to a 1500 sq/ft Yurt shaped house to a 500 sq/ft guest house. To make those transitions work, something had to give. And ultimately, giving is what we did. Our filter left a number of items at the Yurt that were up-for-grabs.
Leading up to the demolition, the island ethos of squeezing value out of everything possible had started to become a larger part of my perspective. While not the finest of specimens, the Yurt did have value and it became a goal to keep as much of that value on the island as we could. Anything that went to a home on Orcas was something we didn’t have to pay to remove, which added to our motivation.
To start the process, Drew contacted a few people to let them know it was now a salvage project. The washer and dryer, couches, a mattress, mirrors, various hardware and more, went to good homes. This included our 1985 Blaze King wood stove, which I was happy to see start a new life.
The only thing I needed was the name plate.
One person spent a weekend taking apart the garage and salvaging cedar shingles and wood decking from the ceiling. He also cut out a few big beams from the house and created a neat pile at the edge of our property.
While we gave away what we could, we salvaged a few things for future projects. For example, we liked the idea of saving the windows and sliding glass doors and using them to build a greenhouse at a later date. We also salvaged the hog wire from the deck railings for use in the garden.
With the Yurt stripped, we considered if it could be moved or disassembled for reuse. Some houses can be cut in half and moved on a truck or barge. A few people came through to take a look and decided it would be nearly impossible. The whole structure was held together by a metal cable, kind of like the ring around a barrel. Once the cable was snapped, the whole structure loses integrity and would eventually collapse. Further, the building was designed to sit on an unfinished basement that couldn’t be moved.
Over ten days, the Yurt became a shell of itself and that became apparent the first time we departed without locking the door. It wasn’t ours anymore. It had a gaping hole in the ceiling from the wood stove, missing windows and doors, no railings on the deck and no life. It felt depleted and abandoned, which was a sign we’d done what we could.
Within minutes of the deer fence coming down, the deer decided to move in to devour all the tasty plants they had watched grow from the outside. The property was theirs, once again.
I’ll never forget the last afternoon we spent at the Yurt on the day before demolition began. We sat on the deck with a couple of ciders, with our legs hanging over the edge where railings used to be, and tried to soak up what we could from the experience. We looked out over the water knowing that it was something we’d never experience again, in that configuration.
The Yurt-shaped house that came into our lives two years before was about to breathe its last breath. The next day, it would all go away and once again, we’d be moving forward, always forward.
It happened on a Sunday night, just before midnight on Orcas Island. I was watching TV and about to fall asleep when I heard Sachi say, “Lee???” from the bedroom.
I replied, nonchalantly, “Yeah?”
Sachi then said words I didn’t expect to hear, “Someone’s backing up the driveway.”
At first, I was incredulous. Maybe she heard a tree branch fall or the door to the garage blowing in the wind. It didn’t make any sense that someone would be at the Yurt so late on a Sunday. I peered through the blinds in the bathroom to get a better look at the driveway and sure enough, a pickup truck was backing up to the garage. What the hell?
This wasn’t just any night. It was our first winter at the Yurt and on this night, the wind was howling as we’d never seen. It was like a movie scene where people are huddled in a cabin during a storm and when the door opens, the roar of the wind outside drowns out all other sounds until it is closed again. It was the kind of sound that overwhelms the senses.
My mind raced and my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest as I realized my neighbor to the north was out of town and that no one else should be on our driveway. We are one of a small group of homes on a gravel road with a clear “No Trespassing” sign.
I quickly ran through a few scenarios, none of them good. This person was surely backing the truck to make a quick getaway. What did they want? Would they steal something from the garage? Were they going to rob us? Why else would they be outside so late in such bad weather?
Not knowing what else to do, I made up my mind to venture outside to investigate. I would be the first line of defense and try to mitigate whatever they were planning. Before reaching for the door, the thought occurred to me that I might need to protect myself. Earlier that night, I had used a little hatchet to split wood to make kindling for a fire and the hatchet was beside the wood burning stove. I grabbed it, took a deep breath and stepped into the gale.
As I approached the driveway with the hatchet in my hand, I saw the truck door open from the driver’s side. This was the moment of truth. Who was this intruder? Was I about to go into combat?
The first thing that appeared was a long white beard and the wave of a hand. This was an older guy who was saying something I couldn’t hear enough to understand. Seeing him making friendly motions, I quickly stuck the hatchet in the small of my back so he wouldn’t see it and walked closer. We met at our deer fence and had a short conversation in the form of yelling short proclamations over the roar of the wind and rain.
It turned out that he was Arthur, someone we’ve come to know as a friend and fellow potlucker on the island. He was on our road to check on our neighbor’s house while they were out of town. He saw our light on and was coming to check on us, too. He wanted to be sure we had a chainsaw in case a tree fell on the road or our house, and wood for the fire if the power went out. I told him we had everything covered and that I appreciated him checking in.
Relieved, I went back inside and sheepishly put the hatchet back by the stove. Sachi and I laughed at what was clearly an overreaction.
I recently recounted this story to our friend, Boris, who grew up on Bowen Island near Vancouver, BC. Bowen has a lot in common with Orcas and he couldn’t help but give us a hard time. He said that on islands like Bowen and Orcas, the only reason someone would come to your house during a storm is to check on you. This is especially true for people known to be new to the island. It’s how the world works in small, more rural places.
Looking back, it’s obvious to me that we were, and still are, shaking off city life. We were on guard and prepared to assume the worst in a questionable situation. Though I’ve never had a problem or used a weapon of any sort in Seattle, we know people who have had incidents. Anything can happen in the city. You learn to expect the unexpected and think about security every day. After 20 years, I didn’t know any other way to react. So, I went outside with a weapon that now looks a little ridiculous in hindsight.
One day, I will muster the courage to ask Arthur if he saw the hatchet before I stealthily hid it that night. I’m sure he and everyone else on the island would get a big laugh out of that scene. Me assuming the worst, only to find it was Arthur, checking on us with the best possible intentions.
Like so many Seattleites, we’ve always aspired to have a house with a view. But it never happened, despite views being relatively common in hilly Seattle. Views of the city, Elliott Bay, or Lake Washington came at a premium that always felt out of reach.
We assumed the same premium would apply on Orcas Island. Surely, a house with a view was out of our price range and we’d be limited to vacant land. Our first visit to the Yurt changed that thinking and now explains why we bought the first and only house we visited.
What we saw that day was a mismatch. The cozy, quirky, Yurt-shaped house was set with a view it didn’t seem to deserve. We thought we’d need millions of dollars, or the means to go back in time 50 years and be a first-mover when properties were first being platted, to have this view. Indeed, this is the story of the Yurt, which was built by people who had the pick of the litter, so to speak, in the seventies.
On that first visit, we were standing on the deck of the Yurt with our realtor, and we thought, “Could this really be ours?” It didn’t seem possible.
In a moment I’ll never forget, a bald eagle then soared right through the view at eye level causing us to chuckle. Our realtor then turned to us with a raised thumb and knowing smile, and jokingly said, “SOLD!” She was right.
The Yurt is positioned atop a bluff at about 270 feet above sea level. It faces west over President Channel and dozens of islands that make up the San Juan Archipelago and the Canadian Gulf Islands. We can see Canada from the Yurt and even Pender Island, where our Canadian friends, Darren and Julie, have plans to build a house. You really can’t get much more geographically northwest in the continental U.S., and it sometimes feels as if we’re reaching out to the Great White North. Or, judging from the “Welcome to Canada!” messages we get on our phones, Canada is reaching out to us.
Looking from the deck, our property extends past long-felled logs, deer tracks, and stumps down to the water where a 15-foot cliff makes a dock impossible. Many have suggested a zip line or funicular, but it ain’t gonna happen.
In my experience, a full accounting of the view requires a bit of time and observation. For example, the more prominent islands in view are either uninhabited (Spieden Island), nature preserves (Flattop Island, Cactus Islands), an off-the-grid community (Waldron Island) or islands so far away it doesn’t matter. This creates a distinct feeling of isolation. In the evenings, when the sun is setting and the boats are all docked, it feels like you’re all alone and looking out over an unspoiled wilderness. There are no lights or signs of human life. The view over the cold water is just as it’s been for hundreds or even thousands of years. I’ve rarely seen nights so dark and stars so bright.
And I am continually fascinated by what’s out there. Because it’s part of the ocean, it seems virtually anything could appear. There is a never-ending supply of boats, from sailboats and fishing boats, to giant cargo ships in the Canadian shipping lanes in the distance. Barges move houses and tug boats pull log booms full of thousands of logs. At least once a day, a little green boat called The Loon travels back and forth to Waldron Island (permanent pop. ~83) with supplies that arrive in the mail at our post office in Deer Harbor on Orcas.
The water itself has become a source of entertainment. Each day, it has a personality that’s driven by tides and winds and storms. It can be the kind of glassy that begs for water skis or a white-capped fury that keeps boats safely in the harbor.
And each of the water’s personalities has a sound that is apparent from the moment you step onto to the deck. On calmer days, it’s a low hum of white noise in the background; a gentle roar generated by a million waves lapping in unison. As the wind picks up, the roar grows and combines with the sound of wind whipping through conifers to drown out all other sounds. If I look closely, it sometimes feels like the tall trees sway to the rhythm of the waves. I love a nice calm day, but storm watching is where my heart is.
The San Juans are known for sea life, which brings tourists in droves. We often see harbor porpoises, harbor seals and sea birds aplenty from the deck. But the real stars of the show are the whales. We don’t see them often, but humpbacks and orcas have both been spotted from the deck. This is somewhat unique on the island, as the west side faces a deep channel where they feed. When island residents visit, they often ask the same question: do you see whales? It still boggles my mind that the answer is, “Sometimes, yes.”
When we first dreamt of property on Orcas Island by the campfire, we never considered the possibility of having a property with this kind of view. We didn’t even know this kind of experience existed. Once we saw it and decided to make an offer, it set in motion of a number of events that continue to this day. The Yurt is fun and perfect for us in so many ways. But it’s just a building. The location, the view and the experience of being on the island could last a lifetime.
In the 1960s, my parents purchased property on Lake Norman, which is about an hour from the house where I grew up in North Carolina. Soon after, a small brick house was built, and over fifty years, “the lake” became a central part of my family.
It is and has always been, the second place. It was a place where the normal rules rarely applied; the place where you could shake off the worries of the week and have a beer at lunch, or breakfast or anytime you damn well pleased. The lake is a beloved member of our family and many of the people reading this essay know it well.
When I moved to Seattle, the lake was one of the things I missed most. I no longer had a second place, much less one filled with family and friends. Instead of trying to create our own, Sachi and I rented AirBnBs and often swore that having a second place wouldn’t be worth it. The maintenance! The lack of choice! The expense! A second place didn’t make sense in a world where renting homes and apartments was so easy.
Then, we bought a yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island and all of that changed. We suddenly had a second place and set out to make it our version of the lake. This sentiment was not lost on my mother, who sent us a welcome mat that said, “Welcome to the lake”, despite the Yurt being firmly by the sea. Such is the outsized place the lake has in my life. Anywhere can be the lake if you want it to be.
And like many lake houses, we soon began filling the Yurt with anything we didn’t need at our first place. It started with an inflatable mattress and an aging iMac, which we placed in the middle of the room. It was…not optimal, but we didn’t care. Just being there was enough
Each time we returned to our first place in Seattle, we scoured the house for anything that might give us the semblance of comfort and convenience in the second. Our dining room table became a staging ground for packing our car for the next trip and it always seemed to be overflowing with miscellany like cleaners, dog toys, toiletries, kitchen supplies, phone chargers, lamps, games and so much more. We marveled at the incredible number of small things it took to start a second place from scratch and slowly make it comfortable.
We quickly learned that inflatable mattresses were not the best long term sleeping solution. This is particularly true in a house that does not have insulation under the floor. In winter, the cold floor cooled the air in the mattress from the bottom up. A few extra layers of sheets and blankets under us seemed to do the trick.
At first, we could only stay at the Yurt for as long as we could stand not showering. The hot water smelled strongly of sulfur. Fixing that problem was paramount and not as easy as advertised. On his first visit, Sachi’s Dad showed me how to install a new hot water heater.
A big part of those early days was cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. To try to address the smell, we had a steam cleaner come and clean the carpets. He told us that he had been there weeks before. Were we sure? We were. The day after he left, we used our new second vacuum cleaner and nearly filled the container. It was like the carpet was growing its own dust. It defied logic and I still consider it one of the Yurt’s great mysteries.
Like all the houses on our little dirt road, the Yurt does not enjoy trash or recycling pickup. Instead, refuse must be delivered to the transfer station on the island, or, in our case, delivered to our first place in Seattle, where we were already paying for trash and recycling. Making this work in the cleanest way possible was and still is, a challenge. We learned to freeze things that rot quickly and transport smelly containers in the rooftop box.
After growing tired of cold mattresses and folding chairs, we rented a U-Haul and transported a host of comfortable living supplies to the Yurt, including a queen-sized mattress, two older couches, stools, a couple of Ikea drawers and anything else we could find. Big chunks of fat were officially trimmed from the first place and it felt cathartic. Marie Kondo would have been proud.
With the U-Haul load, the yurt made a giant leap forward and for a while, it felt like living at the lake on weekends. We had the basics covered and the normal rules didn’t apply. We celebrated nightly and entertained friends, who also slept in a bedroom with no ceiling. We drank cocktails from glasses from Goodwill at our second place and it all felt right.
As the initial excitement wore off, we started to come to terms with the reality of having two homes. The biggest and most obvious was the expense. Just getting to the Yurt took a quarter tank of gas and a $60 roundtrip ferry ride. We suddenly had two kitchens and two yards along with two electric bills and two internet bills. Amazon delivered odds and ends right to our front door within two days, which was both a blessing and a curse.
The next leap in comfort came when a neighbor offered a free king bed, our friends, Tony and Alex, offered a pair of recliners, and we squeezed curtain rods between beams to hang clothes. The Yurt finally reached a kind of stasis. We wanted for very little at the second place and unlike the house at Lake Norman, we began to stay for weeks at a time.
The closest Orcas Island comes to having big game is black-tailed deer. These small deer are a constant source of worry and wonder, as they appear on porches and in the middle of dark roads with similar frequency. Every resident has deer stories and ours came relatively early and with a bit of terror, for the deer at least.
The Yurt was built by a couple in the eighties who enjoyed gardening. To be a successful gardener on Orcas Island, one must have a deer remediation strategy and this property was no different. When we acquired the property, the remnants of a six-foot high fence ringed the Yurt in a patchwork of rusty, ramshackle sections that created a figure 8 shape, with the Yurt’s entrance in the middle.
With gardening low on our priority list, we inspected the fence to see if it could be repaired enough to be a dog run. Instead of trying to secure the entire perimeter, we focused on one side of the eight. Using bits of spare wire and rope, we repaired a few sections in an attempt to corral the dogs into enough space to frolic. While it wasn’t completely secure, we hoped the fence was fortified enough to keep the deer out, the dogs in, and prevent them from chasing the deer into the forest. It was a fence in name only.
Deer are wanderers; they forage constantly and go where their noses lead them. Based on the tracks and narrow trails we’ve seen, they are likely to wander through areas they know well, searching for a bit of lush greenery.
Prior to our arrival at the Yurt, deer had free access to the yard, via the poorly maintained fence. They could calmly wander in and access both sides of the yard. It was, perhaps, a simple puzzle to solve, especially on a sunny afternoon with no humans around.
When we repaired the fence, we neglected to tell the deer. The puzzle suddenly became much more difficult to solve and we saw, first hand, the real problem this caused.
A few days after partially fixing the fence, we drove into town for dinner and returned home after dark. As we approached the front door, our dogs inside the house barked and we heard a strange and frightening sound coming from the darkness of the yard. It was the pounding of hooves on rock and soil, followed by the sound of a crash and then the screech of chain link fencing under stress. After a few seconds, more pounding, more crashing. It was scary, as I didn’t know what sort of beast I might find in the darkness. But soon, I caught a glimpse of a black-tailed deer and became worried more than frightened.
We quickly figured out the problem. A deer had wandered into the yard at night and our arrival spooked it and it panicked. Not knowing what else to do, it was trying to escape by running through the fence and springing back like a professional wrestler. The puzzle was nearly impossible to solve while panicking in the dark.
I knew there was an open gate in the fence on the opposite side of the yard and tried to herd the deer in that direction with my phone’s flashlight blaring. Thankfully it got the message and eventually made its way out of the fence without more crashing and screeching. My relief quickly turned to despair. That poor terrified deer.
In thinking through what happened, we quickly discovered the error in our ways. We had unknowingly set a deer trap. We allowed it to casually wander into a familiar area, closed a few of the exits and then spooked it. We couldn’t have planned it better, or worse.
I suppose the lesson we learned is true for all fences. There is no such thing as a partially repaired fence. It’s either a fence…or it isn’t. With this lesson in mind, we set upon creating an honest-to-goodness fence that would reliably keep deer out and dogs in. And reliability was paramount. What if a deer got in and then became trapped for weeks while we were in Seattle? Unacceptable.
A quick visit to the hardware store got us on the right track. Their deer remediation section was stocked with multiple versions of six and eight-foot fencing. Some were more like netting or fabric. Some were wire. Some had bottom sections with smaller holes to keep out rabbits and other vermin. We bought a 75-foot roll of six-foot wire, wire snips, and cable ties.
Within a day, the perimeter of the southern side of the figure 8 was secured. But the fence still had a gaping hole where the two yards connected in the middle. The choke point between the garage and deck was about eight feet wide and filling this hole with a gate became our first real construction project. The fence could not be a fence without it.
We went back to the hardware store, this time for chain link fence supplies, L brackets, screws, and wood. After a bit of planning, we used a handsaw to cut the wood and set up a functioning gate, clad in deer fencing. The southern yard was finally, truly secured.
With the new fence and gate, our deer trapping days were officially over. Now, the closest deer come to terror at the yurt is being stared down by two furry muppets inside the safety of a fully fortified fence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.