The Second Place on Orcas Island 🏠🏡

April 04, 2019

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.


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.

LeFever’s Leisure Lair 1965-ish
LeFever’s Leisure Lair 1965-ish

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.

Welcome to the lake

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

inflatable mattress

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.

our little dirt road

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.

queen-sized mattress

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.

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