AN EXCERPT FROM "THE BAILEY LINE ROAD CHRONICLES" Thirty-one years ago, Steve Maxwell moved from the suburbs of Toronto to a 90-acre piece of farmland and forest on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. He was 22 and lived in a tent, dreaming of building a homestead and raising a family there. After many years of satisfying toil, Steve and his wife Mary fulfilled that vision, raising five children in the stone-built farmhouse they made from local materials, pried out of the earth and shaped by hand. Steve is writing about all this and more in his book: The Bailey Line Road Chronicles. We have excerpted one chapter here. To read more please visit baileylineroad.com/blr-chronicles. Aspirations can be strange things. That’s because when you begin to experience the reality of what you’ve been dreaming of, it’s often quite different from what you imagined. And this difference – the difference between theory and practice – can be discouraging and scary if you don’t expect it. The biggest theorymeets- practice event of my life so far happened on May 16, 1986. That was the day I woke up alone in a tent on Manitoulin Island, 500 km from my boyhood home. I was a homesick 22 year-old with only a few hundred dollars in the bank. I also happened to be completely drowning in regret of the worst kind – the regret that used to be enthusiasm. All I could think of as I woke up in my tent on that bright morning in May was that I’d made a massive mistake. I’d blown all my money on a foolish dream and a useless piece of land in the middle of nowhere. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 1960s and 70s, but I never was a city guy. The lack of natural beauty always left me empty. I’m sure my attraction to the country and addiction to beauty also had something to do with fond memories I’d gained at the family cottage on the shores of Georgian Bay. It was a log place built in 1923 by a bachelor great uncle of mine named Ken Evans. Uncle Ken came back from the First World War looking for a quiet place to live, and found it on four acres along the water in a spot called Pointe-au-Baril, Ontario. He was freshly returned from the horrors of Paschendale, Ypres and the Dardanelles. He had experienced poison gas, a shrapnel wound and crawling over the decaying bodies of German soldiers as his company advanced through the mud. He came home completely opposed to killing, never ate meat again and wouldn't even kill mosquitoes. Uncle Ken died eight years before I was born in 1963, but his cabin dream somehow settled into my soul anyway. For a city boy, Uncle Ken’s cottage was magic of a most powerful kind. Fishing whenever I wanted; unsupervised use of a Red Ryder BB gun that was my dad’s when he was a boy; a woodshed full of Uncle Ken’s tools; and nothing to think about all summer long except bacon and eggs in the morning, swimming and fishing all day, with fairly regular roast beef dinners at night. It was a magic land and I wanted to return. I wanted to build a place like Uncle Ken. First morning on Manitoulin The weather was bright on that first morning on Manitoulin. The air had an intoxicating smell I’ve only ever found during the island’s spring, bluebirds and loons and deer were all around me, yet it all seemed so insane. I was a young idiot and I’d thrown my life away, dragging my girlfriend, Mary, into the folly. While our city friends were taking swanky overseas trips for their new careers, I’d just spent all my savings and then some on a chunk of property in the middle of nowhere, without any buildings, no water well, and nothing but tumbledown fences and forest surrounding me. I immediately threw myself into waste-of-time, non-priority follies on the land. They included: trying to break heavy sod and start a garden with nothing more than a shovel and seed packages, even though I had nothing resembling a proper shelter to live in; attempting to resurrect a fleet of 60 year old discarded farm machinery in preparation for my life doing some unidentified but profitable agricultural pursuit; trying to save money by digging a basement hole for a 34’ x 44’ foundation for the home I’d build in hard clay soil using nothing more than a shovel; fixing tumbled-down pasture fences when the only animal I owned was an ill-tempered golden retriever named King. I wasn’t getting much accomplished and I was almost completely broke. The outhouse epiphany Most of the insights in my life happen in a moment, and a heavy thunderstorm one night triggered an insight that snapped me out of my treadmill of misdirected work. As I made my way in the deluge from my tent to the poplar log that passed for a latrine seat I’d set up over a crack in the limestone bedrock, I knew what I really needed. There I was, sitting on a log with my pants down, in complete darkness while a torrential downpour soaked me to the skin… “Tomorrow I’ll start to build an outhouse,” I vowed. It was the first sensible thing I’d done since arriving on the property some months earlier, but in true greenhorn fashion, I built it in an especially difficult way. I had the conviction that I should build it with reclaimed lumber. I consulted my new neighbour, a spry 76-year old local icon named Ivan, if he knew where I could find any. “Ches Bailey over on the Blind Line has a pile of old lumber in one of his pastures,” Ivan told me. “It’s cedar, but full of nails.” Ches lived about 5 miles away and was apparently Ivan’s cousin (as most people in the township seemed to be). Ivan grabbed the receiver of his rotary dial, party line telephone and about an hour later Mary and I were knocking on the door of the Baileys. Ches and his wife Floris lived in the tiniest house I’ve ever seen. It looked like an over-grown playhouse – about 40 per cent smaller than a typical house. They were in the middle of a meal of boiled potatoes and wieners when we arrived. “Would you like some?” Floris asked through her thick glasses. She’d never met me before, but that’s the kind of hospitality I’d see again and again on Manitoulin. “No thank you, we just ate. But you go ahead and finish.” Mary and I sat there watching this sweet couple in their 70s quietly eating hot dog wieners without buns, boiled potatoes and sipping mugs of hot water as they probably had every night for 40 years since they got married back in 1946. I’d never seen people sit down and enjoy hot water as a beverage before, but it’s not unusual among the old timers here.There was almost no conversation during dinner, and it seemed quite likely their meals were always like this. It was the kind of situation where you definitely wanted to chew with your mouth closed. After dinner we ambled out into the pasture to see the pile of old, half-rotten boards that confirmed that Ivan’s rural database of local details had done the job. He had somehow known about and remembered a pile of old lumber sitting in the middle of a run-down pasture, completely out of sight and 300 yards from any road. His description of cedar with lots of old nails was accurate, too. Fifteen dollars lighter in my wallet, we were soon loading a couple of hundred board feet of lumber into the truck to bring this horde of “old gold” back to our property. It was the kind of wood I’d never build with now because some of it was too old and sections were punky and needed to be cut out and thrown away. But for a frugal, inexperienced guy with $200 in the bank and memories of sitting on a latrine log in the middle of a pitch-black nighttime thunder storm, the prospect of an outhouse made me feel like a king even if it meant working with old wood. Reclaiming the lumber Mary and I started work at 8 am on nail day and it was about 9 pm on a June evening by the time we’d finished de-nailing the last boards. Shadows were getting long and we didn’t have the energy to light a campfire and cook. The box of crackers and peanut butter we launched into tasted like a Christmas feast. The canteen of well water filled from Ivan’s kitchen sink was as good as a bottle of excellent wine. Have you ever noticed how satisfaction eludes people, even people who have more material goods and comforts than a king did a hundred years ago? Maybe the reason is because so few people drive themselves to get tired enough, hungry enough and thirsty enough to truly enjoy simple food and drink. Three thousand years ago a wise man named King Solomon got it right: “There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in their work. I also perceive that this ability to find enjoyment comes from God.” Diving for pearls As any experienced builder knows, holes in the ground seem simple enough, but they can be tricky. The unlined hole under my outhouse performed perfectly during its first summer, and this success lulled me into a sense of complacency. But arriving back on Manitoulin for a fresh season of work in the spring of 1987, I was surprised to find my trusty outhouse was now leaning perilously to the side. The clay soil underneath that had been so firm and trustworthy as I dug it out the previous summer was now a soupy porridge of collapsed dirt, spring run-off and “substances” of the kind you’d expect to find in any experienced outhouse hole. The soil was collapsing into the unlined crater, and without intervention the entire outhouse would go down. I flirted with the hope that the hole might not get bigger, but that was foolish optimism. It might be fine if the summer was dry, but another winter and the outhouse would fall on its side or worse. After unspeakable hours removing the porridge one shovelful at a time (I got it all out, I really did), about 4 feet down I reached the smooth limestone bedrock that I knew would make the perfect foundation for a circular stone structure to keep the soil from collapsing inwards. This structure was the first of about 500 tons of stonework I’d lay over the years. It was like diving for pearls except in reverse. I’d grab a few rocks and a small bucket of mortar, lower these down into the hole, then dive down with my legs and waist on the wooden floor of the outhouse and the top half of my body below ground level. Ten minutes of working upside down would use up my supply of stone and mortar, then I’d return to the surface for more. The thing about a young city guy moving to the country is that it attracts the attention of everyone in the area. I was the first person to build anything new on my dead-end road since 1953, so my neighbour Weldon would come around to see what was going on every now and then. On this particular visit, he arrived to find his city neighbor head down in his outhouse hole, legs flailing around up above the ground. Weldon didn’t say anything when I came up for more supplies. Laughing at myself was all I could do to try to persuade this man that the new guy down the road wasn’t a complete lunatic. To read more of Steve’s Bailey Line Road Chronicles, please go to www.baileylineroad.com/blr-chronicles.
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