• Otter Views: When Home is not a House

    A recent holiday photo safari to Monterey Harbor yielded some nice shots of cormorants nesting, crab boats taking on traps, sailboats riding at anchor. Another subject was a cluster of weathered, multi-hued dinghies tethered to the municipal dock.

    “Those have personality,” I said, clicking. “You can tell they’re working boats by the oars and ropes and stuff in the bottom.”

    “What sort of work?”

    “They probably ferry the people who live on those boats out there,” I pointed. “That would be a Bohemian sort of life.”

    The dinghies reminded me that, alongside the workaday world where people live in houses and apartments, there exists another, sometimes precarious, world whose denizens live where they will.

    I first became aware of this alternate world in 1976, when I fell out of a marriage and landed at Gecko Mecca, a sprawling hippie house in a coastal rain forest. Among the characters who rotated through the property were a photographer who lived in his wood shop, a playwright who lived in his gazebo, and a yoga couple who lived in a tree.

    I met the yoga couple on my first day at Gecko Mecca, and they forever changed my assumption that people were supposed to wear clothing and live indoors. I was walking toward the house along a sandy forest path when I heard a series of explosive, chuffing blasts, like a locomotive leaving a station.

    As the back yard came into view, I beheld a magnificent, unclad, Edenic-looking couple posed on all fours side by side, inhaling and exhaling great “fire breaths” of air with a fierce Dionysian joy.

    Amazed, I sought out the playwright in his gazebo. “The couple in the yard,” I said. “Do they rent a room here too?”

    “No, they don’t live indoors,” he said. “They have a platform in the trees.”

    Even before hippie times, tree dwellers had a long and illustrious history, but they were not alone in the alternate housing cohort I call “the adapters.” Like hermit crabs, adapters can conform to nearly any dwelling space. I’ve known people who lived quite happily in trees, caves, yurts, teepees, tack sheds, camper vans and Matson containers. And, of course, on boats in and out of harbors.

    While these situations confer a sort of frontier idealism, most adapters eventually weary of mildew and mosquitoes and long for homes of their own. For those without trust funds, the time-honored route has been to buy what realtors call “raw land” and then slowly, lovingly, painstakingly erect a house. This is when adapters enter the second alternative housing cohort and become “recyclers.”

    As resourceful as bower birds, the recyclers fan out over the landscape daily, seek- ing materials, furnishings and building supplies others have discarded or overlooked. I knew friends who salvaged the hardwood timbers from a dismantled sawmill ramp to build two homes and a sculpture studio. Another group used hand tools to dismantle a World War Two barracks, recovering enough finish-grade lumber to build a jungle village replete with its own pyramid.

    Such recycling feats are legion in places where big construction projects, second home remodels and hotel décor renewals create a virtual Mississippi of surplus materials and furnishings. In those regions, every useful discard finds a willing recycler and a new home. Recyclers hereabouts have the Last Chance base yard and resale store at the county landfill site.

    Recyclers who stay at it long enough to complete their own homes may then join the most elite cohort, the “converters.” These are landowners who had just enough money to finish the house, but not enough to build the mother-in-law unit whose monthly rental pays the mortgage. Enter: the water tank.

    Empty water tank, I mean. Fitted out with sash windows and Dutch doors, mineral- cured, antique hardwood water tanks can become rental units as charming as Hobbit houses. Other conversions I’ve seen include refurbished farm buildings, drydocked boats, retired school buses, old wine vats, even circus trailers. My favorite was an old train caboose that became a quaint rental. One town in Napa Valley has a motel made entirely from railroad cars.

    The progression from adapter to recycler to converter is not an easy one, and it’s not for everybody. When the fire breath yoga man finally moved out of his tree house, friends hoped he might “settle down” and live in a house. Instead, he settled down in a cave on a mountainside. He fitted this out as comfortably as a Pasha’s tent, with cushions, carpets, couches, tapestries, even wi-fi. He held court there for many happy years.

    Another Bohemian cave-dweller came to a tragic end. I met Smitty when we were both training for a
    marathon, and I could tell right away he was different. He ran the 26 miles barefoot, with the letters to “Jesus Loves” taped on his toes. Smitty followed a fruitarian diet, fasted regularly, and lived in a remote shoreline cave he had found at the base of a cliff.

    Alas, one stormy night the rain-soaked cliff sheered away, and Smitty was killed in the rockslide. The alternative life offers unique rewards, but it can also be precarious.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 6, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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