Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Most of us have a street or a highway that we travel on every day. A road to get to work, or to shop - maybe it’s the I-95, Highway 407 or Wellington Street… some avenue that is really important to you. I have such a thoroughfare in my life and it’s my sidewalk! It’s a truly awesome sidewalk! It’s the most awesome sidewalk anywhere because I made it!
When we bought our century-old farmhouse here in the woods the previous owners had built a guesthouse about 150 feet from the main house. It has a garage, a battery room, a large storage room we use for our inventory of books and DVDs, and upstairs there are two guest bedrooms and my office. We are now using it as a Bed & Breakfast and it’s nice because it’s separate from the main house so guests can do their own thing.
When we moved in there was a lovely fieldstone walkway between the two buildings. It looked great, but it wasn’t practical. Over time the soil on both sides of the pathway became higher than the stones, so it became a little creek any time it rained. In the spring as the snow melted it all flowed down into the walkway and turned into a stream with a pretty brisk flow. It was basically impossible to shovel the snow off it because all the stones were at different heights. It was OK when it was really cold and I could just pack the snow down hard and smooth, but that packed snow became ice as soon as it warmed up. And it was often a slippery, dangerous mess.
All winter long I had to wear boots every time I walked between the buildings. And that can be quite often. I often go to my office first thing in the morning, come back to the house for breakfast, come back later for tea in the morning, then lunch, afternoon tea, to get something from Michelle who works in the house, etc. etc. I am back and forth at least 10 times a day. Every time I would have to put on winter boots and take them off again at the other end. What a pain.
I began to notice (and envy) my neighbor Ken’s concrete sidewalk. It was always clear and dry, even in the winter. Once the snow was shoveled off, the sun warmed it and the snow melted and it was dry and safe. When I talked to Ken about doing a sidewalk like his at my own place he had me convinced that it was a “weekend” job. Ken, who spent his career in charge of maintenance at Millhaven Maximum Security Penitentiary, knows concrete. And steel. And how to build almost anything that prisoners can’t break. What he didn’t know was how long it was realistically going to take me.
Hey I could afford to spend a weekend on this project. And the new sidewalk idea was born.
Of course like everything else in our off-grid house no job is an easy job. The fieldstones were a huge pain to move. Some of them were massive in size and since I don’t own a tractor I had to use my own human power to pry them up, tip them into a wheelbarrow, and then place them in piles around the property. They’ve all been reused in various other projects, as nothing ever goes to waste around here, but moving them took a few weeks. Then I had to dig out the walkway and set up the forms. I used a wire mesh as well to give the concrete more strength. Another few weeks went by.
As part of my constant “have a back-up plan”, “anticipate a future need” mindset, I put a couple of runs of wire into conduit and buried it in the sand under where the concrete would go. I had a feeling we might be able to use the connection in the future and in this case I was right. Our satellite dish for high-speed internet is located on the guesthouse, and to turn off our internet each night I’d have to walk out to the guesthouse. I ended up using one of those wires that I’d had the foresight to bury in order to turn it off from the main house.
After a week or two of finishing up the concrete forms I was ready for the big day. Despite having a sore back at the time, Ken was gracious enough to help, as were his two son-in-laws Jamie and Jaeson. One of the other reasons I had decided to redo the walkway was because the old front steps were falling apart and had become a real hazard. Ken helped me form up some beautiful new ones. So as the big cement truck poured its load, we all worked our way from the stairs and down the sidewalk, smoothing it out as we went. Eventually Jamie had to leave and Ken’s back had had enough. I scrambled to smooth the surface and run a broom over it to give it some texture. As I learned working with concrete on a sunny day - the clock is ticking. I didn’t get it as smooth as I would have liked and I am reminded of this every time I run my plastic snow shovel over it and leave bits of plastic on the rough bits of my sidewalk!
I don’t have a lavish lifestyle. I try and limit my carbon output. Concrete is very energy intensive. The plant where my concrete was made had to burn coal to generate the heat required. I wasn’t aware of this at the time but even with this knowledge now I’m still pretty good with my decision. This sidewalk is a huge part of my life. I use it constantly. It is much, much safer than walking on the icy uneven mess that was there previously. When Michelle’s friend Cathie, who has MS, came for a visit, she was able to roll up the sidewalk with her walker. She would have needed an off-road 4-wheel drive walker to make it up the old sidewalk!
Another great thing about my sidewalk is that after a snowfall, I can shovel it off and after a few hours of sunshine the sidewalk will be completely dry. I’m usually able to wear my shoes between our two buildings now! What a marvelous luxury.
After the concrete had “cured” for a few weeks I rented a concrete saw and cut several inches into the grooves that Ken had helped me put in at five foot intervals. Concrete is at risk of cracking in our climate of warming and freezing, so by cutting grooves it should control any cracking and keep the sidewalk from cracking all over.
So about 8 weeks later, the all-consuming “weekend job” that took over my entire life was complete. Now any time Ken identifies a job is a “weekend” job, I remember to tack about 8 weeks onto that weekend.
There’s something really gratifying about a job like this. Every time I walk over it or shovel it, I think, “I made this sidewalk!” I can wear running shoes in February because of this sidewalk that I made! For years I ran an electronic publishing business and produced annual reports and catalogs and all sorts of a fancy printed materials. But never once did I get the feeling of accomplishment that came from making my own sidewalk.
Maybe I should check to see if our nearby city works department is looking for workers to help with sidewalk construction. This is a skill I have and just think of it - at the end of every day you could walk down the length of the sidewalk you’ve completed and say, “I made that.” It isn’t a cure for the common cold, but it sure gives me a good feeling. I’m not sure if this is sad and pathetic or representative of some higher plane of consciousness I’ve attained. It doesn’t really matter. It’s March, it’s time for a cup of tea, and I’m off to the house in my running shoes! How awesome is that!
Photos by Cam & Michelle Mather.