When we began looking for our farm we saw house after house plunked right on the busiest road. We asked ourselves why anyone would live in the country and live right on the main road. The answer is money. The other answer is permits, which are equal parts waiting and more money.
What follows is a tale of woe (or whoa) with a simple punch line. Start by hiring a road engineer your county permit dept knows.
Where the Road Goes…
By April we had planted our trees and begun to figure out where the major structures and activities would be located. My first idea for the road was to hug the border and then bring it up to our house site so that the road also served as a drainage for the mass of seasonal water that came down that side of our hill. LeFemme had already found a great wetlands specialist to survey our “wetlands”. Greg was a local guy that really helped us get through this process.
So out he came, and staked out the suspect bits, showed us what he was looking for, and knew exactly what the county would call wetlands and how they would react. Since we wanted the structures in the middle of our working areas, so we could build on higher ground, see all the operations from the porch, and to minimize the “commute”, this meant we were bringing in a certain (Large) amount of material. Calculating that brought us to a SEPA threshold. Now the county and the State Dept. of Ecology would be involved. My original route was quickly nixed as it added more road on “wetland” which we would need to compensate for elsewhere on the property. Even at Greg’s guess that we would need to make up for lost wetlands at a 3:1 ratio the extra 50 feet added up fast, and by going through the woods we were assured stable ground and could use slightly less rock.
Lesson 1, more bureaucracies involved means more people telling you “no” and taking a fee to do so.
SEPA kindly told us our estimate of the wetlands was not enough and that we needed to sacrifice a higher ratio of land to replace the wetlands we were eating up with the road.
The county told us we needed to have a road of a certain width. Enough to bring a fire truck up and turn around. This meant even more rock.
LeFemme boldly dealt with each agency. We would get a letter from one or the other asking for more, I would freak out, she would talk me off the ledge, we would consider our options, and off went a call to Greg, and he would have a conversation with the County, and the County would have a position in conflict with the State Ecology guys, and on this went for an age.
3 Inch Minus and a Hammer Head.
Since this road was going to run across muck we wanted it to drain properly and we also wanted a larger foundation than the County called for. 3 inch rock on the bottom was what our road building friends suggested, and Greg agreed, but the County guy balked, and balked.
We specified a hammer head, a big T at the house (someday) end of the road, the county guy wants a cul-de-sac, we pointed out that our hammer head drawing is right off the County web site. Note that there is never an OK, or go ahead, or that looks right, sort of conversation, you know you are done with one aspect of the thing only when people stop commenting or saying “no”.
Enter the Road Engineer guy. This guy took our drawings, wrote a letter, talked with the fire chief, and stamped it. This magical stamp allows the County guy to approve it after all. Suddenly the permit was on it’s way. Now we needed to get rock and labor lined up.
Friends with Big Machines
There are friends, and their are friends with machines. S and J were our first pick for building the road. They used to do it professionally, own an excavator, a big CAT with loader and backhoe, and a little skid steer.
LeFemme, once again, handled this logistical morass, filed the paper work, got the permit, got the rock company lined up, and did all the insurance legwork. Then up rolled S and J. They had road fabric, and limbing saws, a dump truck, the excavator and culvert. They’d also had a big breakfast. In no time they started rolling fabric out, knocking down trees we’d marked, and moving trees and limbs and roots off to the side. I was running as fast as I could to keep up with the chain saw to limb up fallen trees and cut off stumps and stack limbs in piles for the skid steer. I felt like infantry in a tank fight. I stepped on a bee’s nest and got a handful of stings on my bare legs, but needed to keep on going. It was dusty and noisy and hot as blue blazes.
By ten my city boy breakfast consisting of 2 cups of coffee and nothing else was wearing thin. By twelve I was famished, asked S & J if they wanted lunch, “Not yet, we had a big breakfast.” By 1:30 I broke down and ate. When beer o’clock came around we all sat in our campsite exhausted, even the dog was toast. A lumpy tent floor waited for us and when the lights went out so did we. Again, LeFemme outdid herself. She’d got the food, and the drinks under control. She’d been busting her hump on the road too, but somehow had a meal put together at the end of it all. I ran into town on my motorbike to keep the ice in our cooler and water jug filled. I was dirty and wearing a shredded Carhartt jacket, but no one in town even seems to notice. My kinda town.
Gravel Keeps Coming
After the road fabric is pinned down and the trees are piled neatly. I went back to surveying the land. I was putting down flags to contour map the property with Keyline sub soiling. Soon there was a steady parade of trucks dumping rock on the fabric. S spread the rock like the pro she is and the road began to take shape. At one point LeFemme pulled me aside and said, “You realize that every time a truck shows up it costs $400”. Just like her to have it down to the penny. I was resigned to try and not count, or look, just to get it done now that we had started. Once the whole thing started moving, it was impossible to stop unless something went horribly wrong. I felt we were in good hands, S and LeFemme are perfectionists.
Move a Pile only Once
In the future I will plan thoroughly before acting. In the heat of the moment without the help of a plan we made a few decisions I regret, mostly with the piles and trees. I wanted to save as many of the trees in full height if I could and peel them for poles and timber. I also wanted the brush piles out of the way, but handy enough we could use them for Hugelkulturs when we were ready. Stumps would end up in the “Stumpery” but we weren’t 100% sure where that would be. I had S stack my poles on the edge of what will become our market garden, and she stacked a bunch more limbs and such on the side, including the stumps. She taught me how to use the little bobcat and I proceeded to move part of the pile downhill and out of the way, and started moving the stumps to their final resting place. I broke the hydraulics on it moving a stump. A root managed to reach around the grapple and pop a hard fitting on a hose leaving me covered in oil. I snapped a picture and rode into town knowing I broke it so I bought it. S & J were unfazed, even amused. She had always wondered when it would break, and when they showed up in the morning J attached the hose directly to the fitting, bypassing the little aluminum pipe.
I think we have now moved that pile 3 times at least. Moving limbs up and downhill is a pain and frankly, I feel stupid every time I look at the things. I want to move them only once more and never make this mistake again.
Respite from Gravel Trucks
On day three, S showed up in the morning asking me where I wanted my swale. I was unprepared for this, but she pointed out that while the excavator was here she might as well. So up I ran and mapped out our first swale at the top of the ridge, getting it on the hill’s contour so it would flow water slowly. Our books said dig it a foot deep and S dutifully started digging. My vacation from work found me working harder than I had in my life. Unwashed, sunburnt, and sleeping on the ground I was finding myself more and more weary each day. LeFemme had gone home to take care of our chickens and cats. I prayed I had gotten the swale in the right spot. It would be a big surprise either way.
And then the Road was Done
Well sort of, we had 82 days without significant rain in Washington this year. A record. You need a little moisture to compact all that rock and move the “fines” in between the bigger bits to lock things together. We didn’t get that rain until October, nearly a month later. Those rains quickly saturated the powdery clay silt loam you can see in the swale and turned it into a sticky muck. In April I sank my little Land Cruiser up to the axle in this stuff. It was a joy to drive unhindered up the hill in the rain. The whole drive down there was an anxiety of preparing for mud driving (lower the pressure in the tires, go fast but not too fast, no brakes, 4×4 Low, don’t miss the shift) that was noticeably gone. That gap has been quickly filled by a number of things like making electricity for running a trailer and tools, and winterizing for snow, and adding hogged fuel for a patch without the road…
But make no mistake, I love our road. it winds through our little woods, comes up the hill and reveals what will someday be our new barn, then new home and kitchen garden. This road is literally the path to our dream.