My online writing handle is Ghost32, but my wife knows me better as Shovel Man. Outhouses, hand dug wells, fire fighting, home building–all that and more.
The shovel, perhaps more than any other single tool, has been instrumental in our survival these past seventeen years.
When we began homesteading a twenty acre parcel in the mountains near Craig, Montana, in 1999, there was much to do. Highest priority was shelter itself. We lucked out, finding a local builder who put together a 12′ x 16′ Tuff Shed type structure, which served as our cabin. To make the place truly livable, naturally, a great deal more had to be done, and done without delay.
Mother Nature had to be faced squarely, for instance. On August 3, 1999, Pam was resting uncomfortably, seated on her bed-couch. We added an electric air conditioner in 2000, but for 1999 it was out of the question. The temperature had reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and my lady was very close to heatstroke.
Moments after stepping outside to cut another piece of paneling to fit one of the interior walls, I was back, reaching under the cabin (it was on skids) to grab our only shovel.
“We’ve got a fire! A big one!” I snapped, adding just as quickly, “Do what you can! I’ve gotta go to work!”
The full story of that fire required a separate page. This is the Shovel Man story, a story about a man and his shovel. Note: During the fire, there was a brief time–sixty seconds or so–when Pam was the one using the shovel
Long story short, we had no available water for fighting fire–just the one, lone, extremely busy shovel. When the fire was over, neighbors and professional firefighters had saved the rest of the mountain from being burned out. Our cabin, however, was saved by us and no one else, using our wits, determination, and no physical tools beyond our bare hands and a single yellow handled #2 spade.
Note: The cause of the wildfire was never determined. It could have been as simple as the sun shining through an old discarded glass bottle on that terribly hot day, but neither we nor the State fire investigators could figure it out for sure. All we DO know is that it was about eighty feet away and coming hard when I first saw it, with the wind whipping erratically from every direction.
Even without the wildfire, the shovel found plenty to do. Eventually, we intended to build a sizeable home with a “green” composting toilet inside where it was warm, but first things first. We picked a spot back in some low brush, far enough away from both cabin and our future well to protect against both smell and contamination of drinking water.
I began digging.
The outhouse excavation was going well (no pun intended). Late one afternoon, Pam and our cats had joined me while I worked–all except our gray and white guy, Harvey, who chose to stay on the plank footbridge crossing a ditch between cabin and outhouse. Only later did we realize Harvey had known the snake was there and simply chose to stay clear. Pam, for her part, had sat on a pile of dirt, watching while I dug.
At the end of the day, I carried my wife back to the cabin–her health was not good–then returned twice for armloads of kitty cats. All secure for the night, except for the shovel. I had just crossed the footbridge to go get it when I heard the snake.
If you grow up around rattlesnakes, as I did on a ranch at the foot of Rattler Hill in western Montana, you don’t ever forget that sound. I froze. It was not terribly loud, yet definitely death waiting. Soon I spotted part of the coiled serpent in some low buckbrush to my right. Only a small segment of the body, but from the thickness, this was a big one.
Knowing its location, I then walked swiftly down the path to the outhouse hole, retrieving my trusty shovel. On the way back, I became unsure just which patch of brush housed the big fellow. Poke! Poke!
Ah! There! I set my feet, swung the shovel back over my head until the tool and I must have looked like a bent bow without the string. If my feet were planted at 6 o’clock, think of the shovel tip pointing at two o’clock.
Full power release! WHANG-G!
That first stroke cut the rattler nearly in two. It struck at the shovel that had killed it, of course. The big guy must have lived many years, been king (or queen) of all it surveyed, and here was this mere human not only ignoring its polite warning but killing it.
That is the one thing I find to be so very hard about living remote like that: You can’t avoid the killing. I do not like doing it…but if it must be done, I don’t hesitate, either. If I had let the snake go, It might have nailed me or one of the cats at a later date. If Pam got hit, her allergies plus her tiny size (92 pounds or less at that time) would have made her dead before countermeasures could even be begun. It is what it is.
Snakes do not die easily. This contest was not finished until one of my strokes took off its head, and not even then until the head itself was safely buried where no human or animal could accidentally step on it.
Inside the cabin, Pam heard the shovel going–whang-g! whang-g! whang-g!–but could not identify just what I was doing out there. When I got to the cabin and told her, it made for a rough night for both of us. Thank goodness we were no longer living in the tent, but even inside the cabin it was pitch dark and imagination ran wild. By daylight, I was picturing buckbrush three feet tall and a timber rattler the size of an Anaconda.
We had to check it out. With fear back under control, the actuality was not quite so bad: A big diamondback, true, right at four and a half feet long, with fourteen rattles. The rattles had been damaged at some time in the past; there might have been several more without that. But not a timber rattler, not an Anaconda, and the buckbrush in which it had been hiding turned out to be six inches tall, not three feet.
Naturally, we began referring to the dead critter as Big Jake. You know. Jake the Snake.
We took the first well to bedrock.
Summer was waning. We had our cabin ready for winter and a working outhouse. We had survived a wildfire that surrounded our cabin, a monster diamondback rattlesnake, and an assault (on me) by a neighbor who had been misinformed about us…and who had (as a result of our scuffle) become one of the best friends a couple could have.
It was time to dig a well.
We had been hauling water from Cascade, 25 miles away, but we saw no reason not to improve that situation by digging a well. By hand. If we had lived higher on the mountain where it was often 300 feet or more to water, it would not have been practical. But we had bought in the valley at the foot of the mountain.
Besides which, Pam can “see” wells. No dowsing rod. She doesn’t need one. Instead, my beloved simply gazes out over the land, relaxes her mind, and where there is water close to the surface, she will see an old style well. You know, the kind with a windlass where you crank up the water a bucket at a time. Her visions are so strong that when she walks to the exact spot, she is often startled to feel grass or brush where her eyes tell her stone should be.
She had pinned down a spot some weeks earlier. I began digging. She had “felt” I would find water at “about ten feet”. By actual measurement, we hit the water table at nine feet ten inches. Not quite four feet farther down, at a depth of thirteen feet, six inches, I hit bedrock. By that time, I didn’t mind, because I was working in chest waders, standing in water nearly to my armpits. I had also discovered the origin of the old saying, “Colder than a well digger’s ass.” Believe me, mine was.
Still, not too shabby. Until the following dry summer, when that well dried up and I dug a second, in a different location.
There is more to the Shovel Man story. It seems like more is always being added, and perhaps always will be. Just last summer, for example, we chose to “landscape” our new home in Parachute, Colorado, with a thick layer of pretty, reddish rock. We had the stuff delivered by the truckload, but it was still up to me to spread it evenly, using a wheelbarrow and my yellow handled shovel. Which of course I did. All 36.5 tons of it.
Update: October 3, 2013. This little tale was first told in the summer of 2008 when we were living in Parachute, Colorado. Stan Spade, the yellow handled shovel, had not yet been given a name. When we moved to Arizona (off grid, naturally) in early 2009, the legend of Shovel Man began to grow once again….