Monday, June 1, 2020

"Staying-home" with a twist

     One month into Maryland’s stay-home mandate, I re-homed myself from my sister and her husband’s Maryland home in the DC area (high contagion rate) to another home in Salem, Virginia (low contagion rate).

     The little town of Salem, population 25,000, is a smidgen west of Roanoke, population 100,000. This area of southwestern Virginia is nestled in the Appalachian Mountain range which runs from Georgia to Maine (the popular A.T. runs through it). Two great books by the way about the A.T. are David Miller’s “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” and Jennifer Pharr Davis’ “Becoming Odyssa”. These two books don’t sugar-coat the grueling trail. And no, I'm not hiking the Appalachian Trail anytime soon although many will despite the virus.

     Virginia has a stay-home mandate too, but I had no problems re-homing myself. No one pulled me over to inquire about my Texas license plate. Enroute to Salem, I slept one night at a Walmart parking lot in Staunton, Virginia, where my favorite east coast Dodge/Ram dealer changed my diesel oil and filter. Only two other customers were there. I also visited my “stuff” placed in a storage unit last July -- one dead mouse was stuck on the sticky paper I left inside. Left the decomposing mouse there as a warning to her cousins and siblings. Retrieved my ebike, charger and helmet.     Instead of being a “van-camper” this year, I’m now a “boarder”. I moved-in with homeowner Walter who’s 86 years old in his 3-bedroom home in Salem. He mows his grass regularly. And he's high-tech too; Alexa is at his beck and call.

      We found each other through SeniorHomeShares.Com and this month-to-month home-sharing without a lease is beneficial to both of us. He provides me a stable place to reside for minimal rent and I’m his spotter, help-mate and go-for (grocery store is a short ebike ride away). We’re politically and culturally different; sort of like an aging Johnny Cash meets an aging Annie Lennox. But we share interests; Walter had an RV and motorhome (traveled to Alaska with his family several times), and he has an impressive workshop full of tools for any DIY projects. Plus he's a movie buff with a choice of three large-screen televisions (Netflx and Amazon Prime Video memberships). 
     One TV room has a great sound system and a reclining pair of Lazy-Boys -- a comfy personal theater! I brought my silicone popcorn popper, powdered cheese and chopsticks so eating popcorn with company and watching a big-screen is a luxurious escapism for me.

     Photo below shows the two of us discussing recently-planted tomato plants in the flower bed.

     My goal next year is to build a senior home near Main Street, Salem, within walking distance from a city bus stop that can take me everywhere -- to the Roanoke Amtrak station, the Roanoke Regional airport, Walmart, Home Depot, grocery stores, farmers’ market, hospital and dental and medical clinics. I also want to be near Salem’s YMCA pool (heated indoor lap lanes, see their promotional photo below). I'm a new member, just waiting for opening day to use this beautiful pool. 

     Someday, hopefully not soon, someone will take my vehicle keys away from me.  I’ve seen it all too often with other seniors when they lose their license - there’s precious few friends left who are physically able to chauffeur them for routine errands and appointments. When that happens to me, I want to live somewhere busable, walkable and bikeable to all the town’s amenities plus be centrally located for at-home care. It’s a concept called “aging in place”, sort of what Walter is doing for as long as possible.

     Why build, why not buy an existing house? Because most existing homes are ugly, too big and inappropriate for an aging-in-place senior, plus the location isn’t near a bus stop, thereby requiring reliance on family or friends to be chauffeurs. Or if the homes are little and cute near a bus stop, they’re a throw-back to the 30s and 40s architecture; super-tiny bathrooms, two stories high, dangerous stairs down to a damp basement, no attached garage, and maintenance head-aches (click here for such a home). Been there, done that. Sadly, there’s not much choice out there for solo senior homeowners who want to age-in-place with handicap-accessible features in maintenance-free small homes with an attached garage all under 1,000 square feet. Don’t want a rental unit either. My biggest fear is living in a senior multi-family rental community of The Stepford Grandmas.
     So I’ve been studying small home designs. One article about ugly new homes inside city limits states “The rules and systems that have produced this standardized architecture—financial ones, largely determined by banks and property appraisers, as well as political ones—create a kind of socioeconomic standardization, determining who can afford to live in the neighborhoods experiencing rapid gentrification.” So true! Last winter when I home-doggie sat for Pamela in Rockville, Maryland, the sales prices of 1980-ish townhomes in her neighborhood were astronomical in my opinion. In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, in Pamela’s county, Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington D.C., fully 44 percent of its employees live in other counties because they can’t afford homes in the county they serve. Some lots for sale inside town limits have zones or covenants requiring multi-family units or a single family home in excess of 2,000 square feet. I don’t want to live in a three-bedroom home designed for millennials (click here for a Salem listing of such a new home, near Main Street, it’s 3-levels and pricey with monthly HOA fees). Nor do I want a mortgage or HOA where someone else calls the shots on what I can’t or can build. All I want is just a simple Icelandic home . . . in Virginia. While touring Iceland almost two years ago for a couple of weeks, I was smitten by their simple practical low-maintenance architecture (click here for that previous post I wrote, and for another travel blogger's post about Iceland's architecture click here). My Icelandic home will sorta-kinda look like the design below, with one 10x10 foot garage door instead of two little ones, and vertical metal-siding instead of horizontal Hardieboard, plus a covered porch with outside dining and a grill in the rear.

     The good news is, I found a lot inside the town limits of Salem that meets all my location requirements (see Google map street view below showing my lot between two fairly new houses). Yes, that's a fire hydrant on my lot (far right).

     The neighborhood around this lot includes both Black and White homeowners, a college frat house, a light industrial warehouse about one-quarter mile away and a neighborhood bar with pool tables three blocks down the street on Main Street (bus stop is there too). But the rear view on this small-town lot is bucolic and woodsy. To the west and north, there are views of mountains in the distance. I closed on the lot purchase May 29 with a frail 80-year old seller who asked me to chauffeur him to our real estate closing by the way. This vacant lot is now officially mine . . . somewhat unnerving, never done this before!
     The challenge begins; familiarize myself with the city codes folks, find contractors and builders for estimates, and pay all the permit fees for every little step in this long complicated process. My scattered notebooks are full of scribbly notes, names and phone numbers. The first step is to clear the scrubby trees; only one mature oak tree at the rear is worth saving. I’ll plant evergreens eventually as I don't want fall leaves from deciduous trees.

So head's up - the focus here is changing from traveling in La Lair to building a one-story Icelandic home. Someday I'll travel extensively again in La Lair, worry-free as a butterfly. Until then, local excursions . . .  hikes on mountain trails such as the nearby Poor Mountain trail where songbirds and pileated woodpeckers keep me company . . .

. . . enjoyed a recent bike ride with new friends in the area who corrected my Yankee pronunciation of Appalachian.

I'm excited about visiting horse farms and stables in the area like the one in photo above. Below photo shows Annie, Basil and Kay on manual bikes trying to keep up with me on my ebike . . . these mountainous roads are better-suited for electric bikes in my opinion :)

. . . and perhaps this summer (after my upcoming knee cartilage surgery postponed since last March) I'll enjoy horse rides, Roanoke River trips, Smith Mountain Lake adventures . . . . and until my knee mends, amuse myself with library e-books such as "The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: true stories about defying the impossible" compiled by Catherine Burns from fifty storytellers of the hit podcast The Moth. I'm also on the waiting list for "The Black Swan" written by Nassim Taleb; its central idea being to jump wholeheartedly into exploiting positive events when negative unpredictable events surprise and overwhelm us, hopefully a good read for our unique times. And I'll thump my good leg to Juzzie Smith's one-man band who plays a mouth harmonica and a three-string cigar-box guitar, and read hilarious reader comments about Benjamin Franklin's glass armonica invention as played by William Zeitler, click here for a listen.
     Be safe dear readers, and don't go insane if you listen to the glass armonica!


  1. A great plan-post. And thanks for all the links!

  2. Having spent years in Northern Virginia, I can absolutely see the appeal of heading south. The DC region is great, but very expensive and a lot of people. The south is so pretty and just a whole different pace. (That photo of the rolling hills and horse farm is just gorgeous, by the way.) Your plan sounds very smart - building the right type of home in the right type of place with access to all your needs - and just having a home base to come back to during your travels. All good ideas and things many fulltime travelers are considering these days. I look forward to tracking your progress on this next phase.

    1. Yep, future home base must be "perfect"! :) it'll be a very slow project however. In fact, I'm accepting any and all ideas from my readers. The more ideas the merrier.

  3. Congratulations on your lot purchase. Sounds ideal. We're still looking for a 'home base' ourselves but aren't sure what we want. Love the house design idea your going for.

    1. My house design is actually within Salem's "accessory building" requirements and setback, so when I'm dead and this 1/2-acre lot with a little mother-in-law-apartment/garage in the back of the lot is sold, someone in the next generation who buys this lot can build a regular 3-bedroom home in the front of the lot. Check this link

  4. I know you posted this a long time ago, but seeing your comment on Laura's blog made me wonder what you've been up to. I'm intrigued by your new life plan and look forward to updates. And I love the way you've navigated this Great Pause so gracefully.

  5. Hi Laurel, I'm almost ready to post an update, yes I know it's been awhile since my last post. Soon, I'll bring my readers up to date on my vacant lot purchase in Salem, Virginia and getting it ready to build a senior home next year.