The sense of accomplishment we felt after completing the basic cabin structure in four days was astounding. Not only did I feel on top of the world, I wanted to share the experience with everyone I met and beat my chest with pride. (Why I waited so long to start writing about this whole experience is another question altogether.) But despite our success thus far, there was a lot left to be done, and certain things—the roofing, in particular—had a greater sense of urgency. We had run out of time to finish it during our first trip and we were leaving the weather up to chance in a climate that was still pretty foreign to us.
Justin and I returned to the property four weeks later in early May 2014 to finish what we’d started, and in the back of the truck was a brand new generator that we’d found on super-sale at Harbor Freight Tools, along with a budget IKEA mattress for the loft and some other essential gear. We knew we needed some type of power source for the building yet to be done, but renting a generator at $55 a day during each trip didn’t seem worth it (especially considering the time and location constraints of the rental office). We also wanted to have an auxiliary power source on hand down the road to serve as a backup once we finished installing the solar panels and battery bank.
Hoping to mix it up a little, we decided to try a different route to the cabin this time. Instead of heading North-ish from Ellensburg, Washington, we went East on I-90 toward spokane, then North to the farming hub of Ephrata before cutting back Northwest through the table rock of Moses Coulee, and finally through the rolling agricultural lands that sit above the Columbia River Valley.
As we meandered down the final stretch of our dirt and gravel road toward the cabin, the heavy clouds gave way and it started raining. Now, I’m very accustomed to the Portland drizzle, but high desert rainstorms are something entirely different. It began pouring heavily, and we recalled that the sheathing we’d already added to the roof had gaps in it at each of the gambrel angles. We parked, rushed to unlock the cabin door, and opened it to see a very wet cabin. There was a large puddle on the floor, the wall studs were wet in certain areas, and tops of the windows pooled with water where the absence of caulking allowed the water to just seep in along the path of least resistance.
With only a few dish towels on hand, we mopped up what we could and moved our gear away from the leakiest spots. Just as we were cursing and trying to sort out what to do, the rain stopped suddenly and the sun came back out. Almost immediately, steam appeared over the roof as the water started evaporating back into the air, and as if by magic, a triple rainbow appeared over our heads. Despite the beautiful distraction, there was no question about it—we had to finish the roofing during this trip.
We immediately set to work laying out the roofing felt over the sheathing. We definitely didn’t have time to add the shingles that same day, but we knew that if we could just get that membrane over the gaps in the sheathing, we could weather the night and start shingling in the morning (pun intended). We anxiously kept our eyes off in the distance for approaching cloudbursts, but thankfully all the others we could see moving in from the mountains dumped just north or south of us. The rest of the afternoon involved cleaning up the inside of the cabin, opening up the windows to air things out, and carting a lot of the scrap lumber and construction debris back outside to make room in the interior. We then added a railing to the edge of the loft platform to keep us from rolling off and dropping eight feet to the floor (safety schmafety), unrolled our new mattress, and made the bed.
I wish I could say that Justin and I slept like rocks, but that night in the cabin gave us flashbacks to our last visit camping on the site. Though it wasn't nearly as extreme as staying in a tent, it was again colder than we expected and the gentle overnight winds whistled through the cracks and gaps in the cabin walls. The overhanging edges of the roofing felt rustled in the breeze and the moon was bright and nearly full in the sky.
Made [Incorrectly] in China
Coffee cures all, however, and the next morning we set to work unpacking the generator and getting it rolling. But try as I might, I couldn’t get the damn thing running. I followed all the first-time use instructions to a tee, adding oil, priming, etc.—I would open the fuel line, open the choke, crank it up, then slowly close the choke to get it back down to idle. After about a minute of running smoothly, the engine would start sputtering and coughing, then ultimately die. I’m no small engine mechanic, and my resident gearhead (my brother) was not with us to troubleshoot. But texts and phone calls just couldn’t solve the problem, nor could any amount of Googling, and I was ready to kick the stupid thing down the hillside.* Yet another major equipment failure, and this time it was brand new!
My next step was to call Harbor Freight’s customer support line, something I was skeptical of but I knew I had no other option. After waiting on hold for 35 minutes, I walked through the issue with the nice guy on the other end who ran through the typical steps to try and get it working. I held the phone up to the engine so he could hear how it was behaving, but he was as befuddled as I was. (Despite the mounting frustration, that at least helped me feel relatively competent with the machine knowing that it wasn’t a simple user error.) In the end, his best suggestion was that the carburetor was damaged in transit and it needed to be returned to the store. The nearest store? Three hours away in Yakima. Not going to happen.
As is sometimes the case, if you stare at the problem long enough in disbelief, the solution may appear in a stroke of cognitive genius. Something hadn’t been sitting right with me from the beginning, and I'd had a hunch that it had to do with the fuel line. After all, it was presumably getting some fuel, but then running out of it and dying, right? The valve between the tank and the engine had a label on it designating open and closed. “What if,” I thought to myself, “the label was wrong and it was the other way around?"
I “closed” the valve, primed it, opened the choke, and yanked on the pull cord. The engine fired up like it had so many times already, and I started easing up on the choke to bring the idle back down to normal. I waited tentatively for the sputtering and coughing that had been driving me bananas—but it didn’t come. I waited a bit longer in disbelief, but the engine settled into its rhythm and kept chugging along like it should have all along. Had my father been present, he would have exclaimed maniacally, “Now we’re cooking with gas!” (Okay, so maybe I did channel him and say that myself.)
I kicked myself for not following my hunch earlier, and if I’d had a means of calling that customer support technician back directly, I would have exclaimed that I’d figured it out and he should a) add that solution to his knowledge base, and b) tell the manufacturer that they got the damn label wrong! I also did one more Google search on my phone with the generator’s manufacturer and “fuel line” tacked on to the query, and sure enough I found a forum where another frustrated customer had discovered the same thing with a different model. I felt validated.
Lesson learned: When it comes to important equipment like a generator, buying the budget made-in-China option is usually going to come around to haunt you in the long run (or in this particular case, the second you open the box). I definitely would not recommend Harbor Freight Tools for sourcing this type of equipment, and we probably should have bit the bullet and shelled out a bit more money for something that had an automatic idle feature, higher power output, and something that would be more trustworthy. That said, the one we have has run like a dream ever since.
* Score another point for having great cellular signal up there. I don't know how we would have managed without it!
Struggling With Shingles
Our morning was pretty much blown to troubleshooting, but I set to work on the drip edge and shingles once the generator situation was all sorted out (we had the compressor on hand along with a roofing nailer to make the process much easier). While I was nailing away and figuring out just how exactly one does this, Justin started a project of his own on the ground, gathering scrap materials and building a table that we could use for our camp stove and food prep. By early afternoon the table was finished and I had made my way up one side of the cabin roof with the white three-tab shingles.* But as we took a break and I evaluated how much we had left to go, my heart sunk as I realized that I had miscalculated the square footage of the roof—we didn’t buy enough shingles. Note to self: 4 x 4 = 16, not 12. Check and double-check your math.
Grumbling, we descended the mountain and headed back into Wenatchee to fetch two more packs of shingles. While there, we stopped at Target to pick up a few other cooking implements and found an economical electric space heater that was on clearance which would serve two goals: we still needed to dry out certain parts of the cabin interior from the previous day’s downpour, and we wanted to heat things up just before bed to make our second night’s sleep more comfortable.
We returned to the property in the late afternoon and kept shingling until dinner, then turned on the generator and heater to start warming the cabin. Since the generator was already running, it seemed efficient to power up the compressor and turn our attention toward one other key element—building a ladder that would get us up to the loft. Scrambling up and down an aluminum ladder with bare feet when you have to go pee in the middle of the night is not our idea of fun.
After another exhausting long day of overcoming challenges and working until bedtime, and with a warmer cabin to start with, we did sleep better that night. But the whistling wind and bright moonlight still made it less than ideal, and we were behind on our schedule.
Finishing the shingles the next day presented a few more challenges, partly because of the strange roof angles and partly due to the precarious act of climbing around on top of the structure in the wind, untethered. Nothing like hefting sheathing around in wind gusts during our first trip, but still a struggle. At this point, however, Justin and I were in a good rhythm of handing off batches of shingles, shifting from one ladder to the next, then rinsing and repeating all the way up.
Once the roof was done, we focused on filling all the gaps in the structure with caulk and sealing things up. The interior had dried out, the roof was finished, and we felt confident that our cabin could withstand many more downpours well enough. Our to-do list was still pretty lengthy, but our second trip to the cabin was successful!
* We chose white shingles because of the climate of the area and the fact that there is no attic offering a thermal buffer between the living area and roof. The lighter shingles reflect more light than their darker counterparts, and will keep things cooler during the hottest months of the year.