Ever fantasized about building a restful escape, with your bare hands, in some untrammeled back of beyond—and it all coming together just as you’d planned? Moron.
Comedy is tragedy plus time, and I’m telling you, not enough time has passed. Two years now and my friends automatically start cracking up when anyone says, “How’s your cabin?”
I just get mad. I don’t get the joke, presumably because I am the joke. All I wanted to do was stop talking about, and finally build, a cabin. Yet when you reach the end of this story, I won’t have driven one nail.
It’s not really my fault, this boondoggle. Real estate is more or less the male biological clock. There is some hardwired imperative that kicks in at a certain point, the way caribou migrate and birds sing. Around the start of their fifth decade, men suddenly discover gardening. They plant trees. They lay down fence lines. They construct and hold. Like a spoiled child, we say, This is mine. Mine, mine, mine.
Building a cabin in the wilderness is a nearly universal dream. Honestly, if you haven’t had it at some point, there’s something wrong with you. In college, I wasted hours with my buddy Tim arguing over where we would build our dream shack. Montana? Oregon? Hawaii? Years later, he came back from New Zealand, raving about how we could build it there.
Reality intrudes on such plans. Tim went into finance and worked long hours to support his five kids. I spent those years wandering everywhere without coming to roost anywhere. I never found that piece of peace and quiet I’d been imagining.
And then the clock started ticking. In my late thirties, my only assets—a tiny Manhattan sublet and a rusting motorcycle—came to feel inadequate. The dream cabin, with its imaginary forest, grew slowly into a compulsion. Certainly, it was an inversion of the real life I was leading with a press card in my pocket, working in war zones and Third World quagmires. Whenever something went wrong, which was often, I would catch myself dreaming about the cabin again. A cozy little bolt-hole. Some gentle spot where no one would point a gun at me. A “crucible of calm,” as Teddy Roosevelt’s place in the Badlands was called.
I started skimming from paychecks. The worse the place or the experience, the more I set aside: $1,000 after a nasty brush with the guerrillas in Colombia; $2,000 for walking into a mine field in Afghanistan; a drug gang in Brazil; teenage muggers in Havana; several Asian insurgencies. All I wanted was the basics: some running water—as in a trout stream—and a star-strewn sky. But after five years, I’d saved a mere $20,000, which wouldn’t buy a garden shed in Montana’s Paradise Valley.
I looked elsewhere, out of necessity. Oregon had been bid up by Californians; West Virginia colonized by D.C. weekenders; the Adirondacks cheap only in their boggiest, northernmost reaches, five or six hours from New York City. Since anything I could afford was beyond the reach of weekend use anyway, I began to accept what my heart had been screaming all along: Go south, young man!
As in way south. Just short of my 40th birthday, I told my wife, Beth, I was going to build us a little weekend place in well, in the, uh, Southern Hemisphere. The deep Southern Hemisphere, actually. New Zealand, maybe. Or Argentina. Possibly Chile. She suggested medication.
I knew this was insane. My friends scoffed. My father-in-law called it “the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”
But for me, the cabin was as necessary as it was preposterous. Enormously far away, these wide-open lands, which share a lonely vigil in the deepest realms of the world’s emptiest hemisphere, had long ago infused me with their clean skies, eerily pure water, and deep forests. I ruled out Chile, which had too much rain and, with apologies, too many Chileans. New Zealand seemed ideal, but a visit on my honeymoon showed me how much the Lord of the Rings effect had changed the country, with every millionaire priced out of Napa planting grapes in Nelson.
Like at all good parties, I was left with my original date: Argentina. A lovely, unstable land, it had dug hooks into me during a hitchhiking trip in 1991. With its dry flatlands and green mountains, cowboys, rambling old cars, and lack of fences, Patagonia seemed at times like Wyoming in 1950. When the Argentine economy collapsed in 2002, the prices also retreated by a few decades. Though far away (two flights, totaling 14 hours, plus a drive), it was still a lot closer than New Zealand, and the time zone—two hours ahead of EST—was close, close enough to stay in touch by telephone and come and go without jet lag. Despite an old-fashioned attachment to crime and the occasional run of five presidents in two weeks, Argentina had infrastructure, people, and wines that were all decent and getting better.
I was looking at northern Patagonia, a far gentler land than Tierra del Fuego, some 700 miles to the south. I wasn’t alone in this interest: Everything from Bariloche, an alpine gateway to the forests and parks of the region, south to Esquel was enjoying a real estate boom. My predecessors were Ted Turner, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. The Benetton family owned a huge spread outside of Esquel. The flag bearers in this foreign invasion, conservationists Kris and Douglas Tompkins, now have some two million acres in Argentina and Chile.
Big names created big expectations. “I have the perfect place for you,” one broker told me over a crackling connection: “15,000 acres, 14 buildings, and 500 head of cattle already on the land.” It was “priced to move” at $7 million. I couldn’t bear to tell him I’d be happy with half an acre.
In the end, I made the search the old-fashioned way, mano a mano. I flew to Bariloche with Beth, and we worked our way southward in a rental car, poking up gravel roads in the mountains, following tips from hitchhikers or small signs that read, LOT FOR SALE. Near the town of El Bolsón, we saw a 50-acre place—too big for us but considered puny in Patagonia—while another lot, near the sensitive border with Chile, was forbidden to foreigners. Price depended on amenities. A hundred acres in the dry, windswept flatlands where the Benettons grazed sheep came cheap. But two acres on a trout-packed river, lined with willows, in a perfect green valley near Cholila were offered up at a price that made even the toothless old cowboy saying it giggle. May Ted Turner find and bless him.
Finally, we ran out of pavement in Trevelín, a kind of Argentine Bozeman near Los Alerces National Park. We sat beside a gray-haired Argentine couple at dinner. At the mention of the word cabin, they looked up.
“We have more land than we can farm,” the woman said. Successful in the fruit and alfalfa business, they had picked up neighboring plots cheap over the years. With prices for land and everything else rising, they were looking to raise some cash. “Come have a look tomorrow,” the husband said.
We drove two miles up a dirt road, into the foothills of the Andes, and walked the parcel. It was on a mild slope overlooking a valley, thickly forested with young ponderosa and Oregon pines, with deep grass in the clearings, a few apple trees, and a flock of colorful Pata-gonian parakeets bursting through the trees. It was miles from electricity. The only water was a rivulet, fouled by cows. At ten acres, it was twice the size I wanted, and at $40,000 it was twice what I had in the bank.
My wife is tolerant, in a long-range way. The plan was absurd, she reminded me. But Beth knew there was something deeper than the rational at work in me. She loved the view over the valley. And the Argentines were fun, she agreed: “The joie de vivre you only get in a place that survived military dictatorship.”
“Just buy it,” she finally said, shaking her head.
Easier said than done, alas. I had only half the money I needed. I called up Tim, my old colleague in cabin dreams. New Zealand was now in Patagonia, I told him. Before I could even spit out a plan to go 50-50, he blurted out, “Yes.” As long as there was room to store his kayak, he didn’t care about design—and became my silent partner when matching funds arrived a week later.
The actual purchase was held up nine months by paperwork, bilingual wrangling, and lost wire transfers. All of which was merely prologue. Eventually, when I was high in the mountains of Lebanon, interviewing a warlord, the fax in my old Ottoman hotel ground out the news that a small piece of quiet was mine.
You can buy books on the tribulations and techniques of building a cabin, the benefits of feng shui, and the sublime pleasures of Norwegian framing techniques. I checked one on basic framing out of the New York Public Library, bought some graph paper, and headed south.
This kind of overconfidence is occasionally useful. Since I had helped build a house once before—sort of, partly, briefly, a long time ago—I figured I was qualified. In Argentina, I hired a local carpenter named Flaco (“Skinny”), who outlined glorious plans and then quit a few weeks before the start; he’d met a woman in Chile and simultaneously discovered I wasn’t Ted Turner. His replacement was a disturbingly young carpenter called Julito (“Little Julio”). He’d never actually built a house before, but Julito looked over my amateurish sketches for a 500-square-foot one-room cabin with a shed roof. “Fast and easy to build,” he assured me. He told me that it could be framed up in 30 days of hard work. He promised to bring the tools, the expertise, and extra hands. We shook on it.
I’d be bringing my own “toolbox” to the site—a band of volunteers who’d cleared two weeks of vacation and paid their own way to Patagonia for some romantic labor. Along with my wife came her twin sister, Amy, who’d built refugee camps for Doctors Without Borders. Even better, her husband, Simon, was a civil engineer and former house builder. My side of the aisle contained more enthusiasts than engineers: my sister, Deebie, and a friend from Buenos Aires, Colin. These were the people I cruelly (and secretly) referred to as Team Sawyer, since they would paint my picket fence for me. Meanwhile I expected to engage in more executive-level pursuits, like Tom himself—supervising, translating, doodling on graph paper. There was no architect, of course, or even a genuine blueprint. We would buy everything locally and use what architects call “vernacular” methods. I called it Taoist non-planning and actually thought it would work.
Three Argentines, all named Charley, agreed to give me advice, if not labor. The first was the owner of Casa Verde (“Green House”), a local hostel where Team Sawyer and I would all be sleeping, so I called him Green Charley. Then there was the farmer who’d sold me the lot; he was Welsh Charley, after his heritage. Gaucho Charley was a sinewy little cowboy in his sixties who ran cattle on the hillside and had the hard-won insights gained by actually living there.
I had spent ten years dreaming, three years shopping for land, and now almost two years arranging the construction, which I planned to spend 30 days supervising. Months before the planned January 2007 start, I flew down for ten days to line up a sawmill, open accounts at hardware stores, and coordinate a tight schedule of just-in-time deliveries. Julito vowed to have the site prepped and the foundation built before I returned with Team Sawyer in January, the height of Patagonian summer. We would go straight to the barn-raising scene in Witness where Harrison Ford is clambering all over the roof beams.
Cut to reality. In January, Beth and I found the site green and lovely—and completely undisturbed. Not a single board, beam, nail, tile, or bolt had arrived, not a clod of dirt had been moved, and Julito and his crew were nowhere to be found—and wouldn’t show up until a week later. Team Sawyer drifted in over the next few days. At sunset every night, we marveled at Trevelín’s view of the Andes and toasted the coming endeavor. Mornings, we stood around the grassy clearing scuffing our heels. Right away an argument broke out over where to put the hot tub.
Who said anything about a hot tub? But building, I soon realized, is about ambition. Flee to the simple life if you want. Your dreams, friends, and family will still have their say. Deebie insisted on relocating the cabin to the highest point, for the view. Beth argued for a lower point, where a large meadow could accommodate the family house she imagined. (“One room?” she whispered accusingly. “What were you thinking?”) Amy and Simon urged me to add a second story so I wouldn’t have to expand later.
I gave speeches on Thoreauvian self-sufficiency, which were ignored, and then conceded several points. We would build where we were, in the small upper clearing, but expand the floor plan to 850 square feet, making space for a separate bedroom, a larger deck, and other bourgeois sellouts. Each change meant more graph-paper calculations, more wood, more delays, more costs, and more hours of carpentry.
My dream was entering the spiral of geometric expansion, and the design suggestions came pouring in. Amy came back from a rafting detour in Chile and said, hopefully, “I saw these nice railings at the camp there, made from stripped and seasoned saplings.”
“Recycled barn doors,” my wife suggested.
“Mapuche carvings would look nice,” Colin offered.
Walls stuffed with hay bales? Why not a $1,300 propane refrigerator shipped down from California? Green Charley visited the site one morning and waved his hands in the air as he described a passive water heater made from black hoses and old wine bottles, although he admitted he’d never actually seen such a thing. Julito suggested energy-efficient sawdust insulation, until I pointed out that in a forest fire the cabin would go up like a Roman candle. Hadn’t I heard about the new double-paned, helium-filled, nano-coated, electricity-generating windows my sister knew about? “You could make a windmill,” Amy offered; she’d seen a Peace Corps design on the Internet. I swatted down as many of these ideas as I could, but Team Sawyer continued to fight a quiet insurgency, and one morning I found the stakes for the outhouse moved to a new location.
Necessity is the mother of compromise. A wind turbine was impractical, water power absurd, but in the bright Andean summer months of December through February, I often had 12 hours of sunshine on site. In Afghanistan a few years ago, I’d seen the Special Forces carrying solar panels that folded up like a map. I’d brought one, which charged my cell phone in 45 minutes (I could get a weak signal on the highest bump of my land) and my laptop in an afternoon. Green Charley lent me a car battery, Julito wired up some 12-volt lightbulbs, and suddenly we had illumination. Propane tanks would run a standard kitchen range and even a hot-water tank. For less than a thousand dollars, I soon owned all modern conveniences, though I still had no cabin to put them in.
Water was the issue that made my wife groan in frustration. A Californian, Beth expected to die of thirst on the hillside, given that the trickling stream seemed to be 50 percent cow urine. On an almost daily basis, I scrounged in the supply shops of local towns, until I came up with 420 meters of black hose to bear the water from the stream’s source, a spring buried in a cleft of the hill above my land, to the cabin. After 12 days of constant promises, none of the wood for the cabin had yet arrived, so the appearance of a delivery truck carrying the hose, on the day scheduled, was such a shock that everyone pulled out their cameras.
We rolled the coiled hose uphill, to the spring. Julito built an improvised filter, and we jammed the hose into a point where no cow could reach; pure, icy springwater now gushed through the hose at one liter per second. Back home, we’d have run a Ditch Witch down to the cabin, digging a trench to bury the hose. Here, Gaucho Charley turned up at dawn with a pair of bellowing oxen, which dragged an ancient iron plow up the hill and back down, drooling.
Meanwhile, Julito’s camp was getting nicer and nicer. He and his three assistants had built an outdoor shower, a barbecue pit, and a huge earthen larder filled with sausages, noodles, and wine. They dammed a bend in my little stream with logs, making a plunge pool for the 90-degree afternoons.
The only things missing were beams, boards, nails, brackets, and a roof.
There was work, actually. We cleared the ground, felling a single Oregon pine to free up space for the theoretical cabin. We leveled hillocks and pruned branches to create an entry for the lumber truck, which was due any minute. We designed a tower for the water tank and then abandoned the idea. We argued over different spots for the cabin. We feuded over how to build a gate, and then built it, but Gaucho Charley was so appalled by the result that he remade the whole thing with a pair of pliers. I made a courtesy call on the crusty old cowboy, to thank him, but instead of hot tea he offered a cold shoulder. I wanted a buddy; he wanted a patron.
Temperatures, and tempers, were rising. Team Sawyer was burning vacation time with nothing to show for it but a blank meadow. Delays, disagreements, and confusion ruled the site; my hardware-store accounts sat unused. Julito would drive into town and return hours later beaming with confidence: “Ciao, problema!” he’d call out. Whatever the problem was, he’d fixed it, solved it, or arranged it. The foundation materials were definitely coming tomorrow. The framing lumber would arrive on Friday, for sure. We’d start building any minute.
Guido at the sawmill failed to deliver boards on yet another deadline. Julito’s own support beams, supposedly ready weeks ago, disappeared. The hardware stores promised me everything and delivered nothing. Julito threw his hands up. Guido at the sawmill threw his hands up. “This is the reality of a subdeveloped country,” he said fatalistically, pouring me another shot of bitter tea. Julito tried yelling at him—and also pleading and begging. This produced no boards.
But Argentines know how to take a break. With summer light running from 6 A.M. to 10 P.M., it was possible to get two days of work out of one. We’d start early, at least by Argentine standards, and call it quits at two, before rousing ourselves at four or five for another three hours of work on the outhouse, or the fencing, anything but the nonexistent cabin. In the sunstruck heat of those early afternoons, I’d retreat to a hammock I’d strung between two ponderosas. Here, I’d engage in Big Picture Thinking, with a cowboy hat over my face. The boys would spend the siesta eating, drinking red wine, gossiping, sleeping hard, debating soccer, or birdwatching. With a series of squawks and whistles, Julito could summon the Patagonian parakeets, which perched in the very top branches of the pines, aloof.
My father could make such birdcalls, and I’d lie in the hammock recalling the way he’d taken us one summer from Virginia to New Hampshire to build his dream cabin in the woods. I was 16. A couple of months of building walls, laying floors, putting up paneling, and then wiring and plumbing had given us a ski house. It also gave me a bad case of resentment. I thought him a fool for wanting a cabin so far away that we would use it only once a year, at most.
So this splendid idiocy was a family tradition, which I could now repeat board for board.
It is important to have some failures in life, so this one was working out great. And as everything unraveled, my wife never once said, “I told you so,” God bless her.
By aiming my hammer at a hillside in one of the most remote regions on earth, I’d simplified my tasks in some ways—no building codes! no disapproving neighbors!—but complicated almost everything else. This was no A Year in Provence, in which Peter Mayle drank his way to the keyboard every day, lifting no tool heavier than a corkscrew while contractors rebuilt his house around him. Mayle, for all his famous quibbling with French stonemasons, admitted that he’d never been happier. My mood was blacker than a coal mine, preoccupied by the missing lumber, money problems, and the growing frustration of friends and family, who, two weeks in, somehow stayed sweaty and dirty yet never got to build the cabin they’d been promised. The wheels were coming off, our weeks in Patagonia expiring as a busted play.
Mayle’s architect compared building to trench warfare, with long periods of boredom interrupted by sudden fits of violence. The Latin sense of time, he said, was elastic. A “quarter of an hour” really meant “today.” “Tomorrow” meant “this week.” Any estimate of time preceded by the word “normally,” or followed by a hand gesture that involved fluttering the palm, was real trouble. Julito spoke this language. On at least half of the 30 days I was to spend on the hillside, he promised me something that turned out not to be true—the wood was coming today or being cut to the right lengths today or delivered to the sawmill today or chopped down today. The roofing materials were coming. The telephone poles for the foundation were coming. The cement or gravel or tools or provisions were coming. Tomorrow. Definitely. Ciao, problema.
In America, these same delays were completely normal, according to Simon, the engineer. Builders divided all delays into three categories. First was “mobilization,” which covered everyone showing up late or a lack of supplies. “Contingencies” meant any setback or unexpected development, like snow. And then there was “mañana,” meaning any day in the future.
The mañanas and contingencies mounted. The sawmill truck broke down. The guy who was going to fix the sawmill truck (“Monday!”) had a breakdown himself, and two Mondays later it still hadn’t been fixed. (Indeed, the sawmill truck was never fixed and, to this day, sits rusting in the lumberyard.) Wire transfers from America wandered off, lost in various Patagonian banks. Every male in Argentina fell in love with my sister-in-law, Amy, and if I looked away for a moment I’d turn back to find the three assistant carpenters offering her advice in a rustic mixture of Spanish, Italian, English, and hand gestures. She meanwhile dug a giant latrine, lined it with bricks, then reinforced it with concrete. It was more like a bomb shelter than a crapper, surpassed National Park Service requirements, and could serve 3,000 Boy Scouts.
At the height of summer, it snowed. It was only a light dusting before dawn, and melted quickly, but my carpenters declared the road to be endangered, descended to town, and didn’t return for days. I stalked around, fuming and bitter, practicing my tirades in Spanish. I didn’t fire them, only because hiring someone else would put me a year behind schedule.
Only while peering into the carpenters’ larder of sausages and noodles, their tent packed with cheese and Cruz de Malta mate tea, did I finally appreciate their utter lack of urgency. I’d never understood why they’d set up a tent camp when their homes, with hot showers, were just half an hour away. Only after studying the careful construction of their fire pit—a two-day job—did I realize their true agenda: They were on vacation.
I wasn’t paying them by the day, the week, or the month. They were paid the same amount whether they finished the job in three weeks or three years. From the Argentine point of view, this was not an incentive to hurry but an opportunity to linger—employment was essentially guaranteed for as long as they stayed on the hillside. Why not enjoy it? They would rhapsodize about the stars at night, the red sunsets, the jagged peaks of the Andes. They were, I realized with a shudder, hiding. Hiding from wives, girlfriends, bills, obligations. In that sense, they were like me; the cabin had become their refuge, too. They weren’t building a house in the woods; they were on a camping trip that happened to involve a little digging.
Everything I loved about Argentina—the willingness to linger over a meal, the care brought to a cup of coffee, the enthusiasm for new ventures—was doubling back to haunt me. These men were talented, skilled, and hardworking when they needed to be, and happy, even when they needed to be unhappy. The cabin existed only in an idealized, future condition; the best had become the enemy of the good.
After filling another page of graph paper with scratch calculations of my mounting bills, I moved out of the Green House and pitched my tent next to Julito’s camp. One member of Team Sawyer blew up and walked off the job. Two marriages went rocky for a few minutes. I was denying reality, becoming irrational, yelling at the locals. Family dysfunction, broken promises, missed deadlines—all darkened the mood.
“You could write an article about this cabin for Psychology Today,” Julito volunteered at one point. That same night, Oscar, the cheeriest of the assistants, openly compared our doomed encampment to “El Projecto Blair Witch.”
Time ran out, and we began a set of runs to the airport. Day by day, Team Sawyer broke up. They departed smiling, rapt by the Andes and, from the safety of the departure lounge, amused by the fiasco back on the hillside. There was not one board in place. Not even a foundation.
It took Mark Twain only a few pages to tell the story of Tom Sawyer’s picket fence and the crew that assembled to paint it. I had interpreted that tale as a challenge, an invitation to let others build my house for me. Now, at the end of my designated 30 days, I looked at the barren hillside and saw I had been not Tom but one of his victims. I bought a bottle of vino tinto that day and, near midnight, drove back to my tent on the hillside, where the carpenters were snoring away; 48 hours later I was back in the U.S.
Twain would say that in attempting you get things done, that small failures do eventually add up to something. So here’s the bottom line: I did get my cabin built, sort of. Just not by me or by Team Sawyer. In the end, long after I’d gone home and dried out my soul, boards from the sawmill began trickling up the hillside. The boys spent the entire summer up there and, gradually, at their own happy pace, built the floor, the walls, and the roof. Like every other yuppie, I paid someone else to take my splinters for me.
They did a shockingly good job, though. A year after the monthlong folly, I rolled up the hill again and found the trees swaying in the breeze just as I remembered, the parakeets still flitting overhead, and a beautiful cabin, standing by itself, utterly quiet. It is filled with Julito’s skilled detailing and Oscar’s thoughtful little adaptations of my design. The modern conveniences worked out better than expected—there’s even a flush toilet leading to Amy’s massive septic bunker. The price got a little out of hand, but not by too much. I don’t have any furniture yet, so I ate and slept on the floor. I didn’t drive a single nail, but it still felt like my refuge, the place where absolutely nothing could go wrong. Peace, at last!
There was, of course, a huge forest fire raging right then, and it barely missed my land. And a couple of months after I left, a volcano over in Chile blew up, scattering a rain of hot ash on the little building. But other than that, it all worked out perfectly.