Home, home under the range
By Claire Wolfe
We knew The Young Curmudgeon had returned to Hardyville when a 25-foot culvert suddenly appeared, then almost as suddenly disappeared, in a corner of Nat's ranch.
It was the return of the native -- "native" both in the sense of someone born here and in the old Hollywood sense of being untamed and restless.
Mudge got born here twentysome years ago to a ranch couple with roots deep into pioneer times. Daddy came from a family that thought highly of itself, and he was looking forward to having a son to carry on his name. Only thing is, as soon as Mudge squeezed into the world, it was clear -- and very -- that Daddy's name was all he was ever likely to carry of Daddy. Daddy's genes were most definitely not in the picture for this exotically dark and almond-eyed boy.
Yeah, things like that happen even in places like this.
So the marriage broke up, which also meant the ranch broke up (though fortunately, just into smaller ranches, and not into ski condos). Little Mudge got kind of broken along the way too. Long, sad story. He drifted in and out of school, and of town, and of everything. He felt a lot of stings and slings for being different and for being a walking, breathing scandal -- though there's a good chance many of them came from his own troubled heart, as much as from the people around him. After dropping out and drifting around, he joined up, went to Desert Storm all gung ho, came back sick with no gung ho, tried a little roughnecking, dropped out of that, tried a lot of drinking, dropped (well, mostly) out of that, then decided, a bit late, to try rodeoing.
Mudge, already over the hill at 25, made a pretty poor bull rider. A determined one. Just not a very ept one. He tried. He really tried. But it wasn't until he flew off a bull named Revelation and onto his skull that, so he claimed, he finally "got right in his head" and realized what he wanted to do with his life.
What he wanted was to be a damned, mean old hermit. Never mind that he could only be a damned, mean young hermit. At last, he had a real vocation. A vision. And off he went -- somewhere -- to learn how to be the best hermit he could be.
Anyway, about that culvert.
Mudge has never had a home, not since his mother took off on him when he was sixteen. But he's always had a welcome on Nat's ranch, partly because he's good with horses and dogs, and partly because (as everyone suspects -- which means, under the rules or rural gossip, that everyone knows) Nat is acquainted with the mystery daddy and perhaps owes him some debt of honor. So Mudge, in his way, has come and gone at Nat's for years, pushing cows in season, living in his truck or in the bunkhouse, then pushing off, sometimes for town, sometimes for no one knows where.
This time his return from parts unknown was signaled by the presence of that 25-foot by eight-foot steel tunnel.
As Nat tells it, Mudge simply showed up one day with a rented flatbed behind his old Dodge, the culvert chained to it. Nat watched from a distant bluff as Mudge laboriously winched the big tube onto the ground near the base of a hill. The tube had a couple of two-foot pieces of pipe protruding along its length and steel plates welded to the ends of it - though Nat noticed one of the plates had a cut-out, steel-framed rectangle.
Mudge then swabbed roofing compound over the whole exposed surface of this behemoth, let it dry, and rolled the culvert into a curved channel he'd dug at the base of the hill as the roof goo dried. (He dug the hole using a backhoe we'll assume he borrowed or rented.) Then, with the pipe ends sticking more-or-less straight up and the cut-in rectangle suddenly looking like a door, he swabbed tar over the newly exposed surfaces, and gave an extra swabbing to all the welded joints.
Now, normally, Nat would have two courses of action. He could do the neighborly thing and offer to help with whatever Mudge was up to. But you don't be neighborly with Mudge unless he chooses it; otherwise, he bites. Or -- being that all this was happening on Nat's land without word one to Nat -- Nat could have gone down there and run him off. Instead, curious, Nat watched a while and then departed.
The next day, there was a little undersized wooden door in the steel rectangle, complete with window.
The day after that, Mudge, in the backhoe, was painstakingly covering his creation in dirt -- all but the protruding pipes and the end with the door. He then topped the pipes with rain caps, and that was that.
A few days later, when Mudge had gone into town, Nat and Mrs. Nat drove out, peeked in through the window -- and found a floor made of scrounged plywood pallets, a sleeping bag, a lantern, a battered old Coleman stove, some boxes of food and jugs of water -- and plenty of room for someone to stand up in the middle of it all. Mudge had made himself a home.
"What should we do about it?" Mrs. Nat worried.
"But, Nathaniel, it is our land and you didn't tell him he could do this."
"But Mrs., it is poor ol' Mudge, and I didn't tell him he couldn't do it, either."
"Anyway, think about it. He'll be out of everybody's hair out here. And then, when he takes off again, we'll have us a heck of a nice little storage building. C'mon, I'll take you to town for lunch."
"I suppose you think we should buy him a housewarming gift while we're there?"
"Well, prob'ly not," Nat concluded, thoughtfully ignoring the sarcasm. "But you know, we could send him out that old Army cot from the attic. And maybe he could use the wood burner we used to take to huntin' camp. I'll ask him next time he's talkin' to anybody."
The Young Curmudgeon might have been inspired by the larger, more elegant and elaborate version of a culvert storage/shelter in Al Durtschi's article (complete with photos) at Walton Feed's very interesting Web site.
There are also some workable ideas for cheap shelter in The $50 and Up Underground House Book by Mike Oehler. Among other things, this book tells how to build an underground house using nothing but a shovel, polyethylene film, and a specially-equipped chainsaw.
If you like more elaborate earth shelters, you might look at The Complete Book of Underground Houses by Rob Roy. And for the whimsical and fantastic, check out The Earth-Sheltered House: An Architect's Sketchbook by Malcolm Wells.
Thanks to P.N. for the inspiration.
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