“If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.”
The decision to build our home by ourselves, without any prior building experience whatsoever, and to do it in the middle of an ongoing pandemic seems, in retrospect, a bit mad. Yet, at the time, it was a decision born of necessity and need.
We live in a small town in northern Minnesota that is beautiful beyond belief. Located on the shore of Lake Superior, nestled under the slope of the Sawtooth Mountains, surrounded by inland forests and lakes, it is a boreal paradise, especially if you love being outdoors as much as we do. We fell in love with this place the first time we laid eyes on it. And we’re not the only ones who have felt the call of these north woods.
Each year the area attracts visitors from all over the country who come to hike, canoe, bike, ski, snowshoe, fish, or just sit by the lake, skipping rocks and taking in the natural beauty that urrounds them. Some of these visitors become so smitten that, like us, they decide to stay and make this place their full-time or part-time home. However, because this is a small place, the more that people want to live here, the less available housing there is to go around.
The result is a real lack of options when it comes to putting down roots. First off, because it’s a small town with a small amount of housing stock, when a house does come on the market, demand drives prices sky high. As of this writing, in early 2021, an older 800 sq. ft. home in town just sold, within days of being on the market, for over $250,000. The same house locted elsewhere might have sold for a third of that price. This made purchasing even a small house in town or around town out of our league.
This red hot real estate market brings about a second problem for those looking to live here. There is an extremely limited amount of rental properties available to a large and growing group of people looking for a place to live. This tight rental situation means that any place that comes up for rent is quickly snatched up, sometimes witho ut even being advertised as available. Daily in the locally oriented social media pages you’ll find somebody, or several somebodys, all looking for a place to rent that simply doesn’t exist.
Even when you’re lucky enough to find a place to rent, you can still find yourself playing “rental roulette”. Sooner or later, the owner, tired of upkeep and repairs, will be tempted to take advantage of the seller’s market when it comes to real estate and your lease will not be offered for renewal.
This is what happened to us last spring. In March, just as the pandemic was ramping up and the quarantine was shutting everything down, we learned that our landlord had decided not to renew our lease. Moving away was not an option. We had already relocated our family in 2018, moving to Florida for a job opportunity that seemed to be too good to pass up. Our two children didn’t do well in the heat and humidity of southern Florida after living in the forests of the north country for most of their lives. And all of us were overjoyed when, after deciding to come back home, we saw our town laid out before us as we crested the last rise in the road on our journey back home. We promised each other that we would never leave again, no matter what. Now that promise was going to be put to the test.
In the weeks after we learned that our lease wasn’t being renewed, we struggled with the difficulty of keeping that promise. We knew we could always could give the rental lotto another shot. This wasn’t our first time at that particular table and we knew how the game was played. But, even if we succeeded and found a new place to rent, we still wouldn’t have any housing security. We would, in all liklihood, only be delaying the inevitable. At some point in the future, we’d find ourselves in this exact same situation, playing the exact same game. It was only a matter of time before we lost and found ourselves essentially homeless in our hometown.
Several years earlier, we had purchased five acres of undeveloped land about ten miles outside of town. It’s a beautiful piece of property, high ground that’s well drained and backs up to thousands of acres of pristine, unihabited land owned by Uncle Sam. The two of us spent the summer, fall and early winter of that year up on the “land”, clearing the underbrush and felling over 70 trees, carving out an opening in the forest. The plan was to get back at it the following year. But then life happened. Opportunity knocked and instead of starting to build on the land we loved, we found ourselves moving across the country in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
In the early stages of the quarantine, as winter started to give way to spring, the two of us would take long walks on side roads outside of town to get out of the house and to clear our heads. As we walked, we talked. And as we talked, we soon decided that the only viable option for our family lay up on our land. We didn’t have a home. If we wanted one, we were going to have to build it ourselves. We didn’t know how we would do it. Neither of us has ever built so much as a birdhouse, let alone a structure that we could call our forever home. But what we lacked in technical skills, we made up for in determination and drive. We would not be driven from a place we loved. We would not stand by and risk having our children lose the only place that feels like home to them. We would do this. We would reconnect with the spirit of our land – the grace that is always there beneath the pines – and we would find the strength and learn the skills necessary to secure a stable home for our family.
And so, in the early spring of last year, we began. Two people, four hands, and one very big dream.
In the end, this is a story about coming home. It is about seeing something through to its final end. It is about walking through the fire of fear and frustration, fighting the doubt, ignoring the pain, wiping away the tears, and just getting on with the work of turning a dream into a reality. More tha anything, it was this daily dogged determination to move forward, no matter what, following our hearts and refusing to fail, that allowed the house we now live in to rise upward, day by day, board by board and inch by inch. If nothing else, this house is a symbol of our love for each other as a family. It is that love made manifest.
We hope that our journey inspires you and that, through our story, you are able to see that you are capable of so much more than you realize. Because if we did it, you can too. Our deepest wish in writing this is that the story of our journey home becomes the first step in your journey to that place in the world you can call home.
John and Lisa
Grace Beneath the Pines