Tune in, turn on, drop out.

My dad used to day, “TV will rot your brain.”

I gave up watching TV many years ago, but lately I realized that Facebook has kind of rotted my brain.

Don't get me wrong: Facebook has been a real blessing in my life. I have reconnected with old friends, learned about their new lives; I have learned more about my Lopez community than I ever would have by just hanging around the library; I get to see photos of my relatives in far-away places, watch babies grow into little girls; I get to debate with smart and well-informed folks. I learn stuff and LOL.

But also, I get caught up. I find myself picking things up that "don't have my name on them," —things that really have nothing to do with me. I do this a lot:

Comic by  xkcd .

Comic by xkcd.

Not that there's anything wrong with correcting people on the internet, it's just that the job is pretty time-consuming, and time is not a resource I have an abundance of right now.

I am also distressed at the way many of my friends have come to use Facebook: as a platform for disseminating, well, crazy shit. I expected that kind of thing from some of my friends who are farther along on the gonzo spectrum—but now it's happening to people whom I think of as possessing reasonably disciplined intellects. Hysteria, fear, and panic are contagious. It's not good for me to see this kind of thing day after day, even if it's just a passing glance as I scroll looking for something funny, or personal, from someone I care about. Images stick in our brain, even if our conscious mind has stopped being aware of them.

I really don't want to fill my head with stories about nasty racists, or selfish billionaires. I know they're out there, they will always be out there, but that doesn't mean that I need to provide them a home in my head.

It's a lot like watching violent movies: as I get older, my tolerance for violence in films or books diminishes, and that's fine by me. I am not a better person for witnessing gratuitous violence on a screen, and by the same token I am not a better person for witnessing acts of cruelty perpetrated by elected officials on my fellow citizens.

Yes, I understand that it's important to bear witness to bad things done by bad people: but at the same time, exposure to bad things, violence, hatred and the like, tends to desensitize us to those same things.

I don't want to become desensitized by the world around me.

I want to be more present, not just in my face-to-face encounters (not immediately saying, oh I saw that on Facebook! would be a good start..) but in how I relate to the online world. I want to read an article without spending more time thinking about sharing it on Facebook and what I'll say about it than actually reading the article. If I do think someone else might be interested in something I've read, instead of posting it on FB I can send it to them in an email or mention it when I next see them. This approach creates space for us to discuss an idea without the constant noise and distraction of 500 other things that someone shared that day.

One more thing: I started this blog last year, and I rather enjoyed sitting down once a week and collecting my thoughts, and writing a post about an idea that I think is worth exploring, or an experience I have had, or something that I'm working on.

Like: I want to write about last year, about buying land, about Steve's cancer. And I want to write about building our house, and planting fruit trees, and growing a garden, and our friends and this wonderful community we live in. Good stuff, bad stuff, real stuff.

Like: this amazing artist named Suzanne that we met over Christmas.

This is about 2% of the cool stuff in Suzanne's apartment. Oh my!

This is about 2% of the cool stuff in Suzanne's apartment. Oh my!

And if you'd like to have a conversation about anything you read here, I'd love to talk with you—just scroll down a little bit more 'till you see that "Comments" section... ;-)

Building With Heart

"The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search for any person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive."
—Christopher Alexander, "The Timeless Way of Building"

See "Further Reading," below, for titles and authors

As I mentioned in a previous post, we're in the process of looking for land to buy, with the ultimate goal of building a home of our own. It's a goal that I know is shared by not a few folks on Lopez, many of whom will recognize at least some of the books in the photo above.

Those books are full of images & concepts that represent an ancient lineage of vernacular building and the modern interpretations of these traditional forms of shelter. It's a rich history, but for us living here now, that history might as well have never happened: for each and every building portrayed in these books would be illegal to build in San Juan County today.

To build one's own shelter... such an ancient impulse. I have been thinking about this idea for most of my life: as soon as I figured out that things could be built, I started building. My Dad was supportive—he taught me how to use and care for hand tools and let me rummage through the scrap lumber pile—but he wasn't indulgent, so if there wasn't something useful in the scrap pile I didn't have it to build with.

I remember a few early projects:

—The adobe cabin, which got about 8 inches high before I realized how much work it is to make your own mud bricks;

—The A-frame cabin, which got a bit drafty since I only had enough wood for one wall, the other being Dad's brush-hauling tarp, which was regularly commandeered for its intended purpose;

—And my masterwork, an ambitious elevated platform between two magnificent 80' tall redwood trees, the top of one which also happened to be my primary perch for surveying the neighborhood.

I grew up in Menlo Park, California and at a tender age discovered the Whole Earth Truck Store, a trove of books and tools for the budding back-to-the-land movement. It's possible that it was here that I first encountered the book Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher's Art. (It was published in 1973, when I was 13.) Whatever the origin, that book immediately catapulted my imagination into new realms of strange and wonderful spaces. I realized that grown-ups were doing what I wanted to do: to build from the inner eye.

In the summer of 1977 my high school best friend's parents were having a new house built: an ambitious, earth-sheltered passive solar house perched on a high, west-facing ridge of the Coast Range. It was being constructed by the design-build team calling themselves Jersey Devil. It turned out to be a perfect place for us to escape the parental units' supervision, and we hung out at the site as much as we could that summer. It was my first real experience with the kind of organic, free-thinking and boundary-shattering approach to building that I had encountered in the Woodbutcher's Art. I was hooked.

Unfortunately for me, the timing wasn't ideal. In 1977 the design-build philosophy was seen as kooky and fringe-y. No design school was teaching it; architecture programs wouldn't even admit that "design-build" existed. One was either a carpenter, or one was an Architect, and never the twain shall meet. (And oh yes, both carpenter and Architect were universally male...) My parents, understandably, didn't see any point in my interest in a non-existent career path.

After some educational fits and starts, I found myself at The Evergreen State College in 1983. In the spring of 1984 I took an Environmental Design course and was introduced to Christopher Alexander's seminal works, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. Alexander sought to describe and codify those intangible elements that, taken all together, create the feeling of "aliveness" that we feel in a building, or in the spaces between buildings.

From Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building"

From Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building"

It seems to me that a building or space that we experience as vital and alive is one that has come to that condition either through fortunate age, or through the hands of loving and imaginative builders. When we see cookie-cutter, ticky-tacky, hostile, or sterile buildings we instinctively understand that they feel that way because they have no heart.

"Part of our troubles results from the tendency to ascribe to architects—or, for that matter, to all specialists—exceptional insight into problems of living when, in truth, most of them are concerned with problems of business and prestige."
—Bernard Rudofsky, "Architecture Without Architects"

Architects and contractors must concern themselves with budgets, permits, and the expectations of their clients and their peers. In vernacular architecture, as with the homegrown, the aspirations of the space are more intimate and human-scale: a space for a family or for art, for conviviality and sustenance. In the days when a land could still be found cheap, an individual or a family could slowly put together shelter as time and money allowed, and that space could grow and evolve with the needs and resources of its inhabitants. Nowadays the building must be planned completely in advance: plans must be stamped and submitted, filed and adhered to, until, at long last the grace of one's "final" is bestowed and the inhabitants can legally dwell therein.

Nowhere in this process is there room for spontaneity, or inspiration gained from working on the site and learning new ways that the building might marry its ground: new aspects that may present themselves only after weeks—or seasons—on the land.

Is it possible nowadays on Lopez Island, within the strict confines of building codes and limited budgets, for one to build a home that has heart? It doesn't, on the surface, seem so... but I would nonetheless like to purse the idea, and dream of a building that honors those craftsmen and women who have built here before me, and that pays homage to the ancient traditions that inspired them.

Finally, a special treat for you: the building of an marvelous wooden house (made mostly with hand tools) by Jacob, a young Latvian craftsman and founder of John Neeman Tools:

Further Reading

(This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a stepping-off point...)

Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky
The Natural House by Frank Lloyd Wright
Shelter by Lloyd Kahn
Builders of the Pacific Coast by Lloyd Kahn
Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art by Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro
Greene and Greene Masterworks by Bruce Smith and Alexander Vertikoff
Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design by Richard Olsen
The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing


The Distracted Isle

Well, civilization is finally coming to Lopez Island. After at least a decade of avoiding the ubiquity of cell towers, our electric utility Opalco has signed an agreement with T-Mobile to install 4G LTE cell towers on utility poles around the island. A few have already gone up, and many more are planned (38 in total for the County).

Many citizens are concerned about this development, for varying reasons. Some folks are concerned with the possible adverse health effects of electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. EMR); some folks are not worried about EMR per se, but feel that having "good" cell phone reception will negate some of the advantages of living in a community that isn't quite as obsessed with connectivity as the mainland (a.k.a. America).

I am in the latter group. A few years ago I wrote about the EMR kerfluffle as it was unfolding at the time, when the broadband plan was initially put forth. I am not convinced that the electromagnetic "radiation" (scary word!) from cell towers is any more toxic to our health than other radio frequencies, or wood smoke, or arsenic in groundwater, or any other of a million things that we are exposed to on a daily basis.

But I do see a real threat to our local culture as the "always connected" mindset begins to dominate, and we are expected to keep up with everything...

Speed it up!

Speed it up!

I'm one of a gazillion people who are writing about this very same subject at this moment. There's no doubt that as human beings, we are losing something when the cell phone becomes a dominant feature in every interaction between human individuals, and between humans and the world around us. Does a sunset or a flower exist for itself, or so we can post it on Instagram? If we do not "capture the moment" does it negate the experience? (I take pictures and post them on Instagram, so I'm not casting any stones here...)

One reason these questions concern me is that I am acutely aware of my own neurological tendency to be distracted, and how the internet fuels that distraction. I make a living on the internet, and more than that I have come to depend on it as a source of knowledge and information. I spend hours just about every day online, and I think I'm pretty good at using the Interwebs. I get the internet: it's cool, it's fun, and it's very, very useful.

But when I step outside, I'm not connected to the Web, and neither are the friends I'm hiking with. When you go to a gathering on Lopez it's rare to see someone glued to a screen. Lopez has a culture that, while not discouraging cell phone use, certainly doesn't encourage or fetishize it.

Recently the Chamber of Commerce came up with an idea to promote Lopez via an app—visitors could "check in" at various sites around the island and earn points to be rewarded... somewhere. (I'm not too clear on the actual goal of the thing.) People went kinda ballistic when it was revealed that a lot of our cherished natural places were going to be "check in" spots. Fast forward, and the natural sites were removed from the app—but the fact is that someone (or more accurately many someones) thought it appropriate that visitors would use our beaches, trails, rocky bluffs, and forests as if they were a video game.

Such is the power of this new force: we have become conditioned to accept that the natural world is just another game to consume.

OK, time for me to summon my inner crank and start snarling about "when I was a kid...!" But really, when I was a kid, we didn't have little computers in our pockets that allowed us to check out of the work around us. We had to resort to comic books and Gilligan's Island reruns for that. And Mom would stride in and turn off the TV when it was time to do homework...

Nevertheless, in the 60's kids suffered from attention deficit disorders—we just didn't generally know it at the time. I was not neurotypical: I was one of those distractable, under-achieving kids that stymied my teachers and my parents. Adding the internet into my available escape routes might have been a good thing, but it might also have been disastrous. How parents today deal with "screen time" is utterly beyond my imagination.

Clearly, we're not wired to handle the level of sensory stimulation that pervades modern life. (You can Google that if you want to. But trust me, it's true.) That's one reason why people come to places like Lopez: to unplug. A place that isn't plastered with TVs, that has crappy cell phone reception, that has amazing natural places to experience... these places are too rare, and too precious to sacrifice.

Well, looky there!

Well, looky there!

What can we as a community do about this new onslaught, this new reality of "more capacity, faster speeds, and a superb experience" ? Well, the reality is... we can't do anything about the cell towers. Federal law forbids local jurisdictions from prohibiting the "provision of personal wireless services." Even if some citizens managed to bring a case against the towers, the majority of islanders support "better" connectivity.

But maybe there is another way for us to advance the conversation. Maybe we can think of ways to nurture the idea that people visiting Lopez would voluntarily unplug—that this community values experiences that don't require an internet connection. We can put forth the idea that unplugging is good for the body and soul. We can encourage focus, instead of distraction.

We can use the tools of promotion, too—we can "brand" our own message: a message of engagement with the world around us, instead of a screen.

What do you think the LopezUnplugged Brand would look like?


The Big Ask

"You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need"
—The Rolling Stones

I've written previously about our search for a piece of land and the financial challenges therewith. While we are prepared to attempt to purchase land and build a house without outside financial support, the prospect of doing so is daunting to say the least. I decided last fall that I would approach a person who might be able to help make our dream come true, but I was paralyzed by the thought of asking for financial help.

(Earlier this week, thinking about writing this post, the phrase "the big ask" came to mind. When that phrase emerged I didn't realize that The Big Ask turns out to be A Thing: specifically, the thing that fundraisers do when they are going after a large pledge from a donor.)

I'm usually petrified at the idea of asking anyone for anything, let alone asking for money. Asking for things isn't in my nature. I usually think of this reluctance as,

"I don't need help."

But often what I'm really feeling is,

"I don't deserve help."

Putting myself out there and asking for help is something I do so seldom that I'm generally awful at doing it. So before asking this person for assistance, I knew I needed some guidance on how to actually ask for help. I turned to a very good friend of mine whom I felt would have insight and could guide me in this endeavor. We talked about the best way to approach the person, how to make our plan clear, my expectations for the outcome, and how I would feel if the person declined my request. I'm sure that had I not had this talk with my friend I never would have been able to do the Big Ask.

Over the past 30 years I have asked family members for financial assistance to purchase land a couple of times and was turned down in each case. It is evident to me now that I wasn't nearly ready to follow through, should I receive such a boon. I know it is no small thing to buy land and to build one's own home: I have several friends who have labored for decades to build their homesteads. But it's harder than ever to make that happen here in the San Juans, or most anywhere in the more desirable areas of the U.S. (My husband does occasionally remind me of the affordability of land in Alabama...) And, as I'm about to turn 56 years old in a few weeks, I was really hitting the point of "if not now, when?"

The Big Things in our lives usually require the help of others, so I decided to wrap up my pride/insecurity for a moment and lay out my case in the most honest way I could, write that letter, and send it out like a prayer on the wind.

In my letter I said that I had no attachment to the outcome—which wasn't 100% true—but I think I really was in a place where I was willing to accept that if this entreaty did not succeed, I was willing to accept that my dream simply was not to be, at least in its current form.

I had also prepared something on the order of a Plan, or at least more so than back when all I thought about was possibly getting my hands on some cash. I spent a few days on the County website researching the permitting process and getting a feel for what is involved in this bureaucratic dance. I have friends in the building industry who can be tapped for help and advice. I have considered our options for financing at various stages of the process of land acquisition, infrastructure development, and building, depending upon how much assistance we could muster.

So I began to see that the Big Ask is not really about just wanting something, but about stating clearly and unambiguously what we need, and what we plan on doing with what we ask for.

Put yourself in the picture.

I put myself in the picture. I imagined myself succeeding, and what that success would look like. I also imagined myself not succeeding, and how I would feel about that. I think knowing how to see myself when I don't succeed is the place where I feel I have the most to learn.

"Thinking of one's self as a failure is not the same as failing."
—Seth Godin, On feeling like a failure.

Enter Bernie Sanders

When I was thinking about writing this post, I registered a connection between the Big Ask in my personal life and the bigger picture of the political life of our country today. I realized this connection while reading Paul Krugman's complaint that change is incremental, that Bernie Sanders' supporters are "idealistic," and that Bernie is a "purist" who won't be able to get anything done even if he's elected. Krugman states that in the "harsh realities" of politics, idealism must bow to "hard thinking about means and ends." Krugman finishes with:

"Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence."

Oh, really? Is that what idealism is?

It's clear that Americans have largely given up asking for the system to work for us, and have mostly accepted that our idealism is mere self-indulgence, and that our dreams and hungers are unrealistic goals in the grown-up world of modern politics.

But what if we really could make the Big Ask of our political system? To state, clearly and unequivocally, what we need, and how we want to be treated? It's no secret that the political system in the U.S. (the whole world, really) is controlled by very powerful individuals and organizations whose interests are not in any way aligned with those of ordinary people. But there are few of them, and many of us.

Bernie Sanders is talking about a revolution, but not one with the sort of bloodshed and terror that we have learned about in history books. Bernie's message is strong, insistent, but really quite simple and civil: we need—and deserve—fairness, justice, and a chance to share in the wealth of our nation.

Even if Bernie never captures the nomination (which wouldn't be a surprise, given the lock powerful interests have on the Democratic Party), millions of Americans have awakened to the realization that we do, in fact, seem to have the power to make the Big Ask. I think our power as members of civil society are being reawakened, and I'm damn excited to see it happen.

Oh and by the way, this also happens to be the Year of the Fire Monkey...

Shall we be like Fire Monkeys this year?


This post is dedicated to J__ B__, who guided me through murky waters with wisdom, gentleness, and compassion.

Armchair land exploration II

Part 2: The Past

In last week's post I provided resources for exploring our local land parcels through County records and GIS mapping system. There are also many historical resources for exploring the landscape, and this week I'll share some of them.

The Public Land Survey: or, where did all those lines on the map come from?

First of all, a couple of important questions: why are many of our land boundaries square? Who decided to divide up the land this way? You may have noticed a grid of lines on a topographic or other map. This large grid extends throughout most of the Western United States. It's a system for dividing land into parcels, and it's called the Public Land Survey System. The system arose after the Revolutionary War, when the new federal government needed to start selling off its new territories in order to pay the war debts. In order for the land to be sold, it had to be surveyed. The old European system of land surveying was called "metes and bounds," and it relied primarily on topographic features to describe the land and make boundaries. But this system isn't particularly reliable and another, more methodical system was needed.

Detail of a "metes and bounds" survey map of a California rancho

The new system relies upon a grid established upon two lines: the east-west baseline and the north-south principal meridian. Upon this framework, parallel lines of latitude are based at regular intervals, and then subdivided into survey townships of roughly 36 square miles (a square area with sides six miles long). (Note: because the earth is a curved surface, lines of latitude are not perfectly parallel to each other—they converge towards the poles, and various methods were devised to take this into account.) The boundaries of a survey township are east-west Township lines and north-south Range lines. Each township is subdivided into 36 sections of approx. 1 square mile (640 acres), and each section is further subdivided into quarter-sections of 1/4 square mile (160 acres). The federal survey only covered these quarter sections, as private surveys took over further subdivision after the land was sold.

The corners of these large divisions were (and are still) marked with monuments of various types. You may have seen one common type, which is a round bronze plaque set into the ground: there's one at Iceberg Point next to the white pillar. Often another nearby object, such as a large tree, was designated to witness the monument: thus you sometimes find a large, lone tree near a section corner called a "witness tree." Another common monument you may find on Lopez is a small bronze cover (like a small manhole) in the middle of the road. Surveyors use these monuments to set the starting point of a survey.

Principal Meridians and Base Lines of the Public Land Survey

Once this mega-grid was in place on the ground, the land could be divided and subdivided in an accurate way. The history of the western United States is inextricably bound with the land survey system: from the railroad land grants to the Homestead Acts, all development depended on the presence and accuracy of the public land survey. In the image above, you can see that not all states use the same system, but the Public Land Survey is the basis for most modern surveys.

If you've ever looked at a land deed, you might have come across something like this cryptic text: "SW1/4 NW1/4 S13, T1S R20E." This is shorthand for the land legal description, which can be translated thus: "The southwest quarter of the northwest quarter of section 13 of Township 1 South Range 20 East." (The description starts with the smallest division, the quarter-section, and goes up to the township and range level.) Within the rectilinear system of township and range, the land is usually divided into a very complex system of irregular plats and lots.

Back to Lopez

Last week I described finding a particular parcel of land that's for sale, and how I plotted it out on the county Polaris GIS map tool. Now, I can go into Polaris and turn on the Public Land Survey layer to see the section labels:

Mariner Hill neighborhood, showing parcel lines and public land survey labels.

Now that you know what "Section 23 Township 35 North Range 2 West" means, we can go looking for some sources of older maps. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has a collection of survey maps, some of which are from the late 1800s. So let's go here and enter the township & range we're interested in: T 35 N, R 2W (note you'll enter it as 035-0N and 002-0W; the Field Note Order isn't important). Once the results page loads, you can select the map files to view. In the Survey Plats table, click on the link in the Cadastral Survey - 1875-04-15 row (link to full image: 10.4 MB file). Here's a detail of that map:

1874 Survey map (detail)

There are cool details in this map: the wagon roads, homesteads, cleared areas, and lands set aside for military reservations... even the telegraph line! It's worth downloading these files and viewing them at full size. If you want to get the four maps for Lopez/Decatur, here's what you're looking for on the BLM site (township-range: date of survey):

The "T-Sheets"

If you want to really geek out on old maps, nothing quite beats the topographic maps made in the late 1800's, affectionately known as the "T-sheets." These maps have amazing details about the islands, including types of vegetation and the layout of homesteads down to the fields and buildings. The t-sheets are available online, but to see them full size you'll need to get a hold of a copy of them on CD-ROM (remember those?) Link to collection is here: Early Washington Maps—San Juan Islands. Library record (for Interlibrary Loan request): San Juan Islands T-sheets. Here's a delicious detail:

Update: Dr. Tom Schroeder, retired biologist at the Friday Harbor Labs, unearthed the original T-sheets and arranged to have them scanned full size by the University of Washington. Here's an article by Dr. Schroeder that reveals more about these fascinating, unpublished maps: Long-ago landcover revealed in Gilbert's exquisite t-sheets

From the Air

One last resource I'd like to share with you is a collection of aerial photos, available on the Washington Coastal Atlas Map. This map service is similar to the Polaris GIS maps I introduced earlier: you can add layers of data to the map. To do that, click the Add map data link; in the overlay window, select the Shoreline tab, then check the boxes next to the Shoreline photos dates, then click Go. The map will update and you'll see a string of colored boxes (color-coded by date) all along the shoreline of the islands. Click on a box to bring up the location info, then click the view this image or view large image link to see the photos viewer. Once you're in the photos viewer, you can navigate along the series of photos and see a larger version of each image. These images only go back to the 70s, but there have been enough changes throughout the islands to make the older photos pretty interesting. You can even compare photos of the same location in different dates!

Fisherman Bay, 1977—The Islander to Whiskey Hill.

Well, that's all I have to share today. Happy exploring, and if you have sources of old maps or photos, please do let me know in the comments!


Part one is here: Armchair land exploration.


Armchair land exploration

Part One: the present

Let's go land shopping!

Let's go land shopping!

If you read last week's post, you'll know that I've been interested in purchasing land on Lopez for quite a while. Over the years I've combed the real estate listings to get an idea of what's available, where, and at what price. Several years ago I discovered some great online resources for exploring island parcels. In this post I'll share them with you, in the hopes that other land-lusters will find them valuable.

The first resource is the real estate service Zillow. It's great because it allows you to search on a map, and it usually has all the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) listings for an area all in one place. But there's a lot more you can do to find out about a piece of land, and here's where a couple of County websites come in. So let's pick a listing, and find out all we can about it!

Here's our example parcel, as listed on Zillow. It's 2.2 acres of unimproved land on Mariner Drive, above Fisherman Bay. The listing contains the MLS number, and shows the address as "11 Mariner Drive"—but that address is not an actual legal address because there's no building on it. So in order to find out more about this parcel, we''ll need to do a little extra sleuthing. Zillow shows the agents that list this property, so I went to one of them, Lopez Village Properties. I enter the MLS number to see the listing info—what we're after is the parcel number, which is how the County records identify each unique parcel of land. Lopez Village Properties shows the parcel number as 252350011. Copy this number down for the next step.

County Records

Armed with the parcel number, we'll head over to the San Juan County Assessor's property search page. Copy or type in the parcel number into the Tax Parcel field and hit search. (The field will accept up to 12 digits—many parcel numbers here end with three zeros, so the nine-digit number we copied will work.)

Property Search

Property Search

The search will return the results of your search, showing the property ID, its owners, etc. Click the view details link for the full info. Note: this information is all in the public record, but please be respectful with your use of this information! Commercial use of public records is expressly forbidden. On the details page, you can see the tax breakdown and amounts, and you can also check out the Roll Value History to get an idea of how the values have gone up and down over the years.

Property search results

Property search results

There's also an option to view map, but I don't use the map service here—we'll go to another site to a better map that will show us a lot more info, and doesn't require the stupid and obsolete Silverlight plugin. So let's head on over to the San Juan County Polaris Property Search, which is part of the County's GIS service.

If you are a map enthusiast of any kind, you will love Polaris GIS! This information used to be restricted to owners of expensive GIS software, but it is now freely available to anyone with access to the interwebs. Enter the parcel number into the search field and hit the search button, and you'll get this result:

Wow! So much info here. We can see the property boundaries, how wooded it is, and where it is in relation to its neighbors. But wait, there's more...!

GIS Layers

The truly great thing about GIS is the ability to use layers to explore more about this parcel and the surrounding area. So, take a look at the left hand sidebar, and click on the section labeled Map Contents. Click the plus sign next to a section to expand it; check or un-check a box to show or hide that layer. Here's the layers you can explore:

  • Labels: show or hide parcel & road labels
  • Parcels: Show or hide parcel & plat boundaries
  • Public Land Survey: Section/Township info (more on this in Part 2)
  • Contours: show or hide the land contours. Helpful to get an idea of how steep this parcel is!
  • Critical Areas: important to see if there are wetlands on the parcel
  • Comprehensive Plan: check out the zoning designation(s)
  • Soils: this is a little tricky to use, there are too many colors and no labels on the map. But fun anyway.
  • Bare Earth: SUPER COOL! Using Lidar, you can see the land stripped of vegetation. In concert with contours, you can tell a lot about the form of the land: how steep it is, which direction it slopes.

The section below Search is Measure, and here you can measure the length of the parcel boundaries, find its area, and get lat-long coordinates. Below that are Drawing tools, which I have not played around with much. Using the "minus" button overlaying the map, you can zoom out to see a larger area. Gosh, there are a lot of parcels on Lopez...

So far, we've been starting with a parcel that is currently listed for sale. Using Zillow you can find recently-sold properties, or head back over to the Assessor's site and select Sales Search to research what parcels recently sold and for how much. You can also use Polaris to find out more about a parcel that isn't listed for sale...

Say you've had your eye on a sweet old farm and wondered if you could convince the owners to sell. Locate it on the Polaris map, and zoom in until you can see the tax parcel label. (If you hid this layer earlier, just check the box under Labels to show it again.) Unfortunately, the tax parcel labels are not selectable text, so you'll need superior eyesight or a magnifying glass to read the 12-digit number. Write the number down, then go back to the Assessor's Parcel Search and type the number in like we did way back at the beginning. You'll find the legal owner(s) name and address, and also the assessed value of the land. Who knows, you may find the perfect land, just waiting to help your dreams come true...

Next week, I'll share some cool resources for exploring the history of land parcels. Part two is up.


Of course, if you're serious about shopping for property, you'll want to establish a relationship with one of our many fine local Realtors. I don't endorse Zillow or any particular Realtor. And please, always use your knowledge for good, not evil.

Freedom Ride

Or, an ode to the Road Trip

When you mention "road trip" to a lot of folks, it usually leads to a delighted exclamation along the lines of "I love road trips!"

Paul Bunyan & Blue at the Trees of Mystery

Paul Bunyan & Blue at the Trees of Mystery

What's not lo love about road trips? For me, one of the greatest pleasures of road trippin' is the opportunity for serendipity: you can stop any time, for any reason, and decide to take a side path, or cosy up to some killer crumb-cake in a new-to-you local cafe just a little off the interstate.

Anderson Valley Store

Anderson Valley Store

In 2006, the company my husband Steve worked for imploded and right before Christmas he was unexpectedly unemployed. Since I was self-employed, and had no immediate need to stick around, we looked at each other and decided that our annual holiday trip to my Mom's in California would not be by air, but by road.

Prairie Creek Redwoods

Prairie Creek Redwoods

Since moving to the Northwest in 1981, I have made the trip down I-5 and 101 many dozens of times. But this would be my first trip with Steve, and he had never seen the Redwoods, so unquestioningly we'd take the 101 route: I-5 to Grant's Pass (or, Grass Pants as our friend Simone calls it), over the coast range to Crescent City and thus south. Other years we've gone as far as Eugene and then turned right for the Oregon Coast. There's a lot of variations to try.

Oregon Dunes

Oregon Dunes

I don't remember at what point the trip was christened Freedom Ride—I have not doubt it was Steve's coinage—but the name stuck, and except for 2011 we've done Freedom Ride every year.

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta

I know, it's not a realistic choice for most people to take off two and a half weeks at Christmastime and make the family visit via road—there's work, and school, or the family lives too far away to conveniently drive. At some point we may not be able to do this anymore, but for now it's how we spend the turning of the year from darkness to light. We'll do it as long as we can, because it's cherished time together.

There's something comforting about stopping by the same cafe every year, taking the same hike every year. As a creature of habit I enjoy the things that stay the same as much as I do finding new places. Every time I take the trip from Washington to California and back I feel more connected to this bioregion: this band of mountains and rivers and beaches, this land of redwoods and chaparral, dunes and estuaries, oaks and farms, little towns and the jewel of the Pacific Coast, The City that needs no other name.

Air travel is undoubtedly convenient, but unless you're rich is almost always a soul-crushing pain in the ass. You're captive from the beginning of the process to the end: your itinerary is fixed, you're stuck in whatever hellhole delays and cancellations put you into, you're crammed into a tin tube breathing everyone's holiday germs. Can you tell I dislike flying? It's often the only way to get where you need to in a timely manner, but the road is always our first choice.

We tend to keep a pretty leisurely pace on Freedom Ride: no marathon driving sessions for us. We stop a lot and always take a few days where we hang out someplace nice and go for hikes & explore. We're partial to funky cafés with amazing coffee, strip-mall Thai or Mexican food, and older motels. One of the highlights is the few days we spend with our good friends in San Francisco: we walk, and feast, and take in the sights. So simple, so priceless.

Because Coffee, Eureka

Because Coffee, Eureka

And, when it's time, we get to come home to Lopez. The best part of coming home is seeing everything a little bit fresh, but still the same. It's a habit of mind to see the same things every day, every season, and yet recognize the tiny things that shift and move, grow and pass away. Everything is always changing, nothing is permanent. So we pass through the same towns year after year, feeling a little more at home on this long road.