We Quit Our Jobs to Build a Cabin—Everything Went Wrong
And it was awesome
We were two or three weeks into building a cabin when the first two-by-four became the target of a sudden, white-hot flash of anger. It was the summer of 2018, in the middle of Washington’s emerald-soaked Cascade Range, and I was on the phone with my father, seeking advice about some framing conundrum, while my longtime friend Patrick (who goes by Pat) was wrestling a 16-foot board toward a miter saw. When the whir of the blade stopped, it became immediately clear that he had cut it wrong. The sawdust still airborne, Pat reached down, grabbed a two-by-four with the conviction of a Baptist preacher, and sent it flying into the forest with a short, crisp, “Fuck.”
A lot more lumber would end up in the woods. We screwed up countless times from morning to evening, wasting precious daylight hours. Constructing a cabin was a task that one might say we were “not entirely prepared for.” Sometimes, during those months of toil, our anger burned so intensely that we thought the boards we threw into the woods might never land. They’d just keep flying, the wood breaking down over time and separating into smaller and smaller pieces until they vanished, as our brains exploded from frustration and worry.
In reality, the whole project was borne out of frustration. A few months earlier, Pat and I had what were arguably good careers: I was a reporter at a national magazine in San Francisco, and Pat was a copywriter at a tech company in Seattle. We were lucky enough to have good bosses and colleagues who had become friends. But we were deskbound and felt caged by the typing, phone calls, Slack chats, and emails, all performed under the hum of fluorescent lights. We were overwhelmed by the uniformity of it all and troubled that we seemed incapable of finding contentment in jobs that many of our coworkers appeared to cherish. Sometimes we hoped for an excuse to quit—a blowup after a failed project or an absurd request from a boss.
We knew we were fortunate to have good jobs—and this was well before our country was facing a pandemic and massive unemployment—but we were facing the existential crisis that comes from spending your days doing something you don’t enjoy and wondering if this is how the next five, ten, 20 years will play out. We were in our thirties, young, but not so young. We’d seen the articles linking sedentary lifestyles to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and misery. We wanted to get out of our respective offices and try something different.
We knew how insufferable it would sound: a couple of discontented millennials deciding to leave stable jobs to do “something more meaningful.” People would think we were a couple of wannabe Foster Huntington dropouts. But being a trope and being free seemed better than being trapped inside for the better part of our thirties.
For the past five years, we’d joked about various alternatives to our day jobs: scuba dive instructor, skydiving teacher, maybe own a cool hookah café with live music. But one option didn’t seem as ridiculous as the others: leaving our desks to build a cabin from scratch.
It started in 2013, when, seeking a base camp for mountain adventures, Pat bought a 10-by-12-foot off-grid shack on Craigslist for $7,000. It was in Index, Washington, on the western slope of the Cascades, an hour-and-a-half drive from Seattle.
The first thing he did was host a long-weekend work party to fix it up. I flew up from my home in Oakland, California. With a group of friends, we tore out exposed nails, cladded interior walls, built a deck and an outhouse, and hung shingles. At night, covered in sawdust and grime, we drank too much and huddled around a propane stove to keep warm, eventually falling asleep and breathing in noxious fumes all night until we staggered awake in the morning. It was awful—and one of the best weekends I’d had in recent memory.
Over the following years, I’d check in with Pat to see how the cabin improvements were coming along. Every six months or so I’d return, and we’d spend another weekend with tools in our hands—building stairs to a tiny loft, adding trim to windows that would also hold neat rows of spices, or raking another load of gravel across the driveway.
We were pretty good builders, we thought. My dad was a contractor and I’d done some jobs with him growing up. Pat was learning on the fly by renovating the shack. So eventually, the jokes about quitting our jobs and building a new cabin started coming with attachments—links to real estate listings, photos of cabin designs sketched out on napkins and bar coasters.
One frigid February night in 2018, blasted on lime gimlets, things took a more serious turn. We were at a Bon Iver show during a visit to Milwaukee, and maybe the music (but more likely the gimlets) got us talking about big dreams with our buddy Dan. We laid out our plan, which was: we didn’t really have a plan. We’d build a cabin for sure, but whether we’d keep it or rent it or sell it wasn’t clear. We hadn’t actually priced anything out, but we figured we could get it done for about $20,000, maybe less. We’d pool our money saved from working and go in on it together, splitting up the investment equally. Dan couldn’t quit his job—he was building a career in the maritime industry in Seattle, getting hours toward his captain’s license—but he’d help out on weekends when he could.
Three weeks later, we found a quarter-acre of raw land near Pat’s tiny off-grid in the Cascades. It was a sloping meadow of ferns a short walk from the Skykomish River, festooned with mature Douglas fir, big leaf maple, and cedar. We put down an impossibly low offer of $3,000, certain the sellers wouldn’t take it seriously. If they accepted, we’d consider it a sign from the universe.
They accepted almost immediately. It was early spring.
In the months leading up to the build, which would begin that June, we discussed the dream in detail. We would rise naturally with the sun, enjoying never-ending mugs of coffee before getting to work with our drills and saws and hammers. If we wanted to pause and dance to The War on Drugs or shoot nails at nearby tree stumps, we absolutely would. And when we needed a break, we’d take a long hike. At night, there’d be refreshing dips in the river, followed by crackling bonfires. We were so confident in ourselves that we told family, friends, and partners we’d be done by the end of August.
That May, Pat put in his two weeks’ notice, and I took a four-month leave of absence. We drove Pat’s big gray cargo van up the western slope of the Cascades, a place where skiers, rock climbers, eccentrics, people with meth addictions, and hikers found sanctuary in dark, mossy forests.
The first week shook us out of the fantasy. The foundation came first: 15 support piers laid out in three neat rows of five, placed in holes dug using a rented auger—think of a gas-powered wine opener that makes great holes in the earth. Because we had no water or power, we waded into the frigid river to fill up five-gallon jugs and then schlepped them up to our property, where we mixed the concrete with rakes and shovels in massive black trays. In pictures from those early days, we’re covered in mud and wearing big, stupid, clueless grins.
Long hikes, casual breaks, and leisurely river sessions immediately went out the window. There was no time. In part, because we hadn’t anticipated the little things. The forest floor was steeply sloped and covered in rain-slicked clay and fern root balls that grabbed at our feet. Our shoes became caked in mud. We slid and fell, and when that happened, our tape measure’s delicate hold on some distant piece of lumber was lost, forcing us to start over. We never overcame these time warps, like how long it took to shift a ladder on a hillside—we had to dig new holes with every move to provide equal footing for the ladder’s legs. Or how easily we lost entire days sourcing materials at the lumberyard 45 minutes away. Hundreds of boards went into the structure, and we hand selected every one, eyeing them carefully to ensure they weren’t overly warped, bowed, twisted, or cupped.
Days cascaded into weeks. We’d rise at 5 a.m. and build until the dimming light made it impossible to work anymore. By 9 p.m., we’d head to the bar and use the Wi-Fi to madly produce copy for freelance writing ventures that barely kept our bank accounts afloat. Many of our casual promises—the family camping trips, the birthday parties, the breaks to spend time with our girlfriends—would soon be broken.
On a hot day in August, we experienced what was by turns the most bewildering and soul-crushing task of the build: getting the ridge beam in place. It was 28 feet long and hundreds of pounds, and it needed to be perched atop the highest point of the cabin, spanning the gap between the two tallest walls. We eventually produced a jimmy-rigged contraption that, in the kindest terms, might be called a slow-motion catapult that could (maybe) hoist the ridge beam into place.
Anything improvised like this to help ourselves accomplish a job, we referred to as “jazz.” As in: How on earth are we going to lift this beam without a giant crane? Answer: We’ll just rig up some jazz. The word was useful in its lack of specificity, delaying a problem and its potential fix until there was nothing left to do but finally create the jazz.
In some ways, the whole cabin was jazz. When we had nothing but the floor, we were still sketching and debating ridiculous design ideas over our morning coffee—curved, pagoda-style rooflines; walls that folded down into decks; a spiral staircase wrapping around a tree trunk to the loft—as if we were made of money and time. As if we were imbued with the skills of master tradespeople. As if our girlfriends wouldn’t mind us disappearing, maybe forever, to build a hut of fancy and ruin.
The catapult was the definition of jazz: a mess of ropes, screws, ratchet straps, and random bracing, then a longer rope that extended from the beam to the towing hitch of Pat’s Subaru at the top of the sloped lot. Around midday, one of our neighbors—a burly, muscled airplane mechanic named Jordy—stopped by, saw the jazz, and with noticeable alarm said, “Holy shit.” He brought down more ratchet straps to add to the pile and then stayed to cheer us on. After eight hours of struggle and one last tug from Pat’s Subaru, the ridge beam slid into its perch. We placed a four-foot-long level on it and, with unbridled relief, saw that its bubble was dead center.
That night, exhausted but content, we jumped in the river and had a fire on its banks. We got good and drunk and temporarily forgot about the fact that we still had to cut and attach the rafters, build out the roof, install the door, finish the siding and windows, construct the kitchen and bathroom, put in the wood-burning stove, finish the loft, insulate and clad the walls, wire and plumb everything, never mind the finish tasks of trim, tile, light fixtures, and on and on.
Pat and I worked well together—most of the time. Typically, one of us would assume the role of the roof guy and the other the role of ground guy. Roof guy is on the roof. Ground guy hands roof guy stuff (tools, materials, perhaps a refreshing beverage). But over time, ground guy notices how needy roof guy is—always asking for things, disapproving of cuts, telling ground guy to redo things, and asking ground guy to fetch the measuring tape that roof guy just dropped for the fourth time. Ground guy’s doing all the work, scurrying around in the mud, while roof guy simply enjoys the view and makes demands.
So ground guy starts to get annoyed and makes a snide remark. Something like, “Must be nice up there?” He offers to switch. Maybe roof guy wants to come down? Spend some time on the ground? But no, roof guy likes it up there. He “doesn’t mind it at all.” Roof guy starts thinking ground guy is being awfully bitchy for someone who’s not taking any of the risks. And so bitterness breaks out. After all, why should roof guy be risking life and limb, only to receive snide remarks from ground guy?
Sometimes the tension would build toward something like the following actual conversation, shouted at each other between tasks:
Pat (ground guy): “I’m starting to feel really mean!”
Bryan (roof guy): “I’m feeling mean, too!”
Pat: “Let’s not be mean to each other anymore!”
Bryan: “I’d really like that a lot!”
Other days, we wouldn’t resolve it in the moment. There’d be long, awkward van rides, with only the blaring beep of the broken headlight alarm to break the silence. Sometimes the haze would last an hour, sometimes overnight, but we’d always eventually make up, apologize, laugh about it, and move on.
The biggest source of stress was the growing realization that we wouldn’t be able to finish on time or on budget, and we’d have to let down loved ones who counted on us getting back to our normal routines. I canceled trips to see my girlfriend, Kelly, who initially understood but before long became distant. Pat’s girlfriend, Kate, came up to help on some weekends, but the tension during difficult moments made her uneasy. As Pat reneged on various promises to be home, she started visiting less.
Eventually, the only promise we couldn’t break was completing the cabin. Throughout the region, real estate listings of half-finished cabins abound, places where tattered bits of insulation hang from unfinished walls. They haunted us. As we progressed through the build, we understood how they came to be. People run out of time and money. They realize they don’t know what they’re doing. They give up.
If we gave up, this experience would only show us another thing we didn’t want to do with our lives. Or worse: that maybe our jobs hadn’t been the problem, but we were; that the empty feeling that had been bubbling up inside us at our nine-to-fives would follow us wherever we went. We’d get over the money we’d lose, but the dream would be harder to let go of. The cabin fantasy had buoyed our spirits through all those years behind a desk. If we quit, we’d would lose our vision of another, happier life.
On breaks back home, it became hard to relate to people who weren’t directly involved. All we could think about was the cabin: what needed to happen next, the materials, the money that was draining from our accounts, the tools we needed. And always, always, what might go wrong.
Years before, a mudslide had buried a handful of cabins nearby and pushed others into the river as if they were shuffleboard pucks. What if that happened to ours? Or a tree could crush the cabin in a windstorm. Then there was the real challenge of simply not screwing up the actual building process. When we weren’t actively building, we were scouring construction code books, calling my construction-wizard father, and studying electrical wiring, weight tolerances, and roof framing methods. It was a fully immersive trial by fire that was taking every penny and minute we had, and as we sank more time and money into the project, the stakes of an unexpected disaster went up, a concern that was revealed in acute, bewildering moments.
One time, we were both on the roof when a guy known as Hermit Gary showed up. We’d only heard tales of him, and then one bright day, he emerged from a sea of ferns like a landlocked Poseidon. He wore sweatpants, no shirt, and earmuffs; he held a chainsaw running in his hands. Without saying a word to us, he started sawing a tree at the bottom of our property, which wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that it had grown to hold up a much larger, precariously situated tree that could have obliterated the cabin in one violent collapse. It took a full minute of our screaming before he finally heard us, looked up at the trees, said, “Oh…ha!” and went about his day somewhere else. Sometimes our cabin felt like a house of cards.
The August deadline vanished before our eyes. So did September. I had to return to work, and Pat had to find work to return to. On the last day of September, after a week of nonstop rain, we found ourselves on top of the metal roof, putting in the final screw by the light of our headlamps, legs shaking from exhaustion. But we weren’t even halfway done. After three and a half months of work, the inside was still completely raw. No insulation, no cabinets, no bathroom, no flooring, no woodstove. We hadn’t even put in the front door. And we had already blown through our budget. We felt bad for Dan, who wasn’t able to make it up as often as he wanted but saw the impending financial ruin just as clearly as we did. (When he did make it up, he seemed intent on making that pain literal by refusing to wear shoes on a job site littered with screws, nails, and errant bits of metal roofing.)
Construction went on into the winter. I went back to work but returned for long weekends. When it stormed, we strapped snowshoes to our feet, towing sleds stacked with 80-pound bags of concrete through three feet of snow in order to build a hearth for the woodstove. Once the electricity was fired up, the lights came on and we were no longer bound by the sun’s schedule. Our days became 16-hour slogs, interrupted by brief breaks to eat dehydrated backpacker meals.
Winter passed. The delicate fronds of new ferns started to sprout up among their predecessors, which had been smashed flat by the preceding season’s snow. We labored over trim, which we burned to a charcoal black using Japanese wood-preservation techniques. We ordered custom lights, created a shower with exposed copper piping and retro brass valves, and took our first turns on our most-prized feature: a $2,000 electric toilet that incinerated human shit into odorless ash.
A year after we broke ground, nine months behind schedule and about $30,000 over budget, we gathered friends to put the finishing touches on the place. We hung twinkly lights in the kitchen, rented a dumpster to pick up the giant pile of trash we had generated, and celebrated with champagne and a dance party aided by a fog machine Pat kept in the van at all times, you know, for emergencies.
By now, the path forward was clear. We had to sell the cabin. But for more than just the money, although that was important given the state of our bank accounts. We had to sell it because selling it meant the possibility of having the resources to build another, and maybe another. Weeks later, Pat dug a hole near the highway and sank a “For Sale” sign into it.
Because the cabin had no traditional septic system or source of water, banks wouldn’t lend on it, which meant we had to attract buyers who could pay cash. Finding people who loved it was easy. Finding folks who had a suitcase of bills wasn’t. Eventually, we opted to allow seller financing, a deal that effectively turned us into a bank that would receive regular payments from the buyers, doled out over five years. After four months that felt like eternity, it sold for $115,000, meaning we’d eventually more than double our investment, assuming our hourly rate for labor was zero dollars. Did we make our money back immediately? No. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
During those last few weeks of work in the spring, if we had the energy, we stayed up late talking about where we wanted to be in ten or 20 years. There was something about building that was exactly as we had hoped. We loved that we weren’t staring at our computers all day. We loved how stiff our backs felt. Loved that our hands were so sore by dinner that squeezing a lime onto a taco felt like an Olympic event. We loved the excitement that would come from kicking the friggin’ bejeezus out of a task, screws flying into boards straight and strong, music blaring, working as a team without the need for communication beyond high-fives. Building felt like a natural extension of everything we valued in our lives: creativity, friendship, purpose, responsibility.
The parts we most worried about completing—the foundation, the roof, the electrical—left us prouder than we’d felt in years once we accomplished them. Even the fits of rage and two-by-four javelin throws were recounted with howls of laughter over giant bowls of spaghetti in Pat’s off-grid at the end of a long day of work. We’d then collapse into sleeping bags, excited and anxious to spend another day covered in mud, sawdust, and caulk.
We know how it sounds, the analogy drawn out to cliché: It’s like we’re reconstructing our lives, bro! But damn, that is how it felt.
It’s a bitterly cold December night in 2019, a month and a half since the cabin sold, and we’re at Pat’s off-grid, snowed in. It’s such a heavy, wet snow that entire trees are bowing over, snapping at their base, crashing to the ground, and discharging giant, avalanche-like rumbles. The highways are closed. The trees have knocked down power lines up and down the mountain—not that it matters in here, where oil lamps and battery-powered string lights illuminate the room. We’re boiling snow because we ran out of water, and the propane tank is running down. But we have some booze, and the fire is rumbling, and we’re scheming about the next cabin build.
“Should it have a spiral staircase wrapped around a tree?” Pat jokes.
“Or a wall that folds down into a deck?” I reply.
Last October, I quit my job and started attending school for woodworking. Pat’s building modern, retro-style travel trailers for work. We bought another plot of land, this one at auction for about $5,000, and we’re targeting this fall—so long as COVID-19 doesn’t fuck it all up—to break ground once again. That is, unless some monster tree crushes the van with all of our tools inside, or a landslide wipes out our property, or maybe someone starts squatting nearby and threatens us with a bowie knife, or the ghost of Hermit Gary—who passed, may he rest in peace—returns and chainsaws our progress with some crazy ghost saw. There’s always something to worry about. But the details tend to work themselves out.