social distancing in an Ozark forest

The weather always makes visiting Roundrock tricky. In the winter it’s often just too cold to want to hang out in a forest and fight to stay warm. In the summer, it’s the opposite (though the evenings around the campfire are nice). Fall tends to be easier to manage, especially after the first frost and the bug presence diminishes. Spring it always the tough time though. Even when the average temperature is warmer than winter, it’s often too wet, and wet cold has a misery all its own. Plus, when it’s wet, the road into the cabin in spongy, and we can do real damage to it when we drive across it.

But when the conditions are right, even some but not all, we tend to take advantage of a free weekend and dash out to the cabin. And that’s what we did on Saturday.

The area had a brief but monstrous storm on Friday, and apparently a lot of water fell. The Corps of Engineers lake we must cross (three times) to get to our cabin was clearly much fuller (though not like last spring — not yet). In the old days, I always took encouragement from these signs as we drove the hundred miles to the cabin. It suggested that our own little lake would be fuller too. And it generally is when this happens. Now, though, it gives me anxiety because the spillway is still not repaired, and a full lake can mean a lake that is overflowing in the spillway. It’s eroded enuf that any more water passing over it will erode it further. And if that keeps up, the dam will be breached and the lake will wash away (possibly drowning some of my neighbor’s cattle).

When we drive down the hill in our forest to the cabin, we always watch through the trees to see if we can spot water in the lake or whether it will be mud. On Saturday’s visit, we saw . . . both. The lake was still there, and at full capacity, but the storm had washed in so much mud and plant matter that the turbidity made it look like brown mud from a distance. (This is a natural occurrence in a forest lake, and the mud does help a little with the leaking under the dam. At least this is what I keep telling myself.)

The spillway erosion had continued further. It is getting serious now, and I’ve contacted the man who promised (a year and a half ago!) to fix it, expressing my urgency. He told me it would happen this week. (We’ll see.)

But on to happier things.

My chore for this visit was to add another line of blocks to the fire ring. It has been my sentimental goal to have the ash build up deeply in the fire ring as a sign of history and use and even mystery, and we seem to be doing that since the ash was getting close to the top of the second tier of blocks. Within that ash is a lot of metal that was part of what has been burned: nails and screws mostly, but also brackets and hinges and the spiral rings of notebooks from my college years. You can see this ash level in the photo above.

I had ordered a hundred blocks from the local hardware store and paid their reasonable price, which included free delivery and even orderly stacking right beside the cabin.

They even left me the pallet, which will eventually go in the fire, along with the nails and screws holding it together.

I had learned a lesson when I built the first fire ring with these kinds of blocks. If you’re familiar with them you know that they have a lip on the bottom at the back so that when they are stacked they are offset, leaning into whatever is within the wall. If you’re building a retaining wall, you definitely want the wall to lean into the hillside, both to better retain the dirt but also to resist the push of the earth when it is frozen and expands.

In the case of a fire ring, there is no hillside-like pressure from the ash. But there is another issue, a lesson I learned the hard way. The levels of blocks in my kind of arrangement are concentric circles. However, the lip that pulls the upper levels in by a quarter inch each time means the upper levels have smaller diameters. They are smaller circles on top of larger circles. And the problem lies in the width of the blocks (which are one foot at their widest point). They determine the outside diameter of the circle on each level. So there are 18 blocks forming each level, but each level going up is a smaller circle of 18 blocks. And those 18 blocks each have their standard widths. So the lower level must be made larger (in diameter) than it normally would be if the blocks abutted.

I didn’t know this when I first laid the second level. I had butted the first level tightly and then found that the blocks on the second level wouldn’t align because I tried to use the same number of blocks, with their same standard widths, in a smaller space. I managed to make it work at the time through a combination of kicking, misalignment, and colorful language. But if you looked closely — and I always did — you could see how some of the blocks were cock-eyed and force fit. That always bugged me. Eventually, when it was clear I was going to need to put a third level of blocks in place soon, I disassembled the original ring and pulled the first level blocks outward by about an inch. This made the lowest diameter larger, which allowed the second, smaller diameter of blocks to fit in an esthetically pleasing way. And I hoped that it would be enuf to do the same for the eventual third level of blocks.

And that was my chore last weekend: add the third level and make it look like I knew what I was doing. And by the point you see in the photo at top, I began to think I wasn’t going to succeed. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the blocks were creeping past the midpoint of blocks below them. If this continued for the rest of the ring, I would eventually have a block sitting directly atop the one below it, which would not be aesthetically pleasing.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And through some combination of kicking, colorful language, and the beneficence of the universe, the last block fit neatly into place with barely any misalignment.

You see the grill replaced and ready for burgers. Also, Flike because he was all over the place as I was working. And you can see the tarp with the pieces of wood on it, which is my chemical-free method of weed control since I’m uphill from the lake. If I had that pile of gravel I’ve been waiting on (also for a year and a half), I could move the tarp, put down the landscaping fabric, and then spread a nice layer of gravel over it.

The temperature reached 70+ degrees while we were there, and the sun came out in a clear blue sky just as we were packing up to leave.

I had intended to pack up about ten of those blocks to take home for shoring up one low spot under my new fence, but I forgot them. Looks like I’ll have to make a trip out there again this coming weekend.

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