How I put stairs into a hill and learned a valuable lesson about a career as a contractor
We arrived a few weeks ago on Cape Cod at the in-laws’ place, a weathered-wood-shingled house sitting on a rise overlooking Deep Pond. It has always been difficult to get to the pond: The drop is short but steep, and covered in clumps of tall grass, loose dirt and tangles of creepers and bushes. I decided to change all that.
I went to the hardware store and got gear: Leather workman gloves, a tree saw, garden shears and a heavy-duty rake that bites into the earth with sharp steel prongs. I started to cut, pull, yank, sever, rake, saw and clear a curving path down to the pond. The path followed the natural contours of the hill, making a lazy curve to wind down slowly against the slope. When it got to the pond, I cut at a natural opening in the brush to create a little waterfront. I also saw an animal path along the pond, and pulled away poison ivy and prickers, sawed through thick overhanging tree branches and pruned back bushes to make a nice walking path.
Adam, Jack, Jessica and the in-laws walked down the path, took in the waterfront, meandered down the cut along the pond, and saw that it was good.
I should have stopped there.
But I gazed up at the hill and knew there was a quicker way to the pond. A way that came straight down the slope. Faster and bolder than the curving path, a design that made no concessions to the sharp drop and loose soil. I decided to build stairs.
I hacked at the dirt with the sharp metal of the rake and soon carved out a little terrace. I had tested the idea and it worked. Time to go shopping again.
Several hardware, lumber and garden supply stores later, I had six railroad ties that I had cut myself, six large red patio-style bricks, metal stakes, a sledge hammer, 150 pounds of small white rocks, and a vague plan that I had put together by asking two friends who have no building experience how they would build hiking path-type stairs into a hill.
When all was said and done, I had returned to the garden supply place a few more times to get grass seed and plants for ground cover, nutrient-rich garden soil, and 150 more pounds of white rocks. I sweated out several times my body weight, repositioned hundreds of pounds of small boulders and rocks to help stabilize the railroad ties I had pounded into the earth, lugged pond mud up the hill to serve as mortar for the rocks and patio brick, understood why contractors go over budget, and came to the (not surprising) conclusion that this type of activity was not for me.
But the stairs are done, and it is now a short trip to the pond. I had conquered the hill and produced something that did not require the use of a computer.
The stairs, like a bloodied just-born baby, are still too raw to be pretty: They are covered in mounds of muddied dirt and a messy scatter of white rock. But they are structurally sound, though soil erosion could change that. Or, if the grass grows and plants put down roots, the stairs will stay and blend into the environment, functional and beautiful.