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We knew The Young Curmudgeon had returned to Hardyville when a
25-foot culvert suddenly appeared, then almost as suddenly disappeared,
in a corner of Nat’s ranch.
It was the return of the native — “native” both in the sense of
born here and in the old Hollywood sense of being untamed and restless.
Mudge got born here twentysome years ago to a ranch couple with roots
deep into pioneer times. Daddy came from a family that thought highly of
itself, and he was looking forward to having a son to carry on his name.
Only thing is, as soon as Mudge squeezed into the world, it was clear —
and very — that Daddy’s name was all he was ever likely to carry of
Daddy’s genes were most definitely not in the picture for this
exotically dark and almond-eyed boy.
Yeah, things like that happen even in places like this.
So the marriage broke up, which also meant the ranch broke up (though
fortunately, just into smaller ranches, and not into ski condos). Little
Mudge got kind of broken along the way too. Long, sad story. He drifted
in and out of school, and of town, and of everything. He felt a lot of
stings and slings for being different and for being a walking, breathing
scandal — though there’s a good chance many of them came from his own troubled
heart, as much as from the people around him. After dropping out and
drifting around, he joined up, went to Desert Storm all gung ho, came
back sick with no gung ho, tried a little roughnecking, dropped out of that,
tried a lot of drinking, dropped (well, mostly) out of that, then
decided, a bit late, to try rodeoing.
Mudge, already over the hill at 25, made a pretty poor bull rider. A
determined one. Just not a very ept one. He tried. He really tried. But
it wasn’t until he flew off a bull named Revelation and onto his skull
that, so he claimed, he finally “got right in his head” and realized what he
wanted to do with his life.
What he wanted was to be a damned, mean old hermit. Never mind that
he could only be a damned, mean young hermit. At last, he had a real
vocation. A vision. And off he went — somewhere — to learn how to be the best
hermit he could be.
Anyway, about that culvert.
Mudge has never had a home, not since his mother took off on him when
he was sixteen. But he’s always had a welcome on Nat’s ranch, partly
because he’s good with horses and dogs, and partly because (as everyone suspects
— which means, under the rules or rural gossip, that everyone
knows) Nat is acquainted with the mystery daddy and perhaps owes him some debt
of honor. So Mudge, in his way, has come and gone at Nat’s for years,
pushing cows in season, living in his truck or in the bunkhouse, then pushing
off, sometimes for town, sometimes for no one knows where.
This time his return from parts unknown was signaled by the presence
of that 25-foot by eight-foot steel tunnel.
As Nat tells it, Mudge simply showed up one day with a rented flatbed
behind his old Dodge, the culvert chained to it. Nat watched from a
distant bluff as Mudge laboriously winched the big tube onto the ground near the
base of a hill. The tube had a couple of two-foot pieces of pipe
protruding along its length and steel plates welded to the ends of it – though Nat
noticed one of the plates had a cut-out, steel-framed rectangle.
Mudge then swabbed roofing compound over the whole exposed surface of
this behemoth, let it dry, and rolled the culvert into a curved channel
he’d dug at the base of the hill as the roof goo dried. (He dug the hole
using a backhoe we’ll assume he borrowed or rented.) Then, with the pipe
ends sticking more-or-less straight up and the cut-in rectangle suddenly
looking like a door, he swabbed tar over the newly exposed surfaces, and
gave an extra swabbing to all the welded joints.
Now, normally, Nat would have two courses of action. He could do the
neighborly thing and offer to help with whatever Mudge was up to. But
you don’t be neighborly with Mudge unless he chooses it; otherwise, he
bites. Or — being that all this was happening on Nat’s land without word one
to Nat — Nat could have gone down there and run him off. Instead, curious,
Nat watched a while and then departed.
The next day, there was a little undersized wooden door in the steel
rectangle, complete with window.
The day after that, Mudge, in the backhoe, was painstakingly covering
his creation in dirt — all but the protruding pipes and the end with
the door. He then topped the pipes with rain caps, and that was that.
A few days later, when Mudge had gone into town, Nat and Mrs. Nat
drove out, peeked in through the window — and found a floor made of
scrounged plywood pallets, a sleeping bag, a lantern, a battered old
Coleman stove, some boxes of food and jugs of water — and plenty of
room for someone to stand up in the middle of it all. Mudge had made
himself a home.
“What should we do about it?” Mrs. Nat worried.
“But, Nathaniel, it is our land and you didn’t tell him he
could do this.”
“But Mrs., it is poor ol’ Mudge, and I didn’t tell him he
couldn’t do it, either.”
“Anyway, think about it. He’ll be out of everybody’s hair out here.
And then, when he takes off again, we’ll have us a heck of a nice little
storage building. C’mon, I’ll take you to town for lunch.”
“I suppose you think we should buy him a housewarming gift while
“Well, prob’ly not,” Nat concluded, thoughtfully ignoring the
sarcasm. “But you know, we could send him out that old Army cot from the attic.
And maybe he could use the wood burner we used to take to huntin’ camp. I’ll
ask him next time he’s talkin’ to anybody.”
The Young Curmudgeon might have been inspired by the larger, more
elegant and elaborate version of a culvert storage/shelter in Al
Durtschi’s article (complete with photos) at Walton Feed’s very
interesting Web site.
There are also some workable ideas for cheap shelter in The
$50 and Up Underground House Book by Mike Oehler. Among other
things, this book tells how to build an underground house using nothing
but a shovel, polyethylene film, and a specially-equipped chainsaw.
If you like more elaborate earth shelters, you might look at The
Complete Book of Underground Houses by Rob Roy. And for the
whimsical and fantastic, check out The
Earth-Sheltered House: An Architect’s Sketchbook by Malcolm
Thanks to P.N. for the inspiration.