A Shit Hole

Well, I got the water system working and have all the water I want. Now, I need a place to defecate. I have a toilet and gray water in the RV, but I needed a place to dump the waste from the RV and eventually our home. To keep the well water clean, I needed to build a septic system so that I don’t contaminate our water source. The septic tank needed to be at least 100’ away from the well to not contaminate it. I also wanted the septic tank to be downstream from the well. I didn’t want my shit to seep into the well, even from 100’.

I also wanted the septic tank to be below any structures that I built so that I wouldn’t need a pump to get the sewage to the septic tank and leach field. Amy made the drawing below and we ,submitted it with the application to Inyo County for the septic system. They approved it and it only cost $200.

Here’s the layout of the septic tank system and the driveways up the property. The area to the left of the septic system is where the RV will be placed, uphill from the buried septic tank.

Once we had the permit, the first thing to do was dig an 8′ deep hole that would make sure that we didn’t hit the water table. Some times of the year after big rains, the water table is about at ground level near the bottom of the property, but we were placing the septic tank at least 10′ uphill as shown in this survey.

Here’s the topography of the land in one foot increments. We didn’t have this when we submitted the application for the septic system, but we did know the basic layout of the land.

We called Cricket and he scraped the road out of the sage brush before he could dig the hole. This video shows that and a little more. One downer about this video is that it shows how thick the smoke was. We couldn’t even see the mountains for many days in September.

This video shows Cricket digging the test hole for the septic tank.

Cricket hit some hard sandstone at 7′ and he thought the inspector Jerry Oser would pass it anyway since we weren’t burying anything that deep. I called Jerry and he came out the next day to inspect it. He looked at it and said dig away. Cricket got right to work digging the land up to put in the septic tank and the leach field. It was all sand, so it was easy digging with the backhoe. We didn’t run into any boulders and the only challenge was getting it flat. Cricket had a laser that helped us dig to true.

I tried to borrow a trailer from Cricket to get my water tank and septic tank, but I wisely chose for them to deliver it from Inyo-Kern True Value Hardware. Instead of spending a day getting the stuff, they collected it all for me and delivered it. The 2,650 gallon water tank is on the back and the 1,250 gallon, green septic tank is in front of it. One extender blew off the truck on the way to the house. 4″ pipe is in the lower right side of the pic and would be used for connecting to the leach field.

With the tank at hand, Cricket dug the pit for the septic tank. Here’s a time elapse video of him placing the tank in the hole.

This was the second lowering of the septic tank into the hole. The tank didn’t fit well the first time, so Cricket dug it out some more.

With the tank in place, we had to dig out the leach field and place the pipes and infiltrators in the ground. An infiltrator is basically a plastic arch that is 54″ long. The infiltrators are arranged to form four thirty-foot-long chambers. The sewage flows into one end of the chamber and eventually flow down the length of the chamber. Based on our percolation test, they said we needed 120′ of infiltrators, so I bought four rows of 30′ of infiltrators. The drawing below shows how the sewage pours into each chamber on the left and flow 30′ to the right. I think that it will sink into the sand before flowing more than a few feet away. Thus, most of the leach field will not be used since it will sink into the sand after a few feet.

The water flowed in at the bottom of the green tank and then flowed out of the outlet and to the junction box. The junction box sends the sewage to the four lanes. I could have used one lane of 120′, but that would be a terrible design that would have passed inspection. The pipes had to be slightly downhill to let the sewage flow into the junction box and out into the leach field. The leach field consists of 120′ of infiltrators (not infiltratoes as in the drawing). The solid waste stays in the septic tank and can be pumped out every few years when the tank is full.
Here’s a picture when the leach field is half in place. The left side of the tank has extensions since the ground is on about a 10% grade. That means the left cap should be about 1′ taller than the downhill cap that is 10′ downhill from the lower cap.

Cricket stayed in the backhoe while I placed each 54″ infiltrator into the leach field. It was hot and dusty work, but I saved a lot of money doing it with Cricket. Cricket does a lot of work like this and knew what he was doing. I think it took us about 8 hours to run all the leach lines. It ended up looking like this at the end of the day after I hosed the dust off the lines.

Here’s another view of all 120′ of infiltrators.

We called Jerry and he came out and approved it with little inspection. Cricket backfilled the leach field with all the sand.

The cost of the septic system was something like this:

Septic tank – $1600

Infiltrators – $1,127

Septic tank lids – $94

Extension caps – $180

Junction Box – $89

PVC Pipe- $160

Miscellaneous and Delivery – $750

Labor – $1,000

Total – $5,000

It only took Cricket and I about 3 days to install the system and cover it up. It’s not bad for a modern-day shit hole.

Why Lone Pine?

People always ask why I bought some land in Lone Pine when I live in Santa Barbara. The main reason is that I want a mountain retreat where I can get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. While SB is amazingly nice, it still is still more hectic than the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine. Lone Pine is amazingly beautiful in a much different way than SB.

Here are the main reasons we chose Lone Pine:

The Sierra and desert come together in the Alabama Hills and are a great contrast to beautiful Santa Barbara with its tropical climate, coastal mountains and ocean. We’ll be living in the country here where horses and cows outnumbering our neighbors.

Lone Pine is much more affordable than Santa Barbara. It’s hard to find anything nice in SB for $800,000, so we should be able to build a custom home for less than half that. The cost of living up here is pretty low too if we bring our own food up.

The scenery is wonderful!

Amy loves taking care of our country home. She has turned the whole property into a very large zen garden that she spends hours working on.

This will mainly be a mountain vacation home. It gets very hot there in July and August and is pretty cold from November to March. Santa Barbara has some of the best weather in the world, so we’ll be in Santa Barbara if we don’t like the weather up here.

Hollywood started coming to the Alabama Hills in the 1920s to film epic westerns. The Western Film History Museum is in Lone Pine and many stars have filmed here from Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Lucille Ball and Hopalong Cassidy.  Many present movies have filmed here like scenes from Iron Man, Gladiator, Transformers, Lone Ranger, Godzilla, Django Unchained and Star Trek. They came here for the scenery and so have I.

See how hundreds of the movies were filmed here.

My neighbor grew up in the house that Hopalong Cassidy was filmed in. The house is on Tuttle Creek about a mile from my land.

I first came through the area in 1986 when I was looking for a job. I had spent the summer working the snack bar in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park which is directly west of Lone Pine. When the season ended in October, I went to Yosemite to look for work, but they were shutting down for the season as well. I went to Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, but they wouldn’t open until they got some snow. People told me that Death Valley would have some work because they were opening for the winter, so I went through lonely Lone Pine on the way there.

Lone Pine sits basically half way between Kings Canyon and Death Valley, the first two places I worked in California. Lone Pine is a remote town of only 2,000 people, and grew from 1,655 people in 2000. Most of the people in Lone Pine live near highway 395. We live a few miles from downtown Lone Pine and about 900′ higher in the Alabama Hills.

Lone Pine sits between the High Sierra and the low deserts. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are directly West while the Mojave Desert and Death Valley are immediately below us to the East. The Owens Valley is part of the Great Basin that stretches into Nevada. It’s waters do not drain into any ocean and form salt flats.

Lone Pine sits at about 3,700’ in  the Owens Valley – the deepest valley in America. This rift valley is hemmed in by Sierra Nevada fourteeners to the west and the White Mountain with their own fourteeners to the northeast. From the tops of these 14ers, the valley floor sits 10,000′ below. To the south and east of Lone Pine is the Mojave desert which contains Death Valley. From the dry valley floor to the highest mountains of the Sierra, Lone Pine is the gateway to many outdoor activities.

Many people from LA drive through Lone Pine on their way to Mammoth Mountain ski resort or other areas north like Yosemite. The main attraction in Lone Pine is Mt. Whitney – the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Taller than any peak in Colorado, Whitney does not look particularly tall compared to other mountains in the area because it is a little farther east. Still, the beauty of Mt. Whitney and all its friends is right in our face on the property

At 12,944’, Lone Pine Peak looks taller than Mt. Whitney because it is several miles east and closer to the valley floor. The 3,000’ tall south face of Lone Pine Peak is the tallest wall of granite outside of Yosemite Valley. The gray, granite face of Lone Pine Peak is the spitting images of Half Dome or El Capitan that is only about 100 miles northwest as the crow flies.

Lone Pine Peak is the flat topped mountain in the middle of this picture. The hazy mountain to the right of it is Mt. Whitney at 14,501′. Lone Pine Peak isn’t even 13,000′, but the granite walls on the left are only surpassed by Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. This sage brush is on my property and houses many California Quail.

Another Lone Pine oddity and attraction are the Alabama Hills – a collection of boulders and hills between Lone Pine and Mount Whitney. The Alabama Hills are made of the same granite as the Sierra, but these mountain tops have been eroded in a different way. The Alabama boulders and hills form precarious, interesting shapes that have rounded edges that contrast the sharp edges of the Sierra.

This is Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area. This arch is about 5 miles from our land.

The boulders are rounded because they are eroded by spheroidal weathering. This chemical weathering pattern is also known as onion skin weathering, spherical weathering and woolsack weathering. Onion skin weathering is the easiest way for me to visualize the boulders because layers of rock often peel off and form rounded boxes, alcoves, arches and interesting, repeating patterns. The rocks are extraordinary and ended up being the reason why we bought property in the Alabama Hills.

I’ve been looking for homes in the area around Lone Pine, Olancha and even as far away as Kennedy Meadows for decades. The high desert land is much cheaper away from coastal California because it is fairly remote at about 200 miles from Los Angeles. Lone Pine offers a few restaurants, a market, repair shops and a hospital. Lone Pine mainly offers solitude and stunning views, so I bought into it.

Fall 2020 Work

Amy and I spent last October on the Bird house property in Lone Pine to make some major improvements. The main goal was to get the huge RV on site. To get there, we first had to:

  1. Fix the well – The water pipe coming out of the well had burst and gushed out of the ground prodigiously. We also needed to upgrade the water system.
  2. Install a septic system – This required a permit and a lot of digging from Cricket.
  3. Scrape a road out of the sage brush. Besides scraping sage brush away, we had to harden the sand with a vibrating plate.
  4. Get Internet access. This was pretty easy and just took one day.
  5. Get the RV in place. This was much more difficult than I thought, but we got it there with a little help from Miller Towing.

The Well

One of the unique things about the land at Lone Pine is that it is in the high desert where cactus die and sagebrush barely get by. What is cool about the area is that it has a lot of water flowing right under the ground and I can pump it out for free. The High Sierra catch a lot of water that pours down many creeks that run right near our house. The water table is usually about eight feet underground at the bottom of our property and even goes above ground in the spring.

When I left the property last July, the main pipe from the well broke and it was pumping over 60 gallons a minute out on to the ground. It was bubbling up and eroding the sand away. The pipe had to be fixed and then I needed filters, a tank and a pump to push the water up to the top of the property.

Our property can be broken up into three area as seen in the next drawing. The top third is all boulders. The middle third is all sage brush and cactus. The lower third is close to Diaz creek and has enough water to support grass. The well sits on the bottom third of the property and is probably 100′ deep, but we don’t know how deep it really is. The shed did house a pressure tank and water heater, but it didn’t have a water storage tank, filter or secondary water pump. I decided to have Will, my do-it-all handyman, build a pump house to his specifications. He maintains it for me as well, so I wanted him to be responsible for the design.

This image divides the property into three sections. The upper section is full of boulders. The middle section is an alluvial plane and you can see how the 1′ topographical lines are very evenly spaced. The lower third of the land is where the water is. The well is shown by the brown square next to the shed.

My neighbor Joost showed me his pump house with a series of filters and a second pump to push the water up to the top of the property where we will eventually build our home. I asked Will to duplicate the design so that we’ll have good water. Amy helped me design the 6′ x 8′ pump house building to match the shed. The first thing we had to do was lay a concrete foundation. I got a pallet of concrete from Home Depot in Ridgecrest and Will borrowed a mixer from a neighbor.

The well comes out of the ground through a four inch diameter pipe. The wires to drive the submersible pump are coiled on the ground. Will is working with the 1 1/2″ pipe coming from the pump. The pressure tank is sitting in front of the shed and will be placed in the pump house. The two stakes in the foreground show are about 6′ apart and show one side of the shed.
Will borrowed this mixer from our neighbor for free. He towed it with Joost’s jeep.
I got a whole pallet of concrete and the things to build the pump house.
Will set up the foundation and we started pouring a ton of concrete for the foundation of the pump house. The wide angle lens of my camera makes the shed look really tall.
Will and I finished the concrete in one afternoon. Amy and I put our hand prints in the corner by Will’s feet. My father’s been pouring concrete like this for decades.
Here’s the finished pump house. Amy has some plans to spruce it up a bit. To the lower left of the pump house is the line to my three irrigation lines to feed my gardens. The aluminum sliding door on the shed works again. The green water tank can be seen between the shed and the pump house.
Here’s the aerial view of the bottom third of the property. The road is much more distinct now after Cricket scraped it with his tractor.
Here’s the delivery truck coming from the hardware store with our two tanks.
That 2,560 gallon tank is easy to move, but we couldn’t agree on where it should go..

With the pump house in place, we needed the water tank and pipes for it. Will was doing all the stuff for the pump house while I was working on the septic tank with Cricket. I ordered all the stuff at the same time from the True Value Hardware store in Inyo-Kern. Herb runs the store and they didn’t wear masks there, but they got me fixed up.

They just rolled the 1,250 gallon, septic tank off the truck and the water tank was next.

The tank cost $1,200 and the fittings, pump and filter were probably another $1,000. Another $500 was spent on the concrete and wood, siding and insulation for the pump house. Then Will spent about 50 hours on the house and system for $1,000 in labor. So, I probably spent about $4,000 for the full water system that pumps water all the way up to the top of the property.

I’ll write about the exciting septic system in the next post.