Twas the month before Christmas and all through the house, was the sound of Jesse cursing and crying to her spouse.
It was the morning after our first ice storm here in the new house. The trees were glistening, the air was crisp, icicles hung from the rock ledge over the fish pond, it was beautiful and serene. Then… I fell down the stairs and promptly turned into the dad from a Christmas Story when the furnace breaks…
Let me rewind. We had been discussing for a few days now how we really needed to do something about our outdoor stairs situation. We have two entry ways to the house, and both involved treacherous stairs. On the left side, we have a narrow wooden staircase where the rise was 9″ instead of the standard 7″. I know, that doesn’t sound like much. But when your body is conditioned to stepping up 7″ instead of 9″ for your entire life, you really notice the difference. It makes you much more likely to trip and fall, exactly what we want our guests to have to worry about. Oh and the second step from the bottom was broken in half (across the width of the stair). So not only did you have to step up steeper than normal, you had to make sure that you were stepping on the back half of the stair so as not to land on the broken part. This was really ideal for carrying groceries.
On the right side of the house was a stone staircase that originated in the driveway and delivered you to the paver patio on the side of the house. But it lacked a railing, and the stones it was made out of were all of varying heights, depths, widths…you get the idea. It was more of an ornamental staircase than a practical one. This wouldn’t have been an issue because when we bought the house, there was a nice stone driveway all the way to the right of the house that we used to be able to walk up, and even allowed us to park all the way up by the patio. But since the new septic tank was buried literally in the middle of that driveway, it is now a grassy slope that we can’t park on. So we are forced to use the spiral stair death-trap (see below).
I knew this was going to be an issue as soon as the driveway was taken out, but it didn’t really seem pressing until the winter started threatening us with ice and snow. My trips down the stone steps were already interesting in the morning, in my flats or booties carrying several bags with hot coffee in my hands. But now I would have to worry about doing that with ice covering them? Then there was the issue of several of our family members not being able to visit because they needed a better way to get into the house, one that wouldn’t require balancing acts or hyper-stretching the hamstrings to reach the next stair. This truly upset me and finally I broke down to Seth. He agreed that something needed to be done about it, and soon because we were going to be hosting Christmas Eve dinner and wouldn’t even be able to get our family up the stairs to the house.
So with us being complete geniuses, we decided to go out the morning after the first ice storm and survey the situation. We used the wooden stairs and I followed behind Seth. I went down the first two steps very cautiously. Then the third. And then, silly me, I forgot about that 4th darn step being broken because it was covered in ice and I couldn’t see it. So I slipped down the steps, bashing my hip and back hard (oh and this was one week before my black belt test that I had been training for for 3 years so an injury might have sent me over the edge). Before I knew it I was crying, like a little baby! It was almost instantaneous. Seth turned around and saw me laying on the icy stairs crying in pain. He came running over, and didn’t even laugh (which he later rubbed in because, well, he fell down the steps one time and I laughed …he says hysterically… and he won’t let me live it down). I cried that this was the last straw. We needed to do something about these stairs immediately. I angrily stood up and used my foot to bash in the broken part of the stair so all that was left was the non-broken part. It felt great, I can’t lie.
We started planning the new stairs and tried to figure out how we would widen the wooden platform on them while making them less steep. We had an idea but it would involve moving a post that was currently supporting our sunroom. Hmm, not the easiest but the other side of the house involved us digging out all of the rocks (more like boulders) in the cold, adding dirt, reshaping the slope, and building stairs out of something. That sounded more difficult than moving a post. But our consultants (dad and brother-in-law) convinced us that we weren’t savvy enough to move a support beam by ourselves (probably smart) and that we should go with the other option. So with merely two weeks until Christmas at this point, Seth got to work.
First he had to rake out the beautiful ground cover that was next to the stairs. Then he had to painstakingly remove the gigantic boulders and find a new place to put them. He was left with a big dirt slope.
Some of the rocks didn’t get moved yet and I was able to snap a picture of them. Pulling these out by hand could not have been too fun. Seth also found some interesting bugs while he was playing in the dirt. We believe they were cicada larvae. Sorry to disturb ya, buddy! Go back to sleep for another 15 years or so!
We decided that the best way to build new stairs was to use garden timbers and create a 3 sided box. We spent an hour or so watching some youtube videos and doing lots of geometric calculations (see kids, you DO use it when you get older!) and then went out to Home Depot that same day and got all of the supplies. Seth then spent the next few very cold hours building the boxes in the back of the truck. I don’t deal well with temps that cold so all I was able to do was offer him moral support from the window and an occasional beer to keep him warm. Before long, he had built 13 sturdy and very heavy boxes, and the sun was setting.
The next few days, Seth enjoyed slightly less chilly temps while he worked on installing the steps. He would shovel out the dirt underneath each step, place the box, put a rebar stake in it and then fill it back up with dirt. Then he would decide the angle of the next step on top of it and repeat. One issue he faced was that the entire slope was filled with small rocks. It was as if someone had dumped an entire field of rocks into one little area. Then we realized, well yea, we live on the side of a “mountain” so I guess that makes sense. Fun times. Because of work, I was only able to help with the last section of stairs. We used as much dirt as we could from our own property but eventually needed to get some extra.
Luckily, this small farm up the road has dirt for…dirt cheap! HA! I didn’t even do that one on purpose. We filled up the back of the truck with dirt and then mulch to lay along side the stairs so that the upcoming rain wouldn’t wash all of the loose dirt down into the driveway. We took turns shoveling and wheeling the dirt around to fill up all of the stairs. I was glad I could finally help!
Next, we raked out the dirt beds along side the stairs and mulched them. Then I tried as best as a could to make a somewhat flat surface at the top of the stairs out of some of the rocks we had pulled out of the slope. We will eventually replace these with pavers but for now, it is good enough.
After a few days, we had miraculously turned our scary stone stairs, into beautiful garden timber stairs!
We still had several issues to work out, such as lighting and what to fill the stairs with. Because of some weird electrical issue that occurred a while back, we still had no power to the exterior front of the house, as well as in the sunroom, office (our old closet-room) and interior stairwell. So essentially at night, the outside of our house was pitch dark. And I mean DARK. There are no street lights out here, and essentially no white noise so once that sun goes down, you better hope the animals don’t see you before you see them. Okay, maybe that is just my scary imagination but either way, we needed light! So we decided that the best bet would be to get two solar lanterns so that we didn’t have to worry about the wiring since that had been quite problematic for us. Seth installed the lanterns high towards the top of the staircase so they would provide light the whole way down. They work really well and we are very pleased with how they look!
We figured we were good to go for now until spring when we would fill in the stairs with pavers or stone. However, Christmas Eve rolled around and while we were busily preparing our luncheon, it dawned on me that it had been pouring all night and the dirt that once filled the stairs was now mud and puddles. Our family was going to have to climb mud stairs to get into the house. Crap! This whole thing was to make it easier for our family to visit. So I turned on my best charm and asked Seth if he could just take a few of the pavers (that a friend of ours had given us for free) and at least make a little stepping stone on each step so that people could avoid the puddles. He wasn’t too happy with this request but while I cooked the chicken piccata and potatoes, he went out there and being an overachiever, he dug out each step and essentially filled the entire staircase with pavers. Woohoo!! No muddy feet for Christmas!!
So even though these stairs are not yet done, they are damn near close and a vast improvement over what was already there. Thank goodness! I wish I could say I did more to help with this effort but Seth was truly the rockstar of this project by himself. It may have started with cursing, but it ended with with a beautiful staircase and lighting that would make The Christmas Story leg lamp jealous.
2 solar lanterns: $180
2 solar lanter posts: $102
Timbers & nails: $240
Dirt & mulch: $60