November 18, 2020
No street lamps nor yard lights lined the country road. I turned from the dark road to the long driveway home. I could almost navigate blindfolded, the distance on both roadways from the railroad tracks to home. Trees line the way dotted with faintly lit windows of neighboring houses. The last stretch, my drive, is the darkest and the most welcome sight at the end of the day. I look past the stone fence and in between the branches to see the glow of the garage lights.
My little ranch home, with its evolving ‘eclectic bungalow’ interior design, is found at the very northern end of this driveway, past the handful of neighbors and tucked among the trees of a small forest.
Technically the road leading to my driveway is also a driveway and not a road. It is a distinction no one could care about until a person needs to care. The last time I needed to care was thirteen years ago when one of the neighbors asked the local government about grading and surfacing the road. The local government – in this case, a country township – researched the road, discovering it was not one of its roads, then stopped snowplowing with that realization.
We could all, of course, enjoy township ownership of the road if we all decided to grade and surface the road ourselves. So, thirteen years ago, the road became, technically, a driveway. Given that outcome, my then-husband and I wished to legally own the portion of the driveway which seemed to be naturally and reasonably ours. Our attorney at the time recommended that we request an easement for our access from the end of our driveway, through the road/driveway to the country road.
Who cares, right? There is a point to the story. But one could summarize at this point in the story that my hope is illuminating readers on the joy of landownership. Easements, private driveways, and all the distinctions among those terms are parts of owning land.
On this particular dark night, I drove home, turning off the freeway north, then tracking back south to the road leading to the house. My now ex-husband and I had delivered our son to begin his junior year at college. The beginning of his school year arrived with all the promise of a new year. We took two trips to furnish and equip his on-campus apartment dorm room.
I am always amazed at the change in how the Jeep tires act, from pavement to gravel. They grab a bit more and the sound is a bit louder. The change greets me every workday, every trip into town and back.
I noticed a few new stakes along the road, but nothing to be concerned about. I was exhausted. It was late. My son was safe and happy. All was well.
With coffee cup in hand, the next morning, a peculiar site welcomed me from the front window. A wooden stake stood well into my yard to the south of the garage. A plain wooden stake with a familiar pink plastic taping is the telltale signs of surveyors.
The surveyor stakes were a surprise. And if they are a surprise, they are never a good one. I immediately went into protection mode. As far as real estate is concerned, my home is the handiest location with proximity to town. I am minutes to being enroute to anywhere via the freeway. I can be in a major metropolitan area within three hours.
Yet, when one turns onto the road, the forest seems to gather around you. Especially in snowfalls or at full summer bloom, neighbors’ homes disappear from view. The road itself becomes lost among trees that bow with the weight of seasons.
From work, I called the township. Were they surveying? I called the county. Were they surveying? My ex-husband volunteered to visit with te neighbors.
No, the township nor the county was not measuring or assessing. Not unfamiliar with the potential explosiveness of land debates, both entities recommended sheriff’s assistance if there were confrontations expected.
“Ugh.” I felt my stomach turn at the thought.
As it happened, the answer came through my ex-husband from an elderly neighbor down the road. His story centered around the actions that he was trying to ‘tie up loose ends.” In the belief that the road, in its entirety, might belong to him, he therefore, had hired a surveying company. They, in turn, marked off the side opposite his house and, rather comical in its execution, marked off in double fashion only the yard and land of a young couple who inherited the coinciding homestead. The only stakes were on the east side of our road.
(It seems that the road – or “drive” – had entered into a standoff of the two neighbors).
Over the next three weeks, the debate ensued regarding the rightful ownership of the road. Or, er, “private drive.”
Now, in case you have not realized, one of the most amazing facts of life is that people transform a bit when it comes to matters of money and land. Money debates have always perplexed me, but I have evolved in my education about land. As a woman especially, my borders to the land have always been challenged and pushed.
Mr. Otto (the names have been changed in this story) spoke to my ex-husband, but he would not speak to me. I never believe in making fun of people, however the truth is the truth. He would never have thought that the owner of the home and land is actually me. And I always like to contextualize those attitudes in the highest form possible. Perhaps he was just being the old-fashioned gentleman.
Sigh. If only.
But a woman? Owning country land? Paying taxes? Divorced? Being ok? Yes. Yes to all, yes.
He arrived days later with an aerial photo of the drive. A red magic marker circle had been drawn around the part of the drive which was actually my drive.
Mr. Otto had hired surveyors from another county to mark off the road which he now claimed was his – including my driveway. He was not angry, but wished to offer a quit claim deed on my driveway. That seemed on the surface, a reasonable enough offer.
Unless you already own the road. Oops, I mean, “driveway”.
“You do not need to attend every fight, Stephanie,” I soothed myself with a mantra.
I had fought hard to keep my land, my home and my properties. In the time since the divorce, I had purchased and financed and tried to maintain it all. Sometimes my efforts were far less than graceful and so close to disaster, but I still hung on. Luckily and with tons of Blessings I can claim that that financial state is a memory now. Admittedly, although I do not get territorial or wigged out about much, however, with the properties and family I can morph into my inner “Super Mama”.
A decade ago.
When we purchased the part of the driveway years ago and obtained an easement, we also hired a surveyor. The change needed to be staked physically on the land, then filed with the county zoning office. I was the owner who walked with the surveyors, verifying property lines and stakes.
That walk had always been a part of my homemaker years. When my son was a baby, I would load him in his Baby Bjorn carrier to walk in the woods. The dog would run circles through trees and I would look at different things such as the property stakes. All property is marked with surveyor stakes and it was a way to mark where we were. Sometimes neighbors will pull them out of the ground but most people do not.
On the far side of the land, neighbors had a habit of dumping yard waste into the woods. Once I even caught a runoff pipe from a camper water system. I began to pay attention to the metal markers. Decades later, when we hired a forester and a logger to manage the maturing trees, we all laughed that it was I who would walk them around those markers.
(There really is a point to all this, I promise.)
Here in 2020, my ex-husband, of course, pressed me that I was incorrect. After all, a surveyor claimed they pulled land records. Mr. Otto owned the road.
“No,” I stated with mounting irritation. “This was all taken care of. If so, Mr. Otto would have a legal document in his hands instead of a photo with red marker. “
Offering to help, he called the same attorney. Over the phone I could hear his surprise in the claim that Mr Otto owned the road. He agreed to look into the matter.
Through the woods I could now see another pink taped wood marker. The surveying company was following Mr. Otto’s claim that the road was his, but had marked into my property. I had them remove the markers.
Reflecting now upon the past two months, I am surprised that I allowed my ex-husband to speak regarding my property. I had been thankful for his help and realized that again, in matters of land ownership, at least in this geographic area, women are not assumed to be owners. At least the assumption was that this blond female could not possibly be the owner of any of it.
I had come across this problem both informally – like my neighbor – and formally even at banking institutions. (I have since been advised to keep searching for financial institutions. Female-friendly ones are out there.)
I grew tired of being scared.
But it took the conversation when I heard the land attorney’s surprise at the neighbor’s verbal claim on the road to make me realize I had to manage. I could not step back. I could not retreat into the background. While I could employ the help of whomever I choose, I grew disgusted that once again I allowed myself doubt.
I had come so far to not retreat back into fear nor into the pressure of misconception or stereotypes or plain chauvanistic rudeness. I had worked too hard.
Yet I also refused to be pushed into a rude platform myself. I will not return their rudeness or crassness with more of the same. But I have to participate. I needed to step up. My land depended upon it. I depended upon it. My family depended upon it.
I had been correct. I own my driveway. Mr. Otto does not. A have an attorney who also shares the opinion that one has to be careful not to create quit claim deeds when none is necessary.
In fact, I might own the whole road – oops – driveway. I might own the whole thing. I am not sure I really want to, but one thing is for sure – I own my portion of the drive that I always thought I did. No one admitted it but Mr. Otto did confess to my ex-husband that it “all is not so clear”.
Clarification now lies with a formal title search. I am preparing to be a road owner with a “tenants in common” agreement in hand.
As a young child, I remember standing, scared but explaining my actions to my mother. My father reprimanded me with his own reminder that I needed to handle my mother differently. I should just stand silently. In childhood and into early adulthood, I never opinionated after that. My rebellion did not arrive until much later.
After my divorce I vowed to myself to never fight again. I realized I could choose a personal life with no conflict. In my professional life I became such an expert in patience that my boss recommended I show some spark. (I have since complied).
Fast forward to today’s relationship with my mother. I talk with her almost daily, supplying her every three weeks with groceries and sharing a special meal together. We usually eat too much, watch television too much and gossip even greater. In spite of other ailments, her mind is sharp. She remembers. From time to time, she apologizes. Sometimes she cries. Sometimes she offers me advice.
Our last gathering was marked by a commentary which shocked me. We had been watching an awards show when I made a comment about the dress of a presenter. My mother, pleased with shock responded, “You have an opinion. You never have an opinion.”
“It was a commentary, Mom. I wonder at her choice in dress. It is awful.”
“I did not think you were smart enough for an opinion,” she retorted with her customary blunt intellect. There was not a snideness about her nor any ill-will.
“I have never heard you have an opinion,” she stated.
“Well, mom, it is a bad dress,” I smiled.
My mother smiled back, pleased as punch not so much at the opinion…
But that I had one at all…
Blessings, lots of love and a kiss to boot…