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The Journey Begins

Join us on our retirement adventure of fixing a foreclosure in a rural town and taming the raw land in Julian, CA.

What a wild journey this has been. We are fortunate retirees, decidedly middle class (no Kardasians) who sold our suburban home to move to a rural community of 160 (counting us) to a house that was in foreclosure with few custom features and many missing parts.

We chose not to follow the usual path of retirement. We chose a house that needs work–lots and lots of work–and a land that is raw. We guess that we have 10 years to “tame the land” and finish the house, so this is a blog about our great adventure.

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Fire on Middle Peak

Dale and Sky the dog drove to our “new” house as soon as escrow closed. Together, the Master slept in a sleeping bag in front of the fireplace, with faithful dog snuggled close enough to share ticks, but that’s another story. I stayed behind at our Monterey-Salinas house and packed, while Dale plumbed, caulked, painted, etc.—making our new home livable. Every day counted as we did not want to pay two mortgages for long. By Thanksgiving 2016, we had much to celebrate; we bought the house of our dreams in Cuyamaca, and we’d nearly sold our other home, in escrow at least. The week before Thanksgiving, when weather changed to cold and cloudy—a precursor of the upcoming months—Cuyamaca State Park officials prescribed a burn on Middle Peak. We learned how close to the wilderness we were living. And it scared me.

Firefighters and trucks from Cal Fire, Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Department, and Cleveland National Forest Fire Department waited at the base of Middle Peak.  The purpose of this burn was to eradicate stands of Palmer ceanothus (Ceonothus palmeri) which swallowed the whole mountain. California is meant to burn—it’s intimately tied to its ecology. And for many plants, such Sequoias, fires remove the underbrush, which heats the cones which disperses the seeds, and which starts the next generation. I know this rationally, intellectually, and I welcome a small fire here and there. That is, until it’s a smoking distance from my house. I admit I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but more the vicarious kind—from a comfortable couch in my living room. I enjoy watching America Ninja Warrior, X-Games, and Olympics; however, watching a burning mountain from your living room window provides a thrill, more like sitting in the back seat of a bobsled. You just go along for the ride.

When the 2003 Cedar Fire scorched Middle Peak and much of the back country, it sterilized the soil from its high heat. Sort of like volcanic eruptions on Hawaii, where everything, every last little seedling or seed died in its path. On our mountain, and most of Middle Peak, the Cedar Fire created prime conditions for Palmer ceanothus to thrive, so much so that now you stroll through twelve to fifteen foot tunnels, branches encroaching on all sides. Creepy, actually. That invasive shrub, albeit a native of Southern California mountains, survived everything and reproduced as there was no tomorrow. No fires have touched these mountains since that massive inferno of 2003, leaving this virulent evergreen to take over, choking out pines, firs, cedars, or other plants that need sunlight to grow or survive. For a few weeks in spring, ceonothus which grows over six feet wide and ten feet tall, bursts out in dense clusters of white or lilac flowers, appearing from a distance like fresh snow. Their sickening sweet fragrance is enough to give a non-diabetic person a sugar headache. In summer, Ceonothus plants survive, even thrive, with—get this—no water, making it the “perfect” plant for any hillside in Southern California. Too perfect. I wonder if the Native Americans ever used this plant. I only know they controlled it with seasonal burns.

We watched the “controlled burn” from our living room those nights in November, sort of like sitting around a massive campfire.  A year later, new trees emerged from the burn scar. The forest is returning, and we’ve done our part on our little slice of North Peak by lopping and removing ceonothus, replanting 60 cedars, pines, and firs. As for the public lands surrounding us, public agencies adopted a new approach to eradicating this monoculture. A massive masticator now mows down these offensive plants—chewing up and spitting out mulch along the route. The plus is less chance of an uncontrolled wildfire, although that still can happen. The minus is a slow, arduous process, as the masticator moves only over “even” terrain and mere inches at a time as compared to a controlled burn.

In those first few weeks of living on the mountain, we learned about the California Fair Plan, the only way people who live on the edge of wilderness can afford insurance, which is collectively. We also learned from Cal Fire how to improve our chances of survival. Their visit to our property gave us direction and allayed our fears, as we could take steps, such as:

  • sealing our eaves
  • sealing under our deck
  • replacing broken pieces of fireproof siding
  • painting our steps and deck with fireproof sealant
  • and most importantly, cutting back brush.

The latter is a never-ending process, as is photosynthesis. As long as plants grow, the weed whacker is whacking.

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Fire on our Mountain

I’ve been traveling for work and pleasure, and finally returned to our family home on Lake Cuyamaca. It’s an early fire season, and it seems earlier each year. When I taught biology, I joked that California has four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fire. So, it’s mid-July with four uncontrolled burns in Southern California. When we bought this house, a rebuild after the Cedar Fire, we knew what we were getting into. We knowingly, willingly risked life on wilderness edge at whim of Mother Nature. Our house is surrounded by Cuyamaca State Park and Cleveland National Forest—and prime forest ready for a burn. Native Americans used fire to care for their lands. They understood. Our government is learning.

In fall 2003 when the Cedar Fire roared through San Diego County, we lived in the Monterey-Salinas area (another fire-prone area), and our oldest daughter enrolled as a freshman at San Diego State. We were new to this—sending kids off to college—and secretly delighted that Meghan visited her extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins on weekends. That November, a raging fire changed everything for thousands of San Diegans. Initially, SDSU cautioned students to stay inside as the fire hopped, skipped, and jumped canyons towards Lakeside and Santee, close enough to campus you could taste it. Ash swirled in the air coating cars and sidewalks, landing on lips and tongues of beachgoers miles away. Meghan’s grandparents picked her up, so she could escape the smoke. By the third day of burning, fingertips of flames licked nearby hills and Interstates 15 and 805. SDSU cancelled classes for the rest of the week.

A flare set by a lost hiker created the conflagration that took everything in its path. In the beginning, the Santa Ana winds pushed the inferno towards the Pacific Ocean, racing through dry scrub, sage, and Manzanita, scaling the tops of Eucalyptus trees. Then winds shifted, and the shore breeze blew hot embers in the opposite direction. That’s when our area of Cuyamaca went up in flames. It was a perfect firestorm of events—where nature and people converged in not a good way.  Under scant resources, fire agencies protected the town of Julian, home of 2600+ people; meanwhile, Mount Cuyamaca, Middle Peak, and our mountain, North Peak burned.  In the aftermath, amid the ashes of homes, once stately Sugar Pines, and wildlife, people pointed fingers of accusation. Over a decade later, people in the backcountry still point fingers.

On our unpaved fire road, Lower North Peak Way, just four of twenty houses survived the fire. If I hike further up the mountain, more empty plots with brick chimneys, china remnants, broken bits of glass, twisted metal exist than do rebuilds. Our house is in fact a rebuild. The people before us completed the house within five years of the fire, but walked away at the peak of the “real estate bubble”—another tragedy of circumstances.

During fall and winter, when black oaks are dormant, it’s difficult to tell a viable oak from a scarred skeleton of an oak. Some oaks wear a skirt of charred bark, yet leaf out in spring. This year, black oaks and pines that sprouted after the Cedar Fire stretch as tall as the dead trees. The forest is returning, and with it, wildlife. I’ve seen mountain lion scat and tracks, as well as raccoon, deer, coyote, bobcat. Scrub jays fight over the Supreme bird feed I buy from the BirdWatcher Store in town.  And, this spring, a resident bald eagle from neighboring Lake Cuyamaca perched on a utility pole on our property. I saw a glistening from our deck, grabbed binoculars, and sure enough, there he or she roosted. With each turn of its head, light beamed off its head–a signal that all is well.

 

Assorted Stuff and a Hot Punch Bowl

I may never know the “rest of the story,” but I know that bowl holds memories. I carefully packed each piece, then marked FRAGILE on all sides of the box. The moving company would handle this. It was worth the extra money.

While Dale camped in our new home, I triaged through 35 years of stuff.  If I felt no connection to an item or I couldn’t remember where I got it or the story behind it, the item went to Goodwill, which thankfully took my piles and piles of junk. Good junk, though including White, Pfaff, and Viking sewing machines. Years earlier, I rescued the machines from defunct Home Ec classes, one per each daughter, but the machines sat silent in the garage, waiting for a young girl to create a masterpiece worthy of Project Runway, which of course never happened.

Goodwill attendants, God bless them, smiled as I handed them:

  • Boxes of empty mason jars—wide lids, small lids, half pints, pints, quarts, some Ball, some “real” Mason—during Christmas filled with Olallieberry jam, mixed berry jam, apricot or other apricot iterations, given to family and friends, then returned to be refilled with more deliciousness from our garden.
  • Boxes of 1970s college texts—both mine and Dales—and while many of our classes were the same, the texts and editions differed.
  • Pool toys and noodles and inflatables
  • Flower pots and vases
  • 4H memories of our kids’ animals—pairs of pig boots (each of our three girls raised pigs, each needed a pair of boots), pig feeder, a lamb box, lamb halter, lamb covers, sheers
  • Plastique—Tupperware I rarely used. The random lids and/or mismatched bottoms I tossed into the recycle bin, as well as my class notes from UCSD and UCLA, spirals upon spirals, folders upon folders of lesson plans I’d never use. Why did we hang on to this stuff for so long?

Then, there was the “Hot Punch Bowl”—

In 1990, our first year in Indian Springs, a sweet Romanian family lived across from us. Georgiana, the mother, and I became friends over recipes, her goulash for my Mexican torte or my carrot cake for her chocolate brownies. We commiserated over working parenting woes; she ran her own catering business and I taught high school. I learned a smattering of Romanian and she improved her nearly fluent English. We shared traditions; we celebrated Christmas, New Years, and other family parties together.  Their high school daughter became our go-to babysitter, and we encouraged Rosanna to speak Romanian to our small children.

Suddenly one Friday, we arrived home from work to find a large rental truck loading everything from their two-story home. Georgiana, the mother, said they needed to return quickly to Romania for family and personal reasons.  She seemed distraught and I told her I was sorry to see them go. Her parting gifts to me—a delicately embroidered tablecloth from her native country, and a punch bowl, and I gave her something, too, but I have no idea what it was. The house emptied quickly; by weekend’s end, Georgiana and her family gone. We exchanged a few Christmas cards and letters, eventually nothing.

For weeks, realtors poured in and out and hosted Open Houses; two months later, we had new neighbors. This newlywed couple eventually became our good friends, too, although we missed Claudius, Georgiana, Sergei, Florie, and Rosanna. Through the years, I thought of Georgiana and her family at each party, especially at Christmas or New Years, or whenever I pulled out the magnificent crystal punch bowl she gave me. A heavy, crystal mount, cut in the same intricate design, accompanied the fancy bowl, as well as dainty crystal cups and a ladle. Guests at our parties ooh’d and aah’d at the treasure. Somehow, it made the champagne punch on New Years or Sangria at summer parties taste much better.

It was nearly five years later, when Mike, our “new” neighbor, casually updated us on the people before them. I don’t recall how the conversation took such a turn, but I clearly remember the indictment he made of the previous owner, our friends, our “extended family.”

Mike—You heard about the people who owned this house, right?

Me—No, they haven’t written in a few years. I don’t know what happened to them. I only know they returned to Romania.

Mike smiled, which grew into a sort of chuckle, as he leaned over to prune their climbing roses. We often talked while gardening in the front yard—our house or theirs.

Mike—They’re on the lamb, they’re wanted.

Me—No, wait? What? No, seriously?

Mike—It was in the paper. Father’s wanted for embezzling, Mother’s wanted for stealing from her wealthy clients.

Me—

Actually, I don’t think I replied. Too stunned I suppose. Not these wonderful people, who escaped the regime in Romania for asylum in the United States. I reflected on their business, catering in a wealthy part of town, and the bowl bestowed on me. I may never know the “rest of the story,” but I know that bowl holds memories. I carefully packed each piece, then marked FRAGILE on all sides of the box. The moving company would handle this. It was worth the extra money.

Where to Begin

Between stripping, nailing, painting, and caulking, Dale “squeegeed” the garage of the torrents of water that flowed down our practically precipitous driveway, and just one more problem we faced.

Dale’s work on our mountain home—where to start—on a place that sat untouched for seven years? Seven seasons of uncontrolled plant growth, seven years of hurricane winds that stripped paint and battered siding, seven years of rodents and spiders who made a home in our home, seven seasons of neglect inside and out made for an extensive list.

Dale first tackled the inside painting. This, and the removal of the red, paisley flocked wallpaper a la 1960s, kept him busy while I prepped our Indian Springs home.  A golden knotty pine framed doors and windows of the entire house and our choice of “Open Arms”—a soft, mellow yellow, almost a butter color, blended deliciously. I was relieved when I received the picture, after the fact, of the finished vaulted ceiling and Dale in complete climbing gear, minus the helmet which he claimed he removed to take the picture.

Dale in climbing gear

Before we could enjoy this house, the basics, e.g. solar panels for electricity required priming. While workers installed a new inverter, Dale focused on the inside of the house. The showers and tubs drained slowly or not at all, so plumbers labored on that—basically, calcium and other mineral deposits clogged the house after years of disuse. A “water softener” guy worked on the water softener. A “propane” guy restored and refueled the gas tank. Our purchase of the deluxe home warranty paid off with the dishwasher and oven, two of the many appliances that hadn’t been tested or used in years, and needed fixing.

Finally, November can be an Indian summer of scorching temperatures and raging wildfires, or as happened last year, an El Nino of rains and floods. A flood, not one or two, more like five floods, soaked the boxes that survived the trek from Indian Springs to our mountain home. Between stripping, nailing, painting, and caulking, Dale “squeegeed” the garage of the torrents of water that flowed down our practically precipitous driveway, and just one more problem we faced.

 

 

Escrow Times Two

Once we decided to move, we packed with a mission—daily Goodwill donations of books we read or never will, “beloved junk” including vases from flowers long gone and Mason jars of assorted sizes delivered to neighbors, texts sold back to CSU Monterey Bay for much less than we paid. My arbitrary goal—packing four boxes/day quickly added to twenty boxes stacked high in the garage—making our house seem spacious and the garage like a hoarder’s.

We worked with two government agencies, Fannie Mae since the house we were buying was a foreclosure, and the Veteran’s Administration for Dale’s V.A . Loan and both followed strict time lines and rules. Of course, the timelines and rules applied only to us, the buyers, since we’d submit immediately then wait days for any response. Buying a foreclosure and pursuing a veterans’ loan are not for the faint of heart.  Piles of documents multiplied over our dining room table; weekly extensions meant the notary became like our extended family.

In the meantime, we listed our Indian Springs home with Kevin and Linda who scheduled a showing day for realtors. The professional photographer made our house look so good. Shoot, why were we moving? After one day on the Multiple Listing Service, a steady parade of “lookee-loos” or “wanna-buys” drove past our home. Exactly what we would have done had we been in Julian, but we were 600 miles away. Open Houses seem passé these days, since serious buyers shop the internet. Five days later, we received a full-price offer and spare back-up offers. A huge relief for us, two retired teachers–not  independently wealthy–but that’s being redundant. No sooner had escrow opened on our Indian Springs home, when a thief took advantage of the listing and stole our new swing from the front yard. We bought that swing three months earlier, with plans for a “little library” and the hope that neighbors would feel welcome to sit and read. I felt sad and the theft left a bitter taste for the broader community, not our neighbors, but for the outsiders who knew we were moving—such a sad, sad way to leave.

Escrow closed on our mountain home mid-November, and twelve hours later, Dale drove ten hours in a truck with tools, his bike, random pieces of furniture, the dog, and towing his car. We were doing this! I remained in Indian Springs to finish packing, while he painted our new/used house. First task was picking the color, which we did simultaneously at two different Ace Hardware Stores, he in Alpine, me in Salinas. “Open Arms”—the easy favorite for the interior walls and he scaled the three stories, wearing climbing gear to reach the vaulted ceiling.

Dale “glamped” at our five star mountain home on an inflatable mattress, with a lamp, a radio, no TV, no computer.  His nightly activity—watching stars or burning of Middle Peak.  The prescribed burn on Middle Peak gave Dale a taste, literally, of what the Cedar Fire must have been like, as our house faced the scorched facade of the mountain. Fire trucks from different agencies—Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, Julian Fire, and Cal Fire monitored what most of California needs, fire. Scrub vegetation thrives on a good burn every few years. The Native Americans knew this, and managed their lands, with burns to clean out underbrush and expose soils. As I told my biology students, California has four seasons: winter, spring, summer, fire.

 

Memories of What’s Left Behind

How I wished we’d had money to pay for pool resurfacing and tile or better heater and pool pump, but life is choices and seeing Sam graduate with little college debt was the right decision for us. True to life’s irony, the pool contractor arrived for the pool redo on the official start of escrow on the mountain home.

Before launching into our “new/used” home, I want to remember what we left behind. The house on Indian Springs Road was supposed to be our forever home, the home where our children, grandchildren, and future great-grandchildren came for visits. Like in The Father of the Bride, our daughters’ wedding reception could be held in the backyard. In our retirement, we’d have raucous pool parties or quiet dinners enjoying the sunset on the surrounding hills. Our children, who learned to swim in the pool, could teach their children and they theirs. The fruit trees, the pomegranate, peach, and almond trees, we planted these past few years might yield bountiful harvests, and I’d make fancy jams. The play set in the far corner of the yard, the one Dale built on Christmas twenty-five years ago, would delight our grandchildren. These were my dreams, but life has a funny way with dreams and plans. Sometimes dreams come true, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes life presents a better scenario than ever imagined.

Our adult children flew our feathered nest, settling in San Diego, circling home once/year. They landed near their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. At visits to my parents’ home, my girls slept in my old bedroom. So as our daughters embraced San Diego, it looked less likely they’d return to Salinas. My dreams, after all, were my dreams not theirs. Dale and I decided that a move south made sense, whether or not we closed on the mountain house, we were at peace. Sad at leaving our home, our friends, Indian Springs neighborhood, family at St. Joseph’s, but at peace.

Now, we turned to prep our Indian Springs house—this house needed to look as good as our loving feelings for it—but in reality we had neglected so much.  We ignored floors, foundation repair, exterior painting, and pool repair—all “big ticket” items, paying college tuition instead. How I wished we’d had money to pay for pool resurfacing and tile or better heater and pool pump, but life is choices and seeing Sam graduate with little college debt was the right decision for us. True to life’s irony, the pool contractor arrived for the pool redo on the official start of escrow on the mountain home.

When our kids were little, they swam in that little pool with no care about blue lips and toes, uncontrollable shivers, and green water, when chlorine levels dipped and algae bloomed. Our kids and their friends learned to swim in the tiny pool, not much bigger than a truck. Everything being relative, this was a “bare bones” pool installed by the previous owner. When we first moved there, the pool deck was a random collection of pavers connected by weeds.  A patchwork deck was an eyesore, a cosmetic problem, while the lack of a pool fence was a safety issue. The Monterey Fence Company heard my frantic cry, “I have two small children, and we’re moving in a week.”  Two days later, the workers completed the fence, but—blame it on my years of lifeguarding—we needed more–an alarm, the floating kind, the gate kind, the impenetrable kind, the kind with a direct link to the fire department. We settled on a gate alarm, plus an additional one for the back door. Ear piercing and louder than a bank’s burglar alarm, a screech warned everyone within a five-mile radius that the gate was open. It cost us over $500, a stretch for us, but it was the best $500 ever spent.

One Sunday afternoon five months after we moved in, and not fully unpacked, we threw a pool party. Parents partied inside, kids played outside. A few minutes into the party, the gate alarm sounded. One of the older kids managed to open the pool gate, but couldn’t shut off the alarm. Within seconds, parents tore out the backdoor to the bewilderment of the ten children, five under the age of five and non-swimmers. In that moment, the alarm paid for itself. Birthdays, graduations, retirements—twenty-five years of pool parties—and, thankfully, celebrations without accidents.

Preparing to Sell

Three days and three sleepless nights later, we heard from our realtor that “Fanny Mae” accepted our offer. We only had to secure financing, sell our home, pack, move, and unpack. Easy, right?

Three days and three sleepless nights later, we heard from our realtor that “Fanny Mae” accepted our offer.  We only had to secure financing, sell our home, pack, move, and unpack. Easy, right?

Buying or selling a home is completed primarily by fax or email, so we stayed in Salinas and began packing. First task—Gathering boxes by daily trips to the Salinas High book room, where Ms. Patricia gladly unloaded her extras. Ms. Patricia runs a “tight ship” of books for 2500 students, while high on her stilettos, but that’s another story.  UPS delivers daily to the high school, so we had a good start on boxes. Second task—picking an agent. We posted a shot of our home; cast a description on FB to see if we could garner any nibbles. Sure enough by the next day, a parade of cars “drove by” (lookey-loos) and a realtor-neighbor knocked on our door with a portfolio of impressive materials. Gloria seemed young and eager, yet we had a scheduled meeting with Linda, our friend of 30 plus years. Gloria’s bubbly enthusiasm buoyed us—“This house will sell fast. It’s in a great neighborhood with excellent schools.”  And she suggested a price, which wowed us.

When Linda and her partner Kevin arrived, both long-time Coldwell Banker Realtors, their assessment was not as ebullient as Gloria’s.  A quick look at our house through their eyes, and we began to see things we neglected over the years, especially, the mismatched floors, such as medium oak in the living room, lighter oak in the master bedroom, bamboo in the kitchen, plus peel and stick oak in the kids rooms, the latter retained black marker drawings from when our kids were young.  A few years earlier (okay, probably much earlier—but not more than a score), Dale ingeniously installed a “white board” on their bedroom wall, actually a white Formica countertop turned upside down, so our kids could express themselves; problem was containing their creativity, as it overflowed onto floors and doors. At some point, Sam, our youngest, drew a beautiful piece of art—stick figures really—on the back of the garage door. I considered nailing a frame around it, and then rethought I shouldn’t reinforce her behavior.  Whatever, I never had the heart to repaint or repair, so the floors held our kids’ artwork intact. At least, Allie’s blue room, during her blue period, was now white. During Allie’s high school years, she painted the entire room including ceiling, the bluest sky-blue with floating white clouds. It was her room. Since it was too blue for my taste, I kept her door closed. When Sam, our youngest, took over that room, she repainted it.

M’s room reflected her taste—the only room in the house with carpet—and not surprising a blue color, had soft yellow painted walls. M. moved away for college and grad school, never returned except for random visits, daughter #2 followed, then finally the youngest. Bedroom #1, formerly the blue room, became Dale’s office, the middle bedroom, which all three girls occupied at different times, morphed into my office, or storage shed—depending on my projects, while bedroom #3 the guest room. With our fledglings flown the nest, time for the parents to move on.