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The Journey Begins

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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River Fire Still Burning

With each River Fire report, my mind is flooded with memories of Toro Park.

Wendy and I were Tiger Moms. I admit this now. Wendy, if she were here, would say, “No, we were doing our best.” The thing is we were highly competitive. Not with our children but with each other. Never more so than on the hills.

I used to be a competitive swimmer. I was okay, hung with super fast Olympians, so I was fast by association. It took years to squelch that competitive nature. It’s in my spirit, it’s in my soul, and I cannot turn it on or off. If I run with someone, I strive to maintain pace at their shoulders or get ahead. The latter, of course, is preferable. Wendy, on the other hand, never competed. It was not something her family did, nor did her boarding school offer. But, Wendy would have been top-notch, a beast, number one, had she been given the opportunity. I know this because of how many times we marched up Toyon Ridge, Cougar Ridge, or Black Mountain, really, any of those butt-burning hills. We did a few, including the Big Sur Marathon, but that is another story. This is about our close encounter with a bull.

On this particular day, we hiked up Toyon Ridge–not East Toyon, but the fire road that goes straight up, like 20% grade. Okay, maybe 12%. The entire time, Wendy was asking me questions, and not questions to which I could gasp a simple “Yes” or “No.” No, Wendy would ask, “How do you feel about” questions. Or “What do you think about” questions. Questions I had to answer, because I could not show that I was out of breath or act like I was dying. In fact, I was exhausted, long into anaerobic glycolysis, and accumulating lactic acid in my blood stream, as I panted and puffed my way up the hill always at her shoulder. For her part, she smiled at me, almost laughed, and I know darn well what she was thinking. She was thinking she’s in better shape, and yes, yes, she was. Every once in awhile, Wendy humored me into thinking I was pushing her.

After an hour or more of hiking, we reached the top of Mt. Ollason, enjoyed the view to the coast, and headed the downhill trek to the parking lot. It was still early afternoon when we connected with the Gilson Gap trail, so we decided to veer toward Meyers Loop, adding an additional three miles to our already five mile hike. Easy peasy. It’s still pretty much downhill, and we had plenty of snacks and water, so all was well.

Until, the end of Meyers Loop. There, the trail narrows to a one-way animal trail, with steep canyon walls covered in poison oak on both sides. I was in the lead, practically racing home for a bubble bath and glass of Chardonnay to soothe my aching muscles. Wendy was behind me, and at least two of our daughters (I have no idea which ones went on this walk) behind her. Directly in front of us, on this single-lane track, was the biggest bull I have ever seen, and I have seen a few bulls since our girls were in 4H. We froze. The bull froze. The herd behind him froze. He stared at me. I stared back. What now? No way were we going to back up the hill, and add yet another three more miles to the walk at this point. Wendy suggested sliding down the ravine, damned be any rashes we get. The girls behind us were terrified, trusting in their mothers’ wisdom and instincts.

I was too tired to think clearly. Instead, I responded as real cowboy would (or how I imagined one would). I raised my hiking sticks high in the air, like as lasso above my head, and yelled “Git along, little doggie. Git along.” The bull, along with his herd of cows, responded with terror at this mad-woman screaming and yelling. The cattle turned and ran back down the hill, and we were free to pass.

Sky met a cow for the first time in Toro Park

Looking south east toward Eagle Peak

Beyond the River Fire

Although this blog is about our move and relocation to San Diego backcountry, I realize now how much my heart still resides north of here. These past few days, the mountains of Salinas and Monterey, or the Santa Lucia range, are on fire. Our old neighborhood is evacuating. Friends in the yellow zone, or the evacutation warning zone, are packing up. The Monterey Zoo is relocating animals. And I feel guilty because I am conflicted.

A part of me celebrates fire as an important part of nature (some plants, such as sequoias, need high heat to regenerate), but another part of me fears losing a home and everything in it. I suppose firefighters must feel the same–a mixture of excitement and reference for the untamed beast. I miss our home of thirty-some years, but I celebrate where we live now. We are blessed, and yet. And yet, I feel sad. I feel sad for the neighborhood, our friends, our old home. If you live long enough in California, you know that this land is meant to burn. Our new house is a rebuild from the Cedar Fire in 2003. The hills of Salinas will not be as verdent as they once were, at least for a season, so I remind myself to just breathe and wait. The flowers and greenery will return.

As of the latest report on 8/20/2020, nearly 80% of “my” Toro Park has burned. I cherish memories of hikes through the years (decades, really), and the views from Eagle Peak, Mount Ollason, the Airplane Trail, Cougar Ridge, and Simas Peak. On Eagle Peak with my three girls and friends, we watched two behemoth cows ram their massive skulls into each other, like live colliding bumper cars. We ran and hid behind some trees, fully expecting anyone of us to be their next target. After all, turkeys in the Sycamore picnic area were known to chase people. Who is to say that cattle might mistake us for free hay?

Many times, I hiked alone, if no one else was available, but I always carried my hiking sticks, especially helpful in encounters with mountain lions or snakes. On East Cougar Ridge, one afternoon with my daughter, a three foot rattler warned us and then slowly made its way to the side of the trail. As a biologist, I was intrigued with its coloring, rattle size, and girth. I gave him/her wide berth, and tried to capture him on camera while he slithered away. I excitedly said to my daughter, “Isn’t he beautiful?” only to find she had sprinted back down the hill and never heard a word I spoke.

I often hiked the back side of Toro, off Harper Canyon, with Sandy and our dog-BFFs, Nika and Sky. My dog Sky, a Heintz-57 Variety of a dog, hunted ground squirrels, and there were a few. When we returned home, Sky slept soundly for hours, dreaming of missed opportunities. Nika, a very vocal Alaskan husky, felt her calling was herding cattle. The poor dogs never understood why sometimes they could run wild and free, and then other times, when cows were nearby, we kept a tight leash.

The airplane trail, usually overgrown with poison oak, no doubt is in the fire zone. Many times, I needed Tecnu for days following a hike in that ravine. According to fire fighter Rick, the 1970s fatal crash of the small two-passenger plane, triggered a fire, which likely was the last time it burned. Mountain doves would flit among the tall oaks. Spanish moss concealed nearby predatory birds, like red tailed hawks, who swooped down and plucked their next meal, some poor unsuspecting dove, from the sky.

I remember conversations that accompanied long hikes. One special hike, an eight-miler at least with my best friend, Wendy, took us up Cougar Ridge overlooking Indian Springs and Las Palmas. Past the springs, we headed northeast to Valley View Peak, which overlooks the valley floor (appropriately named) and spotted our homes, looking like tiny match books far down the hill. Black Mountain casts its massive shadow early over our houses–by 3:30 pm in fall and winter–and so our hikes began in morning, by 8 am at least. As we wove our way down the switchbacks, past thick stands of manzanita as far as we could see, I recall saying to Wendy, “Boy, does this stuff need to burn.” Most of the manzanita plants towered like oaks above our heads, indicating they had not seen a fire in decades.

On that particular hike, we discussed hopes and dreams for our daughters–all the same ages and all going through the same boyfriend/girlfriend drama and work angsts of twenty-somethings. I remember the exact place where Wendy told me her cancer had metastized to her spine. She didn’t know how much longer she had. She buoyed me with “I can live a long time with meds, like a diabetic.” And “You’re a good Mom, you know,” when she knew I worried, as did she, about our girls. Ever the nurse. Ever the caregiver. The fires are burning and I am crying, but it’s all about the memories.

Wendy died August 18th. My mom died the very next day, and for some reason, I don’t believe that was a coincidence. My last words to Wendy were, ” I love you,” and those were the same for my mom. We all have expiration dates. My mom’s date was longer–she died in her mid-80s, Wendy–she died at 57, far too young, like a peach that is ripe for just days. Five years ago this week, I lost both my Mom and my best friend, and now I feel as though I am losing my mountains, too, but not really. The mountains have their own times, too. They need to burn. A reminder that everything eventually returns to ashes. For now, as long as I can remember, I will hold on to “my Toro Park,” and all the good times it gave me.

It’s Shopping Time!

When we moved from Salinas-Monterey, we left behind lots of furniture. We sold some things, but mostly donated to Goodwill or to people who were willing to cart items away. A couch, going back years (okay, at least a decade or maybe two) and which we hardly ever used, went away. Actually, it followed our youngest daughter to college, but returned as they often do. Why did it take so long to part with it? I remember feeling a twinge of embarrassment at the few times people sat in the darn thing and they nearly fell to the floor. The cushions had long lost oomph, its arms were thread bare. Yet, it occupied a corner of the house we seldom used, except when we had lots of people and there was nowhere else to sit, and then we needed it. As we pulled off the pillows and cushions, I found hidden treasures, like one of our girl’s paper dolls sweetly tucked, deep inside the couch, and a Polly Pocket or two.

Dale’s baby grand piano, his first retirement project of finishing, polishing, and tuning an 1884 church piano, never played as well as he liked. He gave that away to a family who promised to give lessons to their kids.

Our family room sectional, which I never liked–that’s another story–went to a young couple, who made multiple trips to our house, since the beast could not be tamed into their mini-van.

We held a garage sale, making a few hundred dollars, but really saving us trips to the donation center or the dump. Away went the Tupperware, random vases, place mats, and table cloths for tables we no longer had. We dumped pool toys, broken chairs (why did we keep this stuff?), and books, lots and lots of books from five college-educated people, who kept textbooks (most from that last quarter or semester), all thinking we will need this information some day.

So, by the time we arrived at our new home, we had few furnishings. The bedrooms sets and a few end tables traveled, but the rest stayed behind. Our first month, we watched TV, while camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. First task, aside from unpacking, was shopping for love seats and sofas for the family room and living room. This was fun. This, I could do. Shopping is my forte.

One of the unique features of our new home is the octagonal living room, which has stunning views of the ocean and lake. No standard couch fits these windows, so my solution was two large chairs and a love seat. I spent days exploring online sites, since we were snowbound, and well, shopping for furniture is easier this way. We decided to go with Macy’s, who could deliver within two weeks or once the snow melted, whichever came first.

The leather arms on the chairs and love seat are substantial, like additional seats, so after years of telling my children “to get off the arms and sit on the sofa,” I bought furniture that works. That Thanksgiving, family relaxed on the chairs, the love seat, and on the arms, enjoying the fire. Score one for me.

It’s been awhile, nearly 2 years…

since I have written on this site. It’s not like I haven’t thought about it, but four plus months of quarantine gave me the time. Who knew retirement could be so busy? In the past two years, we completed numerous house projects, traveled to many foreign countries–mostly in Central America, celebrated our newest grandbaby (first boy in years), wrote a book, explored everywhere in our new environs, and planted nearly 100 lavender plants over the septic field. Mostly, 2018 and 2019 was unpacking my life. So, here is where I left off.

February, 2016–The snow lasted for two months. I’d call this real snow as opposed to the realtors’ term of decorator snow. Our Boston girl, who braved the record-breaking storms of 2014, would call this nothing.

Sometime in March, spring rains plus snow melt sent a torrent of water cascading towards our house. Remember our steep driveway? Since water takes the most direct route, the river poured off our ski-run of a driveway into the garage, filling a small lake on the garage floor. We squeegeed and stacked sandbags as a temporary measure, then cut and installed a drainage system further upstream. Thanks to Cal Fire who provided bags and sand. Apparently, many roads and homes besides ours were deluged that winter.

Next, I set to salvaging what I could from soggy shipping boxes—nearly twenty boxes from our old house were stacked floor to garage rafters. Into new plastic containers, I tossed Sammy’s gymnastic attire, 4H uniforms, and yearbooks—assorted momentos from our adult childrens’ childhood. Stacks of plaques, a box of ribbons and medals from swim meets, another box of gymnastic medals—these were moved to higher places in the garage until our daughters have their own garages and can store their own memories.

Then there were the boxes of Dad’s things. Dad received more accolades than his four children (sum total) ever earned. Our loving father was accomplished, a fine man, a leader, but he saved everything—Mom’s cards from anniversaries, Valentine’s, Easter, Christmas, and our Father’s Day and birthday cards. It pains to dump these memories, but who has room for this? None of us are hoarders, neither was Dad, yet stacks of boxes attested to his OCD and his loving heart. I dispatched manuals from every appliance he ever owned. I shredded bank account reports and tax statements—no need to keep after 5 years—although Dad’s file box harkened to the 1960s. But recycling floral cards signed the same way every year for 64 years, “Always yours, John” or “Forever yours, Mary”—that takes a stronger person than me, his daughter. Kan-Mari helped.

One bin held Mom’s art lessons and artwork. Another bin held photos from Dad’s work and travels, another a stack of Dad’s treasures— basically things I couldn’t figure out what to do with. Dad’s awards galore: an inscribed rock mounted as a bookend, an SDG&E glass cap from a utility pole, a framed piece of carpet from the San Diego Civic Theater—all thank yous for a lifetime of public work . Someday, his great grandchildren may want this loot; in the meantime, the treasures rest in moisture-proof bins from Target.

Another conundrum is what to do with our family photos. You know the large framed ones? I tried to follow Kan-Mari’s rule of what “sparks joy” while “thanking” each piece, as I waded through the family history. I solved a space problem by inserting older versions of pictures behind the newer ones, creating a sort of evolutionary history like strata of the Grand Canyon. No doubt some photographer is slapping their head saying, “Noooooo!.” Who has room for this stuff? More importantly, each time we add a family member—child, grandchild, in-law—what happens to the picture before? Our family, like most, has seen its share of deaths and divorces.

Dale installed ceiling racks for the boxes, hooks for the bikes and tools. The garage began to look less like a dumping ground and more like a man cave. Okay, not quite. On to the next project—tackling the inside of the house.

An Outback for the Outback and The Easy Way to Buy a Car

It snowed that night and the next and the next. Christmas at the condo was cozy, our immediate family—daughters and grand baby opened presents around the tiny tabletop tree. Dale gave me a down bathrobe, one you might wear in Antarctica, but hey, he’d lived in the mountain cabin for the last month and knew firsthand how cold it got. Meghan gave us a framed painting of our old house—the one we still technically owned, as final documents were held up by the holidays. I cried when I saw the image. We owned a wonderful home in the Central Coast, and yet here we were moving to a great unknown, with lots of work ahead.

That afternoon we spent with extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins—together at my brother’s.  I reminded myself this was the reason for the move, to be close to family—all of them, all 30 plus of them as the family keeps growing. We collapsed on the bed later that night, and I instructed Jade the cat to let us sleep, like a cat follows any instructions.  We eventually fell asleep to the continual banging of cabinets as she explored the condo.

The day after Christmas, Dale and I made a date with the computer to find a backcountry vehicle, since our two old cars weren’t built for snow or ice. A friend suggested we buy through Costco, and it was the best decision ever. We narrowed our choices; test drove a Subaru or two to be certain, and settled on an Outback. Best part of ordering through Costco is you pre-select your vehicle (by doing your homework first), and then shop online. No dickering, no wheeling or dealing. The price is fixed. Costco tells you which local dealer has the vehicle, preps it, and draws up the paperwork. The entire transaction is complete in less than 15 minutes.

While we waited for our forest green Outback to be detailed, we picked up a perfect read in the waiting room, Coast to Canyons, a collection of hikes in San Diego County, detailing flora and fauna of assorted trails, including maps and directions. The book was one more thing we ordered before we left the dealer.

We could finally drive home to our house on the hill, blanketed under a foot of snow.new Outback for the outback

I stayed at the condo one more night, while Dale negotiated the traffic. Only 35 miles from the condo, but over 75 minutes of driving time—mostly sitting in traffic, as San Diegans streamed to the mountains in search of snow, something other than sand.

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Moving Day

After negotiating with the moving company, we agreed to dates—and the best (or cheapest) landed on Christmas Eve. At least we’d be in San Diego with our family, even though we couldn’t be at the big house. We would squeeze four adults (including our two daughters), two dogs and a cat in the 750 square foot condo. We are the fortunate. We have places to sleep.

The movers loaded the van over two days, drove in shifts to Southern California, and planned to arrive in Cuyamaca on the morning of Dec. 24. We vacationed in Monterey for our last night, then packed up our final precious cargo—our cat, who was fully drugged and stuffed into her cat carrier. The vet administered the perfect dose for the ten-hour drive, as Jade stirred just as I pulled into the condo parking lot. I opened the carrier, and she staggered out—intoxicated, disoriented, dragging one leg, probably asleep from long ride. Jade stumbled around her new surroundings—“Where the hell am I?” I can only imagine what was running through that crazy cat head. That night, no one slept much because the cat ran over our heads, under our beds, through the cupboards, inspecting every corner of the condo.

Early the next morning after a few fitful hours of sleep, Dale and I grabbed a country breakfast in Ramona, while monitoring the weather on our cell phones. Forecasters predicted snow on Christmas Eve; the approaching storms appeared as dark thick bands on our weather apps. This race was on! Packers needed to unload everything and back up our steep, very steep driveway before the first snowflakes drifted down. And so did we, as we lacked chains, snow tires, or four-wheel drive vehicles.approaching storm

Three burly guys met the two truck drivers—all five standard San Diegans, wearing appropriate beach attire—shorts, t-shirts, and Nikes, unprepared for temperatures below 50 degrees, but it was 40 degrees outside, the temperature dropping, the rain beginning. Since our house is at 5400 feet and has three flights of stairs, they warmed up quickly. By 4:30 pm, sunset at 4:50 pm, the body builder-packers brought up the last of the boxes. We generously tipped them, wished them well as the moving van struggled up the steep (Super Steep. Have I mentioned this before?) driveway and slid down the winding, now coated with black ice North Peak Road.

Dale leaned over the kitchen island; I sprawled across the dining room chairs, as we stared at the boxes to be unpacked. With our vaulted ceilings, the stacks stretched to infinity. Okay, 24 feet anyway. We needed to get home for Christmas, but not before we toasted our move. We popped the cork of the champagne bottle and each tossed back a short swig.  No idea which box held the glasses. That didn’t matter; we needed to get off the mountain. The rest of the bottle saved for later.champagne toasttoasting in plastic

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

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

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.