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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Hiking the Paper Trail

The ten-hour drive back to Monterey-Salinas provided ample time to talk and plan. If Dale and I were buying, we needed to act quickly. Julian Realtor Dennis F. explained we had 24 hours to decide on the house or risk losing it. The window of opportunity, per Fanny Mae rules on foreclosures, stipulated first bids went to buyers who would reside in the house, followed by bids of investors, who could use the property in other ways. Monday at noon was our deadline. The list price of $440,000 was tenable for us, and a perfect retirement place, i.e. no mortgage, but contingent on proceeds from the sale of our other home. We discussed this with Dennis. Thank goodness realtors work on weekends.
Us—“Do you know how many offers are in place?”
Dennis—“There is only one I know of.”
Us—“Should we bid over the list price?”
Dennis—“Depends on how much you want this place.”
Then Dennis recommended “bidding a little over,” yet in line with the price per square foot of homes in the area. I saw the look on Dale’s face and knew he was mentally calculating the cost. Neither of us are gamblers, but this time we would be. I proposed $10,000 over, Dale pushed for $20,000, we settled in the middle. We figured we had little to lose in this “bidding war.” No, actually, worst case would be we get the Julian house, don’t sell our other home, and have to carry two mortgages. That would suck. Did I mention we are retired high school teachers and not millionaires?
Next phone call en route to Salinas was to our friend and Coldwell Banker Realtor, Linda M. Linda and I shared pregnancies and babies 31 years earlier. Back then (and sadly, even now), there was no pregnancy leave, we accrued “sick leave.” So, while we strolled with our new babies, we explored options as new moms who needed additional income. Linda left banking to pursue real estate; I stayed in teaching. I knew Linda was successful; her smiling face appeared in papers and on grocery shopping carts. We agreed to meet at our house on Tues. In the meantime, I posted a picture of our house for sale by owner, and asked friends to share on Facebook and other social media. Since we bought and sold our last homes by ourselves, we figured we could do it again, and maybe, just maybe, we’d get an offer before we signed a contract with Linda.
Arriving home, we faced the daunting task of dismantling 26 years of living in the same house. I looked around—so many memories and started to cry.
Tell me again, why were we moving?

 

 

Sleepless Second Night

We hardly slept that night, tossing and turning over our many questions. Should we bid on the house? What if we get the house? What if we don’t get the house? Are we moving too quickly? Should we sell our home after 26 years? Is Julian the right place to retire? Is this house going to be too much work? After little sleep, we decided to go back and look at the house again.

This time, we took a different route–Interstate 8 through Alpine and Descanso–and marveled at the near continuous Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. The side door to the house was unlocked, so we “broke in” as we did the day before. We noticed more things needing repair: peeling paint, broken cement fiberboard, ugly tile, overgrown trees and shrubs, and of course, the steep, steep–10% at least steep–driveway. I imagined driving in rain, sleet, or snow. Yikes. We’d need another car, four-wheel drive for sure. Then we saw the sun shining on Lake Cuyamaca.
In the sun room and living room, Dale practically swooned over the fans, decorated with antlers and a chain of dangling bear claws. What a guy. The house hollered “man-cave,” it screamed wilderness. I could live with antlers and bear claws, but the other fans not so much. On one bedroom ceiling hung a tropical fan with faux palm fronds, on another bedroom ceiling a modernist stainless steel model that resembled a UFO–both strange fixtures in a mountain cabin. Fans hung in every room, including the laundry room; we deduced the house must swelter in the summer. No air conditioning, but at 5400 feet, how hot can it possibly get? Then we watched planes taking off from the San Diego Airport and boats sailing in the harbor.
The living room’s fireplace of beautiful stone work and mantle was set with reddish grout. Not my choice of colors, until I realized the fireplace reflected the rocks and soil surrounding the house. I liked the open concept living room, dining room, and kitchen; I didn’t like the custom range hood coated in grease–more work to be done, while replacing it was a pricey option. Then we stared at the haze of Catalina and San Clemente Islands on the horizon.
The master bedroom with en suite master bath rivaled five-star hotel rooms–the super-sized shower supported by a multitude of jets, a whirlpool spa, walk in closet, and the “piece de resistance”– a fireplace that opened to both the master bedroom and bath. The tile around the fireplace needed replacing; the red flocked wallpaper needed stripping—both cosmetic. No vanities or medicine cabinets in any bathrooms–more expenses to add to the growing list. Then we saw Mt. Laguna to the east and Middle Peak of Rancho Cuyamaca State Park to the south from the bedroom windows.

We inspected the perimeter of the house, careful not to twist an ankle on the rocky path. How was this house ever constructed? It emerged from rocks and boulders that dotted the landscape. The piers supporting the wrap-around deck appeared in good condition; well, except for two or three, those piers and beams needed structural engineers, not us. Every ten feet or so, the blackened trunk of a burned conifer told the story of the Cedar Fire that blazed through this mountain. Other archeological remnants e.g. cement foundations, rebar, pottery fragments, painted the sad picture of that fire that destroyed lives and homes in 2003. We could only guess what happened here. Then we saw the expanse of the Cleveland National Forest and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
We were sold.