Moving Day

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.

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 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

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.

 

 

Hiking the Paper Trail

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?

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?

 

 

Like on “House Hunters”

Dennis checked the Zillow listing and we agreed to rendezvous at the Lake Restaurant. The house listed in foreclosure, with 24 hours left before Fanny May released the home to investors. Dennis drove the steep–very steep–road, with a steep–very, very steep driveway that led to the house, followed by a steep stairway to the front door. The realtor lock-box wouldn’t open with the code, so Dale walked around looking for another way in and found the side door unlocked.

On a whim (like how our youngest daughter came to be), my husband Dale and I drove to Julian. We were visiting from the Monterey-Salinas area, and spending time with our new grand baby in San Diego. That Thursday in September, we drove to the mountains, an hour drive from the city. Fall was in the air (which in San Diego means air temp was low 70s, water temp low 60s), it was apple season, and the mountains were calling.

I hadn’t seen the town of Julian since the 1970s, when as a break from studies at U.C. San Diego, I traveled with friends. During summer vacations in college, I also lifeguarded at the Girl Scout camp in the mountains, but four decades passed since I’d visited. We strolled the half-mile block of the downtown area, perused the antique shops, sampled spicy snacks at the local cider shop, read listings of houses for sale posted on the window of Julian Realty. That did it. The prices in the mountains spanned the spectrum from million dollar homes to cheap lots (under 30 G). Our dream of buying a place in the mountains could happen here, yet until that point, moving was not on our radar.

We lived in a suburban home of 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, in the central coast of California, perfect for our family of 5, but now we were 2 (not counting the furry children). We hoped the rooms would refill with children and grandchildren, but that happened only once or twice/year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of the family was in San Diego and when they visited places, it wasn’t to the Central Coast; they expected us to come there.

Dennis F., owner of Julian Realty, provided us a list of homes. While I read the summaries and checked out the stats for the homes in our price range, Dale checked Zillow. There it was–our future home.

“Can we see this one?”

Dennis checked the Zillow listing and we agreed to rendezvous at the Lake Restaurant. The house listed in foreclosure, with 24 hours left before Fanny May released the home to investors. Dennis drove the steep–very steep–road, with a steep–very, very steep driveway that led to the house, followed by a steep stairway to the front door. The realtor lock-box wouldn’t open with the code, so Dale walked around looking for another way in and found the side door unlocked.

A quirky, but stunning floor-plan, with large picture windows facing the right directions to capture Lake Cuyamaca to the beaches–we entered the first floor of sleeping quarters. Up stairs (yes, more stairs) led to the living room, kitchen, dining room, sun room, with views that spanned from Catalina Island to the San Diego Harbor and downtown. Warm wood floors, black granite counters, stainless steel appliances in place, but missing vanities and some light fixtures–all cosmetic work that we could do. The interior paint, a faded camouflage color, covered the walls, and the master included flocked paisley wallpaper I hadn’t seen since childhood. The exterior paint mirrored the interior, a light gray-green, sort of faded avocado from the 1960s–who chose these colors, anyway? I could see why this listing “sat” on the market for a few years.

We left the foreclosure, contemplating the views, as Dennis showed us two other homes in different parts of Julian. One house in Harrison Park, at the end of a meandering one lane road that stretched for miles, had an even “quirkier” floor plan, as though designed like the Winchester House with rooms randomly added here and there. The other, a desperate fixer-upper in Pine Hills necessitated major remodeling, and I felt tired just thinking about how much. Both homes required more work than the foreclosure.

We left Dennis and went for pie–that’s what people do in Julian. So, over pie and coffee, albeit on the show it’s wine and appetizers, we discussed the three houses. Selling our home in Monterey-Salinas would enable us buy outright in Julian. No mortgage, such a sweet idea. Listing the pros and cons of each house, and minutes later, the pie wasn’t finished, but we knew. Even if we have a few years in that crazy view house, that was the one for us.

 

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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