Last night, I sat on the porch of our century old workshop enjoying the timeless cool, evening breeze. The sun filtered through our towering pine trees. We sat in the silence with only the birds and mosquitoes as background music.
I stared at our our dogs resting after another gopher-less hunting day gone by and reflected: How am I so fortunate to be here right now?
On the surface it’s not complicated. Our house in San Diego had doubled in value. Selling afforded us the opportunity to take the equity and buy a new house in a less expensive place in California. (Despite rumors of a California Exodus which turned out to be false, we never seriously considered leaving. Our life is here. California is our home, it’s where our kids are from, and we love it.)
The complicated part was making peace with the concept of moving.
Kristen and I always fall in love with the places we’ve lived. We loved Chicago and it’s diverse neighborhoods. We loved Romeo and the Peach Festival and unpredictable winters which always surprised locals.
And we loved San Diego.
But loving something isn’t a trap.
You can love a novel, be sad that the story ends when you read the final chapter, and still continue to love it while you move on to the next.
Snarled and Ensnared by the Department of No
Of course, I didn’t just love San Diego. I was also very involved.
And, as I’ve experienced before, being very involved can eventually begin to feel like a trap.
The pandemic took its toll on me in this area. Prior to March 2020 I found joy in attending meetings and representing our community and helping get things done. The pandemic ground everything to a halt. All momentum was lost as was all involvement from the community which meant that the Department of No began to rule the City of San Diego. By Winter 2022 I was completely out of gas and I didn’t like who I was becoming at those same meetings I used to find joy in attending.
Sadly, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take my place, which didn’t just feel like a trap, it was now a trap.
Earlier this year I was at a meeting where a city official told our group that even though we’d done everything right on a project for the last 7 years they had decided to spend $500,000 starting over on the same project and were going to push out completion on that project another 5-7 years. I looked across the table at another person in the same trap for the last 20+ years and thought to myself, “Nope. Not me. I’m not spending another 20+ years of my life fighting the city for stuff our community has paid for but not received. I’m done.”
Was this the reason we left? Absolutely not. But was it a factor? Absolutely. It didn’t help us leave but it didn’t help us stay.
Looking for Place, Finding Ahwahnee
Legend has it that Jesse Ross came to California during the Gold Rush but in the late-1860s he moved his homestead deeper into the forest to escape the impact of the Civil War, raising apples, beans, and a daughter before dying on the ranch in 1901. (Read more about the Jesse Ross Cabin.)
With culture wars raging in our state legislatures and a literal war raging in Ukraine, I identify a little with Jesse Ross.
But that’s not how we got here.
We ended up in Ahwahnee because of love. My love for Kristen and our combined love of nature and longings for more agricultural opportunity.
I mean, that’s what this dream has ended up becoming but that’s not how it started.
For the past several years, but ramping up in early 2020, we started looking for a weekend place to escape the city.
Mount Laguna was our original target. We really wanted a Forest Service cabin but few go on the market and they require an all cash purchase, which frankly we never quite had enough of.
We always kept our eye on Mount Laguna but from there we expanded the search to Palamar Mountain, then Idylwild, a little bit in Julian. (Julian… gosh, we wanted to like Julian. We’d get so excited about looking up there and were always disappointed.)
We spent many weekends driving around Southern California looking for a weekend place. Like months of this. The problem became that we fell in love with the Idylwild area just as the pandemic was kicking off a massive price increase. We almost offered on a cabin at like 210k in July 2020 but ran into an issue with our financing and needed to wait 6 months or so.
When we kicked the search off again in early 2021 prices were almost double in Idylwild and surrounding areas. So we expanded our search to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead… slowly allowing ourselves to Zillow further north bit-by-bit. We’d find 8-10 we liked then schedule a weekend to go check them out.
Some of those little towns in SoCal were SUPER TRUMPY and that scared us off. We drove over two hours once to look at a cabin and there were MAGA flags flying from the post office and fire station, we never even drove to the cabins, too weird for us. We just turned around and went home.
Little-by-little we expanded our search for vacation property all the way to Humboldt County, North Coastal Areas, Southern Oregon, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, and eventually the mountain communities of the western Sierras. All still looking for a weekend place. We justified that maybe we’d get a vacation place and we’d put it on Airbnb when we weren’t using it?
In truth, the whole thing was mostly fantasy. People like us dream about things like a vacation home but it’s always kept just out of reach. But gas was cheaper then and dreams are worth pursuing so we just kept Zillowing away.
At the same time prices in San Diego skyrocketed. This allowed us to start playing with the “what if” scenario on our Zillow searches. “What if” we sold our place in San Diego and went all in on a mountain property?
We told ourselves if we did that it would have to be absolutely perfect.
This expanded our searching on Zillow from “under $250k” to starting to look at stuff, generally while blushing, in the $750k-$1m range… which was wow. I mean, if you want to have your eyes opened about the California you don’t hear about on TV, start searching for properties in that price range county-by-county across rural areas.
Land, gorgeous properties, lakes, streams, space to breathe.
We found a few weekend places we thought we might like up near Yosemite, truly our happy place for the last 10 years, and decided we’d spend the weekend visiting the Yosemite Valley but also driving around the mountain communities… just like we’d done everywhere else. My assumption was that we’d eliminate this area as “too Trumpy” pretty quickly as that’s the reputation.
Our house, the one we ended up buying in Ahwahnee, went on the market in December 21. It was gorgeous and we loved the listing. It was dreamy online but it also wasn’t a weekend place. And we were sure it was going to sell fast.
Kristen loved it. I mean she loved it. The girl was thirsty for this house! I’d get up to pee in the middle of the night and I’d catch her looking at the listing, flipping through the photos and imaging herself there.
So we added it to our list to look at when we came up. But I put it last on the list.
That weekend we came up here the area checked out. I remember sitting in the hotel lobby, observing the types of people who came through– did the same at a coffee shop– then at other businesses in town. While the population, statistically, is pretty white and pretty conservative, millions of visitors come through each year which creates a vibe that may be conservative at the core but is very accepting of everyone.
Mariposa County is not Idylwild– I mean, we’ve never been anywhere quite like Idylwild, but def not Big Bear either. It’s a fun mix of ranchers and artists, biologists and B.S. artists. It’s also deeply friendly and inter-connected. New and old mix in the knowledge that we’re living on land that is both new and old.
Over that weekend in February we’d visit Yosemite and then we’d explore the community outside of the park. We drove by a number of listings and many were not as great in person as they’d been in the listing or too far from town or on too steep of a mountain or too far away from a mountain.
We’d drive up and think, “Meh, nice house but not ‘sell your house in San Diego’ nice.”
Anyway, finally– because I like drama– we drove by our new house last. Kristen had a look on her face that 25 years has taught me… this girl ain’t never wrong. When she gives something that look, I need act. This is a girl who likes to keep a poker face. But the dealer dealt her the Ace & King of spades, she couldn’t keep the smile hidden. She was all in.
We drove by and parked out front, then moved to the side, then moved to the bottom, then turned around and did it again. It was actually better in person than in the listing. From the driveway you could see through the house and see the view of the mountains.
From the driveway we could see our past and our present and our future. As we drove down the long, bumpy road away from the house I said, “I guess we’re selling our house in San Diego.”
The next weekend Jackson, Megan, and I secretly drove up and we made an offer. A few days later we listed our house in San Diego.
Dreams aren’t supposed to come true for people like us. But here we are.
Happy Anniversary, Baby
On June 21st, 1997 Kristen Tucker took a risk on me. We’ve always said about our relationship that we don’t need one another, we’re both fiercely independent, but we want one another. That remains as true today as it was in the summer of 1995 when this fire was first kindled.
That look Kristen gave this property meant something to me as a husband. For better or worse, all of our married lives we’ve lived places because of my work. We moved to Oroville, then Romeo, then San Diego not because she particularly wanted to but because her husband took a job in those communities.
There’s something truly special to me to Ahwahnee being where she wants to be. For me, falling in love with this place is like falling in love with her all over again.
Yes, place is important. But if 25 years has taught me anything, Kristen is and will always be my place.