Moving to a small town has been a challenge for me. About a year and a half ago, we uprooted from where I grew up in the suburbs of Pleasanton (in the San Francisco east bay) to reestablish ourselves on a dilapidated ranch in the countryside of Dos Palos (a “small town” farming community in California’s southern central valley). Why the huge shift? Let’s just say that my husband and our small family could be poster children for the recent recession. Now we’re hoping to eventually be spokesmen for stable recovery. “Hope” is the keyword here.
Back in the latter half of 2006, you could have googled the term “American Dream” and the top ten results would probably have included links to our Facebook pages. We were 24 and 25 years old and both had secure jobs with major corporations, a good nest egg in our savings account, growing 401K’s and we were just starting to establish our credit. After 10 years together (FYI: we started dating when we were only 14 years old), we had gotten engaged, bought the house I had grown up in and were planning my dream wedding in Monterey. There was something to be said for proper planning and although it had never been an easy path, we knew our hard work was finally paying off. But then again, everyone is wrong sometimes.
Less than two weeks after returning from our DisneyWorld honeymoon, Ryan was laid off. He had worked as an account executive in the mortgage division of a major international bank. That bank decided that the mortgage industry in the US had become too risky, so they pulled out of the country entirely.
In the year that followed, Ryan was hired and (almost immediately) laid off six more times. Our mortgage alone was over $3,000 a month. We drained our savings, cashed out our 401K’s and took loans from family members to stay afloat. Long story short: We lost our house… at the same time we found out that we were pregnant.
We sold our souls to qualify for a tiny over-priced apartment, only to have my husband’s mom and stepdad move in with us when they lost their own home (after the department store where they had both worked for nearly 20 years filed for bankruptcy). Ryan found a low-paying entry-level position with a major cable and Internet company so we could squeak by. Then the baby came (a boy we named Charlie) and my in-laws became our childcare while Ryan and I both worked full time. We scraped by with this arrangement for a year and a half before tragedy struck.
Ryan was laid off right after we found out we were pregnant again. Then his mother, Gabi, suffered five massive strokes within two months and underwent emergency carotid artery bypass surgery. Although she survived the surgery, she was left completely paralyzed and with limited speech abilities. Her husband became her full-time caretaker.
To reiterate: We lost half our income and our childcare at the same time that we learned we were expecting our second child and would need to accommodate a multigenerational household that would now include a paralyzed adult.
We sold our only car but it wasn’t long before we lost our apartment anyway. Rather than being homeless, we stayed with family while I continued to work until I developed kidney stones and was forced into early maternity leave. Around the time I would’ve returned to work, Ryan was offered a job in the central valley and his Stepdad’s family offered us use of the family farm there. I left the call center that I had worked at for the last seven years so we could re-locate to our new home in pursuit of a fresh start.
“Rancho Hurtado” had sat uninhabited for nearly 20 years so a lot of work was needed, but we still managed to make it into our home. Our boys (yes, two boys: Charlie and James) enjoyed the space and their new dog (a Black Lab puppy that we named Gertie). Ryan and I learned to grow crops, preserve food, cook with whole foods and raise chickens. We had no cable television, no Internet and no telephone land-line because those services didn’t reach that far out into the fields. Consequently, we relied heavily on our cell phones and a digital receiver for our television (that only gets three channels). We had a septic system and a well but no filter or water-softener so we went to town twice a week to refill our drinking water jugs. We had an electric washing machine but no dryer (well… we had a dryer but we’d been battling the manufacturer for a propane conversion kit that actually fit!!) so we line-dried all the laundry. We didn’t have a dishwasher but I never complained because when we first moved in there were NO working appliances. And did I mention the acres of land covered in scrap metal, wood and trash? Yeah. We had our hands full!
Unfortunately, soon after relocating, Ryan’s job offer completely fell through. We found ourselves on the brink of poverty and daily life became a struggle. After a year of working our little farm (for produce and eggs to supplement the community food boxes, WIC and once-weekly free meals from the neighborhood church), clearing a dent in the trash on the property and making critical DIY repairs to the house (we can drywall now! And patch a roof!) while simultaneously searching daily for work…our efforts had proven fruitless. No jobs. It’s not for lack of trying either!
We’ve used every resource available to us, registering for every resume and job listing website, enrolling at WorkNet, re-evaluating our resumes, submitting applications daily, wasting entire unemployment checks on gas to get to interviews hours away…for nothing. And that kind of desperation and stress begins to take a toll. In the end there was just an incredible amount of competition for any position that came available. We soon learned that Fresno county had one of the highest unemployment rates in the entire country, a statistic that broke our hearts as we watched the unemployment checks come closer and closer to running out.
Needless to say, we’d been waiting for a change. Any opportunity at all…we were ready to jump at it. So when my parents asked us to house-sit their ranch for a couple months while they visited family out of state, we packed up the kids, the dog and the chickens and headed to the mountains. We had no idea of the changes that would soon follow.
Upon their return, my parents acquired some new land when their neighbors moved away and sold the neighboring properties. Besides effectively doubling the size of their ranch, they also gained two new homes. The cabins are completely self sufficient with wells, indoor plumbing, solar panels, back-up generator and septic…and nobody living in them. We were immediately invited to take up residence in the two-bedroom “dollhouse”. Sure, it’s just a little cabin. But it has more square footage than our apartment in Pleasanton had. And for the first time in our ENTIRE LIVES, we don’t have anyone else living with us. Just our family. It was intended as a temporary arrangement but has since been offered as a permanent solution …if we’re interested.
With the newly extended property, my parents (who are Permaculturists, personally trained by Sepp Holzer himself) are excited to see their dream of a self-sufficient organic bio-intensive Permaculture farm taking roots…but they desperately need someone they trust to manage the operation. Ryan is obviously a glowing candidate. Although there’s little to no money involved in the arrangement and we barely scrape by to pay our bills each month, it’s rewarding work and it’s a relief knowing we have a secure roof over our family’s heads and food on our plates. Housing and sustenance security became critical too, when Ryan and I recently discovered that we’re expecting our third child on Halloween. Seriously! And guess what? It’s a girl this time!
So there you have it: We’re still living the farm life, but up in the mountains now. Money is still a struggle but we have the means to just barely sustain ourselves. We call the small plot of land that our cabin resides on “Bumpy Road Ranch”, both for the long bumpy road that has to be navigated to get here and for the long journey we battled figuratively to get where we are in life. Daily life hasn’t necessarily gotten easier (still hang drying the laundry! And cloth diapers too now! And did I mention that we’re two hours from the nearest town or sign of civilization?!) and there really aren’t any frills here, but there’s a lot of love and we’re determined to survive and thrive.
I’ve started this webpage to share our adventures so others can learn with us and laugh with us. It’s a work in progress so feedback is always appreciated. Enjoy!