I have finally chosen a place in California to call home. And it’s the last place I expected.
When I got to California, I drove through a beautiful desert before reaching my host’s house in Bakersfield. He said I could stay with him until I decided where I really wanted to live. My plan? Drive up and down the coast, trying on towns for an hour or two each. I’d done research for months online, and I’d identified three areas that looked perfect — Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Carlos. (I just realized I’m into “S” towns.)
Turns out I was very tired, and I spent a couple of days in Bakersfield first. From the start, this oasis in the desert (again, sorry Mexico) felt familiar. It hit me: this place is like Winchester, VA. I grew up 8 miles from Winchester in a tiny town called Berryville. Coming to Bakersfield felt like going home, but warmer and sandier.
I shrugged off the home feeling — I didn’t drive 2,600 miles to go HOME, after all — and headed to Santa Barbara. And that’s where the shock began.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong. And one of my favorite people in the world lives there. She took me around the city all day, to the beach, the hills, the parks, the shops. It’s gorgeous there, and it’s also full of rich, elitist people. If Bakersfield is Winchester, Santa Barbara is McLean or Tyson’s Corner. You know, where I moved 2,600 miles to escape.
Then there’s the housing situation. A 1 bedroom in Santa Barbara averages about $1,600 without basics like a washer and dryer. I’ve done the college-living thing — I realized I’m not interested in doing that again. I’m also staying as frugal as possible, and I know how expensive it is to live in Tyson’s Corner. So, Santa Barbara was somewhat appealing but not as ideal as I’d hoped.
So I went back to Bakersfield, spent another day or so, then got on the road for a two-day tour of the Pacific Coastal Highway.
I left at about 5 a.m. and drove a switchback “freeway” west to San Luis Obispo. The path was beautiful — and desolate. That’s something I didn’t realize from all my map studies and research — California is mostly desolate with splashes of population. Having grown up in the megalopolis that is the Northeast corridor, and having traveled much of it regularly in the past year or two, this truly wide-open space blew my mind.
San Luis Obispo was, on paper, my #1 choice in California. It’s supposed to be the happiest place in the U.S. to live. I was psyched. I reached town by 7:30 or so, hungry and in need of facilities. As I parked in the center of town, I asked my trusty Urbanspoon app to point me toward the best breakfast spot in town. With a 95% approval, Sally Loo’s was the hands-down winner. I walked in, and I almost doubled over with the giggles.
The bathroom (my first visit) has Mr. Meyer’s hand soap. The clientele looked like they could use some, but they had cultivated their dirty-chic too long to admit it. In my fuchsia shirt, I was the most colorful thing in the room by far, and my flip-flops had me decidedly overdressed. And the menu board on the wall — seriously? Local-sourced, free-range wheat? I swear, that’s what it should’ve said if it didn’t. I felt like I’d walked into an episode of Portlandia gone horribly real.
I have a gluten intolerance, so the free-range baked goods were out. I approached the counter. And there he was — the missing member of the Robertson clan. He was the nicest man with the biggest beard I’ve ever seen in person. And I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley.
I asked him where the “real food menu” could be found, and when he smiled I truly expected a good-ol’-boy accent to greet me. Nope. In his best hippie-surfer-Cheech voice, he first guided me to the menu and then, as I was ordering, asked me if I wanted the “organic, nitrite-free bacon or fresh fruit.” I swear. I honestly felt like there was a wrong answer to this question, so I replied “uh, bacon?”. To his credit, he chuckled and said “exxxxcellent choice.” Whew.
So I had organic eggs, nitrite-free bacon and left the bread — and the bean sprouts that had topped my bacon — on my plate. And got out of San Luis Obispo before it could infect me.
And that day just got more strange as the day went on — first to Avila Beach, where I had to buy a sweatshirt because it was 59 degrees in early September and where a 1 bedroom goes for $2,000/month, then to Pismo Beach where I saw the largest congregation of RVs ever, before heading up to Santa Cruz.
I had high hopes for Santa Cruz. On the internet, you get the idea Santa Cruz is a laidback surfer town with a great boardwalk. So, I targeted it for a late lunch. I parked right on the boardwalk, got out, headed to a public restroom on the beach. And got followed into the bathroom by a local guy who started screaming at me.
He wasn’t a homeless guy. Just a tailhole who likes to mess with people who don’t look like they live in Santa Cruz. From the stall, I yelled “I’m from DC, mu*$#%&*!*, and I’ll cut you!” He laughed, but when I exited that bathroom with my knife in hand, he ran.
So, even though I knew Santa Cruz was out, I ate on the pier anyway (knife in my pocket). I had a decent seafood platter and huddled in my sweatshirt against the breeze. Santa Cruz is beautiful, with its pretty shoreline and adorable sea lions under the piers. It’s also sad. The locals seem to enjoy harassing not-locals, and tourism obviously runs the town.
Back on the road, I took the PCS up to Half Moon Bay. This is familiar territory for me — my host in Bakersfield took me here back in April during our San Francisco visit, and I fell in love with the San Carlos/Redwood City area. I just knew this is where I wanted to live. I got a hotel in Half Moon Bay (because it was the only place I could find a room) and prepared for a day of apartment hunting in the morning.
East coast sensibilities had obviously failed me so far, so I rejected my instincts to research online, schedule appointments and otherwise overplan. I set out the next morning and stopped everywhere I saw a “for rent” sign. I found several properties — some were terrifying, some were downright awesome. I finally found one amazing place on the San Carlos/Redwood City border. I loved its Melrose Place feel, with the pool courtyard, and the people were friendly. Just one thing — a tiny 1 bedroom apartment rents there for $2,140. On special.
I make decent money. DC money. I have tons of savings. But no tiny apartment is worth a mortgage every month. So, dejected, I headed toward San Mateo, San Bruno, all the little towns along the way to San Francisco. I knew better than to even bother in the city, thanks to my east-coast research sensibilities. Those morons who pay $2,600 to live in a “loft” space with a college-style loft platform for a bedroom? Somebody needs to get them out of the city and remind them about reality.
I cried most of the way back to Bakersfield, talking with my host, brother and mom about my frustration. This isn’t how I planned this to work out. Not at all.
By the time I got back to my host’s house, I realized my position wasn’t as horrible as I’d made it out to be in my mind. After all, Bakersfield is inexpensive. I am working remotely, so I can save a ton of money by getting an apartment in Bakersfield for a year. And it reminds me of home. It’s surrounded on three sides by mountains, and it’s only two hours from skiing, the ocean, the city.
And that’s how it happened. I spent the weekend looking at apartments in Bakersfield, and I found the perfect one — a view of the mountains from my office window, a pond with a fountain out my front windows and from both balconies. And a washer and dryer, hardwood floors, a fireplace. For $1,000.
And you know what? The people around here who look like they belong on Duck Dynasty actually sound the part, too. For some, that might not be a good thing, but for me? I’m home.