Friends invited me to their weekend cabin for a bit of extended birthday celebrating. The big Five Oh. The coast of northern California is spectacularly beautiful and I love walking along the shore watching sea lions play in the surf. As the crow flies it’s only a hundred miles from the city, but it’s a three hour drive due to the rugged topography.
People often associate such locations with extremely wealthy people, and there’s a bit of that here and there. But the reality is that these remote venues are populated mostly with people of fair-to-middling means. My hosts were a tire salesman and a nurse from the Sacramento area who bought a run down cabin at the low point of the real estate cycle after the 2008 crash and spent years fixing the place up one weekend project at a time. Dinner talk centered largely on the relative merits of various chain saws – you need to keep one in the car to clear trees that fall on to the roadway.
When something fails you need to fix it yourself or work with immediate neighbors. Getting a plumber to show up is like attempting cold fusion with a cheese grater and dental floss. Don’t count on it. There’s no way to earn money way out in the sticks, the daily commute to civilization is brutal, and retirement so far from services doesn’t work beyond a certain age. There’s actually more rural poverty in the area than the postcard images might suggest. There are easier places to be rich.
Because I’m a huge geek I asked about the local infrastructure. The subdivision has 263 lots, but only about 80 of the lots have a house on them, and only 40 are full timers. Most lots are larger than an acre with many that are three or four acres. It’s all privately owned and maintained (although not “gated” in any way) so local government doesn’t provide roads or pipes. Consequently, the HOA (Home Owners Association) has to pony up for the cost of critical underpinnings.
The private mini water district is composed of a creek that is dammed at the bottom of the hill, water is pumped up to the top of the hill, and then allowed to flow down to a series of tanks. Every lot is assessed $75 per month for water whether there’s a house there or not. Water that is used is metered at $5 per 75 gallons. In droughts the creek dries up and water is trucked in with additional assessments. Most of the equipment dates to the 1960s with a few recent upgrades. In no way could all 263 lots be built on if everyone expected water. Sewerage is dealt with by individual septic systems.
Roads are “chip seal” – a thin slurry of tar is spread out and loose gravel is poured on top. It’s halfway between a traditional paved asphalt road and just plain old gravel. Why not pave all the roads? Decades of HOA meetings presented such an option – along with the multi-million dollar price point… Individual property owners are tasked with maintaining the drainage ditches along their properties. If they don’t the HOA hires a crew to do it and then assesses the owners.
Getting to this modest forest colony is only possible via the Pacific Coast Highway that wiggles its way along the eroding cliffs and treacherous landslides of the California coast for 665 miles. In spots the terrain is relatively flat and well connected to towns and cities from Orange County in the south to Mendocino in the north. But for long long stretches it’s one endless retaining wall with non stop reconstruction. My friends call it the Full Employment for CalDOT Highway. All it does is connect a smattering of remote homes to civilization far far away. Any rational society would let this road fall in to the sea. But so long as the money keeps flowing from the state capital and D.C. it’s a sweet deal for folks with weekend cabins in the sticks. No chip seal here.