My introduction to living in Northern, CA has been accentuated with unprecedented wildfires, an earthquake, cold water swims, but above all, ceaseless beauty.
Just a few hours after my arrival into San Francisco, wildfires exploded across Napa and Sonoma counties, traveling over 12 miles in just 3 hours with peak winds of 60 mph. At that wind speed, fire moves like fast-flowing water. It was an event no one could have predicted and left tragedy in its wake, quite possibly the greatest in California history. Now over 8 days later, 41 people have died, 88 are missing, and the fire has destroyed 217,000 acres along with 5,700 structures.
As I waited out news on the fires and traffic to ease before heading to my newest house sit in Lakewood, CA, I was able to spend a second night in San Francisco, which included a second night of swimming in the bay with my brother. Before last summer, I had never heard of people swimming in the San Francisco Bay outside of ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, San Francisco’s famous shark-infested triathlon. Turns out, there’s an aquatic park just below Ghirardelli Square, a nearly enclosed swimming basin with a narrow beach and boating docks. The water temperature was around 58-60 degrees and I was handed an insulated swimming cap and ear wax to protect my ears from both the dirty and cold water. Swimming in a bikini sans-wetsuit in those temperatures is invigorating. It’s also astonishing how quickly your body warms up. Around minute 1, a warm spell covers the body and it almost feels as though you’re swimming in normal temperatures. Almost. And a strange thing happens when you emerge from your swim (both nights we went about a half mile). There’s a dizzy, even drunk, feeling from the effects of cold water. One night, when asked if I was okay, I responded ‘Yes, of course’, and proceeded to walk in the wrong direction. We took saunas and hot showers afterwards to warm up and then feasted on large dinners both nights. For about 15 minutes of exercise, it’s amazing how many calories we burned, how hungry we became, and how content I was to fall asleep.
I ran out of time to wait out the fires- and they were only getting worse. I decided to drive an additional hour and a half further east to avoid major fire zones, but still drove through heavy smoke and had to turn around once due to a closed road. My current house sit in Lakeport, CA, typically a 2.5 hour drive north of San Fran (with no traffic… or fire), is a calming and beautiful 8-bedroom retreat home. As you wander through the Feng Shui situated home and gardens, guided by Buddhist statues in nearly every room and appeasing fragrances throughout, it’s hard not to feel completely at ease. An industrial kitchen has (among other things) a stained glass window, 2 sinks and 2 stoves, flowers peering in from nearly every window, and impressionist-style art (done by the owner) gracing its walls. In addition to all of that, the home has a 5-month old German Shepherd, a Tuxedo cat, and views of spellbinding sunrises. I feel guilty for landing in such a great spot (despite the fires surrounding me like the edges of a fishbowl)… and getting to enjoy it all by myself.
Sitting on the front porch reading one afternoon, Friday the 13th ironically, I started to feel the earth move. We (the dog and I) swayed back and forth on the outside bench. My mind raced- was it a train? No, there were no trains nearby. Could the home’s electricity be causing this- or a passing car? No, that’s ridiculous- and no… I was at the end of a one-way road up in the hills. It’s funny how we (I’m assuming everyone goes through this thought process) jump to grasp anything familiar that it could possibly be… until the realization hits you: you’re in California; it’s just an earthquake. And just like that it ended. Maybe it lasted 3 seconds. The sun continued to shine and the ravens continued to caw at each other. Earthquakes and fires, it’s just California. No big deal.
As I continue my housesitting trips, it dawns on me that I’m getting to live (at least a tiny bit) in other people’s perspectives for a moment in time. Like an actor, learning the inner workings of a new character, I step into another person’s life. I get to learn their household routines, walks, and stare at their evening night sky while sitting on their deck. Each home is completely different, yet magnificent in its own way. As I glance into other people’s lives, I take another look at my own as well. I feel as though I’m finally waking up to life instead of rushing through the motions as I have for so many years.
My morning walks with my new dog, Bella, take us up and down hills and past fields of tall yellow wheat grass. We feed the fish (literally in barrels) that have had to abort their home due to a leak in the pond. We walk a couple miles down the dirt driveway to the main road, which hosts walnut groves, and where I slyly and inconspicuously fill my pockets with loose walnuts that have found their way within inches of the road. By the end of my stay, I have collected hundreds of walnuts.
My home is a retreat center and is the home of an amazing spiritual healer, lecturer and writer. She’s traveled all over the world, giving seminars in 19 countries. Her nearly 20 books have been translated into 28 languages. She’s a calming force and, as I live in her home for 10 days, I get to know her through her memoir. I trek the backyard paths (her and her wonderful husband’s land consists of 120 acres over rolling hills), water the garden, and cook meals in their industrial-sized and heavenly kitchen.
Bella, the dog, has become my best friend, not wanting me out of her sight for a second. If I have to shut a door, I’ll hear her thump against it from the other side, waiting patiently until I emerge. After the last Belgian Shepherd and now this German one, I’m starting to think (if I ever settle down) I’ll eventually need a shepherd of my own in my life.
California is starting to grow on me, even with all of its idiosyncratic natural disasters. There are so many wonderful things about visiting new locations and getting to live in them as a resident. The hardest part, unfortunately, is handing back the keys and saying goodbye.