Putting down roots

Putting down roots

All roads lead to Bigfoot

Our latest travels found us with a new purpose. We've been without a permanent residence since starting this travel site, and the time came to think about our future and where we want to end up. Santa Fe has served as a great home base, but between home prices, our desire to be more self sufficient, and needing a change, we started thinking about where we would like to be.

Some people might simply, even blindly, throw a dart onto a map to determine their next move. We approached the question “Where to next?” by consulting the modern-day oracle: A quick Google search for “small towns for artists” came up with several places most people have never heard of before. Corvallis and Ashland (Oregon), Nevada City outside of Sacramento, and Arcata along the Lost Coast. In addition to an active art scene with galleries and art markets, we knew we wanted to be somewhere with mountains, a temperate climate for growing veggies, a reliable and clean water source, a strong farmers market alliance, and last but not least, an airport within reasonable driving distance. This somewhat narrowed it down to Nevada City, Arcata, and Ashland. Both California and Oregon have their pros and cons. Cost of living in Oregon tends to be somewhat cheaper as it has no sales tax (and cheaper gas), but it would be the issue of water rights that would become a dealbreaker for us.

Maybe you have heard of the infamous Emerald Triangle before, the largest cannabis-producing region in the US, consisting of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties. Maybe you have even watched true crime documentaries like Murder Mountain or the Hulu Tv show Sasquatch, telling horror stories about the weed-growing culture in the 1990s and early 2000s, when many people went missing or were found murdered in that area. Maybe it will come as a surprise that Humboldt, more precisely, Arcata and Eureka checked all of our boxes when it came to finding a new home. Just like those detractors that said Mexico would be too dangerous and we would surely be kidnapped at some point, early in our search we talked to realtors discouraging us from looking in Humboldt, citing he said she said stories of danger.

Mortgage loans in the times of cholera.... sorry, post Covid

When we first started looking for properties, we knew we wanted a good amount of land! Unfortunately, many of the properties that caught our eye were un-permitted structures, and most of them were off the grid. So, unless you have a substantial amount of cash at hand, funding can be the first issue.

We started looking into possible mortgage lender options earlier this year, and the USDA Rural Loan sounded pretty good at first, as it is designed to 'revive rural areas'. However, after sending a few exemplary properties to one of their advisors (of which he liked none), we quickly realized that this was not a good fit for us, as USDA requires the property to be on the grid, include several heat sources, and can't be income producing in any way. So, basically none of the things we were looking for. 

We dug a little deeper by researching other people’s experiences with financing unconventional properties with a conventional lender and terms. The general consensus was that you can’t and that you are doomed to either an outright cash sale, horrible land lender terms, or limited to owner carry options. Well, where there is a will, there is a way and after talking to several real estate agents and lenders we finally found the answer we were looking for: Yes, technically you can finance unconventional off-grid properties! The magic words here are comps and local appraisers. Solar powered? Not necessarily a problem. Well or even spring-fed water? Sure, if you, or rather the appraiser can find enough comparable properties in the area with the same kind of water source. Hooray!

On the road again

We set out in our snazzy new trailer to look at properties and towns in person. It took us 5 days of scenic driving to arrive in Nevada City, a charming historical gold rush town in the Sierra Nevada, roughly an hour and 15 minutes from Sacramento airport. We passed through Nevada City and its adjoining big sister town Grass Valley rather quickly. Even though the area is undoubtedly beautiful and both towns have a lot to offer, none of the houses felt quite right. We realized that roads, more precisely the condition of back roads/forest roads and driveways to reach these rural locations would become a significant criterion for our house search. We also debunked one of the lingering myths about financing unconventional properties: un-permitted houses can’t be financed because you can’t get fire insurance on them. Even though that is true in some cases, we found the exception to the rule, an unpermitted house covered by the California FAIR Plan. The magic words here are local insurance agent and yet again, local appraiser, and our very flexible and patient mortgage adviser Shalise confirmed that unpermitted structures wouldn’t necessarily be an issue.   

All of this was good news for us. We had our eye on a very special property for a while: an off-grid house in Oregon, close to the border of California and surrounded by thousands of acres of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The house itself was designed and built by the owner of Power House, one of the early alternative power magazines. The fact that it had a very well-built bathhouse rather than a conventional bathroom seemed to be a problem at first, but a little bit of out-of-the-box thinking made us realize that we could roll the addition of a bathroom and possible septic into a rehab loan and everybody would be happy. However the extreme remoteness of the property made it impossible for any local insurance agents to find fire insurance coverage for this specific property, and even the FAIR Plan would not cover it. On top of that, there was still the problem of water rights in Oregon.

Entering the land of Bigfoot and Cannabis

We were excited to cross into Humboldt for the first time, and somehow expected things to immediately turn dark and gloomy. Indeed the road narrowed shortly after and the shade of the redwoods blocked most of the sunlight for a minute or two. It is not surprising that those dense, endless, heavily wooded forests would make a perfect habitat for a tribe of hermit-like creatures or, ‘dark watchers’. The legend of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch) is deeply rooted in the folklore of the Pacific Northwest and we would learn much more about documented sightings of our new neighbor at the museum of Willow Creek, whose main collection is dedicated to all things Bigfoot. 

The history of the weed industry in Humboldt originally started with the Back to the Land movement in the 60s and 70s: homesteaders who wanted to live freely, self-sufficiently, and wanted to grow marijuana as one of their basic crops and for additional income. The war on drugs started under Nixon soon brought the sound of helicopters to otherwise peaceful Humboldt, in addition to heavily armed enforcers who eradicated whole farms and led to a suspicious attitude towards outsiders amongst the community. The price of marijuana went up and the remoteness and relative lawlessness of the area attracted more commercial, industrialized, and then still illegal growers trying to get rich quickly. They brought with them even heavier armed security guards, booby- and bear traps, underground bunkers, and a creepy vibe that made the area so infamous. Laws passed in the early 2000s to legalize the industry created yet another gold rush for properties. The intended consequences of legalization did not pan out however, the black market continued to thrive, and the heavy tax and regulations including strict permitting for everything from grading to water sources to security made it difficult for many of the mom and pop size operations to make it. Large corporate entities funded with huge cash infusions by venture capitalists blew up by 2010, and now have suffered, with the market cratering and prices for cannabis at an all time low.

Many people saw dollar signs and invested in large off grid properties hoping to get into the legal side of growing. The failure of these small to midsize operations is what led to a somewhat depressed economy in Humboldt, including many properties going for half of what they did during the height of the weed craze. In reality we are taking advantage of peoples misfortune from a bygone era. What is left now in Humboldt is an impressive quality and quantity of local produce farms, supporting an impressive network of farmers markets across all towns small and large, even unofficial/unsanctioned ones. The unique combination of abundant water and mild climate lends itself to a productive growing region in general. Humboldt consists of extremely diverse microclimates, from cool coastal to hotter inland areas and varying levels of rainfall. One of our big criteria for picking somewhere to live was anticipating what the climate will be like in 20 years. The trend is hotter and drier, and the general consensus is the Northwest will escape the worst of these changes. With milder winters than the interior of Washington and Oregon, and less gloomy rain than the areas closer to the coast in those states, Humboldt makes a lot of sense.

Through the Redwoods

The 101 opened up again and we got a glimpse of the crystal clear Eel River. We were lucky enough to catch the very end of the kinetic sculpture race in Ferndale, a 3-day slog of 50 miles over land and through water with hand built sculptural vehicles. Ferndale itself is a charming, historic, small coastal town, surrounded by dairy farms.

While looking at properties and different areas all over Humboldt, we stayed at several State Park campsites, the first one near Miranda, the second one near Willow Creek, before heading further north towards Oregon. We already had a specific house in the Salmon Creek area west of Miranda in mind, and even though the house turned out to be everything we thought it would be, the condition of the road and the inevitable long drive made us pause and postpone the already set up inspection. We would learn more about the issue of road maintenance in Southern Humboldt (SoHum) and its importance for emergency preparedness later, at a fundraiser by the Garberville Chamber of Commerce. 

We had heard and read many, many stories and preconceptions about Humboldt county. Besides being undoubtedly beautiful, people thought of it as the wild wild west, with a creepy vibe, but also with a sense of nostalgia from those who have been living there the last few decades. The sense that something was being lost, a unique, independent way of life within a tight-knit community.

We certainly found the latter to be true. Humboldt is all about community, and it has been changing. Summer is packed with unique, family-friendly festivals. We mentioned the kinetic sculpture race, but even within those few weekends that we visited, there was also Oysterfest and the Star Wars-themed Forestmoon festival. The weekly Friday night market in Eureka turned out to be a big party with buskers on every corner and most excellent international street food. Humboldt does feel very rural, that's for sure. Most towns along the Hwy 101 between Ukiah and Eureka are small, usually consisting of a gas station, a grocery store, and not much else. However, if we ever get sick of looking at nature, we can always visit Costco or a good old strip mall in Eureka....

Exploring Oregon

After exhausting all possible house options in Humboldt, we were sad to leave this lush and somehow magical place. We decided to give Ashland a chance and took the scenic route along the coast up to Oregon. Southern Oregon is surprisingly diverse, with several different micro-climates on each side of the Rogue Valley and we were confident that we would find an area we liked. The town of Ashland is known for its annual Shakespeare festival, an active art scene, and farmers market alliance, the Applegate valley boasts sheer endless wineries, and Ashland's central location makes it a good base for exploring the Shasta Trinity National Forest, or National Parks like Crater Lake or Lassen Volcanic NP. It's also much more liberal than many of the surrounding, quite conservative areas, where frequent Trump flags and signs dot the landscape.

Ashland itself turned out to be charming, and we would have considered at least one of the properties we looked at if it hadn’t been for those darn water rights. It might surprise many of you that water laws in California are actually very friendly toward small farmers, whereas Oregon only allows 0.5 acres of irrigation for non-commercial use. Everything that might be considered commercial technically requires an official water use permit or grandfathered-in irrigation rights. Confirming our concerns with some of the local farmers, we realized that this issue could not be resolved easily. Combined with generally higher prices than California for an equivalent house and acres, and a terrifying fire and smoke season, we left a bit dejected, deciding that Ashland and the surrounding areas were probably not going to work for us.

Trump free

After a short but sweaty heatwave in Ashland Oregon, we looped back down to Humboldt, and the coastal air did indeed deliver some much needed relief from the heat. We took the scenic bypass south and were rewarded with a quick elk sighting. 

Since we didn't plan on coming back down, we hadn’t booked a camping spot beforehand, and finding an affordable place to park on a weekend during festival season proved to be somewhat of a challenge. We decided to give the only place on Harvest Host in that area a second chance, only to realize that they also offered Hipcamp (that is, if you can manage to fit into the spot next to their frog pond). We ended up staying at Briceland Vineyards for almost a week! The wine tasting was excellent and we learned much about both the history of wine-making in Humboldt and the area in general from our friendly hosts Andrew and Rosie.

We scheduled to look at a few more houses with a broadened search and different criteria, one of which had a very recent price cut. Since we were already halfway there, we also tried to explore as much of the area west of Garberville, towards the coast, as possible. Weeks of driving, camping, and bushwhacking through overgrown properties full of poison oak, snakes, and black widows left us mentally exhausted. After the 90-degree weather and burnt-down areas in southern Oregon, visiting Shelter Cove on the coast, the King Range, and a dip into the cool waters of the Mattole River was a nice reprieve. With more time to contemplate what was important to us, the 2nd generation hippy vibe of the area felt inviting. We could see making a home here.

Just as rural if not more so than the areas in Oregon, you won't find any Trump signs here.

Our faithful real estate agent Marcus stuck by us, showing us several more promising properties that didn't require extreme off-roading for 20 mins to get to. In the end, one property stood out above all the rest, and while not perfect, it checked more boxes than not. We are excited for the next chapter in our life (it might even include baby goats), stay tuned, there's more to come......