When I arrived in November, Santa Cruz welcomed me with a flurry of serendipitous alignments. Nearly impossible opportunities rolled out beneath my shuffling feet, carrying me forward in my skeptical establishment of a life here. The main reason for my doubt? This place is expensive! Like $8-900-for-a-room expensive! I can’t afford that! More so, I don’t want to spend all my time in one place, working full time to pay rent in that one place, and missing out on all that place has to offer. And at the end, I have no money or gained skills to carry forward on my travels. Sound familiar? Yeah, I know, nobody really wants to do that!
Yet Santa Cruz sprouted into my vision as I prepared to drive cross-country from New York. I had no real plan for the winter, but everyone wants to know the plan, so I started to drop the word “Santa Cruz”, just as you may drop, “my boyfriend,” in a conversation with an undesirable acquaintance. And the more I said it, the more I started to believe it. Surfing, alternative culture. Everyone who heard the word lit up and assured me, “Oh! You’ll love it there!”
So I headed West, with no idea how I might pay the atrocious rent in one of the most desirable cities in California, and honestly, with no intention to. Halfway across the country I applied for a job on Craigslist, (construction with a green building company), and three quarters of the way cross-country, I got the job. No interview, no mandatory start day, no real commitment. Perfect.
I would not have thought to visit Santa Cruz if it hadn’t been for two of my closest ladies, my mom’s best friend and her daughter. Our two families had grown up knowing each other, first in the Caribbean, then Oregon, and chasing each other around the US. They provided me a home in Ashland as an angsty teenager, and again in Rincon, Puerto Rico as a traveling adult.
It is this love and shelter of family and friends that has enabled me to bounce freely from beautiful place to place. In utmost gratitude, I try to give back in service and positivity. Through this attitude I have also met strangers who are willing to trade work for a place to rest. Hostels that need cleaning, farms that need field hands. There are many ways to exist in this world, and working to pay rent is only one of them. It is definitely the most common way, but work trade exists almost everywhere. Two websites dedicated to matching those with extra time and those with extra space, are WWOOF, and Workaway, and there are more, I’m sure. I have found a sense of security in the fact that with the right attitude and work ethic, there is almost always a place to stay.
Laura welcomed me to stay in her sweet cottage as long as I needed, but I was eager to get myself set up, and my car unloaded. I hit the ground running, looking for yards to rent, or driveways. Pitch my tent perhaps and use the kitchen, and pay $400 rather than $800? Or work trade? There were a few work trades, but they all seemed to be out of town, and I didn’t want to have to drive too far to the ocean. (I know, a sob story!) Driveways in town were fetching a hefty price as well, and a Honda civic wasn’t really a super livable car, with winter was arriving dark and rainy. I started work right away, and adopted an attitude of indifference, like, “If I can’t find the right place, I’ll just go somewhere else for the winter. I’m not gonna pay $800 a month!”
I guess my cool nonchalance worked on the Universe as it does on a suitor. (Kidding! No disrespect, Universe!) I didn’t have to wait long for the perfect situation to hunt me down. I met my future housemate the first day of work. Over the course of the week, we got to know each other. (Well…she got to know me quicker, as I talked and talked like I do, and she learned to chime in when I took a breath.) Spending a week together in a crawl space under a house, digging dirt into trays with sawed-off shovels, accelerated the process. I felt excited that I had made a friend right away, and throughout the week, she gradually revealed that she lived on a piece of property just near town.
“Sometimes people come to stay there,” she said at first, which came to mean that in the summer there are Work-away guests who help with a myriad of projects, including little cabins built with natural, experimental techniques. “Maybe you could come by some time,” she offered, which evolved into the idea that there might be a place for me to hang my hat (park my Civic). I envisioned living in my tent. “Rent would be work trade,” she said, perking my ears even more. She played it down for a while, I think to keep me from getting too excited. But when she revealed that there was a small, empty cabin I might be able to take over, I stumbled over my words asking when I could go see it.
Friday after work I tried to keep up with the little white scooter that zoomed ahead of me down the highway. Yafah leaned into the motion of the bike, her long brown braid growing down her back out of her glittered helmet. When we stopped, she barely reached the ground with her toes, balancing the scooter, and kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure I was still behind in my car. We turned at a cemetery just past the highway ramp and continued down a road that was instantly rural, large lots with fields between us and the San Lorenzo river.
I breathed in the nature, and flashed back to a memory, a road in Costa Rica I had once discovered as I wandered to escape the busyness of an overrun tourist town. The Deja Vu reassured me that I was on the right track. We turned right up a steep driveway, parked and looked around. Trees, paths, little shacks and sheds scattered around. Piles of tools and materials here and there, wood planks, straw bales. I heard chickens chattering to my left. I was delighted. We had only driven a mile out of town, bikeable, walkable, so serene and natural.
My head buzzed with disbelief and excitement as I took the “tour.” A path from the parking area to the outdoor kitchen, past the bike shed (with a bike for me to use), and the massage studio cabin (rentable for $12/hour). Then on down to the “bathhouse”, a hybrid adobe building with a propane on-demand hot water shower, mosaic walls, clear plastic roof, and a sculpted Octopus tentacling the walls. Down again past a cob cabin, toward a lofted studio sided with redwood bark, squatting in the forest like a woolly mammoth. And across the path, nestled in a ring of baby redwoods, a small, square, simple hut. Mine.
We opened the door and turned on the light (a switch on the wall!) to reveal built-in shelving and a foam bed on the floor. My mind instantly planned the functional, small-space furniture I would build. Windows, electricity, heat. I felt that I had walked into a fantasy. The trade would be one day of work a week and $100 a month to help with taxes. I moved in the next weekend.