The Land I Visited

The Land I Visited

This is the second of a multi-part series about Terra Cultura’s experience searching for a place to call home. You’ll be hearing from Rachel in the coming weeks about the next phases in our epic quest for land. Click here to see the first part of this series, written by Jessica.

I landed at SFO just as the rain started to pick up for the evening. I waited for my mom to pick me up from the departures level upstairs, a long-standing family tradition that I’m not sure actually saves any time in traffic. Instead of waiting for her to arrive hiding from the shower under the overhang, I stood out by the street, feeling the cool rain trickle down, rinsing the airplane grit and slime off my face and hands. Living in San Diego, it had been months since I’d seen any real rain. This storm felt like an omen, signaling a coming flood of opportunity, after a long and stagnant drought, devoid of forward momentum for us on the land front.

After some time watching the constant stream of uber blacks pull in and out, offloading passengers with suitcases rushing by me into the terminal for their flights, my mother finally pulled up to the curb, and I got into her car: a 2000 silver VW sedan, likely on its last legs, which smells of leather, cigarettes and old coffee cups. “So what’s the final list up to?” she asked on the drive home, innocently enough.

“We’re at seventy seven properties”, I replied, bracing for the same incredulous response I’d heard from just about everyone I’d told about my upcoming land hunt.

“Seventy seven?? And you’re only here for five days? So what, you’re going to see fifteen properties every day?”

“That sounds about right”, I said pensively, rehashing the math in my head.

“So…” she began slowly “do you think you’ll be alive at the end of this trip then?”

“I think I have to be. I just hope that somewhere in this list is the property, Terra Cultura’s forever home. But, if it’s not, we’ll just have to put a new list together, and keep searching.“

“Well, I guess driving around the state looking at beautiful land beats sitting on your ass in an office in front of a computer all day.” she said after a pause.

“That’s a pretty big component of why I’m doing this!” I said, laughing. Despite having gone through several similar iterations of this conversation in the week leading up to my land pilgrimage, my resolve was stronger than ever to find a piece of land that Terra Cultura could call home.

Friday

I left at 7:30 the next morning to try and beat the infamous Bay Area rush hour traffic, which seems to get earlier and gnarlier every year. I got lucky, and drove across the San Mateo Bridge and into Contra Costa and Alameda counties, only encountering the occasional slowdown. Heading east into the morning sun, I fished my sunglasses out of my briefcase, and cranked up a playlist I’d put together for the road, made up mostly of artists I don’t get to listen to very often with my usual complement of driving companions. The first few properties on the list were up Mines Road, an endlessly windy two-lane drive that connects Livermore to Hwy 5 to the east, by snaking over Mt. Hamilton, just in case taking 580 East to the 5 junction outside of Tracy isn’t harrowing enough for your commute. Once you venture just beyond Livermore along Mines Road, you cease to see many signs of life: no houses, no cars, no people and no power poles for miles at a time. The land up this road, while beautiful and scenic, did not show promise for farming. By the time I made it to the morning’s properties, I had lost phone reception, my music and GPS signal, along with any sense that these properties would wind up on my short list.

After a discouraging morning in the remote hills east of San Jose, I headed back down the road north toward some flatter prospects near the delta in Brentwood, Arbor and Knightsen. I spent the majority of my life living within an hour’s drive from these towns without ever having heard of them, yet here they are. These lots, in stark contrast to the morning’s less-than-stellar finds, were completely flat, with nothing but more flat all around. While the Grade-A soils on these properties looked ready to plant on tomorrow, they would come to set a standard for the rest of the trip that I’d call the “flat-five”, referring to the topography and size of the parcel. A flat-five was just that: five acres of nothing but flat, great looking soil, neighbors usually sandwiching the parcel on all sides with single-family dwellings and larger trucks than the average person needs. The flat-fives leave very little to the imagination: probably a great site to build a home for your family, and farm a home plot with enough surplus to sell at market or to a distributor. The idea of doing much else with these lots, like, say start a public-facing ag and arts education farm, seems a bit far-fetched. If nothing else, these parcels would serve as a decent yardstick to measure the other properties I’d be seeing later in the trip. I’d find myself saying things like, “Sure, this is way more acreage than a flat-five, but the terrain isn’t farmable at all,” in reference to my mental baseline.

Later in the afternoon, I found myself up toward Sacramento, weaving through several other towns that are more easily referred to as “just south and east of Sacramento”. Towns like Wilton, Herald, Galt, Mokelumne City, some of which are ghost towns, lost over a century ago to delta floods. I even stumbled on a junkyard property for sale, less than a mile from the decommissioned Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant, smokestacks and all still glinting in the afternoon sun. Apocalyptic landscape aside, the day ended on a high note. One property was more of a flat-fifteen, with a 2500 square foot barn with power, a well, a creek, and city water already on-site. The neighbors were friendly, and a bit more spread out on their fifteen-to-twenty acre plots. This, so far, had been the standout parcel of the day, destined for my final list. The road back to 99 was unexpectedly short, and as I drove down toward the bay, I counted how many cookie-cutter freeway shopping mall towns dotted the road, and wondered how many small hamlets like the ones I saw today are nestled up into the hills just beyond the highway. These rural chunks of the bay area, sitting just outside of the suburban sprawl to the east and out toward Sacramento, seem idyllic and remote, at least until you hit a freeway and are reminded of how close you are to everything.

By the time I pulled into my parents’ driveway just after sunset, I had put about 350 miles on my parents’ truck for the day, just shy of the distance from my parents’ house to Los Angeles. The first thing I wanted to do after spending 8 hours in the car was to pour myself a glass of wine and just sit on my parents’ living room carpet for a while, but the driving portion of the day was far from the end of my work. Footage and photos needed to be cataloged and uploaded to the cloud, notes needed to be checked and formalized, and grades needed to be assigned to each property seen during the day. My procedure for assessing each property was diligent and scientific. Each plot of land seen was photographed, videoed, and graded on a seven-point inspection rubric the three of us had put together in the week leading up to my trip. Notes were made about present infrastructure and land conditions, accessibility from the main roads, the farmability of the land, and the landscape’s inherent beauty, among other things.

(For a deep-dive into the things we’re looking out for in our land search, you can check out our post here.)

Once my notes were in good order, I gave Jessica and Rachel a call to give them a briefing on the day’s properties. During the rundown, I tried to be as impartial a narrator as I could, letting the facts of the search speak for themselves. If asked, I would give an opinion, what I would later refer to in my seven-point inspection system as “the gut factor”, but other than that, I tried to steer clear of editorializing in my reports. Day one had yielded three short-list properties, mostly in Solano and Sacramento counties. If we’d be willing to consider new market-research and community outreach efforts, these would all be great contenders. The call wound down with an update on life back in San Diego, and a report on the dogs, and their daily drama. Afterward, my parents were eager to see all of the footage I’d taken from the day’s listings, so over dinner and wine, I hooked my computer up to their huge flat screen TV, and gave them an encore presentation of the day’s rundown. This would turn out to be the routine for every evening during the search: two shows a night after a day’s drive.

Saturday

The next day was the start of the weekend, so my mom was off of work. I asked her if she wanted to accompany me for the next couple days, which she responded to with an emphatic, “Absolutely!”. We piled into the truck for day two, where we’d primarily be focused on Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. My mom has a very different style of car-tripping than I do. She has a tote bag filled with supplies for every possible contingency on the road. Several bags of potato chips, nuts, water, over the counter allergy medicine, a first aid kit, a garbage bag and a seat cushion, just to name a few. All I had brought along with me yesterday was a small water bottle and my music. The chips were very much appreciated.

We started the day by dipping into Morgan Hill, and seeing a few properties in some very affluent neighborhoods, with multi-million dollar ranch houses fronting on several acre estates. Packs of bicyclists whizzed by us, all in tight formation with matching spandex gear shining in the sun, loudly chatting about their latest VC endeavor or whatnot. My brother has said that bicycling is the new golf: the recreational sport of choice for the millennial 1-percent of Silicon Valley, who find golf to be far too sedentary and boring, something their grandparents might do, but certainly not them. The properties we saw in this area, while technically close to the highway, were all very hard to access, often on private, pothole-filled roads or muddy trails. The further up into the hills we travelled, the more difficult the roads became: one lot was 5 miles up a dirt trail only accessible through a county-maintained open preserve (which closed its gates at sunset), and through a rushing creek. We decided to cut our losses at this property, and turn around at the creek. The topography of the parcels we saw in this area were also quite steep and rocky, definitely not teaching-farm material. By midday, we had wound ourselves around into Watsonville, driving through several massive industrial agricultural operations, on our way to Aptos for a quick lunch at the local Subway (which, both my mother and I remarked, had significantly better meatballs than the average Subway). After lunch, we began to head into the Santa Cruz mountains.

The first property we saw in the afternoon was 30 minutes straight up the side of a mountain, heading up increasingly narrow, and less stable roads, dotted with increasingly dire “ROAD CLOSED AHEAD” signs. My mom protested several times on the way to the “Aptos View” lot, but I insisted that if I didn’t get as far as I could up the road, if I didn’t at least try to see and document these properties, then there would forever be the looming question, “Well, what about such and such property? We didn’t even see it, maybe it was perfect!”. I wanted to be absolutely certain in this search about the plausibility of any of this land. My mom would later describe getting up to this particular property as “the worst scare of the weekend”, repeatedly saying things like “No one, including me, would ever visit you up here! Why don’t we turn back now?”. Ultimately she was right, and this property, as well as a majority of the properties we saw that afternoon in the Santa Cruz mountains, proved to be not only too remote and difficult to access, but simply unsuitable for farming, or even building basic residences or structures for that matter. We saw more than our share of mudslides, washouts, downed trees, and road reconstruction projects that afternoon. One property we tried to find toward the end of the day was supposedly off of Highway 9, which itself is carved out of the side of a mountain up toward Saratoga. The address marker on the highway that matched the address we had listed for the land revealed nothing but a steep cliff on either side of us, with no access roads to the property anywhere.

With little more to show for the day’s efforts than a list of land crossed off the list, we headed back toward home. We checked the odometer to see another 350 miles had clicked by for the day, as we pulled into the driveway. Notes prepared, and media uploaded, I made my call back to San Diego to debrief. “Not much good land to report today, but with a list of 77 properties, it’s a good thing that we’re crossing some off the list”, was my general sentiment, and Jessica and Rachel agreed. If I could come away from this search knowing where we don’t want to be, then that’s just as helpful in figuring out exactly where we want to be. After the call, the evening’s encore performance of video and narrative commenced, this time aided by my mom, who was all too excited to weigh in with her personal notes, mostly consisting of near heart-attacks she’d had on the treacherous mountain roads.

Sunday

We got an early start on Sunday morning, heading out at 7am. We’d be covering a lot of ground, heading down to San Benito county, and snaking through Carmel Valley all the way down into southern Monterey county, into towns like Lockwood and Bradley. Jessica, Rachel and I had driven through some of this area outside of King City and Paso Robles to the south, so I had a pretty good idea of what we would see on this Sunday drive, but again, I wanted to be positively thorough in this land search, so they were on the list. We spent the morning in north San Benito County, looking at properties in Aromas, San Juan Bautista, and Hollister. This is an area that I’ve become very familiar with over the past couple of years, as it’s been the focus of our land search since it began at the end of 2016. San Benito’s close proximity to the Peninsula and Bay Area, as well as Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Salinas make it a centrally located hub with easy access to many educational institutions, farms, and urban markets that will help Terra Cultura achieve its social and educational mission. After a couple of days on the road in several other surrounding counties and terrains, coming back to this area felt special. The weather was beautiful, the properties green, the terrain workable, and the people friendly and neighborly. After seeing days’ worth of properties that weren’t going to work for Terra Cultura, it was nice to see several properties that would definitely be on the short list. The only downside to this area would prove to be the value of the land. It turns out we’re not the only ones that think of this area as desirable, so instead of looking at some of the larger 10 or 15 acre plots I’d seen in other countries, I was lucky to be looking at 6 or 8 acre plots in this area for the same price.

My mom loved the properties we saw in San Benito, much more than anything we’d seen on Saturday. The rolling green hills, and prime agricultural land that we were seeing this morning fit much more closely with what she had been imagining ever since we began talking about our idea to start an Art Farm so many years back. I can’t say I disagree with her; so many of the properties we visited on Sunday morning felt “tucked away” from neighbors and major roads, but were in actuality just minutes away from accessible highways. This land had much more “plug and playability” to them, meaning that we could purchase one of these properties, and just get chugging along, building and farming. Many properties I’d seen up to this point, in contrast, could require significant earthmoving and roadworks, not to mention difficulties in permitting and other red tape, depending on the county. San Benito was one of the brighter spots on the map of possibilities.

We dipped into Seaside for a quick ocean-view lunch at In-N-Out. In contrast to our lunch on Saturday, we both mused how every In-N-Out feels and tastes exactly the same. You can be in Davis, Los Angeles, Seaside, or Burlingame, and your burger experience will be identical. After lunch, my mom and I began to descend south into Carmel Valley, to see a handful of properties south of Carmel, Monterey, and even Big Sur. Carmel Valley Road starts off innocently enough, meandering down into the valley. The first property we saw in the valley seemed to be a decent possibility, with the exception that it was behind a heavy-security gate, which referred to the property as a subdivision of an “estate”. While I’m sure the land is beautiful, my guess was that the neighbors wouldn’t be into the idea of opening that gate up to the public on a regular basis. Further down, about 45 minutes into the valley, we happened upon Carmel Valley Village, a quaint tourist trap nestled near the bottom of the valley, stacked with tasting rooms, restaurants, gift shops, and inns. The first and only traffic we experienced on this road came thanks to a wine tasting tour bus, which slowly eased its way into the shared parking lot of several tasting rooms, and unloaded a bus full of eager, tipsy-looking tourists headed in for another go at it. Once we passed Carmel Valley Village, we ceased to see any cars, houses, bikes, or people on the road, which began as we’d seen before, to get windier, more narrow, and more poorly maintained. Once again, we began to see the telltale “ROAD CLOSED AHEAD” signs, and found ourselves turned away from a couple properties, due to major road reconstruction projects thanks to washouts from the previous winter. Some of these roads were still impassable a year after the rough winter of 2016-2017, which did not bode well for these properties’ long-term prospects at accessibility.

Eventually, we traveled far enough south down Carmel Valley Road to pass through the mountainous terrain. The landscape changed to prairie, verging on fault lines and desert. At this point, we were almost two hours outside of Seaside and Carmel, and still an hour or so away from King City, or any other bastion of civilization. I got bored driving down this road, which is saying a lot. If I get bored driving to these plots of land, then the hope of anyone else coming all the way out to visit Terra Cultura seemed slim. We stopped by a few more desolate properties, with their incompatible terrains, lack of infrastructure, and almost complete lack of phone reception or GPS, but ultimately decided that venturing further south just wasn’t worth the time. We saw nothing but oceans of vineyards, pastureland, and long winding roads, perfect for an undisturbed Sunday drive, but far from perfect for an educational farm. Once we met back up with 101 in King City, we decided to head home, notching another 400 miles on our belts.
On the drive home, I asked my mom if she had fun spending the entire weekend in the car, listening to the same playlist over and over, eating fast food and chips, speeding from plot to plot on questionable roads.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather have spent the weekend doing!” she replied cheerfully, as the sun set to the hills over to the west as we drove north. “I’ve driven through here on 101 countless times in my life, and I never had any idea what was in those hills. Now I know, and it’s not much!”

“That’s exactly how I feel about this drive.” I said, laughing. “I’ve been so close to these places, and always wondered what they were called, who lived here, and what it looks like. Even if nothing comes from this trip, and we don’t find the perfect property for Terra Cultura on this list, at least now I know what’s out here.”

“Not much!”

“Not much.”

Monday

1800 miles in 5 days on this bad boy. The explorer never looked so good! #landquest

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Since I ended my music/tech/content/etc. “industry career” at the end of 2016, the concept of the traditional “work week” has gone completely out the window. Weekends are totally fair game for 10+ hour shifts of work. You might be able to take a nap on Monday afternoon, but you might also be out well past midnight on Wednesday, having important conversations, or pouring over spreadsheets and legal documents. I really started to feel this on Monday morning, realizing that I was about to get up and do exactly the same thing I’d done on Friday, and the same thing I’d done over the entire weekend. Was I on day four of a five day weekend? Or was I just hitting my stride on a work week that looked like it might stretch into next Monday? At this point, experiencing for the first time in a long time, what it might be like to actually enjoy the work that I do, it was getting hard to tell. Maybe life doesn’t have to be compartmentalized into two buckets: weekend and workweek– work and play. Maybe if you love what you do, you find yourself having to make that distinction less and less.

Monday’s itinerary was different from the other days, because it was a one-way trip. I’d be heading up into Napa county, toward Lake Berryessa to see a few lakeside plots, then backing my way down and east into Solano and Yolo counties, where I’d eventually end the day meeting up with the wonderful human being, and president of our board Tom Hintze, and crashing on his couch in Davis. Monday started off rough. Jessica called on my way up to Napa, to report that the contractors at her mom’s house had busted a pipe in the front yard, so the water had to be shut off for a while. She was pissed, and I felt for her. That’s a pretty terrible way to start a Monday. On top of that, the 128 was restricted to one lane for fire and mudslide construction in multiple places. I ended up waiting in a line of cars for over half an hour, while the pilot car ferried other drivers, looking as annoyed as I felt, through the construction sites. The weather was also much cooler and wetter as I headed up to Lake Berryessa. Two of the properties were practically lakeside, up past Spanish Flat as you head toward the north end of the lake. This time of year, the boat rentals, restaurants and bars are all closed up, along with the campgrounds and day-use areas, until summer. The lake was devoid of tourists and the only people anywhere within sight were the guys on the construction crews, and the occasional utility worker and truck. These lakeside properties had some great views of the lake, but little else working in their favor, so I headed back south along 128 back toward Vacaville, stopping on the way to document a few unpromising sites right along the highway.

Once in Solano county, I attempted to locate a couple of properties along Mix Canyon Road, a road which would likely have actually given my mother a heart attack had she been along today. Enshrouded in a thick dark fog reducing visibility to scarcely beyond the dashboard, this road twisted in knots up a steep narrow grade. Ultimately I found one of the two properties, but the road was so narrow and steep that there was nowhere to stop, or even turn around for a good half mile further down the road. Bailing on Mix Canyon Road with a 10-point turn, trying not to roll the truck off the cliffside, I headed for safer territories closer to the town of Vacaville. There were a couple of promising lots pretty close to the flat-five standard in the area. The land out here was completely different from what I’d seen on Mix Canyon Road: flat for as long as you can see, great looking soil, with decent accessibility and infrastructure. Overall I got the impression that Terra Cultura could find a good home in Vacaville or surrounding areas, as long as it was a perfect plot of land, and we opened up to serving the Sacramento area in addition to the bay.

I finished off my list for Monday early, but hadn’t eaten any lunch yet. I hopped back onto 80 for the short trip into Davis, grabbed myself yet another quick In-N-Out lunch and a fresh tank of gas, and parked in a Comcast Service Center, to leech their “Customers Only” wifi in their “Customer’s Only” parking lot. I figured I could update my notes and upload my footage for the day while I took a nap and waited for Tom to get home. Around 5pm, the lights in the parking lot switched on and the lot emptied out, so not wanting to arouse suspicion, I headed over to Tom’s house. I’m always happy to see Tom, but this particular evening, after logging 4 days and upward of 1500 miles on the road, I was really happy to see Tom. His contagious positivity, and his unsurpassed ability to listen and engage in a conversation were just what I needed that evening to help me process all that I had seen, heard, smelled and felt over the past four days. After the nightly report-back to San Diego, Tom and I hopped in his silver pickup, a welcome break from the cab of my parents’ Explorer, and over to de Vere’s Pub for a few beers, dinner, and an unexpected pub trivia night. We talked for hours. About the best and the worst land of the trip so far. About which areas seem to have higher concentrations of suitable looking property. About whether Terra Cultura will be able to find a community and an audience in those areas. About what the board of directors, and the advisory board, and the community-at-large can be doing to help the organization succeed in its mission. About stupid trivia night questions like “What energy drink ‘gives you wings’?”. We had a great night out: exactly what I needed to unwind after so much time in the car, watching yellow and white roadlines go by my line of vision. Lines I could still see in my mind as I closed my eyes to go to sleep.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning I woke up at about 6:30, with a dull headache from the previous night’s drinking, but also with a lot of excitement to see what Nevada and Placer counties had to offer Terra Cultura in our search for land. This was set to be the last day of my journey: tomorrow I’d be heading down to Carmel to meet with Jessica, Rachel, and several of our friends to attend the EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. By 7:00am, I was out the door with a freshly toasted bagel and cream cheese in hand, courtesy of Tom’s brilliant idea to swing by the store on our way home the previous night for breakfast provisions for the morning. Driving on the road out of Davis north into Nevada county, the names of towns start to sound more like people, and less like towns. I passed towns like Nicolaus, Linda, and Marysville on my way up to Penn Valley to look at the first property of the morning. This 10 acre plot with a well and underground utilities, great looking soil, gentle sloping terrain with several forest groves, with fencing around the perimeter ticks off a lot of the boxes, destined to make it to the short list. The only thing counting against this place was its distance from an urban area: at this point I was just shy of 4 hours away from the bay, and almost 2 from Davis and Sacramento. If we could find enough of a community up here to serve, this might be a great option.

The rest of the morning went downhill from there, crossing a number of unsuitable properties off the list, for various reasons. One was off a steep cliff, one was in a dense residential area, and one was apparently across a river without a bridge, deep into a state preserve. I’m not sure that particular listing was legitimate. By lunchtime, I was ready to call anything beyond Nevada City “too remote” for our purposes, and headed back down the mountain to see a handful of properties near Colfax and Auburn before breaking for lunch. Out of the bunch, there were a pair of properties, in a small area that Google Maps calls “Higgins Corner”, that looked particularly beautiful and usable, just minutes away from the highway without feeling like you’re near civilization. Down here near Auburn, we’d be close enough to 80 to feel connected to the Sacramento area, but the idea of tourists day-tripping from San Francisco out here seems less plausible.

After lunch, I headed further down the mountain toward my parents’ house on the Peninsula for the last time on this leg of the land journey. On the drive, I also felt a sense of coming down emotionally after a long trip. I had done it: all told, in the five days between Thursday and Tuesday, I drove for over 40 hours, logged over 1800 miles on my parents’ poor 1996 Ford Explorer, and saw over 70 properties on this drive. I witnessed an astoundingly diverse cross section of terrains, weather patterns, animals, soil, property types, and people, that all exist within a relatively shallow radius of the town where I grew up. The experience was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. Hours of boredom watching hill after hill flow down the road into the horizon, were punctuated by moments of excitement, elation, and sometimes panic. Conversations in the car, both with my mother, with the radio, and with my inner monologue left me with lots to think about in the weeks and months ahead. And the moments of photograph-like stillness and silence, standing next to the truck after driving sometimes hours to see a property in desolation wilderness, left me with a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Tuesday evening, after the daily footage dump and report-backs, as I was getting ready for bed, my mom asked me, “So, when you close your eyes and go to sleep, and you picture Terra Cultura, which place do you see?”. I thought about this for a while. It was a great question, but one I wasn’t ready to answer yet.

“I’m not sure,” I responded, “but I know that I’ve seen it. I have a feeling that at this point, the future home of Terra Cultura is somewhere that I’ve seen.”

I hope I was right.

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