Moving to a small town was a challenge for me. About two and a half years ago, we uprooted from where I grew up in the suburbs of Pleasanton (in the San Francisco East Bay) to reestablish ourselves on a dilapidated ranch in the countryside of Dos Palos (a “small town” farming community in California’s southern central valley). Why the huge shift? Let’s just say that my husband and our young family could be poster children for the recent recession. Now we’re hoping to eventually be spokesmen for stable recovery.
“Hope” is the keyword here.
Back in the latter half of 2006, you could have googled the term “American Dream” and the top ten results would probably have included links to our Facebook pages. We were 24 and 25 years old and both had secure jobs with major corporations, a good nest egg in our savings account, growing 401K’s and we were just starting to establish our credit. After 10 years together (FYI: we started dating when we were only 14 years old), we had gotten engaged, bought the house I had grown up in and were planning my dream wedding in Monterey. There was something to be said for proper planning and although it had never been an easy path, we knew our hard work was finally paying off.
…But then again, everyone is wrong sometimes.
Less than two weeks after returning from our DisneyWorld honeymoon, Ryan was laid off. He had worked as an account executive in the mortgage division of a major international bank. That bank decided that the mortgage industry in the US had become too risky, so they pulled out of the country entirely.
In the year that followed, Ryan was hired and (almost immediately) laid off six more times. Our mortgage alone was over $3,000 a month. We drained our savings, cashed out our 401K’s and took loans from family members to stay afloat. Long story short: We lost our house… at the same time we found out that we were pregnant.
We sold our souls to qualify for a tiny overpriced apartment, only to have my husband’s mom and stepdad move in with us when they lost their home too (the department store where they had both worked for nearly 20 years filed for bankruptcy). Luckily Ryan found a low-paying entry-level position with a major cable and Internet company so we could squeak by. Then the baby came (a boy we named Charlie) and my in-laws became our childcare while Ryan and I both worked full time. We scraped by with this arrangement for a year and a half before tragedy struck:
Ryan was laid off right after we found out we were pregnant again.
Then my MIL suffered a massive stroke and underwent emergency carotid artery bypass surgery.
Gabi (Ryan’s mom) survived the surgery but was left completely paralyzed and with limited speech abilities. Her husband became her full-time caretaker.
…To reiterate: We lost half our income and our childcare at the same time that we learned we were expecting our second child and would need to accommodate a multigenerational household that would now include a paralyzed adult.
We sold our only car but it wasn’t long before we lost our apartment anyway. Rather than being homeless, we stayed with family while I continued to work until kidney stones forced me into early maternity leave. But around the time I would’ve returned to work, Ryan was offered a job in the central valley.
We found a family willing to rent us a room in their old farmhouse while we established ourselves in Fresno county. Then I left the call center that I had worked at for the last seven years so we could re-locate to our new home. It was the hardest decision we had ever made but we were commited to finding a fresh start.
The ranch we moved to had sat uninhabited for nearly 20 years before the owners had recently moved in and rented a room to us. A lot of work was needed, but we still managed to make it feel like home. We only rented one room but we were given run of the ranch. The owners were extremely appreciative when we gladly helped with the extensive repairs the house and property required. We appreciated their kindness and willingness to open their home to our family.
Our boys (yes, two boys: Charlie and JD) enjoyed all the space. Ryan and I learned to grow crops, preserve food, cook with whole foods and raise chickens. We had no cable television, no Internet and no telephone land-line because those services didn’t reach that far out into the fields. Consequently, we relied heavily on our cell phones and a digital receiver for our television (that only got three channels). We had a septic system and a well but no filter or water-softener so we went to town twice a week to refill our drinking water jugs. We had an electric washing machine but no dryer so we line dried all the laundry. We didn’t have a dishwasher but I never complained because when we first moved in there were NO working appliances. We had slowly helped the family aquire used appliances from friends, family and Craigslist. And did I mention the acres of land covered in scrap metal, wood and trash? Yeah, we had our hands full.
Unfortunately, soon after relocating, Ryan’s job offer completely fell through. We found ourselves on the brink of poverty and daily life became a struggle. After a year of working on our little farm (for produce and eggs to supplement the community food boxes, WIC and once weekly free meals from the neighborhood church), clearing a dent in the trash on the property and making critical DIY repairs to the house (we can drywall now! And patch a roof!) while simultaneously searching daily for work…our efforts had proven fruitless. No jobs.
It’s not for lack of trying either.
We’d used every resource available to us, registered for every resume and job listing website, enrolled at WorkNet, re-evaluated our resumes, submitted applications daily, wasted entire unemployment checks on gas to get to interviews hours away…for nothing. That kind of desperation and stress begins to take a toll.
In the end it was clear that there was an incredible amount of competition for each and every job that came available. We soon learned that Fresno county had one of the highest unemployment rates in the entire country, a statistic that broke our hearts as we watched the unemployment checks come closer and closer to running out.
Needless to say, we’d been waiting for a change. Any opportunity at all…we were ready to jump at it. So when my parents asked us to house-sit their ranch for a couple months while they visited family out of state, we packed up the kids, the dog and the chickens and headed to the mountains. We had no idea of the changes that would soon follow.
Upon their return, my parents acquired some new land when their neighbors moved away and sold the neighboring properties. Besides effectively doubling the size of their ranch, they also gained two new homes. The cabins were completely self sufficient with wells, indoor plumbing, solar panels, back-up generator and septic…and nobody living in them. With our current landlord’s blessing, we offered to rent one of the new cabins before my parents could even post the ad online and immediately took up residence in the one-bedroom “dollhouse”. Sure, it was just a little cabin. But it had more square footage than our old apartment in Pleasanton did. And for the first time in our ENTIRE LIVES, we didn’t have anyone else living with us. Just us and our children.
With the newly extended property, my parents (who are Permaculturists) were excited to see their dream of a self-sufficient organic bio-intensive Permaculture farm take roots but were desperately understaffed until we came along. Although there was little to no money involved in the arrangement and we barely scraped by each month, it is very rewarding work and brought us closer to our family… just in time to discover we were pregnant again. Seriously! And guess what? It was a girl! Evie was born in October 2013. Our little princess.
The winter that followed Evie’s birth was a rough one. Snow storms were frequent at our cabin’s elevation and we often found our steep, ungraded single-lane dirt road completely unpassable. We would be stranded in our little home for several days at a time, during which Ryan would work day and night to keep the fire in our wood burning stove burning bright so the temperatures wouldn’t drop to freezing. At one point we went to town for supplies and (upon attempting to return home to the cabin) nearly slid sideways off a cliff along the side of our road. With the road unpassable, we ended up stranded in town for almost a month, essentially homeless while we waited for the ice and snow to melt. It was not an ideal situation with a newborn, a two-year-old and a 4-year-old. Luckily we’re blessed with good friends who let us stay at their cabin in town.
By the time the weather cleared up and the road became driveable again, Ryan and I had developed growing concerns about living so remotely. These concerns came to a head when our tiny baby girl developed a health condition with symptoms that involved her stopping breathing in her sleep and suffering seizures.
The road conditions continued to wreak havoc on our only vehicle too. At one point we were litterally stranded on the mountain, a two hour drive from town, with no wheels. Ryan had to hitch rides to pick up supplies and food for us and concerns for our daughter’s health issues grew exponentially with no means of transportation. We swallowed our pride and started a Go Fund Me campaign for the extensive repairs that our vehicle needed. Although the campaign was a success, we soon learned that the necessary repairs would be far more extensive than we had been quoted. It was unreliable, at best.
Driven by our concern for our children (and especially the baby’s health) Ryan began working even closer with programs in our county to assist with job placement and training. Unfortunately the condition of the road and our lack of reliable transportation was badly effecting his attendance and the program’s effectiveness. This resulted in him being penalized. Desperate for help (and to keep him from being turned away from the program) we went to the county to speak with Social Services.
We met with a caseworker and explained our unusual circumstances. The caseworker was extremely understanding and very apologetic for the fact that there weren’t really any programs to help people in our situation. Emergency transportation, for example, was generally offered in the form of bus passes. Our cabin was two hours away from the nearest bus stop. She had a suggestion though, which she referred to as “a shot in the dark, but worth a try!” and handed us a form to fill out. We were applying for a brand new program that the county had just received limited funding for: The Family Stabilization Plan.
The program, as it was explained to us, was basically set up to essentially “adopt” a family that had short term financial needs. They were looking for candidates with a clean record who had a long term history of holding stable jobs and maintaining a stable living environment. Candidates also had to demonstrate that their current situation would be correctable with short term financial support, targeted at specific obstacles (such as transportation, housing and employment) so that they could become self-sufficient in the long term. We were perfect candidates.
The caseworker waited patiently while I filled out a form with our personal information, then proceeded to write our entire life story out. I described everything that had happened to bring us up to where we were. I answered questions about our current living conditions and our family’s health concerns. I explained that all we needed was a safe place in town to live so we’d have access to medical care and jobs. I was in tears by the time I handed the form back to her.
We received a call a couple days later. Our application had moved up to a supervisor and I remember the goosebumps I’d gotten when she asked me over the phone:
“How soon are you guys willing to move? If your family is chosen from the pile of applicants for this program, I mean. How soon would Ryan be willing to interview for jobs if we helped with the process?”
“Today. Right now. Immediately.”
In the next couple months, the program completely repaired our vehicle, paid the deposit on an apartment in town and even bought interview clothes for Ryan. Just weeks after moving into our apartment, Ryan received a call back from one of his interviews and started working full time.
Now we’ve been in our apartment (and Ryan has been working for the same employer) for over two years …and we’ve never been happier! Not only does my husband enjoy his job but it’s close enough that he walks to and from work each day. He went back to school too, taking evening classes at the local college to work towards a degree (which I’m incredibly proud of him for). We welcomed our second daughter (and final child!) Maggie in April and our family is finally complete. Charlie and JD are both doing exceptionally well in school and Evie’s health has improved as she’s grown and she is now truly thriving. As for me, well thanks to reliable internet access I’ve taken up more writing opportunities.
We definitely miss the farm life, but we still utilize aspects of it every day. For example, we feed our family from our own plot at a local community garden. When we find a good deal on larger amounts of produce, we preserve it. Money is still a struggle but we carefully budget and I continue to obsess over meal planning and grocery budgeting. We even dry our laundry on lines on our tiny patio. We’re doing it all in hopes of saving to eventually buy our own little house with a bit of land to farm on. In the meantime, after moving our family six times in the two years prior to coming here, we will continue to enjoy the beautiful region we’ve finally settled in. Even in a little apartment, there’s a lot of love in our home and we’re determined to survive and thrive.
I created this webpage to share our adventures so others can learn with us and laugh with us. It’s a work in progress so feedback is always appreciated but my hope is to share recipes, products, DIY projects and tips I’ve utilized to help my family live life to the fullest on the smallest budget possible. Enjoy!