Country girl to city slicker--some things don't change

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 7/17/2014

I moved to Santa Cruz County in 1986 to follow an old dream...moving to the country.  Songs like Jesse Colin Young’s “Ridgetop” and Neil Young’s “Are you ready for the country?” inspired me to search for that rural domicile within commuting distance of my workplace. Sound familiar? What could be better than living in the mountains near the beach in sunny California, surrounded by towering redwoods?

After driving around for months looking at real estate, I finally found my spot: A house on a ridgetop at the end of a long, winding dirt road that originated in Aptos. 

During the 10 years my former husband and I lived there, we learned a lot about country living and its tradeoffs, which I’m sure are familiar to thousands of Santa Cruz County residents.  On the one hand, we had peace and quiet (well, most of the time), clean air, and a plethora of stars to view in the night sky. On the other hand, we had to do without some major urban conveniences. 

Though we were on the grid, we had no garbage pickup, no public water service, no sewer system, and no mail delivery. Once a month we hauled our trash and recycle to the Buena Vista landfill. Our water came from two wells, one of which failed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. We had to maintain the pumps, the tank, and perform water quality testing. We had to maintain our septic system. We had a P. O. box in town. We eventually found ways to cope with the commute, such as flex time and telecommuting. 

Though the cost of country living was high, it was worth it to us. Did I mention that was twenty plus years ago?

In the end, it was our road that made us decide to pack it in. As a private road, it was entirely maintained by an association of homeowners who depended on it, but who had, to put it mildly, different ideas about how it should be managed. It required routine maintenance and emergency repairs. In the rainy season, it was too often closed by landslides and fallen trees. Over the years, I noticed the impact that rural roads had, especially in steep topography, on creeks and streams.

In 1998 we moved to Bonny Doon to a house on a county-maintained road that was blessed with garbage pick-up. What a beautiful place it was, surrounded by old-growth redwoods! During my 13 years there, though, I increasingly questioned the environmental impacts of living where I seemed to be constantly driving to and from Santa Cruz to work, shop and run errands.

In 2011 I moved into Santa Cruz. I had several personal reasons for doing so, including my desire to drive less. I still marvel at the services that I enjoy here . . . public roads, mail delivered to my door, curbside trash and recycle pick-up ... and after 25 years of depending on wells . . . a public water system.

I can walk to downtown Santa Cruz in 15 minutes and take a shuttle bus up to the UCSC campus. While at times I sorely miss rural life, I find great joy in exploring the Pogonip, Natural Bridges, and Wilder Ranch, which are all accessible on foot or bicycle.

Many studies have shown that, generally, city living--because of its higher density and more efficient services--has a smaller environmental footprint than rural living. Yet, every place is different. County-wide, our greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation. So, even though I’ve become a city slicker, I’m still trying to reduce my driving.