We had the great good fortune to live in the clouds for fourteen years. No, not the dreamy clouds in our minds although we do live there a little too much. We lived in a house high on a ridge near San Francisco. In the mornings this house was often surrounded by the fog and clouds of the San Francisco Bay. Hence its name — the Cloud House.
This house, truly the best house we ever owned, changed our life significantly. The weather, the wildlife, the plants and trees, even the rhythms of each day and each season encouraged us to be more patient and to become aware of nature. The peace, tranquility, and beauty of life at the Cloud House gave us a renewed sense of our own place in the world. City water and sewer lines did not reach up the hill to our house, so the house had its own well, septic tank, and leach fields. Later we added a solar power system. Producing our own water and electricity encouraged us to become more self-reliant and more respectful of these critical utilities.
The Cloud House had three distinct and separate living areas, so three families could easily share the house without bumping too many elbows. The separate living areas allowed us to offer temporary living for friends who needed a place to stay for a while. As a result, we became more aware of the difficulties of others and more sensitive to helping them.
In summary, living here changed us.
First, we were simply overwhelmed by the expansive view. Between the courtyard, the deck, and the big windows in the great room, we felt like we lived outside, up in the sky. Most evenings we walked out on the deck to admire the sunsets. Gradually we began to notice seasonal patterns and learned to appreciate the difference in sunsets over a full year. Some sunsets were so striking that we sat on the deck for a full hour to watch them grow, mature into full riotous color, then fade away.
Waking early can be a chore in many houses. The Cloud House invited us to enjoy waking up with the sun. Sunrises, sometimes better than sunsets, often include a sideshow from the morning fog. Sunrises lured us out into the courtyard, with coffee and tea, to watch the sun start the day. Eventually, we learned to wake early and sit in the courtyard, coffee in hand, before the sunrise just to catch the entire show.
Here near San Francisco Bay, the fog has a life of its own. Often in the spring and summer, we wake to find the fog up to the edge of the deck. A solid bank, it creates a magnificent sense of peace and isolation, hiding the entire world from view. As the sun rises, the fog slowly burns away, just melting back into the bay. But, among the oak trees, a few tufts of fog often get tangled in the branches, stuck there well into the afternoon.
Life outside is not done when the sun goes down. Up here in the sky, we don’t get much light pollution. So nights have considerably more texture and variety. We learned to follow the moon. Full moons are eerie, mystical treats. The full moon casts beautiful shadows from the wooden pergola over the courtyard. Full moons in the summer and fall invite us to walk outside to enjoy the moonlight.
New moons have a different charm. With less light pollution, a moonless night is really black. Once our eyes adjusted, we could see entirely different textures of grey and black. So many stars in the sky, and even the Milky Way.
Living up on the hilltop out in the country, we had the pleasure to meet many animals. We began to understand that we are only guests here. The animals truly live here. Over time, they became our neighbors, with their own preferences and peculiarities.
Red-tailed hawks and vultures own the daytime skies. Soaring effortlessly, they sometimes swoop so near the deck we had to duck. Often they soar below the deck, giving us an eerie view from above.
The lavender blossoms of the wisteria growing over the deck attract Anna’s hummingbirds, freakishly large for hummingbirds, almost two inches long. From the master bedroom bay window, we had an ideal perch to watch them flit between blossoms. Occasionally an inquisitive hummingbird flew to the window to watch us. Up close we got to see the sparkling red colors on their throats and the shimmering iridescent green on their wings.
Early mornings we heard owls chatting with each other. Devon developed a friendship with one owl in the Garden of Eden near the Cloud House. It hooted reliably when Devon went out. She hooted back, and soon the two of them carried on a regular morning discussion with hoots.
For several springs a mother fox raised her yearly brood of fox kits in the Garden of Eden, under the deck. Walking quietly to the garden gate, we saw little fox kits playing together, occasionally falling off the edge of the deck and yelping in surprise. Often the mother caught us getting too close. She barked a distinct warning to us, which also scared the kits back under the deck.
Occasionally a skunk made a home in one of the drainage culverts under the driveway. A few evenings when we came home late, we surprised a skunk strolling up the driveway to its own home in a culvert. Noticing the car, the skunk strolled a little faster. Their fur is so beautiful and silky they should have their own hair commercials. We did not rush the skunk, just enjoyed watching it bounce back to its home.
Perhaps the oddest animals in the canyon are the peacocks. A Persian family and Alfredo, owner of the Rancho Al Fortunado horse ranch, both raise peacocks, so occasionally we were treated to the sight of a peacock with tail feathers outspread, standing in front of the ranch gates.
Turkeys and deer are so common as to be just part of the landscape. Occasionally we saw a deer stroll across the deck and look into the master bedroom window. While watching TV downstairs, we would see a deer looking inside through the slider, apparently enjoying the show with us. Evenings and early morning brought out ground animals, mostly desert lizards, and strange rodents.
The Rancho Al Fortunado, about a half-mile down the road, hosts unusual horses and cattle. Alfredo, the owner, raises Andalusian horses, which we often saw walking along Eden Canyon Road. Chilaquil, a Watusi bull, and Pepe, a Brahma bull, made frequent appearances grazing on a nearby hill. With their distinctive long horns, they look like they just strolled out of some prehistoric western movie.
The old German Shepherd also lives at the ranch. He sometimes sleeps in the middle of the road. His hearing is not so good, and he is mostly blind, so he does not respond quickly to oncoming cars. We learned to watch for him and developed patience as he slowly stood up and stiffly meandered to the shoulder of the road to let us pass.
Cats – Our Partners in the Adventure of the Cloud House
We avoided the adventures and inconveniences of large domestic animals, such as goats, cows, horses, lamas, or even chickens. Somehow the troubles always outweighed the possible benefits. However, cats appealed to Devon and me, perhaps because we had both been raised with cats. Our adventures at the Cloud House included six cats.
The redwoods along the lower driveway have become good friends. We nurtured them through dry summers and too many dry winters. They showed their appreciation by sporting beautiful new growth each spring. The new shoots, almost fluorescent green, look like a teenager with bright green fingernails at the ends of long, wavy fingers. Surreal.
You don’t really own redwoods. You just take care of them for the next generation. Eventually, we planted two more redwoods along the driveway. Barely 20 ft. high, at ten years old they are the youngsters in this little grove.
Water, Electricity, and Self Reliance
The Cloud House produces its own water, with a little help from a thoughtful homeowner. Somehow it was a big discovery for me to realize that I was responsible for my own water. If I wanted clean, healthy, tasty water, I had to learn how. It’s not hard to maintain the water system. Mostly change the filters and occasionally change the big blue metal filter tanks. Freedom from water bills is the least important part of “making” your own water. Knowing your water comes from your own well provides a real sense of self-reliance and security. Throughout the history of mankind, the need for plentiful, clean water has driven migrations and wars. Only since the late 1800s have we had running water from a municipal pipe. We have convenience but lost our direct connection to the importance and value of water.
For us, a water well provided a small sense of continuity and connection with much earlier human history, and a deep appreciation for cool tasty water.
Although electricity is barely 125 years old, it has become a modern necessity like water. Getting electricity at the whim of PG & E has become less appealing since PG & E now routinely shuts off electricity to our area during the fire season. Also, the cost of electricity has continued to climb as California drives the economy to depend upon expensive, less reliable renewable sources. For us, the solar panels provide a sense of comfort and self-reliance similar to the water well. Here again, the freedom from monthly bills is perhaps the least significant part of “making” our own electricity. With the addition of a battery wall, we can have complete independence from PG & E, which gets more tempting every time the power gets turned off.
Friends and Family
My mother moved into the apartment to live with us in 2007. She lived with us, traveled with us, and played with her great-grandchild for many years until she passed away. She traveled with us to Hawaii, Yosemite, the Olympia peninsula and islands of Washington State, and even on a catamaran tour of the Greek islands and Venice. The years with her were priceless, and possible because of the apartment – separate from us, but only steps away.
The downstairs living area allowed us to help several people who needed a temporary place to arrange their own life transitions. We held a marriage ceremony for one young couple in the courtyard, complete with wedding vows and a Mariachi band to celebrate afterward. They lived in the downstairs unit for several months while getting started on their life adventures. A friend of our daughter had recently graduated from university and needed a place while she looked for a job and housing. She stayed with us for a few months while making her own arrangements.
Trouble in Paradise
I suffer from chronic DIY syndrome. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step. The Cloud House, with its almost unending collection of maintenance items, co-enabled my problem. The 4,000 sq. ft. of living space, four bathrooms, the extensive wrap-around deck, the well, the steep, 1,500 ft. driveway, and the huge Garden of Eden all called to me for attention, maintenance, and even improvement.
As I approached my 70th birthday I reviewed the life projects still remaining for me and noticed that house maintenance was not even on that list. I began to hire out more work to more workers, only to discover that hiring staff does not completely eliminate the time and mental commitment. As the owner, I still had to hire a team, define the work, provide the tools and materials, and supervise the ongoing work. Hiring a maintenance team helped get more work done faster, but since the task list was never-ending, I could never reach the end.
So depressing. Did I really want my epitaph to be, “He took very good care of his house.”? Maybe, “He effectively managed a staff to take good care of his house.”? How about, “He made some impressive improvements to his house for the next owner.”?
About the same time my wife Devon reached a similar decision point. She loves to travel and examined me closely as a travel partner. Old, bald, bad eyes, and bad knees. Not the ideal. Old cannot be fixed, but a hat cures baldness, contact lenses cure bad eyes, and knee replacements can cure bad knees. Not as good as a new, young replacement husband, but maybe a little cheaper with considerably less adjustment. Gotta thank her for encouraging me to make life changes.
My wife has been a powerful, supportive partner and my best companion for over 40 years. Over a few discussions about our next life projects, she convinced me to confront my DIY addiction, sell the house, confront and repair my bodily afflictions, and pursue our next life projects and adventures.
We sold the Cloud House, relocated to Texas, and planned a few years of travel as digital nomads. I had the first knee replacement and survived the recovery with the PT crew. For my fellow elders with new knee joints, I achieved 137 degrees flex and zero degrees extension. Does PT stand for pain therapy or physical terrorist?
The PT team pushed me to regain flexibility, strength, and mobility that I had lost many years ago. One more knee to replace, then Devon and I head out into the world with two roll-on bags and plans to live as digital nomads for several years.
Somehow, in the midst of all that travel and adventure, I plan to write stories for my own entertainment and to write Python code to explore the amazing power and peculiarly human behavior of Machine Learning.
For the past fourteen years, the Cloud House changed us profoundly, mostly for the better. For the next ten years, I hope that our new adventures will change us, even more.
I look forward to the fulfillment of our next hopes and dreams and wish you even better adventures in your life journey. After another ten years, I think I’ll take a nap.