Dan and Hannah Find Their Small Town Dream in California


Carp 4 sunset

Sunset at Carpinteria above the harbor seal rookery

Since forever, I’ve wanted to live in a small town.  I dreamed I’d be connected to our neighbors and the community at large.  As Hannah and I both turn 70, we’d like to find a town that is both small and warm in winter, so we can be active outside each and every day.   And let me tell you, we struck gold in California.  Let me backtrack to take you on the journey that led us to this small town of warmth on the Pacific Ocean.

Harry and Hazel in Radburn

My grandpa Harry and grandma Hazel on my mother’s side in front of our house in Radburn.  Circa 1960.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hannah and I both grew up in the suburbs that had a small-town feel (she near Rochester, NY and me ten miles from the Big Apple).

In the Radburn section of Fair Lawn, NJ where I grew up, there were six houses to an acre, all on cul-de-sacs backed up to a park.  In the Erie Canal town of Fairport, NY, Hannah as the daughter of the town doctor, was known by everyone.  We had small towns in our blood from the beginning.

When first married, Hannah and I bought a home in Tempe, Arizona, the home of Arizona State University.  But we lived on streets where people kept to themselves, often staying indoors much of the time because of the heat.  (Though it’s a “dry” heat, it’s like living in an oven.)  We’d put Molly, then later Robyn in a stroller going up and down La Jolla Drive and never see another person.  This was a dead end in our hunt for a small town.

Carp 1A our driveway in January

Our driveway on Chases Pond Road in winter

In 1982, we got serious about our small town holy grail.  Moving from Arizona to seek the romantic notion of small town living in New England, we settled in the “small town” of York on the southern Maine coast.

But…we bought a house out a country road, some 2.5 miles from the center of town.  Too far to walk to town, we drove to the center of town to find the First Parish Church, the church cemetery from the 1600s, a Cumberland Farms, the York Historial Society complex of buildings, a few insurance businesses, and the York Public Library.  That’s about it.

Come 5P, the town rolls up the sidewalks for the night.  There’s no town green, no restaurants, no park, no community center.  In my mind, York is a small town in name only.

Though we still live in York, I have never given up my search for that small town.  Why even in the early 1990s, we made an offer on a house in Brunswick, Maine, primarily because of its small-town feel.  For many reasons, we backed away from that decision.

Montecito Mud 2 the 101

After the January 2018 mud and debris flows on The 101 in Montecito

And then in 2014, we started to come to California in winter, first for two weeks, then a month.  California has it all!  True there are earthquakes, wildfires, climate change-caused droughts, and mud and debris flows, but it also has progressive politics, towns where everyone can feel safe, and the warmth that allows us to hike, walk, and pickle outside in winter.

Carp 2 H by ping pong table

Hannah at Carpinteria Beach

Then in 2017, we took our grandsons, Owen and Max, to the beach south of Santa Barbara and hit the mother lode of small towns in winter – Carpinteria.

So, what is it about Carpinteria that made this small town so appealing in winter?

First, let’s be real, it’s temperate winter climate allows us to exercise outside in shorts day in and day out.

Carp map of carp

Carpinteria, ten miles south of Santa Barbara

Second, it’s location.  The town of 14,000 residents is tucked between the coastal San Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, a stretch of maybe three miles wide.  There’s little room to expand, which will keep the small in this small town for years to come.

Carp 4A small house

Modest size beach house in Carpinteria

Third, we are not smothered by traffic.  True, The 101 highway away from our beach side of town is California-clogged for much of the morning and evening commute.  But tucked between Carpinteria Avenue and the beach are nine quiet streets with modest size houses (probably less than a 1000 square feet) on streets for us to walk and for couples and kids to bike on their cruisers (one speed bikes conducive to this level terrain and the hard sandy beaches).

Carp 4C harbor seal rookery

Harbor Seal Rookery off the Coastal View Trail in Carpinteria

Fourth, there are out-of-the-way trails to walk.  To the north of the downtown is the Carpinteria Marsh Trail.  In the opposite direction past the boardwalks through the sand dunes of Carpinteria State Park, there is the Coastal View Trail to the Harbor Seal Rookery.

Carp 3 Alcazar

The Alcazar where we watched Super Bowl LII with one hundred other townsfolk

Fifth, we can walk everywhere.  It is less than a half mile to restaurants, the Alcazar Theater where we watched the Super Bowl with one hundred other townsfolks, Albertson’s, the local grocery store, the post office, Chinese takeout at Uncle Chen’s and a Subway and Taco Bell for something quick.  The library is two-tenths of mile from our rented winter condo.  And it deserves an ordinal (a number in a sequence like 1st, 2nd,..) to itself.

Carp 3A Library

Small town Carpinteria Library

Sixth, at the Carpinteria Public Library, we ask about getting a library card.  It’s free, even though we are not residents!  Its similar to the no cost emergency services (i.e., ambulances) in the county.  Last year, Hannah was transported by ambulance after her 25’ fall from the San Ysidro Trail to the local Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for emergency surgery.  When the EMTs were working to save her leg, we learned there is no charge for the county ambulance service.  Here in the Republic of California, services are often provided for all its citizens.

PB H and D and Nancy

Pickleball on the Santa Barbara Muncipal Courts

Seventh, it’s not in the middle of nowhere.  Ten miles to our north in Santa Barbara, we have our Unity of Santa Barbara spiritual community, the Municipal Tennis Courts for pickleball, the Santa Barbara Zoo for visits by our grandsons, Owen and Max, and Trader Joe’s.  Ten miles further is the University of California, Santa Barbara bordering Goleta Beach State Park with its two-mile cliff walk.

Carp 2A H by Carp State Beach sign first day

Eighth, the beach.  Each sunny afternoon Hannah takes her beach chair and reading material to enjoy the delights of Ole Sol. Evenings we can walk the hard-packed sand.

It’s not everyone’s cup of joe, but its the small town in winter that works for us.

Dan and Hannah Say Good-bye to Dan’s Mom

Santa Barbara palms

Santa Barbara palms

It’s a sunny January day in the 80s in Santa Barbara, California.  Though it is the rainy season in the Golden State, there has been little rain for months, really years.  The hills and fields are parched and baked a dusty brown.  The drought is epic and serious; the very modest silver lining is that conditions are ideal for hikers like Hannah and me.

After hiking the beach at high tide in Summerland ten miles to the south, Hannah and I are resting at our Quality Inn motel prior to an afternoon hike to Inspiration Point in the Front Range of the Santa Inez Mountains near Santa Barbara.

Hannah at Summerland beach near Santa Barbara

Hannah at Summerland beach near Santa Barbara on another cloudless day in California

Then my sister Patty calls with news that Mom’s doctor has given her permission to stop eating and drinking; in addition to lung cancer, Mom’s body is no longer absorbing nutrients anyway.  I learn that without food or water people can last one or two weeks, maybe more; especially someone as fit as Mom who was still going to the gym six days a week at the age of 92.

Now Mom is in northern New Jersey and I am some 3000 miles away on the coast of California.  What is a good son to do?

Mom at 92

Mom at 92

My impulse is to return immediately to New Jersey on the next flight out of LAX, the Los Angeles airport some 70 miles to the south.  The dramatic gesture!

USA map

Is it selfish for me to stay in California on a hiking vacation while her life is rapidly closing?  I am unsure and unsteady.  My core beliefs about meaningful relationships and friendships bang up against these first instincts.

Our local York coffee shoppe

Our local York coffee shoppe

For me, I believe that love is shown by a lifetime of moments together, breakfasts and dinners, road trips, and making soup and biscuits for another, not the showy once-a-year appearances, beautiful flowers, or expensive gifts.  It’s listening when another’s heart is heavy.  It’s going out for coffee to just talk.   It’s playing Words With Friends on the computer on a daily basis to stay connected.  It’s checking in regularly.  It’s celebrating a small victory or large, be it making the team or having the girl of your dreams say “yes” to a first date.  It’s the long line of moments that cement relationships and make them real.

For me, grand gestures of love are overrated.  It’s the day-to-day, consistent interest and care for another that builds strong relationships.  Mom and I have a 66 year backlog of such love, such regular times together.

Still, what does a good son do when his mother has chosen to take such a definitive final step on her life journey?

And then as the universe and God so often do, my sister’s husband Glenn provides the simple advice that parts the clouds and lets the sun stream through.

He says, Ask her what she wants you to do.   Brilliant.  Rather than tie myself in knots of duty, guilt, and misplaced obligation, I can ask her.

Still of very clear of mind, Mom responds to my question whether she would like Hannah and me to come back East to be with her now by emphatically saying, Absolutely not.  That would be nonsense.

The bluffs of Montana De Oro State Park, California

The view from the bluffs of Montana De Oro State Park, California

And that’s that.  Hannah and I will continue as planned up the Pacific coast to hike the ocean bluffs near Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz, and Gualala, California for the coming week.  I know there are no guarantees that Mom will be alive when we return.  Yet I know I have had 66 bountiful years as her son.

I am at peace, for our relationship is strong.  I respect her decision.  I trust her.  I don’t want to be so arrogant to think that I know better than she does whether I should return or not.

Each morning at 630A Pacific time I check in with her by phone, for she is up and about at 930A on the East coast.  We talk and she still wonders what we are doing and where we are.  I fill her on hikes at Montana De Oro State Park near of San Luis Obispo and the bluff trail at the Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz just south of San Francisco.

Bluff trail near Santa Cruz, California

Bluff trail near Santa Cruz, California

Each night I read to her over the phone from Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat, a book she loves as a lifelong Democrat herself.  Mom lives what Democrats believe: promoting the common good, serving others, being generous of heart, being optimistic, and living with hope.    We stay connected and she knows she is loved 3000 miles away.

Homegrown Democrat

As fate or the universe or God would have it, Mom is alive nine days later when I arrive in New Jersey at her senior living apartment.  That first night her three children (my brother Richard, sister Patty, and I) sit with Mom as she lies in bed.  We toast her life, tell her how beautiful she is and how much we love her, sing to her, and say good-bye to our mother.  She believed in us throughout our lives and took control of her last days.

She passed peacefully three days later.

Mom (eight days before she died)

Mom (eight days before she died)