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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.