About an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz was my next destination coming from time spent with the family in Belmont. It’s a small town by the north end of the Monterey Bay with picturesque sea views of beaches and cliffs. Bicycle lanes, outdoor cinemas, museums, coffee shops, bars, etc. And yes, there’s surf!

Summer swell @ Steamer Lane

I came to Santa Cruz a few weeks ago to help out a retired couple from Israel (they’ve lived here for more than 25 years) with some construction and yard work. Not that I have any relevant experience or know much about either. It’s all very casual, friendly and respectful. I learn on the go.

The property is on Buckeye Hill, along the east side of the San Lorenzo River, with paths strewn along the densely shaded forest like mycelium reaching out for life. Their main house shares the dead end of a street with several other homes, with a rich garden of Blackberries and Jasmine leaves that climb along the fencing, fruit trees, herbs and other plants. They have some chickens and a composting area to collect black soldier fly larvae to feed to the former.

Hooked up my hammock along the San Lorenzo river, a stone’s throw away from my tent.

The sloping paths divide the land into different sections, with several outhouses, huts and structures made with cob (clay) and other salvaged or natural materials. There is a fully functioning outdoor kitchen with electricity, clean water and a stove; a beautiful and spacious cob shower house with some clay art, bottles, ceramics and tiles along the walls.

I love how natural building and low-impact living make up this home’s prime directive. Composting toilets, salvaged timber, concrete slabs and all sorts previously unwanted things can be found around the property. As the adage goes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

The shower — handmade by the residents and several volunteers. Tiles, little nooks and glass bottles fill the walls of this outhouse.

The owners generously allow some volunteers and locals to live in their land in exchange for some work to be done. Win-win. It seems work-exchange is prevalent in the area. One of the residents here, for example, with experience in building, helped build a porch in a neighbor’s house in exchange for indefinite free pickings from his fruit trees and berries. I went with the builder the other day and picked some strawberries, plums, nectarines and pluots. He had several mature avocado trees as well but they weren’t fruiting this year. The owner of the land said they don’t fruit every year; it all depends on the rainfall and sunshine.

We receive an insane amount of free things from around the community. Coffee shops throw away perfectly good roasted coffee beans past their expiration date, burlap sacks and the like, so we take and use them instead of seeing them go to the composting centers or landfills. We receive a steady supply of miscellaneous sprouts (bean, pea, radish, et al.) and fermented vegetables, herbs and produce from a neighbour who sells at the local farmer’s market. Whatever she doesn’t sell we get for free. In exchange for what? Nothing but a little goodwill and gratitude.

While generosity benefits both parties, it’s inspiring to be on the receiving end of such kindness, knowing that nothing is expected in return. I look forward to the day I can do the same for others.

Poison Oak and Deer Ticks

Two things I have to watch out for: ticks and poison oak. A brush with poison oak would render me itchy for weeks — if I didn’t wash my skin out with soap and cold water within 15 minutes of touching the tricky vine. It supposedly changes its look to mimic the plants around it. The oils of the plant stick to clothes and skin alike. The good thing is, once you know what the poison oak can look like, avoiding them is easy.

A tick bite could potentially lead to lyme disease and death. But the statistics are in my favour, and I do check myself everyday. The trick is to clear the paths of any protruding vines or leaves. Walk above any plants and not through them as the ticks latch on to your legs as you graze the wild vegetation. These deer ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, at times even smaller, so it’s a bit tricky to spot and phantom itches can be nerve-wracking. I watch my steps. Thankfully, I haven’t seen a single tick since I arrived.

On my first day here, I immediately got to work helping with installing some PVC piping to extend the waterline to where I was sleeping: a tent on the far edge of the triangular property (about 150 meters from the road), closer to the river but a few storeys above. After clearing the line of poison oak so I could work with peace of mind, laying the pipes and covering the pipes with some soil and leaves (to protect from UV), I fixed up the 2 existing composting toilets near the tent. I painted and rearranged the wooden toilet frames and walls.

It’s always felt good to be doing something with my hands.

I’ve also cemented some posts for fencing into the ground and organized some of the salvaged timber. There’s a lot to do. We’re slowly starting a rocket stove bench — a small controlled fire would heat the bench from the inside for the chilly nights and mornings. The 12 degree summer nights. We still need more “urbanite,” their term for salvaged concrete slabs that seem to always be available at one part of town or another. Right now we’re getting it from a friend of Kita’s (the builder) who bought a new lot with a small concrete structure they tore down and pushed to one corner. Free ‘til supplies last.


I’ve surfed several times since I arrived, mostly waist to head high waves. Better for longboards but some spots are ok for shortboards. I brought my old 5″8 quad fish I got from Andoni, which still works fine. I did some minor ding repairs before coming here. The water is about 15C and my thin wetsuit doesn’t do much to keep me warm. I start shivering within 40 minutes. Luckily, Kita has an extra old 5/4 wetsuit he is lending me which is perfect. With it, I can stay out as long as I want without the cold bothering me much. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the cold, though, only that I can stand it longer.

Local wahine @ Steamer Lane — the most popular and consistent spot in town.

Some spots here are full of pros and seasoned local surfers, while others cater to more beginner and intermediate-level surfers. Best one I liked so far is this spot called 4-mile, which is 4 miles north of Santa Cruz downtown along CA-1.

Jack O’Neil, the inventor of the wetsuit, passed away last month and his friends and relatives commemorated his death a few days ago with a  paddle out and some ceremonies. TV crew, surfers, families and fans and a bagpipe player filled the scene at Pleasure Point, his favourite spot in town.

Fun fact: In 1885, three teenage Hawaiian princes first surfed the river-mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz with custom made redwood boards
. This was the first ever surf session in the United States. There’s a small surf museum at Steamer Lane that tourists frequent by the lighthouse at the cliff edge.

Natural Bridges beach

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