Published June 2010
To live happily in the canyons below Santiago Peak, you have to really, really like oak trees. And olive trees, those hundred-year-old, out-of control giants that drop their scrawny, inedible fruit. You have to accept that well-intentioned newcomers will promise that they’ll finally harvest the olives, cure them, or set up a press and produce oil—but, of course, don’t. You curse the reckless drivers on Santiago Canyon Road and grow accustomed to junker cars, dead since the Nixon administration, parked under the olives and oaks. You have to care for your neighbors, even if you don’t like or even know them.
That’s life in a canyon, with its single road in and out.
And when disaster hits, as it did in October 2007, you find you have to know and appreciate and celebrate where you live, perhaps in ways that less rural residents cannot.
Shortly after buying our Modjeska Canyon home, my family got a crash course in learning the ethos of this place thanks to those epochal wildfires. And I am still learning what it means to be close to people who want to be close to nature.
Good fences make good neighbors down below, in what canyon folk somewhat smugly call “the flatlands.” But up here, it’s all about defensible space, communication, well-trained firefighters, and a house made to protect oneself and one’s neighbors from the disaster that’s always looming. Calamities happen everywhere, of course, but evidence of the wildfires remains especially obvious here: charred trees, melted fences, vacant lots where neighbors’ houses used to be, and, yes, that spectacular new home going up on the ridge—the one that inspires, and makes me so giddy.
Jim and Diane Carter’s new place, anchored on a ridge above the entrance to Modjeska, is a showplace, a dream house. But it’s more than that. This singular home recalls for me that rural community tradition called barn raising.
I’m struck by how solid it seems, 5,000 square feet of fireproof stone, steel, and cement eco-edifice. But what I admire most is one even more elemental, iconic, and perfect feature. It’s the Carters’ nod to the pleasure and responsibility of living in this unique community: a fully functioning, we-did-it-because-we-could, 50-foot wildfire lookout tower—the most poetic-yet-practical response to the disaster that anyone could build.
The Carters look out at us, with their amazing panoramic view of mountains, valley, and ocean, from the highest house in Orange County. And they also look out for us. Taking in that enduring view from the tower’s observation deck with Jim and Diane, I recall one of many emotional moments from the fires, one captured on video.
In that Web footage from The Orange County Register, husband and wife survey what’s left of their old place, a homemade geodesic dome that once was just as iconic as their new home. Around them are blue sky and blackened hills, their llamas and goats (the horses were evacuated), the dome home burned to the ground.
At her feet, Diane discovers a damaged teapot among the debris, and jokes about making a cup of tea. Jim offers that, after seeing that their place is actually gone, he can at last stop hoping. He says this like it’s a good thing.
Three years later, there it is: a new house, created in the barn-raising spirit. Awarded a small rebuilding grant by our community nonprofit relief group, the Carters added it to the kitty and made sure to hire the best professionals around, who also happen to be neighbors: a local architect, local framers and carpenters, a local cabinetmaker, a Laguna artist to design and build concrete kitchen countertops, and our area landscaper, who replanted the property in fire-resistant native plants.
The Carters explained on my recent tour that they’d decided at each opportunity to “take it a step further.” This meant starting and ending with that observation tower, with its Osborne Fire Finder surveying instrument inside, a plane table laid out with U.S. Forest Service topo maps, three antennas on the roof, mobile two-way radio communication, and a 360-degree surveillance camera. So the new place is not just a case study in how to build smart and safe, but also a guide to doing things right—and doing right by others.
The Carters shared their personal dream, there for all to see and appreciate, an easy if extremely solid metaphor for commitment. And, of course, a sentry against future disaster.
As I pass by or gaze up from the canyon below, I can’t help but wonder if that tower home wasn’t there all along, the way it seems carved out of the rocky hills. I delight in the way it broadcasts the ethos of this community: celebration and appreciation, generosity and creativity. My exemplary neighbors’ exemplary new home is a warm, welcoming handshake, a firm grip on reality, and a congratulatory pat on the back.
Because I’m a booster of this place and its people, I also like to think of it as an embrace given by the Carters to the rest of us who choose to live in these mountains, in necessary close proximity.
Andrew Tonkovich is an Orange Coast contributing writer.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell