My Three Orange Counties and Finding a Just-Right Place

Yorba Linda was too hot. Irvine was too cold. But Laguna Beach was just right—and not just for the weather. by Lynette Brasfield

Illustration by Pushart

Looking back, I knew my husband and I—or, to be more accurate, I—made the right decision to move to Laguna Beach on the day my friend Dianne and I visited backyard chickens as part of the city’s annual Tour de Coop.

Where else could I hold a smooth, warm, just-laid egg in my palm not long after hiking the wilderness trails and encountering a dead rattle-snake with a dead mouse in its jaws, and shortly before enjoying a happy-hour mojito while watching a smoldering sunset turn the ocean a rippled pink and orange?

I felt sublimely happy holding that egg. But was that really the moment I knew for sure my decision had been a wise one? After all, I’ve never liked farmyard animals much, or rattlesnakes, or even mojitos: I’m predictably chardonnay. Also, several of Orange County’s 34 cities can boast of chickens in backyards, snakes in the wilderness, and fancy drinks and sunsets over the Pacific. But I was sure on that particular day, and now I understand why.

The decision to move hadn’t been easy. Relocating to Laguna Beach from Irvine, where we lived at the time, meant that my husband’s long-term retirement plan would have to be drastically revised. Bill doesn’t much like change,
and he’d worked hard for many years to ensure our financial security.

“No eating out. No house cleaners,” he warned. “And we won’t be able to travel ever again” (except for an unexpected inheritance, that likely would have been true).

I blithely pressed on with my arguments. I’d buy a (cheap) recipe book, I said. I’d cook every night and make sure the faucets shone, even if it took an old toothbrush to accomplish that, and never ask to travel farther than San Diego. As I spoke, I recalled my 8-year-old self telling my parents that if I got a pogo stick for Christmas, I’d never be bored again, which I now acknowledge wasn’t the case. But I dismissed such thoughts. This time my need to live in Laguna Beach overrode everything.

I’ll never forget Bill’s face when we parked for the first time outside the house I had found online. I watched his expression change as he realized he would not have a garage, only a carport—where would he keep his golf clubs?—and that the place lacked any curb appeal and was directly opposite a high wall enclosing the high school gymnasium and had no front yard. After tugging open the reluctant front door, I watched his face drop as he noted the lack of air-conditioning or a fireplace, and he realized we’d have to give up at least 1,000 square feet of living space.

“No,” he said. “This isn’t going to happen.”

When we married in 1996, both for the second time, I’d agreed to move from Irvine to Yorba Linda (Yorba Linda,
the Land of Gracious Living, according to a bumper sticker, or the Land of Pretentious Slogans, take your pick). The
move made sense then: Homes were more affordable, and Bill wanted my two sons, 10 and 12, to have a yard for the first time in their lives. Plus it was near his golf club.

I hated living in Yorba Linda, not that I admitted it then. The Richard Nixon Library, the placards asking residents
to vote for right-wing conservative Pat Buchanan, the relentless whiteness of the place: Together they were anathema to my liberal soul. Our home was far from my friends, most of whom lived closer to the coast. In our house, perched on a tall hill, I felt isolated, like Rapunzel, but without the hair.

But Yorba Linda—with its one long boulevard and lack of movie theaters and bars— turned out to be a muse of sorts. There, trapped into frequent solitude by bad traffic on the 55 Freeway and the pressure of work, which I did at home, I wrote my novel, “Nature Lessons.” I owe that to Yorba Linda.

Every now and again, my Laguna Beach friend Dianne and I would meet for lunch in Tustin, grabbing sustenance both edible and emotional for an hour or so, though the halfway meeting spot made it hard to spend much time together. Once my kids were in college, Bill and I moved back to Irvine.

By 2004, the city had become polyglot. It was and is now home to Indians, Persians, Asians, Latinos, and people of many cultures— quite a few South Africans, too, giving me a taste of my home country. I loved the smell of curry wafting from the house next door. I loved the easy access to indie movie theaters and Segerstrom Center for the Arts. I loved walking around Woodbridge Lake, hearing snippets of conversation in many languages, avoiding overly maternal geese, and encountering a group of rescued greyhounds and their owners.

We stayed in Woodbridge for 10 years. I was happy. But I drove to Laguna Beach at least five times a week to see my friends. Irvine was my base, Laguna my destination.

“Not going to happen,” Bill repeated when we returned from tour-ing the Laguna Beach house that first time. Many people agreed with him. Laguna Beach had drawbacks beyond the high cost of living, they said. Lots of homeless
people. Some jumped out at you and cursed you or fell from trees onto your head like something from a Monty Python film (not really, I made that up, but the stories were alarming). In summer, you could barely leave your house for all the tourists, they added. The traffic is horrendous. Bicyclists are run over with some frequency. Home prices are artificially high. You’ll be near the high school’s noise and traffic. Rats in the hedges! Damp and mold! Fires, mudslides, floods!

Nothing could dissuade me. I took Bill to wander around the neighborhood, noting real estate values, and we discussed investment strategies for the soon-to-be-retired over seafood and wine (lots of wine) at Nirvana and
Nick’s and Café Fusion, all walkable from our potential home. While watching whales spout from our perch at The
Cliff, and during breaks in a jazz performance at Heisler Park, we talked about the fun our grandchildren could have visiting us at the beach. I introduced Bill to a friend’s husband, a funny guy who also loves sports and who showed Bill backroad shortcuts that avoided tourist traffic.

Ultimately I prevailed, and Bill now loves it as much as I do. We have less space, but that’s handy when you want
to be picky about houseguests. Our lack of curb appeal discourages potential thieves. Air conditioning? Sweating
releases body toxins.

So was it the egg and the chickens, or proximity of the ocean and the trails, or sunsets and mojitos that convinced
me I’d done the right thing?

I reviewed photos from the Tour de Coop for clues. There was a shot of Bill waving from our deck as we gazed down
at him from Temple Hills, a proud man if I ever saw one. A shot of Dianne flapping her elbows like chicken wings and giggling. A shot of the ocean from our vantage point on the edge of the canyon. The best of Laguna, coalescing in
one moment.

So yes, that was the day I realized how right the decision to move had been. My husband was happy in our new home, which is within walking distance to Bluebird Park’s summer concerts, trail heads, the beach, restaurants, and local favorite, the Sandpiper bar, aka the Dirty Bird.

Most importantly, though, I now lived within a mile of my best friend, Dianne, who performs an essential role in my life as a mother, sister, fellow agonizer, and comedian all rolled into one. Every day my desire to travel beyond the boundaries of Laguna Beach diminishes. Because Dianne is who she is, and the ocean is where the ocean is, and because the city has more than the average number of chickens in its backyards, Laguna is what it is to me. Let the tourists come and the mortgage rise: here I am where I longed to be, and here I will forever stay.

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