The irony? All this wildlife, farm life, bug life, happens downslope from row after row of houses. Imperial Beach’s suburbia looks out on all this. And yet, Ellie says, when she talks to some of the homes’ occupants, they don’t even realize the farm is here.
∗ ∗ ∗
Laurie Richards is a lawyer and a writer, but to get to her place you’d think she was Crocodile Dundee. The mud track has your car’s hood silhouetted against the blue sky one moment, the green canyon bottom the next.
I’ve followed her here in the rental car. After I stagger out, Laurie asks, “When we were driving down that road, did you see my house?”
I shake my head.
“That’s my protection,” she says. “You can drive right down here in front of it, right before these stairs, and you can’t see it.”
It’s a low, ’80s, woody house in what you might call the “empty quarter” of North County, east of Palomar College in San Marcos. Mountaintops surround the spot; one looks as if it had blown its top yesterday. A garden and patios cling to a ledge. Behind a hedge, the hillside drops. Out here, it’s all open, unincorporated county land of 20-acre-minimum lots, soon to be designated 40-acre-minimum.
This is where fellow writers come to find their voice under Laurie’s tutelage, with no possibility of escape. She offers daylong fiction and memoir workshops, arranged by Cal State San Marcos.
When the writers aren’t here, she lives on her own, a refugee from L.A.’s over-stimulation — and from a marriage.
“There are certainly people who think I’m crazy, living out here. But I really like the quiet. [My husband and I] bought this for a weekend house, in 1983, when we were still married. We’re just 15 miles east of Carlsbad, as the crow flies, south of Twin Oaks.”
But how do you have a social life?
“It’s cut down on my drinking, that’s for sure,” she jokes. “Nobody comes out here to pick me up for a date. If I go out, I have to be my own designated driver. I get a lot of flat tires, nails going through them. UPS can’t find me, FedEx can’t find me, visitors always get lost. It’s easier for me to go out and find them rather than give them more instructions.
“I can see Vista, but I can’t see Carlsbad. But you can’t hear a thing of human civilization. What you hear, if you stand outside at night, is the sound of your own heartbeat. That’s how quiet it is. I don’t go walking in the hills around my home, because I can’t necessarily get phone reception. If I fell or something, I don’t know what would happen. But the solitude is very nurturing for me. I feel really good here.”
She admits it’s not all peace and quiet. Take her first night alone.
“I came down one weekend with a load of things, because I wanted to clean the place up. I brought bedding. I was going to sleep on the floor in one of the rooms, just me and the TV.
“I guess I might have had the TV on, when, right above, I heard, you know…footsteps. On the roof. Clump, clump, clump. Like human footsteps. It was summer; it was in July. So it was warm. And the house had been vacant for a few years.
“I was really scared. I went and got a knife to sleep with. And I thought, This is kinda stupid, because somebody could wrest this knife away from me really easily.
“I finally decided that I’d either not wake up in the morning, because I’d be dead, or I’d wake up in the morning and be fine. So I went to sleep. Because there was nothing I could do about it.
“When I told people, they suggested that maybe it was an owl. Somebody else said a coyote. I thought for a while that maybe it was a farmworker who had taken to sleeping on the roof.”
It happened again, on another night, but Richards never found out what was making the noise.
We’re standing on her small side patio. The hedge guards the drop-off down the hillside.
Then there are the coyotes.
“At night they go crazy, just beyond this hedge,” Laurie says. “I hear drib-dibbleda-yip-yip-yip! They sound crazed. I think they’ve caught something, and they’re ripping it apart. A rabbit, maybe. They’re having fun.”
And the woodpeckers.
“I was in my dining area, and I heard a bunch of noise in my outside wall. It was like llblbllblllll — like a tape running fast. And what it was, was hungry baby woodpeckers. Their mom had pecked the nest cavity in the wall.
“I never did see them. I always take the easy way out. I just let them grow up. Because, anyway, we had termites, and woodpeckers love termites. Eventually, the babies flew away.”
Let’s not even mention the bobcat — okay, let’s mention him.
“I’d just driven home at night. It wasn’t real late. I turned around and saw these orangey eyes. The bobcat was lying along the branch of the Brazilian pepper tree that grows right next to my garage. I was only ten feet away. The light from my garage lit up the area a little bit. I saw this tail, a furry tail, maybe a foot long. He was the size of a coyote. He looked pretty healthy. He was quite comfortable. He just stared at me, and I stared back, and then I turned around and went inside.”
Or the snakes.
“I have two green hoses in my courtyard and one brown one. I leave them out, uncurled, ready to use. Rattlesnakes love them.”
She goes and gets a photograph from inside the house. “See?” she says. “There’s a brown snake right here, spread alongside the brown hose. My nephew found a green snake in the garage, cozying up to one of the green hoses. Either they think they’re convenient camouflage or that they’re some long-lost relative. And babies? I’m always seeing baby rattlers among my roses. Or inside. I came home once, again at night, and there was a baby rattlesnake curled up in the middle of my hallway on the carpet. I went and got the neighbors, and they scooped it into a shoebox. We decided to let it go someplace. Because snakes do take care of a lot of rodents.”