Photograph by Matthew Suárez
I’ve become acclimated to winters where the low hovers around 50 degrees, and even that makes my teeth chatter and my shoulders hunch.
The temperature drops steadily as I make my way east on Interstate 8 — 57 degrees, 54, 49. I have brought four hoodies and the down jacket I wear only when I visit my mom in Idaho during the winter, which is not often, because I’m not a fan of snow and cold. I have brought a pair of worn-out sneakers, thin-soled ankle boots (which I’m currently wearing), two pairs of jeans, and $65 worth of prepared food and cans of cold brew coffee from Sprouts. Even if the electricity goes out, I’ll have my coffee in the morning.
By the time I turn down Mt. Laguna Drive, darkness has descended, but the tiny houses look warm and inviting.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
My small car feels heavier than usual, weighed down with the extra hoodies and the coffee cans and all the books and notebooks I brought just in case I can’t get my Netflix account to work with the mountain internet. But even with all the extra weight, the wind is pushing my car around, and I’m having trouble staying between the lines. I grip the steering wheel hard as I pass the Descanso/Japatul exit, past campers and large trucks in the slow lane with their hazard lights flashing. I’ve never been where I’m going, and I don’t know what to expect — except the cold. I know it will be cold.
When I booked the tiny house in Mt. Laguna a week ago, I received a message from the manager outlining the details of how to get there, how to get into the house, and what to expect. One line in particular concerned me: “While we do our best to maintain running water and electricity, sometimes inclement weather and accompanying maintenance temporarily generate a loss/reduction of one or both.” But by the time I read it, I was committed to the adventure, so here I am, braving the pushy wind and the steadily dropping temperature and continuing east. I know that the low 30s, high 20s I’m expecting in Mt. Laguna is hardly the worst winter weather on the planet, but living in San Diego over the past 12 years, I’ve become acclimated to winters where the low hovers around 50 degrees, and even that makes my teeth chatter and my shoulders hunch.
At 4:30 pm on the last Monday in 2019, the sun has not yet set, but it’s heading in that direction. As soon as I reach 4000 feet elevation, the road begins to slope downward.
The temperature gauge on my dashboard reads 42 degrees. A tumbleweed rolls low and fast across the freeway, driven by the same wind that whips sandy grit against my car. As much as I like the idea of visiting a winter wonderland, I’m grateful there’s no snow as I drive.
Jon and Melissa Block founded the Tiny House Block in November 2018.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Around the bend, a spectacular view opens up: gray, green and brown mountains rising and falling on both sides of the freeway. The email listed three phone carriers that get quality reception on the mountain. Mine was not on the list, so the directions are printed out and sitting on my passenger seat. For now, my Irish-accented Siri is still working, so I let her direct me for as long as possible. A sign on the side of the road confirms what Siri has already told me. “Laguna Mountain Recreation Area next exit.” I take the exit and turn left onto Sunrise Highway. In 9 miles, my destination will be on the right.
There are small patches of snow on the side of the curvy two-lane highway. The temperature is down to 37. A sign reads “Icy.” The wind is still blowing. Several cars come down the highway, in the opposite direction, but no other cars are going in my direction. It makes me wonder if they know something I don’t. On the other hand, there’s no one behind me pressuring me to go faster, so I take my time.
Erin Aguilera says she feels like a real cowgirl living up here. She’s having fun playing the role of homesteader in the wilderness when she feels like it.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
The snow patches grow larger as I continue up the mountain road. By mile marker 22, they’ve grown into a full-on snow bank that nearly reaches the green numbers on the sign. The high desert chaparral has given way to towering Jeffrey pines. I’m now driving through the middle of a forest snowscape. Kind of. The trees are not snow-covered, but the ground around them is. Fortunately, the road is clear and dry. Every now and again, a little bit of pinkish golden sunlight shows through the trees and creates rosy colors in the forest.
Elevation 5000 feet, and the temperature gauge reads 33. I can’t remember the last time I was out in freezing weather. A sign reads, “Entering Laguna Mountain Recreation Area.” A few hundred yards down, I pass a line of cars parked on the side of the road. People in boots and hats sled down muddy, snowy hills — 31 degrees. I pass a snowman with long sticks for arms and smaller sticks for antennae — 30 degrees. I’m beginning to question my choice to bring cold brew.
I get turned around a couple of times looking for the entrance to the tiny house village where I’ll be spending the next two days. But then I stop the car in the middle of the empty road to read the printed email in the light of a street lamp. Two minutes later, I turn right onto Mt. Laguna Drive, and there it is.
Aguilera and Paulina share their tiny Mount Laguna home with Sabrina the Singing Skinny Pig and Noodles the Snake.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Tiny House Block
Sister and brother team Jon and Melissa Block founded Tiny House Block in November 2018, after purchasing the 3.5 acre Sunrise Highway RV Park. Melissa, who is in real estate development had gotten interested in tiny houses and put them in the yards of several properties she owned. But eventually someone complained, and she was cited for it. This was before October 2019, when the Land Use and Housing Committee voted to allow moveable tiny houses in backyards to address the affordable housing crisis, and Melissa found herself with an inventory of five tiny houses on wheels and nowhere to put them. After doing some research, she discovered that she could legally put them in an RV park. So she bought one.
Around that same time, her brother Jon, who was in the middle of a divorce and a career change, was ready to leave his home in Colorado Springs and come back to San Diego, where they’d grown up. It was perfect timing for him to help his sister transform the RV park into a tiny house village. So he packed up his car and drove west.
Seo, the long-term rental manager, lives on site in what he calls “like a little shed thing.” It has a hot plate. When I ask what he cooks, he says, “This morning, I had cereal.” But he’s also been craving Korean food lately, so his hot plate has come in handy.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“I thought immersion would be the best approach to start off,” he told me over the phone a couple of days ago. He moved into number 18, Bliss House, a 270-square-foot house that’s currently occupied by long-term renters. At the time, it was one of only two tiny houses in the village, because they were still in the process of transitioning the 17 RVs off the property. Today, there are only two RVs left, and 16 tiny houses, six of which have long-term occupants.
By the time I turn down Mt. Laguna Drive, darkness has descended, but the tiny houses look warm and inviting. Most have cars parked beside or in front of them and lights on inside. A few have small bonfires going outside. One has been decorated with Christmas lights and holiday stickers in the windows. The ground is icy with packed snow that has probably melted some and refrozen. I drive slowly, looking for number 5: Wanderlust. When I find it, I park, crunch over the snow in my sad little boots, find the key under the mat, and try to let myself inside. The key turns the upper lock but not the one on the handle.
I see a guy tromping through the snow. “Hey,” I call. “Do you know if this is Number 5? My key isn’t working.” A few minutes later, a guy named Seo is jamming the key into the doorknob, mumbling something about the lock being frozen. Eventually he gets the door open and says he’ll be back tomorrow to change the locks.
Tom owns the Laguna Mountain Lodge and Store and is, in Erin’s words, a “classic mountain man.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Inside, it’s sparse and clean. Two small space heaters whir on the maximum setting, and the air is toasty warm. This is a different tiny house than the one I’d booked online. That one was blue and had a double loft. This one is gray and has just one loft, but I’m alone, so it works. (My stay cost $125/night, including cleaning.) The wooden walls have been painted a light gray, and they transition seamlessly up to a high peak, creating a feeling of spaciousness. A ladder stands just inside the door and leads up to the bed loft. Beside the ladder, a small table and two chairs. And to the right of the door, a sizeable kitchen with a four-burner gas stove, a full-sized refrigerator, and a double sink. The walls of the three-quarter bathroom are a light turquoise blue. One of the walls beneath the loft is decorated with travel-themed art: a glass etching of two Japanese geishas, a photo of the Taj Mahal, a cutesy pen-and-ink-type drawing of a camper that reads, “Happy Camper,” and what looks like a large cut-out in the shape of the United States painted with landmarks in San Francisco, St. Louis, Alamo, and D.C.
“Melissa is responsible for the decor of all the houses,” Jon said. “She loves picking up items from all around, whether it’s from Ross or sometimes Goodwill. She’s also the one who purchases the tiny houses. She finds them, negotiates, purchases them, and gets them up to the village.”
A guy named Chase handles the short-term rentals and Airbnb engagement. Seo takes care of the long-term rentals, showing the properties, doing credit and background checks. Jeff and Mark handle the maintenance. And Jon plays the role of general manager. The only one of the team who lives onsite is Seo.
A Laguna Mountain mug with my name on it for $8.57 at the general store.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Jon admits he only lasted for a month living in Tiny House Block.
“One reason I came back to San Diego was for the warm weather and to escape the Colorado winter,” he said. “That’s exactly what I was experiencing in Mt. Laguna — a Colorado winter.”
A snake, a skinny pig, and a fat squirrel called Alfredo
After tossing my bags on the floor and putting my food in the refrigerator, I scarf down some Sprouts sushi, throw back a can of cold brew coffee, and then crunch across the snow to meet my neighbor.
The scene inside the house next door is cozy and warm with female laughter. Erin Aguilera, 35, introduces me to her 11-year-old daughter Paulina and her mom Patricia, who’s visiting from Las Vegas. The two are sitting on a half-sized couch against the wall watching The Secret Life of Pets 2 on Paulina’s laptop. Aguilera offers me a bar stool across the postage-stamp sized table from her.
Aguilera and Paulina have lived here full time with Sabrina the Singing Skinny Pig and Noodles the Snake since mid-October. Prior to that, they were living in what she calls “the inner city” near 54th and El Cajon.
“There were helicopters flying over all the time,” she says, “and people walking around talking to themselves. It was never very dangerous, but over the last year or so it’s gotten kind of scary.”
Plus, the landlords kept hiking up the rent. Ten years ago, Aguilera rented her two-bedroom, two-bath, 1200-square-foot apartment for $1000 a month, but it’s now up to $1600. She’d been thinking about moving for some time and had looked in Pine Valley, in Alpine, and Lakeside.
“I knew going east would be cheaper,” she says. “And then I saw an ad for a tiny house in the mountains.”
At first, she was hesitant about the isolation, but then, after doing some research, she discovered that it was in a community of tiny houses, which were occupied by what she calls “young, hip San Diegans.” So she came for a tour and set her heart on this house because of the tiny rooftop balcony over the front door.
“All my friends at work were so excited about the tiny house thing that they pitched in and gave me $700 toward the deposit,” she says, pulling up an Instagram photo on her phone. It shows a large green poster board that reads, “A Big Card for a Tiny House,” along with personal handwritten notes, and seven $100 bills attached to it.
Aguilera works for a software company in Kearny Mesa, and Paulina goes to school in the College area. They leave home every morning at 6 and return around 4 pm. Aguilera’s boss offered to let her work six hours in the office and two hours remotely every day, so once they get home, Paulina does her homework and Aguilera finishes up her work. On snow days and vacation days, she’ll just work from home.
A face appears at the door. It’s Seo. Erin motions him in. “Can I fill up again?” he asks, holding up a container, which he fills with water in the kitchen sink.
“People’s pipes are freezing,” Erin explains. “Do you have water?”
I tell her I’m not sure. I hadn’t tried it before I came over. She tells me to check, and sure enough, I do not. None of the three faucets (kitchen, bathroom sink, shower) have running water. Back inside Aguilera’s house, Seo admits that he’s not sure if what he’s doing is working to thaw the pipes. I cross my fingers that it is.
“He’s just learning,” Patricia says when Seo leaves.
“It’s non-stop,” Aguilera says. “He’s been running around like this all night.”
The winter doesn’t bother Aguilera. She keeps the faucets on a slow drip at all times to keep them running. Living up here reminds her of her favorite childhood memories when her family lived in a hunter’s lodge in Prescott, Arizona.
Aguilera is a self-proclaimed “joy expert,” and she does her best to spread joy by way of her “Joykwondo” platform on Instagram, where she posts motivational videos and videos of her hairless guinea pig (skinny pig) who really does sing.
Aguilera says she feels like a real cowgirl living up here. She’s having fun playing the role of homesteader in the wilderness when she feels like it. She bought a clothesline to hang her clothes when they don’t dry all the way in the laundry room onsite. She bought some solar powered lights for the yard, and she even made a chicken dinner over the firepit in her yard.
“I just lit a fire and put a cast iron skillet over it and let it get hot. I grilled some chicken and added some frozen peas and garlic, and I wrapped some potatoes in tin foil and put them in the fire,” she says. “There was someone staying in the house next door, and I was like, ‘Act casual, act like you do this all the time.’”
“She got some snow cone flavoring and went out to the yard and scooped up snow in a cup and made a snowcone,” Patricia says. “It’s like she’s 9 all over again.”
But it’s not all homesteading and butter churning.
“My biggest problem is that we don’t have a grocery store nearby,” she says. “So everything has got to be planned.”
She uses a grocery pickup app, which allows her to add items to a digital list throughout the week, and then when she’s ready, she orders everything at once and arranges the pickup at a market in El Cajon that she can swing by after work on her way home. When she lived in San Diego, she’d used a dinner kit delivery, and she tried it for a while once she moved up here, but the delivery was inconsistent, so she let it go.
“We’ve got a general store up the road if there’s any kind of emergency, but it’s all marked up, so it’s not anything you want to go spend your money on every week,” she says.
Paulina gets up to grab an ice cream cup from the freezer. She opens it and dumps some Hershey’s chocolate syrup into it. Then she comes toward me and excuses herself, reaching for a drawer in the table that I hadn’t noticed was there. I lean away, and she opens it to reveal a drawer full of forks and knives and spoons.
“Tiny house!” Patricia sings.
Aguilera pays $1250 a month to live here. The house has two lofts. The one with the stairs is Paulina’s room. It has a mattress and a small bookshelf packed with stuffed animals. Noodles the Snake’s terrarium is up there, too. The loft with the ladder is Aguilera’s room. The ceiling is high enough that she can sit upright and play the keyboard she has set up there. A little door leads out to the balcony, which is strung with Christmas lights.
The kitchen doesn’t have much counter space. Aguilera makes do, though. She does most of her cooking in an air fryer.
“I like a gourmet kitchen,” Patricia says. “All she has is a hot plate and an air fryer, and she’s doing some amazing things. She even made a frittata in the air fryer.”
Even with all the fun she’s having playing cowgirl, Aguilera says she’s not much of an outdoor person. She likes it here, inside, where it’s cozy. But she does like standing at her front door drinking her coffee and watching the visitors come and go. And she likes to watch the neighborhood animals, too.
“There’s a blue jay and a woodpecker who don’t like each other,” she says. “And we’ve got a fat squirrel who lives under this deck whose name is Alfredo. Whenever the snow melts and all the squirrels come out, you can tell which one is Alfredo. He’s large.”
The digital shaman
Before I head back to my tiny house next door, Aguilera insists on dumping some water on my pipes in the hopes that it will unfreeze them. We trudge outside with a container of water and a flashlight. She dumps. I run inside to see if the faucets have begun to drip. They haven’t. At first I think it’s no big deal. I can go a night without a shower. But as the night wears on and the list of things that I cannot do without water grows, I become less enthusiastic about the whole winter thing.
In the morning, I eat more sushi and drink another cold brew coffee. It’s already 10:30, and the sun is bright on the snow. I peek outside my window and watch my neighbors on the other side pack up their car and drive away. I decide I’ll do the same. Two nights without water does not appeal to me. But before I go, I put on my down jacket and a pair of fingerless gloves and go see what it’s like out there in the daylight.
Outside, birds flitter and chitter in the snow around Aguilera’s bird feeders. Water drips from the eaves overhead, and a cold wind blows through the pine trees. I make my way carefully down my steps and out onto the slippery packed snow. All over the compound, people are packing up their cars and heading out in time for 11 am check-out.
In front of Number 15, a gray house with white trim and a roof that slants to one side, I meet Laurie and Dan and their 12-year-old son. They’re from Laguna Beach in Orange County and usually go in search of snow around Big Bear. But this year, they were hoping for fewer crowds and more affordability. They learned about Mt. Laguna and had hoped to stay at Laguna Mountain Lodge, lured by the snow on its webcam, but it was fully booked. After doing some further research, they found Tiny House Block. They enjoyed their evening last night, but felt a little cramped with three people.
“We wish we had more time,” Laurie says. And then a few minutes later, “One night was enough.”
They’ll take their time heading home today, stopping at antique shops in Ramona on the way.
My slippery stroll is about a block long, past the tiny houses, all different colors and styles, some with little porches in front, some with balconies up top. The two remaining RVs are in the middle, side by side. I turn around at the community fire pit area at the end of the street and go back toward “my place.” Just as I have it in view again, I see someone climb the steps. As I get closer, I see it’s Seo. He’s here to change the locks. I ask if I can ask him a few questions while he does, and he tells me no problem.
Seo has black fingernail polish and striking angular features. He’ll tell me later that he’s Korean. Age? He tells me he’s under 30, and says he’s going to leave it at that so he can maintain an air of mystery. Fair enough.
“I’ve been into alternative living for about three years now,” he says, sitting up on the balcony rail that doesn’t quite look like it will hold him. He explains that he started in Oakland in a 26,000 square-foot warehouse where he worked with others to make shipping container tiny homes. Then he got into car camping.
“I bought my own ambulance. It was my first real car that I owned, so I converted that and then went to a minivan, and now I’m here,” he says. “Oh, and I did all that with a cat.” His cat has opposable thumbs.
Seo met Jon Block through the Landmark Forum, and he lives here on site in what he calls “like a little shed thing.” It has a hot plate. When I ask what he cooks, he says, “This morning, I had cereal.” But he’s been craving Korean food lately, so his hot plate has come in handy.
Seo tells his story with little affectation, and it’s hard to tell how feels about living here. So I ask if he likes it.
“It depends on the context,” he says. “I think I would like it more as a tenant. Working here, it gets kind of crazy.”
Seo is originally from New York, where his dad still lives. His mom lives in Korea. Both of them passed through town recently. His mom stayed in one of the tiny houses before heading on to Chicago. His dad came by for a brief visit while on business in Los Angeles.
“He was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing with your life?’” Seo says, gesticulating and laughing as he tells the story. “I’m like, ‘It’s a process, Dad. I’m not trying to do this forever.’ He’s like, ‘Your friends are all making money. Live in the city like a normal person.’”
But Seo has other plans, like making his “bad trip help” videos. He calls himself a “digital shaman” who “guides people through psychedelic journeys.” So far he’s made two videos. The first video is three minutes long, was published on YouTube in 2012, and has 92,308 views. The second is 32 minutes long, was published in September 2019, and has 1633 views. He’s planning an hour-long version that can be purchased for $27.
In the meantime, he changes the locks on my door.
There’s no super entertainment up here
After my visit with Seo, who mentioned nothing about the frozen water pipes and suggested no alternative to returning back home, I pack up my car, hug Erin goodbye, and drive away. Before I leave for good, though, I stop by the general store to see if I can maybe catch any of the locals Erin said might be fun to talk to, particularly Earla at the post office, who is Erin’s favorite, and Tom, who owns the general store and is, in Erin’s words, a “classic mountain man.”
At Sunrise Highway, I take a right, and drive about a quarter of a mile to the general store. In the daylight, I can see that the area is decently populated. The houses look cozy with their satellite dishes and chimneys. I pull into the parking lot in front of the Laguna Mountain Lodge. The front of the general store is a long length of brown wood with lots of signage: “No bare feet in store.” “Please no pets in the store or on the porch.” “No bicycles on porch.” “No loitering or alcohol consumption on premises.” “No dogs on porch.” Melting snow drips from the roof.
Inside, a man sits almost guard-like behind a counter at the front entrance. He’s probably in his late 60s or so, big and intimidating not only in his size but also in his countenance. I make a slow loop around the shelves to the right of the front door while summoning up the confidence to approach him and introduce myself. The shelves hold kitchy ceramics, bubbles, rabbit pelts, salt and pepper shakers, puzzles, T-shirts, and Mexican blankets for $17.95. A deer head hangs above the fireplace mantle. I approach the man gingerly.
“Are you Tom?” I ask. He nods, takes off his glasses, and puts them on top of his head.
“I’ve heard about you,” I say, smiling.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “But it’s all true.” His laugh is phlegmy, like the laugh of a long-time smoker.
The store has been around since the 1920s and in his family since 1975. These days, he and his brother own it. They came up from the Santee/El Cajon area in 2006. He likes that it’s quiet, only busy on weekends, and only an hour from town. He lives upstairs, runs the store, which is open seven days a week, and manages the 28 Laguna Mountain Lodge rentals. It’s enough to keep him busy.
Pipes freeze. Somebody throws a breaker. There’s always something. Or could be. The snow brings people up in droves. Even when there’s no snow, people come to enjoy the quiet. The lodge has repeat visitors who come and rent the same cabin every holiday season. And in the summer, people come from San Diego to escape the city, and from further east to escape the heat. “It’s mostly just a remote hiking area, backpacking and mountain biking. There’s no super entertainment up here. No jacuzzis or spas or anything like that,” he laughs with a touch of disdain. “That’s a good thing,” he adds. “It would make it too crowded.”
I ask if he thinks the tiny house village will make it more crowded around here. He shrugs as though he doesn’t care either way. “It’s hard to do business up here when you start off. The weather’s different than anybody thinks. You’ve gotta get used to things like freezing pipes. They’ll figure it out, I guess,” he says, keeping his eye on people come in through the door and the kid manning the register. “There’s no way I’d stay up there, though. I’m too old, and I get up to pee too many times a night. I ain’t falling down the steps and ladders. Let’s be honest.”
The phlegmy laugh again.
After we talk, I wander the aisles to the left of the cashier: beer nuts, Bisquick, toilet paper, Jiffy Pop, Sutter Home wines (single serving), peach moscato. Nothing that appeals, but I do find a Laguna Mountain mug with my name on it. I buy it for $8.57. Tom doesn’t mention the $10 minimum stamped on the card reader.
Next door at the post office, I ask for Earla but am told that no, Erma is not working today, by Mary, who is from Jacumba. Mary informs me that she’s not a snow person and does not spend time in the area because she finds it too cold.
On my way back down the mountain, I pass the snow hills and watch people playing out in the cold and wet. One kid is lying on his back in the snow, doing nothing but looking up at the sky. I envy him his snow pants. It occurs to me, as it probably should have earlier, that in order to enjoy the snow, one must wear the proper clothes. I turn the dials on my dashboard until heat is blasting on my feet. It takes a good 15 minutes to thaw them out. The temperature rises quickly as I descend. It’s already 50 degrees when I reach Interstate 8. By the time I hit El Cajon, it’s up to 70. I roll the windows down and welcome myself home.