SUTTER CREEK, Calif. — For more than 20 years, Susan Woods enjoyed the pleasures of cosmopolitan life. The bedroom window of her Manhattan Beach home opened onto the Pacific. Her dresses came from Rodeo Drive boutiques. Weekends were spent sailing a 30-foot sloop out of Marina del Rey.
At night, after grazing through nouvelle haunts west of Sepulveda, the former model and part-time actress would join her husband, who worked for Southern California Edison, on their balcony and watch the lights of downtown Los Angeles twinkling in the distance.
'It Was Time to Leave'
Sometime during the early 1970s, however, she began to sour on the city: "The yachts near us in the marina were only used for cocktail parties. My 10-minute walk to the beach just put me closer to drugs. I knew it was time to leave when two of my neighbors hired attorneys and went into court over a 6-inch property dispute."
Woods' realization that a great life style doesn't necessarily produce a satisfying life was a veritable epiphany. In 1976, after her youngest child graduated from high school, she sold the sloop and, along with her Steinway baby grand, headed to the Sierra foothills of Amador County 400 miles north of Los Angeles.
"Privacy and more space were what I really wanted," she remembers. "I needed to get away from the condo people in Gucci shoes who kept asking, 'Where did you buy that?' at every cocktail party."
Today Susan Woods, 53, lives in a smaller house, has to drive 20 miles to the supermarket and measures haute cuisine by what is served at the annual Italian Benevolent Society picnic. But she has never been happier.
Though her rustic home fronts on an evergreen forest, she has no feeling of isolation. San Francisco is 125 miles to the west; Stockton is less than an hour away. Once a month she drives to Sacramento for a board meeting of River Island Lands, an agribusiness company for which she is a director.
"I'm even back in the theater," says Woods, who recently directed Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine" for the Volcano (population 96) Pioneer Community Theater Group. "The only difference between our little theater and those in Los Angeles," she claims, "is that ours operates in the black."
Booming Rural Counties
Susan Woods, one of about 13 million people who abandoned suburbia during the 1970s, is part of a dramatic exodus from metropolitan areas. Indeed, the massive shift in population, the fifth great American migration since the Revolution, is gaining momentum.
Based on California census data gathered over the last five years, the leading counties in percentage growth during the next three decades will be rural Amador and Sierra, closely followed by Modoc and Siskiyou along the Oregon border.
The flight to counties like Sierra and Amador appears to be caused as much by fear as by expectation, experts say. Confidence of the early 1980s has given way to concern over trade imbalances, the budget deficit and a stock market subject to inexplicable fluctuation. The gloom is seemingly everywhere.
Some years ago, "I'm OK; You're OK" was the hottest literary property; this summer's best sellers were "The Great Depression of 1990," "Blood in the Streets" and "Closing of the American Mind." The belief in an ever-expanding economy upon which the suburban mortgage was based has been replaced by a desire to preserve those assets that remain.
New Social Values
Jack Lessinger, professor emeritus of real estate and urban development at the University of Washington and author of the 1986 book "Regions of Opportunity," says the outward spiral of America's middle class toward the region he calls "penturbia" (meaning the fifth urban migration) results not only from a changed economy now dominated by service and information, but also from an emerging agenda of new social values.
"During the first half of the 20th Century, Americans migrated to the suburbs to preside like little kings and queens over one-sixth-acre domains," says Lessinger. "Now the little kings and their mass consumption ethic are being supplanted by people I call 'caring conservers,' whose will to conserve extends to energy, investments, clean air and cultural artifacts."
Driven from the suburbs by increased crime, congestion and inflated housing prices, caring conservers make perfect penturbians. They like front porches, septic tanks and vegetable gardens, says Lessinger, especially when all are included in a bargain-priced five-acre package.
The migration to penturbia is no back-to-nature movement. Those forsaking the municipal fringe are not survivalists or commune dwellers. Neither do they resemble the "small planet" minimalists of the late '60s, who chanted mantras while baking pumpkin bread. The majority are middle-class property owners who are reinvesting suburban equity, and their final years of employment, in a region with established services and growth potential.