SHELLY McKNIGHT and her husband, Matthew Haynes, seemed to have a good life in the Los Feliz Hills. They owned a home in a chic area, had jobs in the film industry and traveled the world on vacations.
But both felt something was missing. When a motorcycle trip in 2002 to look at property took them north into Tulare County, they discovered Springville, population 1,109, a former sawmill town built on the Tule River, and knew they had found what they were looking for: a simpler, more rural life.
Last year, McKnight, 39, and Haynes, 42, joined the ranks of those who have headed to more remote areas to escape city pressures. Many are baby boomers buying homes for recreation; others simply want to sample a rural lifestyle. In a recent study conducted for the National Assn. of Realtors by Harris Interactive, three in five boomers surveyed said their idea of a perfect location to retire in was a rural area or small town.
Since 2000, much of California's rural population growth has been due to city dwellers who have decided to move to the countryside and, perhaps, commute from there, according to John Cromartie of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
Of those who have left Los Angeles for more rural locales, said Hans Johnson, research fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California, the vast majority "are going to nearby locations in the Inland Empire and the high desert." Although many still commute to urban areas for work, Johnson said, some scramble to eke out a living.
What these transplants from cities and suburbs find is that it takes fortitude to deal with rural life: Amenities are fewer, the doctor or grocery store may be a long drive away, cash and muscle power are needed to maintain rural property -- to clear brush and trees, dig wells, haul water and take care of septic systems and roads.
It's not for sissies. Winifred "Win" Wood, 86, and Dorothy "Dot" Swain Lewis, 91, live in Idyllwild on a 2-acre parcel with a view of Tahquitz Peak. Friends since their days as Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II, they make their home in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County.
Lewis, who was sidelined this year after she broke an arm walking a neighbor's dog on the hilly terrain, usually clears the land herself, with only the heavy trees taken out by machine. This spring, volunteers from the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, based in Idyllwild, came to cut brush and transport it out.
"We had to remove about 60 trees," Lewis said, as a bushy-tailed gray squirrel scurried behind a manzanita dripping with pink teardrop blossoms. "There just hasn't been enough rain."
Although the house is connected to the local water system, if there's a burst pipe, drought or bacteria problem, the women must haul in water, said Janice Fast, 68, an Idyllwild neighbor and caregiver overseeing Lewis' recuperation. "Another thing that people may not understand when they move here is the limited access to healthcare. There's only one clinic in town served by a nurse practitioner."
Lewis travels an hour to her physical therapy in the Coachella Valley.
Idyllwild, like many remote and rural areas, doesn't have trash service. Homeowners haul their garbage to the county dump a few miles from town. Wood said they pay a neighbor to take their trash bags down the hill.
One of McKnight's big worries was whether she could find "her community" in a rural area. A self-proclaimed liberal, she didn't know how she would fit into the Republican bastion of eastern Tulare County. But she soon found handfuls of leftleaning activists, artists and others, some from among its multi-generational ranching families.
Rural residents are now more likely to have graduated from high school and gone to college than their parents, according to the USDA. In fact, 2000 data revealed that about 36.7% of the rural population completed some college, more than in urban populations. But urban areas still have higher numbers of college graduates -- 26.8% compared with 18%.
After their initial visit to Springville, McKnight and Haynes subscribed to area newspapers and pored over them from their Los Angeles home, trying to get to know the locals without them knowing it, she said. In December 2003, they bought two parcels a seller wouldn't break up, using funds from a home equity loan.
It wasn't a great idea, McKnight recalled, to buy a $350,000, 45-acre property in a remote area with no idea how to make ends meet. So, the couple decided to have McKnight move to Springville and be caretaker while Haynes remained on the job in Los Angeles, working to pay for clearing the land, grading driveways and other expenses.
Then, she rented out the house on the second parcel. It worked out so well, she and her husband purchased another nearby cabin on 1.5 acres for $95,000 and started renting that as well.