inFocus: I Moved to a Ranch

inFocus: I Moved to a Ranch

Today’s inFocus interview is with Erin McGee. Erin and her husband, Dave, left behind the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley and moved to a ranch on California’s peaceful Central Coast two years ago. What I love about her story is how she’s moved—literally and figuratively—from a place where she felt stressed and not herself to a place of burgeoning authenticity. I can’t wait to see where she goes next! Here is what she had to say:

This August I turned 40 and deemed it “The Year of Erin!” I have taken up horseback riding and am hoping to eventually do Ranch Sorting competitions. I take Pilates, dance classes, and yoga. Basically, if something sparks my interest I find a way to take a class or explore it. I am finding myself too. I have gotten braver to do what I choose to do instead of feeling like I have to do things. 

Erin, what prompted your move? How did you choose the location?

It was probably 3 years into owning my knitting and sewing store that I started to feel restless. I just had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t where I really was meant to be. The only times I felt “at home” were within the walls of my store.

We owned a beautiful house in Sunnyvale and I kept redecorating it, but it just wasn’t “me.” It had been my husband’s house when we met and married. I moved in and gave away all of my furniture because it didn’t match the mid-century modern decor. The floor to ceiling windows looked into a fence. A pool took up the entire backyard. It just wasn’t my style and I wanted to pick something out together.

I felt like we had skipped one of the most important parts of being newlyweds…choosing a space that made us both happy. Design is very important to both of us, but we have very different styles. Dave is more of a minimalist, retro guy and I am more of a country, vintage girl. Both styles are rooted in history, but there’s retro (think Mad Men) and vintage (think rusty crap).

The neighborhood was also very unlike me. I am either a city dweller or a country girl, but not a suburbs person. Dave LOVED living on a culdesac with kids playing in the street and the familiarity of what he had grown up with…that typical Leave it to Beaver neighborhood. I despised it. I loved my neighbors, don’t get me wrong, but when I want to be alone, best to leave me be. I can go for days without seeing a soul and be a happy camper, and when I want people around I don’t mind searching them out. I just never felt like I could relax. I felt trapped.

Career wise, things weren’t going so great for either of us. Dave was lighting the world on fire at the medical device company he had worked 15+ years for, but he was burned out. Years of travel and big business will do that to a person.

As much as I denied it, I felt trapped by my store. Financially it was going down in flames and as much as I tried I couldn’t get it uprighted. I was stuck in a 5 year lease and I possess an annoying “I’m gonna make this work even if it kills me” attitude. It was killing me…inside I felt like I was being less and less authentic every day as I kibbitzed with customers and pretended everything was fine.

And then it happened, Dave discovered winemaking. Well, really, it was more of my idea when I said something like “hey, I wonder if UC Davis offers an Extension Program winemaking course or something?” I really just wanted to see him do something creative with his downtime and we both like to drink wine, so it was somewhat self serving. He looked into it and sure enough UC Davis has a great winemaking course that you can go through completely online! So, Dave signed up for the classes and started making wine in our Sunnyvale garage. I likened it to Microsoft meets Mondavi.

Well, he really enjoyed the course and probably was at it for about a year when I started bringing up the possibility of getting a little vacation house on the coast in Cambria. We had thought about buying or building a little getaway place before, in or around a wine country setting, but never pulled the trigger. After talking about it, looking on Zillow, and doing tons of research we made a pilgrimage to Cambria to go vacation house hunting.

We met a really nice realtor in the process who totally “got” us. She toodled us around all over Cambria and we looked at a bunch of places and then we went home…back to Sunnyvale…back to Suburbia. Everything just seemed a little less rosy when we got home and we shelved the vacation house talk. Dave worked his day job, made wine, worked on the UC Davis course, and I worked at saving my store. Life went back to normal.

6 months later we called that same realtor and asked if she would consider showing us properties in Paso Robles.. Our plans had “evolved.” She said “no problem” and we met her in Paso. We trucked all over Paso Robles, Atascadero, and Creston. We saw everything from a farm with 300+ acres of land owned by a farmer with a penchant for taxidermy animals and toy John Deere tractors to an authentic 80’s house where miles of powder blue carpeting had been laid to rest. We spent a full day hitting one wine country house after another.

The next day we were on our own and we took a drive out in a direction we hadn’t gone before. We drove and chatted about the houses we’d seen, resolving that none of them were “us.” We came around a corner and up on the hill we spotted a Southwest style house overlooking vineyard studded land…and it had a FOR SALE sign!

What? I didn’t see this one on Zillow? We tried to look up the address and the listing agent’s website, but came up empty. We called our realtor and asked her to look into it for us. We were leaving the next day and would be bummed if we couldn’t at least take a peek! She called us back and reported it had been on the market, had been removed, and it was being listed with a new agent…TOMORROW! Could we stay and see it before we went home?

The next day, Dave and I drove up the long pepper tree dotted driveway. That was all it took. It was PERFECT! Well, it was completely impractical for 2 people without children, black gardening thumbs, and potentially no jobs. What were we going to do with over 4,000 square feet of house and 20 acres of unplanted land? We’re not farmers! Would we grow grapes? What would we do about our jobs? What about the store? How far away is the closest Whole Foods?

For this house and this land, we would make it work.

Do you still do the same work you did before or are you doing something new?

We haven’t planted a vineyard on the Ranch. We haven’t started a winery. Dave worked remotely for his previous job as a consultant for the first year we were here. When that ended he reinvented himself as a small winery business consultant and eventually we bought into an existing winery. That winery venture was a success and we’ve moved along. It’s great to see Dave finding himself as he navigates new possibilities and how fluid he’s become. It makes me extremely proud to see the changes in him. This move really pushed him out of his comfort zone and he’s gotten really brave.

I have dabbled since moving here. I’ve done a little interior design. I’ve taken some online classes. I volunteered for a while at the library. This August I turned 40 and deemed it “The Year of Erin!” I have taken up horseback riding and am hoping to eventually do Ranch Sorting competitions. I take Pilates, dance classes, and yoga. Basically, if something sparks my interest I find a way to take a class or explore it. I am finding myself too. I have gotten braver to do what I choose instead to do instead of feeling like I have to do things.

Erin and her chickens, the Gilmore Girls

Erin and her chickens, the Gilmore Girls

What’s ranch life like? What do you love/not so love?

Peaceful. I love waking up to a quiet house. There are no sirens, very few airplanes, no neighbors (other than 12 horses who live in the pasture next door), and really nothing, but lovely birdsongs and fresh air. City friends who have visited don’t understand how we can live so far from civilization until they spend the night here. When they wake up to a picturesque view and serenity, then they’ll say “oooohhhh, now I get it.”

Our days are full…surprisingly full. I like taking care of my home and my little family. We have 2 dogs, 2 cats, and 5 chickens. They all require feeding, love, and care. I like feeding my husband too. That’s one thing that has entirely changed for the better…we eat 3 homemade/home cooked meals a day! When I lived in the Bay Area it would be nothing to grab Starbuck’s in the morning on the way to the shop, lunch at the cafe nearby, and pick up pizza on the way home. I was just always so tired to cook. Which, for me, is a huge part of who I am! I love to cook! I love food, family, and friends… and even better with some wine thrown in!

Dave is still making wine in the garage, but now he has a much bigger garage to do it in. We have grapes that line the fence which Dave grafted over from table grapes to wine grapes, so he plays with that or he buys grapes from other wineries. He takes his 1965 Ford Truck, Bessie, to Lowe’s and always meets a local who plays the “what year is that truck” game with him. I joke that he takes Bessie to Lowe’s just to show her off.

We live a half hour drive away from “town.” I’ve gotten used to it and actually relish the drive. I like to check out the goats, horses, and other animals. There is definitely a seasonality of animals here. Horses are a constant, but goats tend to arrive in the Spring and disappear in the late Summer after the Mid-State Fair. Every kid is a 4-H kid and their animal “projects” pepper the landscapes of their front yards. The “commute” makes my day’s plan more fun because I like to cram in as much town time as I can only to come home to the peace of the Ranch.

The only thing I would say that I miss? Shopping. We don’t have department stores like Macy’s or Nordstrom here, so trying to buy furniture or clothes is a challenge. I do a lot of online shopping now and that’s a drag because I’d like to support locally. I try to shop at the local stores, but they are limited in what they offer unless you are going to live in Ranch gear and cowboy boots 24/7.

Erin and their newest addition, Dixie

Erin and their newest addition, Dixie, a rescue dog who is recovering from distemper.

Has anything surprised you since moving?

I don’t miss the Bay Area traffic one bit. When I go up there now, I feel my shoulders tense as I pass through Gilroy and they don’t release until I hit Prunedale on the way back. I used to love the crazy drivers of the Bay Area because I was one of them! Now, I drive like an old lady and set the cruise control exactly 3 mph past the speed limit while I cruise in the slow lane. Country livin’ has aged my driving skills.

I never would have thought I’d buy sparkly butt pocket cowgirl jeans and think of myself as “fashionable.” No one gets dressed up here, unless it’s Fair time and then you will see every incarnation of cowgirl you can imagine. I’ve had a difficult time adjusting and I am not one to give up and just go au naturale. Hell, I still get up everyday and do my hair and put on makeup even if I am not leaving the house!

Of course I had to be reassured that my sparkly butt pocket cowgirl jeans were age appropriate, so I texted a picture to the gals I take riding lessons from who are 24 years old. They said I could rock them! The jury is still out how rockin’ I look, but I am embracing my new style.

I have been surprised at how settled in and content we have become in the 2+ years we’ve lived here. In the Bay Area we rarely saw each other and here we are together sometimes 24 hours a day. The good news is Dave’s office is at one end of the house and mine is at the other. We can see or not see each other as much as we like now.

To follow more of Erin’s adventures, check out her new blog: McGee Family Ranch It “documents our little family’s journey into country life” complete with “yummy gluten free cooking recipes, city girl turned farm girl fashion tips, animal husbandry advice, and a peek into our life on the Ranch.” 

Do you have a real life adventure you’d like to share? Click the “contact” button in the menu and send me a note!


Kate Watson