There was a brief moment, as I lay in the back of my mom’s van, when it seemed like moving to a new house was going to be easy. Or if not easy, then it seemed like the move might at least be manageable. But soon after, things became increasingly unmanageable.
The process of moving to a new house began the year before, but it had been stewing in my mind much longer.
Before the Move
In late-2014, after living in coastal California and the Bay Area my entire life, I moved to Tuolumne, a small town in the Sierras about an hour north of Yosemite, to live with my mom. I had struggled through several years of living on my own with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and suddenly I could no longer take care of myself. I became severely sick and, by early 2015, I was completely bedridden, unable to speak or eat or even lift my head without help.
I was grateful to have shelter and people to take care of me when I couldn’t provide those things for myself. But I still missed living in the Bay Area, probably because I was in the mountains, and I’m not really a mountain person. I’ve always preferred being by the ocean, smelling salty air, feeling sea breezes. But I was too sick to enjoy any of that, so I tried to make the best of my time in the mountains — the views of sprawling forests and occasional snowstorms.
Then, in the fall of 2020, living in the mountains became untenable, and not just for me. My mom and my neighbors were worried about the fire danger in our area as smoke hung over our neighborhood for months. Wild fire season was leaving large sections of scorched earth across the state, and we feared that our part of California would be next.
One evening that fall, my mom rushed into my room and shouted, “There’s a fire down the hill.”
Panic coursed through me as we called the neighbors. They rushed over, and we all watched as fire crews converged on the blaze below our house. They put it out before it could spread, but it was too close for comfort. While the fire may have been contained, the fear of a bigger, more aggressive blaze was still spreading through our minds.
Not long after that night, three of our neighbors decided to sell their houses and move out of the area. My mom and I knew we had to do the same, but it was going to take a while. We couldn’t move as quickly as our neighbors, many of whom had sold their houses within a week of putting them on the market.
Before we could put ours on the market, we had to get rid of decades of stuff that our family had accumulated. We also had to clean up the house, making it presentable for prospective buyers. And so, while we prepared to sell the house, we endured one more fire season — a hot summer and a dry fall.
In late-August, another wild fire broke out, causing people to evacuate Sonora and Jamestown, two nearby towns. We were a few miles away and thus avoided evacuating. But the fire underscored the fact that we needed to move.
Selling a House in the Most Stressful Way Possible
We put the house in Tuolumne on the market in early November of 2021. I expected the house to sell almost immediately, especially after seeing our neighbors’ houses sell so quickly the year before. But that’s not what happened.
It was the off-season and our house was not as big or as polished as the houses that had previously sold on our street. Our listing remained on the market for several months, even as a steady stream of house hunters requested viewings, a process that required me to get into my wheelchair and out to my mom’s van so we could drive up the hill and let the people see the house without us in it.
This, however, quickly proved to be too exhausting and stressful for me. I crashed every time I had to vacate the house. To some extent, I had prepared for this — a temporary flare up of my symptoms — the cost of moving to a safer place. But I hadn’t prepared for my energy to be wasted by a lack of serious buyers. Many of the people viewing the house didn’t have their finances in order to make an offer, others didn’t realize it snowed at 3,000 feet in elevation, and some seemed to be viewing the house more as a hobby than to actually buy it.
Realizing this, I decided I wasn’t going to bust my ass and vacate the house every time someone wanted to view the house, making myself sicker appeasing people who weren’t serious about buying. But, at the same time, I had to let people look at the house, in case they did want to make an offer. So I decided to stay in my room and let them view the rest of the house. They were able to view everything but my room, which they could still see from the photos online. Then, if they were serious about making an offer, I would agree to leave and give them a look at my room.
Thankfully I didn’t have to do that. Not long after New Year’s Day, we received an offer on the house. It was below our asking price, so we haggled back and forth a bit, but eventually we settled on a fair price that would still give us enough money to buy another house — the next challenge.
Searching for a New Home
Upon searching for a new place to live, I quickly realized that most of the places with cool climates and limited fire danger were exceedingly expensive to live. Ideally, I wanted to live in Santa Cruz, the beach town where I had grown up and lived for a short time in my twenties, before I became bedridden. But Santa Cruz is insanely expensive. I couldn’t find a house under a million dollars, which was more than twice our budget. So I began looking nearby, in less popular towns like Seaside and Salinas, but even those places were out of reach.
We briefly considered buying a mobile home in Santa Cruz, and we even made an offer on one, but this option was risky, as many of the mobile homes were located in parks that charged rent. So we would have owned the mobile home but not the land underneath it, presenting a vulnerability that I wasn’t all-together comfortable with.
Instead of mobile homes, we began looking at houses in places outside of the Bay Area, such as Eureka and Fort Bragg, both of which had affordable options and cooler climates. They were farther away though, and we didn’t know anyone who lived there. So we focused back on the Bay Area, looking on the outskirts.
We looked at houses in Fairfield and Vacaville, but those places were too hot and still had some fire danger. Then we landed on Vallejo.
Now, for those who haven’t read my memoir, I have some history in Vallejo. I went to high school just across the water in Martinez, and sometimes I’d take trips to Six Flags in Vallejo, riding roller coasters and watching the animal exhibits. But it wasn’t until college that I really became familiar with the city. I used to make weekly trips from Martinez to Rohnert Park, driving through Vallejo on the way. On one such trip, I drove onto the Napa River Bridge, just outside of Vallejo, and I crashed into a car that was stopped on the highway, killing the driver of the car.
At the time, it was the most traumatic experience of my life. But soon that trauma was overshadowed by my illness and struggle to survive severe debilitation. Even as my health failed, and then improved, the car accident in Vallejo stuck with me. It was certainly in the back of my mind as I was looking at houses in Vallejo. Did I really want to live in the same city where I had endured such trauma?
The answer was yes, believe it or not. If it meant living in a nice house, closer to friends and family, and farther away from wild fires, then yes, I had no problem living a few miles from the scene of the car accident.
I’ve never been one to shy away from my problems, especially ones that involve trauma and emotions. Part of me felt that living in Vallejo might be good, even therapeutic, healing my psyche and bringing my journey full circle. I thought that it might help me find closure with the car accident, if only symbolically.
Then there was the question of safety. Vallejo has a higher crime rate than Tuolumne, but there are neighborhoods within Vallejo that are quite safe. I figured living in such a neighborhood would be safer than living with the constant threat of wild fires.
And so, I continued the search for houses. The first house we looked at was beautiful — a deep blue exterior, three large bedrooms, and a covered back porch for enjoying some outside time. It was on a slope and had some stairs to deal with, but it was in our budget, so my mom drove down to Vallejo to see it in person. She liked it, and we prepared to make an offer.
Then the bad news came. Our real estate agent said that the house had nearly two dozen offers already and would likely sell for a hundred thousand dollars more than the asking price, putting it well out of our budget.
I couldn’t believe it. Even in Vallejo, one of the less popular places to live in the Bay Area, houses were selling for tens of thousands of dollars more than they were listed at. We didn’t let this stop us though. We kept looking and found a house with lots of brickwork and lush gardens full of native grasses and bamboo. It was a single story with no stairs, which would make it easier for me to get around.
After being outbid on the first house, I knew we had to get aggressive with this house. Luckily I found it within hours of it coming on the market, so we had a leg up on anyone else who might be interested in the house. It was listed at $25,000 below our max budget. So I suggested we make an offer of $15,000 above the asking price with an expiration of 24 hours. This meant the seller had only a day to consider our offer, limiting the number of people who would be able to make an offer before ours expired.
It was a bold strategy, but it worked. The seller initially asked for an extra day to consider other offers, and he did get a few others, but none more appealing than ours.
And just like that, we were moving to Vallejo.
Before all this, I knew nothing about buying and selling houses. But I did always wonder: How does someone sell their house and buy a new one at the same time? The answer is: contingencies. We sold our house with the contingency that we also had to buy a new one. This meant that, even after we accepted the offer on our house, we wouldn’t sell it unless we found another house simultaneously. If we hadn’t found the house in Vallejo, we might not have sold the house in Tuolumne. It was a juggling act that worked out in the end, despite being incredibly stressful, almost as stressful as the move ahead.
Moving Back to the Bay
After months of negotiations and preparations, constant stress and maybe even a few panic attacks, I was ready to move to our new house. I had only gone for a few short drives in my mom’s van, which made for the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the two and a half hour drive from Tuolumne to Vallejo. But I had to go for it. This was my shot at living in a safer, healthier place. At no other time in the previous seven years of my illness had I been well enough to travel any significant distance in a car. But now it seemed that I might be able to.
The day we closed on the Vallejo house, I got in my wheelchair and my mom pushed me across our deck and up our concrete ramp one last time. It was a cloudless day, so I wore a sleeping mask and dark sunglasses as I transferred from my wheelchair into the van. My mom had put down a memory foam pad for me to lie on. I was surrounded by as much stuff as we could cram into the van, including my bed frame. My mattress was strapped to the top of the van.
It was just after three in the afternoon as I lay in the back of the van shielding my eyes from the sun. I was already tired and in pain, but I had made to the van, which felt like half the battle. Again, I was thinking that this might actually be manageable. I might be able to move to the new house.
For comfort, I was texting my girlfriend, Shannon, without looking at the screen, something I’ve gotten good at over the course of my illness. Then my mom got in the van, along with our two small dogs, and we drove up the driveway and down the street.
The first few minutes were full for steep hills and winding roads. I couldn’t see where we were, but soon we started to pick up speed, and I figured we were on the highway. I was also using the maps app on my phone, which told me where we were.
By the time we got to the small town of Escalon in the Central Valley, the sun was low enough in the sky that I could remove my sleeping mask and sunglasses. And that’s when I began to notice something was wrong.
I heard a flapping sound, like a tarp blowing in the wind. I looked through the sunroof and saw that the wind was lifting my mattress off the top of the van, reminiscent of a scene in my memoir, when my mattress almost flew off my dad’s truck as he was helping me move.
I wanted to avoid such an incident, so I told my mom to pull over. She got out and tightened the straps on the mattress. When we got back on the highway, the mattress flew back up in the air, barely staying on the van. Then my mom found a dollar store and bought some rope. I used what little strength I still had to help her tie down the mattress, looping the rope through the open windows in the back of the van. We got back on the road a third time, but the mattress flew up in the air again.
Finally, my mom pulled over and said she was going to flag someone down to help us. I didn’t like that idea, both because I didn’t really trust people stopping on the side of the road, and because even if the person who stopped was well-intentioned, I didn’t want to get close to anyone in the confined space of the van because I could get COVID.
So I thought of a solution instead. I tied a rope through a handle on the mattress, feeding it through the sunroof, anchoring it to the inside of the car. The mattress wasn’t going anywhere, but just to be safe, my mom drove in the slow lane, staying below forty miles per hour. This turned a two and a half hour drive into a five hour drive, a frigid one full of blustery wind as I had to keep the windows down to anchor the mattress.
In the midst of all the chaos, as the sun was setting over the Central Valley, I found a few moments to reflect on how far I had come, literally. For years, my world had been limited to a bed within a room. I thought I would die in the confines of that small space, my tiny world. But then I started to get better, and my world grew. I could get out of bed. I could get around the house. I could go outside in my wheelchair. And now, in the span of an hour, I had traveled more than a dozen miles.
My world had grown from the area around my house to busy roads full of fast cars, winding roads and six lane freeways, passing through small towns and big cities, speeding by gas stations, shopping malls, and weed dispensaries.
Things weren’t like this the last time I was out in public. And for as foreign as everything felt, there was also a familiarity to it all. I had experienced these things before, just not in the same way.
I had driven on these roads a thousand times, but the last time I did, I wasn’t nearly as sick. Even so, the roads still looked the same, the same smells were in the air — city smells of garbage and car exhaust, rural smells of cow manure and farmland.
It was a lot to take in. But I was glad to do it, grateful to experience the world I had been sheltered from for such a long time. And most of all, I was grateful to have been well enough to experience it, surprised at the strength I had exhibited tying down a heavy mattress. Now all I had to do was make it to Vallejo.
It was after eight at night when we arrived in Vallejo. I got back in my wheelchair and rode up the driveway of our new house, my first time actually seeing it in person.
I was weak and hungry, and my mom was tired. She still had to unload the mattress from the top of the van and get it inside. She struggled with it for at least an hour, and I used the last of my strength to help her lift it over the front doorstep, something my body would hate me for the next day. But it was worth it. We had arrived at our new home. We did it.
After months, years really, of missing the Bay Area, it felt good to be back. I was home again. And there was much more on the horizon.
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