A refuge off the beaten track

Special to The Times

It was quite an elegant little property that we found late last summer, with marble underfoot and oaks overhead. The rough, white marble had tumbled from an outcrop high on the side of the canyon, and the oaks grew from its floor -- deciduous kinds that turn gold in the fall and evergreen oaks, which remain green and produce fat acorns for playful gray squirrels.

There are huge manzanitas with polished mahogany limbs, aromatic gray rabbitbrush and even a few cactuses in one corner.

For years we'd been looking on and off for a property like this, a place where we could park some cares and some cash -- an investment property that could also be a second home within easy driving distance from our Westside abode.

We'd looked to the north and south, in the mountains, canyons and by the sea. Everything was just a little too expensive, or not what we had in mind.

Then a friend who knows I like trains called to tell me that a railroad passenger car built nearly 100 years ago was for sale.

"I have no idea how they got it there," he said, "but it's at the end of a three-mile dirt road up in the mountains. You should go and see it."

Having nothing else to do that weekend, my wife, Iris, and I made an appointment with the real estate agent.

We drove two hours through hills and desert and into high mountain country, which shall remain unnamed to keep the good graces of our new neighbors and for our own privacy concerns.

Although we were fascinated by the railroad car on that first visit, we spent most of the time with the agent looking at the land. Our friend hadn't mentioned that the car was sitting on 40 acres of pristine woodland.

As we walked up the dirt road through the canyon staring at all the trees, we knew we had to buy the property. The place seemed magical, so open and unspoiled -- a perfect slice of California as it was many years ago. And because there was no cabin, we could actually afford it. The owner only wanted $60,000.

If we sold some stock, we could own a little forest of oaks and pines. We wrote out a cash offer of $53,500 that same day but asked the Realtor to hold it while we checked out a few things. If the price was fair for the acreage and the area, she'd have the offer ready to submit.

The Realtor provided us with comparables and we also looked at the "sold" and "for sale" listings on the Web sites of other agents. We got estimates on some of the work that needed to be done right away, such as cleaning up dead trees, and asked our financial advisor to sell some mutual funds. This would cut into our retirement savings, but raw property is an investment, and this one would be more fun than most.

Mind you, we built a few safeguards into our offer. We needed to hire a surveyor to walk the land with us and show us the boundaries so we would have a better idea of what we were buying. The well had to be checked because it looked like it hadn't been used in quite some time.

As romantic as the old train car was, we wanted to make sure we weren't getting in way over our heads, though we really had no idea what to look for. Rust, I guess?

When we submitted the offer, we slashed the original 90-day escrow to 30, which was plenty of time to satisfy the contingencies. Sometimes you go with your intuition and act fast. Comps showed the $1,300-an-acre price was reasonable, considering that much of the property was canyon sides that could not be walked on, much less built upon. There was no counteroffer.

By autumn we were picnicking in our own oak grove, slicing salami, cheese and apples for lunch and soaking up the sun and thin, clean air, wondering if we would build a cabin, bring in a prefab or trailer, fix up the train car or do nothing at all.

There are no electrical lines or service, and no one who lives in the area wants any. Our nearest neighbor is nearly a quarter-mile away. Most locals use generators, though some employ solar or wind power.

When we mention this little drawback to friends, they think we are crazy. But I quickly, if not convincingly, point out that the lack of electricity has certainly helped keep the area from being overbuilt.

The previous owner used a generator to run the pump in the well, filling a couple of plastic drums above the railroad car with water for showers and the dishes. Propane was used to run about everything else, including a dozen wall lamps in the car.

Back in the 1960s, the 60-foot coach was elegantly outfitted with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living area with a wood stove, but vandals and the elements had pretty much destroyed the interior and wood rats had moved in. There was a collapsed outhouse back among the trees.

We had the propane tank checked during escrow but have no idea how all the gas fixtures work, or even if they do. We had the well checked too, but the pump no longer worked so we couldn't test the water, though neighbors say the water in our canyon bottom is quite good.

The train car sits in the middle of what appears to be a creek bed where water flows during downpours. But the car is not likely to go anywhere even if it does rain for 40 days and 40 nights. It's quite heavy with an iron framework and a concrete floor. At an elevation of 5,300 feet, it more often snows than rains, and in the last few years there has been little of either.

The lack of water has weakened trees to deadly attacks of bark beetles or dwarf mistletoe. There are many dead trees in the area, and a few on our property, but they do not take away from the beauty of the place.

There are lots of healthy oaks and pines. Right now, we're looking for a couple spaced right for a hammock. We haven't been able to spend the night on our property yet, but we soon should be able to take a nap there.

And we've got the wood stove working so we can go inside the old railroad car and get warm on those cold and sometimes snowy winter days. There's certainly no shortage of firewood.

For city folk like us, 40 acres is a lot of land, and the fact that there is no cabin or water or electricity is a bit daunting. But as my wife keeps reminding me, we don't really have to do anything, and there is certainly no hurry if we do.

Right now, we're just happy to get out of town and have a nice picnic under the oaks. And it looks like there will be poppies to pick in our meadow this spring.

Next: Satellite surveying and driving on dirt.

Robert Smaus can be reached at rsmaus@earthlink.net.

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