Where Is Utopia? Finding the Ideal Community

hovenw.jpgSince June, we’ve been searching for the ideal place to live and start a business. We are talking to locals in towns across America, interviewing and taking notes, trying to get a feel for places that might come close to what we consider “perfect.”

But is all this work just a waste of energy? Are we searching for a utopia that doesn’t exist?

Tell us: What factors make up your ideal community?

As we tack on the miles, we keep seeking these answers.


In 1998, we thought we found utopia, when we fled San Francisco and moved to extreme Northern California, where the 1970s flower children went back to the land and built low key lives for themselves.

Humboldt County is home to giant coastal redwood trees, and set on the rugged Pacific Ocean. It’s a spectacular, organic world unto its own, surrounded by lush rain forest and a rural, slow small town charm. After 10 years, we became so intertwined in the community, but eventually, we had to leave.

eurekatheater.gifWe had done what we needed to do with our business, and we were tired of watching the region’s economy stagnate. Nothing much happened in Humboldt (jaded locals call it “behind the Redwood Curtain“), mostly because of the constant fighting between different factions in the community that kept large scale economic development projects from moving forward. The factions were lefties versus conservatives, anti-growth versus pro business, you name it. Every issue, every project became a fight between opposing sides that couldn’t get along. We. Were. So. Sick. Of. It.

We had to see for ourselves; do all small towns operate this way?

Since hitting the road, it’s been clear to us; there really are communities that can work together to get things done.

lyrictheaterblacksburg.pngIn Blacksburg Virginia, for example, the old Lyric Theater sat vacant and decaying for many years. But when citizens got together to save it, it took just two years for the community to form a non profit, raise the funds, and completely renovate it. Meanwhile, back in Humboldt, the old Eureka Theatre has been sitting and falling apart since we moved there in 1998, a victim of infighting amongst community members that can’t along well enough to see it renovated.

cabbagecollardsw.jpgIn New Bern North Carolina, we fell in love with the downtown waterfront, shops and cafes. We stopped into a dog store, and talked to a business owner who told us that in the last six years, the area has been redeveloped with almost full occupancy, a conference center, two mid-range hotels, a farmer’s market, and a waterfront park.

Now we know, there are places that can get their act together.

Will we ever go back to Humboldt?

sendoffcrawfordsw.jpgCutting ties and moving away for good will be hard, if we decide to do it. After 10 years of building wonderful friendships, valuable business contacts, and participating in community wide projects, it’s Humboldt’s people that make living there worthwhile. Forget the depressed economy, the lack of bandwidth, and the difficult transportation issues; Humboldt is a small, rural corner of paradise in congested California, filled with some of the best, most down to earth people we’ve ever met.

How can we ever walk away from that?

14 Responses to “Where Is Utopia? Finding the Ideal Community”

  1. What an excellent discussion this has turned out to be. Thanks so much to all of you. I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I just have to say, Eric, that I had a chuckle about your description of Hawaii being “a pig eatin’, beer drinkin’, wave ridin’ culture”. One of my close friends is in the Army and is stationed in Hawaii. She was just home for a 2 week visit and said the exact same thing. She loves living there, she’s learned to surf, she purchased a motorcycle to ride around on, she has a great job at the local hospital (she’s a medic). The one thing she doesn’t like is the food. She says that they eat pork in EVERYTHING. After being back here for 2 weeks, she was more than ready to return to Hawaii, though. She loves it.

    One other thing I took note of was your recommendation of Australia and New Zealand. Those are both places that top my list of places to visit. It’s nice to hear someone recommend them.

    I love everyone’s interpretation of the “perfect” place. Truth is, there is no such place. But there has to be that place that suits us to a “T” and that we feel the most at peace with. For me, that is what I want to seek and find. That place that creates the greatest peace within me by living there. That coupled with the inner peace that I have should prove to be the closest thing to “perfect”.

  2. Wow guys, I’m so flattered at the wonderful, thoughtful feedback, thank you so much for the lively and lovely discussions.

    The goal of this trip has always been to find an ideal place to settle down. But Ari, you’re right; we have often thought to ourselves . . . why settle? Well, for starters, I often miss my sewing room, and just the space in general. Jim missed his garage and tools. Also, we do have a storage unit full of furniture that we need to decide what to do with in a year. We can keep paying the rent on that, or we can find a new place for our stuff. Or we can sell it all and keep traveling. The truth is, we are no closer now to deciding than we were before we left. Like Vinnie Barbarino used to say, “I’m so confused!”

    Lee is absolutely right; it’s hard to know that were you currently live is what you should stick with, if you’ve never seen much else. Being California natives who hadn’t seen much, we had to find out for ourselves what “ideal” means to us. We still don’t know. We now have the wonderful dilemma of having too many options to think about!

  3. Very cool. We seem like kindred spirits.

  4. Eric Auckerman December 13, 2007 at 9:47 pm Reply

    This has been one outstanding post hasn’t it?

    Awesome stuff Jeremy, Susan, Em, Lee, AKC and Rudy, you folks sound too cool, it would be great to hold an annual festival for those looking for greener pastures. Something like a Greener Pasture Folk Festival with beer, polka, and shaggy tales to be shared around a fire.

    True confession folks, Berkeley is an awesome place with some really fine people as many of my neighbors were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, but alas, Hawaii was calling and after Hawaii it’s just so hard to slip back into a scene that can be a bit unruly at times. There was way too much pisstivity in the air as well and that’s not cool no matter what’s going on personally and professionally.

    Susan, you brought up quite a few exotic ports, I can offer some insights into many of those places you’ve mentioned as I’ve lived in France, Germany, New York, and Hawaii (my family is from Germany). I’ve visited quite a few other locals and if you were ever to consider living outside the US I would suggest/urge that you consider Australia and New Zealand. Europe is fantastic on many levels but the cost of living and language skills needed might trip you up on occasion. The cultures are many but it takes a while to get into the Euro groove, I would say two to three years before you get it and it gets you. Awesome all around and I wouldn’t say no if you have the means but Europe is quite the nut to crack.

    Hawaii is wonderful but be prepared to drive with your intellectual brakes on for while until you find like or semi-like minded people. The folks on the islands are focused less on their subscriptions to the New Yorker than to cooking the new porker. It’s a pig eatin’, beer drinkin’, wave ridin’ culture that just thrives freely on family and friends. I love it there and would still be on Kauai were it not for having sold my business and found myself committed to a wonderful lady whose got so much towering aloha and good will that I couldn’t say no to such a prize. She’s like the star on a Mercedes whose qualities are summed up by the very symbol alone; I think I’ll go give her kiss in a moment.

    Anyway, progressive minded and considerate people have an open door wherever they go but I find the people of the southern hemisphere amazingly easy to spend time with.

    Best regards to all,
    Eric

  5. No such a thing as a perfect place. You make your own “perfect world” or not. I have always believed that “home” is where your family and friends are. Take time to think about your past life in California, chances are that it was pretty close to perfect and may be with a few modifications you may actually already have made your “perfect” world.

    ….and it is easier to be more successful where people know you, love you and trust you.

    happy traveling

    Rudy

  6. Wow, Eric you should write a book!
    Hang on a minute, I think you just did 😉

    Jeremy’s point is well taken, why settle back down again at all? Seems like you have a great life now and you are building one hell of a community as you meet people along the way.

    Just a matter of creating a way to make a good living regardless of where you are located at the time. Hell you don’t want to be tied down to a desk, look at me working here at the bay. I have lunch Al-Desk-O and read about your leisurely life.

    Man I am looking forward to my sabbatical next year!!!
    //A

  7. David and I have hit a few points in the last 15 years where we said ” where do we want to live?” We are both in, as you know, location-independent businesses. We kicked around Hawaii, England, Germany and I toyed with Montana or Wyoming.

    I’ve seen most regions of America and, you know what, every time in the end we’ve come to the conclusion that while there are a lot of great places to live, nowhere, for us, beats Humboldt County. We love the weather, the art scene, the beaches and forests, the fact that we are less than six hours away from one of the greatest cities in the world, San Francisco and one of the most entertaining, Berkeley.

    Compared to what we have seen and heard about what has happened in other areas when serious growth hits, like Walnut Creek, Healdsburg and the like, “stagnation” starts to look more like a stability that preserves a very special quality of life.

    Factions exist everywhere. No place is perfect, whatever “perfect” is. A true utopia, however one chooses to define that, doesn’t exist any more than the perfect person and would probably be a bore if it or they did. Where to live and put down roots is kind of like choosing a life partner. The trick isn’t to find someone who is “perfect”, but whose normal human traits and twitches are ones that you believe you can live with over the long haul.

    Humboldt County certainly has its “twitches” and some of them are things that would drive me crazy if I let them, but what is important to me is the healthy environment, support for the arts, how much the community cares about animals and the wonderful community of people, many of whom, like yourselves, came here from elsewhere and have immeasurably enriched our county. So many exciting things are happening on the “Green” front, too.

    Frankly, I was bummed when I found out you’d sold up and left and I hope you come back. Clam Beach is calling you. 🙂

  8. Eric Auckerman December 13, 2007 at 3:31 pm Reply

    This was and is a great post Rene because I can only wonder how many people in this country are wondering about that very same notiong – where is the most perfect place to live? First and foremost, to ask the question suggests that where we live has some dents and rust or a move wouldn’t even be considered. Make an honest list of those items as you don’t want to move to the same location twice.

    So sit up on Eric’s knee for a spell as I love this topic. I just moved from Hawaii back to the mainland back in March and in doing so have had to keep an open mind about the cultural shift that comes with such move. For some Hawaii is the only place on Earth to live in this life and quite possibly the next if there is a next and I don’t blame them as it’s an especially nice place. Golf, surfing, friends, Barbi-Ques, there were many reasons to stay, but the question still looms, where is the ideal place to live?

    Right now I’m scratching my bearded chin whose salt and pepper hairs do much to make it look like I’m in deep thought, so here’s what I think, move towhere the people are least angry and have a smooth and easy perspective on matters while taking serious those things that are serious but who favor reason over reactivity. What you said about the SC town and the Virginia community rings true in so many communities within our borders (and beyond).

    Before Kauai I owned a house in Berkeley, California, for some this was utopia but for those of us who paid the inordinately high property taxes, assessments, and other cult fees as so generously apportioned by city government it was like fighting locusts off of your life’s work. Homeowners were rough riding capitalists who have no regard for the environment and women’s rights and animal rights and Chinese factory workers who many times are children just slightly older than fetus. I get it, I get it, I get it – but back off as I have rights as well.

    Some people within our edgy community keenly knew exactly how everyone else should behave and that they were the self-appointed standard bearers of the moral high ground. The very much grizzled and weary being I call me took great exception to such harsh damnation that I elected to sell my home and wave a dry-eyed good bye to such a colorful patch of California.

    The wholesale endorsement of living up to its radical image took precedence over the needs of those who paid generously to maintain city coffers. Too often articles were written in the local paper bad-mouthing land-lords and home-owners as exploitive and insensitive capitalists. One person’s definition of exploitive and insensitive capitalism is sometimes so off the mark that they’re not even close to being wrong. The cost of owning and maintaining a house in Berkeley is prohibitive, couple that with needing a permit to rebuild a common fence that pre-existed I had said enough and when I say enough, well, hopefully someone is listening. But that’s my greivance and someone else will have their own, again, this was my issue so I took action and sold.

    My girlfriend just had a friend visit us from MO. She told us they built a house, a barn, a deck and so on with no permits? The county doesn’t require permits? Nope not a one, you just have to be willing to live in MO. As you’ve both probably discovered, smaller communities can be a whole lot more tolerant in certain ways, in others they can be a bit harsh as well but if you can buy land you can sure make a whole lot more decisions without the approval of so many and this is a great thing.

    Sometimes living among folks whose breezy hemp and “it’s all good” ways can be enticing especially if you’ve still got a bit of that dance still in you, but many times these same folks are just passing through and are not quite committed to the team (just yet), and this is OK. However, sounds like some of the communities you’ve visited and bore witness to their active pursuits to given projects speaks volumes, this should be your first hint as to whether people can get along. Less lip service and more lift service does much to make for a strong community.

    On tiny Kauai you couldn’t help but get involved in some community project and or fund-raiser and besides, that was the best way to get to know your neighbors and the town at large. Sounds like a postcard laced with a protestant work ethic doesn’t it? No way and yes way as Kauai has many social ills but the local community is and was always ready to pitch in when needed.

    You might miss certain aspects of Eureka living but if you’re on the fence then there must be something in your craw about the local culture that has you wondering if that truly is or isn’t the place?

    The bottom line from my perspective is that you, Jim, and your hop-along Shepherd just need a place where the living is easy and the people equal to that way of being.

    Over and out – Eric.

  9. The question of an “ideal community” is one that we are constantly seeking the answer to ourselves. It is also one of the reasons we want to get out there on the road. For me, living in the same small town for 36 years is NOT the way to find out if *this* is the place I want to continue living. There are so many places out there, I find it hard to believe that what I am comfortable with is what I should stick with.

    Everyone has their own definition of what an “ideal community” is, of course. As of now, I just want to experience something different and define it for myself. That is hard to do when you aren’t exposed to anything different. But once we get there, I’ll be sure to come back and let you know. In the meantime, I am enjoying your take on your own experiences and what you like/dislike about different areas and how you end up feeling about “home”.

  10. so, what you’re really saying is, like dorothy, you’ve discoverd ‘there’s no place like home’?

  11. It seems to me that you’ve already found the ideal community — wherever you happen to feel like parking at the moment. Why look to settle down at all?

  12. and they grow some great yerba !

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