This morning I met with a 60-something Romanian man named Vas on a sunny mountainside property in Mill Valley. There are six 100-year old cottages on the property. Vas has lived on and cared for the property and its owners for 37 years. Now he is the sole caretaker of 92-year old Ina, whose husband passed away 2 years ago.
The first time I met Vas, I was on a break from work taking Coco for a walk. Vas came to the marina to work on painting his 25′ Northstar sailboat Tabasco. Coco sniffed noses with his little white dog Rosie. Both Vas and Rosie seemed very good-natured and friendly. His Romanian accent is thick and his pale blue eyes gentle and kind, which makes his self-given nickname “Vas the Vampire” hilarious to me.
A few chance meetings and conversations later, Vas asked if I wanted to see his little boat. I went down to the docks with him to check her out. I told him about my dream to buy my own sailboat and sail around the world, and that I was going to live in my car to save up money.
A few days later he told me about where he lives and said I should come check it out. He said that he thinks living in my car is unacceptable, that he admires my dream, and he wants to help. He offered to let me to stay in one of the cottages for free, although he can’t predict the future of the property or how much longer he and Ina will be there.
I don’t know all of the details yet, but apparently there is a dispute with an attorney and realtor. Vas feels they are trying to take advantage of her because she is old and was too trusting. I don’t know many more details.
There are dozens of ads on the Internet listing the property for sale, but with sale pending. Dozens of ambitious realtors have swooped down on them hoping for a piece of the pie.
Vas and Ina are surrounded by wealth, but they are not by any means wealthy. They cling to their existence in Mill Valley, their “heaven on earth,” as Vas calls it. Ina’s health insurance isn’t great, her vigor is fading, and she requires the use of a walker. Vas doesn’t have health insurance at all. If it were not for Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, they could not afford to live there. They are among the last hold-outs of non-wealthy residents in Mill Valley.
When we talked on the phone last night, Vas hinted that he loves chocolate donuts. I stopped at Whole Foods on my way. There were no chocolate donuts, so I picked up two chocolate-glazed “cronuts,” sort of a donut/croissant hybrid – one for him, one for Ina. He lit up when I handed him the cronuts and said that Ina loves sweets too. She was taking a nap, so I would not meet her today.
The property’s landscape is a blend of wild native growth and a variety of unpruned fruit-bearing trees. Clusters of unripe pears and apples dangle tantalizingly above the meandering footpath that Vas leads me down on the nickel tour. We didn’t wander deep into the orchard, but from a distance I spotted a few trees with bright red fruit that might be plums or cherries.
Vas lives in one of the tiny cottages and Ina lives in another. Two of the property’s cottages have stood unoccupied for years and the fifth and smallest is merely a shed that serves as their laundry room. The sixth cottage collapsed long ago and lies in a defeated tumble in the middle of the property. Vas has a neighbor named Neil who often comes by to collect the wood from the fallen cottage and uses it to build a deck on his own property. Using reclaimed wood to build a deck — good for Neil (and good for the environment).
The cottages’ history began in 1907 when they were used as a sanatorium for wealthy people who had lost their money and their minds. Ina and her husband acquired it 60 years ago and made it into an income property. The cottages became vacation rentals for tourists visiting Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands. Later, they were occasionally occupied by long-term tenants. In the last couple of decades as the cottages aged, Vas and Ina could not keep up with the maintenance expenses and their usefulness for income was lost.
Admittedly, the cottages are now very rustic, to say the least. No one has lived in them for years. The smaller of the two unoccupied cottages has a breathtaking view of Mount Tamalpais framed perfectly in its north-facing window — but it doesn’t have running water.
I gingerly followed Vas up a rickety set of makeshift stairs onto the tilted porch of the larger of the two unoccupied cottages. From the porch, we entered a small living and dining area. A heavy old wooden table bathed in the sunlight that streamed through a nearby window. The clear crystal doorknob on the front door still sparkles contrastingly to its weathered and timeworn surroundings. In one corner, two lovely paintings perched on top of a pile of random junk furniture, boxes, and bric-a-brac, seeming out of place. Vas flipped the kitchen sink’s faucet handle to demonstrate that it has running water. A stove, oven, and refrigerator are absent from the kitchen. Vas isn’t sure why the right side of the double-basin burgundy-colored sink doesn’t drain, but the left side does. To the right of the front door, another door leads to a tiny bedroom with a dusty twin-sized bed and tallboy dresser tucked under a window with an expansive view of the property and beyond. The bathroom on the opposite end of the bedroom has working plumbing. Like the kitchen, the paint is peeling and the ancient linoleum is faded and worn.
Vas admits that caring for Ina and running his own engine repair business doesn’t give him much time or energy for maintaining the property anymore. He is getting older too. He says that with a little paint and elbow grease, the cottage could be livable — and it would be free for me to stay in as long as I like, or as long as Vas and Ina can hold onto the property. And maybe it’s a little better than living in my car, he suggests.
To me the decrepit cottage could be a rustic but livable writer’s cabin. No phone, no Internet, no stove, oven, nor refrigerator… but it does have electricity and running water. I have a camp stove too. It could be a place to sleep, eat, clean up, and best of all, create. I could still stealth camp on the coast on the weekends, which I intend to either way. I would live very minimalistically in the cottage and keep Ember loaded up and ready to go at all times.
After my tour of the property and cottages, we took our dogs on a walk along Vas’ favorite route that he has walked almost daily for decades. The neighborhood is tucked into a dense forest along the steep hillside. The fragrance of redwoods and eucalyptus is heady and intoxicating. Vas says that his daily walks keep him happy. I can easily see why. The neighborhood is abundant with charm and natural beauty.
Parts of the neighborhood remind me much of where I parked in Larkspur for my first night of urban stealth camping. I described it with little detail to Vas but he knew exactly where it was. He knows the area very well.
Vas also knows everyone who lives in every house along our route. A retired doctor lives here, a famous surveyor there, a successful pastry baker over there… He points out the homes belonging to people whose cars he has fixed and another where he laid tile. He smiles at and greets everyone he sees, including the many bicyclists zooming by so fast that they probably barely see us. He smokes two crinkly hand-rolled cigarettes along the way. He admits that he doesn’t know what will happen to him when Ina passes away. He can’t otherwise afford to live in Marin County.
I carried Coco most of the way. His congestive heart failure has slowed him down. We seem to have worked out that a dose of 1 ml three times daily of furosemide (prescription diuretic) keeps his lungs from filling up so he can breathe more effortlessly. Today, he enjoyed walking, sniffing, and peeing on everything two inches high, but still tires easily. I was glad to carry him, as this meant I could kiss his sweet little head more often.
Our arrival at Ember marked the end of our walk. I showed Vas how I’ve decked Ember out with the comfortable bed and how well-organized everything is. He was impressed, as the setup was much cozier than he expected. He confessed that he had once lived in a van for a couple of years, but it was much bigger than Ember.
Vas noticed the bird poop all over Ember‘s hood and insisted on cleaning it up. (I park under a shady pine tree at work to keep Coco cool and comfortable — a family of crows spend a lot of time in that tree.) He happened to have a bucket of soapy water and hose nearby. I protested, but Vas went to work cleaning off the white splatters of crow poop anyway. He didn’t want it to ruin Ember’s beautiful metallic orange paint.
Vas will talk to Ina about me and see what she thinks about allowing me to stay there. He is sure that she will welcome me, but he wants to be respectful and talk to her about it first. I understand completely. Next weekend, I will return to meet her. Vas says that in spite of her age, she is very sharp, speaks multiple languages, and loves to share her memories. I am very much looking forward to meeting her.
As for me… I am going to consider his offer. A rustic writer’s cabin in Mill Valley for free? Why not?
I did not take any photos or video of the property beyond the front gate, but I will when I return next weekend. The photos of the two cottages were found on the Internet.
For now, I’m keeping my creative hat on. I will be editing video for the rest of my weekend. I have enough footage for four episodes, and my YouTube channel is long overdue for content… and subscribers…