The Tenth Mountain



  There's a recurring phrase in Bulgarian folk tales that goes something like this: "So he traveled through nine mountains to the tenth", and it describes how far the protagonist is willing to go to find his fortune, for the hero of every old Bulgarian fable is either slaying some dragon/monster, or is looking for a treasure — a golden apple, a magic potion to cure a dying princess, a mystical item of immense importance that would save his village from war/poverty, or free his family from an evil spell.  I grew up with this image of a far away land that isn't on any map, and can't be found unless you leave your house and venture into the world to remote, foreign places with only the clothes you're wearing and maybe a drawstring bag containing a piece of bread and a single coin to flip when you reach a crossroad.  

  The path is strange and the world is unfriendly, but your resolve is firm; there's no return until you procure the object of your quest, or gain enough wisdom that would bring you to a higher moral revelation (and often those are the same thing).  Bulgaria was small, isolated from the rest of the world, and to my child's mind it could've been anything out there beyond its boarders — beyond nine mountains to the tenth.  Castles made entirely of ruby.  Cities with flying cars.  Jungles where all animals could talk.  Every place was a far away land, every road was uncharted, and every sea — undiscovered, because no one I knew had traveled, and no one could tell first hand what was really out there.  Sure, I had a globe and an atlas, and I could read about it in my geography textbooks.  But I also read 1001 Arabian Nights and Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm, and these books were more believable because they were more interesting.  

I, too, was looking for adventure and a fortune.  I, too, wanted to discover my own fate.  And I had to leave everything I knew behind to find it, for it sure wasn't in Bulgaria.  

  There are treasures in Bulgaria, but they were not destined to be my treasures.  I searched for twenty-five years and I only found dead ends and winding turns that kept bringing me back to where I had started.  So I took new paths that took me further and further.  I am not fully certain what my quest was even all about... Maybe for creative freedom, for a place to write.  Not a ruby castle but a home.  Not an anonymous, utopian megapolis but a small town in the country.  My own personal sanctuary among nature, remote and well protected from all the monsters and dragons of the real world.  

  A place where my heart can be at peace and my mind at ease, so I can feel my feelings and think my thoughts uninterrupted, untroubled by anyone except the people I've willingly let in.  Somewhere to settle down, do my thing, and just be.                  

  Well, I flipped a coin many times and took lots of stops along the way before I found that place... that state of being.  After the big cities I explored the wastelands of suburbia, and by this summer I had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for eight years.  The walls of our Belmont house were literally closing on me, and I loved it because it was my kids' home, but I also hated it.  

  I hated the coastal desert climate with its incessant winds that made me feel uneasy and cold all the time.  I didn't belong in the realm of Big Tech, and I didn't fit in the world of power couples and overachieving parents who vacationed on Lake Tahoe and drove fancy SUV's.  And I intensely disliked the fact that we were renting, that our rent was preposterously high, and even then I didn't have enough room to close the door and write.  My desk sat opposite of our bed upstairs and was mostly used as a resting place for laundry, my kid's drawings, and school paperwork.  In all honesty, I was beginning to give up on my dream to find my Holy Writing Land.  Complacency was creeping in, comforting in a strange, sedative way.  It gets you because it looks so much like logic, like reason.

  Like clockwork, John and I would catch the house buying bug twice a year, and each time we’d have to cool down each other’s enthusiasm.  There was nothing bigger (or better) than a shoebox in the Bay Area we could buy for under a million.  House prices went up by 50% in the five years we spent in Belmont, and it was impossible to buy there without hitting the lottery jackpot or robbing a bank.  Two bed-one bath shacks built in the 30’s went for $2 million in Menlo Park.  Two million goddarn American dollars!!!  That's infinity in Bulgarian currency.  Holy shitballs.  There was cheaper housing in San Mateo but the schools there weren’t great.  To become homeowners, we’d have to consider the East Bay, or a condo near the freeway which we’d hate and still barely afford.  

  The proverbial insanity of the housing market kept us in low spirits when planning ahead. The Second Bubble was growing, and it grows still.  Cynical as it sounds, we’d have to wait for it to burst and somehow take advantage of another economic collapse in order to buy.  And the prospect of hanging my future on a nation's financial crisis wasn’t too inspiring (or characteristic for me, really — Bobby the Speculator, what a joke).  So we kept an eye on the market but didn’t have any real hope.  

  We were pushing forty, and we had moved so many times already, not even counting the time before we became an item.  Twice in Bulgaria, from Bulgaria to London, twice in London, then over here to California, then four more times: from my in-law's house in Monterey Bay to the Bay Area.  Two years in two different apartments in Mountain View, where we had Johnny.  One long and dismal year in Sunnyvale.  Then, finally, Belmont, where Julian was born.  Have you experienced moving with kids?!  Just the very idea made me tired... 
  Looking back, I feel like I dodged something terrible.  Complacency meant the death of wanderlust, and that would've also meant the undue end to writing.  Luckily, it didn't happen.  And I have no doubt what happened instead was indeed some sort of lucky magic.  We found a house.

  A house in a small town.
  A house with a writing room.

 And you literally have to drive over and around many hills and mountains to get there.


  Nothing about buying it and moving in was normal.  I guess that's how all lucky magic is: sudden and immune to planning.      

  At the end of August, John had taken the boys to visit the Grandparents for a weekend and when he returned, he told me how his Dad showed him a house for sale in Carmel Valley Village — a hint to John Sr.'s unscrupulous eagerness to have his son and grandchildren closer.  I couldn’t blame my father-in-law.  The two-plus-hour drive from his Tassajara house to ours in Belmont was tough at his age, and similarly tough on the kids in the opposite direction.  They always got carsick on the dirt portion of Tassajara road and often came back from their stay feral and covered in burrs. 

  The house in question turned out to be unsuitable (something about missing permits) but led to a spontaneous online search “just to see what’s out there”.  My father in law knew well what he was doing.  He played on our love for him, and our desire to be near family.  On a previous visit, John and I left the kids on the mountain with him and grandma, and drove down to the Village for a date night.  We walked down to Carmel River, passing by a log house for sale.  I jokingly took the flyer back to my father-in-law and ruminated what would it be like if we bought it.  He took the joke seriously.  By the time John and the kids visited again a week or so later, he had a list of houses to show us.

No pressure, but look at all this space!  How would you like this view?  And much cheaper than the Bay Area.  Looks a bit run down?  I’ll fix it in no time.  And we’ll be only 30 minutes away!  But no pressure... 

  And John, being his meticulous and obsessive self, searched further.  We had put the boys to bed and he sat down next to me with five tabs open on his phone browser.  He was tired from the trip and a weekend in the wilderness spent running after the kids, who were running after the dogs, who were running after who knows what in the brush down the canyon.  But we looked at the houses for sale together, like we did every six months or so. 

  While John’s criteria was logically sound and practical — he’d look for square footage and amenities and accessibility/distance from stores and roads, for condition of roofing and heating and such — I look for a sensation.  How’d I feel living there?  You can’t really tell by looking at photos on Redfin.  But I knew less than three minutes after scrolling through the listings that the Holman Road house was it.  It was the address.  I liked the sound of it.  The last remaining drops of Balkan superstition I had left in me, and some sort of serendipitous instinct chose my first house for me.  You know, that's how Stephen King chose his next publisher.  He liked the little boat on the Viking logo  (or maybe it was Bill Denbrough in IT who made that choice, but same difference).

  John laughed it off at first but then he read the description and was a little dismayed to find that it all seemed right.  We had the real estate agent on the phone the next morning, and drove to look at the house a week later. 


  The fist time I saw the house in person I was high as a kite.

  No one could tell — not my in-laws, not the realtor, or the seller’s agent.  I had taken to alternative pain management methods because, between that Sunday night we saw the house online and the next Saturday morning we arrived in Carmel Valley to check it out, I had the worst bout of back pain I did since I had birthed Johnny.  It was excruciating, and it was messing with my head so badly I couldn’t function. 

  John and I stopped on a back road by the old airstrip before our meeting with the realtor and I took a single hit of Sunset Sherbet which, as usual, sent me into space.  I don’t need much to get high.  It was extremely weird but at least it gave me something else to be preoccupied with other than the hot rod grinding in my back.  The thing with pot, for me, is simple really.  It makes my body slow and my mind race.  My thoughts become so darn fast and deep and complex I can’t keep up, which usually sends me into a sort of stupor.  That’s why I don’t do it socially... I either have to be alone and write until I pass out (with the hope to process and make sense of all those THC induced revelations) or be with someone who’d readily handle my verbal stream of consciousness (and then put me to bed without judgement of how crazy I sounded throughout). 

  At any rate, with the task at hand, I had a stable scaffolding to build my high around, and aside from my bloodshot eyes and rather giggly disposition, I didn’t let on about my altered state. 

  We had four houses lined up, and started the tour at someone’s architectural wet dream in the 70’s.  The house was pointy where it should have been round, curvy where it should have been straight.  I was like, wow.  Euphoria was hitting hard but I managed not to trip on the multiple winding steps or strangely located thresholds.  The house was screaming surrealist, but also had minimalistic design, and I’m pretty sure one would feel high in there even when completely sober.  It was a hard no.  It wasn’t safe for kids, or even kid-friendly.  It was made for a childless couple in their 50’s, possibly an art professor and his wife who loves giving fancy house parties. 

  The second house was the Deck House. It was built in a canyon and stood on stilts, all wooden, crouching in the shade of old trees, rather damp and dark.  The living room was pretty, with tall ceilings and big windows.  The bedrooms were downstairs and I had a claustrophobic moment trying to walk the halls there.  I’d imagine spending a weekend getaway in that house, which felt more like a cabin or better yet, like Baba Yaga’s home from the old Russian folk tales, that walked on giant chicken legs.  I’d drink wine and play hide and seek on the maze of decks surrounding it, a little creeped out by the way the boards creak. 

  Next we drove to another house in the Upper Circle, and I was beginning to feel the back pain again, but was determined to see this through.  John and I briefly discussed what we’ve seen so far on the car ride between houses, and we knew none was any good.  Our realtor had left Holman Road for last, and I had a feeling I’d be ready for a lie down by then.  Of course, my sense of time passed was utterly clouded and even though we had spent not more than an hour looking at houses, it felt like ages.  I was astounded by the entire area as if I was seeing it for the first time, when in fact I’ve been coming to Carmel Valley for years.  It was a new reality nonetheless, pot or no pot. 

  John and I have always had the unspoken agreement that we’d live in the country one day.  When we did speak about it, we often put it in rather vague terms — maybe five, ten years from now, when the kids are in high school, or college-bound.  The general idea was to eventually move closer to John’s parents, so of course we envisioned the Monterey Bay.  When I first visited America ten years ago, we stayed with my in-laws for two weeks and a large portion of that time we spent in the vicinity.  I knew I wanted to live here the moment I set eyes on the rolling hills of Steinbeck Country. After a lifetime in Sofia, and after what felt like a lifetime in London; and after my stint in suburban Silicon Valley, my dream to become a country dweller solidified.  

  Monterey and the surrounding towns have everything I desire from my environment: farms and vineyards, ranches and mountains, horses and cows, various wildlife, hills and forests, the ocean beach, and most importantly — a fairly old literary and artistic culture I can relate to.  It is quiet here.  It is clean and safe for my children.  Everything is slower, calmer.  And I feel a kind of freedom I never did in London, or in the Big Tech world of the Peninsula. 

  Country life is its own universe, and I tried imagining what it really meant to live here.  It mostly meant driving on curvy roads and dodging deer, saying hi to every soul you happen to see since everyone knew each other, and knowing that the nearest chain store (or a hospital for that matter) is 20 miles away.  It meant wild fire hazard and spotty cell service; small local eateries and fancy wineries; cowboys and odd country fellows and retired millionaires.  But asI observed more I also realized it meant four or five bedroom houses with pools and breathtaking views to The Pastures of Heaven for a little over $800K.  John and I were getting overwhelmed, but also excited. 

  The third house we toured had the cutest kitchen: all white, with little red and blue checkered window treatments (these are called valences, as I learned later), and lots of storage.  I am a sucker for storage.  The living room was also a sight.  Not too big but cozy, with inbuilt bookshelves and the most stunning view I’ve seen through wide French doors.  Unfortunately, the bedrooms were oddly designed and somehow I couldn’t see us spending our lives there.  The back yard was simply a steep drop that gave me vertigo and anxiety as soon as I imagined the kids playing there.  View or no view, we had to move on. 

  Finally, we drove to the Holman Road house and I had to laugh.

  It was perfect.

  Not in perfect condition necessarily, but absolutely perfect for us.  It was funny how I could tell with such surety this was our house only by the ease of the the way the street name rolled off the tongue, but I didn’t question any of it.  I walked in as if I already owned the place.  It had a flow I immediately loved.  The sleeping quarters were tucked in the back, the kitchen was big enough albeit a bit outdated, and there was a lovely dining room with its own fireplace.  Then, the living room with tall ceilings, a baby grand piano, a wide deck, and a decent view of the hills.  The house was only a couple of minutes from the village, had a pool, and most importantly — a bedroom by the front door behind a double door that would become my office.  I saw it so clearly I could swear I’ve been there before.  It would take some refreshing but it was move-in ready, it was available, and it was affordable. 

  John and I found ourselves together in the master bathroom at some point.  I was grinning.  He knew what that meant.  I wanted the house. He wanted a house.  He also wanted to make the right decision.

  He had just asked the realtor if that bathroom had ventilation for there was no window.  She said “you have to turn the window on” and I cracked up.  What a mess!!  I’m high and in pain, John is in a daze trying to calculate all the variables, our realtor is hilarious, and our kids have no idea what’s coming.  How would John commute to work from here?  Where’d Julian go to school?  We didn’t know anything about maintaining a pool.  What about property taxes and insurance, and loans and mortgages?!

Never mind all that.  John and I discussed some of the key points, but even with all the unknowns, we ultimately felt it was the best thing we could do for our family.

  We made an offer that same night.  In two weeks, we signed and got the keys.  We moved in not a month later. Boom.


  You have to understand.  I grew up in a two-room apartment in a concrete block building.  I lived with my parents until I was in my mid-twenties.  Yes, I've moved around since, but I've never lived anywhere as nice as this house.  And what a house!  I kept finding new closets and electric outlets and light switches everywhere, new drawers and nooks and corners to explore.  I set everything up in a week.  I went into Beast Nesting mode and put every piece of furniture and each of our belongings in its place.  I'm crazy like that.  I take to turning a house into a home the way a cat walks through a new and unfamiliar space and rubs its face on every surface to mark its territory.  The faster it all gets put away, the sooner I can focus on getting the kids' routine sorted out.  And the faster that's settled,  the sooner I can sit down and utilize the crap out of my new writing room.  I've been waiting for this since forever.  

  I was ecstatic.  I was also exhausted and a bit disoriented.  I had splinters in my fingers from cleaning the deck.  Setting up house triggered my OCD and I didn't rest until everything smelled like me and I knew where everything was (which took awhile because we discovered a dead rat under the house and the stench seeped through the fireplace vent in the hot weather).  But then I sat on the deck and watched strings of spiderweb silk fly through the morning air in slow motion, catching the early October sun in their long ephemeral structures.  No more Bay Area winds and weird weather.  Carmel Valley, being inland, is proper California-warm and I basked in the light all day, every day.  The kids tried the pool and loved it.  Then the pool caught algae and we had to deal with that

  The thing about owning a house is that there's no landlord to fix things for you (and thank goodness, because our last landlord was a total ass).  And the thing about owning a house in the country is that there's always something to fix.  John and I went on doing just that, and October went by like a minute.  Johny started at the local elementary school, John commuted to work, and Julian and I stayed home and sorted through the daily deliveries of Amazon and Target packages.  I was sure that the Postman hated me, but I was also happy that I could finally buy new furniture.  I had many Pretty Corners now.  The floors didn't squeak as I walked around.  I didn't bruise my elbows while trying to dry my hair in the bathroom.  We were still too busy to reflect on the enormous change we had just gone through -- the tears came later -- and we felt a kind of subtle happiness we didn't know was possible.

  Then the bugs started to come out.  All sorts of bugs, everywhere, just in time for Halloween.  The fauna here is abundant, and we met the local wildlife before long too.  There are owls at night, and their hoo-hoo's echo down the canyon.  Coyotes yelping in the distance.  Lizards scampering in the flower beds.  Squirrels as big as housecats.  Humming birds zooming and vrooming about.  I thought I knew what it meant to live in the country, but I didn't.  For one, it meant getting used to the sight of roadkill, and used to the idea that you'll eventually hit something someday, too.  Country life hardens you.  And still, the quiet majesty of the place makes up for all of the minor inconveniences.  I've started to slow down, to relax.  We've escaped the rat race, the perpetual sense of competition; you know you can't win (it's like competing with Zuckerberg's children, WTF*).

By November the knot in my stomach was gone and I was living stress and anxiety free.  

  No more traffic.  The road to Johnny's school felt like a private road, a back country road that goes over the hill and stretches ahead, empty and open.  There are dangers to beware -- being lulled by the flow of Carmel Valley road and zoning out.  You never know when a car will pull out from one of the side roads and you'll have to slam on the brakes.  And sometimes you get stuck behind a slow truck or an elderly driver and you can't pass for miles.  For things are indeed slower here.  That's the tradeoff.  You get quiet and peace, but you also get a 45 minute wait at the pharmacy.  It goes both ways.  To be remote from the crazy world out there, you also gotta be removed from the world.  

  There are parades of exotic retro cars on weekends that pass by the village for the scenic drive.  There is an actual Wine Trolley that tours the local wineries.  And the people... Well, the local people are just so nice.  Like, real nice, not pretend nice.  Other moms came to introduce themselves at school once they learned we're new.  Everyone says 'good morning' and 'hello', and smiles.  I got so much love from strangers here I was incredulous at first.  In a way, I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop.  What is this, a movie?  I had friends in the Bay Area, but it took me years to make them.  Now I'm friends with everybody, even if I don't know them.  I guess people are curious.  No one comes to live here by accident.  You either are born and raised here, or it's a deliberate choice to move in.  That choice is this community's common denominator.  One woman complimented my pants.  A guy stopped by to talk about my Nirvana car decal.  At the store, an old lady told me that her husband used to work for NASA.  Our neighbor came to meet us and brought warm, homemade cookies.  And I already know all the dogs that live on our street!  It's ridiculously quaint and cute.  All of it.

  And get this: the local radio station is called BOB FM and plays exclusively 90's rock and roll.  


  After the big fires up North the air was smoky and hard to breathe, but not even remotely as bad as up in the Bay Area.  John had to wear a mask when he went to work in the City, and people who could fled towards us, or towards Tahoe.  The devastation was so complete it broke my heart.  Wildfires are common here too, and I'll be learning about that one day, but hopefully not too soon.  I'll be learning a lot going forward.
  It's raining now.  We are getting ready to have family over for Thanksgiving, and the house is full of food and fresh flowers and presents for everyone.  

  Besides this... essay? journal entry?... piece, I've also written a few other short things since we moved, none of them a masterpiece or even finished.  I'm not bothered, though.  I used to live with this constant suspicion that I was missing out on something, that I was wasting an opportunity, that I was late to start writing, and growing later still.  I don't feel this way anymore.  This house has been here my entire life.  Waiting for me.  I've driven past it hundreds of times unsuspecting of the happiness that awaits.  And now that I've reached the tenth mountain, I am home. 

* By John, my faithful Editor (and contributor).


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