Weathering the Storm (2003 – 2005)

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Here is the third installment in the crazy history of Villa Santa Cruz.  If you have not read the first two entries, make sure to check them out first - History Post #1:  The Journey Begins! Buying the Property (2001 – 2002) and History Post #2:  The Lettuce Debacle and Breaking Ground on the Villa (2002 – 2003).  Enjoy!

Weathering the Storm (2003 – 2005)

As the summer of 2003 approached, Matt and John’s only choice was to lay low and recover from the frustration and disappointment of the failed farm and stalled construction project. Again out of money, they resumed a simpler life – games of coconut bowling on the beach, sunsets with cold drinks in hand, and quick trips up to San Diego to continue their remodels. The weather in these late spring/early summer months was warm and breezy – exactly what one dreams of when they think of Mexico.

As the calendar turned from late July into August, the balmy weather gave way to a humid stillness and rumors of the upcoming hurricane season filtered throughout the town. Whenever Matt and John needed advice or wanted to hear the latest news in town, they would often stop in to visit with Barbara Perkins at La Canada del Diablo, their favorite watering hole. To them, Barbara, an American living in Todos for over 20 years, was the “town mayor” because she was always up for a chat, well plugged in to the town’s happenings and was a great source for help, recommendations, etc. While chatting with Barbara in mid-August, she cautioned them about the upcoming hurricane season which was predicted to be busy with several major storms. Like a mother hen trying to protect her chicks, she wanted Matt and John to be as prepared as possible. Barbara reminded Matt and John just how powerful and destructive hurricanes can be and urged them to stock up on extra water, food and supplies so they would be ready for the storm. Yet, for as much as they valued her opinions on most matters, Matt and John were relatively unfazed by Barbara’s warnings. They had heard many tales of Hurricane Juliette, a Category 4 storm that spun around Todos Santos for days on end in September 2001, leaving people without power and water for days. The townspeople mainly remembered the rains and flooding, there was little mention of strong winds. Matt and John shrugged their shoulders at the Juliette talk – they knew they could handle a little extra water.
Even though they had no prior experience with hurricanes and had never gone through any type of severe storm, they just did not believe anything could live up to the “hype.” Within the next few days, they spotted a storm approaching Baja on the weather tracking websites, Hurricane Ignacio. As a boy from landlocked Winnemucca, Nevada, Matt was comforted that the weather service predicted that Ignacio would reach only a Category Two level – he figured that if the measuring scale went up to a Category Five, how bad could a Two actually be?
Within the next day or so, John headed up to the US on a long scheduled trip to visit his family and Matt stayed behind at Rancho Santa Cruz to hold down the fort. Matt was looking forward to some down time in the trailer on the dune with their dog, Molly, and her new litter of puppies. A few months earlier, when Tucker was still alive, Matt and John adopted Molly when they were driving down the Baja Peninsula. They had stopped in Mulege (pronounced Moo-leh-hay) for the night and were having dinner and beers at a local bar, when a man came in with a ball of fluff in a cardboard box. He said that someone in the bar had to take the dog, otherwise he would put it on the “Tecate truck” – a euphemism for driving the dog to the desert and leaving it to die. This was too much for Matt and John’s bleeding hearts and, after one too many drinks, decided to adopt the dog. Since they were giving this dog a second chance at life (like a Mulligan in golf), they named her Mulli, which quickly morphed into Molly. It turned out that Molly was pregnant and gave birth to a litter of nine puppies just before John left for the US in mid-August 2003.
So, Matt would spend the next week in the company of Molly, her nine tiny puppies and their “Siamex” cat, Danny (named after Danny Noonan from Caddyshack). Matt occasionally checked the storm tracker websites on the internet and saw that Hurricane Ignacio was approaching the Pacific coast of Baja, yet he still didn’t take any precautions – he did not buy extra food or water, he did not close up the trailer windows or tidy up their campsite. He figured he would just hunker down inside the trailer, catch up on DVDs of The Sopranos and watch the storm go by.
The next afternoon, Matt noticed the winds picking up and sent a joking email to John letting him know that the storm was almost there. He wrote, “Nice knowing you, man….if I don’t make it out, it’s been a good ride…” As the sun went down and the skyline turned from a bluish dusk to pitch black, the storm hit and Matt started to feel panicked – had he prophesied his fate in that email? The rain was torrential and incessant, angrily falling from the sky in heavy sheets and flooding the property. The winds were overwhelmingly powerful and ferociously loud, shaking the trailer with immense force, frightening Matt to his core. All the windows in the trailer had rusted open after a year in the salt air, and the wind and rain barreled inside, creating a swirling chaos in the trailer. Matt raced around trying to shut the windows, but his efforts were futile. Hurricane Ignacio was inside the trailer – breaking glasses, whirling beach sand, and frightening the whining new puppies. His internet service was soon cut off and his solar system ran out of battery power, leaving him disconnected and in total darkness. He tried in vain to light candles, but it was impossible to keep a match lit – the wind and rain were omnipresent.
1Satellite Image of Hurricane Ignacio
Utterly alone, afraid, and soaking wet, he had been a fool to disregard the hurricane warnings. He was unprepared in every way – not only was he without extra food, water and supplies, but he did not know a thing about the behavior of hurricanes. How long would this last? A few hours or days on end? As his thoughts began to spiral, he focused on a single terrifying thought – could the ocean surge? Could a huge wave rush up the beach and sweep the trailer out to sea? Would he be just a tin can bobbing out in the middle of the Pacific? This fear terrorized him for the rest of the night.
Sleep was not in the realm of possibilities. The hurricane’s 110 mph winds blasted through the trailer with the ferocity and deafening volume of a freight train, rain poured in the open windows, and, along with Matt’s overwhelming fear of being swept out to sea, it was the longest night of his life. He remained intensely vigilant, using a flashlight to check the level of waves every ten minutes, reassured for the short term that the ocean was not yet a threat to him. He was thankful for the company of Molly, her puppies, and Danny Cat – at least he had someone to talk to throughout the night, even if the panic in their eyes made him feel uneasy. When his flashlight ran out of batteries in the middle of the night, there was nothing he could do except wait, curl up on the bed in a fetal position, and hope for the best.
Miraculously, as dawn began to break, the winds calmed. Matt cautiously stepped out of the trailer, wary of flying debris, and soon leaped for joy when he saw that the weather outside was quiet and peaceful. He let all the animals out for a few moments and breathed a huge sigh of relief. But, the respite was short-lived as the winds soon began to intensify and swirl again, quickly escalating to the same force as the night before. Figuring that the eye of the storm had passed over him, he was sickened at the thought of having to endure a second phase of the hurricane. Sleep-deprived and battered from the storm, he was zapped of every ounce of energy he had.  He had operated throughout the night on pure adrenaline, forgetting to eat, drink, or take deep breaths. Suddenly famished, he knew he had to step outside his fear to take care of himself. He opened his last can of tuna and ate it out straight from the can, shielding his meager meal from the wrath of the Ignacio. As he ate, and regained a sense of strength, his confidence was buoyed by the basic fact that he had survived the night in complete darkness and was mildly encouraged that the next round of the storm would be during daylight hours. The storm raged on for another eight hours and Matt witnessed every second of it.
Stepping out of the trailer that afternoon, it was time to survey the damage of Hurricane Ignacio. The campsite was a disaster – the winds had blown away parts of their solar system, the BBQ was toppled over and covered in sand and their outside patio furniture was piled in a broken heap. Matt walked around and was most shocked to see that the storm had sandblasted off all the paint on the north side of the trailer – it looked naked with its shiny aluminum body exposed, rather than dressed in the white and blue paint that he was accustomed to. He let the animals out of the trailer, and, in honor of them all surviving Hurricane Ignacio, named two of the puppies Inga and Iggie.
He walked through the wet, saturated dunes down to the stalled construction site and was delighted to see that the Villa weathered the storm like a true champion – other than being wet, it was untouched. For all the thought they’d put into positioning the house, and all the money they had sunk into its foundation, it had paid off. The Villa was the safe strong fortress Matt and John had intended it to be.
After surviving the hurricane, Matt was so exhausted from the ordeal that he could not fathom starting the clean-up process. Just the thought of it brought on an overwhelming compulsion to leave the property and head into town. He needed to feel the comforts of civilization and recover from the trauma of the experience. He hitched a ride into town on a passing 4×4 truck (the only way to pass through the washed out and flooded roads) and checked into a hotel to dry out, recover and recharge.
A few weeks later, in September 2003, the weather service predicted that another hurricane, Marty, would hit Todos Santos. Barbara’s warnings of an intense hurricane season were right on point. Even though John was now back in town and Matt would have a buddy with whom to ride out the storm, Matt could not stomach the idea of having another panic-filled, sleepless night weathering a second hurricane. Since the storm was headed up the Pacific side of the Peninsula, they figured they could outsmart Mother Nature and avoid the hurricane by driving to La Paz, located on the Sea of Cortez. They were both excited at the idea of escaping Todos Santos and enjoying hotel amenities – air conditioning, television and a swimming pool. After settling into their hotel rooms and tuning into games on ESPN, the power suddenly cut out. They could not believe their ears when the concierge reported that Hurricane Marty had changed course and was now headed straight for La Paz. So much for their brilliant idea of leaving Todos Santos…
Over the next day or so, Hurricane Marty hammered La Paz with 100+ mile winds and immense flooding, leaving them without power or water. In turn, all the stores and restaurants were closed (including the one in their hotel) and they were deprived of all the creature comforts that they had hoped to have in La Paz. The cruel irony that Hurricane Marty skipped right over Todos Santos was like salt in an open wound. Had they stayed in Todos, they could have reveled in the luxuries of TV, internet, and most importantly, ice cold beers and white wine.
inner-page-gallery.fwThe Path of Hurricane Marty – follows the Sea of Cortez, right through La Paz
Even when the hurricane subsided, they were stranded in La Paz for days because the flood waters had washed out the tiny highway and filled the arroyos, making a drive back to Todos Santos impossible (this was before the construction of the amazing four lane highway that now connects La Paz to Todos Santos). Instead of the escape Matt was hoping for, he now had two hurricane notches on his belt.
After a crazy hurricane-filled summer, the rest of 2003 and beginning of 2004 passed in relative calm. Matt and John continued to travel back and forth to San Diego, working on their remodels, and enjoying life at Hobo Heaven and Rancho Santa Cruz in Todos Santos. Always struggling to find their financial footing, they lived simply and had to contain any grandiose visions they had of one day finishing construction of the Villa project that stalled the year before. At the moment, their only option was to keep their heads down, work hard, and wait for the next opportunity to come their way. Life was seemingly uncomplicated, for the first time in a long time, but, of course, it would not last…
In mid-2004, Richard Rutowski (the Real Estate agent who had brokered the deal when Matt and John bought Rancho Santa Cruz), telephoned with an interesting proposition – he had a client who was interested in buying the south 30 meters of beachfront property at Rancho Santa Cruz. Matt and John were elated! Since taking possession of the property in 2002, they had always had such disparate opinions of the property. On one hand, they viewed the land as more of a burden than an asset. The land was so raw and they constantly struggled to make improvements, the lettuce and poblano chile farming venture was a disaster and their construction project was stalled indefinitely. They never saw the land as a “saleable” asset because, to them, it was a hunk of dirt that caused more pain than happiness. On the other hand, when they looked beyond the day to day struggle and considered the big picture, they romanticized the land and felt a deep connection to it – it was their dream come true. They had grand visions of what the land would one day become, and could not imagine selling off any part of this dream. So, for two very different and conflicting reasons, they had never contemplated selling a single acre. But, now, in a financial pinch, it was a miracle to realize that they were sitting on a pile of cash – if they could sell just a few acres of land, it would be an easy solution to their financial woes. Even though Richard’s client’s interest fizzled and she did not end up making an offer, the word was out that they were willing to sell.
Soon after, they had interest in the same stretch of beachfront from a surfer guy, Mason Maddock, who was a regular at the La Pastora surf break, just a 10 minute walk down the beach from Rancho Santa Cruz. Friends in town introduced Mason to Matt and John and, at first glance, the deal seemed promising. Mason, although relatively young in his mid-30s, appeared to have quite a bit of money – he was connected to people who owned fast food franchises around the world. Even though he was a tad cocky and arrogant, Matt and John were willing to put with those personality flaws to escape their tenuous financial situation.
The deal was progressing nicely and Matt and John were optimistic that they would actually walk away with some real money. They were shocked when Mason offered a price for 40 meters of beachfront (a small sliver of the 226m they owned) that was close to what they had paid for all 45 acres just 3 years ago when they bought Rancho Santa Cruz. They were incredulous! They had not realized that by jumping in the deep end and buying the land back in 2001, that it was appreciating each day and they were making money while they slept. They felt so vindicated – for all their struggles to buy the land, all their emotional and financial ups and downs with the lettuce and poblano chile farm, and their constant worry over making ends meet, it was finally paying off. They’d sell a small piece of land, still have over 40 acres to their name, and real cash in the bank. With just a bit of negotiation, Matt and John accepted Mason’s offer and they entered escrow. Mason paid a $50,000 deposit and Matt and John were thrilled to have spending money again.
That was the end of good news. Regardless of the fact that the property was still in escrow and that Mason did not yet have title to the land, he behaved as if the deal was long closed. He hired a small crew to start making landscaping changes on “his” property – hacking through the green mangroves that Matt and John had so carefully protected throughout their tenure at Rancho Santa Cruz. Matt and John were horrified that their soon to be neighbor had so little respect for the native vegetation around them and quickly put a stop to all his premature landscaping projects. Matt and John questioned their decision to sell to Mason – while they were desperate for cash, was this really the type of neighbor they wanted in the long run? Were his true colors showing through?
As the weeks passed on, the deal stalled. Mason had a litany of excuses for avoiding paying the necessary closing costs (i.e. appraisal, notary fees), effectively preventing escrow from moving forward. With a little bit of digging, Matt and John learned that Mason had talked a big game, but did not actually have funds in place to complete the Rancho Santa Cruz sale; rather, he was intentionally delaying the process because he needed more time to come up with the rest of the cash. Had Mason been transparent with Matt and John, they would have been willing to extend deadlines or structure a payment plan for him. But, Mason’s attitude turned hostile, rude and uncooperative – qualities Matt and John absolutely did not want in a next door neighbor. And so, in order to save the feel of Rancho Santa Cruz, they decided it would be best to cancel the deal with Mason and return his $50,000. The only catch was that they had already spent that money and had nothing to give back. They needed to find a substitute buyer – fast.
One day soon after, John was talking to a neighbor, a long time organic farmer in the area, and mentioned the nightmare of an escrow deal that they had just backed out of. The neighbor was surprised to hear that Matt and John were up to sell a stretch of their beach frontage and told John that his business partner was eager to buy something near the La Pastora surf break. In a matter of days, Matt and John negotiated with the neighbor’s business partner, agreed on a price, and the new buyer sent a deposit of $50,000 that Matt and John immediately turned over to Mason Maddock to pay him back.
With Mason out of the picture, they felt relieved and saved from their own naïveté. Looking back on their dealings with him, they realized they did not even know his plans for the property – he could have built condos right on their pristine beach (the horror!). Always too trusting and open, this experience taught them that they had to be street smart, rather than blindly assuming that it would “all just work out.” Luckily, they had dodged a bullet, and chalked up the experience to a cheap life lesson.
Now, working with the new buyer, it was of utmost importance to Matt and John that any newcomer that bought a piece of Rancho Santa Cruz share their same vision. This new buyer was a perfect fit – as a New Zealand native, he loved the “off the grid,” low-density, rustic quality of the property and, as an organic produce distributor in the United States (his connection to the neighbor) who loved to surf, Matt and John knew they had made the right decision to get rid of Mason Maddock. The buyer had no current development or building plans, rather he intended to rent his land out for organic farming purposes, with dreams of one day building a vacation home for his family on the property. He knew the land was special, and stretched his wallet to buy the property now because he knew the pricing in the area would only increase as the years passed on. From beginning to end, the deal flowed smoothly, closed on time, and put money back in Matt and John’s pockets.
Matt and John had weathered the storms Mexico had thrown at them (literally and figuratively) and their future in Todos Santos looked bright. They were excited to restart the Villa construction project that had been at a standstill for 1.5 years and finally had the funds in place to move forward. Was their perseverance finally paying off? Had they learned enough from their time in Mexico to avoid future disasters?  Only time will tell…

Check the Blog again soon to learn how Matt & John resumed construction at the Villa, created all the amazing design elements, and furnished it to boot!