My idea of a digital nomad: running an international business from my computer in a country where I could afford to have a small cottage by the sea.
After returning from my seven-year stint abroad in Norway, I thought I would stay in the USA until I got my editing and writing business going and then leave to live on a beach somewhere. If I chose the right country, I could probably even afford someone to cook and clean for me, although I’m mostly interested in the warm water, the fresh produce, the diving and the freedom to focus on my art.
What did I do? I chose to live near family in Southern California, one of the most expensive areas in the county to live in. I had already lived in northern California for a decade before I moved to Norway. I thought, “Why not? I can try living in southern California since my work is on my computer.”
I don’t have the cottage by the sea. I do have an apartment across the street from the ocean. I even had a view of the ocean until I gave up my first apartment a few years ago to take a renovated one in the same building.
Even though I don’t have the economical cottage by the sea in a tropical foreign land, I get around with my computer. I can travel to wherever is convenient for my family at Christmas or other holidays. I can babysit for family at the last minute. I’ve edited scientific literature from a train in Germany, on international flights, and from a small resort on a remote island in Indonesia. All I need is an internet connection to receive the work and then to return it to my client.
I can also watch your dog and your house while you go on vacation.
I’m not any sort of pet whisperer. I’ve never even had a pet. Not even the goldfish won at the fair. And I don’t have a history of luck with the ones that don’t belong to me. I finally realized why I contracted three sinus infections in just the first year and a half I lived in a house which had thirteen cats at one point. And once a German shepherd raced across a stranger’s yard, jumped up and bit me while I was riding my bike. He left a perfect ring of teeth marks on my thigh that swelled up into a small mountain range of blue and purple turning into yellow and green over the next several weeks.
But the house of cats changed my perspective on pets. Because I fell for a kitten.
He was the offspring of a stray cat we took in just long enough for her to wean her babies and get spayed. He was the only one of her seven kittens that wasn’t adopted.
I couldn’t understand why. He was fluffy with long black fur and long whiskers, some of which extended out over his eyes and above his head. He moved like a robot and he loved to play in the kitty litter, which collected on his hair and whiskers like they were Velcro.
I called him Mutant because he also had five toes. When my brother came to town once, he heard me say Newton, so the kitten became Newton the Mutant. I would open the door to the cat room in the morning and he would poke his head out, kitty litter dangling on the ends of his hair, like a sea urchin with the collected bits of sea floor junk attached to its spines.
House sitting has many advantages beyond petting the dogs and the cats. You immerse yourself in another environment, and even a little change helps to stimulate new ideas. Sometimes there’s a car, and sometimes there’s an orchard with oranges or grapefruit, or at the neighbors. And my favorite reason, there’s always a washing machine.
My trip starts with a commuter bus ride to Union Station in Los Angeles, a renovated building from the early part of the 20th century designed in Mission Moderne, a fusion of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival and Art Deco, and home to many without homes. I go there to take an Amtrak train to Solana Beach. In between Los Angeles and Solana Beach, you are treated to some of the best scenery the West Coast has to offer if you sit on the right side of the train. A couple miles after the train leaves the San Juan Capistrano station, the track swings out onto the coast and you whip by surfers, the beach and the ocean for a 50-mile stretch of an unhindered view of the reasons people migrate from across America to Southern California.
I have a ridiculous ritual of taking photographs of scenes from the window of a speeding train. But I’m compelled to do it. I have just a second to photograph my favorite scene, a pair of palm trees just south of the San Clemente Pier, growing towards each other like a romantic couple. Once in about five or six trips, I capture a full frame image of the trees with the pier in the distance. Otherwise, I get a photo with the camera focusing on the muddy raindrops dried onto the window.
The difficult part of the journey is getting up early to catch the commuter bus. But it’s too convenient not to take the bus. The stop is one block from my house, and the last stop is Union Station. At that time of the day, the bus arrives at Union Station within an hour. I can’t drive there faster or for less than 2.50USD. Once I catch the bus, the rest is up to fate, whether the train is on time or not. Amtrak is more of a sure thing than I-5 in a car, but I was once delayed by a couple of hours when the earlier train hit a camper home stuck on the tracks. No one was hurt, but the contents of their home had exploded out over the rails.
The home owner, the husband of a friend from graduate school, picked me up at the Solana Beach train station to take me to their Tesla and solar-powered neighborhood about 10 miles inland from the ocean. Their home resides on a more generous-sized property in a small contemporary American town less than a mile to an array of average strip malls packed with US franchises, Five Guys, Starbucks, Subway, and even Michael’s. I don’t need the car they’ve allowed me to borrow; I can walk.
I think it will be all OK until I see the small clouds of pet hair floating across the floor like tumbleweeds in the desert and am reminded of those three sinus infections I got living with the cats.
I have one day before the family leaves to become familiar with their menagerie, two dogs and two cats. I house sat once before for one of the dogs and both cats. The new dog is a two-year old rescue they adopted just before the lockdown after they lost an older dog. She was the reason I was there a day and a half before they took off on their European adventure.
Her eyes naturally tattooed with black eyeliner stand out against her golden colored short hair leave no question as to why they name her Nefertiti. She’s a mix of Belgian malamute, French bulldog and assorted other dog breeds based on the DNA sequencing performed by my friend, a brilliant scientist. Her stunning beauty has a single fault, a floppy left ear that makes you want to reach out and pet her. But she doesn’t let me. She’s skittish, either it’s her genes or her life before she came to this home.
The husband gave advice on how to handle her. “Just don’t look at her,” he said.
“OK,” I said, as if I thought that advice was going to help.
The family, a mother, a father and a daughter, departed on a Friday afternoon, leaving me with enough Thai food leftovers to last me the next three days and permission to pick the giant navel oranges off the neighbor’s trees. All I had to do that day was feed the dogs dinner. I remember laying my head down on the pillow and thinking day 1, I’ve got 19 more to go.
The next morning I got up early to walk the dogs. As soon as the older dog Duke, another rescue mix, heard the hall closet door open, he ran over waiting for me to leash him up for the walk. Nefertiti slinked over, ear flopping, to check out what was going on and then ran the instant I brought the leash towards her.
Duke and I left without her. When we returned, Nefertiti was right behind the door poking her nose out through the opening, sniffing. She sat, I put the leash around her and all three of us went back out for a short walk. But she did keep her eye on me.
The next morning she ran from me when I got Duke ready for the walk. I couldn’t trick her into coming with us when we returned after a brief walk around the cul-de-sac before we left for the hills.
We performed this dance every morning and every evening before I took Duke out for his walks the next several days. In between, I tried to woo her with treats. I sat down when I approached her so I would not tower over her at five feet one inch. I googled how to befriend a skittish dog. I texted my friends who had dogs.
She wasn’t having any of it.
During the day, if I walked by Nefertiti in her day bed, she would get up and run. Delivery trucks triggered a dash out the door and a refrain of barking until the threat disappeared. The yard is big, so I didn’t worry about her getting exercise. Still, I felt guilty about not taking her out for walks. I love to walk myself and looked forward to having a buddy.
After a few days, I noticed she didn’t jump when she was in her sleeping bed in the master bedroom. So I took a chance one day and approached her with the leash when she was there. She let me put the leash around her neck. That was all I needed to do. She popped up out of her bed, and we walked out the door together.
It was too easy.
She’s young, so I headed out on a longer more rigorous path up in the California hills behind the house. I could tell she was anxious. She walked, crouched to the ground, her tongue hanging out and her breathing rapid and loud. But she didn’t stop to piddle on every weed or to detect every molecule left behind on our path by any mammal in the history of the Earth.
I was beginning to enjoy the walk. I talked to her, giving her encouragement, and she followed my commands.
And then we descended the hill a mile from the house close to a major roadway and traffic. Suddenly I was standing there with a leash in my hand and no dog on the other end of it. Nefertiti stood on the sidewalk several feet away from me, with a proud look on her face. I held up the leash, expecting to see a malfunction. No, the leash hung limp, intact. She had slipped her sleek, delicate head right out of the collar.
Reality hit me as she stared back at me beyond my reach while cars sped past us. I sat down on the curb leading into a small development in a futile attempt to woo her to me.
I hesitated just a moment and then dialed 911. I was terrified she would run into traffic, cause an accident and get killed.
My emergency was a dog, and 911 is for humans. The 911 operator told me to call animal control. Animal control gave me a voicemail.
Calling for help was a useless effort. The dog was gone. All I saw was the direction she ran in, back up into the hills we just came down from. I must have sounded like I was dying on the message I left, as I climbed back up the hill. Another hiker I came across had seen her, and he pointed to where she had been.
There was nothing more I could do except go home. I had some minor hope she would be there when I arrived, as she disappeared in that direction. But I was worried about her getting lost and the coyotes finding her.
Right at that moment, my sister-in-law texted, “How are things going?”
I phoned her in response to relay my crisis. I was breathless, giving my sister-in-law a blow by blow of the distance ahead of me before I reached home.
“I’m almost there. I’m almost there,” I huffed and puffed.
Finally, I could see to the front door. There she was cool and calm, resting in the shade near the front door. She was like the kid who disappears in a shopping center only to be at the car when you get there.
I was angry. Then I thought, “What a smart dog.” Then I realized I hadn’t died chasing after her, which was a bit like trying to swim after sharks while scuba diving.
I was done trying to court her. I decided I would leave her alone, let her come to me. The yard was big enough for her to run around in, and the chorus of coyotes at night triggered enough activity to fulfill any daily requirement for exercise.
I thought, “I’m not going to bother with her for my walks with Duke.”
One day, I gave into my pride. I tried the trick of putting the leash around her when she was on her sleeping bed in the master bedroom.
Then I put a second leash on her.
Again she popped up out of the bed and we took a long walk together.
Every day after that the three of us went out for two walks each day together. I loved those walks. The three of us walked further than when it was just Duke and I. Duke, although older and slower, survived the more intense walks, and the rabbits stimulated all of Nerfertiti’s senses. She would point and try to run after them, but I had two leashes on her now.
She became more relaxed in the house. She started to just watch me walk by, nestled in her day bed, and she would wait outside my door in the morning and jump up tail wagging when I opened it. She even got cheeky and started to bump me with her wet nose for treats throughout the day.
I never told the owners that she slipped out of the leash. I didn’t want them to worry while they were away. And by the time they had returned, I wanted to take Nerfertiti home with me.
The rest of the time during the days, I worked on projects from clients, I painted and I read novels.
I said to my sister-in-law while I was there, “I do all the same stuff I do every day at home, except I get paid to do it.”
Check out my new collection of travel essays “postcards to me” available on Amazon for Kindle or iBooks.