SARAH GRAY MILLER
New York City to Athens, NY
Tucked behind a tall fence in the dusty stretches of the Mojave, just a short drive away from Joshua Tree, California, you find Sara and Rich Combs’ renovated 1940s desert oasis. Their love affair with the desert began in 2011, when the couple began escaping there from San Francisco on the weekends. Those transformative getaways inspired them to buy an investment property in town and renovate it using their distinctive design sensibilities. The home quickly became such a popular AirBnB destination that they rarely had the opportunity to stay there themselves.
In 2013, craving a new adventure, Rich and Sara left their full-time web designer jobs and began freelancing. This freelance flexibility allowed them to work from the road and they embarked on a world tour, finding inspiration in the places they visited and the people they met along the way. Upon returning to San Francisco, they settled back into routine and continued escaping to Joshua Tree whenever their property was free. With a steady stream of rental income and little opportunity to enjoy their desert getaway, they began exploring the idea of buying a second property so they might actually be able to spend more time there. The promise of a breathtaking cactus garden is what initially piqued their interest on their now home.
The listing photographs of the gardens were so beautiful they couldn’t help but take a tour, even though it wasn’t in the price range they had initially imagined. Sara and Rich’s parents, who were in town visiting, came along for the ride. As soon as they walked through the gate they knew they had stumbled onto something truly special. The property offered a large open floorplan hacienda with vaulted ceilings and ample natural light, and a smaller, but equally open and light-filled, casita. Although it was in desperate need of some major aesthetic renovations, the bones of the place were great and the well-established landscaping was incredible. Their parents, also charmed by the place, encouraged Sara and Rich to take the risk and go out of their comfort zone to invest in this unique home.
In order to offset renovation costs, they opened up their personal home for photoshoots and next door casita for overnight stays. It took nearly a year and a half to renovate the two buildings. Looking back, they say it was both the best and toughest times they’ve experienced. They renovated the Casita first for rental income, and lived in the Hacienda as they renovated the space. Most of the renovations they did themselves, learning a myriad of valuable skills as they went. They documented their renovation process on Instagram and quickly amassed a loyal following of people who loved their design sensibilities. By the end, they had created something together that they were proud of, a sanctuary in the desert for people looking to reflect, reset and create.
Guests flocked to The Joshua Tree house in droves and the couple began spending more and more time there. Seeing how transformative and rejuvenating these spaces were for their city-dwelling visitors, Sara and Rich found it increasingly difficult to head back to San Francisco themselves. In early 2016, they decided to throw caution to the wind and move permanently to their Joshua Tree home. At first they weren’t sure if moving away from the city would mean that their freelance design opportunities would dry up, but they were willing to hustle even harder to make it possible to live in the desert full time. Serendipitously, Sara and Rich found that their move actually presented them with more varied creative freelance opportunities, not less. Brands and businesses began hiring them not only to do web design, but also consult on interior design and space build outs. In the last year alone they’ve designed commercial spaces such as the Assembly in San Francisco, and authored their first book At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living. When not working on brand and design projects, Sara and Rich can be found exploring the myriad of trails in the National Park, adventuring in their vintage International Harvester Scout and sharing the serenity they’ve found in the Mojave with their evolving door of guests at The Joshua Tree House. For this couple, escaping to the rural expanses of the desert full time was a gamble well worth taking.
How did you two meet?
We initially met in high school. My best friend had moved to Rich’s town (30 mins away from my hometown in Connecticut). My best friend and I would sit and chat with boys together from both of our schools online, and Rich happened to be one of them! You could say we were one of the first couples to find each other online!
Why did you decide to leave San Francisco?
While we still appreciated the city itself, we found ourselves feeling a lack of creative energy there. We’ve always loved contrast—knowing we loved living in the middle of everything, we had a feeling we would love living in the middle of nowhere as well. After a road trip to guide us on our next move (physically, emotionally, spiritually), we couldn’t get Joshua Tree out of our minds.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
It was toughest for us to make the decision to leave our rent controlled apartment in San Francisco. It was a beautiful spot, and we had a lot of great memories there. We also knew if we let that low rent rate go, we would never get it back. Though, when we asked ourselves whether we wanted to live there forever, the answer was no. So we thought, why wait to make the change? Plus, it was nice to leave while the memories of our time there were still sweet.
The challenges that arose once we actually got to Joshua Tree were much different. We had never owned or had the responsibilities of taking care of a house before. The desert can be an unforgiving place, and various storms taught us a lot about resilience. We dealt with pipes bursting, roof leaks, and how much it can cost to effectively heat and cool an environment with such extreme temperatures. After two years of full-time life here, we’ve come out feeling much stronger.
Do you feel like living in a rural area has presented you with more creative/work opportunities or less?
From our perspective, life in a rural area has offered us more opportunities. This is not in the traditional sense of more opportunity being here in the desert itself, but with a lower cost of living we’ve been freed up to work on projects that truly excite us. The more we’ve gotten on that path of designing from our souls, more opportunities arise around what we truly love. We live in a time where even while living in ‘the middle of nowhere’, we have access to endless creative communities through social media, etc. It’s really incredible how connected we still feel living in a rural area.
How do find balance between work life with home life here?
This has definitely been a challenge for us, as we work from home. The main area of our home is open to our dining room, living room, and kitchen, so it can truly be easy to get distracted. During the day, we turn our dining table into our work area, and once we move over to the kitchen and living room our work day is done. These spaces serve as imaginary lines between our work and personal lives. Our goal for this year is to build a small studio adjacent to our house so that we can further separate the two.
We also make a point to get outside at the very least for sunset everyday. Taking those evening hikes through the boulders refreshes us endlessly.
What advice do you have for people dreaming of leaving the city behind?
Rural life offers many of the extremes that city life does, and with that intensity in some ways it doesn’t feel like as much of a disconnect as one might initially think. Our lives here have generally functioned in the same way as they did in the city, but the views as we go from point A to B are certainly different.
As with anything, there’s a learning curve to a new way of life. The past two years have simultaneously been the hardest and the best of our lives. I would say to expect an intensity in that shift from city to rural, but accept and enjoy the learning process. You will be stronger for it.
What do you appreciate the most about the life you’ve created here in the desert?
Our connection to the sun has relieved so much anxiety. Taking cues from nature on when to wake up, when to pause, and when to rest again have us on a cycle that feels both healthy and natural.
We also love our small community here. Because there are fewer people, we feel we’ve been able to make deeper connections with those around us. So many people have come here to live out their dreams, and create what they were meant to. There’s endless inspiration flowing through this place that we get to soak up on a daily basis.
How did you find your Joshua Tree House and how long has it taken you to transform it into how it looks now?
We now own three homes here in Joshua Tree, two of which we rent out, and one that we live in full-time. Our personal home we found while visiting our first rental home over Thanksgiving in 2015. We saw photos of it online and initially fell in love with the garden. We knew we had to go see it, so we went and to tour it with our families. When even my parents were floored and told me I had to get this place, we went all in. It was then that we decided to move full-time to Joshua Tree (essentially so that we could see this garden everyday).
We renovated the guest house first, which took us about four months. Then we began renovating our house, which took almost nine months! The renovation process slowed down significantly since we were renovating our house while living in it. Visits from friends and family created long pauses in our renovation work, and made it so progress had to be undone sometimes in order to host.
What advice do you have for someone interested in generating an income (or offsetting their mortgage) with short term rental properties?
There are a lot of ways to go about this, but for Rich and I, this part of our income is a passion as well. We love having full control of designing spaces and creating an experience for guests to reset, reflect, and create. It’s certainly not entirely passive income, but we’ve loved hosting our two rental homes through Airbnb.
Unless you have a full-time manager, messaging, maintenance, and toilet paper runs can take over your life. We’ve recently taken on some help to refocus our time and get us back to a focus on designing.
What surprised you most about living full time in the desert?
It seems a little silly now, but that life in the desert is not a vacation. I had previously associated rural areas with a break, or a retreat. Living our daily lives here is of course not the same. No matter the location, things still go wrong, and work gets stressful. Being surrounded by nature certainly helps us through those times though!
What is your favorite time of year here?
Oh, that’s really tough. We’ve really enjoyed every season here, and how different they all are. We previously lived in San Francisco where it’s basically Fall all year round, so the change in season has been really refreshing. If I had to pick though, I would say Spring is my favorite season here. All of the cacti bloom in different shades of pinks and yellows, and the weather is perfect for lots of hiking.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
Rural life does not come with convenience. After living in cities for so long, we were used to walking to corner markets and having a surplus of apps and sites that would deliver anything we needed at our whim. Life here has made us much more appreciative of those conveniences.
Would you ever consider moving back to the city?
I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question. For now though, we can’t imagine living anywhere else but here in Joshua Tree.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the desert? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
We get a lot of questions about how we get food out here. Though we’re in the desert, we’re still only about a 15 minute drive in either direction to major grocery stores, and we have our local farmer’s market and health food store just down the road.
We feel much more connected to the land and community living in this small un-incorporated town. We have yet to feel lonely with a wonderful and creative community around us ready for a hike or a campfire at any moment.
Do you have any favorite places you would recommend to someone wanting to come explore your area?
Some favorite spots in Joshua Tree National Park are Indian Cove, the Cholla garden, and North View Trail. We also love the Noah Purifoy Outdoor museum, Sky Village Swap Meet, and bkb Ceramics for inspiration and shopping. Our favorite spots for a bite to eat are la Copine, Pappy & Harriet’s (great for a show too), and Country Kitchen.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
We’ve been writing a lot so far this year in hopes of creating more content for those interested in a slower pace of living, with a focus on everyday moments.
We’re also hoping to do a bit of traveling - Morocco and Japan are on our list!