SQUASH BLOSSOM VINTAGE
Austin, Texas to Gold Country, California
A romantic weekend getaway to Joshua Tree for city dwellers Eric Dean and Gwen Barker ended up changing the trajectory of their lives. Scouring Tripadvisor looking for unique accommodations, the couple found a quiet room at the historic Rimrock Ranch, just a short drive away from the famous Pappy + Harriet's in Pioneertown. When they arrived they found that the manager wasn’t onsite and they were the only guests, giving them complete run of the place. Hiking and exploring the desert by day and drinking beers by night, beneath a canopy of stars, they both felt completely at peace and relaxed for the first time in a long time. At the end of their weekend, Eric turned to Gwen and said “This might sound like a totally crazy idea, but…” and before he could finish his sentence she said, “That we should buy this place and leave city?!” They were completely on the same page. Although Rimrock Ranch wasn’t on the market, they couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the place they were fated to be. Eric and Gwen approached the owner and asked if he would be interested in selling. By stroke of luck, or some divine intervention, the owner said he had actually been considering putting the place on the market, as he was ready for a new project. With zero experience in hospitality, the couple sold their place in Oakland and threw all their cards on the table to become the proud new owners of Rimrock Ranch. The 11-acre ranch was originally built as a weekend retreat for cowboy actors like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. With four rustic cabins, retro-fitted Airstream trailers, a lodge and an architectural masterpiece called the Hatch House, the previous owner had used it mostly as a weekend retreat for him and his friends and it wasn’t his primary income stream. This required Eric and Gwen to quickly ramp up their business to ensure they could continue to make a living now that they no longer had their full-time advertising jobs. Their design background was invaluable when executing a marketing strategy to increase their wedding venue business. They also began promoting Rimrock as a commercial photography and film shoot destination. Although they work longer and harder now than they did in the city it doesn’t feel as much like work. Their spring, summer and fall wedding seasons are fast-paced and intense, followed by a welcomed slow down into the colder months. In the off-season they keep themselves busy riding motorcycles, doing improvement projects on the ranch and tearing down desert roads in Eric’s impressive racing vehicle collection. When the busy season hits there is very little free time and peace to be had. When they need a quick little reminder of why they left the structure and ease of their previous city lives behind, they simply head down to their little off-grid one-room cabin that sits quietly overlooking a beautiful empty expanse of desert. Sitting in their cowboy hot tub they can look up at the stars and breathe it all in. This is an instant reminder that leaving the city and becoming the innkeepers of Rimrock Ranch was the best decision they’ve ever made. (Click here to jump to their interview)
How did you two meet?
We initially met about five years ago in an advertising agency conference room in Chicago. Well, Eric remembers it that way. Gwen remembers meeting Eric in her boss’s office. But, in any case, we were introduced because Gwen had been tasked with producing a difficult project for Eric’s creative team based in San Francisco. As the story would eventually play out over the next year…it turns out her boss underestimated how well Gwen would get along with him. He’s our cupid.
Why did you decide to leave Oakland?
Since our day to day was super urban, we were always craving road trips by truck or motorcycle, renting cabins off the grid, and exploring together.
However, unlike some people, we didn’t move to a rural area, and then figure out how to make a living. We didn’t work remotely, or anything like that. We left because we bought Rimrock Ranch, which was a historical motel and venue space, and the decision to purchase it was the decision to leave. We don’t think we would have left the bay area for quite a while if not for this opportunity to change our lives. Once we realized this way of life was an option, we weren’t willing to live with that “what if?” question for the rest of our lives. We just had to see if we could do it.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
UGH. Actually, the hardest part was the physical move. We closed on the property right before (one week before!) the first wedding of the season. So, we came out with a car full of things that would last us a few weeks to get through the busy season. And then, it took 7 months to really be fully moved out here, mainly because we had to sell Eric’s Oakland house in order to move forward with our plans.
Do you feel like living in a rural area has presented you with more creative/work opportunities or less?
Well, we suppose we are an exception to this question, because a work opportunity was the reason we moved out here. But as a whole, the community here is very creative and very inspiring. But, we are grateful that our creative endeavors fit nicely within our (very long) list of projects for the property.
How do find balance between work life with home life here?
Since tourism is a primary industry in the Joshua Tree area, we find that we welcome mid-week breaks from the weekend hustle. Our biggest struggle is that we live on the property full time, so we are never truly “away from work” when we have the day off. We find we need to be physically removed from the ranch in order to take an honest break. Thank goodness, Palm Springs isn’t too far and tropical drinks and pretty pools are but a short drive away.
What advice do you have for people dreaming of leaving the city behind?
For most people, leaving the city means a major shift from a career you planned to stay in for a long time. The advice we tend to give people is that they should ask themselves if they are truly “okay with” leaving their previous plans behind. You might love moving to the desert, for example, but it might mean you now work at a retail store. Or, it means you are now a handyman. Or, maybe you are part-time and working remotely. In most cases, it means being secure in the choice to “start over” in some regard. If that idea terrifies you—if your identity is wrapped into your job—it might not be the right move for you.
However, if you feel as if you have attained the goals you made for yourself and need a new challenge— an urban exodus certainly is one!
What do you appreciate the most about the life you’ve created here in the desert?
The Community. The Community. The Community.
It’s like nothing I have ever experienced or heard of anywhere else in my life. We help each other to build (and rebuild) when the desert shows us how strong she is, we celebrate together, we figure out desert living together, we ride motorcycles together, we support each other. And, most commonly, we grab a drink at famous Pappy and Harriet's together. It has become our “Cheers” if you will.
What advice do you have for someone interested in moving to country and managing short term rental properties?
If you are thinking of buying a house and renting it out: research how many there already are! We are lucky because we are a motel, but residential short term rentals are a competitive market. We’ve noticed that STRs are seeing more vacancies because there is more competition and tourists have more to choose from. I wouldn’t recommend relying on renting out your property to be able to pay the mortgage.
If you are thinking of having a place like ours—a motel/venue space: be present at your events all the time. Don’t assume guests know anything about the area. When we first took over, we underestimated how much grown adults would surprise us. hahaha. It took a couple busy seasons before we started to understand best practices. We are still learning and evolving, but we find ourselves surprised less and less these days. (knock on wood.)
What has surprised you the most about living full time in the desert?
How weird it is to go back to a city. Traffic, public transportation, etc. We have culture shock the first day of vacation most days now. We have stood on a platform at the BART station reminding ourselves how it works.
What is your favorite time of year here?
Summer. There isn’t anything like a warm desert night.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
The FOOD. We miss the variety—more than one place for a certain kind of food. Between living in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco…we were spoiled with options.
Would you ever consider moving back to the city?
I don’t think so. We now value our time—and it doesn’t seem like there is enough of it in a city.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the desert? What do you want people to know/understand about life in your small community?
We enjoy sharing our community with people. Weddings guests we have here are hypnotized by our desert sunsets—just as we are. They find themselves surprised by how the beauty of the desert impacts them--and that’s so fun to watch for the first time. Watching someone’s stress fade away as they have their coffee in the morning walking around our property is one of the best things to see.
That being said, the desert isn’t a playground. It’s our home. It isn’t easy to live here between hot days, hurricane force winds, fire danger, flash floods, sparse resources, and dust devils that toss your things around. So, there is a degree of “cred” that you build up over the years as you make it through each curve ball the desert throws your way. We just arrived a little under 2 years ago, so we’re still working on building up our “cred.” We live here full time though, and that has helped us to understand why locals (we) feel very protective of this place.
We have a small community and our own little economy, and that’s very special. We all know each other and help each other and work for each other. Buying locally is taken pretty seriously when your friends own the stores, and you know the artists that make the art. We recommend people go to restaurants owned locally and hire locally, etc. A small community can be so rewarding when you see everyone thriving together. Local economies feel like a living, breathing thing in a small town. We never had that direct satisfaction when we lived in a city.
PS, there are the standard things every local wants you to know. So we will reiterate them in hopes to spread the word:
1. Joshua Trees are fragile. Just leave them alone. Don’t walk on them. Don’t slack line on them. Just leave them be.
2. This is not the place for a “bonfire.” It’s actually hardly ever the place for a “campfire.” We are frequently under a “burn ban” because the desert is highly prone to wildfires.
3. Vacant land doesn’t mean public land:) Even though something looks “open” it’s probably owned by someone.
What are your plans/goals for Rimrock Ranch in the coming year?
Oh geez. Something we tell every client is that we have the best intentions to complete projects, but the property tends to throw us a curveball every season. In our immediate plans, however, Eric just began renovating an airstream!