Text & Photos—Catherine Bernier
During the pandemic, operations are limited in the ER at Santa Paula Hospital. Surgical assistant Ross Monroe is taking advantage of the societal slowdown to put the finishing touches on a project—he’s converting his backyard into a space of collective self-sufficiency, where friends with camper vans and tiny houses can live intentionally.
His most recent project, a tiny house set up on the trailer of a logging truck from 1949, is the result of a collaboration with friends, none of whom are carpenters by trade. They work several feet apart, or they take turns. Learning to build one’s own little nest from second-hand materials makes so much sense in today’s context. Ross, his girlfriend Danielle and their friends were inspired to live in a community where their values will finally be embodied and shared. Soon, chickens and goats will be part of the community, and the garden will be enlarged to leave enough room for the already-laden lemon trees. A few bushes charred by flames from 2017’s Thomas Fire which ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara, stand as a reminder of both the impermanence and resilience of life.
An avid surfer and seasoned traveler, Ross likes being comfortable and ready for anything when he goes camping. Hence his interest in the transformation of camper vans and the construction of tiny houses.
What ignited your interest in renovation, especially camper van conversions and building tiny houses? How did you learn?
I have always been motivated to create, and am always looking for an excuse to do something with that energy. I think this all began when I realized my desire to camp/travel while having everything you need to be prepared for any environment. I love traveling in some sort of “adventure-mobile,” and I don’t think you really need to sacrifice too much comfort to do so.
I am mostly a self-taught builder, although I inherited much of my creative ingenuity from the paternal branches of my family tree. My much more experienced friends have been a pillar of support too; I have been taken under many wings.
Why did you eventually choose to make Santa Paula your home?
I bought my property in August 2018 from a good friend of a friend. I chose to plant my roots in Santa Paula because I’ve fallen in love with the area, and more specifically its people. Santa Paula is a magical place that sneaks blissfully under the radar. It’s a quiet, mostly Hispanic, agriculturally-based town, which has a small hospital on the hill where I spend my days in the operating room. Being on my property in Santa Paula and looking into the mountains has brought me immeasurable peace.
Tell us more about what’s going on in your backyard.
Currently we have two dear friends living in their creatively outfitted vans, one couple living in their tiny home on wheels, and a few folks in the main house. Sounds like a cult, because it is! Only kidding, but communally, we have grown into a special group of people happily sharing the space. On any given day, there are friends building, fixing, or creating something new. We are also building a tiny home on the flatbed of a 1949 Studebaker truck, once used as a forestry truck in the depths of the Oregon woods. She won’t run for the remainder of her life, but we think she’s found quite the resting place. It will be a fully contained, 240-square-foot studio with just about as many windows as we can structurally install. We also have an outdoor shower buried within a cluster of citrus trees, a garden and wood shop in the works, and a few goofy pups that keep us smiling
How has the Covid-19 crisis affected your community and your projects?
This pandemic has been both beautiful and haunting for our community. As everyone shelters in place, it feels almost post-apocalyptic. The roads are empty and stores are shut down as a skeleton crew of workers keeps the community alive. Alongside this daunting quietness has come the invigoration of Spring. I think many people, including us, have been able to connect or reconnect with nature as a result; it’s refreshing to see. We’ve been able to complete so many of the small projects that accumulate: cleaning up, picking weeds, organizing tools, etc. Being committed to staying at home has provided a great deal of focus for these tedious chores. We’re also considering raising chickens and goats. I think we’ve all come to realize that we would like to be as self-sufficient as possible, and this Covid crisis has reinforced that immensely.
As for social distancing measures, did you find a way to live all together in your backyard?
We have all been keeping our distance, each doing our own projects, but it’s tough! We love to work closely, sharing tools, lending hands. I work at the hospital so we are all doing our best to be aware of our interactions with each other.
How do you describe a strong community?
I think a strong community is one in which every member constantly feels valued. A collaborative approach to developing community keeps ideas fresh and enthusiasm sustained. I believe any community can be sustainable if change is seen as a driving force. Our vision here is to have a group of people who feel like they are exactly where they need to be.
Is this a growing movement in California?
There is absolutely a need for a national and international movement to create a more affordable and conscious way of living. Rent is out of control in so many parts of the United States, and in a way this has been a catalyst for many people who have now found a way to live more efficiently and with more intention. Fire has devastated so much of California, including large parts of Santa Paula. The housing situation was only worsened by the fires, and I have changed my whole outlook on disaster preparedness and environmental awareness in general. I have close friends who were directly affected by wildfire, and it makes you reconsider what you value most in regards to material possession.
How did you feel in 2017 when the Thomas Fires were approaching your property?
We lived in a different house when the Thomas Fires came through. It was a small house tucked into avocado and citrus orchards on a meandering road deep within Santa Paula’s farmlands. I hardly had cell reception yet miraculously received a call from a friend asking if I was safe from the fires. At that point I stepped onto my porch to get better cell service and saw the roaring fire approaching quickly from about 400 meters [roughly a quarter mile] away. I hurriedly grabbed a few things and my dog, and headed westward to a friend’s house on the coast. We had to twist and turn down the only road out, with fires on either side and winds absolutely howling. It was a surreal feeling to have left so much of our lives abandoned, convinced it would all be just ashes upon our eventual return. That night, we went to sleep with our lurking anxieties and were awoken at 3 a.m. with fires approaching yet again. We packed up quickly, and headed north to Santa Barbara to stay with another close friend. Over the course of the next few days the fires devastated Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. We were eventually given clearance to return home, still not knowing if our house had burned down. Pulling past the burned mailbox and down the driveway, to see our house standing strong was an extraordinarily beautiful moment. We consider ourselves blessed in so many ways, and this was a life changing experience.
Tell us more about the international lifeguarding missions you took part in.
I traveled abroad with an organization called ISLA, which stands for theInternational Surf Lifesaving Association. I got involved because it gave me the opportunity to provide lifeguarding resources and training to significantly underserved beaches where drowning rates are needlessly high. They gave me the chance to lifeguard in Nicaragua, Greece, Macedonia, and Mexico. Many, many crazy events took place throughout these trips, and the experiences taught me the value of using my skillset to provide care for communities that are often overlooked. This translated seamlessly into my current career and beyond.
What is the common thread between your different lives: physician, lifeguard, surfer, runner, and now community leader?
The common threads of the paths I have chosen include a genuine desire to build deep unwavering friendships, to lead by example, and to stay curious. I am here to learn, to build, and to share.
Freelance writer and photographer Catherine Bernier also holds degrees in Counselling Psychology and teaching meditation. She uses her creativity to awaken people to self-awareness, on both the collective and the environmental levels. Originally from Gaspésie, she has a special relationship with the ocean and the vast wilderness that has shaped her relationship to photography from the start. Her refuge, an off-grid cabin in Nova Scotia, allows her to align her values with her passion: surfing!