From riches to rags in Roseville

When our writer lost her job, she and her family downsized by selling their car, scavenging blackberries and killing chickens

With their “near cataclysmic drop into poverty,” the Hightower family—from left to right, Larry, Molly, Zeke and Corbyn (not pictured, daughter Rainer), downsized and discovered a richness in their less expensive lifestyle.

With their “near cataclysmic drop into poverty,” the Hightower family—from left to right, Larry, Molly, Zeke and Corbyn (not pictured, daughter Rainer), downsized and discovered a richness in their less expensive lifestyle.

Photo by Wes Davis

Corbyn Hightower is a writer living in Roseville. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post and More magazine. Read more at

It was a mild summer evening when I found myself face to face with a small gray rooster. Joined by a group of fellow Roseville chicken farmers, we stood in our neighbor’s yard and gathered more of its brethren. I took the first bird and, steadying its head, drew my knife and made a strong, swift cut. First, one side of the neck and then the other. I held its body still as the blood drained into a white plastic bucket. Afterward, we worked together cheerfully, plucking feathers and prepping the chickens for cooking. This was someone’s dinner tonight.

Finally, when we were done, I stripped off my gloves and pedaled my bike home, leaving the roosters for my neighbors. Next time, I told myself, I might take home some of the carcasses. This time, I’d just been there to help with the work, to learn, to discover what options I had for feeding my family.

It was hard, too, not to think of how much things have changed. Just four years ago, my husband and I enjoyed an affluent life in Austin, Texas, where we raised three kids, giving them every conceivable comfort and privilege.

That existence, however, started to disappear with frightening velocity in 2008 after the economy crashed, and we all watched as the housing market plummeted and unemployment rates peaked. Closer to home, we felt it as the recession took a hit on our combined six-figure income, a devastation that sent our family into a rapid economic sinkhole—one that ended up requiring a move halfway across the country.

Now our life is radically different. These days, we live in a decrepit old bungalow near downtown Roseville; we’ve sold the family car; and things like harvesting wild berries, bartering with the neighbors and, as it turns out, slaughtering chickens, is part of our daily existence.

From riches to rags

I was 37 when I found out I was expecting my third child. At the time, I was so busy with my sales job that my husband and I easily decided he’d quit his information-technology job to stay home with the kids. I was earning enough money to provide well for us—even if it meant I wasn’t home much. Indeed, sometimes I flew to three or four different cities during the same month, attending conferences, expos and corporate meetings.

It was a great and expensive lifestyle. I sipped on $4 coffee drinks and stayed at fancy hotels. I handed my keys to the valet and always tipped well.

For years, my success was built on the concept of abundance—on the idea that people like having lots of stuff, and I found it easy to convince stores to stock the high-end natural-skin-care products and BPA-free $20 eco-friendly water bottles I was selling.

No one was losing. My clients were almost embarrassingly eager to buy what I was selling no matter how high the cost, and I couldn’t see when or where the gravy train would stop.

Of course, we now all know that the gravy train wouldn’t just come to a stop, it’d badly wreck. In October 2008, the stock market crashed, and, almost immediately, with a surprising suddenness, my retailers stopped—cold—placing orders for expensive, high-end trinkets.

At the time, my husband Larry and I still lived with our three kids—baby Molly, toddler Zeke and school-age Rainer (the latter, my daughter with my ex-girlfriend)—in a tidy, creepily perfect neighborhood in the exurban hinterlands south of Austin.

We tried to make the best of it. This transition, Larry and I decided, meant we’d be able to do something we’d long considered: move back to Northern California where my former partner lived with her girlfriend. For years, we’d co-parented at a distance, with Rainer spending her school years with Larry and me, then flying out to Roseville to stay with Mimi and Patty for summers and some holidays.

Finally, one of my countless job inquiries panned out when I was offered a position in sales similar to the one I’d just watch shrink. This time, however, it was with a much smaller company, covering a limited geographical area with a much less lucrative commission structure. There’d be almost no job support, no budget for promotion, no lavish expense account.

It was, however, located near my ex-girlfriend.

And so we readied to downsize our lives—big time—moving from our pristine Texas suburb into a shabby Roseville neighborhood that was conveniently centered in my sales territory. We rented the largest U-Haul truck our meager bank account could abide—which, as it turned out, was not very large at all—and liquidated everything we could in the world’s most desperate garage sale and then headed west.

We pulled up to our new house on a rainy day in March 2009. We’d picked out the three-bedroom house on Craigslist, sight unseen. Now, as we arrived, what surprised and thrilled me, after years living in our isolated Austin neighborhood, was just how cozy and almost urban it felt. Roseville is, in reality, something of a sleepy suburb, but to us, this colorful little downtown neighborhood seemed downright bustling: The railroad tracks were a few hundred yards away from our small one-way street, and the corner strip of businesses included a mortuary, pawn shop, and a narrow convenience store with two small aisles stacked high with Mexican pastries and cheap wine.

The house itself had a lovely rock facade, a cozy front porch, and an apple tree with blossoms in full flower, its falling petals carpeting the small yard and walkway.

Then, we went inside and were … well, disappointed doesn’t begin to describe it. Cheaply paneled walls, aged carpeting that was a matted and mottled light brown, pebble-textured chalk-white appliances that were likely vintage late-’80s.

On the upside, the house was large but underpriced, which was why we had picked it as a perfect safe harbor for our newly struggling family. Eventually, we’d learn more of the secrets contained within its 100-year-old bones: closet doors that won’t stay closed unless you pick them up by the scruff of their necks to force the issue; rooms with doors so small no furniture, whatever the size, could make it through; a single wall gas unit meant to warm the entire house, which we soon discovered, had become home to a noisy family of doves.

After the Hightowers moved into this large, but shabby rental in Roseville, they made it home by painting it bright colors and decorating with personal, offbeat touches.

Photo by Wes Davis

That first day, we sat inside on the house’s decrepit spiral staircase and snapped a family portrait. Our faces in this photo are tired and apprehensive, the kids seated in a weary cluster at our knees. They had been optimistic, but now our homecoming, after years in suburban posh comfort, seemed a genuine challenge for all of us.

Dude, where’s our car?

Soon, I started my new sales job. I was working for a natural-skin-care line sold in health-food stores—one not established enough to have the kind of devoted clientele that means easy repeated sales.

Looking back over those first few weeks, I can’t remember if the children struggled with the adjustment, or if it was mostly me suffering all sorts of self-doubt.

In an effort to make it all seem like a grand adventure, I exaggerated the lawlessness of it. I let Molly ride her tricycle around the new dining room, mostly because I couldn’t think of a reason why not—because it’s not what we’re supposed to do? Doing what we were supposed to do certainly hadn’t saved us from a cataclysmic drop into near poverty. With that renegade spirit, we hung fairy lights on the front porch, covered the floors with a rainbow assortment of shag rugs, and made thrillingly foolhardy paint-color choices based on what was available on the “cheap mistakes” shelf at the store.

Then, catastrophe visited us. Again. A few months after we arrived in Roseville, the company that hired me outsourced its sales staff. I lost my job, and we were plunged back into crisis mode.

We forged ahead, making reductions in places where it wouldn’t cut so close to the quick. We shopped for necessities—clothes and shoes for the kids, etc.—at thrift stores, kept the cable and home Internet shut off, and told ourselves repeatedly, “It’s temporary.”

Then, Larry landed a low-paying job at a store at the Fountains at Roseville, unpacking and pricing clothing in the back room of a fancy women’s store. We felt like we’d managed to grab the edge of the life raft just as it was drifting away.

Still, we couldn’t close the gaps. So in late 2010, after a couple of years of barely hanging on, we decided to sell the only car we had—both for the cash and for the money it’d save on fuel and upkeep.

Our Honda SUV was only a few years old and paid off. It was the first new car I had ever owned, and, as a traveling salesperson, I’d spent more time in that car than I spent anywhere other than home. After I posted an ad on Craigslist, I felt anger and sadness, then a sense of goddamn it, we don’t need this car; this car doesn’t define me, and it doesn’t define my family.

The safety it represented, I realized, was an illusion. Or rather, the safety it offered now was what it would give financially. Once, I had accepted that this was the best (read: only) solution, the instant, dramatic release of tension felt like a balloon popping.

In fact, we opted to give up on car ownership altogether, and instead spent a small percentage of the selling price to outfit everyone in the family for bike travel. There was something about taking the extreme step of becoming a car-free family that made this feel less like a loss and more like an adventure.

After several panicky days of waiting, we got a serious offer from a young family. I arranged to meet them at the parking lot of a nearby office building. We arrived there after business hours. The prospective buyer—a father, handsome, with a dark complexion—walked around the Honda, feeling for telltale body-repair work. Later that evening, they came to our house and handed us a cashier’s check for the deposit as they prepared to drive off with my family’s last real asset.

Rainer and Molly gave exuberant hugs of farewell to our car’s new owners before they left—as if this little family was made up of long-lost friends whom we’d finally made the time to see.

The sky had a green-gray cast to it, and everything looked and felt just a little different when I walked slowly up the porch steps. I was sad, and yes, a little jealous of this successful young couple that had weathered these tough years better than we had.

Zeke was quiet as he perched himself in front of a small window that overlooks our driveway. He watched as the couple’s toddler son tried to heave himself up into the high vehicle—only to be scooped up by a parent and buckled into his car seat.

Suddenly, Zeke hopped from his vantage point and ran outside to the front porch as the car—the wife behind the wheel—made its way down the street, the father now following behind the Honda in the smaller sedan in which they’d arrived.

I kept gently herding Zeke into the house, trying to discourage him from that moment of loss, but he insisted upon seeing it. He needed to see it, to say it out loud: “They’re taking our car. They’re going to have it now. That’s not our car anymore.”

He was quiet for a moment, thinking, and then: “Are they bringing it back later?”

No, Zeke, they’re not bringing it back.

Molly, 5 (front), and Zeke, 6, have largely adapted to their new, simpler existence.

Photo by Wes Davis

Big changes, little adventures

Larry already had a pretty good bike, but mine was a dilapidated vintage Schwinn in need of replacing. We’d also need a bicycle for Rainer and at least one trailer for the younger children and any cargo I’d need to haul around town. Because it really only rains in the winter here, we figured we didn’t need to worry much about accommodations for bad weather until colder weather hit. Sometimes, you just make the initial big change and adapt as needed.

Go figure: It was raining the day the shop called to tell me that my bike was ready for pickup. I rode the bus the 10 miles to the shop. When I walked in and saw it there, smelling like fresh rubber, I felt a momentary pang of regret in spite of its loveliness.

This was not a car; this was it—my new vehicle.

“You’re going that far in this rain?” the store clerk asked when he learned I’d planned to ride the 10 miles back home.

That was my first experience with the kind of questions that were about to become constant: a strange sort of consternation at our carlessness. The kind of question that made a certain stubborn feeling bubble to the surface. I needed to feel like this was a choice—a brave and adventurous one.

I rode home at dusk in the rain, watching as shopkeepers lit their outside signs, and doors and windows turned into golden-lit rectangles cutting through the thick gray evening. Passing by at a relatively slow speed meant I could really take in these little worlds. The coziness of it all gave me a feeling of euphoria, and when I arrived home and got warm and dry, I enjoyed that simple feeling for the miracle that it was.

I expected certain post-car changes to be immediate, and they were. Once it was really and truly gone, we were much more discriminating about what errands were necessary. Kindergarten drop-off became a new struggle, taking all of us out of the house in the coldest part of the morning. Molly—though small and almost fragile—is ornery and slow to awaken, and can be shrill and unforgiving when crossed. I have found that the best way to deal with her is to utilize the element of surprise: Most mornings, I pull her from bed, as pink and impotent as a mewling kitten, cocoon her in a blanket and—silently and without ceremony—dump her into the bike trailer before she has a chance to bare her fangs.

Other changes were more unexpected. Getting out of the driver’s seat and onto the sidewalk created a surprising shift, as potent as it is hard to explain: It was like wandering into a model-railroad landscape, a diorama, something always seen from a distance. Suddenly, I was integrated into street-level life. Storefronts, parks, tables set up outside of cafes—I was right there with it, and in it. Everything looked different from this new perspective, without my high perch.

It made me feel connected to Roseville to be able to wave into stores at the people we do business with: the gray-haired waiter at the diner whose smiling face always greets us with delighted surprise; Alexis from the grocery store, sitting with her back leaned against the wall, smoking a cigarette on break.

Sometimes, though, I resented having to put on a social face whenever I left home. The big silver chariot with its subtly tinted windows created a barrier between me and the community around me; I didn’t have to smile when I didn’t want to.

I’d also worried about the kids’ response to the huge change. What ended up surprising me most, however, was Rainer’s take on it. Even as an adolscent, with all its accompanying social sensitivities, she wasn’t stigmatized by our family’s economic shift.

No, rather, she was proud.

She focused instead on the cool surprises our new dynamic held. She became a bellwether of eco-family living, and chose to emphasize that to others—and seemingly to herself. She wore the poverty stigma lightly, and when friends visited, she took pride in showing them the joyous color of the make-do world we’ve created from cast-off things. She doesn’t seem defined by the struggles.

I learned they didn’t define me, either. Or, perhaps more accurately, they redefined me. Selling our car radicalized and marginalized us. Now, we were out of the closet as having Blown it Big Time. It was the one thing that we could say that seemed to give everyone pause. We knew many who had let go of cable TV, but we didn’t yet know anyone else who had become a no-car family.

It automatically cast us in a role I didn’t know if I was ready to occupy. People started to rationalize their car ownership to us, saying they lived too far from work or had to carpool too many kids to too many functions. I got used to saying things to make them more comfortable. Now, when we make a new acquaintance, I prepare myself for the chirpy, polite response people give when we say we don’t have a car. It’s like telling people you live in a trailer on the side of the road. They bite back their surprise, try to seem like they’re unfazed, and then when a few minutes pass and the conversation stalls, they furrow their brow: “Really?”

Yes. Really. It’s not a bad thing, though. Sometimes, even, make it an adventure.

Technically, the hike-and-bike trail near our house closes at sundown. We blatantly ignore that. If we need to get home after dark, we take what we’ve come to think of as “Our Trail.” It follows the swells and curves of a nearby creek, hopping over it and back via footbridges. Its banks are covered with oak trees, blackberry bramble, fennel and tall grasses. You can always smell the creek before you see it. In the evening, with only our bike headlights breaking the purple-blackness of the night, we dip and climb with no warning and whoop the downhills that make our bellies drop with surprise.

We are the only family I ever see who rides bikes to Costco, and, once, when we made the 6-mile trip during a downpour, drivers stared at us in the parking lot and nudged their passengers before smiling at us and shaking their heads.

It makes me feel a little defiant, a little proud. It’s just rain, we remind each other. “We’re tough, aren’t we?” the kids say. We bring insulated bags for frozen things. We only buy one really bulky item each time, and we make use of every square inch of the bike’s trailer, and the children hold things on their laps.

Ranier, 13 (middle), isn’t embarrassed by her family’s economic downturn; rather, she’s embraced their newfound thriftiness and creativity.

Photo by In Her Image Photography

On one of our more recent trips, we were lucky enough to catch sight of recently hatched goslings at the creek. Larry saw them first, and when he stopped suddenly on the trail to better see them, I nearly slammed into his bike. Over the last few weeks, he’d noticed a pair of Canada geese acting conspicuously parental, clearly defending an egg cache in the thicket. So when he saw them marching with their newly hatched offspring, he took notice and drew our own (similar) posse to a halt. The frozen foods already softening in our cargo pouches could wait a few minutes more. We unbuckled the gleeful kids and watched for a long time. Since we’d sold the car and started exploring the trail, we’ve observed many generations of ducks and geese come and go. Now, having grown attached to the residents of our trail and its meandering creek, we’re watching this little family closely.

A fruitful abundance

Blackberry bramble grows wild in Roseville. They’re easy to spot, with spreading thorn-covered vines, broad elliptical leaves and tight, chartreuse clusters that, late summer, will mature into soft, darkly purple berries.

It’s hard to buy blackberries: They’re fragile, and you’ll pay a king’s ransom for a half-pint container only to find that by the time you get home, the bottom layer has burst and run with juice.

I’m not sure why more people don’t pick them. Sure, you have to wrangle with fine, prickly thorns that make your skin itch; you must pay attention, too, not to miss the window of time after they’re no longer too sour and before the summer sun has finally shriveled them into hard, black husks.

We pay attention. Over and over, we come across new thickets of them hidden along roadsides or beside the trails. Then, when they finally ripen, it’s time to pile the kids into the big orange gardening wagon. We bring jelly jars, but not big ones—those would mean too much weight on the bottom layers.

When we reach the best spot, we prop a long, wide plank up against the bramble to give access to the higher areas and work, intent and quietly focused.

Once, some teenage boys passed us on the other side of the busy street. They asked us what we’re picking, and then, if they can join us. I glanced over at Rainer to search for signs of embarrassment and, finding none, handed them a jar. I asked, “Did you grow up here?” and am surprised when one answers yes.

I wonder, did their parents not care about blackberries? Because you’d have to actively not care about the fruit to ignore this abundance: Here were blackberries!

There aren’t many places on Earth where something so succulent comes at such low cost: The only price you pay is in scratched up hands and stained fingertips.

We work for a few hours, long enough so that the teens eventually mount their skateboards, lean back and roll off with lackadaisical efficiency. They don’t say goodbye, but it’s clear we’ve earned a little admiration.

We continue working, a little quieter now. After a while, Rainer looks up at me and says something, but I’m so busy and lost in thought, I can’t be sure that I’ve heard her right.

I ask her to repeat herself.

“I love our life,” she says. “I’m so glad we’re doing this.”

I’d be surprised, but at this point, it’s hard to surprise me anymore—what with the many strange and sudden changes we’ve endured since this started. Knowing that my oldest, who’s about to enter her teens, is pleased by these sort of simple experiences in the natural world leaves me with a potent feeling of relief.

This connection to the Earth is a gift we can give her.

It’s hard to ignore the shifts of seasons and the presence of nature in our world when you are down and in it, just in the accomplishing the most quotidian of tasks. You feel a subtle cold front blowing in on your way to the hardware store; you see the blackberries turning color while you patiently watch day after day; and you navigate based on the location of the sun in the sky.

And it’s all because we have become a ramshackle caravan of bikes and trailers decorated with silk flowers. Being car free has made our world smaller, but now, while our world has shrunk somewhat, our neighborhood has grown larger, infused with more meaning.

The other day, I spotted an SUV identical to the one we’d sold and remembered, with sudden vividness, the feeling of holding that heavy key in my hand for the first time. Then, I’d felt as though I was finally driving my life, and that the future would happen at a certain speed and with a strong straight trajectory. There wouldn’t be a deviation down a narrow dirt trail with unexpected sadness or big muddy places that I’d have to struggle through.

Now, years later, I didn’t miss having a car as much as I thought I would. Sometimes, of course, I missed what it said about my life: that the road was solid beneath my wheels, that there were air bags at every side and in front of me, and that I was moving forward, driving my family down a clear and certain path.

But the unpredictability our days hold doesn’t scare me anymore. My children see the stability that comes from weathering hard times and adapting to new ways of doing things. My middle-schooler thinks the way we’re living is cool.

And I’m OK with being a little bit proud of that.