This interview is super special to me. I met Rachel Capistrano my Freshman year of high school, and I have watched her grow into an accomplished and inspiring pillar of strength. Rachel always had (and still has!) a very close relationship with her family, so I was shocked to find out that she was moving across the country to start a new life in the woods. That was three years ago, and as you will see, she is THRIVING. Rachel lived in a tent for six months and then moved into a cabin off the grid on 40+ acres in rural Humboldt, California with her boyfriend and their family of animals. Rachel is now a Community Organizer, gardens and farms for her own food and medicine, is a Volunteer Firefighter, First Responder, AND - in the short amount of time between my interview with her and the day I wrote this post - she has been elected Vice President of the board of directors for the Volunteer Fire Department she works with. Rachel embodies what it means to be an absolute badass - and she does it with a creative spirit and a gigantic heart. I am so looking forward to you learning more about her and her quest to lend a helping hand to her community, wanting nothing in return. Rachel never takes “no” for an answer once she has her mind set on something. She is truly my hero.
What inspired you to pack up and start a new life?
First off, I LOVE Cleveland, every little bit and piece of it. I think, like many people, we daydream about what our lives could be like. I always imagined myself somewhere near the ocean (even though I hate water), living in a tiny home, with a pack of dogs, farm animals, and growing a garden I will never take the time to weed and clean. One of my dear friends was living in Humboldt already and invited me to the farm she was working on. I stayed for a month, living off grid, in a cabin, located on top of a butte, in the middle of what I thought was nowhere. After 30 days, I came back to Cleveland, packed up, and drove out west.
What does a typical day on the farm look like for you?
This year has been so different from the last. I planned for a big change this year, so I guess there isn’t a “typical day” nowadays. My partner and I recently moved up the hill and we now take care of a couple of properties where we are able to grow our own food and medicine. These gardens and fruit orchards range from 600’-2000’ in elevation, which means we had to learn how to grow in different microclimates. Each garden is set up differently, for example: we raise our laying hens and meat chickens on different properties, we grow all our tomatoes where there is no fog, and the amount of growth also depends on the amount of water supply. It sounds crazy but it actually works for us.
We both wanted to explore different options for work, he’s now a full time Ranch Hand and I work full time at the Bridgeville Community Center as the Community Organizer for a grant.
I would love to talk about your incredible work as a volunteer firefighter. How did you get started? What has been the most rewarding part of your work? The biggest challenge?
A friend of mine that I was working with at the community center kept joking about how she thought I would be a great First Responder. She already had 10 years of experience as a firefighter and is a certified EMT (she’s a total badass) She made a valid point that our community does not have any medical services for 30 miles. If we had an emergency of any kind, we would expect to wait 30-45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. I am part of our local VFD, but everyone has full time jobs and you shouldn’t always expect them. In less than a year, I became certified as a First Responder, Firefighter through the Eel River Fire Academy, Engineering, and finally S-130 and S-190 Wildland firefighter.
The most rewarding part is just simply being there for someone, on any level. Seeing fear on people’s faces, the trauma they are experiencing, I can’t imagine being alone.
The biggest challenge I experienced was at the Mendocino Complex fire. California’s largest fire in history. I was assigned to do Crash Rescue for the Helitack Base. When locals came to visit the helicopters, many of the men felt it was appropriate to comment on my body and my capabilities. I was torn, I was in uniform and had to represent my company. I felt like I couldn’t react, I actually felt like I was showing signs of weakness for being emotional. I spoke to my Captain and the two other firemen I was sent with. They all agreed it was silly of me to hold back, but understood why I did, and that they would support me if I wanted to speak up.
We had one local ask me why my sleeping situation was better than the guy with all the muscles, and immediately started joking about how he didn’t want to be politically incorrect. Before I could say anything, my Captain stood up and asked him “you mean sexist?” Which was then followed up with my crew telling the local how much physical and mental strength it takes to be on this team.
Do you have any advice for a woman in a similar position where she might be made to feel as though she has to work extra hard to prove herself?
I’m 5’ and 115lbs. Don’t be afraid to speak up and communicate. Acknowledge your capabilities and share your weaknesses. At first I couldn’t carry a 70lb hose pack up hill, or properly strap on my SCBA to my back, or finish a Firefighter’s Challenge without the help from my chief. I was working and training with men twice my height and who had years of experience. If I didn’t speak up about what I needed help with, I would be putting myself and others in danger. Just keep going, finish on your own time and keep practicing. You have nothing to prove to anyone else but yourself.
What is the most exciting part about living in Humboldt? What is the most difficult part?
Do I have to choose one thing? The most exciting part about living in Humboldt is living in the hills, driving home or to town through the Redwoods, living in a rural community that is ran by volunteers, learning the tricks and the trade of homesteading, being off-grid, and the accessibility to nature, and having wildlife just outside your doorstep.
The most difficult part about living in rural Humboldt for me, is probably confidently running a chainsaw and chopping wood alone. I also have a big fear of hitting animals on the road; deer, elk, bear, mountain lions or unexpected trees or rocks on a blind curve. Cell reception is rare in most parts of the highway, I’d hate be stranded somewhere.
Do you see yourself making another life change, or is this your forever home?
I do see ourselves building our home here. I love living in the woods.
When do you feel the most like yourself?
Probably the days I get to sleep in with no agenda, when drink coffee in bed, throw my muck boots on and hike around our properties.
How does living in a way that your own hard work directly provides for you do for your soul?
In reality, my life is never ending work, most of it is fun and rewarding, but sometimes the outcome can be disheartening. I think thats what the soul needs, a balance. I am happy with the way I chose to live my life, others think I work too much, but my soul is happy living what were my daydreams. I know I have to work on learning how to say no, and spending more time alone, or having quality time with my partner. We all struggle with something we need to be better at, but staying true to myself and recognizing my flaws provides the strength and courage my soul needs to keep working harder and happier.
What wisdom can you share with those of us who might want to make a big life change, but are intimidated?
Well, I guess stop making excuses. Let go of what is holding you back. If money is your reason to why you won’t make the leap, just remember that I left Cleveland with $800 to my name and lived in a tent for 6 months. I had (still have) student loans, phone bills, and owed my dad some money when I left. If you’re afraid of being uncomfortable, then its definitely time to leave, its okay to feel small-you’ll discover things about yourself that you didn’t know. If it doesn’t work out and you find yourself coming back to where you started, at least you tried-you’ll be ready next time.
What can we expect to see from you next?
I hope to join and be certified with the Long Angle Rope Rescue Operations. Unfortunately, many of our emergency calls are traffic collision over the embankment. I also really miss being creative, so I will be collaborating with my neighbor and helping her with her small candle business and homesteading blog. I have a few things up my sleeve, that I can’t share yet!
All photos are Rachel’s own. Follow Rachel on Instagram to see more of her extraordinary adventures at rachelmarycapistrano. Thanks for being a part of this, BooBoo.