“Just start down the path and see where it leads”
In 2002, Sara Clark used a modest inheritance from her parents to buy almost 700 acres of barren cow pasture high in the mountains of Costa Rica. Her goal: to return the land to native cloud forest, as a tribute to her parents, who had shared their love of the natural world with her. Along the way, her 38 year marriage ended in divorce, and she learned the importance of being flexible on the way to making her dream come true.
Nancy: Hi Sara. Could tell me about your profession, and how old you were when you retired?
Sara: I was a flight attendant for 28 years, and was 54 when I retired. I am also the mother of two sons. A precipitating event was that my father had passed away that year and we were moving Mom to Seattle. She was going to be needing more of my time. My youngest son was starting his senior year in high school and if I was ever going to have the experience at being a parent at home, this was my last chance. I was not financially needy at that time – I had one other income from some investment property – so I thought, “Yes, this is the time to do it.”
N: At the time you retired, you were married?
S: Yes, I was.
N: Was that something that you discussed as a couple – like, “Now it’s time”?
S: Well, no. Not really. When I went back to work after the kids were born, my husband always said, “It’s your choice. You’d just have to live on less.” He never wanted to take responsibility for any of my decisions, so they had to be my own.
N: What were you most glad to leave behind when you left your career as a flight attendant?
S: Days when I would have a really early trip and I’d have to get up in the dark and go to work. I didn’t like that much, although it gave me the benefit of sometimes getting home before dark.
N: What were you most looking forward to in retirement?
S: I don’t think I really was looking forward; I didn’t view it that way.
N: How did you look at it?
S: It was more: it’s just going to go on. I’ll keep doing my classes, doing things with my kids, and life isn’t going to change a whole lot. It will just go on being the same. I didn’t particularly identify with my work. My work accommodated my life, really. It made it possible for me to follow my interests. It gave me the flexibility to schedule things that I wanted to do.
One time I bid to have Wednesdays off to go on the ladies’ ski bus, and I did that for six weeks. Other times, I could bid to have long periods of time when the kids were on vacation, or to have Thursday nights off because that was my quilting class.
It gave me income; that money was my money, and I spent it on my things and saved part of it. By working more than 25 years, I got my health care continued after I retired.
N: So when you were working, you were a lot of things – a mother, a daughter, a flight attendant, an artist, a skier – and when you retired you just crossed flight attendant off the list.
S: My life was so busy. Work was more an inconvenience, just because of the time it took.
N: I get the picture. Did you have a special event – like a party or a trip – for the transition from being a working person to retirement?
S: No, and I didn’t keep in touch with my co-workers. I remember looking back and thinking, “I haven’t even had time to think about not being there, and I don’t miss it.” Now the way the job has changed – due to security and all that stuff – I’m doubly glad I’m not doing it. When I started, it was the heyday of air travel. They were hiring lots of people, so my position and seniority improved and I got better choices. When the kids got a little older and I wasn’t trying to be at home as much as I could, I bid my trips so that I go places where I could go birding if I had a long enough layover. I also went to art museums and saw the things that I had only seen in books.
N: So you made your work fit your interests, instead of having to fit your life around your work.
S: Oh yeah.
N: As you look back on the things you did to prepare for retirement, are there any that were especially helpful, any that were a waste of time?
S: When I look at it in terms of finances, the best advice I got was to start a 401(k), and I did that. We managed to put in what was allowed. I also subscribed to the company savings plan. My pension from the airline is not very significant, and I still have all those airline benefits that are very inconvenient to use.
N: How did the reality of retirement compare to what you had imagined? Did you and your husband have the same idea of how you would spend your time?
S: It didn’t really change much. For instance if it was a beautiful day in the fall and we could see from our window that Mount Rainier was not under the clouds, we might just take off and go spend a day at Mount Rainier. We both love the outdoors and those activities continued. That was our together recreation, and the foundation of our marriage: the enjoyment of being outdoors. I think that’s what brought me to Costa Rica – the biodiversity and being outdoors and all that stuff.
N: And then you also had some separate interests.
S: I continued to pursue mine and he continued to pursue his, and it just got to the point where my interests kept me out of the country more of the time than was acceptable to him, and also this reforestation project looked like work, which wasn’t a real popular subject with him. When he would come here to visit, he just wanted to go be a tourist. I enjoyed doing that, too, but it also was the beginning of the time after I had bought this farm and I really wanted to see what the seasons looked like and that requires being here all year to see when things grow and when things bloom. It led us in different directions. He loves to ski and there’s no snow here, so our diversions and recreations really drew us in different directions.
N: Maybe another way of saying that is you did, in fact, have different visions of what this phase of your life was going to look like.
S: But I never imagined being here.
N: Why don’t you talk about buying the land, just to give a summary of what you chose to do?
S: My parents had passed away about five years before. I came here, it was warm in the winter, my bones didn’t hurt as much, the people were kindly and very simpatico. When my parents died, they left me about $185,000. I saw this piece of property and it was a great big piece of peeled pasture. It was just really scalped. It’s 700 acres; about a square mile. My parents taught me about the outdoors, and I thought, “Now wouldn’t that be a lovely memorial to my parents that I would buy this farm? We would let it regrow and make a home for all animals that used to live here.” I had no intention of living here. I assumed I would be going back and forth, and I did that for quite a while. Then when I divorced, I rented out my Seattle condominium after a couple of years.
If I had tried to do this in the United States, I could have bought half a lot in Ballard [N: a neighborhood in Seattle]. And to protect the kind of biodiversity that I can protect here, I would have probably had to buy two states. So doing it here and having done it at the time I did, it was really an opportunity that was very special. I don’t think I even appreciated it at that time, but it’s turned out to be true.
Also, the location of this farm is in the heart of a reserve up here. I’m in between two national parks, two large areas protected for water production, and at the headwaters of three different rivers. The resources of this piece of property are way beyond anything I ever imagined. I had no idea what I was doing. It just seemed like kind of a good idea. I had the money and so I just did it.
But the thing that I did not consider was the importance of grandchildren. When I bought this property I didn’t have any grandkids. One of my sons was married and the other hadn’t even started dating his wife yet. Now, I have four grandsons and another one on the way. The oldest is turning nine this summer, and I would really like to be part of their lives. So now I’m thinking, “How can I get out of here now that I am here in such a big way?” I’m thinking about ways of seeing if I can make this be something that is happening that doesn’t require my presence all the time.
N: Maybe you could describe your two goals: reforestation and research.
S: Yes. I’ve owned this farm for 12 years now. We’ve planted 23,000 trees, and there are not very many places that you can see the cattle pasture any more. It’s not full grown forest yet – that takes probably a couple hundred years – but there are trees up above that make a low canopy and things are returning and there’s birds in it and all kinds of stuff. So the reforestation part is now basically happening by itself. Mother Nature has taken over and will continue that process, and the biodiversity will increase over time.
Because the property is on the continental divide, it seems to me a beautiful opportunity to do comparative research between the two sides – to see how the reforestation is happening, how the biodiversity is changing. Anybody who wants to measure anything between that clear pasture and the one that has 12 years of reforestation, it’s here to look at. My project at the moment is to invite researchers to take advantage of it and see what’s here. And also to get – for my own interest – some inventories of the kinds of organisms that are here.
Ecotourism is another goal. I have started a non-profit corporation. When people stay here through Airbnb their payment goes directly to the non-profit. It helps fund the reforestation. So I look at it as a fundraiser rather than as a moneymaker.
N: Back to retirement in general – what was the biggest surprise to you?
S: I’m aging. Now I understand some of the things my mother had to say and her complaints. I’m sure I’m going down the same road, pretty much the same direction. I remember her having arthritis. But when you’re young and you don’t have it, it has no reality. So I’m learning about some of those things and having your plumbing work better or worse and all of that stuff. That’s not a by-product of the choices I’ve made; it’s a by-product that my heredity and my age. I’m 73 now.
There’s one other thing, speaking of health here. When I came here, I was 59. Costa Rica is a place that offers a lot of cosmetic surgery, and after I came here, I had a facelift. I think I had a real uplifting experience of invincibility and it was about two weeks after I had the facelift that I went out and bought this farm. Now I look pretty much like I would have looked anyway 12 years later, and I don’t care now. That’s not important. I have something to do that seems to me a lot more interesting than trying to stop time. But I think the surgery had a real positive impact at that moment in my life.
N: You said something before we started this interview: “Choose a path and walk down it.” So you chose one path that was: “What am I going to look like?” You walked down that path a few steps and then you said, “Enough with this.”
S: I could see that it could become kind of addictive.
N: But it’s very cool that it was confidence-building.
S: Yeah. It was kind of amazing. I had no idea it would have that kind of an impact. I just thought my clothes would fit better. I also took a course called Life After Fibromyalgia, which included a diet to eliminate trigger foods that cause pain. I followed that for about three years – I lost a lot of weight; I had a lot of energy; I was able to walk all over the place.
I probably spent ten years going to Al-Anon meetings. During that time I realized I couldn’t depend on someone else to make me happy. I had to be the source of my happiness, and I got to know myself. I learned to enjoy my own company and like myself as my best friend. Not that I didn’t need others, but I wasn’t dependent on somebody else. Because I spent a lot of years trying to change my husband and deal with drinking and all that stuff, and that doesn’t make you happy. I grew up with the mantra “True happiness is making your spouse happy.” Blah. It doesn’t work that way. It’s like trying to go to the hardware store and buy bread.
N: Is there anything that had you known and had the time might have made the early retirement experience a better one for you? Words of wisdom you might want to share with others coming along behind you? You already said, “Look for happiness within yourself.”
S: Yeah. The retirement was precipitated by my dad’s death and I was dealing with the loss of my first family member. Retirement was really all about that and not anything about retirement. So I spent a year doing grief work.
N: How has the reality of your retirement compared to what you thought it would be? Are you content with your retirement life?
S: I’m happy today. I like it today. Coming here was a traveling thing. I assumed that I would continue doing birding trips, and I would love to do more nature tours. But right now, I’m into this farm and I have three employees, and this sink hole is where all my outgo goes. So I don’t really feel like I can do that. I hope that if I manage to get my property into the Costa Rican payment for environmental services program, where they pay you to grow or preserve or plant forest, that I might just use that money to travel; just for me.
N: I hear you saying that because you made this choice that, at least for a time, other choices are off the menu.
S: Kind of. I started with a cabin, and then I added onto it a garage. Then I added a corridor and then I added another corridor. Then I added a master suite. So I have quite a big facility here, and you cannot leave anything here without occupants because it just disappears. I’m kind of stuck with that. I certainly don’t want to donate it to the thieves! It’s like you have an anchor on your leg. It has to be dealt with and you have to pay somebody to live on it.
I did have this fantasy about this being a place my grandkids would want to come to, maybe spend a summer or a few weeks. It’s just be such a great place for kids to play with the frogs in the creek and all that kind of stuff. But the reality so far is that they have all been here and they come and they want to stay overnight at the farm and then go to the beach, because they all like to surf. No surfing here. I’m up in the mountains.
N: But that does sound like a warning to others that maybe our retirement shouldn’t be, “I’m going to do this and then these other people are going to do that, and we’re all going to live happily ever after.”
You live in a very remote place in a foreign country; how did you go about making connections with people you wanted to spend time with?
S: By accident, I would say. When I first came here, I joined the birding club. I enjoy that, so I generally go out once a month on a birding trip to practice my native tongue. I also was going out once a month to a little art group, which was mostly foreigners. I look at speaking in a foreign language as a positive in hopes of defeating Alzheimer’s, putting it off a little bit. It’s a kind of brain activity that I have to deal with every day. I work with people who are only Spanish speaking. I don’t have anyone here who speaks English at all. I work with that every day and I think that that and Sudoku is going to have to do it. What I have found recently is that I love to paint, and with the Internet, I listen to the same radio station that I used to listen to in Seattle when I painted down in my basement. I listen to that and I paint away. I put my woolly fleece pants on to keep me warm, and I could be anywhere in the world. I’m just totally absorbed in that. I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.
N: If I was to reflect it back to you, you pursued the interests you had: birding and art, and met people with similar interests. How has technology made a difference?
S: Got my first Skype call. Man, that was giant.
N: I was here when that happened; it made all the difference. Do you regularly Skype your grandkids?
S: No, but I’m getting better at it. I forget technology because I didn’t grow up with that. I didn’t even grow up with TV. So those kinds of things don’t come to mind automatically for me. I can’t imagine that this life would be appropriate for very many people who I know because it is far… Well, it’s not really far – it’s like 12 kilometers – but the road is terrible. It takes me 35 minutes to get to a place where I can buy a newspaper.
N: Is there anything bringing you joy or causing you concern that wasn’t even on your radar screen before you retired?
S: I worried about getting old, and I worried about getting senile. I worried about having health problems. But I assume that if I get to that point, my kids will come down here and pack me up and go put me in one of those old folks’ warehouses. I can do my checking out up there where I’m not so far for them to take care of.
N: I really don’t want to focus on finances, but you did keep a condo in Seattle.
S: I still do own it, but I don’t expect to live in it again because it’s a second-floor unit. The entry is on the street level but you have to go up a flight of stairs. I do realize that I’m not as steady as I used to be, and I don’t want to break a hip falling down a stairway. So I think that if I move back to the States, I will have something like I have here – all one level. That’s the practical thing.
N: Is there an element of service to others in your life now? Is this any different than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
S: I can’t remember really being service-oriented. I donated money and things. I look at what I’m doing as a service to humanity, and as a wonderful gift and opportunity to be able to make a difference. With the amount of money that I spent on this, to be able to preserve a square mile of terrain is something I never could have dreamed about doing in the States. I feel very, very lucky to have had the chance to do that. To look at that picture of what it looked like when I bought it and then look out and see it now all kind of green and woolly and fluffy-looking with living plants, goodness gracious, that is just a fantastic thing to be able to have.
N: Not many of us get a chance to see a real impact, a real physical change.
S: I didn’t even realize it when I bought it, the amount of water that this forest collects. I was looking at it this morning as I was walking around in front of the house, this grass. But there are a few duck feathers on the grass, little bits of leaves and stuff, and the amount of dew that’s collected… There was a feather. It looked like it had a teaspoon of water collected on it in drops. Just anything for the moisture to condense on and collect that water and keep it from evaporating; it’s really important. It’s happening, and I think it has had some impact. Everybody I talk to in the community says they think it’s so great. I don’t know why they don’t plant a tree in their yard. But hopefully, they’re getting the idea that it can happen and see the benefits.
The national policy here: they have outlawed hunting now and made it harder to cage birds and many of the things that were detrimental to the environment. There are ads on TV about recycling and planting a tree and the school kids doing that. The awareness has definitely improved during the 12 years that I’ve been here.
N: What have you learned about yourself since retiring? What has been your greatest source of joy and satisfaction so far in your retirement life?
S: I’ve adjusted to being a divorced person and being me instead of being part of a pair. That was a large adjustment and that took quite a while. It was kind of paralyzing for a while. I was married for 38 years. I was 27 when I got married, so I was married ten years more than I had not been married.
N: Did your parents live a long time post-retirement?
S: They lived into their 90s, both of them. Dad was 94 and Mom was 91. They kept on doing the same stuff. They moved to a place where they had a big garden. Dad came from a farming tradition, and they continued to can their tomatoes. They bought a little travel trailer and a big car to haul it with. First year, they went all the way around the United States. Then they made several trips to Mexico. Then they got tired of traveling and settled down, so to speak, in their 80s.
N: I guess the very fact that we’re sitting here on a mountaintop in Costa Rica indicates that something is different.
S: It’s different for me. My father would think this was fabulous. He would love the fact that we had a private power plant and use an engineer. He liked self-sufficiency. Quite a Yankee. My mother would have been saying, “Oh, you’re so far away.” She was a good worrier. I come by that naturally.
N: Thank you Sara.
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