Dick and Toni Charlson fell in love at first sight in 1976 while working on a project for actor John Wayne in the field of energy recovery systems. She was an executive secretary and he was a mechanical engineer. They married the next year.
As an engineer, Dick loved to build, and both he and Toni dreamed of building their own home after retirement. They wanted to escape the rat race, get off the grid, be self-sufficient, grow their own food and maybe build a pond to raise fish. They began compiling data on self-sufficient living and in 1984 purchased 30 acres in Johnson Valley, CA that fit their dream. After living in the perpetual springtime of Los Angeles, they looked forward to the four seasons typical of the high desert.
They moved to the property in the fall of 1985 and for five years they lived in a travel trailer while building their home themselves. In the beginning, they drove 100 miles to San Bernardino to purchase building supplies. Later, a home improvement store was opened in Victorville and their commute shortened to only 60 miles.
The engineer and his wife built the ranch from scratch. They drew the plans, poured the foundation, erected the walls and installed the wiring, plumbing and fixtures. They plastered walls, tiled floors, installed appliances and hung doors and windows. They installed the wind turbines, solar panels, generators and the entire electrical system. They did it all! As a team, they worked every day and some days from sunup to sundown building their dream – harder than they had worked at their paying jobs. The satisfaction of their work shows in the details and the loving tone of their warm family home.
The couple planted an orchard of almonds, plums, red and green apples, peaches and apricots. In their vineyard, they grew grapes for Chenin Blanc and Zinfindel wines as well as Thompson seedless for eating. They also enjoyed experimenting with fruit wines that were well received among family and friends.
The windmill was imported from Argentina through an American company. The couple assembled it themselves, positioning it over the well to draw water. The president of the windmill company was so impressed by the job they did that he invited them to travel to Africa to teach locals how to install windmills. While greatly honored, the couple declined the offer in order to continue construction on their home. (While digging the hole for the water tank tower, Toni fell in the hole, cracking a rib. It took eight weeks for the rib to heal, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to work the whole time.)
The one project they did not build was a runway for small/light aircraft. They spend their time enjoying their desert playground. Because Dick was an avid astronomer and telescope builder, they hosted stargazing groups with specialized telescopes. They also hosted hobbyists involved with radio-controlled model airplanes as well as radio-controlled ground vehicles. This property was also a playground for burro-drawn carts and ultra-lites. Also hosted were family and friends who enjoyed tent and vehicle camping. Their son enjoyed riding his home-built dune buggy on dedicated BLM land located only five miles from their Rancho Escapada Grande.
Neighboring ranches are playgrounds for ostriches, llamas, peacocks, exotic parrots, horses, and other animals.
In the enjoyment of many fulfilling friendships over a 17-year span, Dick and Toni found local people to be as unique as the desert itself, including many retired professionals.
Dick passed away four years ago after a battle with cancer. In her own words, Toni says, “It’s not the same without Dick. I have said my goodbyes to the ranch and asked the ranch to let me go. I have a new life to go to and I’m anxious to get there.” Her hope is that the legacy of their ranch will live on through others who also have dreams to fulfill.