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Priced Out of S.F., Two Friends Settle Down in a Pair of Yurts

A photographer and a documentarian forgo San Francisco studios for the Novato wilderness.


This traditional Mongolian yurt is made of wood, insulated with lamb’s wool, and held together by horsehair and leather ties.

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The yurt's exterior.

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Michelle Stauffer (left) and Lindsay Upson hang out in Upson’s yurt. Upson sells a collection of decor and accessories acquired during her travels to Guatemala, India, and Mexico at

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Stauffer bought this hand-beaded cattle skull on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.

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“We’ve created a bohemian-gypsy-inspired dining area,” says Stauffer. They built the deck around the yurts for Upson’s birthday and often host barbecues and salsa-dancing parties.

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Every piece of furniture had to be hauled up a hill. “I’m already dreading the day we move out,” says Upson.

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A curtained-off area in each yurt serves as a closet; the pair occasionally hang outfits on the shed out front.

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Wanderlust-driven photographer Lindsay Upson had been traveling around the world, covering ground in India, China, Guatemala, and Cuba. Returning to the Bay Area after her latest jaunt in 2013, however, she was in for a rude awakening. “When I came back to the city, the rents were just crazy,” says Upson, who had previously resided on a Sausalito sailboat. Her friend, film producer Michelle Stauffer, was in similar straits, having spent the previous three years circling the globe making environmental documentary films. After weeks of fruitless Craigslist hunting, Upson was offered an unlikely alternative: a pair of side-by-side yurts on the outskirts of Novato, nestled at the edge of a friend’s 11-acre family property. The rent? $800 a month.

The secluded wood and leather huts border 1,100 acres of wilderness and hiking trails protected by the Bureau of Land Management. “It was love at first sight,” remembers Stauffer. “It just felt so magical—like an enchanted forest.” The pair share their vast yard with deer, turkeys, and elk, and they hear the coyotes howling at night.

Unlike light-flooded modern yurts, these traditional domed dwellings were designed for nomadic Mongolian tribes. The floor, a puzzle of boards, is held together by horsehair and leather ties. The walls are insulated with four inches of lamb’s wool. The only natural light floods in from a circular hole at the top of the structure. (Stauffer and Upson covered it with a round piece of plastic and a heavy-duty waterproof canvas to guard against rain and pests.) The yurts even came furnished with original Mongolian furniture, hand-painted to match the detailing inside. “It looked like dollhouse furniture,” says Stauffer. 

The duo cleared out the tiny furniture to make way for their considerable cache of possessions, gathered from cities around the world. “As a 30-year-old woman, I’ve collected a lot of stuff,” says Stauffer. “It’s a womanly challenge—we’re both continually trying to pare down.” Everything coming into and going out of the yurts— from furniture and appliances to laundry and trash—must be lugged up or down a steep hill. Stauffer and Upson park their cars in a former horse corral, then trek the rest of the way. “It almost feels like you’re backpacking home,” says Upson. Despite appearances, though, the site isn’t lacking all creature comforts: The pair have electricity (though only two outlets), electric heaters, and a gas-operated shower with hot water. The partially covered kitchen is equipped with a hot plate, a toaster oven, and a fridge that’s secured with a bungee cord at night to stave off thieving raccoons.

The round, single-room layout posed a decorating challenge. “You can never just shove something in the corner,” jokes Stauffer. Still, though each yurt measures just 350 square feet, they feel surprisingly spacious: Upson’s abode accommodates her king-size bed and a seven-foot-long walnut slab desk. They’ve filled their yurts with handmade furniture, accented by photographs and treasures from their travels: beaded cattle skulls from Oaxaca, vintage textiles from India and Guatemala, lacquer vessels from Myanmar, and pheasant, quail, and turkey feathers gifted by Upson’s dad, a hunter.

In honor of Upson’s last birthday, the women built a deck of salvaged redwood beams and threw a salsa-dancing party. They frequently host barbecues around the wooden dining table, which is lit by string lights and candles and shrouded by mosquito nets. “When people hear that I live in a yurt, they’re always like, ‘How do you look so normal?’” laughs Stauffer. “Yes, it is an alternative lifestyle. But we’re surprisingly fancy girls, considering.”


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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