I finally hit the road Wednesday morning.
My CD player stutters and skips before the first disc ends. It's prone to overheating on road trips, but this is the earliest it's ever quit on me; I suspect the sun on the dash isn't helping. This is disappointing, because the mix I put in first was specifically designed for road trips and leaving-home-catharsis, but the drive itself turns out to be plenty cathartic. Alone in my car, I can be as emotionally messy as I like without disturbing anyone else, yet the forward motion reminds me I can leave the feelings behind as soon as I'm ready. This is important, because right now I'm very happy and very sad at the same time. All the leavings-behind and all the goodbyes seem very real, here at the brink of the new.
Traffic is minimal, and the miles roll by soothingly. The scenery is pleasantly rural and gorgeously forested, but because it's the same scenery I grew up with, it scrolls past my eyes without leaving much of an impression. Then, along about Roseburg, I round a hillside and am confronted with a perfect model railroad scene: gnarled trees arranged sparingly on a hillside of tawny crushed velvet. This is different. Now it feels like I'm getting somewhere, and I begin paying more attention to the scenery outside myself... which is good, because soon the road becomes more winding and hilly. My 1990 Volvo has to knuckle down to get us up those hills, but it gets the job done. The sound of the engine and the air blowing in the windows make a decent enough soundtrack, and when my thoughts start to spiral, I shove the CD back in to coax another song or two out of the player before it chokes to a halt again.
I greet the California border with a loud cheer. I pass border guards (do they really spend all day asking people if they have any fresh fruit?), a giant metal flower sculpture, and a barn with STATE OF JEFFERSON painted on the roof: Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. My destination lies some 50 miles east of Redding. Near my goal, I overshoot a turn by about 15 miles and have to double back, and by this time the driving is really not that fun anymore, but almost there, almost there... twisting turning paved roads become twisting turning unpaved roads, and at last I'm heading up a long gravel drive, past the NO TRESPASSING signs and the cattle gates, to the Little Farm.*
Ray and Cotter meet me at the upper gate, Cotter with a wagging tail and Ray with a warm handshake. Behind them, a cluster of tiny wooden buildings nestle into a valley walled with towering trees and carpeted with wildflowers. It's gorgeous, and when I tell Ray so, he concurs: "I know. Sometimes I have to pinch myself: is this really my life?"
I am introduced to Ray's partner Maya, and Beau, their helper for the summer, as well as Uncle Don, who's just here for dinner. The meal is almost ready, and while Maya finishes preparing it, we sit on stools around the entrance to the outdoor kitchen. Still dazed from the long drive, I soak in my surroundings, half-listening to Ray and Don's architectural discussion of their future house/barn. "We'll put the cows on the first floor and we'll sleep on the second," Maya explains, stepping away from the wood stove for a moment. "And then, when there's snow on the ground, you can just go downstairs and milk the cows!" I have to ask: "Won't the smell bother you?" "Oh, our cows don't smell bad," she assures me. "You'll see."
I take another swig from my glass of cool, delicious spring water and do a double-take as two small black piglets trot by. Moments later, a squat, hairy mama pig with pendulous teats trundles past, grunting amicably, followed by a herd of wee piggies. Everything about them is hilarious, from their dainty gait to their big floppy ears to their surprisingly deep grunts. My instinct is to point and say, "Ohmygosh, you guys, look!" But everyone here is already accustomed to the sight.
We eat dinner on a picnic table in the shade: extra cheesy frittata and flavorful homemade kraut. Dessert is baked apples and cream, whipped at the table with an eggbeater. Conversation is pleasantly laid-back. On the way here, I reminded myself that if I don't like these people immediately, it could still work out really well. After all, some of my favorite people grated on me the first days or weeks I knew them. Remembering this now, I chuckle: I hope it's not a bad thing that I find them all utterly charming, right from the get-go.
* Out of respect for their privacy, I'll be using pseudonyms for the Little Farm and its residents.