Friday, September 30, 2011

Back From, and Arriving at, Tassajara

I'm back from the mountains, from the quiet and the measured pace of Tassajara. I've been holed up in Hanford, CA, in the spacious air-conditioned home of my dear friends Jason & Melonie, college chums and D&D-playing buddies from backinnaday. The house is quiet all day and in the evening, when they bring their sons home from day care, echoes with the sound of small children with big emotions.

The little ones are fun to hang out with about 90% of the time, which is a good percentage for kids of any age. Their parents have been my friends for so long that it really wouldn't matter if they were fun to hang out with, I would want to hang out with them anyway; but they are, and that's a nice bonus.

When it's just me in the house I am sometimes doing productive things, but mostly not. It's not that I need a vacation right now; it's that I'm reacclimating to internet access. (So! Many! Things! To look at!) The internet was one of two things I regularly lusted after at the monastery. The other was meat.

I've been somewhat daunted by writing up the two weeks' worth of journal entries I wrote at Tassajara. Every day was so full of new things, and yet had so much space for new thoughts. My entries got a lot longer and more detailed than they'd been before, and I've been trying to figure out a way to share it all without writing up all 14 entries, because I don't have time for that. 

At least I know where to begin: at the beginning.

* * *

The road to Tassajara is terrible, the monk on the telephone told me. "It's fifteen miles of unpaved, winding single-lane road, and it takes an hour and a half to drive. Do you have a vehicle with four-wheel drive?" No, I replied. "You can do it without," he said, "but you'll need to shift your car into a low gear and pump the brakes, or they'll overheat. Go slowly, five to ten miles per hour. Oh, and make sure you have plenty of gas, and your braking and cooling systems and your tires are all in good shape."  Okay, I said, and thanked him, and proceeded to spend the next couple of weeks dreading the drive.

That road is pretty hairy, no joke. The whole thing is basically one big pothole, with a couple of paved stretches a few yards long, just enough to remind you how much better it could be. Here's a fairly typical stretch (with feet for scale):

And then there are occasional monstrous rocks embedded in the middle of the road, just waiting to tear something off the bottom of your car. And long stretches of the road are dappled with shade, so you can't see the rough spots until you're right on top of them. And there are turns around which an unexpected vehicle may be approaching, which you'll need to pass without swerving off the mountainside. And, also, there might be a longhorn steer which just happens to be hanging out in the road, with horns that could nail you to your seat without even straining a neck muscle. ("Um, hello, cow! Don't mind me, I'm just gonna eeease past you here... Niiice cow....")

And there's also this:

Incredible scenery around every turn, which you dare not give more than a glance because you might damage your car OR MAYBE DIE.

But I don't die, and my car takes it like a trooper. Eventually, I run out of road, and park my car, and stumble out into the gravel parking lot, past the sign that says Tassajara Zen Center, and through a little wooden gate, and I'm there.

I'm ready for my fanfare, for someone to say "Congratulations! You survived the road!" or maybe "Oh, you're Lindsey? Yes, we've been expecting you," or even just, "Are you new here? Can I help steer you in the right direction?" But none of those things happen. I walk around until I find a sign that says Stone Office, and then I go in and ask where to check in, and am told I can find my housing assignment on the front of some cabin over thataway. That's it? Doesn't anyone need to know that I'm here? Apparently not.

I get over it. I rope a passing person (monk? volunteer? priest? who knows? I don't) into showing me where to find my quarters, and he does so very graciously. My cabin isn't much to look at on the outside, but clean and airy within.

No electricity, but kerosene lanterns, clean bed-linens, and a water closet (toilet and sink) shared with a second bedroom on the other side. I've never seen a toilet quite like this one before (you flush by lifting the knob on the top); I later learn it's from Sweden, but never mind. We have a toilet in the same building, and it is the kind you can sit down on. I am thrilled.

I'm kind of at a loss as to what to do next. I go back to my car, bring back an armload of stuff, and only then think to go look at the schedule I saw hanging up by the room assignments. Apparently I just missed the guided tour for new arrivals. Hmm.

I manage to slip in partway through the introduction to the zendo, the building in which meditation and services take place. And by "slip in" I mean "completely throw the instructor off." She recovered, and I managed to pick up some basic points of zendo etiquette:
 - When you enter, cross the threshold with your left foot; when you exit, cross it with your right.
 - Hold your left hand cupped in your right hand, unless you are using your hands for something else.
 - Don't cross in front of the altar (in the center of the room); always cross behind it.
 - Bow with your hands in "praying" position when you enter, when you proceed down an aisle, before taking your seat, after rising from your seat, and whenever everyone else seems to be bowing.
- Sit in lotus position, or half lotus, or with legs loosely crossed, or on your knees or on a chair or whatever you can manage.
- During meditation, try not to move if you can help it.
- During other activities, just follow along the best you can.

All of the more arcane details have a purpose: to help keep you mindful of the significance of what you are doing. The zendo is not a place for casualness or thoughtlessness; it's a place for focus, a place to be very present. As temporary volunteers, our participation in all zendo activities is strictly optional, but I'm eager to see what goes on here.

Here's the outside of the zendo (it seemed irreverent to take photos inside, so I didn't):

The wooden panel, bell, and drum are all instruments that are used daily in ceremonies and in calling people to the zendo for services. The interior is lined with wide benches (tan) on which cushions are placed for meditation, and more cushions are on the floor. Near one of these is another drum and the hugest singing bowl I've ever seen. The altar bears a heavy stone statue of a serene-faced Buddha, with a couple of smaller statues and some other items I don't understand the purpose of.

Our instruction over, I return to my cabin, pausing to look at the schedule along the way. It says "Bath and exercise time." I'm hot and could certainly use a bath, but figuring out where the bathing facilities are and the proper protocol for using them just sounds too exhausting right now. Maybe I'll just flop down on the bed and... "Oh, hello," I say to the woman who has just walked in the door. It's my roommate. Her name is Elaine, this is her first time here too, and she is headed for the baths. Would I like to come along? Well yes, I would, now that I have a guide.

The baths showcase the hot springs which have attracted visitors to Tassajara for centuries. The showers are geothermally heated, as are the hot tubs and saunas. I'm told that the hot tubs on the women's side are kept just a little bit hotter than the men's, to meet popular demand. I've always been the odd one out, I guess; the indoor women's hot tub feels like it's burning me alive, so I hop right back out again. (I once passed out after spending time in a hot tub that felt too hot, so I don't push it.) The outdoor hot tub is a few degrees cooler and feels just right.

I've lost Elaine somewhere along the way, but there is another woman in the outdoor tub. After we have both sat there in silence for a few long minutes, she asks if I've ever heard of a particular artist who makes lifelike, life-sized sculptures of human beings (I think it was this one). "If you went to his exhibit and stood still long enough, eventually people would gather around you and try to figure out whether you were a sculpture or not.... You were sitting so still, it made me think of that." I laugh. I'd like to continue chatting, but thanks to fatigue and the hot soak, I've temporarily lost the ability to make small talk, so I close my eyes and go still again.

[To be continued]

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Big Rock and a Little Baby

Morro Bay is a pretty little town. My friends live very close to the beach, and the last two evenings I have ridden my bike down to the waterfront, to a small stretch of really great bike path that runs by Morro Rock.

Morro Rock is a hard landmark to miss, but it's not the only one. Morro Bay also has a natural gas power plant with three huge towers. My first glimpse of them as I drove into town Thursday night was decidedly eerie: red-lit cylinders hovering over the town in the fog. By day they are much less sci-fi-ominous.

Oh look, there's a shadow of some tourist taking photos in the corner. Oops. And I'm too lazy to crop her out.

Here's my faithful steed:

It's kinda funny-looking (as one friend commented, "It looks like it would be the awkward kid at bike high school"), but it rides really nice, and it folds up and fits in the trunk of my Volvo. I heart it a whole lot.

Despite occasionally playing tourist, I have spent less time looking at scenery and more time looking at this little face:

Two months ago, my friends John and Sarita, shipmates from my days aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, went and had themselves a really cute kid. So we have, as predicted, talked about tall ships and the baby quite a bit. But we have talked about plenty of other things too. It's been a pretty low-key weekend, with lots of catching up and a few outings to interesting places hereabouts.

Tomorrow morning I embark on the next leg of my journey, and I'm telling you about it in advance because it involves being offline for quite a while.  I'll be volunteering at Tassajara Zen Monastery, in the mountains south of San Francisco, for two weeks.  The webpage for the work period I'll be participating in says, "Personal computers are not allowed."  I'll still have my netbook with me (shh, don't tell) but electrical outlets are few and far between out there, and internet access is out of the question, so I probably won't even switch it on. I'll be journaling, though, and when I'm back in internet-land, I'll tell you what it was like.

See you in two weeks!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On the Road to Morro Bay: Excerpts from a Stream of Consciousness

OH man. I don't wanna leave the Little Farm. Don't wanna donwanna donwanna. Don't wanna leave that delicious food, don't wanna leave my doggie friends, don't wanna leave my people friends. I am sad, sad.

Is this what I'm setting myself up for with this road trip? One continuous series of painful goodbyes?

Actually, if goodbyes are the most painful part of this journey, I'll be lucky. In fact, if I don't visit some places I'm downright eager to leave, I'm probably doing it wrong.

Haha, remember yesterday when I didn't realize Maya let the pigs into the yard before I got the ice cream churn and the milk bucket put away? And then I was like, oh no, pig enthusiasm is threatening the well-being of the ice cream churn again, I cannot allow this to happen? Especially after that amazing bourbon vanilla ice cream we had at lunch? And then I let loose with a war cry and charged them at full speed? And then they didn't even glance up from the spilled milk until I was right on top of them. Pfft, all that hollerin' for nothin'.

Aw, those pigs. I still have mud on the knee of my clean jeans, from where Papa Pig smashed his snout up against it this morning. I like to pretend he was saying goodbye but really, I think he was looking for food and I was in his way.

I am glad I got to see the concrete poured for the new house/barn. I got to help a tiny bit digging out the trenches for it, so I felt kind of invested in it, and also it was interesting to see how that part of the process worked. Lots of people came out to help, and we had a huge delicious triumphant lunch afterward. And hand-churned bourbon vanilla ice cream. It was a good way to spend my last day at the Little Farm.

Why is that old guy honking and yelling at me. What is he yelling at me. Oh no. I bet it's... did I forget the... "Gas cap! GAS CAP!" Oh man. I shift into park, run around the back, crank it back in and slam the little door. "Thank you!" I shout, and point to the Oregon plate by way of explanation. He shrugs. I jump back into the car just as the light turns green, and a couple miles down the road, as he passes me, we exchange a friendly wave. Aw, I like it when people are nice.

But I'm still sad.

Come on, there are going to be plenty of things I won't miss about the Little Farm. Right? Right?
 - Mosquitoes. And flies. Flies and mosquitoes. Although I suppose they have those in other places, too. Hey, is that a fresh bite on my leg? Is there a mosquito in my car? Hey!!
 - Have to admit I'm pretty excited about returning to the land of toilets you can sit on. Toilet seats: I am such a fan. 
 - That stupid rooster.
 - Well actually I might kind of miss that rooster. A little bit. DANG IT

But there are plenty of things to distract me. There's music, because my parents sent me an FM transmitter for my MP3 player, and it works beautifully out here in the middle of nowhere. And there's so many things to look at. The mountains, shaggy with evergreens, fade away into a dryer, flatter landscape studded with oak trees. Then there are olive orchards.

A truck trailer is parked in a field with the words "HIS BLOOD WAS SHED FOR YOU" plastered across the side, which I guess is one way of getting around paying for a billboard permit. It takes me a while to realize that the picture below it is supposed to be a blood-drenched arm with a dripping hand reaching out. I dunno, I'm not entirely sure this is the most effective evangelism technique.

Look, a palm tree! Whoa. Only one, but still: that means something.

A casino billboard says, "YOU'RE ALMOST THERE!" Ha ha, very funny, billboard. You can't fool me.

I think I'll stop in Sacramento for lunch. I'll find myself a grocery store and get some healthy things to eat. Hmm, what do I want to eat for lunch?
 - Cheese. Yes. Cheese.
 - Oo, baby carrots.
 - Maybe some nuts? If they're not covered in weird oils.
 - Kombucha. Oh man, I could really go for some kombucha right now. I might have to find myself kind of a hoity-toity grocery store to get it, though.

The treeless hills in the distance look like crinkled brown paper.

A flock of birds swirls over the roadway, dividing and merging. A flock of birds is a very different sort of thing than you would ever guess based on observing individual birds, or even small groups of birds. Hmm.

Kombucha is maybe the most refreshing road trip drink ever. Even when it's warm. I wish I'd bought two kombucha bottles, instead of picking up this other juice drink at a gas station later on. Bleah, it's terrible.

More palm trees. I'm not even kind of in the Pacific Northwest anymore.

The dry hills are getting closer. Their curves, yellow with dead grass, remind me of... potato chips? Maybe it's time for a snack.

Signs in the fields read: CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL. I don't know what that's about, but I suspect it has something to do with the topic of a book my hosts were reading called Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. They said it was really eye-opening. Apparently the landscape of central California would look quite different if it weren't for how much water has been diverted by dams and irrigation.

Agh. You know what I hate the most about road trips? Not knowing for sure if you've missed your exit. Not knowing whether you should keep going or turn back. This might actually be one of the things I hate the most about life, too. Forging ahead when you don't know if you're doing it right or not is just excruciating. So stressful, all that second-guessing.

Hmm, wow, I never realized that about myself before. It's true. That is a thing I really can't stand in any context.

You know what, why am I even doing this to myself when it's totally avoidable? I'm gonna pull over at the next rest stop and buy an overpriced roadmap. I should've done that a long time ago.

Up close, the barren hills are mesmerizing, undulating, cloaked only in a stubbly layer of dry grass. They go on and on. They remind me of something. I want to say they're like the flank of an enormous beast, maybe a colossal camel or something, but that's not quite right. No, the grass isn't like a real animal's fur. It's too mangy. It's like... oh, I've got it: it's like the fur of a well-loved teddy bear.  "Hills like the hide of a giant, motley stuffed animal, worn with years of affection." Oh yup, better put that one in the blog.

There are a few trees scattered on the hills now. It's kind of exciting after so many miles of no-trees. A couple of trees, and then a few more trees, and then... vineyards! And finally, a sign that says Morro Bay, and a winding, hilly road that demands my full attention for a while. (Whee!)

I suspect this woodsy bit of the drive is the prettiest part, but I can't really see it because it's getting dark.

I wonder if my friends in Morro Bay will have any dinner leftovers they might want to share with me. I wonder how much of a monkey wrench I'm throwing into their lives by crashing at their place for the weekend. I wonder if we'll talk about anything besides tall ships and their new baby.

It's okay if we don't talk about anything besides tall ships and their new baby.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farm Folks

I'VE written quite a few words about how I came to the Little Farm. Now I want to tell you how everybody else got here.

It's not uncommon for art school dropouts in their mid-twenties to ask themselves what they're doing with their lives. Maya had two advantages when faced with this question: an inheritance, and a creative mind with a strong practical streak. "I always thought I'd like to live in the country someday, maybe when I retired," she says, "but then I said to myself, 'It's going to be a lot easier when you're young and have the physical ability to make it work.'" So she purchased 40 acres in northern California, intending to homestead and farm it as sustainably as possible. Armed with resourcefulness, a can-do attitude, and a very limited amount of farming experience, she arrived three years ago with her cat and her boyfriend, ready to make a go of it. The land had a potable spring, a couple of old buildings -- a large shed, a small shed, and something that might charitably be described as a "tiny house" (or, alternatively, as a "hovel")... and not much else.

The boyfriend part of the plan didn't work out so well; he bailed after only a few months. Determined not to give up on her dream, Maya hunkered down and spent the winter on the Little Farm with only her cat for company. She used a straw/clay mixture and raw sheep's wool to insulate the drafty walls of her tiny house. She parked her truck at the bottom of the long uphill driveway so it wouldn't get stuck in the snow, and snowshoed all her supplies in. She cut all her own firewood with an axe and a hand saw, and hauled all her own water from the spring. "There were many times I questioned my own sanity," Maya says of that winter, shaking her head. But she outlasted it, and the ordeal made her stronger and more self-reliant.

By spring, word had got around to the locals that the crazy homesteader girl was single. Maya began to get inquiries: Have you met Ray? Ray was the region's most eligible bachelor, a tall, sandy-haired divorcée who had the respect of all who knew him. Maya invited him out to see the Little Farm, and he fell for both the lushly forested 40 acres and their bright-eyed, charismatic owner. The attraction was mutual, and before long, she invited him out to stay for good.

Ray's background in construction and rural life meant that he had a lot of suggestions about how life on the Little Farm could be easier and more comfortable. After doing everything by hand for so many months, Maya was ready to hear them: "All I did was cut wood and haul water, and I thought, 'Hey, I want to be doing other things with my time.'" She still has her standards, but, as she puts it, "Ray has done a good job of tempering my idealism."

Two years later, it's obvious the partnership is working out well for them. They both enjoy hard work, and by this time have a lot to show for all they've done. Piping carries water to the central buildings. The tiny house has been re-sided and is plumbed with solar-heated running water. The large shed has been transformed into an airy outdoor kitchen with an antique but fully functional wood stove. Other buildings have sprung up: a spring house to keep bears out of the water source, a concrete cellar for keeping food cool, an earth-insulated pig shelter, a yurt with a rocket mass heater, a solar food dehydrator. The Little Farm is still a rustic homestead, but it's getting more comfortable all the time. Rumor has it the folks in the town have begun to refer to them as the "jet-set Amish."

The most immediately appealing aspect of their lifestyle just might be the food. Maya is a gifted cook and an enthusiastic proponent of healthy eating a la the Weston Price Foundation, which emphasizes cultured and fermented foods, pasture-fed meat, and raw dairy. It seems to be working out pretty well for them. Ray, lean and sinewy, is in the best health of his life; only the lines on his face betray him as past his 30s. Maya is tanned and muscular, with shoulders that remind me of the way I once heard some tall ship sailors describe a woman they fancied: "That girl looks like she could haul some line!" Meals are heavy on the cream, butter, and tallow, and yet visitors have accused Maya of "running a weight-loss camp"; most people who stay a while lose a few pounds. (Those of you who know me well will be relieved to hear I haven't.)

Beau is one of those. He visited a year and a half ago with his girlfriend, Ray's younger sister. She didn't care for farm life, but Beau did; he came back the following summer to stay and work for room, board, and a bit of pay, as part of what Ray refers to as "our nepotism program." In the process he lost several inches off his waistline and gained a bit of muscle and a bit of farming and construction experience. This summer he's back, and his forearms are rock-hard from milking the cow.

The Little Farm's economic model is still evolving. It's tough to make money off of good quality food; Americans aren't used to paying much for what they eat, and thanks to big agriculture lobbies, FDA inspection standards are effectively designed to run small farms out of business. A recent off-the-record cow share effort turned out to be more trouble than it was worth; a few neighbors still get milk, but there are plenty of mouths at the farm eager to devour as much as Mama Cow can produce. There are other ways to turn a profit, though. Maya is an idea-generating machine, Ray has an impressive array of construction skills, and both are in the enviable position of being able to work out the profit problem without the urgency of debt. Few new small farms have such an advantage.

Monday, September 5, 2011

All Creatures Great and Pig

ALL the animals at the Little Farm are surprisingly sweet and gentle, from the Jersey cow (who currently gives us about 5 gallons of milk per day): the cats (here's Spot, the mighty huntress and drier-of-ankles): the... okay, chickens aren't exactly sweet, but these Buff Orpingtons sure have a lot of personality:

...which is more than can be said of the rooster, who starts in well before dawn proclaiming, "I'm a roos-terrrr! I'm a roos-terrrr!"

Yeah, buddy, we know. We know. But back to my point, which was how nice the animals here are.  Here's Cotter, a perfectly lovely mutt when he's not running away:

And Nita, the half-grown Akbash livestock guardian:

But what on earth is that big black beanbag she's sitting on (yes, sitting on, not just standing in front of)?  Oh, that's her best pal and archnemesis, Papa Pig.

Nita competes with Papa Pig for everything -- she'll eat sour apples rather than let him have them -- but especially for attention.  She's kinda got the upper hand on the charisma front, but he is not entirely without charm.  Any time you come within ten yards of him, he begins grunting, just to let you know he's near and available for treat-giving, or scratches-behind-the-ears, or if you happen to want three-hundred-odd pounds of affectionate pigflesh leaning up against your legs, or anything like that.

Pigs aren't supposed to be this gentle and friendly, I'm told.  Pigs are typically kinda mean.  But when he got hold of a half-full ice cream churn the other day, I dragged it away from him and he didn't even do anything but yell a lot.  (To be fair, I yelled a lot too.)

Papa Pig is a hand-raised American Guinea Hog, a breed Wikipedia describes as "reasonably even-tempered."  Indeed.  His sweetheart, Mama Pig, is no less so.  Most mama pigs will tear your arm off if you so much as look cross-eyed at their little ones.  If you pick one up, this Mama Pig will just shriek until you leave them alone.  Look at that sweet face:

Also, baby pigs?  Good candidate for most hilariously adorable baby animal ever.

Just look at that satisfied little milky grin.  Let's have more baby pig-tures, because, d'awww!  Here's your obligatory feeding time photo:

Don't they look orderly?  It's kind of a free-for-all until they get settled in, though.  There are 8 piglets here (originally 9; one didn't make it through early childhood), a pretty typical litter size for this breed.  What's not typical is that every single one of them is female.

They're so unladylike.

Scandalously filthy!  I love it.  But my favorite thing about pigs (besides, well, eating them, shhh) is that mosquitoes adore them.  I am the kind of person whom mosquitoes will seek out in a crowd, and out here I get bit a lot.  Not when I hang out with the pigs, though.  The mosquitoes bypass me and go straight for them.  That's definitely worth a few extra belly-rubs.