Saturday, May 14, 2011

Moving to the country…

After a certain number of visits to a rural area, something strange happens; Those huge pickup trucks that used to look like absolute metallic monsters start to seem reasonable. Our neighbor in San Francisco was a contractor and had one of these, albeit not the biggest model out there. He used to park it on the narrow street outside our house where it would dwarf our little Nissan Xterra, what we used to think of as a large SUV. But now those trucks, even the ones with bulged out hoods and fenders, double wheels on the back and seating for 7, suddenly don’t seem that big. Note that I’ve wanted a “Dually” pickup since Mel Gibson drove one in “Lethal Weapon” – imagine my surprise when I just discovered that it ranks among’s Top 10 Movie Pickups – but have never had a valid reason to own one. Now I found myself on CraigsList every night before bed rationalizing that the extra 4 feet of length for the long bed was probably worth it.

Several years ago, I read a book called “The Millionaire Next Door” that collected and analyzed data about people with a net worth of more than a million dollars with some surprising results. The author concluded that, in large part, that demographic was made up not of those with high powered jobs making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but rather of those with modest incomes who chose to spend responsibly and within their means. Holding off for the time being on the implications of the book as it relates to homesteading, sustainable food and supporting local businesses, the reason I mentioned it was one conclusion I found particularly interesting; The vehicle most commonly owned by those with a net worth over one million dollars is a Ford F-150 pickup truck. In the parking lot of local grocery store, I asked a burly gentleman wearing a John Deere hat and apparently doing his best “Larry the Cable Guy” impression, if I could take a look inside his Ford F-150. We proceeded to talk for 5 minutes about the pros and cons of the various production years and his blue-eyed farm dog sitting proudly in the front seat.

We got back in the car afterwards, looked at each other and commented that the guy really could not have been nicer. In fact, that become something of a repeating theme during our trips up to Petaluma. After a visit to the bank? Could not have been nicer. After a visit to the drug store? Could not have been nicer. And this one will really “drive” the point home; After a visit to the DMV? Could not have been nicer! It got to the point we had to start abbreviating it as C.N.H.B.N. I’m sure we’ll have some other experiences, but so far, we’re enjoying a laid-back and friendly vibe.

The day the sale closed, we got to work figuring out just what we’d bought. We confirmed that underneath the pink shag in the living room and on the stairs was beautiful oak hardwood. Really people? I thought this only happened on HGTV.





We also got some paint samples up on the walls while Gorilla supervised. We’ve always liked “bold” paint colors, our living room in San Francisco having been a rich, burnt orange, and figured some color would freshen the place up.


We have some definite ideas for what we’d like to do with the house, leaning towards a modern farmhouse feel. We came across this picture on the website of a local company that makes concrete countertops from sand that has eroded into a nearby river and were struck by the similar layout of our kitchen.





But after getting a price quote, a super-eco new countertop might have to wait. Besides, what’s more “eco” than keeping the original laminate countertop out of the landfill (for a while…)?

We decided the last time we painted would be the last time we painted, so while the painters worked, I fixed my attention on cleaning out the barn. While the dream is to find a 1917 Model T pickup under a tarp or a 1923 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson mandolin, our barn was mostly filled with old paint cans and some miscellaneous tools the seller had asked if he could leave behind. Still, some of the old workbenches and a few California license plates from the early 1900’s used to patch holes in the wood floor gave it a lot of character. I spent an entire afternoon just organizing and clearing spider webs from the rafters. It’s going to be a great work area.




During the initial inspections of the house, we’d been told that not only did the chimney have several fatal vertical cracks but that it was pulling away from the house. Yes, it was not “integrous.” We were given the name of a mason who came out for a second opinion. As he knelt down in front of the hearth, pressing his hands against the cool red and gray brick, tracing his finger delicately along the grout lines, we felt like there was a conversation going on that we could not hear. He explained that these bricks had likely come up the Petaluma Slough by boat from one of the brick factories near San Rafael, that the man who built the chimney was likely not a professional mason but that he’d done a reasonable job and that while our flue to firebox ratio was excellent, the installation of double pane windows in the house had been starving fires of oxygen which resulted in the minor smoke staining near the mantle. Yes, the old girl had some issues, but he could make her beautiful once more. We started calling him “The Chimney Whisperer.”


We scheduled him to do the work the following week although he asked if we could be flexible; Sadly, it seems that his wife had been diagnosed with Leukemia over the weekend. We said of course, anything he needed. On the day he came to do the work, he spent a few extra hours fixing a few issues we hadn’t even talked about, making sure that everything was perfect. He was waiting in the sun garden after I went to get my checkbook. We thanked him again for all his extra work, and as he turned to leave I said, “And I hope everything goes well with your wife.” When he stopped and slowly faced me, I caught a shine in his eyes. “Unfortunately, she passed on Monday. She went into the hospital on Sunday night and was gone the next day. I don’t know what else to do but to keep working and moving forward.”

Six months ago, Ann and I visited two friends on the drive down the mainland of Mexico. After years of steady jobs and raising kids, of course punctuated with great times with friends at Grateful Dead shows and music festivals, they learned how to sail and had been spending winters anchored on their boat just north of Puerto Vallarta. We’d visited them a few times, always inspired by their love of life, each other and their friends. Soon after we left them in December, we learned that Ceacy had been diagnosed with cancer. She had also passed away earlier this week.


The three of us stood wiping our eyes under a huge live oak tree, talking about the fragility of life. I lost my father to cancer 6 years ago and have had scares with others close to me, as everyone has these days. It just serves as a reminder to take advantage of life while you have it and gives me confidence in the decisions we’ve been making lately to get out and see the world and live in an environment that we feel connected to. 

Now, let’s turn that frown upside down and look at some PICTURES OF GOATS!

Even before the house closed, I started looking around for someone with a herd of goats we could use to trim the grass on the property. The pastures were also full of an invasive species of purple star thistle, and I’d already been reading up on different approaches to getting rid of it. One of the most effective ways seemed to be grazing with livestock before it could go to seed. The question was, would goats eat this prickly plant that makes those thorny, bitter leaves in salads at fancy restaurants look like butter lettuce?

A late night CraigsList email led to feed store that yielded a referral that eventually brought Kelly, Luis and nine goats to our pasture gate. Actually, as they pulled up, we were disappointed that it looked like they’d brought fewer, but later saw that they were just all piled in there on top of each other. With a makeshift ramp and the promise of some grain, they slid and jumped off the truck and went right to work.



Petunia (the pig) made a brief run for the open gate but then realized there was a ground-score of grain on her turf. She charged the swarm of goats, her round black butt looking like a bowling ball heading towards a full rack of white pins with brown heads. She scored a strike as the goats, never having seen a pig before, scattered.


The herd was mostly made up of neutered males, most about a year or so old, plus two females and a “Billy Goat.” Billy, the father of them all, sported a reddish brown… well, I guess you’d say “goatee,” and kept a watchful eye over his… well, I think the word is “kids.” Is it possible that the entire English language is based on goats?

Having been raised around people, we could walk right up to any of them to give them a scratch between the horns – some breeders “debud” them but Kelly and Luis chose not too, more on this below – to which they often responded by lowering their heads and pressing into us in a kind of slow motion butt. (As it turns out, the word “butt” will be used far too many times in this blog post.)





“Simon” is the most friendly of the bunch and would often trail behind us like a puppy.


We watched them eat for a while while Petunia and the sheep kept their distance, wondering suspiciously what had become of their peaceful barnyard. 



Ann did her best to comfort Petunia.


It didn’t take long to figure out the shortcomings of our fencing. A few times a day, we’d walk out to the pasture to find that one of the goats had stuck his head through the four inch square wire mesh, tempted by the delicious roses in the sun garden on the other side, only to find that his swept back horns acted like a grappling hook. Since they usually moved as a pack, when we’d see a group of only 6 of them together, it usually meant that one was stuck in the fence and two others were lying close by offering moral support. When they would see us looking out towards them, they would all start baaa’ing at us as if to say “Hey, you guys call yourselves farmers?! We got a man down in the fence over here!”


In each case, we’d find the entrapped animal still happily munching away at his newly accessed bounty, sometimes with an hour of droppings piling up behind him. And without fail, after we’d assist his horns out of their predicament, another would start nibbling in the exact same area, inching his nose through the hole and his horns towards the point of no return.

It was a great first few days on “the farm.” As we’d arrive, our motley herd would gather at the pasture gate to greet us. We’d check the fence line for trapped goat butts and pour Petunia a bowl of the “potbellied pig chow” we’d bought at the local feed store or possibly a spoiled treat from the fridge.




We were still negotiating a maze of customs documents and inspections before we could get the truck out of the port of Oakland. It had arrived a few days before we closed, and we were working against a deadline before we’d start incurring storage fees. Time and time again we found ourselves saying, “If we only had the truck” when were looking for anything from cutting boards and knives to sheets and pillows to first aid supplies to tools. Pretty impressive to think that little truck had everything we needed to move into a new house and start a farm. If only we had it…

As much as I enjoyed taking this picture, it’s clear that both need a set of farm boots. After a weekend of settling in, it was time to get to work.