Wednesday. May 15th. 2013.
Garth shakes a colony of potato bugs off his backpack and shoves it into the tent. We climb our muddy hill, ducking tree limbs and the windows of a house. Do the people inside know that they hosted two vagabonds overnight? Probably not. I think we Americans should adopt that European policy that allows people to walk across- and even camp on- private property as long as they remain a certain distance from houses and such. The world is too small a place for land hoarding.
Directly across the street stands Culver Stockton College. It’s quiet and empty. The students left for summer vacation just yesterday. We spend half our morning in the library, the other half in a cafe called The Lab, where many big windows look out over Canton.
At 2:30, we walk down into the neighborhood and knock on Sandy’s door. She invites us in for iced coffee. We also get to use her shower, one wall of which sparkles with a mosaic of mirrors and colorful glass bubbles. Sandy is an artist. She’s also an art teacher. She shows us a photo of one of her favortie paintings. It’s a Viking Queen. She painted it for a boat captain, believing it would live on the water, but the captain’s wife took a liking to it and decided to keep it in the house, which disappointed Sandy, who is a bit of a gypsy herself. She talks about how badly she’d like to sell her house and go out on the road. She’s even considered becoming a Bag Lady and touring the homeless shelters of America. Garth and I, based on our own experiences, assure her it’s a completely realistic and feasible plan.
“I went down to the police station,” Sandy mentions.
We’d told her yesterday when we dropped by that a cop had questioned us. A few of the local cops are her former students.
“I told them that I’d invited you into town to visit me and that they shouldn’t be bothering people who are traveling thru here.”
They say that if you just be yourself and do what you’re meant to do, you’ll attract people who are like you. Sandy is my new favorite person.
Garth and I help set up tables and chairs in the back yard garden and a couple of Sandy’s long-time friends come over for dinner. Their names are Bill and Dan and they both have art degrees. Bill is a painter. Dan is an organic farmer. He owns Blue Heron Orchard, the only organic apple orchard in the entire state of Missouri.
Dinner is lovely. It’s one of those summer night dinners where you expect to see lightening bugs and voodoo rituals. It involves venison, coleslaw, salad, spinach dip, wine, beer, a healthy amount of sarcasm and an appearance by the city clerk, who rides in on a bicycle to drop off a wooden oar she wants Sandy to turn into an art project worthy of a birthday present.
Garth and I throw our huge packs into the back of Dan’s truck. Bill perches on the edge of the open tailgate and we drive very slowly to his house, which is stuffed full of massive and very colorful canvasses. Bill’s style is so jubilant and bright that even a winter landscape full of skulls makes me feel like I’m dancing thru a Dia de Los Muertos parade in Mexico City with a head full of acid.
We ride to Dan’s farm at the end of the night and fall asleep on a futon in a little guest cabin with lavender walls.
Thursday. May 16th. 2013.
We rise at 6am. Rising at 6am is against my nature. It makes me feel like I’ve been run over by a garbage truck while suffering from a tequila hangover. But it’s okay. I will adapt. In Quincy, Garth and I were nocturnal abstract painters. In Canton, we are organic farmers. Farmers get up early.
In Dan’s kitchen, the dishes live on open shelves, not in blocky closed cupboards. This contributes to the airy feel of the house. Doors hang open. Morning breezes whipser thru screens. Dan grinds coffee beans and makes espresso.
After breakfast, he gives us a tour of the 26-acre farm. There are greenhouses and vegetable gardens and apple trees. There’s a straw and plaster storage house and a processing kitchen where Dan makes apple sauce, apple cider and other products. There’s a tiny lake for swimming. I love swimming.
Our first task is to sit on a big picnic table under a shady maple tree and squeeze green onions from their plastic trays. It’s probably one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever done. I grew up in the suburbs, where playing with dirt is frowned upon.
Once the onions are ready, Dan plow rows of dirt down in the garden and Garth pushes a wheel hoe along behind him, making grooves. Crouching in the hot sun with our hands in the dirt and swarms of mosquitoes at our backs, we plant hundreds of little onions. We take a break under the shady maple tree, drinking ice water with mint and lemon, eating organic banana chips and peanuts. We eat lunch on the screened porch of the guest cabin. Dan makes incredible wraps. They have applewood-smoked fire-roasted peppers he made himself. They’re probably the tastiest peppers I’ve ever eaten.
At the end of the day, I follow the grassy path down past the orchard to the little lake. I peel off my sweaty clothes, wade past the cattails, feet squishing deep into soft mud, and swim into the cool water. When I come back out, I stand on the grass naked and the sunny wind dries me off.
Dan makes venison, potatoes and salad for dinner. Frogs sing outside the windows while we eat. A few beers and the day’s work make it easy to fall asleep.
Friday. May 17th. 2013.
I can appreciate dawn. I can appreciate the quiet of a half-awake world and the feeling that things are about to happen. Good coffee and French toast with almond butter and maple syrup make dawn a very pleasant thing indeed.
Garth sticks a pitchfork into the dry dirt, which cracks, loosening radishes from its grip. I pull them up by the leafy handful and stack them in a wheelbarrow. I’ve never noticed the colors of radishes before. Pink, magenta, red, white. They’re so bright. I like radishes. I like dirt. I like the smell of sunblock melting off my sweaty skin. I like seeing Garth on a farm. He seems natural here.
We wheel our radishes into a kitchen with stainless steel sinks, which we fill with ice cold water. Garth washes them and I rubber band them into bunches of a dozen. I lay the bunches in rows in plastic crates, which Dan covers with plastic sacks and sticks in the fridge.
Garth and I take a tray of rejects- radishes with splits and other imperfections- out to the picnic table and rip their leaves off. These will be used around the house. The pretty ones will be sold at a farmer’s market in Quincy tomorrow. Golden helicopter seeds spin down all around us as the wind shakes the maple tree.
“I like what we do,” I say to Garth.
We stay in beautiful places and eat good food and talk with amazing people, and all we have to do is plant onions and dig up radishes and walk down the side of the road.
Dan makes wraps for lunch again, this time with salmon salad. Just like yesterday, they’re excellent. We eat them with orange slices and wine on the screened porch with the hot afternoon blowing in. A Starling rustles around in the roof of the guest cabin, trying to build a nest.
I spend the evening writing and drawing while Garth cuts grass with a monstrously ancient lawnmower. Again, the day ends with an incredible dinner and a few beers. Dan is a wonderful host and a very good cook. He’s also very laid-back and easy to work with. Overall, the atmosphere here at Blue Heron Orchard could be best described as dreamy. It doesn’t seem real that two people who have rejected almost every aspect of traditional society should be allowed to live so well.
Saturday. May 18th. 2013.
Dan drives down the highway at 45 miles per hour with his flashers on so the tomato seedlings in the pcikup bed won’t blow away.
At the Quincy town square, we set up a tent and a few tables and put the tomatoes and radishes on display. I cover one table with my handmade satchels. Dan picks one out and wears it around, calling it his “Man Purse.” It’s pink and flowery and it matches his salmon-colored polo quite well.
A group of teenagers sit on a bench with a couple of guitars, singing top 40 pop songs. Just when I think they can’t get anymore annoying, they set up amps and micrphones, put on poodle skirts and bobby socks and start performing “At the Hop.” They sing off key and the awkwardness of their choreographed dance is so profound it’s riveting.
Dan’s radishes sell at a steady rate. No one can resist the colors. I soon sell my first satchel to a woman named Sheila for $10. The teenagers perform for hours. They dress up like Sonny and Cher and sing “I got you babe.” They dress up like Kevin Bacon and do “Footloose.” Decade by decade, they work their way up to “Can’t Touch This,” for which a short, pudgy white boy dons the famous parachute pants.
AJ rides up on his bike around lunch time and gives me and Garth and massive hug. We walk around the market with him. It’s small. There are only about a dozen vendors. We meet a 13-year old kid named Nick Collins. He slouches in a green folding camp chair with an amp and mic next to him. At his feet a guitar case holds many dollar bills and a sign that encourages passersby to pick a song for him to sing.
We pick a Bruno Mars song. Nick’s father selects the track from an Ipod and it comes thru the amp. Nick’s voice is excellent, but he looks a bit bored. He remains sitting while he sings. Despite this, he’s much easier to watch than the group of awkwardly flailing teenagers at the other end of the market.
By noon, Dan has sold all of his radishes, I’ve sold $30 worth of satchels, and AJ has managed to ply the microphone from the hands of the corny teenagers and take it over with one of his positive punk songs. I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist. Also, a man in a kilt and a bright green skin-tight leotard that covers his whole body, including his head, comes leaping thru the park and over a sign and runs out into traffic.
It’s early when we arrive back at the farm, so we spend the afternoon laying out irrigation for part of the vegetable garden. We set up a roll of plastic pipe on the driveway and Garth grabs the end and walks 60 feet. I cut it and grab the new end and walk 60 feet. We trade places like we’re squaredancing until we’ve got ten lengths, which we carry down to the garden and lay between rows of lettuce.
After a swim in the pond and a fantastic dinner, we play scrabble, drink beer out of wine glasses and eat coffee ice cream with homemade apple syrup. It feels so decadent, living on a gorgeous farm in the middle of nowhere, having someone else make all this amazing food for us every day, swimming in a lake every afternoon, drinking beer and wine with every meal. The work we do is as lovely as the rest of it. There’s something about being outside in the sun, handling plants and dirt and living on your own time that makes it all feel like a big invigorating game.
“It’s not work,” Dan says. “It’s play for adults.”
Sunday. May 19th. 2013.
I walk down the center path of the vegetable garden, punching holes in black plastic pipe. Garth sticks connectors in the holes and I come back up the path, attaching a line of hose to each joint. Dan attaches valves at the beginning of the entire circuit of irrigation pipe. When it’s all assembled, he turns the water on and the soil darkens in little spots and the plants rejoice.
Clouds roll across the sky with stormy looks on their faces. Blustery wind blows maple helicopters everywhere.
After we shovel manure onto an asparagus patch, Garth and I drive the truck around the farm, picking up piles of golden cut grass with pitchforks and throwing them into the bed. When the bed is full, we drive out to a field and shove it off in a huge pile.
I like the physicality of farm work. I like hot sun and the flex of muscle. I like using a pitchfork. Using a pitchfork causes life to make sense. Not that life didn’t make sense before, it’s just that it becomes simpler and calms down a bit.
After lunch, I lie down on the futon with a little round fan aimed at me. Its humming blades puree my afternoon into a pudding-like deep sleep. When I wake up, I wash my laundry in the bathroom sink. The flames from a BBQ on the lawn reach up and lick the sky, lighting the clouds on fire. A big orange orb rolls lazily among them, spilling citrus light over the socks and underwear I’ve hung on the porch chairs.
Dan’s wife, Cherie, arrives home just in time for dinner. She’s an artist and an art teacher and she’s been out of town doing an exhibition. Her art involves mostly dance and video (see her art here). A storm rolls in while we’re eating BBQ chicken on the screened porch, so we all walk out into the orchard to watch the lightening. The trees whip around in the flashing darkness. The wind is warm. By the time we return to the cabin, rain is thundering down onto its tin roof. It’s an easy soundtrack to sleep to.
Monday. May 20th. 2013.
Dan makes pancakes for breakfast. For toppings, have coffee ice cream, berries from the forest and maple syrup from the tree in the front yard. I’ve never before stayed in a place where my host made such excellent food for every single meal. Our time on Dan’s farm has been so ridiculously pleasant that it makes me wonder what horror lies in store for our near future. The universe does function according to the principle of balance after all.
Dan’s friend, Jim, lends a hand today. He’s a glass blower. He goes about barefoot in the fields as we lay out rows of heavy metal stakes. Garth drives them in by slamming a heavy red tube down on top of them over and over. We roll out long stretches of wire fence and attach it to the posts with wire ties.
Once the fence is erected, Dan plows the rows, Garth hoes grooves into the dirt and Jim and I start planting tomatoes. The sky darkens and the wind picks up. We work as fast as we can in order to beat the massive storm Garth saw on the weather radar. I dig my left hand into the soft soil, shove the root ball into the hole with my right and push the dirt over the plant’s stem. It’s hot. The mosquitoes are relentless. I don’t mind.
Our timing is impeccable. The first rain drops fall just as we’re burying the last tomato, stacking the plastic trays and wheeling the hoe back into its shed.
“Do you think I’ll get struck by lightening if I go for a swim right now?” I ask Garth.
I can’t resist. I need to swim because I’m all sweaty, dirty and sticky. But I also just like the idea of swimming in a lake during a thunderstorm. The two of us rush down the grassy lane with our towels, strip our clothes off and pluge into the water. Garth rinses off quick and runs back to the cabin. I float around on my back, looking up at the dark, wind-whipped sky. Raindrops make rings all around me. Lightening flashes. Time ceases to exist and I become a primordial amoeba.
Around 7pm, Dan, Garth, Cherie, Jim and I pile into Cherie’s little car and we drive to Canton in the rain. We meet Sandy and Bill at Los Nopales, the Mexican restaurant where Garth and I ate on our first night in town. Dan buys everyone dinner to celebrate Cherie’s upcoming birthday and to thank Garth and I for our work on the farm. I will say tho, that the experience of staying here has been payment enough for our work.
We all drink 99-cent margaritas and laugh and talk while the rain pours down outside. Suddenly, a yellow glow lights up the faces of the buidlings and a full double rainbow springs from one side of town to the other. We all get up and look out the window. A few of us even go outside in the rain to marvel at it.
We’re finishing up our burritos and poblanos and our chips and salsa when a young woman from the next table brings over a half full pitcher of mango margarita.
“I’m about to leave,” she says. “And I just cannot finish this. So I want you guys to have it.”
We find out from the waitress that the young woman and her friend had tried to take their leftover margarita into the bathroom and surreptitiously pour it into to-go cups but were discovered and asked to leave it behind.
My head floats like a tropical island as we drive home in the torrential rain. Everything is so nice I can’t believe it. This is how life is supposed to be. We walk around the world making new friends and we all help each other out and we all get what we need and we have a good time. It makes so much sense I can barely grasp it.