December 28, 2012
Dear Family and Friends –
As I sit here this morning trying to piece together this letter I look around me and see a pretty cheery post-Christmas sight. The room is cluttered with presents that we’ve yet to put away, the fire is blazing, there’s actually snow on the ground with more promised tomorrow, and the farm animals are all fat and happy and snug in their winter quarters. Keith is bundled up in bed with a cold and I can feel that I’m about to succumb as well. Still, I’ll try and make this annual narrative as coherent as possible. Yet long time readers of these missives will know that even under the best of circumstances I tend to lack a filter, so here’s advanced warning that this may be one of my more rambling efforts…..
While the old year ended on such promise, the new year decided we needed a sharp reminder that things are never allowed to get too good…. January immediately brought complications to real estate deals that looked like slam-dunks in December. Lots of long hours and intense negotiations couldn’t rescue one big deal, but several others were salvaged to keep us going. Usually January is such a quiet month after the holidays and before the late winter lambing frenzy in February. This year the very mild weather let us tidy up the farm a bit for a visit from Keith’s nephew, famed guitarist Jeff Zona. Of course, the only time we had just a few hours of bad weather, Keith decided to take full advantage of it by hitting a patch of black ice and spinning out of control, careening off the highway (narrowly missing a plunge into the Rappahannock River) and flipping upside down. While he himself was only slightly scratched and was able to be rescued through the passenger window of his smooshed truck; the truck itself unfortunately didn’t make it. As you can see from the photos below, it was totaled in a really spectacular way, and he’s lucky to be alive. In the end I got a new Ford Escape and Keith got my old car.
Lots of new listing appointments, and showings, and some wonderful new contracts which significantly bolstered our personal economic recovery made February the best real estate month ever! February was also the start of a dangerous trend that lasted through the end of the year – Food! Glorious Food! Lots of high quality, high calorie stuff that came at us constantly the rest of the year. Chef Dayn Smith outdid himself with a stellar dinner at his nearby Glen Gordon Manor in mid February as a Valentine’s treat for some of the locals, and we were invited to a very, very swellegant dinner party at the Georgetown Club with old friends for Valentines Day evening. A great way to catch up with both country and city friends and expand our waistlines at the same time. We spent the rest of the month wondering when winter was going to come (it didn’t), and waiting for lambing season to start (it didn’t). So to liven up the tedium Keith decided to wreck another car toward the end of the month. I was convinced Keith had done it on purpose because I while got a nice new shiny car, he was stuck with my old one. Although we were hoping the old thing would make it over the 200,000 mile threshold, the engine decided it just wasn’t up to it, and blew up on him right on the horrifically busy Beltway. Luckily he was able to coast off to the shoulder (he may wreck ’em, but at least he’s got good reaction skills!).
Since my dermatologist had warned that the radiation treatment she had planned for me would render me ‘unsightly’ for a couple of weeks, March seemed like a good time to schedule it. After all, who sees me at this time of year except the ewes? But of course, you can guess what’s coming next….. Right in the middle of the skin cancer treatment several real estate deals required my presence. Keith was aghast that I would go meet clients in this condition. “I just look like a boiled lobster,” I said. “No, my love,” said Keith, “you look like a lobster with boils!” Judge for yourself in the picture below. And of course while all this real estate activity is happening we get slammed with lambs. Lots! They started popping ’em out fast and furiously on the 9th and didn’t stop until the 13th. 49 lambs in 4 days. The rest dribbled out at a slower pace til we had 95 total by the end of the month. While the lambs, real estate, and skin treatment all resolved themselves satisfactorily, the month ended on a sad note when my good friend, colleague and pub trivia team-mate Howie Swaim died an untimely death.
The first week of April saw us shearing 90 sheep over 2 days, preparing for our annual Old Dominion Hounds Hunt races tailgate, and attending an Easter brunch with Keith’s mom. That gave us 24 hours to recover and prep for the next onslaught of interesting real estate deals and a long-awaited vacation. The vacation itself was part of a promise I’d made to Keith back in the not too distant past, when things were looking pretty dire for us in the $$$ department. Last year we were struggling to keep this whole enterprise going on his salary alone. I vowed that as soon as I got back on my feet financially, not only would I start pulling my weight again, but that I would make it up to him with a plush vacation (or two!) in compensation for all the sacrifices he was making for me. So now that I was not only solvent again, but actually a bit flush, what better way to celebrate our good fortune than to treat my long-suffering and loyal partner to a fun escape? Leaving the farm in the very capable hands of our former farm manager Jeremy Christopher, we headed to Tennessee for a short stay at the Blackberry Farm. While we enjoyed every second of it, it was a good thing that our stay was short! In true fois gras fashion we were force-fed the richest food imaginable morning, noon, and night All of it absolutely amazing, but after 3 days we were ready to waddle away. We did manage an afternoon of horseback riding, and Keith had a massage while I worked on some real estate deals, but otherwise we just stuffed ourselves silly and raided the farm’s extensive collection of half bottles. The next leg of our journey was meant to be some hiking in the Great Smokey Mountains to work off all the calories, but the constant rain and fog forced us to do most of our sightseeing from the car. Still, it was beautiful and a fun drive through Cherokee territory to Asheville, NC. We toured the Biltmore on a beautiful spring day and then drove to Greenville, SC for a fun dinner with brothers Ray & Geoff and family, and then some after dinner wine tasting with brother Ray that lasted til the wee hours of the morning. The next day was spent at Geoff’s Riverwood Farm near Greenville and getting the deluxe farm tour from nephews Will and Sam and niece Mindy. After that we headed to Tryon, NC to stay in surroundings as grand as the Biltmore with friends Trip Hoffman and Alan van Wieren for the Blockhouse Race weekend. The parties and tailgates were a lot more elaborate that what we put on for our steeplechase races in ol’ Virginny, but the best part of the whole weekend was seeing nephew Will entered in the pony race on his pony “Pepsi.” And guess what – he won! Back in VA the farm and more real estate deals demanded attention, but we managed to find time to purchase some new hay-making and mowing equipment, plant the kitchen garden for the season, and lay the groundwork for this year’s big farm projects.
If you burrowed back into the most gauzy reaches of your memories for an childhood image of a perfect Spring you might be able to conjure up a glimpse of May 2012. Soft gentle spring showers, mild sunny days, roses cascading everywhere you turn, and fresh asparagus ripe for the plucking every day. Lambs frolicking in the green, green grass, and little goslings and chicks exploring the world for the first time. At least some of you got to experience a little of it with us – friends (Curtis and Will came down from Cape May, NJ to visit and went home with some sheep) and family (Keith’s sisters and friends visiting from the west coast came for a memorable dinner). We left the country idyll just twice, once mid-month to the Italian Embassy to hear some great new musical talent and a fun outdoor exhibit at the Hirschorn Museum. And then Memorial Day weekend in Lewes, DE at the home of good friends Drew & Michael. We had a great time catching up with them and other old friends while kayaking in Cape Henlopen State Park, but I drove everyone crazy with my inability to learn how to play canasta.
June started out pretty much as pleasant continuation of May (notice the slight foreshadowing in ‘started out?’). Hay-making was a total cinch with our brand new haying equipment. We made enough hay in one cutting to feed the entire flock for the coming winter and got it all baled just before it started to rain. Good timing all around for hay, but bad timing for a visit from friends from Germany. Bob & Doris Schmidt (who are Keith’s niece’s husband’s parents, got that?) had treated us to a wonderful time when we were in Germany 2 years ago, so we wanted to do something special for them while they were here in the States for a family visit. Our plans for a nice, relaxing farm visit and big family dinner went out the window because of those blasted sheep! One minute they’re all fat and happy and looking picturesque grazing in the distance, the next (the day the Schmidts arrive, of course), they’re expiring right and left – hit by a severe ‘bloom’ of Barber Pole worms. These nasty parasites are the bane of my existence. There was nothing for it but to gently lead the entire flock of 165 sheep (rams, ewes and lambs) a half mile to the barn and spend the day worming them. We saved the flock, but it wasn’t much of a visit for the Schmidts.
So, on the last day of the month we decided to do something really wild and crazy – forget Netflix – let’s go OUT to a movie! The movie (Prometheus) rated a “meh,” but as we drove home from the theater we found ourselves looking at a far more surreal landscape than any in the sci-fi film. The sounds of mayhem we had thought were part of the film were actually sounds of what was happening right outside the theater. We had to drive very slowly as everywhere we looked police lights were flashing and huge trees lay strewn across the highway. As we neared the farm the scene actually got worse. Our mounting dread wasn’t dispelled when we reached the farm entrance. We couldn’t get more than a few yards down our drive before the path was blocked. Stumbling over endless trees and branches in the dark we slowly made our way to the (thankfully unscathed) house. We had experienced a “Derecho” storm – something we had never heard of before (and hope to never hear of again!). With the power out there was nothing for it but to call it a night and see what things looked like in the light of day…..
… Morning broke on the first of July to a devastated landscape of trees scattered all around the farm. It goes without saying that the majority of them decided to fall right on our perimeter fencing. A total of 25 larger trees fell on fences, roads, or paths, unlike the others that had the decency to just keel over in the woods. With the power out and our electric perimeter fencing flattened to the ground in several places we had a desperate situation – how to keep our sheep in, and keep coyotes and dogs out? The first thing to do was to herd the sheep into the most secure paddocks and start sharpening the chain saw. But then what? It’s 100°+ F (40° c) outside and hotter inside. There are 165 very hot and thirsty sheep (and assorted chickens, pigeons, donkeys, cats, etc, etc) and two dirty, sweaty, and cranky humans. We had no power (which means no AC and no water) and no idea when it would be restored. The first order of business was to haul water from the pond for critters and then try and get as many trees off fences and the driveway as we could. The heat and lack of water meant that we did the absolute minimum necessary to get the farm up and running and left the heavy stuff til later in the year (which, at this writing in late December, is still not finished). Luckily power was restored just hours before Keith had to hop on the train to Boston. Like a mad-man I rushed to get everything secure enough so that I could go with him. We rode up to Beantown on July 5th and met my sister Jen and brother-in-law Gunter visiting from Germany. We had a great evening playing with the kids and a few hours the next morning touring the town with them before we headed to DC at noon. An 18 hour visit that was totally worth the 12 hour travel time. Back in the country the next day we were treated to an absolutely magnificent performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Castleton Music Festival. After a few more days of farm repairs we headed north again – this time by car – to Martha’s Vineyard. An overnight stay in Stonington, CT gave us a chance to spend the morning touring the Newport, RI “cottages.” Having seen both the Biltmore and the Breakers within the space of a few months Keith is now a certified expert on Vanderbilt mansions. The Vineyard was just as much fun this year as last – perhaps even more so, since we knew the ropes this time. Quansoo beach was still spectacular and we had some memorable dinner parties and beach picnics with friends. And if you’re ever driving through Connecticut on I-95, do yourself a favor and get out of traffic for a few moments to see Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT. I spent the rest of the month dealing with overgrown vegetation and storm damage in hot and sticky VA, while Keith decided to continue his life of luxury with a week in LA where he organized a reunion of all of his old punk rock crowd from the early 80s. (There’s nothing more sobering in middle age than to reconnect with the wild rebels of your glamorously mis-spent youth and find that they are all now respectable suburban soccer moms and dads with kids about to head to college….).
After July’s mad scramble, August was the month that we caught up on stuff that had been falling apart right and left for years. We had long wanted to expand and finish the walled kitchen garden, but most of it has remained a weed patch while we waited for our financial situation to stabilize. Now that things were finally back on track, it was time to install the long awaited centerpiece of that garden – a fountain – that, due to its size, needed to be in place before we could even think about building the potting shed or finally stuccoing the raw concrete garden walls. It took the installation crew 3 attempts in as many weeks to get it perfectly sited, absolutely level, and fully functioning (extreme heat and an extremely fussy landowner being the main obstacles). Not even Louis XIV in Versailles could be as happy as I am with the result.
Any visitor to the farm over the past several years has experienced the sorry muddy mess that we call a driveway. Derecho tree damage only made it worse. It had long been a source of embarrassment, but at 9/10ths of mile long, I’d shudder every time I’d calculate the cost of new gravel. Yet it had to be done, so we just took the plunge and regraded and resurfaced the entire length and put ‘tar and chip‘ on half of it. You can now drive its entire length and not feel as though you’ve just completed the Dakar to Paris road rally. At the end of the month we said good-bye to good friends and neighbors Rod & Alexia von Lipsey when they moved (not permanently, we hope) to Chicago.
Farm Repair Photos
We’ll skip the usual fluff about September weather and various social events (but which did include a Will Hopkins concert, and a long-overdue visit from my old college buddy Guy Griffith) and get to the stuff I really want you to know. This year’s annual NACFA sheep meeting was held outside of Vancouver, BC and I convinced Keith to come along with me and make a vacation out of it. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to commune with my fellow shepherds, and we greatly enjoyed beautiful Vancouver and a 22 km bicycle tour of Stanley Park, but without question, the highlight of the trip was the 2 day excursion to Orcas Island, one of the San Juan islands in the Puget Sound. I kid you not, I would move there tomorrow if I could! Imagine an island the size of Manhattan but with only 5,000 full time residents. Then picture beautiful mountains covered with Douglas fir plunging into a crystal clear ocean filled with starfish, killer whales, seals, and sea otters. Add to that a very comfortable and temperate climate with half the rainfall of Seattle. But wait, the best part is – no bugs! Not a single one! And no nasty barber pole worms or other parasites, no coyotes or other predators! Given my daily battles (despite a hermetically sealed house) with brown marmorated stink bugs, Asian ladybugs, and cluster flies, my jaw literally dropped at the sight of open windows with no screens! Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have a farm there with no pests, parasites, or predators, and to enjoy beautiful scenery and the great outdoors every day of the year – and to never, ever, have to deal with traffic, noise, or idiots with their guns and ATVs, while still enjoying the company of sophisticated people, fine wines, and great restaurants? It is as if they took the best parts of my beloved Rappahannock County and shook out all the unwelcome bits of Virginia living (extreme heat and humidity, bugs, rednecks, and Virginia politicians) and then dropped it in the middle of Puget Sound. Keith and I hiked up Mt. Constitution, toured the island, and chatted up the locals in pubs and restaurants and the next day walked into a real estate office to see what farms were available for sale. For the first time in my life I found a place that I was truly sorry to leave to head back to the farm. Reality has since intervened – how would we ever make a living on a remote island where everything has to be brought in on an hour long ferry ride from the mainland, but a guy can certainly dream, can’t he? After Orcas, our couple days in Seattle seemed fairly tame, but we did the usual tourist stuff, including a memorable meal at Canlis. Before heading back east we drove down to Mt. Rainier to relive my climbing adventure from 6 years ago. Ever since that fateful climb, I vowed I’d go back – ideally with someone special to re-live the adventure. Well, my someone special wasn’t too thrilled to have his fingers nearly frozen off while dangling on the edge of a glacier, but he was a good sport and (almost) enjoyed the climb as much as I did. Unfortunately the peak of the mountain was covered in clouds, but we did see some scenery once we descended below the cloud level, and the next day we actually saw Mt. Rainier at a distance from our hotel room in Tacoma.
Back home in October, we hit the ground running and hurriedly rounded up all the sheep to put in their breeding groups before turning around to: 1) celebrate Keith’s mother’s 90th birthday; 2) join friends from LA for a great brunch (thanks Frank!) in DC; 3) help to host a Freedom to Marry fund-raiser (which, judging by election results in MD, WA, MN, and ME, was pretty successful!); 4) entertain visiting niece Meg and nephews Sam & Will; 5) organize a hike for friends up Old Rag mountain; 6) attend an amazing Halloween party at neighbors; and 7) sell some sheep in the middle of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy, by the way, was a bit of a bust for us (for once!). Only a few branches down and power out for 24 hours.
November was a non-stop food fest from beginning to end. It started on the 3rd when I was lucky enough to engage star chef Dayn Smith to host an autumnal feast at Glen Gordon as a thank you for all the clients who had made it such a great year for me. Dayn completely outdid himself as you can see by the menu here. After that was a “Blues Brunch” at a neighbor’s farm, a champagne and fried chicken feast, Keith’s sister’s birthday steak extravaganza, a wine dinner in town at the new digs of former country neighbors featuring antelope steaks and wild boar sausage, and two back-to-back Thanksgiving dinners (1 pm and 5 pm) followed by 2 post-Thanksgiving parties the following weekend. I was bursting at the seams by the end of the month and the holiday party eat-and-drink-a-thon had yet to start.
The food fest continued in December with holiday parties and other events. Despite feeling fairly partied out, Keith bravely agreed to a family Christmas gathering in Richmond at his niece’s on Christmas Eve, even though he had to be in DC in the wee hours of Christmas morning to head up to Boston for work and return the next day. Rather than have him spend Christmas all alone on the rails, I went up with him and we had a great Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner in a cold and empty Boston Christmas night, before returning to DC the next day. The train was surprisingly full on Christmas Day and yielded a nice serendipitous moment as well. Keith ran in to our old friend Peter Sisson who was visiting family in Baltimore for Christmas and then taking the train up to JFK airport for a flight to Sydney. We had a great time catching up and it seemed a fitting coda to an eventful year.
So there it is. As dusk settles in, Keith is snoozing in bed. The fire could use a good poke and a few more logs, and the setting sun is losing a battle with clouds threatening new snow. It’s a nice little cozy domestic moment, and a welcome quiet end to a hectic year. We had a great time and some memorable adventures 2012. No doubt 2013 has its share of trials and tribulations in store for us (though we’re hoping for a few triumphs as well). In the meantime, life is pretty grand.
Wishing you and yours much health and happiness for the coming year!