I’m Transcontinental

Well, I’ve made it to California.

Five months ago I sat with my Mom on a pier overlooking the Boston harbor. Last night, I walked down the long hill to Black’s Beach in La Jolla, San Diego and touched the blue Pacific.

View from on top of the hill (photo by Stacy Williams)

Sun beams over Black's Beach (photo by SW)

Beach walkers at sunset

Surfer boy and gull

It is a beautiful and overwhelming feeling to be here. From my drive west watching the country change to my time in the four corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico), I feel, as the writer Annie Fitzsimmons says, “simultaneously powerful and insignificant.” She was talking about Arizona, its landscape and mystery, but I think it captures well the transcontinental journey.

I’ve been here over a week and it still hardly feels real. I left the quiet, snowy mountains of New Mexico on a Monday, found my first palm trees outside of Tucson that night, and then saw the ocean the next day. I ran to greet it in Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands luringly visible on the horizon.

Leaving snowy New Mexico

Black and gray silhouettes and pier

Under Scripps Pier #1

Under Scripps Pier #2

I’m in San Diego now, camped at my friend Stacy’s amazing grad student apartment on the edge of the ocean that I still can’t believe qualifies as University housing. I can hear the waves as I write this.

There are lots of things that can stir my soul but nothing comes close to water. I am a fish. Before this year, the furthest I’ve lived away from something I can swim in was four miles, and even that seemed far. I completely understand the man in Big Fish whose wife finds him in the bathtub one night, soaking while still in his pajamas. “I was drying out,” he tells her. (It also is one of the most touching scenes between a husband and wife, I think, in film.)

And more than just any water, I am near The Ocean. I can smell the salt and feel the faint moisture in the air. I can watch the surfers run to the waves and start to climb them. I can end my day and watch the orange sun descend below the horizon as a dolphin, feeding close by, watches too in between its breath and dive. Continue reading

Goats and Oysters

What does a New Mexican hill top farm strewn with goats and an Alaskan bay filled with buoys have in common? Not much, except if you’re in the business of high end organic food.

In Alaska, it was oysters. In New Mexico, it’s been cheese. Both are businesses that got started because of one singular passion. For Mike, it’s the ocean. For Nancy, it’s rugged mountains. Both are paving a new way in their states’ organic food industry.

Pile o' oysters!

Overlooking Homer's Kachemak Bay

Oysters are not native to Alaska. I learned this within my first few days with Mike Nakada’s Northern Lights Oyster Company back in July. A lucky break had landed me there after finding Mike’s oyster farm on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website. I had emailed him on a whim, saying I could work for him sometime in the next week. He called me five minutes later. “Can you be here tomorrow?” and “Do you have boots?” were his only two questions. Sure, and no I didn’t have rubber boots. “That’s alright, we’ve got some somewhere around here.” We hung up and I kind of wondered what had just happened.

Christa, novice-turned-expert filleter

Can't get much better than home made smoked salmon

I arrived at his yurt in Homer the next day. His friend Bill had brought in close to 200 salmon from a recent run and the front yard was a dizzying mix of silvery bodies, knives, freezer bags, and the bright red of flesh and eggs. I dived right in and spent the afternoon learning to filet and smoke the salmon. (I was, for the record, horrible at it but the big German lab at my feet didn’t seem to mind the extra scraps.)

Setting out for the bay in the skiff

Homer likes to claim it's the halibut capital of the world, though nearby Seward says otherwise! Oh, fishing town rivalries...

The Susitna, home sweet crab boat

We set out for the farm a few days later in a small skiff that Mike kept docked on Homer’s spit. Leaving the harbor, we pass fishing boat after fishing boat coming in with their halibut catch, or what locals like to call “chickens,” the cornerstone of the Alaskan fishing industry. We pass a cruise ship (Alaska’s other cornerstone) and then hit the open water. The wind pushes the swells higher and doesn’t let up until forty minutes later when we turned into Jakolof Bay. Our bay. Our “farm.”

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The Secret To Life Is Two Things

“And what’s the secret to life?,” I ask Gary one warm December night, half-joking, half-curious what he’ll come up with.

Gary's self portrait, hanging up in his trailer-turned-art-studio.

We’re sitting around the table at the ranch. Gary’s lives next door, and is the only neighborhood drunk (and there’s many) Ella would allow at the house when her daughter was growing up. That’s because the man’s got charm. He may be “pretty pickled,” as Ella puts it, but there’s still just something about Gary.

So when he comes a knocking on the kitchen door, we’re quick to let him in, pour some whiskey, break out some homemade bread, and sit down to hear a story…or two.

Small portion of Gary's collection of "antique" cars and trucks and semis and trailers and caterpillar construction equipment...

He’s six and he’s growing up, “a mountain boy,” in Northern California with his “Pa” and brothers. They’re dirt poor. They wake up and it’s “three punches before chores” so they can learn to fight right with their fists. His father, on the stoop of their shack, leans forward in his chair to look at the fire and ask him “Boy, is that coffee burnin’?” And that’s all Gary remembers about that.

He’s ten and is ready for his own life. He leaves the shack and goes out into the woods. He survives and finds his way around mountain towns. He learns to drink at thirteen from some “Canucks” in southern Oregon. He turns sixteen and goes to San Francisco to join the Navy. He sees it as his ticket to the world. On his tour, they stick him working in the naval ship’s boiler room. He loves it.

Old bus circa-1950s to fix up and take his art on the road

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Meanwhile Back At The Ranch…

Thirty miles south of Prescott, Arizona is a road called Wagoner. It’s also known as Walnut Grove and occasionally just “the dirt one after the Kirkland junction.” To get to it from Prescott, you either go up and over the Bradshaw mountains or take the Iron Springs road around them. This is the way I like. On it, you’ll find the Kirkland Bar, built as a stagecoach stop turned bordello in 1863, and the somewhat ominously named town of Skull Valley.

And that’s all before you’ve even hit the dirt.

Once you’re on Wagoner, you’ll cross cattle guard after cattle guard belonging to ranches that have existed for over a hundred years (one family claims to be the first white ranchers in all of Arizona). If you follow the road back to mile 26 up and down some grizzly ruts and canyons, you’ll find the gold mining turned ghost town of Crown King. You’ll also find the occasional junk yard, stray horse, and wild javelina.

Welcome to the ranch!

View out the back door with the Bradshaws blue in the distance

Gold Bar's 100 year-old ranch house. Front porch was a haven for cats, chickens, a very determined skunk, and an unfortunate end to a pumpkin pie.

Riding horses home on the road on Christmas evening

But more than any of that, the road is the neighborhood. It’s the place where people pass each other in their trucks, on their horses, on foot, and slow down for the latest news or maybe to show off the coyote, tomcat, and, sometimes, mountain lion pelt they’ve got in the back from the latest hunt (I’ll save the story about my own lion hunt for another day…).

I called mile 11 home for most of late November and December. There, tucked away beside a creek and cottonwoods, stands Ella and Mike’s Gold Bar Ranch. This was my second experience as a roaming farmhand through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (aka “WWOOF”), having spent November at a vineyard in southeastern Utah, and it was just as great an immersion into a different way of life.

Giving me the stare down after we loaded her friends up for auction (sorry!)

Barn in the late afternoon sun

You can't run a ranch without some good gates and...

...some good rope.

My first Tuesday at the ranch and we were off to the Chino Valley livestock auction with a bull and a calf for sale (after we had herded them through a squeeze box into the trailer). The auction sees about 1000 cattle pass through it a day (plus a cool 800 goats and sheep) and is the main one in Arizona. It’s mostly composed of a metal-sided building with a system of wooden pens, gates, and cut-throughs that stretch off into the distance behind it. Inside, there’s a front room where you can pick up your latest copy of Beef Today with article after article extolling the health benefits of beef and a small arena where you sit on cement bleachers and watch cattle come through, one by one, onto the sawdust show floor.

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Out In It, Again

A month ago I was reunited with a former flame. It’s been over three years (I’m sad to say) since we’ve enjoyed each other’s company. But, now that we’ve realized how better our lives are together, I doubt we’ll ever part again.

I’m talking about camping, of course.

The ranch I was working on near Monticello, Utah closed for the season on November 15th and so a farmhand friend and I headed to Canyonlands National Park (with a stop for pizza, long-awaited cell service, and to see if we could convince a couple others to come). For the next eight nights, we slept outside and, with temps dipping into the 20s, got used to wearing every single layer we own to bed.

There’s a certain rhythm to living your entire life outside that I love. I think it’s the simplicity of it. You wake up because that’s when the sun’s decided to wake up. You make a fire. You make oatmeal and coffee. (You do this because you’re more cold than hungry and because the act of doing it will warm you up too.) You strike camp. And then, one foot, two foot, go. You set out on your path.

Our first BLM campsite, curiously called "Hamburger Rock." There were a few hungry nights we wished it was more than just a name...

Start of our first day hike in Canyonlands looking out at La Sal mountains

Here's some nice red needles!

Meandering down the walls

Druid Arch, a not-too-shabby final destination

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Canyon Life

I’ve been living in a canyon the past three weeks that’s roughly 50 miles long, has four houses, an infinite number of cattle guards, and the occasional cowboy on horseback moving a herd of cows. It is a beautiful place.

The canyon from up top!

Cowboys moving cattle down canyon -- we'd have to race to get the gates locked to keep them from getting into the orchards!

I’ve been here long enough to learn what time it is by where the sun sits on the canyon walls. I’ve gotten used to the stillness — so quiet sometimes you can hear the flap, flap, flap of a crow’s wings. I’ve watched the cottonwood trees in the creek go from bright yellow to a now faded amber and the apple trees in the vineyard shed their fall bounty. But most of all, I’ve been here long enough to make friends, share a lot of laughs, eat delicious meals, and go on some fine adventures.

My home has been the Montezuma Canyon Ranch and Vineyards in Utah — on a canyon road unknown even to most locals and within close reach of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. My friends have been fellow “WWOOFers” or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a network (of sorts) where people from all over the world interested in getting their hands dirty can connect with farms eager to grow great food. (There’s also the magical added bonus that you get to stay and eat said food for free.) Continue reading

Snapshots from Driving West

A week ago today I rolled out of the driveway in western Massachusetts under the hushed silence of early morning fog. I got on the highway as I did as a teenager 10 years ago on my way to high school. This time I kept going. Through Connecticut. Through the Bronx. Through the edge of Philly. Through a little part of Delaware. Through Maryland (where I swear I could smell the ocean in the wind). Until I reached D.C., my first stop.

My great-grandfather (far right) before a trip out West in the early 1900s -- they took a train.

Seven days, and 2500 miles later, I am now in the west eating a plump Coloradan peach in a town called Longmont on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. I’m staying with my cousin for a few days to recharge before making my way over those mountains to Utah (though if this peach is any testament to the glories of Colorado I just might have to stay longer).

I have to say the experience driving this far in a week is an odd one. The world has been coming at me in beautiful, curious snapshots each day (with plenty of dull, repetitive ones too). In a car, you move through it all so quickly it can hardly seem real at times (and in all honesty I’ve been pretty restless so have been moving myself through it all in a whirl). As I pulled onto my final street yesterday afternoon, the immediate thought was: am I really here?

Today I’ve started to shake that driving-a-car feeling. A good long sleep has quieted the engine in my ears and a short run today has reminded my body that it’s main function is to move, not sit. But, before I get all my wits back, I thought I’d share some of those snapshots… Continue reading