All-in-all, we spent five weeks in Kentucky and left with a rebuilt motor for the Schwartz and Mattie’s broken leg on the mend. During our final week in Independence, KY, Anastasia and I made a couple trips over the Ohio River into Cincinnati. We visited the Newport Aquarium which hosts the largest collection of shark rays in captivity and is billed as one of the finest aquariums in the U.S….I’d have to agree, the entire attraction is pretty swell. Sea turtles and larger fish, including sharks, rays and shark rays (a unique hybrid from Southeast Asia) are housed in a pretty spectacular aquarium with a couple tunnels that one can walk through. The effect is like being in the water…with the sharks. They also have an otter and parakeet exhibit and a penguin exhibit, both of which I was unsure why they were at an aquarium, but, whatever…otters and penguins are funny. They also had an extensive collection of fresh water fish from around the world…it is definitely worth a visit.
We grabbed dinner at Senate, one of the new restaurants and pubs recently opened “over-the-Rhine” (which is what they call the north end of downtown Cincinnati). That area is in the midst of a renaissance…or gentrification, you decide. At Senate, we ordered the poutine with braised beef and cheese curds, a Korean hot dog with kimchi and braised short ribs and something called the Fat Charlie Hustle – basically, a pork belly Reuben sandwich. A few days later, on our way out of Kentucky, we stopped over-the-Rhine once again and ate breakfast at Taste of Belgium…different hour, same hipsters. All of the food at both places was a bit trendy but very tasty, I just wish it didn’t have to come at such an expense to the people who used to live in the neighborhood…there has to be more to real urban renewal than simply inflating real estate values.
We also visited two landmark hotels in Cincinnati: the French Art Deco masterpiece, Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, and the newly-remodeled boutique hotel, 21c MuseumHotel.
Built in 1931, Netherland Plaza is an enormous edifice with old world class. We had drinks at the Palm Court bar and spent an hour gazing at the ceilings and the wood and stone work and some giant Sumerian-looking fountain/altar thing. But, by far, my favorite stop in all of Cincinnati was 21c – the MuseumHotel is a real treat. The lobbies and bar looked pretty groovy and the museum covered the first three floors of the hotel. 21c’s founders, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, have offered up their collection of very contemporary art (focus on 21st century art) plus special exhibitions and events …all for free. There were several outstanding artists on exhibit (including Brian Knep, Healing Tiles and George Lagrady, Refraction) plus a provocative exhibition, Dis-semblance: Perceiving and Projecting Identity Today. There are two additional 21c HotelMuseums – one in Louisville, KY and another in Bentonville, AR – but the one in Cincinnati was just selected as #1 hotel in USA and #11 worlwide, 2013 by Conde Nast Traveler magazine…way to go, Cincinnati!
We left the Midwest on July 2 and headed east toward our next farm in NY. We made a short and auspicious pit stop in Philadelphia to attend the nation’s largest free concert and fireworks celebration on the 4th of July. We paid for two days worth of overnight parking at a small open air parking lot a few blocks from Benjamin Franklin Parkway where the celebration was to be held and we secretly “camped” there on the 3rd and 4th. Sneaking in and out of the parking lot mornings and nights wasn’t so bad, but it was a little sketchy sleeping downtown at night…but, truthfully, it was no worse than the night we spent in a WalMart parking lot in Port Arthur, TX.
With our parking situation settled (parking is almost always a situation when you’re 24′ long and 10′ high), our only real hang up was Mattie’s mended-but-not-quite-ready-for-walking-around-town leg. What we needed was a wheelchair for a dog. Instead, we picked up a Radio Flyer wagon and outfitted it with a canopy and some decorations and fitted me with a harness so I could haul the dog, her bowl and blanket, two chairs, a watermelon, some snacks and a day’s supply of water around the city and through a 60,000-person music festival. It worked great and I got one hell of a workout in the 95 degree heat. The wagon held together through two full days and nights in the city and finally crapped out and fell to pieces about 100 yards from the Schwartz at 1:00am…they just don’t make’m like they used to.
After Philly, we headed for New York but made a quick stop in Jersey City to visit Ryniee and David their son Roman. We spent the afternoon playing and lounging in the park and grabbed dinner and then hit the road…we wish we had had more time to share. That night, with nowhere to camp nearby, we ended up sleeping in a rest stop along the highway near Catskills, NY and woke to the noise of the early-morning McDonald’s crowd.
Rensselaerville, NY is in the Catskill Mountains. It is not nearly as humid – or, as northerners say, muggy – in the mountains as it is in the city, so droves of people flock to the campsites and lakes and rivers throughout the area. The Catskills and Hudson Valley and, I guess, just about everything outside of Manhattan is what is referred to as “upstate New York”…it is all quite verdant and lush and sort of primitive still (well, it will be after the Jersey Shores crowd goes home). The town of Rensselaerville is very tiny – just a couple twists and turns along a mountain road – and it appeared to be full of artists’ studios and galleries and small boutiqe-y shops. It is the type of place (like many areas in upstate New York) that one goes to retire, or to visit someone who has.
Our destination, Lady Liberty Farm, was a long drive down a country road outside Rensselaerville. “Country road” is one of those things that sounds better than it really is…they are dirt (unless it rains, then they are mud), sometimes with a scattering of gravel, the tree branches are often too low for the Schwartz to creep under and the holes and rocks are often too big. In the Schwartz (which rattles and creaks in normal conditions), country roads are like driving while inside a clothes dryer…after a few miles, cabinet doors are bounced open, vent covers are ripped off the roof, hubcaps are missing, the dog is a bit shaken and…as was the case on this day…the GPS is no longer reliable.
It was getting dark, the last turnoff was about 1/2 mile behind us, the GPS had quit and we were, literally, at the end of the road. There was a small lake on the right; to the left, a canoe, one black pickup truck and one broke-down trailer with cardboard windows and we were both thinking the same thing…
I backed the Schwartz 1/2 mile up the road and we stared down a long, darkening driveway wondering if this might be the place. Two BIG dogs started down the driveway toward us while a third dog barked at us from inside a seemingly abandoned vehicle and then, out of nowhere, HE showed up…overalls rolled up to his ankles, wife beater tank, shaved head…and barefoot. “Come. Come. Park right here,” and he’s waving his arms and pointing and petting an enormous dog and there’s this moment…it happens every time we pull up to a new farm…Anastasia and I just look at one another, “What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?”
Well, in this case, at Lady Liberty Farm, we found ourselves in a sanctuary – a real cradle of kindness. Brian, our barefooted greeter, has a real gentle, cerebral and intuitive nature…which makes sense, because he’s a trained physicist. Rachel, his wife, is an herbalist, massage therapist and healer. Together, the two are building a peaceful retreat center overlooking the lake – their lake – where they raise some of the sweetest and most well-behaved goats I have ever encountered and some pretty well-behaved hogs as well…plus chickens, turkeys and a flock of ducks captained by a goose rightly named “The General”.
In addition to Rachel, Brian and their friendly brood, the farm had two additional WWOOFers visiting when we arrived: Lloyd, a New Yorker who had decided to beat the heat in the city for a few weeks but ended up staying a few months at Lady Liberty. And Anna, a young student spending one month in the U.S. before returning to France to begin her studies in psychology. And Lisa, a friend, dropped by for a few days to help as well. We shared all of our meals and most of our free time together and, of course, we spent a good part of each day working together.
With the exception of one BIG day cleaning out the goat barn, the work was mostly constructive, educational and pleasant: We built potato towers, graded and lined a walking path through the garden, helped build a solar dehydrator, planted a strawberry pyramid and patched a daub and waddle wall in the goat barn. I find it to be great fun, and quite rewarding, to see projects, like those, through to completion…it is so unlike most of what I do for work nowadays. It reminds of a time, 25 years ago, when I worked building homes and commercial buildings…it is a very satisfying feeling to look back at the results of my labor and know, I helped build that.
That is, for me, the most satisfying part of the creative process – that feeling of connectedness to a process. Feeling, or rather, knowing that I am an integral part of something. Of Life. It is a much different feeling than merely earning a living…or working for money. I think this connectedness is a missing component for too many of us in our daily work lives. Maybe that is why so many of us spend time outdoors, in nature, or actively doing things on our days off…spending a day hiking or gardening or painting or making music feels so damn good. I think we deserve to live feeling that way and need not wait for the weekend or a vacation to try and create that space.
Farming is a daily creative process. It is a construction project, an art project, a science project, a community-building project and, most of all, it is a nurturing space. As I write this, I know I risk sounding a bit sappy…idealistic, maybe….but the truth is, it just feels good.
It feels good to put in a hard day’s work with a good group of people and then sit down to a big communal meal. It feels good to help create a plan and participate in its completion. It feels good to eat food we have grown. To plant in beds we have hoed. To watch things grow and die and know that this process, this cycle, can go on indefinitely if we make the right choices for the environment…and for ourselves.
If that does sound sappy…well, that’s fine by me.