Valley Guy

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, August 6, 2006

One weekend a bunch of us went to the Shenandoah Valley to get away from it all. An outside observer would perceive us as creatures knotted up with tension and stress and internal compressive forces. We were teeth grinders. We were jaw clenchers. We were vein-on-the-temple poppers. We were, in short, city people, desperately in need of a geographical cure.

We needed to recalibrate, and possibly even (though it seemed awfully ambitious) relax. We needed to be surrounded by barns and cornfields, and a prepossessing arrangement of hills and dales. Also cows. Cows are bred to be not only meaty but very relaxed. Cows know how to chill. They are imperturbability on the hoof. They look at you with a blank gaze that says, "I have not a care in the world, other than being covered with flies."

And so we found ourselves in cow country, in an old frame house tucked into a lovely hollow next to a babbling brook. We sat in rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. At first I sat nervously, as I haven't rocked in such a long time. When you're too wound up, you can rock so violently that you'll pitch backward, arse over elbows. That would be embarrassing.

From the porch we had a view, through a narrow declivity, of distant hills and pastureland. A trumpet vine, crawling up the corner beam, framed the vista. In the foreground stood two small barns, authentically red and sagging with the weight of the years. When a hummingbird visited, it seemed as loud as a jetliner.

I was slowing down so fast I was leaving skid marks. Toxins were bubbling from my tissues and evaporating in the sunshine. As the birds flitted across the sublime pastoral landscape, I became so relaxed I began to drool. My leg muscles ceased to hold me up, and I laid on the porch, whimpering, bludgeoned by beauty. If the hummingbird had come back it might have killed me.

Urban people immersed in nature often scramble for some comparison to the artificial world -- as in, "The forest reminded me of that planet Kirk and Spock visited with the man-eating plants." In this instance, one of my friends said that everything looked like it belonged in a puzzle. The view from the porch would surely be a thousand-piece puzzle, and we'd start by finding the red pieces corresponding to the barns. Then we'd do the trumpet vine. Then we'd do individual oaks and maples, putting off, until the end, the vexing, undifferentiated pieces of meadow.

Through local sources we found a swimming hole, where a mountain river tumbled playfully into a deep boulder-lined pool. We careened down a natural rockslide. We cavorted. We were cleansed to the soul. For a brief moment we may have forgotten how badly we needed to check our e-mail.

And no doubt everyone in our group had the same thought: Why aren't we country people? Why do we insist on living in the city, huffing and wheezing on the great hamster wheel of life? Why shouldn't we move out here and get a rambling old house and a big porch and a pickup truck and a couple of pet cows and let our kids grow up to have that "cornfed" look?

And the answer is: Because there is no one out here in this pretty valley who is going to pay us any money.

That's one reason it's such a charming place: not enough money to ruin it. This rolling countryside has never even been flat enough for really serious farming, the corporate kind, where a cornfield reaches to the horizon and can be harvested by a single gigantic tractor the size of Des Moines.

Even if you moved out here, would you really belong? Would you sing in the local church choir? Join the Ruritan Club? Fix that old barn? Muck out the stalls? Do you even know the difference between hay and straw?

I called a real estate agent, Otis Mead, and he said most of the people buying homes are what the locals call "come-heres." They're not from here. And that's okay, so long as they don't forget they're not from here. He told a story about a client from the big city who bought a farmhouse. He liked to play tennis. Every time he won a point, he pumped his fist. "You don't do that down here," Mead told him.

Yeah, it's good to get away, and we loved that old house and swimming in that river, but in less than 36 hours we were all back in the big city, where we belonged. I'll just dream about the valley as I sit here in my cubicle, under the fluorescent lights -- with a perfect view, just over my computer monitor, of the photocopier.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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