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Face to Face With Rappahannock's Rural Charms

By Walter Nicholls
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 27, 2008

As my lips move close to the llama's, I give the curious animal his necessary meet-and-greet moment, an opportunity for him to smell me and size me up. I want to be friends, run my fingers through his deep brown fleece, grab the reins and lead him through an obstacle course, then, perhaps, down a forested slope to the winding Thornton River. At West Wind Farm in Rappahannock County, anyone with a positive aroma and a taste for adventure can get to know the Incas' beast of burden.

Rappahannock, best known as the home of the sumptuous Inn at Little Washington and as a gateway to Shenandoah National Park, can easily fill a weekend with far more than a fancy meal after a strenuous hike. There is bounty, in summer and fall, at vegetable farms and fruit orchards that can fill baskets and then the back seat. At any time of year, with six wineries, a tasting room is never far away.

Despite its proximity to the nation's capital, about 75 miles away, the county has maintained an off-the-beaten-track aura of rural pride through strict laws controlling development and a populace that appreciates tourism. The rugged beauty of the place and its laid-back lifestyle also attract residents who have established niche businesses you won't find just anywhere.

That's how I meet Silver, a well-mannered, 8-year-old llama. Then comes the kiss.

Will he spit, I am wondering, as llamas are said to do? For that matter, will he bite?

"Don't worry," says farm co-owner Gwen Hays, 65, a retired aircraft radar engineer, who stands nearby stroking the white rooster cradled in her arms. "They only have teeth on the bottom."

Somehow, I don't find Hays's words reassuring, although Silver looks sweet-tempered -- angelic, even -- because of his beautiful, long eyelashes. But seconds later, having made a positive chemical connection, off Silver and I go. Only twice in her six years of llama work, Hays says, has an animal refused to be near a guest. "And they didn't smell bad," she says. So, go figure.

Hays and her husband, Clyde Humphrey, breed, train and show llamas. (Virginia is home to 3,656 llamas, according to the International Lama Registry.) The couple has 23 of the rather regal animals.

On some farms, llamas are used to guard sheep and chickens. But lots of owners just like them as eye candy out in the field. From the hundreds of show ribbons covering the walls of their double garage, it's easy to see that showing their llamas is what Hays and Humphrey like to do.

At the 43-acre West Wind in Castleton, the obstacle course is a series of old truck tires, wooden walkways and waist-high jumps that put llamas through their paces. The whole business takes maybe 15 minutes. But some people stay for hours, learning the proper way to hold the lead rope and get the llama to accomplish simple tricks, such as stepping smartly through a hula hoop.

Many of the farm's guests have disabilities or are home-schoolers out for an animal class. "Llamas love to interface with kids and the handicapped," Hays says. There is no fee. "By letting people come here, we get the animals trained," she says. The couple sell their llamas for between $500 and $6,000 apiece.

Additional income comes from selling the animals' wool, at $4 an ounce; it can be made first into a dense, soft felt and then further fashioned into clothing, perhaps a vest. (The owners can explain the simple process, which requires soapy water and elbow grease.) A $5 bill will get you a five-pound bag of llama droppings, which Hays and Humphrey say is an excellent fertilizer for home gardens.

Nutrient-rich compost might be just the thing a rare Japanese maple sapling needs for impressive growth. And a few miles away is a husband-and-wife team that grows exceptional maples in a stunning setting.

In a secluded hollow near the town of Washington, Francie and Henry Eastwood have amassed more than 300 varieties of Japanese maple trees, in both greenhouses and field rows, on their 60-acre farm, purchased in 1971 as a weekend retreat. At Eastwoods Nurser ies , prices start at $10 for a common seed-grown red maple in a six-inch container; they climb to a whopping $50,000 for a breathtaking mature lace-leaf cultivar not much taller than a big SUV.

How did two former commercial photographers from Capitol Hill wind up specializing in maples, of all things?

"It was a process of elimination. We first tried tomatoes, then pumpkins, then pigs. From one marginal business to another," says Henry, 63, who this day is sipping a Guinness stout under an open-sided tent.

As they tell their story, in the late 1980s the Eastwoods noticed that a growing number of people around the county were raising Christmas trees.

"And I said, 'I like maples,' " says Francie, also 63. "More and more people have smaller yards."

Japanese maples also do well in containers and, with their graceful, slow growth, easily take on the appearance of a fastidiously pruned bonsai.

Like the llama junkies, there are connoisseurs who show the maples and collect varieties. (Many come from the Carolinas and Ohio, where there is a large Japanese maple following.) On a stroll with Henry through a greenhouse, I marvel at the feathery varieties and at variegated trees in shades of yellow, orange, green and burgundy. Some don't look like maples at all.

That's when Eastwood stoops down next to one of his favorites, a gorgeous suminagashi. Cupping a deeply divided, blazing-red leaf in one hand, he says, softly, "This is an orderly mind's idea of perfection." At Eastwoods, there is great love of plants.

There is more love nearby.

Just outside the town of Sperryville, in a restored Civil War-era log cabin, John Hallberg, 43, shares his affection for mead and music. This fall will mark the 10th anniversary of Hallberg's tiny Smokehouse Winery, which produces less than 1,000 gallons of honey wine per year. It's also the home of the winemaker's dulcimer museum .

On average, in fair weather, about a dozen people per weekend stop in. Hallberg says many are "mead geeks" who come by for a sample and then shoot the breeze about everything mead.

"They want to know how long it has been fermented [eight months], what kind of yeast I use [champagne] and the type of honey [it varies per batch; he likes to experiment]," says Hallberg as he pours a taste, which goes down smooth, like a light, sweet sherry. A bottle sells for $15.

I'm not familiar with the dulcimer. "It's similar to a fretted zither," he says, which doesn't help me much. Displayed proudly on a wall are 20 of the stringed wooden instruments, native to the Appalachian Mountains.

"I play if they ask, give a strum or two and see if they're interested," says Hallberg, taking a seat on a stool.

The sound brings Celtic music to mind. Like the mead, the vibrations are sweet and typical of the surprises that wait up many a hollow in the Rappahannock hills.

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