Postcards from La Jara

In April, my friend Arina and I were recruited to run the kitchen for a motley crew of Hippies and Old Order Amish as they built a house on our friend Colin’s off grid farm in southern Colorado. Here are some glimpses of our time at the “frolic” in La Jara.

April 6, 2014IMG_0887

I’ve always said, I can’t resist a trip to the olden days, so here we go, to a house raising in the boonies. After weeks of planning menus and grocery lists, Arina and I and our three children head north to see what’s for dinner. We arrive to a spotless, empty kitchen: two pies on the table, a cauldron of borscht on the wood range. Our children fill the quiet home in no time, jumping on the old loveseat and kicking up a cloud of dust the likes of which you’ve only ever seen in a San Luis Valley windstorm. There isn’t anyone about; all are working on the House. It’s for the House that we’ve come, to cook for all those who are here to build it. We stoke the fire on the cookstove, tie on our aprons, and arrive.

April 8, 2014

IMG_0822 Folks have traveled from across the country to help Colin build the house (it’s that tall pitched roof in the background, behind the Spanish Villa chicken coop). His old friends, colleagues, and neighbors come in a regular stream, staying for a few days or a week, someone always arriving, departing. The house will be for the Yoder family, who have just moved to the Valley, leaving their community and dairy farm in Wisconsin to join their kin that have settled out West. The plan is that they are taking over the running of the farm, the raising of the sheep. The Amish men and boy-men are wicked fast with the nail guns. Arina admires the cut of their pants, asks the mother, Lydia, if she makes her own pattern. “This is what’s been handed down to us,” she answers simply. She comes in to help us cook. We watch carefully as she makes pie crust, she looks over our shoulder at Moosewood cookbook.

April 9, 2014

IMG_0859I am in love with this kitchen; for it I came. My friend and I, joined by an occasional neighbor, by Mrs. Yoder, by my own mother, cook all the day long. The huge meals created on the wood burning cook stove are like a puzzle to put together. I wake in the night realizing just what the leftover pot of beans must become, how to stretch two chickens to feed twenty. Each meal a feast in its own right: braised lamb, baked beans, corn bread, salad, cole slaw, pies, cakes, cobblers. When we set the table for the midday meal, the construction crew of Buddhists, Sufis, Amish, and mystical Christians takes their seats. After the silent blessing, they eat, try to fathom one another.

April 11, 2014

IMG_0948 Nobody knows quite what to call the House, so that’s what we call it. But it is really something else. Nobody can say quite what the destiny of this building will be. Is it for a family? A community? Like a life just beginning–an unborn child–it is a Being that demands to Be. The beams and wood, windows and tile are all salvaged from the departed Beings of the Valley, barns and courthouses, old farmhouses. There are stories everywhere, some reclaimed, like all those building materials, some remembered around the table as Colin’s reunion of old friends tell tales about their wild days, and some emerging with each day. We are part of all of them, it seems.

April 13, 2014

IMG_0892 The kids make the rounds each morning on the farm, from cow to draft horses (Maida calls them Giraffe horses), 200 Churro sheep and lambs, wild turkeys, lamas and donkeys (who guard the flock when out on the pasture), and carefully keep tabs on the progress of the building. When they get to rub up close to the Amish children–the girls in their blue dresses and head scarves, the boys in their charming pants and suspenders–it is a bit like meeting a slew of storybook characters (Laura and Mary and Almanzo times many siblings). They are shy and curious and a little in awe. Which isn’t to say they don’t make us blush with embarrassment from time to time. For some reason, when everyone files in for lunch they leave their quiet, heart warming play to jump on those dusty chairs, make noise, and ask loudly “Why do all these guys have funny beards?”

April 13, 2014

IMG_0969 Palm Sunday brings snow, rest, a big pancake breakfast for my own newly arrived husband, whose birthday is upon us. He gets suspenders, of course. After tea and a long morning around the table, Elliot and Colin head out to smear clay on the strawbale walls. The girls settle into a game of mother and baby, and we in the kitchen try to catch up with the gallons of milk we’re indundated with each day (Arina calls it Chinese Water Torture, the twice daily arrival of Hannah’s fresh milk, which we are otherwise grateful for). Cooking here is like a retreat in which service, meditation, bewilderment, labor, laughter, nourishment are all mixed together. We lick fresh cream from Hannah off our lips, and start plotting the next meal. There are daily miracles, and finding something to make a feast out of from our dwindling stores is not least among them.

April 15, 2014

  IMG_0849In leaving behind my home, my rhythms, my very sense of self, I was able to return to all of that with clearer eyes, and a warmer heart. The world outside our knowing is waiting, and sometimes we manage to answer the call to step outside ourselves. As ever, the land takes us in with its goodness. As ever, there is the gift of giving ourselves over to service and its fellowship, of saying grace around the table, silently, lovingly. And then sharing the meal, seeing what will come of it. There are friends waiting to be met, open spaces within us waiting to be discovered, and always, a few more dishes to wash, another floor to sweep.

May 14, postscript

It turns out the Yoders found a farm of their own nearby, which I mention just in case you have dreamed of living in an off grid strawbale palace in paradise, of raising heritage sheep and running a farm with draft horses and a kind mentor next door. I happen to know just the place, and would be happy to introduce you.

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