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A decade ago, I agreed to marry a man with two young sons whom I’d known less than a year. When I began planning to move to his llama farm 85 miles from Washington, DC, friends were incredulous.
“Are you insane?” a fellow political appointee at the State Department asked. “Why would you want to do that?”
Where to begin?
The farm unfolds over 135 acres of gently spooling fields and pastures in northeastern Maryland by the Pennsylvania border. Up the road in Cardiff, the slate and serpentine quarries that employed generations of Welsh miners have all shut down, but hand-cut slate shingles still grace the roofs of most old barns and houses in the area.
Behind our house, a creek gurgles from a spring in the ground; if you follow it, as I’ve done hundreds of times, it flows into a bigger stream that merges into Deer Creek, which meanders down to the Susquehanna River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay. From the first sign of spring to late fall, we kayak down long stretches of Deer Creek, putting in at an old grain mill two miles down the road, with a picnic basket, binoculars and an extra set of dry clothes.
From the first time Ed invited me there, the farm tugged at me in a way that no place ever had, putting all manner of gifts in my path as if to woo me. I found wild watercress in the brisk rapids of the creek; bushes full of wine berries; a brown-andwhite hawk’s feather for the band of my straw hat; a spotted fawn napping in a thick mat of high grass.
Within a month of meeting Ed, I took to driving to the farm after work several nights a week, arriving around eight o’clock and leaving the next morning by five. I kept a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt in the downstairs closet, and I changed my clothes the minute I arrived. Then we’d head outdoors for a long walk in the dark. We caught up on the day and unwound. At night, I slept soundly, which I never did in Washington, and I awoke refreshed.
There were surprises everywhere. One night, I went into the old dairy barn to check on a mother llama and her baby, or cria, which had been born that morning. Letting myself into the pen, I felt an extra set of eyes on me and turned to see a small skunk peering out from behind a hay bale several feet away. It stayed there, shyly observing as I nudged the cria up to nurse, then disappeared into the night. Another time, an opossum showed up to eat the cat food that
I put out for the stray that lived in the top of the barn. Nearly blind but with a keen sense of smell, the opossum managed to find the bowl, trailing its long, hairless tail wet from dew and leaving aboriginal patterns on the barn’s wooden floor. We sat companionably until it had emptied the dish.
With time, things that had mattered to me for years seemed suddenly inconsequential, like my apartment and my job. Though I was at the apex of my career, the allure of it vanished, like spent bluebells. I had never complained about working 70 hours a week before; I chafed at it now. I tired of the ceaseless political talk at work and with friends, daydreaming of farm chores that I’d rather be doing, like making scarecrows with the boys or helping Ed re-plank a footbridge or mow a pasture.
I snatched every opportunity I had to get out of the city, passing up coveted theater tickets to shear llamas and turning down dinner invitations at foreign embassies for a Saturday night campfire in a clearing a half a mile from the house.
As I fell in love with Ed, I also lost my heart to the farm and its ever-changing colors: fields of yellow goldenrod followed by rows of pewter cornstalks, which yielded to acres of silver stubble.
In the spring, there were bluebirds searching for nesting spots, speckled toad lilies so evanescent they were gone the next time I went back, and carpets of white bloodroot, which bled vermillion when cut.
In summer, purple ironweed, white marguerites, yellow black-eyed Susans and orange Turk’s-cap lilies transformed the lower field across the creek into a wildflower meadow. By the time the Queen Anne’s lace bloomed and Ed and I talked of marriage, I couldn’t wait to leave Washington.
The summer day that I moved up to the farm was blisteringly hot. The llamas never even ventured from the barn until well after dark when I stopped unpacking and went outside to cool down. As I stepped into their pasture, the whole herd, 13 of them then, came up and encircled me, humming as they leaned in to smell my sweat while I breathed in the scent of their warm, cropped wool. We stood there like that for 10 minutes or so, until they finally headed down to the creek for a drink, and I went in to bed, home for the first time in my life.