It’s happened again.
The quizzical stare – the wide smile – the head cocked to one side, all ending with the tentative, half-apologetic question.
And even though the asking of it vaguely irritates me, I cannot fault my latest inquisitor. After all, she has driven more than an hour over the river and through the woods to attend a friend’s autumn gathering in their new second home in the country. For the roads to be so rough, the neighbors must be rougher; and my husband and I are neither rough nor retirees – we are not what she expected.
We are introduced as next-door neighbors – Is that what to call us? I think midway through the shaking of hands. Acres separate our homes, but when it comes to it, I think of theirs as the first place to run to if there is a fire or other catastrophe – as long as it happens on a weekend.
Yes, next-door neighbors will do. It is a phrase we all understand, whether city mouse or country mouse; and these particular neighbors are lovely people with delightful children that are actually interested in things like frogs and streams and cellos and drawing. And they do not have their heads in smartphones. Weekend home or no, we are thankful they have moved in.
I see the friend’s eyes glance at my worn jeans and linger for a perplexed second on dusty but expensive boots. She is too polite to linger for long on the wild hair and ruddy complexion that completes the look and reflects our journey here in an old and battered golf cart.
From the moment we shake hands, I know she will ask. It is only a matter of when. Curiosity will get the better of her. A few more pleasantries…the wine is passed. The question is finally, cautiously, offered:
“Do you live here [slight pause] full time?”
She points her finger to the ground just in case we are momentarily confused by which town we’re drinking in, and draws out the last two syllables slightly beyond their breaking point.
“Yes.” I answer, meeting her wide smile with my own. “Yes – we do. Welcome to the Suburban Outback.”
For eighteen years we have lived in this beautiful area. So close, yet so far away from the Beltway that surrounds our Nation’s Capital. Eight of those years have been right here, nestled on ten acres in a stream valley with roads and internet connections that can be washed out by strong rains. We live in one of many communities that find themselves tucked into an amusing and ever-expanding oxymoron: Rural Metro DC.
Each weekend, city dwellers visit our wineries and breweries and rivers and destination restaurants and pick up treasures in local junk shops. They shop for second homes in the ‘bargain’ of ‘the country’ and drive home prices ever higher. 14% just last year, with expected double-digit increases in the year ahead. I grew up in a small town in California. I know how this story ends.
Yet we, and so many others, know this place as home. Just the one, mind you. On a sultry Saturday night in July, you can find farmers and homesteaders mixing gently with HOA families and retirees as they all pack the town green with lawn chairs and yell “Inconceivable!” in unison to a showing of The Princess Bride.
Are we part of the problem? It is after all an urban connection that allows us to live…to pay a mortgage. Though we do not seek change, after only two decades here we have no right to comment on who comes and who goes. We have no right to draw arbitrary lines twixt resident and newcomer.
Yet the presence of another weekender makes me instantly protective of the quiet pace of life and the unique characteristics of small town living. With time and urban cash injections, such things are either erased completely or curated into something unrecognizable, yet perfectly, idyllically, rustic.
There are further questions from my inquisitor – about schools, about internet connections, about the closest Whole Foods. Yes we have them. Well, the schools in any case. I answer all her queries – from the important to the impertinent – and wonder what is going through her mind as she pieces the reality of our daily lives together.
It is impossible to explain why we would choose a pitted gravel road over a paved one, or why my husband would pay the price of a long commute to have the ability to stack wood at the end of a long workday. One either understands, or one doesn’t.
“And you? Do you [another long pause] do anything out here?” She glances again at my boots. “Do you ride? Or do things outside?”
I confess my profession. She is confused for a moment, but intrigued by the term. Garden writer. What does that mean exactly? Gardening has become a new love in her life — though she wonders how I can possibly have a garden in such a wild place. Our definitions of ‘garden’ are no doubt different – but that is a conversation for another day. We discuss instead the pros and cons of landscape fabric and she tells me of an excellent book she’s reading in the evenings by Andrea Wulf.
As the night wanes, city mouse and country mouse part on friendly terms. She – back to the bustle of Bethesda, and I, further along a graveled road. Do we understand each other any better? Pointed and perhaps unkind observations will be made and discussed in both Audi and golf cart on the way home.
But they are not solely ours. Here in this place. In this moment. They are timeless conversations had in countries all over the world where city and country boundaries blur. The city eventually emerges from that struggle, or at least the preamble of city — the suburbs. I think of a paramedic who shared a story with me on a too-long ambulance ride many years ago about having to leave his childhood home on rural Long Island. “I didn’t want to go,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to stay.”
“Well, New York City is expensive,” I replied, so knowingly. So stupidly. Bless his heart, he didn’t turn off the morphine in response to my ignorance.
Decatur/Atlanta. Evanston/Chicago. Richmond/London. Sloten/Amsterdam. Kintambu/Kinshasa – friends are quick with their examples when we discuss the swallowing of one area — rural town or modest city — by a greater force. Even Hollywood was once connected to Los Angeles through 10 miles of barley and citrus. An old, old story.
In the end, if I haven’t made my case for plunging head first into country life — or what still passes for it so close to urban sprawl — I no doubt have amused and shocked her by joking about the peace of mind an accidental dismemberment policy gives a girl with a chainsaw-wielding husband.
In hindsight, it too might have been a conversation for another time. After all, I’d only just shaken her up with the idea of his and her shotguns.
Do I live here full-time? Very much so. Joyfully and willingly full-time. – MW