Beth Kephart is the author of 21 books and a partner in Juncture Workshops
Drought. September. Central Pennsylvania. The Juniata River runs thin, its exposed rocks like the fossil bones of a theropod. Off narrow roads in Snyder County, the colors of the quilted farms run to khaki, sorrel, fawn, sometimes (miraculously) a brilliant emerald green. The corn has been buzz-cut down to its dry nubs. The cows lift and slap their paintbrush tails.
We stop just west of Middleburg, off of Route 522, at a greenhouse/garden center called Engle's. We are in search of cut flowers, but what we find here instead is an emporium of potted, plantable things - fruit trees, bright vines, mums, roses, hanging baskets all set out in open-air groves and parabolic nurseries. We hear a pattering above our heads, look out past the greenhouses, and watch as a sudden rain falls. The show lasts five minutes. Then the rain is gone. A localized tease of silver and glisten.
Back in the car we head toward McClure, a borough some 1,000 people strong. It is the week of the McClure Bean Soup Festival and Fair, a Civil War-inspired tradition now in its 125th year, and down the hill, at the edge of the town, we spy a landscape of amusement rides, eateries, exhibition halls, all mostly empty for now.
We will explore the fairgrounds another day, hold the jars of prize-hoping pickles and white cherries and split peaches in our hands, hear the rundown of upcoming events - Pageant Day, Veterans Day, Parade Day, Senior Citizens Day, Horticulture Day, Little Miss Bean, Teeny Bean, Milk Chugging and Pumpkin Decorating and Shoe Box Float contests. But for now we drive by and turn right onto Ulsh Gap Road. This road, too, curves and bends. Silos. Red barns. A lonely Appaloosa. A horse-drawn carriage maneuvered by a straw-haired boy.
Ulsh Gap ultimately Ts into Back Mountain Road, but if you cross Back Mountain Road onto a private drive and keep moving in the direction of the blue-green hills, you will find yourself in the long shade of arching trees. It is a gravel road, and it twists. White dust rises. There are cows in the near distance, pigs lolling to the right, peacocks taking their time, a black-and-white herder dog interested in the commotion.
This is Mountain Dale Farm. We will be staying, along with others, for a week. A trip eight months in the planning.
Sally Hassinger, who, with her husband and children, runs this farm and takes care of those who visit, is brooming down the wooden picnic tables when we find her. We tell her we've just come from a place of briefest rain. She says the rain has skipped her slice of Earth. Weeks now, she says, without a drop, worst drought since 1976, but as we stand there talking, the air begins to shimmer in the sun. There is a tease of moisture, no more than two minutes of hardly any rain. There will be a rainbow, Sally says, but chances are we will not see it.
We settle into one of the many cabins that the Hassingers have set down upon their interior roads. We've chosen a former carriage house that began life in the mid-1800s somewhere down the road by the banks of a creek. We might have chosen a former wagon shed/corn crib, a former kitchen, a former pigsty/workshop, a former used-car lot office - each one inventively transformed - but we set our bags down here, leave Sally to her brooming, walk the farm. Tomorrow the other cabins will fill.
We are joined by geese. We are studied by the bearded goats. We offend, it seems, the sheep. The freckled-feathered guinea fowl appear to feel safer in a crowd and cluster when we near. The rooster juts its neck and crows. The Hassingers are not just resourceful farmers and fine hosts. Sally and her daughter are not just most-exquisite, generous cooks. This is an auctioneering family, a find-and-use-or-save-it family, and so the horse shares lodging space with peculiar machines, old furniture, and declarative signs, while the peacocks roost on stuck vehicles and chickens lay eggs in the cab of a pickup truck.
Everywhere we go there is something old, antique. Everywhere we go there is the squawk, mew, flutter, bray of something immediate and alive. Everywhere there is evidence of the ceaseless, daily routines, the hard work and lifted prayers, the sacrifices and ingenuity, the broken and the beautiful. Another egg collected. Another seed sprouted. Another pig fed. Another bale of hay unwrapped for the cows. Another lost feather. Another basket of gorgeous pear tomatoes gathered and set down like the candy those tomatoes are. Another meal served on a lace tablecloth around a family table to strangers.
Eyes on the sky, but still it does not rain, and this is a spring-fed farm, and the hay is dry and the cows are thirsty and the pigs would love a good mud bath and here we are - guests to feed, bathers, toilet flushers. All through the week, Sally walks the hills behind our cabin, checking on the cistern, calculating flow, waiting for the roots of the trees to unclench at night and release moisture back down into the ground, to the spring, to the 14 guests in their reinvented rooms. Whenever the clouds gather or a breeze blows we stop, as if we have come to understand that Sally and her family and all near and far farmers stop, to watch the sky.
We will leave before the rain falls down.
When the rain comes we will be days and miles east, eating Sally's pear tomatoes, which go down, even more so now, like candy.