A Colt, a Holiday and a Whole Lotta Paint

What do you get when you start with a blue roan colt and add a little (O.K., a LOT) of red and white Crayola paint for the 4th of July?

A living American flag, that’s what. Have you ever painted a horse? It’s a fun challenge.


Emma walks Quill at the farm before we load him onto the trailer. That’s Mocha on the right, waiting to load up, as well. Photo by Matt

Emma Billington, a wonderful horsewoman and horse trainer who lives on San Juan Island, agreed to walk Quill in the local Friday Harbor 4th of July parade, as I would be riding Mocha. Handling Quill, who turned 2 in June, is something I would trust only a handful of people to do. I’ve raised him since birth and often refer to him as “the love of my life” so you get the idea. While he’s still only a colt, Quill stands at nearly 17 hands. Physically, he’s a big boy, but mentally, he’s still a youngster. Like most youngsters, he’s curious and awkward and a little unsure of himself. What better exposure than a parade?

To get him ready for said parade, Emma also generously agreed to help me decorate him. We painted him at home on the farm–using non-toxic, washable paint, of course. It took us a little more than an hour–and he was very good. We held our collective breaths that he wouldn’t smudge it on the way in the trailer but he emerged from it unsullied.

Emma kept Quill near Mocha during the parade because the filly kept him calm.

Emma kept Quill near his “Auntie Mocha” during the parade because the filly’s no-nonsense nature kept him calm. Photos by Josephine and Charlotte Crosby.

horses in parade

We’re part of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, so posse members rode together as a group.




What a handsome pair!

What a handsome pair! Matt and Yukon before the parade (with Quill in the background).

Matt went as Zorro (as the theme of the parade was Hollywood), and Yukon was his typical magnificent self.



Little Miss Mocha was a trooper and patiently carried me throughout the entire crazy parade. She was very calm. Not bad for a filly who just turned 3.

filly greets girl

Mocha says hello to Charlotte Crosby, one of the members of our ground support team.

Now, to plan for next year…

Amy on Mocha, who didn't spook once during the entire parade.  Brave little girl!

Me on Mocha, who didn’t spook once during the entire parade. Brave little girl!

more mocha

Rhubarb: Who Knew?

rhubarb garden

Matt next to our burgeoning rhubarb garden.

We apparently inherited the mother of all rhubarb gardens. When we first moved to the farm, I would walk past it, eye the tall red-tinged stalks with guilt and mentally add weeding and harvesting it to my list of things to do.

Visitors weren’t allowed to leave without taking some with them–it was growing so fast that these sporadic gifts made no debt in its production–and I cringe now when I think of how one such person simply whipped out a knife and cut off several stalks (that’s NOT how you’re supposed to pick rhubarb because it leaves the plants open to infection. You’re supposed to grasp firmly at the base of the stalk and twist it off. At the time, I didn’t know any better).

I’ve never been a fruit pie fan. My philosophy was if a dessert didn’t have chocolate in it, it wasn’t worth eating.

rhubarbOn San Juan island in the summer, rhubarb is in high demand. The former owners of the farm told me about two bakeries who used to buy it from them, so I called them both and tentatively offered to sell them some. I wasn’t prepared for their enthusiastic response, like I was parting with something precious. And so the orders began to roll in, 20 pounds here, 10 pounds there.

After much Googling about the care of a rhubarb garden, ours really began to flourish. I twisted instead of cut, diligently pulled out any weeds that tried to crowd the plants and watered it every night.


Even after several harvest during the summer, it keeps on growing: Here, a new rhubarb bud appears in the garden.

One Saturday morning at the San Juan Island Farmer’s Market, I hovered near the booth for Cafe Demeter, a fabulous bakery.  Pam, one of the owners, an always-smiling woman who moves with the quickness of a hummingbird, was our biggest rhubarb customer. On this particular day, as someone bought a pie, I overheard her husband, Bill, telling the woman it was made “with local rhubarb.”

Excited, I hurried over to Matt and pointed out the booth, with its pies, to him.

“Hey, that’s our rhubarb!” I said, feeling a sense of pride. Another woman nearby overheard me.

“How do you get your rhubarb garden to produce?” she asked. “Mine won’t.”

“You have to baby it a little,” I told her, and she frowned at me.

“How do you ‘baby it’?” she asked, a little more sharply than hopefully she meant to.

“Keep it weeded and water it a lot. Rhubarb loves water,” I told her, and she nodded.

After that, every time we went to the Farmer’s Market, I would linger near Cafe Demeter’s booth just to watch people buy pies made with our rhubarb. I’ve never grown anything in my life, and it gave me a little thrill every time. And then Bill asked me if we had a name for our farm, and I told him yes, it’s Red Roof Acres.

“From now on instead of just calling it local rhubarb, I’ll say it’s from Red Roof Acres,” he said, and I smiled at him in gratitude.

But I had still never even tried it. From what I understood, rhubarb is rather bitter, so the idea didn’t appeal to me.

And then Steve, the owner of the fantastic The Place Restaurant & Bar next to the marina in Friday Harbor, asked his wife to drop me off a piece of rhubarb pie when she stopped at the farm to buy ten pounds.

Matt was out of town, so I decided to just try a bite and save the rest for him. I dug into the edge of the pie with a fork and put the bite in my mouth…and then another. And then another. It tasted tart, tangy and sweet, all at the same time, like a sassier version of a strawberry. It was immedately addictive.

Reeling myself in, I  grabbed my cell phone and took a picture of the pie before it was all gone. I had to share this experience.

“Rhubarb pie!!!” I said as I texted the picture of the mostly-eaten slice to Matt. “Who knew?!!”

He understood immediately.

“Right?!” he texted back.

rhubarb pie

The remains of my very first piece of rhubarb pie.

It was only with the utmost of willpower I was able to save the rest of the piece for him. Since then, we have ordered several delicious rhubarb pies from Cafe Demeter, and I have done more than my share of eating them. A well-made rhubarb pie is a party in your mouth.

Here, Whale

We were on a quest to see Orcas.

Our farm is exactly three miles from a popular whale-watching site here on San Juan Island, and in between unpacking or working on fencing or scooping horse poop we would hop in the truck and take a quick trip down the road to try to see a whale. Not an entire pod. We would have been happy with just one.

But each and every time we went, we saw…nothing, other than a wide expanse of ocean where I envisioned the whales frolicking deep beneath the surface, far from our prying eyes. I was determined that my friend B would see one before she had to to return to land-locked Colorado.

Late one afternoon, B and I decided to try one more time. Matt, busy with the fencing, demurred, so we hopped into the truck and set off.

We hadn’t even made it all the way to the park when B suddenly gasped. “I think I just saw a fin!” she said. I pulled the truck into a scenic pullover parking spot, we leapt out and peered, and sure enough, there in the water was not one, or two, but five or six Orca whales!

Seeing the whale there in its natural habitat literally took my breath away. I thought I’d get a kick out of seeing the Orcas; I didn’t realize how profound the experience would be. I’ve long been a critic of keeping marine mammals in captivity, ever since the first investigative story I ever did was about an Orca named Tillicum that had killed his trainer and then been bought by Sea World to be “Shamu.”

Watching a whale float listlessly around a stagnant and small man-made pool is nothing less than tragic. Seeing an Orca arc gracefully through the ocean gives you a profound sense of contentment, that the world is as it should be and there’s hope we humans haven’t screwed things up completely. Yet.

After a few minutes, B and I jumped back into the truck and screeched right up to the edge of the pasture, waving our arms at Matt and saying, Hurry! He dropped his gloves and ran with us back to the truck. We peeled out to try to see the whales one more time.

Would they still be there?

They were. We all sat on a nearby rock and watched in awe while the orcas glided here and there just under the water, then surfaced, then dove, so close that we could hear the powerful whooshing sound they made as they loudly blew air.

We were so wrapped up watching the orcas that none of us thought to grab a picture until it was nearly too late.  B managed to snap a quick shot as one of the last orcas headed out.

It doesn’t matter. I know I will see them again, and the images of seeing them for the first time where they belong will forever be imprinted in my mind.

There's a whale there! If you peer just below the horizon in the center, you can see a fin.

There’s a whale there! If you peer just below the horizon in the center, you can see a fin.

The Escape

photo 3 (1)For years we jokingly teased our youngest that the minute he graduated high school our front door would be flapping in the wind; we would be packed and gone, having moved to greener pastures (certainly out of Colorado) and to some place that had Big Water.

As it turns out, we exaggerated. It took us four days.

We planned this move for ten years. I had dreamed about it ever since my first blustery winter in Colorado. Cat-like in my distaste for cold and snow, I spent every winter so heavily bundled that I roundly resembled one of those stackable Russian dolls.

Where to flee? There had to be an ocean (my criteria), mild winters (we both agreed) and mountains (Matt’s criteria). Hawaii was too expensive and far away, the Carolinas posed dangerous weather and wickedly hot summers, and Oregon had snow.

Washington state was just right. After that it was simply a process of elimination, aided by cheap airfares and long weekend trips. We trekked across the state, looking for an area that would offer acreage for our horses and a nearby small town we could love.

Ultimately, we stumbled upon our dream home thanks to Craigslist.

I was stalking properties for sale on the Skagit Craigslist when I saw an ad for a horse ranch listed by owner on San Juan Island. We had not considered any of the San Juan islands, not because the thought of living on an island deterred us but because we simply hadn’t thought of it.

So we began considering the ranch, and more importantly, researching San Juan Island. And we liked what we foundphoto 1.

Anchored by the quaint town of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island offered everything we wanted in a place to live: An adorable small town—so small it didn’t have a single traffic light—with a vast array of farms, large and small, just minutes away. There was a brand-new medical center, a library, an old-fashioned movie theater with exactly two screens and a strong whale research community that intrigued Matt, who had just retired after 30 years as a park ranger for the city of Boulder.

And since it was in what’s known as The Rain Shadow, meaning it’s sheltered by the Olympic Mountain Range, it did not have the rainy weather that is typical of Seattle and other parts of Washington state; instead it boasted more of a Mediterranean climate with mild temperatures in both summer and winter.

It was during one of our many Internet searches that Matt found an ad for a small farm with a white picket fence and red metal roofs on every building, even the chicken coop. It was love at first sight. We abandoned all thoughts of the ranch and became obsessed with trying to buy the farm, which we began calling Red Roof Acres.

That’s when we discovered that buying a farm on an island is not an easy thing to do.

We already had a contract on our house in Louisville, a small Mayberry-type city outside of Boulder. Our house was a 1930s Craftsman, and we had recently endured an extensive and particularly hellish renovation that was three years in the planning, all with the purpose of selling the house shortly thereafter and moving out of land-locked Colorado.

Then the next summer I found a hard, marble-sized lump in my left breast that turned out to be cancer. Suddenly our plans took on a new urgency. Through the long hours of my chemotherapy and hospitalizations, we clung to the idea of starting a new life some place where we’d be comforted by the sight of our horses in our own fields, where we could be steps away from the spray of the ocean’s restorative waves.

By the following year, chemo was over, my strength and my hair were starting to come back and we suddenly realized we had less than a year before our youngest was done with high school.

photo 3We put our house on the market in July, a flurry of last-minute scrubbings of dog slobber off the glass doors, arranging fresh flowers and baking cinnamon rolls to make it appealing to potential buyers. By October, we had a contract, and we closed in December, just before Christmas. I found a pet-friendly short-term rental house (again, on Craigslist), and we kept as much as we could packed in the garage with “Keep til WA” written on the boxes in black sharpie.

Shortly before the closing of the sale of our house, we made a trip to San Juan Island to see the farm and a few other potential properties.

It was early December, and the moist air carried a slight chill to it in a way that only seaside towns can do. Outdoor thermometers read 30 degrees, and we were assured the weather was unusually cold.

We thought it was wonderful.

“This is great!” we told our realtor, a cheerful and energetic woman named Michele. “The high today in Colorado is supposed to be 10.”

Armed with printouts of each of the properties, we hopped into Michele’s car and began our tour of homes. Matt and I had already forewarned Michele of our decisive method of home shopping: We would both know within literally one minute of arrival if we wanted to stay any longer to further look at it.

So we’d get out of the car, Michele would unlock the front door and we’d troop in. I would take a quick tour of the kitchen and living room while Matt would typically bound up the stairs. He’d bounce back down, we’d look at each other and at the same time say, “No.”

Michele took it well. “O.K.!” she’d say while fishing out a business card to leave on the counter as proof we had indeed shown up.

For the price range we were looking at, we were shocked at the array of 1980s homes with cheap wood framing, wall-to-wall shaggy carpet, small rooms and no definitive master suite.  Living on an island apparently came with a higher cost than what we were used to in Colorado.

We flew through a half-dozen homes, unhappy with them all. Then we drove to the farm we’d been calling Red Roof Acres. As we came up a hill its solid, cheerful buildings came into view, the shrubberies flanking the farmhouse’s tall brick chimney making it look like a small English estate.

“Oh, you adorable place,” I murmured as we pulled in, beginning an immediate love affair that Matt seemed to instantly share.

We walked in through the open garage into an enclosed porch that had been converted into a mudroom. From there we stepped into a family room that had a heated tiled floor. It opened into a spacious kitchen with gleaming white marble countertops, a beautiful and deep farm sink and a shiny tin ceiling.

There were three fireplaces—a large black industrial-looking one in the kitchen, a wood-burning fireplace in the living room and a novel antique gas stove in what we called “the hot tub room” because that’s what it had.

The rest of the downstairs featured two bathrooms, one of no distinction and the other a large room with a custom-made concrete shower sheltered by a curved wall. The vanity was a large old-fashioned wooden cabinet with a copper sink, and the walls were a light purple. I loved it.

Then we all trooped toward a sharply-inclined staircase with very narrow treads—what I would come to call “the scary staircase,” that led to the upstairs.

“It’s a very unusual upstairs,” Michele said to me in a conspiratorial whisper as we paused at the foot of the stairs. “You’re either going to love it or hate it, and I just don’t know which way you’re gonna go.”

No doubt she feared we’d take one look, say “no!” and flee the house as we had done so many times that day.

She didn’t need to worry. The top of the stairs opened into one very large room with a lofty cathedral ceiling supported by thick wood beams. An eight-foot tall stained glass window greeted you at the top of the stairs, and the room had a wide-planked wood floor. One wall was papered in a farm scene showing a barn, sheep and rolling pastures.

There was a small room with green walls on the east side of the main one that featured an oval stained-glass rosebud above one of the windows; the “rose room.”

I had kept a poker face throughout the tour so far, only occasionally flashing a smile at Michele or Matt. Now I waited until the other realtor had his back turned before I grinned in pure delight at Michele. “LOVE it!” I mouthed, and she smiled back, no doubt in relief.

Matt loved it, too. And since it was a farm, touring the house was only the beginning. There were so many outbuildings I had trouble keeping up with what was what: the large main barn had stalls on one side, a blacksmith shop, office, bathroom with a washer and dryer and a large room with a propane fireplace and wash sinks on the other.

There was a fully furnished guest apartment upstairs, complete with a loft area, separate bedroom, full kitchen and a bathroom with slanted walls and a shower.

There was a small log cabin that had apparently been built in the late 1800s, and near that, a large open shed. A few steps further there was a chicken coop, and a few yards from that a long, low shed barn.

Near the chicken coop a tall chain-linked fence, erected to deter deer, flanked the large garden.

There were two fenced paddocks and two large fenced pastures, one on each side, both edged by dense woods filled with tall evergreens.

And that wasn’t all. On the far southwest corner of the farm, accessible by getting back on the road and driving around to a separate street, was a small caretaker house with a detached garage. Sure, its red exterior was faded by the sun, the walls and carpet were stained and the caretaker apparently had so many family members living there that we could hardly walk through for all the assortment of furniture and stuff piled wall to wall, but it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a decently-sized kitchen, and promised potential as a rental if we did a lot of work.

More farm

The price for the entire farm? At the top end of our budget, with us straining on our tippy toes to reach it.

We flew back to Colorado, full of excitement and high hopes, and after an offer that was countered by the sellers, agreed to a price. We were ecstatic. The hard part was over!

We had no idea.

During the next six months, we discovered we had to write an extensive “farm plan” detailing our goals for the next five years; we had to fill out paperwork asking to retain the farm’s agricultural designation; we fought over inspection items; we joined in the appeal of the seller when the agricultural status of the wooded area was yanked— increasing the tax rate for the entire property, and Matt flew back to Friday Harbor for a frustrating experience with a member of the property appraiser’s office who denied him a chance to speak at the appeal hearing and huffily insisted she hadn’t known he was coming all that way to do so.

All of this posed delays, and the closing was postponed three times. Finally, things were sailing smoothly along. Then one evening, a week before we were scheduled to close in May, our mortgage broker called, his voice thick with dread.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I messed up,” he said. “The underwriters for the lender I gave the loan to just pointed out to me that the property has multiple tax parcels. They said, “Oh, this must be a farm. We don’t do farms.”

And threw out our loan.

We scrambled. Michele scrambled. Then we came to the sick realization that there was no way we were going to get a new loan within seven days, and that we’d have to start all over with a new lender. So we did, putting our lives into the hands of a briskly efficient Chicago loan officer who swore to us he could get us a new loan that would enable us to close by the end of the month.

Aided by a very repentant mortgage broker, we again dove into the mind-numbing and disheartening process of applying for a loan we could only just afford. This meant a new appraisal of the property, and that caused the process to come to a screeching halt when the appraisal company red-flagged our file to the bank: Hey, do you realize this is a farm? On an island?

It’s not currently a working farm, we argued back (which was true, the seller had raised sheep there but they had moved them two years prior). It has the potential to be a hobby farm, that’s all.

Finally the appraisal went through. And so did the loan.

And when the banker did indeed pull it off, we later found out that both he and the mortgage broker had been huddling with the fear that there was no way it was all going to work out.

photo 4Moving was hell. Isn’t it always? We enlisted the boys—I say that even though the youngest is now 18, so they are all young men—and caravanned with our truck and utility trailer and a giant UHaul, the three dogs and two cats on board.

The most memorable part of that trip was having to stay overnight in Wyoming after getting a flat on the utility trailer that we couldn’t fix, so we had to wait for a tire store to open in the morning. We checked into a local hotel at one a.m., putting the cats and dogs in one of the rooms with us, only to discover in the morning that it wasn’t a pet-friendly hotel and we’d be subject to a hefty fee if found out. Oh, no! Matt posted guard and when he gave the signal, the oldest carried the cats in their crate and I grabbed all three dogs by their leashes and we ran out as fast as we could—very awkwardly—for the parking lot.

We made it.