This year, we spent Thanksgiving at Buck Valley Ranch, a Bed and Breakfast horse farm owned by my aunt and uncle, Nadine and Leon Fox. Located in south-central Pennsylvania, the ranch nestles into an Appalachian mountainside covered with mature oak and pine, autumn olive, and Native wildflowers. By late-November, most of the leaves are down, and we’re treated to a clear view of the valley as we wind our way up the mountainside. We pass farmhouses inhabited by the same families for generations, tiny white churches, a beat-up playground, and ancient gravestones poking out like crooked teeth. Cows gather between bales of hay and cool mountain ponds. Approaching the ranch, we catch sight of horses munching amiably just beyond the road. They stop mid-chew to stare at us, interlopers stirring up the gravel.
Horses are the main draw for most guests at Buck Valley Ranch, and for the more than 30 years that I’ve come here, they’ve been a central part of my experience. Visiting with a three year old puts a different spin on things, though. Maybe she’ll get to ride this time, while I lead the pony. Pulling into Nadine Drive, we’re greeted by Red Dog, or R.D., as he’s known in these parts. He’s an Australian Blue Healer who keeps the horses in line and the peacocks on their toes. There are two peacocks and three peahens poking around the farm. They drop their extravagant tail feathers in the barn. My daughter and I will collect them for our Thanksgiving table scape, along with dried hydrangea and fresh green boughs.
Leon offered to hunt wild turkey for dinner, but warned that it might taste tough and gamey. We opt for Wegman’s organic free-range instead. I bring cranberry sauce, stuffing, and green beans almandine. Nadine is supposed to make sweet potatoes, saurkraut, and pumpkin pie. We soon discover she’s also made blueberry muffins, corn muffins, parsnip apple-sauce, a different type of cranberry sauce, and Brussels Sprouts. We also have fresh farm cheese, clementines, and milk from a neighbor’s newly acquired dairy cow. We set the table with blue and gold China that belonged to my grandmother and spread colorful leaves across the tablecloth.
We’re joined by a neighboring family with an infant, and the conversation turns to schedule adjustments and wonderment at how someone so small can so completely alter your life. We pass the baby around so that everyone has a chance to eat. A. says she’s thankful for the carousel because it goes round and round; we’re thankful for the same, for the annual sharing of good food and growing families.
A. falls asleep as soon as she hits the sack, but wakes just as the sun comes up. We’re used to this by now and grateful that it isn’t earlier. We take advantage of the early hour by going on a bird walk. In the past, we’ve seen indigo buntings, barn swallows, finches, cardinals, bluebirds, and the other usual suspects. I long to see an owl and have only heard the whip-or-wills. It’s a serenely quiet morning. The horses trot across the field to greet us, cutting through the mist that rises off the mountains. A. pokes her hands toward them, and they kiss her head with their moist, earthy noses. We spot a few crows and a vulture circling overhead, but the more colorful crew must still be asleep.
We walk a 1/2 mile to a neighbor’s farm, where we’re greeted by llamas, goats, sheep, and the three-year-old cow whose milk we’ll soon have for breakfast. “Two three year olds!” we tell A., but she looks skeptical. The dogs are barking, and we don’t want to wake anyone, so we head back to the ranch. We’ll come back later for fresh eggs and more milk, as well as a quick lesson in cheese-making.
The quiet road that leads up this mountain belies the surprising diversity of its residents. The cheese-making nurse and her husband whose farm we walked to raise about 10 varieties of exotic animals. They recently purchased the cow so they’d have organic, hormone-free milk. They also spin wool harvested from their sheep, llamas, and angora rabbits. On a previous visit, we toured a family-run dairy farm that sells its milk to a local co-op. Nearby, an Order of Sufis are starting a vegetarian vacation get-away. Each summer, the secluded Wiccan camp hosts a mini-Burning Man festival.
And then there’s Nadine and Leon. She’s a full-time teacher who also runs the ranch full-time, is a life-long student, a mentor to young nieces and nephews, and a fabulous chef. Leon, who grew up not far from here and has never traveled by plane, wrangles the horses and brings home our favorite snack – deer jerky. He’s not bad in the kitchen either, especially when he whips up some “vegetable soup,” that being a sort of venison stew with vegetables. Nadine and Leon exchange compost for mead and fresh vegetables grown by their neighbors. They dole out advice on when to plant potatoes (when your neighbor does, and only when the Farmer’s Almanac moon faces downward).
There’s no TV in the Buck Valley Ranch guest house, thank goodness. We’ve been here in the rain, snow, and sun, and always find a new adventure. We could spend days just reading on the front porch, watching the birds and horses, teasing the Beagles, and hunting for eggs in the henhouse. When we’re looking for more activity, we make the 30 minute drive into Berkeley Springs to visit the numerous art galleries, walk along the canal, or get a massage. We’ve also biked from nearby Hancock to Orleans along the rails to trails/towpath. There’s plenty of shopping in Cumberland, as well as a steam engine ride through the mountains. We’re always sad to leave, but breathe more freely all the way down the mountain. At least until we hit that traffic on Interstate 81.