"Hey! You can't bring those up here!"
Uh oh. We'd barely gotten out of Bob's Honda and our visit to the Mysterious Driveway Place was already going wrong. The skinny young man who rounded the corner of a building to greet us pointed at our sidearms. The look on his face said we were lepers who'd forgotten to ring our little warning bells and shout "Unclean!"
"Violence," he informed us, puffing himself up bravely as he approached, "is against our principles."
Bob and I looked around to see who was getting violent. We didn't see a hostile-looking soul. Meanwhile, the young man in the stone-washed jeans and Huarachi sandals continued to glare at sweet old peaceable us.
"Um. Well. Hello to you, too," I stammered. I know. I shouldn't have been surprised by the young man's reaction. But in Hardyville, carrying a sidearm is so much a part of life that we forget the rest of the world finds it scary.
"Bob?" I asked under my breath, "What do you think we should do?"
"Sorry," Bob-the-Nerd said to the young man. "Your property, your rules. If you have a firearms storage area, we'll ...?" Somehow, this remark upset the young man even more. Now, several other young men and women began to gather around him. Others, we noticed, came out of the buildings but -- seeing our armament -- hung back.
" ... we'll ... uh, how about we just lock the guns in my trunk? Is that okay with you, Claire? Is that okay with you ...?" He left a verbal space for the young man to introduce himself. Who'd ever have thought geeky Bob would be the diplomat?
"Thomas," said the young man. "And yes. Thank you. Please lock the guns away. Then you can tell us what you want."
Bob and I both unbuckled our holsters, moving slowly so as not to alarm the deer-like starers off at the margins. By tacit agreement, neither of us mentioned our concealed back-up pieces. When the visible hardware rested under the seats of the locked truck, Thomas, still standing stiffly without so much as extending a hand to shake, asked, "Now, may I ask who you are and why you're here?"
Bob and I offered names and hands, which Thomas and one or two of the others gingerly accepted. You could almost see their efforts not to wipe the contagion of us off afterward. Nat Lyons traded with these people? Hard to believe.
"We just wanted to meet the new neighbors," I said. "We're from down in Hardyville, but we've seen some of you at Nat's Grocery Barn and thought it was time to say hello."
Their tightly wound springs still didn't relax.
"And," I went on, "If you're the people who grow those fantastic veggies, I want to say thanks and congratulate you. It's wonderful to have healthy, locally grown produce." Yes, that was pride and the beginning of smiles I saw on their faces. "And maybe you could even give us a little tour of your operation?"
* * *
It took a while. But eventually they decided we couldn't shoot them and weren't going to bite them. Thomas and a couple of the others agreed to show us around. It really was quite an operation. Quite a place, actually.
It was a weird combination of do-it-yourself primitiveness and "Boy, somebody spent a whole lot of money up here."
The housing -- must have been enough for 20 or 30 people at least -- was mostly earthship and similar, built into hillsides. Picture Hobbiton from Jackson's film version of Fellowship of the Ring and well, take away all the pretty green and flowers, add a lot of rocks and dirt, and you've pretty much got it. Some of the 20-to-30 were still working collaboratively on one of the last of the houses, sweating like honest men and women in the sun. Even a handful of little kids were helping out and having fun rolling recycled tires into place for the earthship walls.
But the very scale of the thing spoke of impressive funding.
Judging by the location of their wind farm -- yes, wind farm, not just one old high-in-the-sky propeller like a lot of Hardy County ranchers have, but a whole miniature wind farm -- was on a hilltop in the distance. They said yes, they really did own that much land. Actually, they didn't say "own." I think it was "are entrusted with." Anyhow, the wiring alone needed to bring the power from that wind farm into the homestead area, must have been pricey, even if they did dig the ditches and run all the conduit themselves.
Wind power was only part of their energy system. Several big solar arrays stood on trackers that followed the sun, and those arrays sent power into several very expensive DC-to-AC inverter/chargers and a tremendous bank of batteries. But, they said, they'd gotten the batteries as surplus inventory of a struggling company and saved a ton on them.
The biggest feature of The Driveway Place -- which Bob and I now learned was the Emma Goldman Arts Co-op and Biodiverse Living Center -- was its greenhouses. Talk about vast. Yeah. Vast. Their huge, hand-built native stone bases were set a few feet into the earth, but their walls and tops gathered the sun -- with artful shades to block the burning heat of summer and coatings to retain heat in winter. And in those greenhouses, they grew ... everything. It was awesome. Everything.
And they used heirloom seeds, in defiance of all the big agri-businesses that are trying to force the entire world to buy their hastily created, imperfectly tested genetically altered product. They planted heirloom. They saved heirloom. They told us they contributed heirloom to other organizations and small farmers.
After showing us most everything, I noticed they carefully led us around the perimeter of the last and largest greenhouse (avoiding giving us any glimpse inside) to display their modest attempt at a fruit-and-nut orchard downslope.
Well, good luck with an orchard in this climate and soil, I thought. But I had to admit they were doing everything right. A homemade irrigation system carried water by gravity-feed from a cistern the size of a small city water tank down to the trees, which sat in wide catch-basins. Vast screens (are you getting tired of me saying "vast," here?) kept deer and other destructive beasties at bay while still letting in light.
Definitely an impressive place. You know, maybe we were fools to avoid these people, I thought. They had a lot of skills and knowledge that fit right in with Hardyville. Heck, they know a lot more about solar and wind power than some of us townies who've been spoiled by the small coal-fired generating plant in the next valley north. We might be able to get along with these neighbors. Well, except for the ninnyhammer attitude toward firearms. But that could change, in time.
I was feeling optimistic.
Only one thing The Emma Goldman Arts Co-op and Biodiverse Living Center seriously lacked (aside from any sign of "arts" that is). And Bob, of course, was the first to spot it. Or not spot it. No telephones. No computers. No communications technology at all.
"Not even Windows ME?" Bob squeaked when he realized that the piles of paper heaped around the various little offices and work stations were the form of communications between the co-op and the outside world. "No Internet? Not even a sneaker net?"
After his moment of shock, Bob spotted the vast void of potential. His inner geek sparked to life. He darn near pranced with excitement. "You know, I could set you up with wireless," he enthused. "And you've got a half-dozen perfect places for a satellite dish. And even if all you could afford is old machines, I could help you get started by installing U ..."
Poor Bob was so busy waving his arms around and mentally building their brand-new computer system that he couldn't see what I saw. Thomas's expression darkened. He glared at Bob. Then at me. The other two young men pulled back like snails into their shells. Maybe we should have brought those leper bells, after all.
"Technology," Thomas Pronounced (with capital-P and all), "is the manifestation and propagation of corporate neo-Fascism. Computers are an assault weapon that kills the mind instead of the body."
Bob froze, dumbfounded. Thomas went on. "You and people like you threaten the life of this very community, in fact the planet herself, with your materialistic, globalized ..."
Before he could go on too much longer in that vein, Bob pulled himself up to the full grandeur of his 5'7" and 125 pounds and Proclaimed right back, "And people like you are complete &^%$#ing ignoramuses. You don't know what you're talking about. You use all this computerized energy-generation technology, then you have the brass to say computers are evil? There's no such thing as a tool that's evil all by itself. Not a computer, not a firearm, not a &^%$#ing hammer or a brick or an Internet, you half-assed, bigoted ..."
"Guys. Guys!" I pleaded. But it was too late. Mr. Violence is Against Our Principles and Mr. Bantam-Weight Computer Geek bristled at each other, about to come to blows.
"What's happening here? What's going on, Thomas?" We all stopped. We all turned. The same voice, now just a little incredulous, piped, "Bob ...? Claire ...?"
And there stood Dora-the-Yalie with a pencil behind her ear, a sheaf of file folders in her hand, and a very authoritative frown on her face.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. Thank you to Debra for helping me navigate the perils of this column.
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