If Martha Stewart ran a B&B ...
The Chicago Tribune
The person that I might have been would know how to dig potatoes and live without electric light. She would get up with the roosters to make jam and feed the chickens. That happy, hardy person would know how to build a wall tent as easily as the person that I actually am can power up a laptop.
In pursuit of that lost, other self, on a searing July day, I'm driving toward MaryJane Butters' bed-and-breakfast. The hills roll for miles up here in Idaho's panhandle, amber with wheat and green with peas, looking so serene and plush you can almost hear them purr. Just over Paradise Ridge on this 95-degree afternoon looms MaryJane's place.
It's easy to understand why some of the people who turn off Idaho Highway 8 just outside the college town of Moscow, then follow the crunching gravel up Wild Iris Lane, don't believe there really is a MaryJane Butters.
MaryJane Butters? Please. That's got to be a brand name invented by a focus group. And the closer MaryJane's B&B gets, the more the simple life that it promises looks about as simple as a pointillist painting. The sloping fields, lush with summer crops, swim into leafy detail. Along a quarter mile of fence parade hundreds of artfully carefree black-eyed susans.
Then raspberry bushes appear. And the greenhouse. And the sleek corrugated-steel, silo-like building that, when construction's done, will be her headquarters.
And the hen house. And one of the five B&B tents. And the picturesquely slung hammocks, and the hand-lettered signs over the hand-cobbled wooden garden gates, and a scenic yellow outhouse that I'll soon discover has a crocheted cover on the toilet top.
Simple beauty. Composed of 20 million carefully placed dots.
The person I might have been is not daunted by these accomplishments.
The slack-jawed person that I really am thinks, "What kind of mind creates this?"
"MARYJANE IS NUTS," says April Heyde, and she means nuts in the best way.
Heyde, 26, was living in Chicago and studying at Columbia College before she moved to Idaho and took what she calls "the coolest job ever." As manager of the B&B, she's one of the many people inspired by Butters' blend of creativity, extreme competence, entrepreneurial exuberance and belief in the farm girl inside every woman.
She's also the friendly face that wanders out in a picture-perfect apron to introduce you to your farm life.
"Feel free to pick your own lettuce," she says.
The person I might have been would have said, "Thanks." The person I am says, "Can you clarify how to do that?"
After a short lettuce lesson, Heyde steers me up a dirt path, past the little farm library (excellent books inside) and into a grove that has stayed cool even on this boiling day.
The B&B charges $139 a night (two-night minimum) Monday through Thursday, $169 Friday through Sunday. Lodging consists of wall tents, though "tents" doesn't do them justice. Mine was big enough to walk around in, the floor was wood, and the decor was a testament to Butters' eclectic talents.
The bedsheets are from her organic linen line, the chocolate bars from her line of organic backpacking foods. On an antique trunk sits "MaryJane's Ideabook-Cookbook-Lifebook," a glossy combination of autobiography, self-help tips, practical advice and gorgeous photos taken by, yes, MaryJane.
Heyde points out the outhouse--just up that path--and the warm shower--just down that one. There's cold water just outside the tent in the old enamel sink beneath the plum tree. I probably won't need the woodburning stove inside the tent, she notes, but I might want to use the outdoor firepit. By the way, if I hear strange thuds on the tent top it's just the walnuts falling.
I'm beginning to feel very in touch with the person I might have been. Then I panic. What about coffee? Heyde displays a plastic bag of fresh-ground beans and shows how to ignite the JetBoil French press thingie.
For dinner, she says, I can pick anything out of the fields. Or I can walk down to the backpacking food warehouse, choose a meal and cook it up with boiling water at my tent.
Or I could grab a couple of fresh eggs and some butter from her kitchen and cook them on the burner by my sink.
All of these options are attractive. To the person I might have been.
As it is, I drive 15 minutes back into civilization and park at the Moscow Coop, a bright, spacious market in the hip little downtown. I buy two icy Blue Moon beers and an organic salad in a plastic box and drive back to the farm.
After half a beer, the person that I am and the one I might have been feel in perfect harmony. We sit together at the table outside my tent, listening to quail rustle in the brush and owls hoot in the trees, reading while the sun goes down.
THE MEN WHO come to MaryJane's B&B, have usually been dragged by some woman.
That's the case with Kathie and KW Norris, who drove six hours east from suburban Portland. We met one morning in the plum pit, the grove where guests gather for Heyde's excellent breakfasts, which include things like shirred eggs and raspberry scones.
Chickens strutted and clucked in the dirt. The firepit crackled. Another guest, a graduate student from Spokane, sat knitting in a chair made of tree branches.
"I grew up on a farm," says KW, who now works in computers. "And Kathie wants to go spend money camping out at a farm? I said, 'Why are we doing this?' "
MaryJane, who had dropped by to greet the guests, laughs. "You were thinking, 'You want to pay to use an outhouse?' " she says.
But KW likes it. The night before, just outside their tent, he had sauteed the vegetables they'd picked in the lower garden. For desert they picked berries in the upper garden and with one of MaryJane's package mixes made chocolate chip cookies in a frying pan.
KW liked it so much he had an idea for MaryJane. Make the farm a wi-fi hotspot. Run working retreats for businesspeople.
MaryJane cups her chin in a manicured hand and nods thoughtfully. "I could do retreats."
Once guests confirm that MaryJane is real, they're impressed by two things. One is that she seems so normal. The other is that she is not normal.
It is not normal to have a resume that includes Forest Service ranger, construction worker, environmental activist, writer, photographer and struggling single mother of two who moved to a five-acre farm and eventually married Nick, the farmer next door, who added his 600 acres to hers and now oversees her dried-food business.
A normal 54-year-old does not, as MaryJane does today, get up with the dawn, take marketing photographs for her new quickie biscuit mix, do some watering and assorted other chores and then toss her waist-length blond hair into a perfect French twist, all by 8 a.m..
But that's one reason people come to the B&B she opened three years ago and runs from May to mid-July. She's the incarnation of possibility.
"I haven't planned any of this," she says when KW asks about her many enterprises. "It's all about just getting up every morning and figuring out what you're going to do next."
AS A GUEST, what you're going to do next may be nothing. MaryJane says that when people arrive at the B&B they can't imagine how they'll spend all that empty time. Then they get on farm time.
I did. True, one day, I drove an hour to hike and look at waterfalls. Another afternoon, when the tent was just too hot, I hung out in a cool, wi-fi'd cafe in Moscow.
But mostly I hung around my tent, reading, napping, walking some, being the person I might have been. I learned how to dig potatoes. I cooked them up and ate them with a hand-picked salad.
I left relaxed, but also relieved to hear that though MaryJane rarely takes a vacation ("Weekends off just create tension"), she recently spent a few nights in a Hyatt while promoting her linen line. She loved the simplicity of the hotel room ("nothing undone") and she couldn't resist a treat unavailable on the farm: cable TV.
"Give me that remote!" she says with a gleeful swipe of her hand, mimicking herself on a city vacation, proving that she, too, has another person inside of her.
- - -
ENCRUSTED RACK OF LAMB
1-1/2 rack of lamb (1 to 1 1/4 pounds), with 8 to 9 "frenched" rib bones (see note)
1. Trim excess fat away from lamb meat and bones. Rub with a little olive oil, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons Mediterranean Flavor Blend and pepper. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees while preparing the crumb mixture. In a small bowl, combine panko bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon Mediterranean Flavor Blend, parsley, butter, extra-virgin olive oil, and 1 teaspoon mustard. Set aside.
3. Heat 2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil in a 12-inch saute pan (not non-stick) over medium-high heat. Brown lamb on all side, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate or cutting board and brush with 1 tablespoon mustard. With the rib bones pointing downward, press bread crumb mixture on top of the meat, encasing the surface. Place the lamb into a shallow baking pan (preferably metal) and roast for 25-30 minutes for rare, or until the meat registers 140 degrees on an instant read thermometer, add an additional 5 minutes cooking time for medium-rare. Allow the meat to rest 5 minutes.
4. Carve between the rib bones and down through the meat, serving 2 or 3 ribs per person along with Mint Cucumber Salsa. (Lamb recipe can easily be doubled.)
*Note: The term "frenched" denotes fat or meat cut away from a rib bone, so the end of the bone is exposed.
MEDITERRANEAN FLAVOR BLEND: Combine 1 1/2 tablespoons each dried parsley, thyme, marjoram, dill, ground mustard, 1 tablespoon each dried basil, dried lemon peel, 1 1/2 teaspoons celery seed, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and store in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.