Just Like Trix Cereal
Way back in 1992, when Zick of the Birds and I were visiting southeastern Ohio, looking for a farm to buy so we could move here from Baltimore, we had an interesting experience with a realtor. We'd made several trips out to Ohio for my work (I was the managing editor of Bird Watcher's Digest but was working with then-editor Mary Beacom Bowers in our Baltimore office) and each time we'd spend hours scanning the real estate flyers for rural houses with a chunk of land. Then we'd take a day or two to look at potential properties.
Julie had agreed to move from the East Coast to the Appalachian edge of the Great Midwest only if we could find a place with hummingbirds and bluebirds. I felt confident that we could, but this was proving more difficult than expected. We looked at several dozen places over the summer and fall of that year. None was IT.
It seemed like each place we checked out fell into one of two categories: great house with no land. Or great land with a house fit only for the bulldozer. Or no house at all. Sometimes we'd find a place that seemed close to perfect, but there would be issues with it. Lead paint on the exterior. No interior plumbing. No access to a road. Property and legal disputes. Neighbors so close by that you could ask them to pass the salt. One place we really liked was going up for a sheriff's auction. We bid on it far beyond our agreed-upon maximum and we still lost it. We spent a while on the courthouse steps after that disappointment, shedding some tears.
Then a place came on the market that sounded ideal. "Surrounded by national forest lands, you can live like a king in your own kingdom. 4BR, 2 bath, new carpet. Beautiful vistas, excellent frontage, house in great shape. Seller primed to sell." We'd read enough 'realtorspeak' to know that there were hidden meanings in this listing. Surrounded by national forest probably meant not much land. But it might also mean few neighbors. No mention of a garage meant there was no garage. 'New carpet' meant there had been lots of pets in this house, or perhaps a taxidermy business. "Seller primed to sell' could mean anything. 'Live like a king'? Did this refer to actual royalty, meaning the house was really nice? Or did it mean you could live like Elvis, sitting on the 'throne' clogging your arteries with fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches?
We decided to check it out and made an appointment with the realtor.
If you've ever bought a house, you know that sometimes you take a tour and the current owners are there. Other times they politely make themselves scarce so you can feel freer to poke around and ask the realtor direct questions. When the owners are there, you find yourself listening to their sales pitch and complimenting them on their collection of gnomes, the nice dark paneling in the kitchen, and how cute their cats are--all things that you HOPE will not be there when/if you move in.
These owners were planning to be gone for two hours during our tour. We arrived at the appointed time and found ourselves alone in a strange driveway. No realtor. No owners. No note. These were pre-cellphone times for us, so we just waited. And waited. And waited. We enjoyed the view, which was very nice. It was mid autumn and the fall foliage was peaking. We tried to envision ourselves stepping out onto the front porch of the house and scanning the valley before us for migrant hawks. We pondered what warblers might nest in these woods: hoodeds and Kentuckies for sure, and maybe ceruleans, too! It seemed to hold some possibility. But we'd need to see the inside of the house first, and it was locked-up tight.
Soon two teenaged boys from the slightly scary-looking homestead next door emerged from an outbuilding. One started a chainsaw and started running it along the frame of a car that was up on blocks in the yard, orange sparks mixing with blue smoke in the air around him. The other boy jumped on an ATV and began demonstrating just how fast one of these things could go without a muffler. The noise was incredible and our reverie was broken. Their activity continued for the next 45 minutes. With every one of those passing minutes, we saw something else about this particular place that was a concern. The roof looked like it would need to be replaced. There was no garage, just a muddy part of the yard where the current owners parked. The side yard had a dog run and was devoid of grass. The house was perched on a knoll and the land fell off precipitously on all sides--not great for gardening or even hiking. And the house was set very close to a fairly busy county road and to the neighbors who were actively pursuing their hobbies at this very moment.
Our dream was to buy an old farm with some elbow room--maybe 20 or even 40 acres. We did not want to farm actual crops. We wanted to farm for wildlife and especially birds. And we wanted to protect this piece of land and take care of it. We got back in our car and realized this was not going to be our new home. It was disappointing to find yet another unsuitable place, but we were in no rush, and were willing to wait for the right place to appear.
We were just about to leave, when, an hour-and-a-half late, our realtor showed up.
She was in gym clothes and sweaty and obviously embarrassed for having forgotten our appointment. As I walked toward her car, forming the words in my head that would let her know that we really weren't interested in seeing the property, she leapt up from her vehicle and said: "The leaves are so pretty this time of year. Don't that view look just like a bowl of Trix cereal?"
We had to agree it did.
We thanked her for her time. And we drove back into town along roads lined with Trix cereal, still wondering if we'd ever find a place of our own.