Mom is visiting us for three weeks, and to celebrate her birthday, Z and I decided to treat her to an overnight on the farm of one of her favorite authors. Betty MacDonald wrote The Egg & I, her memoir of time spent on the Olympic Peninsula raising chickens, in 1945. A movie was made from the book and starred Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert and was followed by a string of “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies that were based on back woods characters Betty described in her book. (She was later sued by people who believed she had based the unflattering but beloved Ma and Pa on them). Though I’ve never actually read this particular book, I grew up feeling like I knew the author. Mom was often reading passages from one of the books and telling me anecdotes from Betty’s life as if they were old friends. (The author died in 1958.) I did, however, read her series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, which I was convinced were the American answer to Mary Poppins, so I had my own “Betty love” going on.
When Z and I stay somewhere, we study the descriptions and photos on VRBO and airbnb as if we are buying the property instead of just staying there for a night or two. I’m pickier than he is and because I’m what they call a “Highly Sensitive Person” I’m affected negatively by ugly things or dirty things or even spaces that seem too much to belong to someone else. My ideal spot to stay is one that looks like one of those little IKEA display rooms, where you can imagine living your life without having to think about how anyone else has maybe trimmed his toenails on the sofa.
So when we’re looking for a weekend getaway, Z will often find a spot he thinks looks perfect, but I’ll see a throw pillow with a color scheme that makes my skin crawl or a poster of an eagle on a back wall, and I’ll insist we keep looking. I can’t express this enough: I am not a princess. Really, I’m not. But I have a lot of feelings and other people’s things affect how I feel and when I’m on a little vacation, I don’t want to have to deal with turmoil inside of me just because a chair is scratchy or there is bad lighting. I had to quit going into antique stores a few years ago when I realized I always left depressed and a little obsessed about how wasteful and tacky we are as a people. So online photos of potential digs have to give me a good vibe before I’ll send the payment information.
The Betty MacDonald Farm Bed and Breakfast website has a few beautiful photos, but it’s a little short on specifics. So when Mom and I arrived after a twenty-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, we didn’t know what to expect. Finding it felt like an adventure in itself because we weren’t exactly sure where we were going and other than a very generic “LODGING” sign on the main road with an arrow, Vashon is not a neon-light or billboard sort of place that will direct you anywhere. You “discover” things on the island, which is part of its charm. Other things you will discover: quiet and an easy slowness that would be honked out of existence in Seattle.
We were greeted by the owner, Judith, who gave us brief directions up to the third story of the barn and a warning to shut all the doors to keep the animals out, particularly a mother raccoon and her babies who had been trying to find some indoor accommodations. Mom and I hauled our bags up the multiple stairs, and as I was dragging my stuff up, I was thinking, “Oh, geeze. We’re staying in a barn.” Now, it was clear from the website that we’d be staying in a barn, I had specifically made a reservation and paid to stay in a barn, but somehow in Seattle I was imagining something less barn-y. No spiders, no feeling of the hundreds of chickens that used to live there, something in the shape of a barn but with dry-wall and track lighting to illuminate my way. (Before you judge me, please re-familiarize yourself with my camping adventures through the ages here and here.)
And then we popped up into the loft and we instantly moved from “barn” to “antique store.” The loft was vast as it was literally the barn loft that went from one end of the three-story barn to the other in a big open space. It held a full kitchen, an antique bed, various gorgeous bits of tables and chests and bookcases, this giant dual-couch construction made out of wood and covered with woolen carpets that looked like it belonged in a bunk house on the range, a wood stove, and a table laid out with Spode for our meals. There was not a horizontal surface that wasn’t covered with books, and the bookcases were all full as well. Good books. Books you wanted to lose yourself in, or at the very least flip through and then order a copy for yourself. The couches faced the wall of windows, which overlooked the six-acre farm, Puget Sound, and the idea of Mt. Rainier that was out there under the cloud cover.
Initially, I sat on the sofa staring at the view with my lips pursed, uncertain if I should be pleased or disappointed. The bunk house couch was surprisingly comfortable. The view couldn’t have been better and I loved being in this “writerly” space, but there was absolutely no way for my highly sensitive brain to pretend that this place was the blank canvas of a slicker vacation rental cottage. There was absolutely no way to imagine that it was my personal living space because it was so filled with the owner’s belongings. So I kept sitting there, thinking.
Mom was excited, soaking up the view from the balcony, as well as a good bit of weather since it was misting a little bit. When she finally had to come in because it got too wet and cold to reasonably sit outside, she started foraging for books, creating a huge stack in front of herself, and then curled up on her section of the bunkhouse sofa and started reading.
Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.
The books were too hard to resist. My lips un-pursed a little. I got my own stack, and we spent the night reading and talking, and never did get around to watching The Egg & I video that the owner had at the ready should we want to steep ourselves in Betty MacDonald’s life a little more.
I’m not sure when exactly the scales in my brain tipped towards “pleased.” The quiet and view certainly worked some magic on me. And the sheets in the little bedroom helped because I’ve never felt anything so soft and crisp (except for the impossibly fluffy towels that were waiting for us in the bathroom, along with robes and African baskets filled with everything we could need to pamper ourselves). Possibly the fact that Mom, who was on the other side of the door sleeping in the main loft got momentarily freaked out because something was on the roof, and then we fell into hysterics like we were at a slumber party when we realized the sound she heard was not the mother raccoon trying to break in but was really just me turning the pages of a Country Living article about Corbin Bernsen’s house.
No, I think it happened well before that, when I was looking at all the stacks of books, and all the little nooks and crannies where you could cozy up with a book or a writing pad. It is hard not to hanker for a good reading and writing space, and this one was the best. The place is too unique to turn your nose up at it. Plus, it was clean and our every need was anticipated. By the time I fell asleep I felt like I was spending the night at my grandmother’s house, cozy and well-cared for. And when I woke up the next morning after a perfect night’s sleep on a very comfortable bed, I felt sad that we’d only booked the single night.
Mom and I sat on the porch the next morning so entranced with the view and the books we wanted to skim before leaving that we failed to shower and make ourselves breakfast. Showering and eating could happen after check-out time when we’d made our way back to the grit of the city. (Z would be none the wiser about our slovenly choices because he’d still be at work.) We begrudgingly packed up our things, tidied up after ourselves, and trudged down the stairs to the car.
The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B
I made my way over to say hello to the adorable Irish terrier who lives on the property and ran into Judith. I asked her a few questions about the farm and the island, and she started what turned into a fascinating history and horticulture lesson. Mom joined us, and an hour later we knew how to get a start of hydrangea, more about Betty MacDonald’s life, more about the history of the island, the personality of Irish terriers, and the property itself. We even got a peek of the cottage on the ground floor so we could see if we’d like to stay there in the future. (It was cozy too and called to us, including a beautiful old claw-foot tub, perfect for reading that was situated in the bathroom surrounded by windows so you could read, sip some wine, and stare at the Sound and Mt. Rainier. If we ever tried to book a weekend there and couldn’t get the loft, we’d be perfectly happy in the house.) It was the perfect ending to a delightful 24 hours.
By the time we climbed into the car and made our way back to the ferry, I was solidly in love with the place and wondering when we could come back. I’ve no doubt that there are people who arrive on the farm and don’t adjust to its quirky self and wish they’d stayed in one of those IKEA-furnished cottages where everything is new and personality-neutral. But for me, I was glad I was able to hit the pause button on my own peculiarities and enjoy the gorgeous peculiarities of the Betty MacDonald Farm B & B. I sincerely doubt that I’ll ever find another place like it, and isn’t that what we should be out here doing? Acquiring unique experiences instead of the cookie-cutter ones?
Betty MacDonald’s Underwood