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Love, Life, and the Ghosts of Sweat and Fear

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"It's about five miles up the road, and right when you think you're not going to get there you get there."

These are my kind of directions and Santa Rosa Creek Road is my kind of road, two lane and sinuous enough to snub the world's hurry, and lined with roadside attractions of another age, auburn grass fields, and weathered barns, and ancient oaks with limbs that prop up the sky. Winding through this glory, it occurs to me that the friendly woman in downtown Cambria who provided me directions to Linn's Farmstore was right. Not only do I think I might not get there, I think I might have gotten there and gone. Admittedly it is difficult to get lost on a two lane road, but my misdirectional skills are substantial. I suppose I could use the GPS, but I am not good with technology either and so, three days into this road trip, the GPS rests on the floor, providing directions to a pile of disinterested Snickers wrappers.

But I whistle as I drive because this road makes me happy, and long ago I ascertained that getting lost presents no problem if you don't care. I swoop through the drowsy summer evening unfolding here in the countryside outside the Central Coast town of Cambria, a sleepy enough burg in itself, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but close enough to Hearst Castle to sustain itself with tourist trade. And over the past 31 years, hundreds of those tourists have enjoyed a slice of the Linn family's pie.

But I am not interested in pie. For one thing, I already had a slice of Dutch Apple pie in downtown Cambria at Linn's Easy As Pie Café. Plus I'm pretty certain that, should I actually find Linn's Farmstore, it will be closed. It is nearly eight in the evening now, and the countryside does not keep city hours. To some it may seem odd to turn off the main road in the falling light and drive five miles to see a place you won't likely see, but the true traveler traffics in neither rationality nor facts.

And then there it is, and I pull off into the gravel alongside the road because the Farmstore is indeed closed and the gates are shut. In the settling dust I lean against the fence and gaze toward the store and the tidy home beside it. Directly in front of me, olallieberry bushes string out in hypnotic rows. Standing in the cool and quiet, I feel the weight of disappointment.

Just like that a screen door clacks and a miracle appears; a spritely figure that eschews porch steps and strides purposefully up the gravel drive to where I stand. The boy stops. He may be ten. He wears thick glasses and a pair of rubber boots.

He assesses me, this myopic fisherman, and then he pulls the gate open.

"You can come in," he says. "Dad saw you. He said it was okay. He sent me up."

I stand undecided for a moment. Part of me doesn't want to intrude, but part of me is curious, and the curious part always wins.

"Thank you," I say. "I really appreciate it." I extend a hand. "I'm Ken."

The handshake is firm.


"I like your boots."

Owl eyes regard me with a child's open manner.

"It gets pretty muddy around here sometimes."

As we walk down the gravel drive I try to continue our conversation, but Will is ten and in his eyes I am somewhere between one hundred and one thousand and so he goes quiet.

The screen door clacks again. Two figures appear on the porch. The smaller figure sprints toward us. When he reaches Will, with barely a glance at me, he jabs his brother unceremoniously in the ribs. In a puff of dust both boys are off and running.

When the man reaches me, he extends a callused hand.

"I'm Aaron Linn." He pauses as if relishing his good luck. "I'm their Dad."

"It was really nice of you to open the gate."

Aaron shrugs.

"We saw you standing out in the road. It looked like you might want to see the place. We've got a little time before dinner. The store's closed, but I'm happy to show you the place if you'd like to see it."

It is exactly what I want. My gratitude sees me start up another stumbling thank you.

Aaron lifts a hand.

"It's my pleasure," he says. "On an evening like this, it's just nice to be out of the house."

It is. Who doesn't remember the summer evenings of youth? They were exactly like this. Up ahead of us, the brother leads Will on a merry chase.

"That's Alex," says Aaron. "They're pretty full of energy. All the time."

"Will is a polite young man."

"Thanks. We've tried to raise them to be nice to people. We get a lot of people coming through here."

When we reach the store, the boys are already there, panting and waiting. To one side of the store a grassy hill descends to a creek. Halfway down the hill there is an enormous oak that spreads over a small patch of grass. In the soft evening light, the leaves are almost gold.

It is beautiful and I say so.

Aaron smiles.

"We grew up here. My sister got married down there. I got married down there, too."

Aaron opens the door to the store. Inside neat rows of merchandise run everywhere.

"We started in 1981," says Aaron. "It all started here."

Standing in the silent store Aaron tells me how his parents bought the parcel of land we now stand on, how they moved to Cambria from Colorado with virtually no money and even less farming experience, how they struggled and very nearly failed, how they learned to drive tractors and run trenchers and plant fruit trees.

Now there's a Linn's Easy As Pie Café, a Linn's Gourmet Goods, a Linn's HomeStyle Gifts & Sale Loft and the Farmstore, but this wasn't always the case.

Like many dreams, this polished store rests upon the ghosts of sweat and fear.

"It must have been a lot of work," I say.

Aaron pauses.

"It was. Mom would be in tears in the back rolling pies. She did a hundred pies a day. We didn't have a mixer back then."

I remember Linn's when it started, and I tell Aaron so. I remember coming to the newly opened farm store with my bride. I remember driving along the country road, sure we were lost and not really caring, sitting in the shade of an oak, sharing a fork and a piece of olallieberry pie, the blackberry and raspberry cross that would eventually make Linn's famous, and, in that moment, simply made us happy to be alive.

It is why I stood at the fence, only half seeing the rows of olallieberry bushes until a small boy wrested me out of my dreams.

When we step from the store, Will and Alex are still chasing each other through the orchard, shouts and laughter ringing in the twilight. It is amazing how fast you can run in rubber boots.

We watch them. Aaron is quiet and I am too. I do not know what Aaron is thinking, but watching the boys run I think of how a bride is a gift yet to be recognized, and how a life is built on sweat and tears and hope and dreams, and how, even in these distrustful times, a small boy tromps up a dirt path to open a gate for a stranger.

Life runs with the speed of small boys, beyond our grasp. But we can provide some direction.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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