States of Mind: A Search for Faith, Hope, Inspiration, Harmony, Unity, Friendship, Love, Pride, Wisdom, Honor, Comfort, Joy, Bliss, Freedom, Justice, Glory, Triumph

Overview

Can you find love in Love, Virginia? Is there inspiration in Inspiration, Arizona? Brad Herzog took stock of his Generation X lifestyle and didn't like what he discovered. So he and his wife emptied their bank accounts, packed everything into a Winnebago, and set a course for a fabled America they weren't sure existed.

What began as a literal search for the small places on the map became a figurative examination of the small places of the heart, a quest for virtues lost amid ...

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Overview

Can you find love in Love, Virginia? Is there inspiration in Inspiration, Arizona? Brad Herzog took stock of his Generation X lifestyle and didn't like what he discovered. So he and his wife emptied their bank accounts, packed everything into a Winnebago, and set a course for a fabled America they weren't sure existed.

What began as a literal search for the small places on the map became a figurative examination of the small places of the heart, a quest for virtues lost amid negativity and disillusionment. From Justice, West Virginia, where one-half the population descends from the Hatfields and the McCoys, to Harmony, California, a town that's up for sale and can be yours at the right price, States of Mind eloquently and intelligently brings into focus an American psyche often blurred by intersecting cultures—and is, ultimately, an unforgettable journey all its own.

About the Author:

Brad Herzog, a graduate of Cornell University, is a former newspaper reporter and a frequent contributor to various national magazines. His memorable appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, during which he discussed States of Mind, made him an overnight sensation. Brad lives in Pacific Grove, California, with his wife, Amy, who took the photos that appear in this book.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780895871879
  • Publisher: Blair, John F. Publisher
  • Publication date: 6/1/1999
  • Pages: 402
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Brad Herzog, a graduate of Cornell University, is a former newspaper reporter and a frequent contributor to various national magazines. His memorable appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, during which he discussed States Of Mind, made him an overnight sensation. Brad lives in Pacific Grove, California, with his wife, Amy, who took the photos that appear in this book.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Harmony, California

Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning.

John Steinbeck

The search began in Malibu, of all places, on a mist-shrouded Tuesday morning in January. It was the kind of coastal phenomenon in which the sky becomes darker and the sea lighter until they blend into a gray void where the horizon is supposed to be. The horizon is perspective, and already it was gone.

We had started in late December, heading from Chicago to Los Angeles along the bastard sons of Route 66 — I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15, and I-10, a new generation of interstates with almost no romantic folklore. Steinbeck described the Mother Road as "the path of a people in flight." Nowadays, you see more of America by actually flying.

We planned to make it past St. Louis on the first day of our journey, but our plans were derailed by the infamous Auspicious Beginning. We had a decent excuse. An apparently mild morning turned into an abnormally gusty afternoon — and this in the Windy City. Suddenly, there were forty-five-mile-per-hour winds and a trailer advisory. I had test-driven the RV exactly once and had never otherwise steered anything larger than a sedan. The Rolling Stone was as aerodynamic as it was compact, so I did what any sane adventurer would do. I panicked. We spent the rest of the day and the night in Joliet, one hour south, a city of gamblers and maximum-security prisoners. Camp was a corner of a Kmart parking lot. Frost gathered on the inside of our bedroom window, and a parade of windblown shopping cartsslammed us to sleep.

We contemplated our next move for fear of regretting our prior one.

Over the next few weeks, we made our way through Missouri, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona, finally arriving in Malibu on New Year's Eve. And why not Malibu? If you're going to embark on a journey to find the real America, why not choose as a jumping- off point a place where reality is obscured by silicone and sunblock? Driving through Los Angeles in a thirty-four-foot motor home was a bit like shuffling along a fashion runway in overalls. It felt good.

On a January morning, we headed north on Highway One, dwarfed on our right by the Santa Monica Mountains and on our left by the Pacific. Far in the distance, a vessel drifted through the grayness at a ghostly pace. It appeared to be a ship riding high in the ocean but turned out to be a blimp riding low in the clouds. The heavy air hugged the coastline, which revealed itself only gradually with each curve of the highway.

We took the Pacific Coast Highway to U.S. 101, which we then followed back to the Pacific Coast Highway. There was an international flavor to the journey. Our route took us past Goleta Beach, where the Japanese attacked in 1942 — the only attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812. We drove through Santa Barbara, rebuilt in Spanish Colonial style following a devastating 1925 earthquake, and past the mock-Danish town of Solvang. We rolled by Santa Maria and Nipomo and San Luis Obispo.

But the road doesn't just take you through places, it takes you past thoughts and themes. On this day, this particular highway took us past surfers shooting the waves, a film crew shooting a movie, and soldiers shooting rifles at a practice range; past orchards, vineyards, graveyards, and a banana garden touting fifty exotic varieties; past windblown telephone poles bending toward the sea; past a sign for Santa Claus Lane in a town called Summerland and another shouting Buellton: Home of Split Pea Soup, where the landscape suddenly changed to rolling countryside; past a white stallion prancing proudly in a mud-brown stable, ignoring his ignoble surroundings, a unicorn amid trolls; past plowed fields resembling corrugated paper and sharp peaks surrounded by harmless foothills; past three huge smokestacks hovering over a rumbling bay like a polluted candelabra. One can think about such nonsense forever, until it is not nonsense at all, but a kind of language of observation. This became my language.

All the while, the ocean dodged in and out of view according to the whim of the road and the lay of the land. And all the while, there was a nagging fear that, this being our first destination, we might never find what we were looking for — until we did. I stopped the Rolling Stone, having arrived at a coincidence of time and place, and we ran to the shore just as the dying sun tossed its parting rays against feathered clouds and exploded in a pink frenzy. We were in the vicinity of Harmony, at a place called Morro Bay, which would be our base camp.

Harmony and California don't normally go hand in hand. Yes, three Olympic Games have been held here. Yes, the United Nations Charter was drawn up in San Francisco in 1945. Yes, it became the thirty-first state as part of something called the Compromise of 1850. But this was also a place claimed by Spain, England, Russia, and Mexico before a war with the latter officially brought it into American hands. California was where the gold rush began at Sutter's sawmill in 1848 and ended with Sutter's bankruptcy four years later, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned by their countrymen in World War II internment camps, where the no-fault divorce originated, where Sirhan Sirhan altered history. It is a state where lumber companies and naturalists scuffle over redwoods and spotted owls, where immigration battles and labor conflicts and race riots are as common as earthquakes and wildfires and mud slides.

But the following morning, we saw a promising sign. If we couldn't find what we were looking for here, we might as well turn around, pack up, head home. Town of Harmony, turn right 1 mile, the billboard alongside the highway explained. Working artists, restaurants, arts, crafts, wine tasting, wedding chapel, it announced. Population 18, it nearly shouted.

I imagined a throwback commune, a patchwork family, a son named Earth, a daughter named Rainbow, two dogs named Steve. I expected art for the sake of creativity, or maybe creativity for the sake of art. What is harmony? Something more than accord, perhaps a melodious understanding. Is it the same as peace? Absolutely not. Peace can be passive. It seems to imply something thrust upon us rather than achieved, with tension and force as prerequisites. In a continuum with harmony on one end and disharmony on the other, peace is in the middle. Harmony is actively bettering the world; peace is just not making it worse. Harmony is the opposite of war; peace is merely the absence of it. Certainly, harmony is easiest to find in manageable quantities of humanity. Harmony among the masses is unimaginable. Harmony among eighteen is not.

We turned right on Harmony Valley Road and then left toward a half-dozen buildings of various sizes at the end of a dead-end street — the town of Harmony. Our first sight at our first stop was a gold banner on a rust-colored fence adjacent to a sky-blue house: TOWN FOR SALE, it said in big red letters. I checked my wallet. Twenty-four bucks. Three hundred years ago, that was enough to get Manhattan. I had learned my first lesson: You can buy Harmony. By the end of the day, I also learned that you can't.

Because the town, ten miles south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, is just off the Pacific Coast Highway, I had expected it to cozy up to the ocean. The map suggested it. For some reason, so did the name. Instead, I found myself surrounded by waves of pastureland, the vague smell of the sea the only reminder that it was close.

We escaped the Day Tripper and encountered more signs. The wine shop was this way, the glassblower that way, the restaurant here, the post office there. Arrows pointed the way. No one place of interest was more than a hundred feet in any direction. On the side of the post office was a painted scroll five feet wide and eight feet high, flowing with calligraphy like a medieval proclamation. It was an explanation of Harmony's origin.

The name sprang from discord. The area was settled in 1869 as a collection of dairy farms but something less than a community. Rivalry spawned feuds, and on one occasion, a feud led to a fatal shooting. But a Signs of Harmony truce was called, and shortly thereafter, the hamlet was named Harmony. The cynic in me whispered that it was a tourism trick as old as Eric the Red's giving ice-layered Greenland its name, shortly after being banished from Norway for manslaughter. I read on.

At the turn of the century, twenty local farmers incorporated the Harmony Valley Creamery Association, which was soon producing some of California's finest butters and cheeses. The town grew around the company. At its peak, Harmony boasted a large residence for management, a bunkhouse for employees, a schoolhouse, a livery stable, a blacksmith, a general store, and a post office. The highway ran directly through town, and William Randolph Hearst himself was said to have stopped here often on the way to his ranch, which was far larger than Harmony. Prosperity in Harmony lasted nearly half a century, until the dairy business moved thirty miles south to San Luis Obispo in the 1950s. The creamery closed its doors, and except for the post office, Harmony was abandoned.

In 1970, however, the ghost town amid ranch land was purchased, appropriately, by people named Casper and Fields. Ralph and Janet Casper and Paul and Doris Fields bought the two-and-a-half-acre plot on which the creamery stood and began the restoration of Harmony, drawing artists and shopkeepers to the forgotten village. There were now several shops in the old creamery building, a brick walkway leading to a potter's studio and shop, and a gallery and a glassblowing studio in an old rust-roofed barn across the street. Harmony had been reborn and recast.

Were the town's saviors still around? We went searching. Steinbeck believed that the best places to eavesdrop on a local population were bars and churches. The Harmony Chapel consisted of four pews and two stained-glass windows in an area the size of a large walk-in closet. It was empty except for windblown leaves. We tried the saloon.

The Harmony Saloon was a bar, literally — five stools and a wooden counter. I sat on a low-backed stool loose on its hinges. Amy sat next to me, and we ordered sandwiches and drinks from the bartender. A woman, fortyish with a sun-creased face, sat at the other end of the bar conquering the local newspaper. "Hmm. There's an article in here about caffeine," she said to no one in particular. "I can't drink coffee or Pepsi anymore. I get so I can't concentrate on anything." She walked out of the saloon for a few seconds, came back, and read some more. "Hmm. Can't even eat anything anymore — chocolate, pain relievers. Do you believe they put caffeine in pain relievers? Says it right here."

Amy responded by saying she found it hard to believe and by posing a question: "Do you live in Harmony?"

Were we anywhere else, it would have been a rather loaded inquiry. The jittery woman shook her head and said she lived in Cambria, a whaling center turned artist colony four miles up the highway. "We don't know who lives here. There's eighteen people. We don't know who they are." She paused and then added, "It's for sale, you know. The owners live in that blue house across the street."

I asked the obvious: "How does one get to own a town?"

She answered the obvious: "Just buy it, I guess. They're just common folk, but they bought it." She shouted into the kitchen, "Bill, how did they get to own the town? That's my husband, Bill. He's the bartender."

Bill the Bartender appeared with our turkey sandwiches. "Just bought it. It's not incorporated or anything — it's a township, I guess." And he left it at that.

The voice of Eric Clapton rose from the radio, spicing up a Dylan tune. "I ain't saying you treated me unkind. / You could've done better, but I don't mind. / You just kind of wasted my precious time. / But don't think twice, it's alright."

Our eyes drifted as our stomachs filled. Mine wandered to old steel barstools in one corner, the kind that were intended to be shaped for rear ends but resembled some sort of torture machine. Amy's roamed to the photographs on the wall. There were more than a dozen portraits, most of them awkward class photos from the 1960s, complete with bee-hives, flips, and other prehistoric designs. The Bartender's Wife explained that some of them were waitresses in the adjacent restaurant and some were customers.

"That one on the left, near the bottom, is a singer here in town." She meant Cambria. "That one on the right, her teeth are usually blackened because her ex-boyfriend always comes in and draws funny glasses and stuff on her. I can see he hasn't been here in a while."

I turned to Bill the Bartender and asked how he came to be behind Harmony's bar. "Well, I was on the other side of the bar for a long, long time. I just got drafted, I guess."

And again, he left Eric Clapton to do the talking. "I wish there was something you would do or say / to make me change my mind and stay. / But we never did too much talking anyway. / Don't think twice, it's alright."

Another customer strolled in, a likable-looking fellow with a ruddy complexion. Conversation soon revealed him to be the owner of the winery up the road, Harmony Cellars. We were five now — Amy and I, Chuck the Winemaker, Bill the Bartender, and the Bartender's Wife. Amy inquired about another photograph, that of a large brown animal with a thatch of white on its neck. That's when we learned about Freddy the Cat.

Six months earlier, Freddy had been Harmony's most renowned citizen. He was a Maine Coon cat, and the best anybody could tell, he was in his twenty-second year when he finally expired. According to Harmony lore — and there were photographs to back it up — he was big enough to catch squirrels and send St. Bernards whimpering in retreat. He was beloved enough to have the run of the town, with food and bed in every shop and the occasional cat cocktail — milk with an umbrella in it — in the saloon. He was famous enough to have shirts bearing his likeness sold in a local shop. And he was revered enough, according to Bill the Bartender, to be Harmony's honorary mayor.

"When it was time for the election, he just ran unopposed," he said, refilling my water glass. "He was deaf the last couple years, so people would write him notes to communicate with him. But I don't know if he read them himself or if someone read them to him and he read lips."

We laughed. The Bartender's Wife shook her head. "It was devastating when he died." She pointed her thumb to the rear of the old creamery. "He's buried out back."

I peered at a sign posted above the bar — Friendly Henry, it said — and the talk turned to Hank, the owner of the Harmony Saloon and the Old Harmony Pasta Factory next door. Hank, the bartender explained, had been neighboring Cambria's honorary mayor. He thought for a second. "In fact, it was about the same time Freddy ruled Harmony. I never thought there might have been a conspiracy between the two." He cocked a mischievous eyebrow. "But it's possible."

Chuck the Winemaker joined in. "If you dig deep enough, you could come up with some dirt, I'm sure."

"I can show you where to start," laughed the bartender, nodding to-ward Freddy's grave. "You'd definitely come up with something."

Outside the saloon, a golden retriever wagged his way past us, followed by a large cat, perhaps the new mayor. A wedding party had arrived at the chapel: a striking, pregnant blond woman on the arm of a handsome black man with a ponytail running down his spine. Dogs and cats living together. Black and white in matrimony. It was too much — too surface.

We wandered to the front of the old creamery building, a six-thousand- square-foot concrete structure the color of its product. In fact, it still said Harmony Valley Creamery Assn. in bold letters on the side. A few feet lower was another sign over a doorway. Hart and Co., it read, in the heart of beautiful downtown Harmony, CA. It was a boutique smaller than the saloon.

"Hello," said a voice belonging to a longhaired brunette who wore what seemed to be a constant smile. Her name was Linda. She owned the store with her sister and a friend. The friend was named Hart, and the sisters were the Company. Linda had been raised in Vermont. She moved to California in 1978.

"I was involved in the new-homes industry, which for a while I enjoyed," she explained. "But then I could see that it was just destroying the environment. There was too much building going on. It's one thing to supply the housing to people, because everybody has a right to have it. But it's another thing to overtax the land, so I had to get out of it."

Her sister had settled in Harmony in 1987 and started the store. Two years later, Linda joined the business, selling hand-painted boots, hand-painted vests, hand-painted sweatshirts, hand-painted jackets. There were also Harmony postcards, Harmony shirts, Harmony magnets, Harmony history scrolls. Harmony was indeed for sale.

"We used to have a store in Cambria as well, and we used to be in wholesale manufacturing. We had a line of women's sportswear, but we lost our butts in that business. It was just too tough. We made a lot of...Hey there!"

She smiled at the doorway, where stood a man with his right arm in a sling and his considerable pants held up by suspenders designed to look like tape measures. Dominick was his name, and he looked like a cross between a wise guy and a muppet. He was selling produce door to Harmony Valley Creamery Association door. Linda bought a dozen oranges for four dollars. Dominick asked if I wanted any. I stammered a non-reply. When he went to his truck, Amy told me we already had plenty of oranges in the RV. It's amazing how a man can spend half his life peering into a refrigerator and still not see a thing. Dominick brought back a bag and set it triumphantly on the floor. I apologized and told him we didn't actually need any. He shrugged and walked away, apparently a pushover. I should have known better. Later, after he'd made his rounds of Harmony, he caught me again, this time giving me the hard sell. I bought a pound of pistachios.

I asked Linda if she lived in Harmony. She lived in Cambria, too. Did anybody live in Harmony?

"When we first came up here, there were a few rogue artists who sort of camped out on the premises, but the real residents of the town are farmers and ranchers around here whose names go back to before the turn of the century. This area is an old Swiss-Italian settlement, so you have names like Tartaglia, Barlogio, Sausa, Molinari. A lot of them will come here and pick up their mail."

I peered at a petition on the counter. The addresses next to the signatures ranged from Tennessee to Washington State. It was a petition to save the post office. "It's a small office. Whenever the postmaster retires from a little office, they try to close it," Linda explained. "They're going to have to have some kind of resolution soon, so what I'm doing is showing that this is also a tourist attraction. It's a part of U.S. postal history. They say, 'Oh, nothing historic has happened here.' And I say, 'That's not the point. It's part of your history. You want to preserve something like this.'"

Somehow, she managed to smile all the way through this. I added my signature to the petition.

"Sometimes, I think we're a tiny little microcosm of the universe," she said, still smiling, when I asked her about the name of the town. "There's sometimes disharmony in Harmony, but usually we get along pretty well."

"Disharmony? Over what?"

"You know, little things that come up. Sometimes, there are little feuds between the shopkeepers, or you might hear some gossip about some of the neighbors...."

I must have seemed interested, because she looked around as if watching out for Big Brother. Then she sighed and continued, as if confessing, "I'm going to be very honest with you. It needs to be said. This town's history, there was violence here, and that's why they came up with the name Harmony. But I think this place still has to be exorcised, because it seems like there's still some feuds between the families and there's still some feuding here in the town. I guess in every town there's some difficulties, but this place is so little that it seems to show up more. For a few months at a time, everything will be golden, and then all of a sudden, that negative spirit will be back again. I'm thinking now, though, that the most positive people are staying and some negative people have left."

She tried to smile again. It wasn't working this time.

Try the artists, I figured. John the Potter owned Harmony Pottery. He was a gnomelike man, small in stature, bald of head, with a cherubic face and a dusty orange goatee flowing from his chin. Amid the ashtrays and the urns and the ornaments and the comings and goings of customers, he was a rather unexcitable lump of clay. In a shy, sleepy voice, he offered memories grudgingly.

He had been here since 1973, since just after Harmony's reemergence. He lived up the road, the only Harmony artist with a Harmony address. He had survived three different landlords and had seen dozens of businesses come and go. It was quiet at the beginning, he nearly whispered. Business had been better over the past five or six years, but he wasn't sure why. Generally, most people got along, he said, but not always and not everybody. And that was about all I got out of John the Potter.

Maybe one of the newer tenants would point me in the right direction. In front of the barn turned gallery, I stopped a gentleman who looked like he knew his way around — that is, if he could see from above an untamed beard and below a wide, floppy hat. His name was Larry, he was an artist, and he worked with glass. "I contacted some dentists that I know, got little tiny diamond burrs, and started scratching them on glass," he explained. "I found some glass called flash glass from Italy and France. It's not laminated, but the way they make it, there's different colors in it. So you hit a certain depth, and you reach a different color."

Larry was engaged to Kat, the owner of the gallery, who had been here barely eighteen months. Already, they didn't get along with John the Potter. "He started handling glass back there. We had agreed not to handle pottery if he didn't handle glass....I don't know. We don't really get into each other's business here. We say hi, they say hi. It's not as close as you would think a town like Harmony would be."

I was beginning to think this entire journey was a bad idea. If it was supposed to restore my belief in the inherent goodness of humanity, it wasn't working. Like Larry, I was just scratching the surface, poking here, rubbing there, and I wasn't enjoying the colors I was finding. This wasn't my utopian vision of harmony.

During the Civil War, at about the time Harmony was founded, the rank and file of both the Union and Confederate armies tended to refer to one another by slang nicknames derived from their home states. Those from Michigan were Wolverines, those from Maine were Foxes, those from Maryland were Claw Thumpers, those from Mississippi were Tad Poles. And Illinois? People from Illinois were Suckers. And maybe we were. Perhaps harmony is indeed the smile of the fool.

I knocked on the door of the owners' blue house, hoping to find a silver lining. It was opened by a woman in her sixties wearing a hand-painted sweatshirt from Hart and Co. She gave a hello that indicated she thought she knew us from somewhere. Once she realized she didn't, she invited us in anyway. As she went off to fetch her husband, I noticed a trio of oversized books on a shelf in their living room: The Norman Rockwell Collection, the Great Book of Wine, and Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Nostalgia, nurturing, and a recent understanding of space and time — the story of Jim and Kay Lawrence.

Jim Lawrence limped into the room. He had sprained his ankle days earlier. It appeared to be the least of his health concerns. He was moving slowly and coughing slightly. I'd let him tell me about it.

"So what can we do for you?" he offered, settling on the couch as I was swallowed by an easy chair.

"Well, I was wondering what leads a person to say, 'I think I'll buy a town.'"

Kay, sitting across from me, let out a laugh. I don't think I'd known what a guffaw was until then. "Ego trip." She winked. "It was pretty quiet when we bought the town, and for some reason or another, we thought we could turn it around. We felt it was something special and it needed some life turned into it. We thought we could do it. I don't know why." She laughed again.

"Are you from this area originally?"

Jim shook his head. "Originally, we were raised in southern California. Kay was from Whittier. I was from Pomona. We left there in '72, went to the San Joaquin Valley for about ten years, and then came over here."

"Jim was a C.P.A., and I was a dental hygienist," Kay explained. "And then Jim got into farming in the valley — almonds, table grapes, wine grapes. And then he sold some of it and bought Harmony." Another laugh. "I guess that's the short of it."

I asked for the long version, and I liked it better. She was born in Utah, he in Oklahoma, both in the midst of the Depression. In 1941, both of their families moved to the Los Angeles area, hers to join up with relatives, his to escape the Dust Bowl. They met in 1952. He joined the army; she went off to college. Six years later, they reunited and were married.

It was a piano that brought them to Harmony. In 1979, while running their ranch in the valley town of Delano, the Lawrences purchased a second home, a beach house about two hours west in Cambria. They were unimpressed by the high school in Delano, so they sent their daughter to school in Cambria. Kay and she moved there, while Jim spent half his time on the coast and half in the valley.

"The actual story of how we came here," said Jim, "was Kay wanted me to bring the piano over from Delano for our daughter to play here, and I thought it was too much to move. I told her to see if she could buy a used one, and we found one being advertised. We called, the price was right, and it happened that they were living in this house right here. It was the mother of the fella that owned the town, and it was for sale."

After getting Harmony on its feet again, the Caspers and Fieldses had sold the town to a Beverly Hills developer in 1977. He had planned on moving his family north, but his wife took ill and refused to leave southern California. In 1981, he sold the town to Jim and Kay for $650,000.

"When we were on the ranch, we had a house that sat on two and a half acres, same size as this town. And there were several thousand acres that Jim was managing," Kay explained. "So when we came over here, it didn't really dawn on me that it was that big a deal. It was like a weekend project. It would give him something to do. He never could quite make it over to the coast. He always had something tying him up in Delano. Well, if he had something to keep him occupied on the weekends here..."

They never actually meant to live in Harmony, but it soon became apparent that somebody had to be here to oversee the property. They sold the ranch. They sold the beach house. They became the only permanent residents of downtown Harmony. The town's other residents — the owners of the sprawling green countryside surrounding Harmony's half-a- block business district — might as well have been a thousand miles away. "We see each other, speak to each other," said Jim. "But you just don't get real close to the people. They're busy running their ranch."

Jim and Kay concentrated on their new purchase instead of their new neighbors. The previous owner had tried to make some changes, but he had pushed too hard. By the time the Lawrences arrived, there were only two artists remaining in town. But within a few years, all of the available space in Harmony was being leased. It stayed that way for nearly eight years.

And then Freddy the Cat died. It may have been a coincidence, but all hell broke loose in Harmony.

"We had one person that some people were unhappy with, so we settled with getting her out of her lease and letting her go," Jim began. "Someone rented the shop right away, coming out of Los Angeles, on a two-year lease. He was going to move the family here, then his wife basically told him she found someone else. He was going to take custody of the children, and that meant going back to southern California. There was no need trying to hold him to the lease. Then we had another that had been rented out to the same people seven or eight years. They had a split in the partnership. They were brothers. I guess they hadn't personally gotten along for years. And then we leased it right off the bat to someone else. They were opened and everything, and then two weeks later, they left. We found out there had been some problem with bankruptcy."

Kay continued the litany of incompatibility. "And this glassblower and his wife moved in here. I think it was less than a year, and they split up. She started a shop here in Harmony just this last year, until she decided it just wouldn't work being right next to him. She sold it to Kat, who owns the gallery now. Kat's ex-husband actually signed the lease, and the next thing I know, they're separating."

She shrugged. "For years, things were going well, and I basically told anybody who got married in the chapel that they were being married in Harmony, so they had to stay in harmony, but lately I don't know."

Harmony was for sale for $1.68 million. The Lawrences had originally asked more, but that was when they weren't necessarily eager to sell. That had all changed recently, and the fact that there were now three vacant spaces in the old creamery had little to do with it. It took a shock of a different kind.

"I had smoked for forty years and had quit just before," Jim explained. "I had a cough, and it wouldn't go away. They said I had chronic bronchitis, but I couldn't get rid of it, and I said, 'Hey, that's not bronchitis. That's something else.' I wanted x-rays and a complete physical. Everything. That's when I found out I had a little spot on my lungs."

He said it as if describing a fishing trip, but I knew a fishing trip could be a spiritual experience. "They got all of it with surgery," he continued confidently. "The chemotherapy and radiation are just insurance, to make sure. You know, cells can get loose. But from the time they found the spot until I found out it was operable, it was about a week or ten days, and it made me do a lot of thinking — about a lot of things I haven't done that I'd like to do."

"Like what?"

"Well, being a C.P.A., that was a lot of work. I was basically going all the time. And then we had four or five hundred employees on the ranch. They kept me going. Sometimes, you'd be up at five o'clock and you're home at five. And then we built this up here, and there's different things to worry about. Right now, a couple of years without doing too much sounds good."

For some, it is a lifelong goal; for others like Jim Lawrence, it is a grudging surrender to exhaustion. He had come to the point in his life where he was tired of adding and growing and nurturing and striving and formulating and generating. He simply wanted to savor. But he couldn't quite get himself to say the word.

Amy, who had been sitting quietly, said it for him: "You basically want to retire."

Kay nodded her head. Jim looked as if he were considering it. "Well, I guess that's it. What we really want to do is travel," he said, and his eyes lit up as he leaned forward. "I've taken trips, but I haven't really gotten out of the cities much. I've been to Washington, D.C., to Chicago. But outside of Chicago? I've never seen that area. Once, we went to Kenosha, I think. I've never been to Lake Louise in Banff. And down south? We've never really been down south besides one trip to New Orleans. And Kay would like to see the fall colors in Vermont and New Hampshire and that area. There are just a lot of places we would like to see that we haven't really taken the time to see."

In one breath, he had taken himself thousands of miles. He then put the reverie in his pocket and leaned back again. "It's just if some emergency happens, somebody's gotta be here. It's tough to take off more than a couple of weeks. So we'd just like to be rid of any responsibility, and if we decide we wanted to go tomorrow, we could."

"We've had this town for fifteen years," Kay pointed out. "It's time for someone else to go on with it."

They'd still keep a house in the area, Jim explained. Just not the same house and not the same town. It would be too tough, like watching another parent raise your child. "The two people who started this town, Casper and Fields. Casper's been here once or twice. But Paul Fields...His wife's been here, but Paul won't come. It's too emotional. It's not that they don't come because they don't like Harmony. They don't come because they love it."

Amy and I left Harmony in a buoyant mood, more confident than ever in our decision to fend off the inevitable regret of later times by spending a year on the road in the prime of our lives. Confidence is like that. Sometimes, you need to hear other people's desires to lay claim to your own. The Lawrences had finally discovered priority, consonance, peace of mind. They had achieved a sort of inner harmony, and the prospect of their future gave us a warm memory to hang on to — until we opened the New York Times a year later to find a brief feature on the California hamlet of Harmony. Kay Lawrence, it noted, was still trying to sell the town, having dropped the price significantly. Jim Lawrence had died four months after our visit.

Copyright © 1999 by Brad Herzog

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Table of Contents

Contents

Prologue/Epilogue

Harmony, California

Inspiration, Arizona

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Comfort, Texas

Pride, Alabama

Hope, Mississippi

Triumph, Louisiana

Glory, Georgia

Love, Virginia

Justice, West Virginia

Bliss, New York

Unity, New Hampshire

Friendship, Maine

Honor, Michigan

Faith, South Dakota

Freedom, Wyoming

Wisdom, Montana

Joy, Illinois

Acknowledgments

Select Bibliography

Index

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First Chapter

Chapter One: Harmony, California
Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning.
John Steinbeck

The search began in Malibu, of all places, on a mist-shrouded Tuesday morning in January. It was the kind of coastal phenomenon in which the sky becomes darker and the sea lighter until they blend into a gray void where the horizon is supposed to be. The horizon is perspective, and already it was gone.

We had started in late December, heading from Chicago to Los Angeles along the bastard sons of Route 66 — I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15, and I-10, a new generation of interstates with almost no romantic folklore. Steinbeck described the Mother Road as "the path of a people in flight." Nowadays, you see more of America by actually flying.

We planned to make it past St. Louis on the first day of our journey, but our plans were derailed by the infamous Auspicious Beginning. We had a decent excuse. An apparently mild morning turned into an abnormally gusty afternoon — and this in the Windy City. Suddenly, there were forty-five-mile-per-hour winds and a trailer advisory. I had test-driven the RV exactly once and had never otherwise steered anything larger than a sedan. The Rolling Stone was as aerodynamic as it was compact, so I did what any sane adventurer would do. I panicked. We spent the rest of the day and the night in Joliet, one hour south, a city of gamblers and maximum-security prisoners. Camp was a corner of a Kmart parking lot. Frost gathered on the inside of our bedroom window, and a parade of windblown shopping carts slammed us to sleep.

We contemplated our next move for fear of regretting our prior one.

Over the next few weeks, we made our way through Missouri, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona, finally arriving in Malibu on New Year's Eve. And why not Malibu? If you're going to embark on a journey to find the real America, why not choose as a jumping- off point a place where reality is obscured by silicone and sunblock? Driving through Los Angeles in a thirty-four-foot motor home was a bit like shuffling along a fashion runway in overalls. It felt good.

On a January morning, we headed north on Highway One, dwarfed on our right by the Santa Monica Mountains and on our left by the Pacific. Far in the distance, a vessel drifted through the grayness at a ghostly pace. It appeared to be a ship riding high in the ocean but turned out to be a blimp riding low in the clouds. The heavy air hugged the coastline, which revealed itself only gradually with each curve of the highway.

We took the Pacific Coast Highway to U.S. 101, which we then followed back to the Pacific Coast Highway. There was an international flavor to the journey. Our route took us past Goleta Beach, where the Japanese attacked in 1942 — the only attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812. We drove through Santa Barbara, rebuilt in Spanish Colonial style following a devastating 1925 earthquake, and past the mock-Danish town of Solvang. We rolled by Santa Maria and Nipomo and San Luis Obispo.

But the road doesn't just take you through places, it takes you past thoughts and themes. On this day, this particular highway took us past surfers shooting the waves, a film crew shooting a movie, and soldiers shooting rifles at a practice range; past orchards, vineyards, graveyards, and a banana garden touting fifty exotic varieties; past windblown telephone poles bending toward the sea; past a sign for Santa Claus Lane in a town called Summerland and another shouting Buellton: Home of Split Pea Soup, where the landscape suddenly changed to rolling countryside; past a white stallion prancing proudly in a mud-brown stable, ignoring his ignoble surroundings, a unicorn amid trolls; past plowed fields resembling corrugated paper and sharp peaks surrounded by harmless foothills; past three huge smokestacks hovering over a rumbling bay like a polluted candelabra. One can think about such nonsense forever, until it is not nonsense at all, but a kind of language of observation. This became my language.

All the while, the ocean dodged in and out of view according to the whim of the road and the lay of the land. And all the while, there was a nagging fear that, this being our first destination, we might never find what we were looking for — until we did. I stopped the Rolling Stone, having arrived at a coincidence of time and place, and we ran to the shore just as the dying sun tossed its parting rays against feathered clouds and exploded in a pink frenzy. We were in the vicinity of Harmony, at a place called Morro Bay, which would be our base camp.

Harmony and California don't normally go hand in hand. Yes, three Olympic Games have been held here. Yes, the United Nations Charter was drawn up in San Francisco in 1945. Yes, it became the thirty-first state as part of something called the Compromise of 1850. But this was also a place claimed by Spain, England, Russia, and Mexico before a war with the latter officially brought it into American hands. California was where the gold rush began at Sutter's sawmill in 1848 and ended with Sutter's bankruptcy four years later, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned by their countrymen in World War II internment camps, where the no-fault divorce originated, where Sirhan Sirhan altered history. It is a state where lumber companies and naturalists scuffle over redwoods and spotted owls, where immigration battles and labor conflicts and race riots are as common as earthquakes and wildfires and mud slides.

But the following morning, we saw a promising sign. If we couldn't find what we were looking for here, we might as well turn around, pack up, head home. Town of Harmony, turn right 1 mile, the billboard alongside the highway explained. Working artists, restaurants, arts, crafts, wine tasting, wedding chapel, it announced. Population 18, it nearly shouted.

I imagined a throwback commune, a patchwork family, a son named Earth, a daughter named Rainbow, two dogs named Steve. I expected art for the sake of creativity, or maybe creativity for the sake of art. What is harmony? Something more than accord, perhaps a melodious understanding. Is it the same as peace? Absolutely not. Peace can be passive. It seems to imply something thrust upon us rather than achieved, with tension and force as prerequisites. In a continuum with harmony on one end and disharmony on the other, peace is in the middle. Harmony is actively bettering the world; peace is just not making it worse. Harmony is the opposite of war; peace is merely the absence of it. Certainly, harmony is easiest to find in manageable quantities of humanity. Harmony among the masses is unimaginable. Harmony among eighteen is not.


We turned right on Harmony Valley Road and then left toward a half-dozen buildings of various sizes at the end of a dead-end street — the town of Harmony. Our first sight at our first stop was a gold banner on a rust-colored fence adjacent to a sky-blue house: TOWN FOR SALE, it said in big red letters. I checked my wallet. Twenty-four bucks. Three hundred years ago, that was enough to get Manhattan. I had learned my first lesson: You can buy Harmony. By the end of the day, I also learned that you can't.

Because the town, ten miles south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, is just off the Pacific Coast Highway, I had expected it to cozy up to the ocean. The map suggested it. For some reason, so did the name. Instead, I found myself surrounded by waves of pastureland, the vague smell of the sea the only reminder that it was close.

We escaped the Day Tripper and encountered more signs. The wine shop was this way, the glassblower that way, the restaurant here, the post office there. Arrows pointed the way. No one place of interest was more than a hundred feet in any direction. On the side of the post office was a painted scroll five feet wide and eight feet high, flowing with calligraphy like a medieval proclamation. It was an explanation of Harmony's origin.

The name sprang from discord. The area was settled in 1869 as a collection of dairy farms but something less than a community. Rivalry spawned feuds, and on one occasion, a feud led to a fatal shooting. But a Signs of Harmony truce was called, and shortly thereafter, the hamlet was named Harmony. The cynic in me whispered that it was a tourism trick as old as Eric the Red's giving ice-layered Greenland its name, shortly after being banished from Norway for manslaughter. I read on.

At the turn of the century, twenty local farmers incorporated the Harmony Valley Creamery Association, which was soon producing some of California's finest butters and cheeses. The town grew around the company. At its peak, Harmony boasted a large residence for management, a bunkhouse for employees, a schoolhouse, a livery stable, a blacksmith, a general store, and a post office. The highway ran directly through town, and William Randolph Hearst himself was said to have stopped here often on the way to his ranch, which was far larger than Harmony. Prosperity in Harmony lasted nearly half a century, until the dairy business moved thirty miles south to San Luis Obispo in the 1950s. The creamery closed its doors, and except for the post office, Harmony was abandoned.

In 1970, however, the ghost town amid ranch land was purchased, appropriately, by people named Casper and Fields. Ralph and Janet Casper and Paul and Doris Fields bought the two-and-a-half-acre plot on which the creamery stood and began the restoration of Harmony, drawing artists and shopkeepers to the forgotten village. There were now several shops in the old creamery building, a brick walkway leading to a potter's studio and shop, and a gallery and a glassblowing studio in an old rust-roofed barn across the street. Harmony had been reborn and recast.

Were the town's saviors still around? We went searching. Steinbeck believed that the best places to eavesdrop on a local population were bars and churches. The Harmony Chapel consisted of four pews and two stained-glass windows in an area the size of a large walk-in closet. It was empty except for windblown leaves. We tried the saloon.

The Harmony Saloon was a bar, literally — five stools and a wooden counter. I sat on a low-backed stool loose on its hinges. Amy sat next to me, and we ordered sandwiches and drinks from the bartender. A woman, fortyish with a sun-creased face, sat at the other end of the bar conquering the local newspaper. "Hmm. There's an article in here about caffeine," she said to no one in particular. "I can't drink coffee or Pepsi anymore. I get so I can't concentrate on anything." She walked out of the saloon for a few seconds, came back, and read some more. "Hmm. Can't even eat anything anymore — chocolate, pain relievers. Do you believe they put caffeine in pain relievers? Says it right here."

Amy responded by saying she found it hard to believe and by posing a question: "Do you live in Harmony?"

Were we anywhere else, it would have been a rather loaded inquiry. The jittery woman shook her head and said she lived in Cambria, a whaling center turned artist colony four miles up the highway. "We don't know who lives here. There's eighteen people. We don't know who they are." She paused and then added, "It's for sale, you know. The owners live in that blue house across the street."

I asked the obvious: "How does one get to own a town?"

She answered the obvious: "Just buy it, I guess. They're just common folk, but they bought it." She shouted into the kitchen, "Bill, how did they get to own the town? That's my husband, Bill. He's the bartender."

Bill the Bartender appeared with our turkey sandwiches. "Just bought it. It's not incorporated or anything — it's a township, I guess." And he left it at that.

The voice of Eric Clapton rose from the radio, spicing up a Dylan tune. "I ain't saying you treated me unkind. / You could've done better, but I don't mind. / You just kind of wasted my precious time. / But don't think twice, it's alright."

Our eyes drifted as our stomachs filled. Mine wandered to old steel barstools in one corner, the kind that were intended to be shaped for rear ends but resembled some sort of torture machine. Amy's roamed to the photographs on the wall. There were more than a dozen portraits, most of them awkward class photos from the 1960s, complete with bee-hives, flips, and other prehistoric designs. The Bartender's Wife explained that some of them were waitresses in the adjacent restaurant and some were customers.

"That one on the left, near the bottom, is a singer here in town." She meant Cambria. "That one on the right, her teeth are usually blackened because her ex-boyfriend always comes in and draws funny glasses and stuff on her. I can see he hasn't been here in a while."

I turned to Bill the Bartender and asked how he came to be behind Harmony's bar. "Well, I was on the other side of the bar for a long, long time. I just got drafted, I guess."

And again, he left Eric Clapton to do the talking. "I wish there was something you would do or say / to make me change my mind and stay. / But we never did too much talking anyway. / Don't think twice, it's alright."

Another customer strolled in, a likable-looking fellow with a ruddy complexion. Conversation soon revealed him to be the owner of the winery up the road, Harmony Cellars. We were five now — Amy and I, Chuck the Winemaker, Bill the Bartender, and the Bartender's Wife. Amy inquired about another photograph, that of a large brown animal with a thatch of white on its neck. That's when we learned about Freddy the Cat.

Six months earlier, Freddy had been Harmony's most renowned citizen. He was a Maine Coon cat, and the best anybody could tell, he was in his twenty-second year when he finally expired. According to Harmony lore — and there were photographs to back it up — he was big enough to catch squirrels and send St. Bernards whimpering in retreat. He was beloved enough to have the run of the town, with food and bed in every shop and the occasional cat cocktail — milk with an umbrella in it — in the saloon. He was famous enough to have shirts bearing his likeness sold in a local shop. And he was revered enough, according to Bill the Bartender, to be Harmony's honorary mayor.

"When it was time for the election, he just ran unopposed," he said, refilling my water glass. "He was deaf the last couple years, so people would write him notes to communicate with him. But I don't know if he read them himself or if someone read them to him and he read lips."

We laughed. The Bartender's Wife shook her head. "It was devastating when he died." She pointed her thumb to the rear of the old creamery. "He's buried out back."

I peered at a sign posted above the bar — Friendly Henry, it said — and the talk turned to Hank, the owner of the Harmony Saloon and the Old Harmony Pasta Factory next door. Hank, the bartender explained, had been neighboring Cambria's honorary mayor. He thought for a second. "In fact, it was about the same time Freddy ruled Harmony. I never thought there might have been a conspiracy between the two." He cocked a mischievous eyebrow. "But it's possible."

Chuck the Winemaker joined in. "If you dig deep enough, you could come up with some dirt, I'm sure."

"I can show you where to start," laughed the bartender, nodding to-ward Freddy's grave. "You'd definitely come up with something."


Outside the saloon, a golden retriever wagged his way past us, followed by a large cat, perhaps the new mayor. A wedding party had arrived at the chapel: a striking, pregnant blond woman on the arm of a handsome black man with a ponytail running down his spine. Dogs and cats living together. Black and white in matrimony. It was too much — too surface.

We wandered to the front of the old creamery building, a six-thousand- square-foot concrete structure the color of its product. In fact, it still said Harmony Valley Creamery Assn. in bold letters on the side. A few feet lower was another sign over a doorway. Hart and Co., it read, in the heart of beautiful downtown Harmony, CA. It was a boutique smaller than the saloon.

"Hello," said a voice belonging to a longhaired brunette who wore what seemed to be a constant smile. Her name was Linda. She owned the store with her sister and a friend. The friend was named Hart, and the sisters were the Company. Linda had been raised in Vermont. She moved to California in 1978.

"I was involved in the new-homes industry, which for a while I enjoyed," she explained. "But then I could see that it was just destroying the environment. There was too much building going on. It's one thing to supply the housing to people, because everybody has a right to have it. But it's another thing to overtax the land, so I had to get out of it."

Her sister had settled in Harmony in 1987 and started the store. Two years later, Linda joined the business, selling hand-painted boots, hand-painted vests, hand-painted sweatshirts, hand-painted jackets. There were also Harmony postcards, Harmony shirts, Harmony magnets, Harmony history scrolls. Harmony was indeed for sale.

"We used to have a store in Cambria as well, and we used to be in wholesale manufacturing. We had a line of women's sportswear, but we lost our butts in that business. It was just too tough. We made a lot of...Hey there!"

She smiled at the doorway, where stood a man with his right arm in a sling and his considerable pants held up by suspenders designed to look like tape measures. Dominick was his name, and he looked like a cross between a wise guy and a muppet. He was selling produce door to Harmony Valley Creamery Association door. Linda bought a dozen oranges for four dollars. Dominick asked if I wanted any. I stammered a non-reply. When he went to his truck, Amy told me we already had plenty of oranges in the RV. It's amazing how a man can spend half his life peering into a refrigerator and still not see a thing. Dominick brought back a bag and set it triumphantly on the floor. I apologized and told him we didn't actually need any. He shrugged and walked away, apparently a pushover. I should have known better. Later, after he'd made his rounds of Harmony, he caught me again, this time giving me the hard sell. I bought a pound of pistachios.

I asked Linda if she lived in Harmony. She lived in Cambria, too. Did anybody live in Harmony?

"When we first came up here, there were a few rogue artists who sort of camped out on the premises, but the real residents of the town are farmers and ranchers around here whose names go back to before the turn of the century. This area is an old Swiss-Italian settlement, so you have names like Tartaglia, Barlogio, Sausa, Molinari. A lot of them will come here and pick up their mail."

I peered at a petition on the counter. The addresses next to the signatures ranged from Tennessee to Washington State. It was a petition to save the post office. "It's a small office. Whenever the postmaster retires from a little office, they try to close it," Linda explained. "They're going to have to have some kind of resolution soon, so what I'm doing is showing that this is also a tourist attraction. It's a part of U.S. postal history. They say, 'Oh, nothing historic has happened here.' And I say, 'That's not the point. It's part of your history. You want to preserve something like this.'"

Somehow, she managed to smile all the way through this. I added my signature to the petition.

"Sometimes, I think we're a tiny little microcosm of the universe," she said, still smiling, when I asked her about the name of the town. "There's sometimes disharmony in Harmony, but usually we get along pretty well."

"Disharmony? Over what?"

"You know, little things that come up. Sometimes, there are little feuds between the shopkeepers, or you might hear some gossip about some of the neighbors...."

I must have seemed interested, because she looked around as if watching out for Big Brother. Then she sighed and continued, as if confessing, "I'm going to be very honest with you. It needs to be said. This town's history, there was violence here, and that's why they came up with the name Harmony. But I think this place still has to be exorcised, because it seems like there's still some feuds between the families and there's still some feuding here in the town. I guess in every town there's some difficulties, but this place is so little that it seems to show up more. For a few months at a time, everything will be golden, and then all of a sudden, that negative spirit will be back again. I'm thinking now, though, that the most positive people are staying and some negative people have left."

She tried to smile again. It wasn't working this time.

Try the artists, I figured. John the Potter owned Harmony Pottery. He was a gnomelike man, small in stature, bald of head, with a cherubic face and a dusty orange goatee flowing from his chin. Amid the ashtrays and the urns and the ornaments and the comings and goings of customers, he was a rather unexcitable lump of clay. In a shy, sleepy voice, he offered memories grudgingly.

He had been here since 1973, since just after Harmony's reemergence. He lived up the road, the only Harmony artist with a Harmony address. He had survived three different landlords and had seen dozens of businesses come and go. It was quiet at the beginning, he nearly whispered. Business had been better over the past five or six years, but he wasn't sure why. Generally, most people got along, he said, but not always and not everybody. And that was about all I got out of John the Potter.

Maybe one of the newer tenants would point me in the right direction. In front of the barn turned gallery, I stopped a gentleman who looked like he knew his way around — that is, if he could see from above an untamed beard and below a wide, floppy hat. His name was Larry, he was an artist, and he worked with glass. "I contacted some dentists that I know, got little tiny diamond burrs, and started scratching them on glass," he explained. "I found some glass called flash glass from Italy and France. It's not laminated, but the way they make it, there's different colors in it. So you hit a certain depth, and you reach a different color."

Larry was engaged to Kat, the owner of the gallery, who had been here barely eighteen months. Already, they didn't get along with John the Potter. "He started handling glass back there. We had agreed not to handle pottery if he didn't handle glass....I don't know. We don't really get into each other's business here. We say hi, they say hi. It's not as close as you would think a town like Harmony would be."

I was beginning to think this entire journey was a bad idea. If it was supposed to restore my belief in the inherent goodness of humanity, it wasn't working. Like Larry, I was just scratching the surface, poking here, rubbing there, and I wasn't enjoying the colors I was finding. This wasn't my utopian vision of harmony.

During the Civil War, at about the time Harmony was founded, the rank and file of both the Union and Confederate armies tended to refer to one another by slang nicknames derived from their home states. Those from Michigan were Wolverines, those from Maine were Foxes, those from Maryland were Claw Thumpers, those from Mississippi were Tad Poles. And Illinois? People from Illinois were Suckers. And maybe we were. Perhaps harmony is indeed the smile of the fool.


I knocked on the door of the owners' blue house, hoping to find a silver lining. It was opened by a woman in her sixties wearing a hand-painted sweatshirt from Hart and Co. She gave a hello that indicated she thought she knew us from somewhere. Once she realized she didn't, she invited us in anyway. As she went off to fetch her husband, I noticed a trio of oversized books on a shelf in their living room: The Norman Rockwell Collection, the Great Book of Wine, and Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Nostalgia, nurturing, and a recent understanding of space and time — the story of Jim and Kay Lawrence.

Jim Lawrence limped into the room. He had sprained his ankle days earlier. It appeared to be the least of his health concerns. He was moving slowly and coughing slightly. I'd let him tell me about it.

"So what can we do for you?" he offered, settling on the couch as I was swallowed by an easy chair.

"Well, I was wondering what leads a person to say, 'I think I'll buy a town.'"

Kay, sitting across from me, let out a laugh. I don't think I'd known what a guffaw was until then. "Ego trip." She winked. "It was pretty quiet when we bought the town, and for some reason or another, we thought we could turn it around. We felt it was something special and it needed some life turned into it. We thought we could do it. I don't know why." She laughed again.

"Are you from this area originally?"

Jim shook his head. "Originally, we were raised in southern California. Kay was from Whittier. I was from Pomona. We left there in '72, went to the San Joaquin Valley for about ten years, and then came over here."

"Jim was a C.P.A., and I was a dental hygienist," Kay explained. "And then Jim got into farming in the valley — almonds, table grapes, wine grapes. And then he sold some of it and bought Harmony." Another laugh. "I guess that's the short of it."

I asked for the long version, and I liked it better. She was born in Utah, he in Oklahoma, both in the midst of the Depression. In 1941, both of their families moved to the Los Angeles area, hers to join up with relatives, his to escape the Dust Bowl. They met in 1952. He joined the army; she went off to college. Six years later, they reunited and were married.

It was a piano that brought them to Harmony. In 1979, while running their ranch in the valley town of Delano, the Lawrences purchased a second home, a beach house about two hours west in Cambria. They were unimpressed by the high school in Delano, so they sent their daughter to school in Cambria. Kay and she moved there, while Jim spent half his time on the coast and half in the valley.

"The actual story of how we came here," said Jim, "was Kay wanted me to bring the piano over from Delano for our daughter to play here, and I thought it was too much to move. I told her to see if she could buy a used one, and we found one being advertised. We called, the price was right, and it happened that they were living in this house right here. It was the mother of the fella that owned the town, and it was for sale."

After getting Harmony on its feet again, the Caspers and Fieldses had sold the town to a Beverly Hills developer in 1977. He had planned on moving his family north, but his wife took ill and refused to leave southern California. In 1981, he sold the town to Jim and Kay for $650,000.

"When we were on the ranch, we had a house that sat on two and a half acres, same size as this town. And there were several thousand acres that Jim was managing," Kay explained. "So when we came over here, it didn't really dawn on me that it was that big a deal. It was like a weekend project. It would give him something to do. He never could quite make it over to the coast. He always had something tying him up in Delano. Well, if he had something to keep him occupied on the weekends here..."

They never actually meant to live in Harmony, but it soon became apparent that somebody had to be here to oversee the property. They sold the ranch. They sold the beach house. They became the only permanent residents of downtown Harmony. The town's other residents — the owners of the sprawling green countryside surrounding Harmony's half-a- block business district — might as well have been a thousand miles away. "We see each other, speak to each other," said Jim. "But you just don't get real close to the people. They're busy running their ranch."

Jim and Kay concentrated on their new purchase instead of their new neighbors. The previous owner had tried to make some changes, but he had pushed too hard. By the time the Lawrences arrived, there were only two artists remaining in town. But within a few years, all of the available space in Harmony was being leased. It stayed that way for nearly eight years.

And then Freddy the Cat died. It may have been a coincidence, but all hell broke loose in Harmony.

"We had one person that some people were unhappy with, so we settled with getting her out of her lease and letting her go," Jim began. "Someone rented the shop right away, coming out of Los Angeles, on a two-year lease. He was going to move the family here, then his wife basically told him she found someone else. He was going to take custody of the children, and that meant going back to southern California. There was no need trying to hold him to the lease. Then we had another that had been rented out to the same people seven or eight years. They had a split in the partnership. They were brothers. I guess they hadn't personally gotten along for years. And then we leased it right off the bat to someone else. They were opened and everything, and then two weeks later, they left. We found out there had been some problem with bankruptcy."

Kay continued the litany of incompatibility. "And this glassblower and his wife moved in here. I think it was less than a year, and they split up. She started a shop here in Harmony just this last year, until she decided it just wouldn't work being right next to him. She sold it to Kat, who owns the gallery now. Kat's ex-husband actually signed the lease, and the next thing I know, they're separating."

She shrugged. "For years, things were going well, and I basically told anybody who got married in the chapel that they were being married in Harmony, so they had to stay in harmony, but lately I don't know."


Harmony was for sale for $1.68 million. The Lawrences had originally asked more, but that was when they weren't necessarily eager to sell. That had all changed recently, and the fact that there were now three vacant spaces in the old creamery had little to do with it. It took a shock of a different kind.

"I had smoked for forty years and had quit just before," Jim explained. "I had a cough, and it wouldn't go away. They said I had chronic bronchitis, but I couldn't get rid of it, and I said, 'Hey, that's not bronchitis. That's something else.' I wanted x-rays and a complete physical. Everything. That's when I found out I had a little spot on my lungs."

He said it as if describing a fishing trip, but I knew a fishing trip could be a spiritual experience. "They got all of it with surgery," he continued confidently. "The chemotherapy and radiation are just insurance, to make sure. You know, cells can get loose. But from the time they found the spot until I found out it was operable, it was about a week or ten days, and it made me do a lot of thinking — about a lot of things I haven't done that I'd like to do."

"Like what?"

"Well, being a C.P.A., that was a lot of work. I was basically going all the time. And then we had four or five hundred employees on the ranch. They kept me going. Sometimes, you'd be up at five o'clock and you're home at five. And then we built this up here, and there's different things to worry about. Right now, a couple of years without doing too much sounds good."

For some, it is a lifelong goal; for others like Jim Lawrence, it is a grudging surrender to exhaustion. He had come to the point in his life where he was tired of adding and growing and nurturing and striving and formulating and generating. He simply wanted to savor. But he couldn't quite get himself to say the word.

Amy, who had been sitting quietly, said it for him: "You basically want to retire."

Kay nodded her head. Jim looked as if he were considering it. "Well, I guess that's it. What we really want to do is travel," he said, and his eyes lit up as he leaned forward. "I've taken trips, but I haven't really gotten out of the cities much. I've been to Washington, D.C., to Chicago. But outside of Chicago? I've never seen that area. Once, we went to Kenosha, I think. I've never been to Lake Louise in Banff. And down south? We've never really been down south besides one trip to New Orleans. And Kay would like to see the fall colors in Vermont and New Hampshire and that area. There are just a lot of places we would like to see that we haven't really taken the time to see."

In one breath, he had taken himself thousands of miles. He then put the reverie in his pocket and leaned back again. "It's just if some emergency happens, somebody's gotta be here. It's tough to take off more than a couple of weeks. So we'd just like to be rid of any responsibility, and if we decide we wanted to go tomorrow, we could."

"We've had this town for fifteen years," Kay pointed out. "It's time for someone else to go on with it."

They'd still keep a house in the area, Jim explained. Just not the same house and not the same town. It would be too tough, like watching another parent raise your child. "The two people who started this town, Casper and Fields. Casper's been here once or twice. But Paul Fields...His wife's been here, but Paul won't come. It's too emotional. It's not that they don't come because they don't like Harmony. They don't come because they love it."

Amy and I left Harmony in a buoyant mood, more confident than ever in our decision to fend off the inevitable regret of later times by spending a year on the road in the prime of our lives. Confidence is like that. Sometimes, you need to hear other people's desires to lay claim to your own. The Lawrences had finally discovered priority, consonance, peace of mind. They had achieved a sort of inner harmony, and the prospect of their future gave us a warm memory to hang on to — until we opened the New York Times a year later to find a brief feature on the California hamlet of Harmony. Kay Lawrence, it noted, was still trying to sell the town, having dropped the price significantly. Jim Lawrence had died four months after our visit.

Copyright © 1999 by Brad Herzog

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2000

    Insight into life, travel and Americana

    Insight about life in small-town America. Herzog's power of observation and grasp of the details of life make for a fine read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2000

    America the Beautiful

    After hearing his narrative on television, I was curious about the book. I am pleased with the purchase. I recently read it while moving cross country from South Carolina to Scottsdale, Arizona. It made me appreciate this wonderful country we live in. There is so much splendor and beauty in our own backyard that we take for granted. Mr. Herzog captures the essence of life. A definite read!

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    Posted May 31, 2009

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