The Llamas and the Papas
Escaping the City
Maybe the thought creeps up on you after you pay $11 for your second iced double venti half-soy nonfat latte of the day. Or after the rat runs across your feet on your walk home to the studio apartment you share with three other people. Perhaps it’s while attempting to figure out who, exactly, is touching your thigh during your overcrowded subway commute to work. Yes, it occurs to us city-dwellers at different times and in various ways, but we all undeniably have those moments where we stop briefly and think: why do I live like this?
These moments had been steadily building for Andrew Kohn, 35, and Don Jones, 42, while living and working in the Washington, D.C. area.
“We were doing the D.C. thing,” Andrew (photo above, left) explained when we spoke by phone recently. Both were working in high-profile, high-stress jobs, Andrew as a proclamations writer in the White House and Don in a government consulting firm. “It just got to be a lot. The commute was one thing. When Don had to go into the office, it could be two hours each way. And for me, I had also worked for several members of Congress, and it just got to be too crazy. There were always these young kids that were coming up, it got to be too crazy putting up the energy into furthering my career.”
But the “last straw,” as Andrew said, came nearly five years ago when the couple was carjacked at gunpoint, right in front of their home on the Washington, D.C. and Maryland border. “It was pretty traumatic,” Andrew said of the experience.
Soon after, the couple took a trip to spend some time visiting Don’s parents in Cincinnati. “We just saw how much cheaper it was,” he said, “and we started looking at property.” On their drive back east, the couple noticed a beautiful 1850s farmhouse sitting on 12 acres of land for sale in Granville, Ohio, a town of just over 5,500 people about 30 miles east of Columbus, Ohio. Andrew wasted no time making sure the property would become their new home. “I flew back a week later and put in an offer. Then, we just made sure Don’s job would transfer, and we sold our D.C. house maybe a month later.”
And so, just like that, Andrew and Don escaped the D.C. rat race to start their new lives amid the quiet country mice.
The Simple Life?
It’s a romantic notion: trading in your small urban home for a beautiful 18th century farmhouse. But in hindsight, Andrew realizes they may have acted a bit impulsively. Their intention was to open a bed-and-breakfast on the property. “But we knew nothing about it,” he admitted. “I got one of those dummy guides to running a bed-and-breakfast and read it on the flight,” he added, laughing. “It’s a really old house, and there was a lot to learn. So there was a bit of a steep learning curve.”
Orchard House, Granville
Inexperience didn’t hold the couple back for long. Soon, the two had a successful bed-and-breakfast operating out of their home, which was recently named as one of the top 10 farm houses in the U.S. But the couple didn’t stop there; they also decided to open up an antique store in town and start an animal refuge on their farm.
“We rescue llamas,” Andrew explained. “We work with a national organization and foster them. We also have a lot of goats and sheep. They just sit out in the field all day spending all our money on food and vet bills,” he joked. All in all, the couple have around 60 animals on their property. “We have people dropping animals off and calling all the time,” Andrew told me. “We’re basically a depository for unwanted animals.”
Running an animal refuge might seem like an unnecessary complication when you’re already responsible for a bed-and-breakfast and an antique store. But Andrew was better equipped that most for the challenge. “I have a degree in animal behavior," he told me, “and I had worked with chimps and primates in the past. It’s always been a dream of mine to have a little farm with animals.”
Baby llama Gaston
Well so much for the simple life! What happened to the idea of quiet life in the country?
“Yeah… we’re not exactly ‘sit on the porch all day’ kinds of people,” Andrew quipped.
The Baby Boom
As if the complications of running a bed-and-breakfast, antique store, and farm weren’t enough to keep them busy, about a year ago, Andrew and Don decided to embark on a new adventure: fatherhood.
“We adopted Harper through an agency in Columbus, Ohio,” Andrew told me when I asked about their path to parenthood. “It’s the only agency in the state certified by HRC,” he added, using the acronym for the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT advocacy organization. “We originally got picked very quickly, which surprised us because you always hear about these couples who languish on the wait list forever.”
But their adoption story wasn’t without its share of complications. “Harper’s mother, when she picked us, she said she would only go with us, or she’d leave the agency. She wanted to give Harper to a same-sex family. But then her family kicked her out of the house because of it. Fortunately, HRC got her housing, but it’s been pretty dramatic.” The couple has recently learned that Harper’s biological mother is pregnant once again with a baby girl, and are making plans to adopt her as well to keep the siblings together.
“We always joke that our story was a bit like Baby Boom,” Andrew said, referring to the 1987 movie starring Diane Keaton. “She moves to the country with a kid, buys a house, and it all falls apart.”
So how have they managed it all? Better than Diane Keaton?
“You just have to know what your limitations are,” Andrew said, who is primarily responsible for their multiple ventures and is Harper’s primary caregiver during the day while Don is working. “You just have to know when [Harper’s] sleep times are so you can get some stuff done. You plan a little bit more than you used to.”
But fatherhood has shifted the couple’s vision of what the ideal country life entails. Though Andrew and Don came to Granville with the dream of opening a bed-and-breakfast, they’ve recently put their farm on the market for sale. “It was starting to get overwhelming and too complicated with Harper, and another baby on the way,” Andrew said.
I had to admit, with their multiple successful ventures, it was a bit of a relief to hear Andrew and Don were capable of being overwhelmed at all. But I also wondered — Was it disappointing at all having to give up on their original dream of running a bed-and-breakfast?
“I’m very much looking forward to not running the bed-and-breakfast,” Andrew said without hesitation. “Do I really want to be cooking strangers food and cleaning rooms? If someone needs something at 2 a.m., that’s me. Do I really need this?”
But … what about the poor llamas?
“Oh, the llamas are coming with us,” he laughed.
Gay in Granville
I had a whole slew of questions for Andrew and Don about what it’s like to be gay parents in such a small town. Did they ever fear for their safety, living as openly gay dads in a rural environment? Did they find it to be too conservative? To hear Andrew talk about it, however, Granville sounds like it practically has a gay pride parade running down Main Street on the daily.
“Granville is the second gayest town in Ohio,” he told me. “There’s a plethora of gay couples. We even hold cocktail hours. There’s probably about 40 couples here. Even our back neighbors are a gay couple. They’ve been together 35 years.” Granville is also home to Denison University, Andrew added, which helps bring some socially progressive elements to the town.
This isn’t to say that homophobia doesn’t exist in Granville. “There are certainly people we know that don’t like gay people or don’t approve of us,” Andrew said. Right when the couple first moved to Granville, in fact, a gay man in a town 30 minutes south of Columbus had his barn burned down; nine of his horses were killed. “It was a hate crime,” he said of the event.
But Andrew never fears for his safety, or for his family’s. “Sure, it’s occurred to me that maybe someone might come here and start shooting up my llamas, but we’re pretty visible in the community. We’re on a bunch of boards, like the Chamber of Commerce and some local museums. I think we’re visible enough that no one would do something like that.”
Regardless, on a day-to-day basis, “it really doesn’t enter my mind,” he said, about being a gay dad in a small town. “It’s not like, Oh i’m going to the village, I better butch up. Or I never think, I can’t hold Don’s hand if I wanted to.” Andrew also credits many of the other gay couples who moved to Granville before he and Don did for helping normalize the idea of same-sex couples in the town. “Some of the older gay couples in town have been here a long time,” he said. “They’re already very established in the community hierarchy.”
If anything, Andrew and Don feel they are noticed less for being gay dads, and more for being, as Andrew said, “the gay dads with a black baby.” Though there are other gay couples in town raising children, he elaborated, none of those were mixed-race families. But Andrew was quick to point out that they have faced no open hostilities on account of Harper’s race. “Everyone in town loves her,” he said.
So, I asked Andrew towards the end of our conversation, be honest: do you ever miss the urban life? Any regrets with your decision to leave D.C.?
“Nope,” Andrew said simply. “No regrets.”
But, he elaborated, that’s not to say there haven’t been trade-offs. “I mean, sure, I haven’t shopped at a Burberry's in five years. I’ve even had to buy imitation Croc sandals since moving here. Not even real Crocs! That would never have happened to me before.”
On a more serious note, Andrew also said it’s been difficult to be so far from their friends and family back east. “Prior to moving to Granville, Don had lived in the D.C. area for thirteen years,” Andrew said, who himself is originally from Philadelphia where much of his family still lives. “It was difficult to move to a small town and find people our own age. In the city, it’s just much easier to meet people.”
But surely their friends and family back east have come to visit them, right? I mean, if one of my friends or family members was running a llama refuge, I’d pack my bags for a visit in a heartbeat.
“That’s what you say now!” Andrew said, laughing. “At first, everyone was so jealous of our new life out here. They were like, ‘Oh you’re living the dream! I’m so excited to come see you!” But in the five years they’ve been in Granville, they’ve had three visits. The couple also aren’t able to go back east very often because of the demands of the farm and bed-and-breakfast. “We try to get away for little bits of time, but it’s difficult for sure,” he said.
But all in all? Andrew says he’s very happy with their life in the country; they have no plans to move back to an urban environment any time soon.
This rural life isn’t for everyone, Andrew admitted, and there are some cultural elements he misses about urban living. “Everything around here is at least a 45-minute drive away,” he said. “So if you need shows and bars every night, if you need to be very social, this could be difficult for you.”
But for him? “It’s just calmer, here,” he said. “There’s land here, animals, birds, trees, and…”
As if to emphasize the point, a police car sped by the open window in my New York City apartment at that moment, drowning out the rest of Andrew’s sentence with a blaring siren.