A visit to the Inn at Celebrity Dairy is justified by the drive alone—not a single stoplight on the 30 miles of country road that lie between the farm and the Chapel Hill stretch of N.C. 54. It's the kind of drive that makes you wish you had a gingham-skirted wife whose knee you could pat at appropriate points and declare, "Honey, that's some beautiful country out there." I passed red tractors vivid against green fields, hills dotted with rusting machinery—things that mow, things that thresh—and slot-letter church signs advertising worship twice weekly and All-You-Can-Eat pork dinners on Sunday afternoons.
Turning left at the Celebrity Dairy sign, when the sun was starting to set and the light was getting really good, the rural splendor blasted me with both barrels: pink glow on the gables, the creak of insects, guinea fowl wheeling idiotically on the new-mown field. Crows were cawing. Free-range hens were drifting in a brown cloud around the roots of a mammoth oak tree. I got the very real sensation of having pushed through the back of the wardrobe into a world where the chèvre logs, hoot owls and crisp fall weather were all conspiring to relax me within an inch of my life.
When Brit and Fleming Pfann moved back to North Carolina from Florida in the mid-'80s, they took on a lactating goat to eat up some of the brush on their land in Chatham County. Soon the brush was gone and the fridge was full of goat's milk. With more milk on hand than two people could reasonably be expected to drink, they started making cheese. "Some of the cheese tasted OK," Brit said. "Other people tried and liked it. And nobody died." In 1991, the Pfanns built a Greek Revival farmhouse around the 1820s log cabin at the top of the driveway and began taking guests.
A former Naval architect, Brit drew up the plans for the new addition. It's an unpretentious, airy structure which dovetails beautifully with the log cabin that makes up the addition's back wall. In the inn's every detail, the Pfanns have managed to convey a sort of rough-hewn elegance, keeping a sensible distance from excessive knickknacking and Pottery Barnishness. My room had a pencil-post queen-size bed, a thick quilt, tasteful, unadorned furniture, a merciful scarcity of window treatments, easy access to the second-story porch and a capacious bathroom equipped with fluffy towels. What it did not have was that smell.
All mo- and hotels have that smell: the stink of aggressively starched noncotton sheets, the chemical tang of freon commingling with pine disinfectant. Don't get me wrong, I have always been a big fan of hotels, particularly the free HBO and the turbocharged AC units. At B&Bs, you pay for excellent accommodations, good food and lively conversation with your pleasant hosts. At hotels, you pay for faceless anonymity and the privilege of staying up till five swathed in a polyester bedspread watching the entire Planet of the Apes oeuvre straight through. You can tear the paper from soap cakes you may or may not use, leave wet towels and beer bottles strewn like confetti, bookmark your place in the Gideon's Bible with a hardened pizza slice and be confident that the next day the room will be rebleached, reperfumed and show no signs of the horrors of the previous 24 hours. But incorruptibly sterile as hotels may be, they are, of course, places where good people go to do bad things—indulge vices, wrong spouses, muss beds. Just this summer I stopped, in the small hours of the morning, at the Mayflower Traveler's Court outside Hardeeville, S.C., to find the last vacancy in four counties. "We're cleaning a room for you now," the desk clerk told me. "The people didn't want to stay, just do creaky."
B&Bs, on the other hand, provide the element of home missing in most away-from-home quarters. You can entertain the pleasant notion that you are a houseguest in this well-appointed home, not just part of an endless parade of road-weary travelers who found it too cold to sleep in the parking lot. And while you don't get a sash on the toilet seat, you can also be reasonably certain that you won't be kept up all night by a banging headboard in the next room.
In fact, I slept better at the Pfanns' B&B than I've ever slept—on couch or bed—due in no small part to the spine-melting comfort of the pencil-post queen-size. Soft, yet firm. Iron hand in goosedown. I mentioned it to the Pfanns the following morning, and not simply because it seemed like the sort of thing you say in the morning to the hosts of a bed-and-breakfast. I was thinking that if I could recreate those sleeping conditions in my own bed, things might begin to perk up for me on a grand scale. The other guests, a couple from Raleigh, were also cooing over the beds. The key to the otherworldly comfort of the Celebrity B&B's beds, Fleming said, is a down-filled mattress pad made by the Pacific Coast Feather Company of Seattle, Wash. The Pfanns gave me a brochure. On the front flap, there's picture of a happy couple, the photo slightly askew on the page, like a postcard tossed on the coffee table. Across the bottom edge of the photo are the hand-scribbled words: "What a great place. We loved the bed!!" B&B owners buy the mattress pads (often at a discount) and B&B patrons like myself tromp downstairs in the morning eulogizing the Pacific Coast Feather Company, hands on checkbooks.
I took a walk around the grounds, and found Brit in the goat complex. He was hard at work in the "milking parlor" with 10 or so goats, all standing patiently by. I hung around for a while and took in the process. It works as follows: The goats file in and stick their heads through this stocklike thing in order to get at the feed troughs on the other side. The milker ambles around on the teat side of the goats, and milks.
I did a poor job of photographing what the milker sees: a long line of bulging udders and goat behinds. I thought it would have made a good risqué postcard, maybe with a caption like "Come and goat it" or "trick or teat."
Watching Brit, I learned that milking a goat—milking anything, I guess—is no easy task. It involves a lot of teat-pulling and bucket-steadying—not a big deal if you've only got one or two nanny goats on the premises, but if you've got more than 60, as do the Pfanns, you need to rationalize the process. What they've done is bought a pair of chrome milking robots, powerful vacuum-driven milk extractors connected via plastic tubing to five-gallon cans. I watched Brit stick the extractors on the goat teats. They hung there like limpets jerking away until the udder was sufficiently drained. The before and after was quite startling. Pre-milking, a goat udder is a swollen, uncomfortable thing. Post, they're flaccid, sometimes a little wrinkly in the teat and look much more like a fitting accessory for today's active goat. "In the spring," Brit said,"they'll have three times as much milk in them, and their bags are stretched so tightly they shine."
He had to raise his voice to be heard above the systolic pulse of the robots' vacuum drive. I asked Brit how he thought the goats liked being milked by machine. He explained that the milking machine actually simulates the "suck and swallow" M.O. of baby goats. He pulled one of the suckers from a teat and held it out to me. "Put your thumb in there," he said. I did. Indeed, it was sucking and swallowing. To enhance comfort for the suckee, the things have a mouthlike rubber lining that does away with the unpleasant teat-yanking side of the milking equation.
After the milking machine does its thing, Brit told me, it's necessary to do a little hand milking to get the last bit out. I asked him if I could try. He picked out the animal least likely to stomp on my hand and let me—cautiously—go for it. A goat teat feels like a hot boneless finger. You have to grab it where the first knuckle would be in order to pinch off the milk duct. Then you squeeze the milk out with a wrist-twisting motion I was only vaguely able to get the hang of. I pulled far harder than I would have tolerated had they been my teats being pulled, and managed to coax out less than a tablespoon of the white stuff. Sensing dangerous incompetence, Brit stepped into the breach, and with a few quick tugs, it was like the loosing of the Hoover dam.
Start to finish, the whole thing looked as streamlined as could be. But even so, Brit said, it takes about two-and-a-half hours to wring out the whole herd, talents of the automatic sucker-swallower notwithstanding. Not only that, you've got to do it twice a day, once at six a.m., and again at six p.m. lest teats get full and goats antsy.
By 8:30 the milking is over and breakfast is served. Brit cooked up a very toothsome omelet (courtesy of the Celebrity chickens), fresh-squeezed OJ, homefries and toast with, of course, fresh chèvre. (Their cheese—tangy and smooth with a pleasant hint of dusty astringency—is a regular feature at the Carolina Inn, Crooks' Corner, Pyewacket, the Weathervane Cafe and Durham's Magnolia Grill, to name a few.)
As the meal wound down, Fleming talked to me about the pleasures of goat rearing and took a stab at a question I'd been itching to ask: Why do goats crop up so consistently in Satanic iconography? "Here's what I think," she said grinning. "You know how cats' eyes are upright when their pupils close? Well, goats' eyes close horizontally. Spooky as the devil. I think somebody looked in some goat's eyes and decided that had to be of the devil. The other thing is, bucks' libidos are so tremendous that if the Puritans thought about sex as something evil, then certainly goats must be evil because they have libidos off the chart." (Aroused bucks create such a graphic spectacle, Fleming said she once discouraged a ladies' church group from visiting the farm during rutting season.)
What's so fine about staying at the Inn at Celebrity Dairy is that it's a perfect counterpoint to the Home-Interstate-Office-Interstate-Home routine to which so many of us are sadly yoked these days. At the inn you're close to home, but the stars sit in a sky far blacker than you'll ever get in the suburbs, and unless you were fool enough to bring your cell phone, no one will ever call you here. Though the accommodations are excellent and the food is superb, the Pfanns aren't peddling the sort of canned retreat where you're pampered to a pulp by a professional hospitality corps. Rather, it's a place for people who won't take offense at God's creatures' romantic ministrations to one another and who don't get upset if there's no mint on the pillow and the toilet paper isn't darted back.