Vanessa Kaukonen on life and these hills

Story by Meredith S. Jensen • Photos by John Halley

MEIGS COUNTY, OHIO — Vanessa Kaukonen doesn’t find four-leaf clovers, they find her.

She’s plucked them from anywhere and everywhere since she was 18. Those she doesn’t give away, she keeps pressed between the pages of a book, a mere fraction of the thousands she’s spied over the years. Of the hundreds of four-lobed treasures, the most precious is one found by her grandmother in 1867.

They just reveal themselves to me,” she said. “I take it as the universe saying ‘Everything is going to be okay. You’ve got luck on your side.’”

Life as well has had a way of revealing itself to Kaukonen, owner of Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Meigs County, Ohio. There have been moments of clarity, lessons in perseverance, tests, accomplishments, and feats of grace. It’s a life that has taken her all over the world and down into deep rabbit holes. But it’s a life that was meant for her and one that was meant to bring her here.

Here is a 119-acre guitar camp, performance space, and all-around music idyll located outside Pomeroy. Kaukonen owns the drug-and-alcohol-free Fur Peace Ranch with her husband, Jorma, an iconic rock musician and author. They moved to Southeastern Ohio from upstate New York in the early ’90s. It’s somewhere she never expected to be, that delivered her from a place she never wants to go again.

“It was Old 33 that turned me.”

The journey to Southeast Ohio began with a phone call in 1989. The Kaukonens were newly married and settling into life in Woodstock, NY, when a friend called Jorma and asked him if he’d like to come check out some land in Ohio. Much to Kaukonen’s surprise, her husband hopped on a plane and headed to Appalachia. Much to her absolute horror, he came home with a deed.

Covered in multiflora rose, briars, swamp maples, thickets and a tiny dilapidated building, the land was nothing much to look at, Kaukonen said. She told Jorma to never tell anyone they owned land in Ohio, much less entertain the idea of moving there.

But fate had other plans. A year and a half later, their landlord broke their lease on their apartment in New York and the pair moved “a fur peace from anywhere.” Kaukonen fought the change the whole way. “I kept saying ‘I’m not moving to Ohio,’ even as the trucks were being loaded,” she said.

After the move, it became nearly impossible to see the forest through the trees, both literally and figuratively. Plans and dreams for the land were tainted with a darkness.

We weren’t the healthiest people when we moved here,” Kaukonen said. “We just couldn’t get out of our own way. Moves are traumatic even if everything is firing on all eight, but it wasn’t. We were broken.”

Kaukonen found herself praying every day for a perspective shift, “something or someone” to save her. She found absolution on an old country highway. Miserable and alone in Ohio while her husband was on tour, she took a “pre-Route 33 Bypass” drive through Meigs County, hoping to find something, anything, even a coffee shop. Instead, she saw nothing—but beauty. Every corner she turned revealed something new to her.

At Pratt’s Fork, I went around and there were these hills and they were green, and the sky was blue, and there were puffy white clouds and sheep and I thought ‘Oh, I don’t want to live here,” she said. “Then I went around another corner and I got to Burlingham—more beautiful clouds and a beautiful barn and cows and horses, and I thought ‘God, how do they live here?’ And I kept going and it got more beautiful and more beautiful. The hills were pulling me in like the arms of a mother. I got to the end of 33 and I realized it wasn’t here, it was me. I was sobbing, but the hills were holding me like ‘No, we’re going to love you until you love yourself.’ It was Old 33 that turned me.”

That was when the real work began, Kaukonen said. She had to get sober. There was no more blaming her substance abuse, her geographical fate, or her father for her unhappiness. The ranch, she said, was the answer.

The universe whispered back, ‘I’ll save you. This is your payment in return. You will do good work and you will do good work through music. You will heal souls and you will give back to a community of people you don’t know yet.’”

“I had nothing to lose.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Kaukonen said she experienced a life she could never think of offering a child today. She and her five siblings, three more girls and two boys, all experienced “a different kind of trauma” and had to find ways to cope.

“When you’re in a situation like that, it’s like being in the jungle,” she said. “They’re interesting survival tactics because you can’t tell anybody what you’re going through. They wouldn’t believe you because it’s so horrific.”

Kaukonen turned to music and a higher power to get her through those formative years. Through faith, she gathered the strength to stand up to the violence that she and her family endured for so long.

I just wasn’t buying that this was the do-all and end-all,” she said. “I had just turned 14 years old and the violence with my father just kept getting worse. I had nothing to lose. I remember just meeting him in the kitchen, my fists balled up like a boxer, and called him out. And he left.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Kaukonen would face an abuser. Years later, she found herself escaping an unhealthy marriage.

It was a bad, dangerous marriage,” she said. “I left. I moved to southern Maine where I had family and applied for a job with an interior designer.”

With a background in art and civil engineering work, Kaukonen was hired on the spot. When the firm relocated a month later, she followed to Key West. That’s where she met Jorma.

“Can I think about it?”

As a founding member of two legendary rock bands—The Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna—a Grammy nominee and an inductee into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, Jorma Kaukonen is a certified, bona fide rock star. Naturally, his and Kaukonen’s relationship had a rock star beginning. They met at a Hot Tuna show in Key West where he invited her backstage. A mere 28 days later, he proposed while they were driving.

“When Jorma asked me to marry him, I hadn’t known him that long,” she said. “So I said ‘Can I think about it?’ He pulled the car over and goes ‘What’s to think about?’ and I didn’t have an answer. He said ‘Listen, I know that this is crazy, but just believe that we’re part of a bigger picture.’”

That bigger picture wasn’t clear at first. After they were married, Kaukonen took over managing Hot Tuna, her husband’s still-touring band with bassist Jack Casady, as well as Jorma’s solo music career. Their marriage endured some troublesome points, including an affair, failures, moves, tours, time apart, and the specter of addiction. “My early years of being married to Jorma were not easy at all,” Kaukonen said. “I was thrust into a very different world.”

Ohio, of course, was a different world altogether, but not in the way Kaukonen would have imagined. Instead of being crushed under the weight of their own shadows, she and Jorma would get sober, become parents, and grow guitar players together.

“Everything that kept happening, I’m like ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. We’re part of a bigger picture,’” she said. “There’s this glorious lesson, which is just having faith that these things are happening so you’ll just open your eyes and know that there’s more here than just the trouble. I would change nothing.”

“I was in God’s library”

In 2007, the Kaukonens became a family of three when they adopted a little girl from China, 10-month-old Israel “Izze.” The first meeting between mother and child was years, if not lifetimes, in the making. Kaukonen immediately felt a divine connection.

“They called my name and put her in my arms,” she said. “The color in the room, the color in my eyes, the color in my world changed to pale green, like a pea green or wintergreen, and she was laughing. I remember twirling around with her and I was lifted out of my body. I was not physically where I was—I was in a room that was all green and I remember knowing absolutely everything there was to know when it comes to love. I was in God’s library and in one minute flat knew everything in every book. Then—boom—it was gone. I came to, she was still in my arms, and then I knew nothing.”

Suddenly, after years of struggles and waiting, she was a mother. Suddenly, she was just like every new parent. Suddenly, she had questions.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, how does anyone go shopping? How does anybody go to the grocery store with a kid? How do I take a shower? What if I have to plow the driveway?’ And you learn pretty quick,” she said.

Izze has grown up leading a relatively “normal” life, which, according to Kaukonen, is how she likes it. That fact that her dad is a rock star is a fact Izze tries to avoid, but she still goes on tour with him and got a front row seat to the Grammy’s two years ago when her father received a lifetime achievement award for Jefferson Airplane. There are privileges in her life, to be sure, but Kaukonen endeavors to keep her daughter grounded in reality.

“I tell her everything; I don’t hide anything from her,” she said. “I let her watch the news. She knows how I feel about our current political situation, and yes, I use colorful language in front of my daughter. I prefer that she know the ways of the world than for her to be shocked when she goes out there when she’s 18. Izze knows the kind of love that’s in the world, but she also knows there are a lot of things that aren’t so lovely.”

Living her dream

Beyond managing the rock-and-roll ranch and teaching Izze how to move through the world, Kaukonen also helps others achieve their best life. A few years ago, she went back to school to pursue another passion, wellness consulting. Through her business, Living Your Dream, she mentors clients on food, lifestyle, and other health changes they can make.

Kaukonen said she always embraced healthy eating, but its benefit was wasted on an addicted body and mind. She discovered that no matter how clean she ate, she’d never feel complete until she nourished all the aspects of herself. It’s a lesson she can teach from experience, and a lesson she learned in these hills.

“What I know about healthy living is it starts with what we call your primary food,” she said. “It starts with your relationships, being happy in your career, your exercise regimen, and if you have some sort of spiritual foundation—when all those things are working, then the food that you eat can actually nourish the machine.”

About Fur Peace Ranch

Just off the highway, the Fur Peace Ranch feels worlds away from the “rock-and-roll lifestyle.” There’s birdsong, wildflowers, and art everywhere, inviting visitors to tap into their creative flow.

The camp itself began with a kitchen, workshop, library, 17 cabins and a bathhouse, and has grown over the years to include the Fur Peace Station Theater, the Company Store, the Psylodelic Gallery and Pho Peace Restaurant. There’s also the Station Concert Hall, a 200-seat theater built to support the PRX radio series “Live from Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch.” From intimate workshops to a line-up packed with magnificent concerts, the concert hall has showcased some of the world’s finest musicians.

When the show schedule is clear and camp isn’t in session, the grounds play host to conferences, university retreats, yoga workshops, bridal showers and the occasional wedding, not to mention Fur Peace Ranch’s own biennial Arts and Minds Festival, celebrating artists and musicians from around the region and beyond.

For camps, concerts and more…

Fur Peace Ranch
39495 St. Clair Road
Pomeroy, OH 45769