Diamonds in the Rough

updated 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For the Colfaxes, school was the great outdoors

IN 1973, WHEN DAVID AND MICKI COLFAX sank $20,000 of their modest life savings into 47 acres in the wilds of Northern California's Anderson Valley, they knew they and their three sons were facing a challenge. They couldn't afford to bring in a bulldozer, so they would have to cut a road to the isolated properly themselves. Their house too would be do-it-yourself. and it wouldn't be the kind they were used to: Because of their remote location, electricity and phone lines would be too expensive to install. As they closed the deal, a local Realtor's warning echoed in their minds. "This is no place," he had told them, "to raise children."

On the latter point, at least, they need not have worried. In the two decades they haw spent at the home-stead amid the redwoods, which they named Shining Moon Ranch, the Colfaxes, who left careers in education in search of a more self-sufficient life, have indeed been put to the test. As their just published book, Hard Times in Paradise, makes clear, growing your own food and hauling your water from holding tanks is at least as taxing as it sounds. "Especially at first, it was rough both physically and psychologically," says Micki, 54. But the four Colfax sons—Grant, now 27, Drew, 24, Reed, 22, and Garth, 17—serve as shining proof that retreating from civilization needn't mean damaging your kid. Educated at home, the Colfax boys learned hands-on carpentry and animal husbandry along with the three R's. "It was an adventure," says Grant. This past June, Reed became the third Colfax son to graduate, with honors, from Harvard.

It was partly concern for their children's welfare, in fact, that led David and Micki to Boonville (pop. 714), the tiny town they now call home, in the first place. Married in 1959, shortly after they graduated horn Penn State, both David, raised in Pittsburgh as the son of a state-employee father and a bookkeeper mother, and Micki, daughter of a Philadelphia publishing executive and a housewife, have always been politically active. In the 1960s, David, now 56, taught sociology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Micki taught high school English, and they both organized rent strikes, protested the Vietnam War and worked for civil rights. Then one night in 1968, they received a threatening phone call. A voice said, " 'Your little boy was out there on the tire swing...we could have shot him,' " remembers David. " 'But we're going to burn your house instead, you commie son of a bitch.' "

Terrified—and frustrated by the police officer who called David a "goddamned draft dodger" and refused to help—the Colfaxes decamped to a friend's house miles away. But the next year, David, who had been voted by students the school's most outstanding professor, was denied tenure. Moving on to Washington University in St. Louis, he was passed over again in 1971. Because David and many of his colleagues believed that snub, like the first one, was a result of his political activities, he charged the school with violation of academic freedom and received a $24,000 settlement. After that, he says, "I wanted to make sure we never got into a situation where anyone could hurt us for our activism." When a planned teaching stint in Uganda fell through, David and Micki decided to try an extended excursion back to nature. "Having our children's lives threatened had changed me forever," she says.

With a little help from Grant, then 8, Drew, 5, and little Reed, 3—a hall-black child they had adopted in 1970—David and Micki hacked out an access road to their new property. David spent hours at the Ukiah town library, 35 miles away, drawing up plans for a house. "We did everything with a how-to book," he says. After eight months spent living in a camper and taking sprinkling-can showers, they moved into their four-room, rough-hewn redwood cabin.

Slowly their new life took shape. Micki planted a vegetable garden, and the family amassed a menagerie that included ducks, chickens and a goat for milk. The decision to educate their sons at home "just evolved," says Micki, after she and David decided that the local school offered no better alternative. While designing the house, David had taught the boys geometry. When he skinned a deer carcass, he helped them identify body parts. To satisfy state law, David and Micki registered as the Mountain School and taught California history, as well as reading and math, but mostly the boys pursued their own interests, checking out books from the library. "Studying was easier than chores," says Reed.

As they discovered in 1975, it was also more challenging than the average classroom. That year, concerned about the family's meager income ($2,000 a year earned at odd jobs like selling firewood), David accepted a temporary position at a university in Ontario and was considering a return to teaching, but his family missed Boonville. Public school "was trivial and a waste of time," says Reed, then 6 and reading at the sixth-grade level. In April, the family, which now included Garth, a Native American baby, returned to the ranch for good.

As the years passed, their lot there grew easier. They piped in water from a neighbor's spring and put in a phone line as well. Their finances improved after Grant proposed that they rear and sell Alpine goats—at hundreds of dollars a head.

When Grant scored high on his SATs in 1982 and won a full scholarship to Harvard, the Colfaxes' quiet life became national news. Grant guested on The Tonight Show, and Micki and David were swamped with requests for their teaching secrets. (In 1988 the couple published their first book, Homeschooling for Excellence.) Grant left home determined to succeed. "I wanted to prove to myself I could come to a big city and be OK," says Grant.

He, Drew and Reed proved that and more. All three found the adjustment to university life a snap. Says Drew, who majored in biological anthropology: "It wasn't stressful like it was when the water pump broke and we had to fix it." Today, Grant is at Harvard Medical School, while Drew and Reed, who holds a degree in African-American studies, plan to apply to law school. Garth has moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he is taking courses at a junior college. "I might become a veterinarian," he says. His parents aren't pushing him toward the Ivy League. Says David: "We don't want a matched set."

Back at the ranch, now a cozy home complete with solar power and a deck, David and Micki are carrying on as best they can without their labor force. "We're not sure where the operation will go from here," says David, who suffered a mild heart attack two years ago while shooing away a bear. "I still love teaching."

If he ever went back to academia, his track record at the Mountain School should more than qualify him for tenure.

LIZ McNEIL in Boonville

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