PETALUMA, CALIF. -- Just before dawn, shoveling cow manure in the milking barn, Ryan Medlin feels a world away from his wild life back in San Francisco.
For the onetime homeless addict, that's a good thing.
Last fall, Medlin was living out of his car, blowing his entire six-figure salary as a software engineer on crack and bourbon binges. At 33, he was so gaunt he was nearly skeletal. He walked slouched over, the nights scrunched up in his Suzuki hatchback playing havoc with the nerves in his right leg.
Nowadays at first light -- a time when he'd normally be out scoring drugs -- the Raleigh, N.C., native is on an isolated farm near Santa Rosa, helping to care for 260 lumbering dairy cows and their offspring. After a few moments of meditation with co-workers, followed by a brisk round of calisthenics, he spends his days spreading hay, shoveling manure, hauling heavy buckets of fresh milk.
And getting well -- both physically and emotionally.
"This is what gets you in shape," he says, driving a pitchfork into a hay pile to feed a clutch of lowing cows. "Not too long ago, there's no way I could have ever imagined doing this."
Medlin is one of 40 addicts who spend six months enrolled in an unlikely free program for drug and alcohol rehabilitation run for half a century by the St. Anthony Foundation, a privately funded social services charity based in San Francisco.
The program's regimen combines counseling and daily 12-step recovery classes with the demanding physical labor needed to run a thriving 315-acre organic dairy farm.
Residents are victims of every known addiction: alcohol, meth, crack, cocaine, heroin. One by one, they've volunteered to trade in their danger zones -- corner bars, cheap flophouses and back-alley shooting galleries -- for this far-flung alternative they call "The Farm."
It's a place to strive for a sort of rural redemption.
Healing comes, residents say, from helping to birth calves, feeling their fluttering hearts and spindly legs. It comes from the satisfaction of performing back-breaking chores, working so hard you drop into bed at night from exhaustion. It comes from being a part of something that's bigger than yourself, from putting the needs of others first.
"These people have burned through every dime, every family relationship," said St. Anthony spokeswoman Francis Aviani. "Most are here because they have no place else to go."
Jamey Howell's heroin habit cost him his home and custody of his daughter. His conniving finally pushed his family too far.
He called from a pay phone from San Francisco's down-and-out Tenderloin district, a last-gasp effort to scrounge money for more drugs. Weeping into the phone, his half-sister, Deborah Warfield, told him not to call anymore. Then she hung up.
"His drug habit drained the family," she said. "It was killing me. It was killing him too."
Today Howell, 41, is an on-staff maintenance supervisor at the farm. He has regained custody of his teenage daughter. "I'd gone through 20 programs before I found this place," he said.
The farm opened in 1952 when the friars who ran a popular inner-city dining room decided they needed to supply the raw ingredients for the free meals they served, and continue to offer, daily. Soon, addicts were being bused to the newly purchased farm for fresh air and, just maybe, a second chance.
The farm's intake office is in St. Anthony's Tenderloin headquarters, a beige two-story building that's home to the nonprofit's dozen housing, job and recovery programs for the homeless.
Once they are accepted and beds become available, the men board a van for the 90-mile drive into the country. They pass herds of grazing sheep, corn and wheat fields and century-old handmade fences that seem to stretch to the horizon.
Then comes the shock.
Sitting on a hill off the road, the farm consists of several barns, a buttery and maintenance sheds, a bunkhouse, a kitchen and rooms for meetings and therapy. Waylon Jennings croons from a boombox. The smell of animal stalls hangs heavy.
Conor Burke, 21, recalls his first reaction to barn work.
"I said 'Hell, no' . . . " he said. "I felt like I was above all that. But I learned."
Not everyone does.
Of the 100 residents Jamey Howell met during his stint, only 30 graduated from the program. Some were asked to leave for infractions. For others, old urges were just too strong. "You'd wake up in the morning and they'd be gone," he said.
Dairy supervisor Curtiss Fjelstul said the biggest adjustment new residents make is to the silence. "They're away from the hustle and bustle on the streets," he said. "It scares people at first."
Then comes the farm work. In the round-the-clock operation, men bundle up against the early-morning fog and chill, when even the animals can see their own breath. They start with easier tasks, such as window washing and lawn mowing, before moving into the barn.
"Some men have never worked a day in their life, other than selling drugs," Fjelstul said. "They've never had to show up on time or just do what they're told."
Howell had been at the farm for only a few weeks when he called his daughter and discovered she was getting along better without him. That's when the folly of his drug life hit home. He sat out behind the residence hall and cried, then suddenly noticed a deer and her fawn staring at him. "Something clicked," he recalled. "I thought, 'Why am I crying? I got what I asked for.' "
Residents undergo long hours of counseling and self-examination. Some call that the "real work." But change comes, too, in more subtle ways.
Shoveling manure can teach a man humility. In a strange way, the cows themselves are instructive.
Many men develop compassion for the big animals and run to their aid when they slip and fall. Medlin says he has learned to read a cow's facial expressions. Residents with anger issues soon find out that rage has little effect on the 1,500-pound creatures.
"You learn fast that you just can't scream and yell, you can't hit these animals," Howell said. "Things don't happen on your time, but on their time. That's the first lesson."
There's more, Fjelstul said, and it has to do with selflessness.
"These cows are calm and giving," he said. "At the end of their stay, I think many guys have a little better idea of how to give without asking for something in return."
His six-month stint nearly through, Ryan Medlin soon will be ready to leave the farm. Darlene Medlin believes the program saved her son's life. "Outpatient programs just didn't work," she said. "It's good this place was such a long walk from San Francisco."
No matter what happens, Medlin says he'll always remember his time herding dairy cows, especially the calf he helped deliver. Although most cows are known by the numbered tags on their ears, this one has a nickname: Little Ryan.
"It just pops out into your arms; it's pretty cool," Medlin said of the birth. "You feel like a parent. You just hope that everything turns out all right for this little animal. And then you realize, after so many down years, things aren't going so bad for you, either."