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A leotard and a set of power tools in woodshop: That's how Rhiannon is remembered by her Waldorf teacher-training classmates at Summerfield. She occasionally flouted the Waldorf preference for conservative dress, sporting running shorts beneath her ankle-length apron. She was also well known for volunteering first and figuring out what she'd gotten herself into later. "She was the first to raise her hand for anything, and then afterward she'd think, Oh, my God," recalls John Sansone, who was in Hull's training class. "You could see her face turn red."
Last year, when a pair of expatriate families in Costa Rica posted a job listing for a Waldorf instructor to start a kindergarten near them, Rhiannon eagerly applied. Though she was 10 months shy of completing her Waldorf training, she got the job after interviewing for it over Skype and making a brief trip to Costa Rica.
The original plan was for all the Hulls to relocate together, but then Rhiannon and Norm experienced the first serious strain in their marriage. In April, Norm had been convicted of a marijuana-related offense—the pot was for medicinal purposes, he contends—and had been sentenced to 24 months' probation. The strife didn't last long. In late summer the couple attended Burning Man, a weeklong alternafest held in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. "We fell in love again and again at that place," says Norm. They also got their first ink, tattooing on their left wrists a line from a poem Norm had written: IT'S A NEW DAY, NOT A NEW FIGHT.
After a wrenching goodbye, Rhiannon and Julian headed to Costa Rica in September with plans for Norm and Gianni to follow two months later. This was to be a long-term move. Norm and Rhiannon had even decided they would try to conceive a daughter once they got settled in Central America. But despite Rhiannon's fluency in Spanish and her excitement about the opportunity to teach, the adjustment was extremely difficult.
"Rhiannon was living very rural and very remote," says Rachel Zell, a Washington, D.C., native and one of the parents who posted the job listing that Rhiannon answered. For a woman so eager to interact with others that she once roused a dozen friends at 6 a.m. after a bachelorette party to teach them yoga, the solitude in Costa Rica was crushing. Zell quickly became a friend, but she lived in the town of Potrero, more than an hour north of Rhiannon by car. They could really spend time together only on weekends, when Rhiannon and Julian happily slept over at Zell's.
Nights in Playa Avellanas were the hardest. The Hulls' few neighbors had dinner at five o'clock, and by six it was dark and Rhiannon's world was reduced to just her and Julian, without even the meditative evening runs that had saved her sanity back in California. "It's a pretty crazy thing she did, to move there," says Scott Keneally, "but she was like, I'm just doing it. She was so lonely down there."
The ubiquitous Costa Rican expression pura vida (pure life), which is used as a greeting, a farewell and an expression of general contentment, became a taunt to Hull. She started signing her text messages to Zell PFV, for pura f------ vida. As in, says Zell, PFV, it just took us two hours to get milk.
Not only was Rhiannon isolated, but also the school was not working out. She enjoyed taking the kids to explore the tidal pools, a setting ideal for the Waldorf style of kindergarten teaching, with its stress on tales of magical and exotic lands. But Julian was not adjusting easily to classes in Costa Rica. Already Rhiannon was considering other options: returning home to Healdsburg or moving the school closer to civilization, in Brasilito, a small town 16 miles to the north. Three or four times a day Hull would flip-flop on what to do next.
Norm and Gianni could not come soon enough. As Zell recalls of that last week in October, "Rhiannon kept saying, 'I need a sign, I just need a sign.'"
Rhiannon and Julian were probably about 130 feet from shore when the two teenage surfers began to close in. By that time the boys estimate the Hulls had been in the water for nearly half an hour. That is, half an hour in a head-on battle against an enemy of prodigious power, while Rhiannon strained to save 45 pounds of the most precious cargo imaginable. Julian would later describe what he was doing as "standing on Mommy."