Sunrise, Sunset

Final rays of sun on peaks of Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

Final rays of sun on peaks of Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

I had the delight and privilege at a recent event to get to know a sweet lady from Canada.  During our conversation, we realized we had many things in common, including our love of nature and the outdoors.

My new friend is a bit older than me, perhaps closer to my Mom’s generation, so her memories go back further into the time before technology completely hijacked our country, our culture and our lives.  She shared that she felt the greatest treasure we lost with the advent of electricity in our homes, was “dusk.”

When I asked her to expand on this idea, she told me when she was a child, living in rural Alberta, everyone used to gather on the porch in the summers after supper, enjoying the waning of heat, and savoring the last moments of daylight.

“There is a certain quality to that space,” she said.  “The shadows get long; the light takes on an almost mystical quality.  Birdsong quiets and the shy animals start to emerge.  It is nature’s gift to us, a time of quiet rest and reflection.”

Sunset over the orchard

Sunset over the orchard

Having spent six months out of last year living “close to the land” I immediately understood what she meant.  Modern man has a tendency to go inside and flip on the lights the moment the sun starts to set.  Out our windows, back-lit by a 100 watt bulb, dusk is lost and night time suddenly arrives.

Bull River at dawn

Bull River at dawn

One evening last summer I washed the dishes, brushed my teeth and decided to go out for a few moments of solitude.  The sun had long since set, giving way to a dusk that can last hours during the summer in this part of the country.  It was around 11:00 p.m. and the stars were starting to pop out in the darkening sky.

I took a deep breath of the cool air and stretched muscles sore from a long day of physical work.  At that moment I sensed movement nearby.  Turning, I made out the ghostly form of a giant bull elk silently gliding through our pasture behind the shop.  He stopped momentarily at the fence, lifting his majestic head and turning to look at me.  His antlers were dark against the feeble light remaining, their forms blending with the branches of the old willow behind him.

After a brief pause, he easily hopped the fence and continued on his way.

I stood and watched him until he melted into the shadows.  After, I wondered if I’d dreamed him, the experience was so surreal.

Sunrise on the Clark Fork

Sunrise on the Clark Fork

Don’t get me wrong.  I love electricity.  We lost ours at the lake for two days this fall and I have to say it really, really sucked.  We all take for granted how much we depend on electricity for our daily lives.

It is always our choice to turn off the TV, put down the cell phone, close up the computer and enjoy the gifts nature has to offer.

When we moved to the Northwest I was convinced I’d have to give up the spectacular sunsets I’d enjoyed my whole life, as a resident of New Mexico.  Yet since our move, we’ve had many spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  Thanks to my cell phone, I often have a camera at my fingertips, even if it means clicking out the windshield as I’m driving down the highway.

Pend Orielle Lake at dusk

Pend Orielle Lake at dusk

Some of my fondest memories of childhood were sitting on the front porch with my Mom and Dad, talking about our day, watching nature unfold in front of us, whether the antics of a cottontail or the fury of a thunderstorm.  It was better than TV, and no commercials!

 

 

 

 

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An Extraordinary Man

We recently lost my Dad and I had planned to write something myself, but there is a house to build, a garden to tend and long Montana days to fill with work.  I think Dad would understand, as he was a doer all his life.  For those who were unable to attend the service I’ve decided to post a copy of the eulogy written and delivered by my oldest brother, Dana.  He did an amazing job hitting the high points of 83 years and summing them up in about 15 minutes.  Does not say all that Dad was, but does a pretty good job of giving us a glimpse into the life of this extraordinary man.  The eulogy document is followed by a poem written and read at the service by our niece Betsy.  We are blessed with many great writers in our family!

When the days shorten, the leaves fall and I have time to gather my thoughts without being reduced to tears, I will come back and write my own version of a tribute.  Until then, enjoy Dana’s words.  My heart is breaking, my eyes are leaking, and I miss you more than words can ever say.  I love you, Dad.  It will take the rest of my own lifetime to realize all the gifts you gave me.

Alan Austin Netz

02/17/1932 to 04/19/2015

Alan Austin Netz was born on Feb 17th, 1932 to Roscoe and Olive Netz in the back of acar between Questa and Taos, New Mexico. They had been en-route to the hospital when the car got mired in snow and mud. Roscoe went for help and Dad was born before he returned.

Growing up in the woods of northern New Mexico Dad learned to love the outdoors.When not doing chores for the family he would hike, hunt and fish (the latter  a fish hook into the cheek of his sister.) He told me one time about when he and a friend were going to go gold mining in the mountains above Questa.

Dad attended school in Los Alamos New Mexico but was frustrated with classes. He dropped out of high school at age 15 and he, with two friends, set out to seek their fortune in the Northwest. In the meantime, World War 2 had ended and jobs were scarce for grown men, much less for three inexperienced teenagers. Dad told us stories of this time (for those who didn’t know him, Dad told lots of stories).

One night they went to the local dance. When the young ladies found out that there were new boys in town they wouldn’t even let them sit down, dancing with them until they couldn’t stand any more.

In Goldendale Washington they decided that they might have better luck by each looking for work individually. Dad went to the local car and tractor dealership where the owner asked him to disc the local racetrack. “Ever use a disc before?” the fellow asked. “Cut my teeth on them, “Dad replied, although he’d never used one before. The owner pointed to a new tractor and mentioned that the implements were out back.

Dad hooked up something that looked like a disc and headed for the racetrack. Being a teenage he figured that a smart fellow like himself could do a two-hour job in one hour so he began driving around the track as fast as the tractor would go. He started to notice, however, that each pass was throwing the dirt up and out of the track and after several passes he had quite a trench established with a large mound to the outside. He figured that he could fix this by driving the other direction so he turned the tractor around. In doing so he tangled the tractor in a chain link fence and by the time he had finished he’d pulled down about 100 feet of fencing.

By the time he got untangled it was starting to get dark so he headed back to the dealership at the highest possible speed. On the way he noticed that the wheel was wobbling a bit but he figured that a large wheel like that would be hard to balance so he figured it was okay. When he approached the dealership he swung he tractor around and the wheel flew off, crashing through the plate glass window and into two new cars. Dad then said, “And for some reason he fired me!”

What he didn’t know was that Jim Grove had talked the guy into a job and said, “have you got work for my two buddies?” So Dad was hired, fired and hired by the same guy on the same day. It worked out well, however, as the man was a great friend to the three boys and Dad corresponded with the gentleman for years later.

Discouraged, Alan and Jim decided to join the US Air Force. The service sent Alan to Maine where one fateful night he met a beauty queen named Mary McLellan and they began a relationship that lasted until his passing.

Alan and Mary were married in Maine on May 3rd, 1953. Dad said that his biggest fear of the ceremony was that someone would take a picture that would show the hole in the bottom of his shoe. They lived on the airbase in Presque Isle where I was born.

When Dad separated from the Air Force they moved to New Mexico to be near his parents. The small family began to get a bit larger when my brother, Duane, was born.

Despite having gotten his GED in the Air Force, he was frustrated by his lack of education as he took a variety of unskilled jobs near Los Alamos. He finally secured a steady job with the Sandia National Laboratories but it was shift work so he decided to attend the University of New Mexico in pursuit of a Mechanical Engineering degree.

After three years of schooling he qualified for a much better job where he worked until retirement. He started as a mathematician. In the days before electronic computers mathematicians were employed to perform long, tedious calculations. Later, when computers became more common, he became a programmer. During this time he wrote a piece of code that is part of the fundamental programming of modern microchips and that is still being used today.

He tired of talking to computers and, for a while, began to transition to doing automotive repair out of his garage. During this time he came up with the concept of “Dial a Mechanic” where people with car problems could call him for advice which he would bill them for. It never really took off but I think of now, with the Internet, that it would have been a popular feature.

His frustration at Sandia, however, was eased when he took a job as a metallurgy technician. Scientists would design an experiment and Dad would set it up. He enjoyed this work and was so successful that when he retired it took two people to replace him.

When my sister, Anne, was born the house in the Northeast Heights was suddenly too small so the folks bought a piece of land in the Sandia Mountains and had a house built.  This prompted a comment by his father along the lines of, “You’re taking this sweet girl and these little kids from a nice place in the city to the wilderness.” But Dad was in his element, here. Beginning with Pidge, my sister’s pigeon-toed horse, the house was home to other horses, cows, chickens, goats and even a sheep that he turned loose to graze in the yard before converting it to dinner.

He built a multi-bay garage where he kept his welder, lathe and other tools for his many projects. After retirement he and Mom traveled the country in their motor home, touching base in every state in the Continental US. During their touring the visited Thompson Falls where they fell in love with the community. In 2001, they opened a new chapter in their lives as they moved their home from New Mexico to a house on the Clark Fork River. Today we have filled this hall with new friends and neighbors that have been gathered in the last 14 years.

A man who had almost as much influence over my life as my dad, author Robert Heinlein, once wrote:  A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

That could have been written about Dad. If I were to come up with a single phrase to describe his life it would be “Carpe vita”, “Seize the life”. It wasn’t that he was destined for greatness, like John Kennedy was destined to become President, it was more that he found everything in life interesting and he had the intelligence and talent to pursue those interests. Anything and everything fascinated him.

For example, he wasn’t just one of the greatest auto mechanics that ever walked the earth. He also did body work, upholstery, and other aspects of auto restoration. One of his coolest projects was a 1953 Chevy round-body pickup. He replaced all of the moving parts in the front suspension and steering with new ones, rebuilt and re-upholstered the seat, refurbished the dashboard and gauges and installed a new headliner. He purchased hardwood and sent off to the factory for the original replacement hardware to rebuild the pickup bed. He then went to a junkyard and found that the engine, transmission and rear end of the 1962 Impala would fit in the truck so he rebuilt and installed those parts. Then he cleaned up the body-works and painted it a beautiful dark green. The resulting vehicle was not only highway worthy but would catch rubber in two gears.

Dad’s father was a carpenter and Dad had his talent and then some. Consider a house.  Dad could survey the land, pour a concrete foundation, build the walls, shingle the roof, plumb it for water and wire it for electricity. We always joke about the project at the Campbell house that started off with Dad and Roger sharing a case of beer and ending with a 2-bedroom addition.

He was an artist who painted pictures, whittled wood, built models and carved monkeys out of peach pits. This latter inspired my brother to make one for his wife, who loves to wear it. He built his own gun stocks out of blanks ordered from Herters, including ones for my brother and me.

Dad loved hunting and enjoyed shooting. For a while he made his own cartridges and I still have his reloading set. He had extraordinary eyesight and would often pick out critters that took everyone else a while to see. And he was one of the most deadly accurate shooters that I’ve ever seen. He said that his trick was that he and his hunting buddies, Marvin and Freddie, would go rabbit hunting with .22’s and their rule was that one couldn’t shoot at a motionless object. He once said that he had a string of 33 successful deer-hunting seasons which even spanned his time in the Air Force.

Growing up there was an antelope head over the fireplace and one day I asked him about it. He was on a hunt where he hadn’t seen any game. He stopped to rest at the top of a hill and saw a solitary animal about 800 yards away. He said, “what the heck,” aimed somewhere around Jupiter and popped a cap. To his amazement the animal dropped. Naturally, he’d hit it in the heart but he said, “Well that critter’s time was up. If the bullet missed him he would have been killed by a meteorite.”

Some of my greatest memories of my time with him were hunting trips.

He made bread and brewed beer. One day we got giggling drunk on a couple of bottles of his that had a bit higher proof that he expected.

He enjoyed cooking, especially breakfast, and I always looked forward to a batch of “Chili Eggs” on hunting trips.

He was a horse doctor who doctored more than just horses. Once he was on a pack trip in the wilderness, four days from civilization, when Marvin’s horse stumbled and rolled over him, dislocating his shoulder. Dad re-seated it there beside the trail. Another time we had a pregnant goat that came down with pneumonia. As the animal was dying Dad performed a caesarian to retrieve the unborn kids and, when they showed signs of distress, he performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on them in a vain attempt to keep them alive.

In addition to cars and airplanes, Dad had many motorcycles during his life and he passed the love of two-wheelers to all his kids. He had a war-surplus motorcycle with a reverse gear and would back the bike out of the driveway, then shift into first without putting his foot down.

Dad’s interest with mechanical devices was best expressed by his fascination with clocks.  This began, as I recall, with a “Bim-Bam” clock purchased in Madrid New Mexico. The next thing that we knew, the kitchen table was covered with gears and escapement movements. He began building his own clocks, installing commercial movements into finely crafted housings of mahogany wood. One year he built clocks for his and Mom’s parents and siblings. Two of these clocks hang on the wall of my home, keeping time to within a minute a month 50 years after they were made. His most beautiful creation was the grandmother clock that still chimes the quarter-hour in Mom’s house.

But of all of Dad’s interests I think that he loved flying the most. He bought his first airplane while in the Air Force. He had never piloted before but thought he’d like to try so he bought a used Piper Cub from a guy on base. His flying lesson consisted of the guy taking him for a trip around the airfield then jumping out after landing saying, “Enjoy your new plane.”

Dad would fly from Presque Isle to Sherman Station to visit Mom until one time he landed in a potato field. When the rows of plants ran out his airplane flipped over. He sweet-talked the owner of the farm into trading his wrecked airplane for a car.

I flew with him every chance I could get, both here and in New Mexico. Once we went on a flight in his Taylorcraft that went a bit longer than planned. We were so low on gas that we ran out just after landing and had to push the plane back to the hanger. Another time he was interrupted during pre-flight and missed the fact that he was low on gas before taking my sister up for a ride. A commercial pilot herself, Dad handed over control of the airplane with the standard, “You’ve got it!” A few minutes later, when the plane ran out of gas, Anne, a 767 pilot with thousands of hours of airtime under her belt, said, “You’ve got it!” and handed the controls back to him.

He built at least two airplanes from kits and several more from baskets of parts.

When they married, Dad’s sister told Mom, “Life with Alan will never be boring” and for more than 61 years she patiently and courageously followed him through his escapades. I can still see her driving the Dodge Dart along a muddy mountain road after a weekend of building cabins in the rain.

I try to emulate him but no one could tell a story like Dad and his life was full of stories and adventures. One glorious weekend Dad, Duane and I hiked the Pecos Wilderness with Marvin and his two sons. There were trips to Maine including one trip of a lifetime through the Rocky Mountains and across Canada.

Once, with the whole family watching, he rolled a garden tractor over backwards, jumping out of the way at the last second. Once, also with the whole family watching, he nearly impaled himself with the bail from a drilling rig, once again averting disaster at the last second.

I feel sorry for people who grew up without a father because mine was such an integral part of my daily life while growing up. He taught me how to drive a car on the snow, do long division, shoot a gun, fly and land a small airplane and countless other essential tasks of being a human.

We’re gathered here today to say good-bye to a true renaissance man who made the world a better place by his presence and a smaller place by his absence. Alan was a husband, brother, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, neighbor and friend who never had a bad day in his life.

Dad

 

Memories of Grampie

by Betsy Netz

Sun’s rising, river’s glass;  A great man has come to pass.

He always felt lucky to have it all;  A life near-bursting at the seams full.

Close family, true love, hobbies, career;  Numerous adventures with those he held dear.

He didn’t need a church to tell him how to live,  What was right or how much to give.

Model neighbor, friend, family man;  Willing to help whoever he can

His love for his wife and family inspires,  Each of us to love more and aim higher.

His convictions held tight, his standards high;  He was more capable than the average guy.

Artist, engineer, pilot, mechanic too;  Author, outdoorsman and some I never knew.

When there was a story to tell, no one better could tell it;  If you needed something sold, he was the man to sell it.

When life got rough and you needed a letter,  His words of encouragement made you feel better.

I remember sitting in his lap when I was small,  Prickling his whiskers, his little Kewpie Doll.

Sweat, oil, dirt. I miss his smell.  Tough clean hands of a life lived well.

He’d hug us tight, his own way,  To tell us things he couldn’t say.

I’ll always miss my Grampie and the stories he’d tell;  I’m fortunate to have known him so well.

We celebrate a man who lived life right,  Who never had a bad day in his whole life.

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Who’s Rescuing Whom?

Our family is expanding.

After the death of our beloved dog companion, Honey several years ago, Grant and I made a pact that we were not getting any more pets.  At the time, we were both still working full time, and I was on the road a good portion of every month.  Also, on days off we were frequently traveling.  Leaving Honey behind was hard on her and hard on us.  We missed each other.  It was stressful.  We decided our lifestyle just wasn’t conducive to having pets.

Several years of freedom from obligation followed.  We were so busy we didn’t really notice the gaping hole the departure of the last of our furry friends had left.  We were spending one to two months of every summer in Montana either working on our house, or working on one of our Two Rivers projects.  The rest of the year found us taking scuba lessons, sailing, hiking or back packing and taking the annual trip to Hawaii to chase the winter blues.

I retired in 2005, but that was the year that Lisa got married and had Tyler.  Since she was still in college the time I gained from not going to work was quickly devoted to helping out with child care and launching into new and exciting family activities.

Time flew.  I didn’t notice.

Then one morning in the summer of 2009, after an extended trip to Alaska, I just woke up one morning and decided I wanted a little dog.  This was a surprise to everybody, including myself.  I think the lack of canine companionship just finally caught up to me.  And I didn’t want a dog in the back yard; I wanted a dog in my lap.  I’ve always been a great animal lover, and it was inevitable I would eventually miss all the wonderful aspects of life that pets enhance.

Most of you already know the story about how Tucker came into our lives.  Heaven knows he’s been a blessing!  And one of the nicest things about Tuck has been his portability.  From day one, he has been with us on all our adventures, from a trip to town to a trip across the country.  To him, getting in the car and going somewhere is normal.  Getting on a plane is normal, as well and he actually gets excited when we pull up in front of a terminal building.

Tucky has been an awesome companion and honestly can’t begin to count the number of profound ways he has affected our lives.  Yet I began to feel a little guilty about the fact that, in dog terms, he is all alone.  I figure it is akin to living in a house with people you know and love, who don’t speak your language.  Are they kind?  Yes.  Do they take care of you?  Yes.  Do you love them?  Of course!  But at the end of the day, we are still humans and he is still a dog.

My folks rescued a little dog a couple years ago and I saw how excited Tucker became when they got together.  They’d chase each other around the house for a few minutes, have a tug of war with a toy, go for a walk and piddle on the same bush and then collapse in a pile for a long nap.  I began to sense a longing in Tuck for somebody of his own species.  Knowing how crazy this next year will be with the house project in Washington, I also worried that he would get lonesome with the long hours he will likely spend alone.

So I started poking around and making inquiries.  I wanted a dog, not a puppy.  And it needed to be a small dog, like Tuck.

As these things often do, the answer came from far out in left field.  The breeder from whom we’d bought Tucker wrote to me out of the blue and asked if we would be willing to adopt an adult spayed female Yorkie.

A conversation with the current owner revealed that the dog in question could no longer stay with her, for various reasons.  The little pooch was obese from a diet of non-stop table scraps and lack of exercise, and she had “severe dental problems.”

Eeeeeesh.  What was I signing up for?  My knee-jerk reaction was to back away.  I’ve spent literally thousands on Tucker’s various health issues and wasn’t keen to inherit a dog who had “problems.”  I immediately started getting cold feet, especially since Grant was not terribly excited about the many ways a second dog might complicate our lives.

Then the picture arrived.  Once I saw her, it was a done deal.

So at the end of a very long circuit of travel over the holidays, I made a stop in Phoenix to meet the newest member of our family, Snowflake.  Funny name for a dog that’s lived in Phoenix her entire life—almost as if whoever named her knew somehow that she would ultimately land in northern Montana.

In our first encounter, she sat up on her little round bottom, lifted her front feet, and “smiled” at me.  The poor little thing’s breath would have knocked over a moose, but her sweet countenance snagged my heart.

The local Libby vet checked her over and pronounced that although she had an extreme case of dental plaque and would lose seven of her teeth, many of which were loose and/or abscessed, she was otherwise healthy.  We switched food, got out a leash and she began to accompany me and Tucker on our two to three mile walks every day.

As he did after Tucker joined the family, Grant eventually came around.  Now I emerge most mornings to find Snowflake snuggled into his lap while he does his morning office routine.  She has lost a few teeth and dropped a few pounds but is gaining trust and her little personality continues to emerge.

I’ve noticed something about “rescue” dogs.  Their demeanor somehow conveys the knowledge that they know they’ve been “rescued.”  Many have been abused or neglected, some might have spent some time on the street or in a cage.  But all seem to recognize when they have reached their forever home; a place they can finally relax and with humans whom they can safely bond.

As for those of us who do the rescuing, we reap the benefits daily of our dear little companions who give so much and ask so little.  I have many friends and family who have told me the daily ritual of having a pet, the unconditional love and the lifetime companion has helped them through many a hard time.  At the end of the day I have to ask, are we rescuing them or are they rescuing us?

 

Tucker and Snowflake sharing their favorite chair

Tucker and Snowflake sharing their favorite chair

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R.I.P. Lucy Rockstar

The sweetest rat ever

The sweetest rat ever

She came into our lives just about a year ago; the beginning of a year that would turn out to be one of the most stressful and tumultuous our family has undergone.

She was an early birthday present for Ty.  His second grade class had a gerbil for a mascot, and as eight year old boys tend to do, he was going through a “rodent” phase, and thought it would be fun to have a gerbil of his very own.

Tyler’s friend Cay was over for the day.  Cay is a great kid but one who speaks twenty to forty decibels above everyone else.  Taking the two boys to the pet store would be stressful enough—Lisa asked me to go first on a recon mission to check out the gerbil situation and report back.  We also had a conversation about guinea pigs.  I felt a guinea pig might be a little better choice for a pet since they are a little larger and as a result, more robust.

I walked into the local Albuquerque Petco prepared to talk guinea pig.  But after a lengthy conversation with a knowledgeable saleslady, I soon came around to the idea of a pet rat.  The lady quickly informed me that guinea pigs were not ideal.  She told me they were “high maintenance.”  They required “fresh” alfalfa on a daily basis, had extreme requirements for vitamin c, and if they got deficient, quickly expired.  They were also, in her words, “dirty and stinky.”

“What you really need,” the lady said after I gave her all the pertinent details about Ty and the home where the pet would reside, “is a rat.”

I have to admit to being taken aback.  After all, when I think of a rat, I think of some filthy, disgusting animal living in a sewer and sneaking out at night to terrorize innocent sleeping children and paranoid housewives.  I would never have considered one for a pet.

But the saleslady was insistent that these were not your garden variety “sewer rats.”  She said that rats are cleaner than virtually any other rodent pets, they are more social and have a generally higher intelligence.  Also, a guinea pig was going to run about forty dollars, but we could get a rat for seven.  As if everything else she’d not told me wasn’t enough that clinched the deal.

About that time Lisa showed up with the three kids—Ty and his friend, as well as Lorelei, who was about two at the time.  There was a lot of commotion involving rats being handed to kids to pet, a quick briefing of the various rat attributes and within twenty minutes Ty walked out of Petco, the proud owner of his very own pet rat.

When asked about a name, he said he’d decided on Rocky, until we figured out the rat was a female.  Lisa took one look at her and said she looked like a “Lucy.”  Ty smiled and added “Rockstar.  Her name is Lucy Rockstar.”

Lucy took up residence in Tyler’s bedroom, quickly setting up her tiny household within the confines of her cage.  She was a beautiful animal as rats go.  The front half of her body was a rich sable brown with a stripe that went down her back.  Her back half was white.  She had bright little eyes, translucent ears and tiny front paws that she used like hands to hold her food and groom herself.

After the first few days, Lucy got into the habit of nipping fingers whenever someone would reach into the cage to take her out.  We theorized that as a nocturnal animal her daylight vision was not good, and I’m sure the specter of a giant out-of-focus hand coming toward her was quite terrifying.  So Tyler and I devised a system of placing a small towel on our hand and resting it in the door to her cage, waiting for her to venture out on her own.  Once out, she was always friendly and inquisitive.

Fast forward to Christmas when Lisa and Matt decided they had to move to Missouri.  It is never optimal to move in December or January, but our second trip from Albuquerque, driving the kid’s Suburban, Hank, stacked to the gills, pulling a UHaul trailer and with Tyler and Lucy in tow, we hit a legendary winter storm in Oklahoma and Missouri, packing fifty mile an hour winds and sub-zero temperatures.

Rolling into Oklahoma City at dusk, the roads a sheet of ice and the front window defroster barely keeping usable visibility, Lisa called us with the details on the hotel she’d booked us into for the night.  We had thought about the Lucy problem—she was ensconced in her cage at the very back of Hank, perhaps baffled by the view out the back window as the only home she’d ever really known disappeared on the horizon.  We had Tucker with us, and having traveled extensively with a dog, we knew he wouldn’t be a problem, but acknowledged there probably isn’t a hotel on the planet that would welcome a rat.

With the frigid temperatures, bringing her into our room with us was imperative, as she would quickly become a ratcicle if left in the truck overnight.  Unfortunately, the hotel had no “back stairs,” so we had to devise a plan involving a very large box from Home Depot and a lot of smiling and shuffling past a curious front desk clerk to get to the elevator and up to our room.

Being natural enemies, we worried about having Tucky and Lucy as roommates, but they both seemed to understand that the situation wasn’t going to change, and organized a terse peace agreement where Lucy agreed to keep a low profile and Tucky agreed not to bark and terrorize her.

Somehow we made it to Missouri, rat and dog intact and still alive.  Lucy once again set up camp in Tyler’s room, and kept Grant and I awake those first few nights with her constant furniture re-arranging.

Matt soon got into the habit of bringing her into the living room in the evenings to spend time with the family.  The three couches were set up in a horseshoe-shaped arrangement and Lucy, once set loose, would frolic back and forth between the couches, pausing at each member of the family for a scratch behind the ears or a Goldfish cracker, which would quickly be stashed under the nearest pillow.  She enjoyed any treat offered, and many were carefully cached for future enjoyment.  The exceptions were pieces of bell pepper, her favorite, or the occasional nut.  These she’d grab with her little hands and nibble away until they were gone.  Then she’d take a few moments to clean her paws, her face and comb her whiskers.  She was always very fastidious and cleanliness was a high priority to her.

The house in Missouri, un-insulated, was extremely cold.  Lucy shredded the old blanket that Lisa placed over her cage during the day, and made herself a small nest.  She plumped up a bit and spent a fair amount of time curled into a tight ball, trying to stay warm.  At one point, she was moved from Ty’s room to the front hall, and then down to the basement for a while.

You’d think Lucy would love being in the basement, but she’d gotten used to her “people,” and rebelled by continuously chewing through her plastic water bottle in protest.  Eventually Lisa moved her back into Ty’s room, and the chewing stopped.

Occasionally the subject of Ty’s pet rat would come up in conversation, and we usually got a response something like, “Eeeeew, a Rat?”  As a family, we became protective of her and the reputation she was born into.  Lucy couldn’t help it if she was a rat.  She had edged her way into our hearts and was teaching us all invaluable lessons.  We’d reached a point where we couldn’t remember life without Lucy in it.

In July, another move, this time to Florida, found Lucy once again in the back of Hank.  This time the issue was not cold, but heat.  One day she and I sat in the parking lot of a Chinese Buffet restaurant in some obscure town in the Deep South while the kids took a short break to get some food.  I ran the engine and the air conditioner the whole time.  Later one of us brought up the fact that we certainly went to a lot of trouble and expense for a seven dollar rat, but then we all looked at each other, shrugged and said in unison, “but it’s Lucy.

She quickly settled into her new digs in Tyler’s room in Florida.  The only thing missing was Tyler himself, and Lucy mourned the loss of her roommate.  She still got to come out with the family in the evenings, and those were the times she was happiest, surrounded by her little “pack.”  After every Lucy visit, we’d invariably find a small stack of crackers under a sofa pillow, and carry it in to dump in her little bowl for later.

Recently, Lisa’s family came to visit us for a few days in Montana.  I flew back with her and Lorelei, to help with the baby and the bags.  Lucy had been left in the care of a couple of the neighbor kids, and when we arrived home, we went straight to check on her.  The cage door was wide open and the water bottle was bone dry.

Panicked, we raced around the house, frantically looking under all the furniture and any place we thought a rat might hide.  After a thorough search, we gave up hope and collapsed on the couch.  Within fifteen or twenty minutes, I heard Lisa exclaim, “Lucy.”  There she was, trotting across the carpet.  She must have heard us and come out of hiding to welcome us home.  We got her some food and water and settled back in her cage.

For several days, she seemed fine, but then she stopped eating and drinking, and became lethargic.  Halloween morning, Lisa found her lifeless little body on the bottom of the cage.  She must have eaten something while she was on the lamb that slowly poisoned her.

Right before I left Florida to come home I stopped by her cage to say goodbye.  She’d been curled up asleep, but she came to my side of the cage and blinked in her near-sighted way.  I gave her a corner of a corn chip, which she promptly ate eagerly.  That was the last time I saw her alive.

Why do I feel compelled to eulogize a rat?

I have a strong belief that every being that comes into our lives comes for a reason.  Lucy taught us so much about prejudice, family values and unconditional love.  She was so much more than “just a rat.”  She was a beloved pet, a member of the family and we were members of her “pack.”  I’ve known people whose personal habits of cleanliness did not match hers.  And while she never stopped expressing her basic rat nature, she did it with sweetness and with class.  She was truly a Rockstar.

Lucy we will miss you.  Thank you for sharing this crazy year with us during which we all had to say so many goodbyes.  You were one of the constants in our lives, you were always a bright spot in our day, you loved us unconditionally and for all of that we will be forever grateful.  If there is a rat version of heaven, we hope you are there and that there is a never-ending supply of your favorite treats.

R.I.P. Lucy Rockstar.

 

 

 

 

Rat

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The Great Chicken Caper

 

Happy chickens on their last "good day."

Happy chickens on their last “good day.”

For the past year or so, my poor husband and I have been operating about 4 miles behind the power curve.  With life events flying at us from every angle we’ve spent much of our time scrambling to regroup, and every plan we make seems to end up on the back burner.

After eight months of being homeless in Albuquerque, the farm was calling me and I spent my days hatching plans in order to keep my sanity.

Once we were released from the bondage of Mr. Boeing, and finally made our way north, there were a few more months of winter weather before spring finally burst forth, allowing us the hope of physical manifestation of all the ideas that had been circulating in our heads for so long.

While we had a pact that no livestock would be brought to the farm until we were living there full time, we did agree that perhaps we could handle a “batch” of chickens for meat.  After all, with the right breed, you can take a chicken from hatch to the freezer in about eight weeks.  The problem was finding an eight week stretch when we knew we’d be at the farm.

Doesn’t sound like a very tall order, but when at the farm, we were living in a nine and a half foot pickup camper, showering in a shed and needing to make the hundred mile trek back to the lake house periodically to do laundry and restock our food supply.

We hit the ground running in early April, as soon as the snow was off the pasture.  First order of business was getting up a deer-proof garden fence, designing some raised beds, and getting the seeds in the ground.

Then came the equipment shed and the shower.  After that it was replacing all the trees in the orchard that had been killed the previous winter by a hungry herd of rodents that chewed the bark in a circle around the trunk, essentially “girdling” (and thus killing) the tree.

A giant Jack Pine on the road into our land had died, and it needed to be cut down, the limbs chipped and the trunk turned into firewood.  Ditto for an old Fir tree that had fallen on the fence by the compost pile.

Every week we had the chicken conversation and every week there was something else demanding attention.  When July rolled in with hot weather and a another very long list of projects, I decided we needed to let go of the idea of trying to raise a batch of chickens.  There was just too much to do and we were on the road what seemed like every other day gathering materials or going back and forth to the lake.  We’d spent a week in June hand-digging a three foot deep footing for our thirty by forty foot barn, and the metal building kit had just been dumped in front of the newly-poured slab.  Assembling the building was going to be a monumental task, and I finally had to admit that there are only two of us and there are only so many hours in any given day.

But Grant doggedly held on to the idea of the chickens.  Every time I said, “It’s just too much.  I don’t think we should do the chickens this year—I think we need to just let it go and wait until next year,” he’d shoot back with, “No, you need to do your chickens.”

Sigh.  What could I say?  My husband is so romantic!  He knew I wanted chickens, and by golly I was going to get them!  So I got online and with great trepidation, put in an order for twenty-five day-old chicks to be delivered to the Troy, Montana post office.

The chickens I ordered are called “Cornish Cross,” a freakish hybrid that has long since lost the ability to breed on its own.  They have been developed for the maximum amount of breast meat and have to be butchered before ten weeks of age, or else they start falling over from being extremely “front heavy.”  Although it seemed almost immoral to propagate such a Frankensteinish bird, I had to concede that this is the breed found in most grocery stores today.  At least our chickens would be raised humanely, and allowed to be chickens during their short life, instead of merely a cog in the factory farming model prevalent in our society.

It wasn’t a day later that once again, all plans changed and it became apparent I needed to head for Missouri to help Lisa and Matt with their latest move, this time to Florida.  The project was going to take the better part of a month.  So I told Grant, “We’ve got to cancel the chickens.  I’m not going to be here to help, and heaven knows you’ve got your hands full!”

I knew the answer before he opened his mouth—I’ve seen the set of my husband’s jaw when he’s made up his mind and there’s no changing it—the chicken project was still a go.  As it turned out, the baby chicks were supposed to show up the day after I left for Missouri.

The day before chicken day we woke at 3 a.m. at the farm and drove to Spokane for me to catch an early flight to Denver where I’d go on to Springfield.  Grant and Tucky returned to the farm and spent the day working on the new barn.  Around supper time, they left for Montana, knowing the chicks would be showing up at the post office the next day, hungry and thirsty after their trek from the hatchery in Ohio.

About the time they made it to Sandpoint Idaho, we’d been notified by our Washington neighbors that a freak storm had swept through northeastern Washington leaving a path of devastation in its wake.  Massive trees were down all over the county, the power was out and many people had suffered great property damage.  Our neighbor told us two hundred-foot trees were down across our road taking the power line to the ground.  Knowing our truck and camper was parked between two giant Jack Pines, Grant decided he’d best turn around to survey the damage.

Miraculously, although one of the trees was literally lying across the back steps of the camper, there was no damage to our little home or any of our buildings.  We lost about thirty trees in the storm, and a lot of the perimeter fence was damaged, but other than that, we were luckier than most.

The next morning I got a call from the postmaster in Troy informing me he had a box for us from Ohio that was chirping.  I immediately called Grant, who was sitting in the truck in the post office parking lot, waiting for the office to open.  I conveyed the message that the postmaster told him if he’d knock on the door, the man would hand over the chicks.

During the course of the next few weeks, Grant, Tucky and the chickens were, by necessity, inseparable.  If he needed to go to the farm to work on something, the chicks went into the back seat of the truck and spent a few days at the farm with him.  He told me after experimenting that they seemed to like country music the best, and it was the only thing that would give him a few minutes of peace on the two hour drive.

By the time I returned from Florida, the chicks were a month old, halfway through their short lives, and looking pretty rough.  They’d shed their baby down, but the adult feathers were taking their time coming in.  Since they were at the lake and had become more difficult to move around with their increased size, we decided to leave them at the lake.

We put them in a cage in the back yard.  Grant fitted the enclosure with a set of wheels, so we could lift the front and shuffle it around every day.  This enabled the birds to have a fresh batch of “salad greens” on which to feast.

After a couple of weeks tractoring the chickens around the back yard, we ran out of new forage, so decided to move them to the far side of the front lawn.  I’m sure the people in the million dollar houses around us were turning up their noses a bit, but fortunately they kept any derogatory chicken comments to themselves!

On the shuffle from the back yard to the front yard, one of the chickens got trapped under the lower bar of the cage.  By the time we got him extracted it became apparent he was injured in some way.  While the other chickens were happily clucking and pecking around the new grass, this guy plopped down and just lay there, panting.  I told Grant I didn’t think he’d make it through the night, and although it was almost bed time for us, we decided we’d better just put him out of his misery and make him the first to go into the freezer.

Grant had been accumulating chicken processing equipment for several weeks, and fortunately for us (unfortunately for the chickens) the new super duper state of the art chicken plucker had been delivered by UPS just days before.  He set up the turkey fryer with a bucket of water on top and hauled out the new chicken picker.  I booted up the computer and frantically searched for YouTube videos on how to gut a chicken.

Our friends and neighbors down the road had vocalized an interest in seeing the picker in action so a quick call brought re-enforcements who would provide moral support, if not great knowledge and wisdom regarding chicken processing.

I was proud of my husband.  With a flashlight between his teeth, he quickly and efficiently dispatched the chicken with little fanfare.  After a quick dipping in the steaming bucket of water on the turkey fryer, the carcass went into the picker and he turned it on as we all held our breath.

The thing started spinning at a high rate of speed and the carcass was a blur as it bounced around inside the drum.  White feathers flew everywhere.  After about thirty seconds, our friend said he thought it was done, but Grant let it go another thirty seconds, just to make sure.  As promised, the chicken came out of the plucker clean as a whistle.

I told my husband I would happily gut the chicken, but needed him to take off the head first, since that chicken had been looking at me not ten minutes before.  Our friends took that as a cue to beat feet for home.  Having known us for a while, I’m sure they’ve seen how these things go.

Inside, I set up the computer on the counter and had to back up the YouTube video several times before I successfully extracted the guts and various other parts from the chicken.  At six and a half weeks of age he weighed about three and a half pounds.

The rest of the chickens had their eight week birthday yesterday.  We’ve made a commitment that any animal on our farm would have only one bad day, and that day was yesterday for the remaining twenty-two birds.

We set up on the patio, with a lovely view of the lake and I have to say that by the time we put the twenty-second bird in the final shrink wrap bag, although not experts by any means, we were at least a little smarter chicken farmers.

Here’s how the numbers worked out:

Twenty-five day old chicks with UPS delivery:  $87.00

Eight weeks of chicken feed:  $213.00

State of the art chicken plucker:  $700.00

Knowing that we are one step closer to food independence:  Priceless

A hundred pounds of meat in the freezer!

A hundred pounds of meat in the freezer!

 

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Showering with a Backhoe and Other Fun Aspects of Living Rough

The Center of our Current Universe

The Center of our Current Universe

Amazing what we take for granted– a shower, for instance.  It’s one of those things we do mindlessly every day and never give it a second thought until it’s suddenly not available.  Sitting around the house I can usually skip a day.  But when you’ve been on the end of a shovel in 95 degree heat for the better part of the afternoon, a shower suddenly becomes extremely important.

I guess I’m lucky to be married to an engineer.  He can usually cob something together out of practically nothing.  When we built the little equipment shed earlier this summer, I saw a place to park the tractor and maybe store a few of the garden tools.  Grant saw more.  Within days, he’d erected a post, plugged in an old electric water heater we’d hauled up here from New Mexico and plumbed a shower head at the end of a pair of rubber hoses.  There was a pallet covered by a piece of Hardiboard to stand on, and a blue nylon tarp for a shower curtain.  The way the tractor was parked, the backhoe was in a handy position to prop my foot on to shave my leg.

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There was a bit of a soggy streak to and from the camper, and depending on the time of day, the mosquitoes occasionally got in a bite, but all in all, that shower was heaven at the end of a long dusty day.

The next exciting item to show up was the porta-potty.  Yes, we do have a potty in the camper, but everything that goes into that potty must eventually come out, and it was a major event and a many-mile drive to a dump station once a week.  I decided early on it was far preferable to just go in the woods rather than have to face another housekeeping task.

Once we started building the barn and had the need to hire some outside help, we decided to “take the plunge” and order up a porta-potty.  It was so easy, I can’t believe we didn’t think of it earlier.  A nice young man showed up within an hour of calling, lifted the thing off the back of his truck and filled it with some clean-smelling blue liquid.  Once a week it is now the potty company’s problem to come service our unit and it’s once less thing of us to worry about.

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Moving the shower out of the camper drastically reduced our need for “clean” water, as we were now pumping directly out of the irrigation well to get cleaned up.  Yet we were still in major water conservation mode as all the potable water still had to come from the lake.  We’d not yet had either of the wells tested and were a little hesitant to drink the water.  There is a natural spring about five miles down the road and we started filling our jugs there.  There’s almost always someone else there with the same idea—the water tastes wonderful and is ice cold coming out of the tap.

The latest endeavor is a flock of 23 chickens.  They were delivered to the local post office as day-old chicks and they’re now going on about a month of age.  Right now they’re in a “feather transition,” having lost their baby down and are slowly growing in their adult chicken feathers, so they look a little rough.  They’re still huddled under a heat lamp out in the shop, but within a few days, they’ll be out on “pasture” for another month, before going into the freezer. DSCN1572

From the garden to the orchard to the chickens everything up to this point has been a giant experiment and learning experience.  It’s been fun to see what thrives and what withers in this climate.  I picked our summer harvest of blueberries a couple of days ago.  One of the joys of living in this part of the country is the abundance of fresh food available, literally for the picking.  Yesterday we spent the afternoon with Mom and Dad at a nearby blueberry farm and got another ten pounds for the freezer.  Nothing tastes like summer in January as much as a homemade blueberry pie.

Ty helping pick berries last summer

Ty helping pick berries last summer

Summer is zooming by.  Grant is working away at house plans and we are zeroing in on a final.  Most of the permits are in hand and we’re getting close to finally breaking ground.  My next big project will most likely be canning and drying the harvest from the garden and saving seeds.  Wish me luck!

 

 

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The Miracle

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The Miracle

I harvested my first radish yesterday.  It’s a miracle.

Now most normal people would not lavish such praise on the humble radish.  However, after a Master Gardener’s course, an internship at a permaculture farm, four years subscription to Mother Earth News and Organic gardening, countless gardening books and clinics, hundreds of dollars of seeds, fencing and other “gear,” thousands of dollars of fine farmland and five years of my life devoted to the project, I’ve finally actually produced something I can eat.

If anybody is not up to speed, please feel free to review my previous posts titled, “Gardening for the Apocalypse,” and “More Adventures in Gardening,” documenting my monumental brown thumb and complete inability to harbor a vegetable or fruit-bearing plant to the point of food production.

A radish puts the bar pretty low, as edible plants go.  As Joanie pointed out yesterday, it only takes 20 days to grow a radish, and they can put up with pretty marginal conditions.  To further point out my embarrassing lack of skill in this area, I didn’t even know I had any growing in that bed.  I was weeding the lettuce patch the other day and noticed this purple bulbous thing pushing up out of the soil.  Have to admit I jumped back a little when I saw it, wondering if it was some weird soil creature of the Pacific Northwest everybody forgot to mention.

I honestly thought the radishes were in another bed with the cabbages, celery and cauliflower, so it never occurred to me it could be anything but an obscure heirloom variety of lettuce with a bulbous root system.

Two days later I was back weeding and noticed there were several of the little suckers shouldering their way out of the soft soil.  Some were purple, others red and even a white one.  Then it struck me that I’d planted multi-colored radishes and I finally put two and two together.  So I pulled a couple, proudly showed them to Grant and then had to take a picture.

I think my poor husband thought I’d finally lost the last of my few remaining marbles.  But I couldn’t help it.  They reminded me of little Christmas ornaments.  And it felt like Christmas.  I wanted to grab Grant for a little jig around the camper singing Kenny Chesney’s, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” at the top of my lungs.

I sliced the purple one and put it on our salad that night.  Now after reading to this point, you’re probably convinced I’m extremely biased in my radish evaluation.  And you’re probably right.  But I have to say that was the best damned radish I’ve ever eaten in my life.

I’d almost forgotten what it is life to eat something off your own land.  It’s as if by eating from the land you are becoming part of the land.  I feel that connection in many ways.  A couple of days ago I was hunkered down over a wild strawberry patch over by the pond, wondering when the berries would be ready, and I saw an earthworm inch past.  Amazing.  It’s a miracle.  Nature at her finest.

The potatoes are going gangbusters, there are blueberries on the bushes, the strawberries are starting to turn red and if all my tomatoes produce I’m going to be buried.  Aunt Nell has already offered to come up and teach me how to can this summer.  I’m heartened by my early radish victory.  If these crunchy little gems are any indication, I might just be able to finally call myself a gardener.

Lindsey and Michael, you would be proud.

 

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The Farm

A few terse emails have recently reminded me that, to many of our family and friends, we have dropped off the face of the planet.  When you’re going a hundred miles an hour, the surrounding landscape is a blur.  Mostly I’ve been too busy even to snap the occasional picture, but the past weekend, as Grant was loading up to leave, I grabbed my camera and got a few shots to share.  For anyone wondering, this is what is going on at the farm:

Here’s our fruit orchard.  We had to replace virtually all the trees this year.  In my deer obsession I totally missed the real threat, a tiny rodent called a vole.  Evidently they create tunnels under the snow and prey on the bark of young trees.  In our case, our trees were handy and apparently tasty.  They girdled virtually every one.  That was an expensive replacement order from Stark!  We learned our lessons this time around and now have trunk guards, in addition to a (hopefully) impenetrable deer fence.

IMG_0083This is a picture of one of our new nut trees–a Carpathian Walnut, I believe.  The nut trees are in the pasture as part of the development of a “silvo-pasture.”  As they grow and form their canopy, they will improve the pasture by creating shade for the grass during the hottest days of summer, and mining nutrients from deep in the soil, which they’ll then contribute to the top soil via their leaves.  After our lessons with the fruit trees, all the nut trees have a “deer cage” as well as trunk guards.  We have black and English walnuts, pecans, hickory, chestnut, butternut, almond and oak.  My mouth is watering as I type, but the reality is it will be a good eight to ten years before we see our first nut.  Nut trees are considered “legacy” trees.  The grand kids will get to enjoy them, along with the sugar maples that can be tapped in about forty years.

IMG_0084Here’s my Top Bar bee hive.  My bees involved another heartbreaking, expensive lesson.  It’s taken me a year, but we finally have a viable and growing hive.  Their main job is pollinating, and any extra honey they can spare will just be a bonus, as far as we’re concerned.  I’ve already seen them at work on the strawberry blossoms.  Bees can triple the yield from a garden or an orchard, and we’re grateful to have them “on the team.” Our pollinators are in serious trouble in this country, and we are happy to provide them with 82 acres of safe, pesticide and herbicide-free habitat in return for their services.

IMG_0086The pond has reached its peak runoff level, and the water vegetation is quickly beginning to fill in the open areas.  We still have a large population of migratory waterfowl who showed up early this spring and have stayed to raise their young.  There are also literally thousands of frogs who sing us to sleep every night.  Last week we found a large turtle making its way toward the pond.  Last year Bobbie and I saw a moose who’d stopped by for a snack, but so far Grant and I have not encountered anything that large.  A resident flock of turkeys keeps us entertained along with the occasional white tail deer.  I’m in heaven…..

 

IMG_0088Our pasture is slowly improving, after years of overgrazing by the previous owner.  I’ve counted at least ten different species of plant living there, including some beautiful wild flowers.  The knapweed (a noxious weed) is encroaching from the south, but we have a plan to eradicate it–sheep!  Turns out sheep love the stuff and in one enthusiastic sheep-owner’s words, “they become addicted to it.”  Unfortunately, the sheep (and the pasture) will have to wait until next year!IMG_0089

A few tiny wildflowers.IMG_0087

Our “home away from home.”  We’d be in big trouble without our trusty camper!  Grant hooked up the solar panel a few weeks ago and we haven’t had to run the generator for “house power” since.  What a luxury!  IMG_0090“The shop.”  We used this covered trailer during our move north, and now it is project-central.  We’ve got shelves toward the front that hold the “little stuff” and plenty of room in the center to store bigger tools like a table saw and the generator, which are pulled down the back ramp when needed.  It also makes a handy place to dive when the occasional rain shower shows up!  You can see how much we are in and out by the way the grass is trampled down to the dirt in front of the door…IMG_0091The “well house.”  There was a well on the property when we bought it, and it is housed in this humble structure on the right.  The water level is only about seven feet below grade.  We postulate the left side of this building was once a chicken coop.  We’ve since drilled another well near where the house will be.  Took about five minutes with a contraption my handy hubby put together.  We hit water at about eleven feet.  To us desert rats, that is amazing! The water is in a sand layer, so we put down something called a “sand point” and have been pumping the most beautiful crystal clear, good tasting water you can imagine.  We’ve only used the original well for irrigation.IMG_0092Behind the old well house, we used some old metal we took off the roof at Bull Lake to build a simple pole barn. We’ve named it the “equipment shed” and it mostly houses the tractor and various implements.IMG_0093We don’t have enough hoses to get everywhere, so we’ve converted the motorcycle trailer into a “water wagon.”  I pull up to one of the wells and use the pump mounted on the back to fill the tank.  This makes it easy to get water to wherever we need it.  We’re only watering the trees every week or two, depending on rain, but the garden gets a drink pretty much any day we’re there.  IMG_0094I LOVE this old willow tree!  It’s got to be at least a hundred years old.  It looks a lot better since we trimmed it up this spring.  There are still some dead areas, but it is stubbornly clinging to life!  It’s our mascot.IMG_0095You can tell we are only ten miles from the Idaho border, because our potatoes are going nuts.  I’ve never grown potatoes before, so it must be beginner’s luck!  It’s fun to go out each day to see how much they’ve grown!  We’ve got a 40 X 40 fenced garden area with raised beds for vegetables in the center and raised beds around the inside perimeter for berries and grapes.IMG_0096Here’s a closeup of one of the strawberry plants we put in early this spring.  In general, the berries are very, very happy here.  Besides the strawberries, we’ve got blueberries, elderberries and raspberries.  I’ve also got five wine grape plants I’m very excited about.  Wish me luck!IMG_0097More strawberries!IMG_0098The latest addition to the “fleet.”  This thing is a beast!  It weighs fifteen thousand pounds and has a forty foot reach with the boom extended.  I’ve already had a lesson on how to operate it, and it will certainly come in handy with our future building projects!  Our barn will be a metal building and the kit will be delivered in the next week or two.  We’re finalizing the house plan, and hopefully will be starting on the foundation for our future home some time in July.IMG_0099A giant Jack Pine died a year or two ago and it is close to the future barn, so we decided it was time for it to come down.  Turned out to be two solid days of sawing and chipping.  We’re going to leave the giant trunk, for now. We’ve been considering buying a small sawmill.  We’ll see……IMG_0100Took me a couple hours to load the truck with logs cut from the larger branches.  Grant was doing his “tractor-driver” thing, trying to get the spot leveled for the future barn.IMG_0101

Here’s a picture of the chief of staff.  He oversees everything and pretty much runs the show……IMG_0102

I hope this helps explain why we’ve been off the grid.  Thanks to all our friends and family for the love and support during the biggest project of our lives!

 

 

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Circle of Life

I recently lost a good friend in a tragic accident.  Once the shock starts to wear off these things tend to get you thinking about life and how you’re spending it.

When traumatized, my habit has been to turn to nature for answers.  Since this is the first year Grant and I have spent in Montana through the spring I had lots of opportunities to observe Mother Nature in action and try to absorb her lessons.

One of my first impressions was the transformation between winter and spring.  Even as the ice crept out of the lake and the last small banks of crusty snow were slowly receding in the shadiest areas, life was already bursting forth.  You could almost watch the leaves advance from the tiny buds on the branches.

Within a week, the grass, which had been completely absent, was an inch tall.  A week later it was six inches tall.  It was as if nature has the precognition of the brevity of summer and rushes forward to stretch into the sun-drenched days and soak up every moment of bliss before the end of the season once again brings winter’s cold, dark days.

Most of us, me included, tend to take life for granted.  We rush along through our days, often absorbed in mindless tasks, our thoughts firmly rooted in the past or the future, rarely in the now.  Our lives are the short summer—the fleeting few months during which the sun shines and all the living is crammed into that one brief lifetime.

Many insects live only a day or two.  Small animals get a few years.  For us, if we’re lucky, we get to experience a “summer” lasting a century.  Yet in the great scheme of things, that century is little more than an insect’s lifespan, when measured against the earth’s history.

Inevitably, winter comes, there is death and dormancy and a period of rest.

So why bother?  Those of us left behind want answers.  We want to know why. Why even come into life if summer eventually ends and all that is left is the cold, dark winter, the sorrow of loss and the pain of grief?

As always, nature holds the answers to these ancient questions.  Under the snow lie the seeds of the next season.  Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there. The leaves shed from the tree in the fall provide mulch, nutrients and habitat to soil life.  Nature is not dead, just preparing for the next explosion of life force.   At times like these it is good to see the expression of the divine as even in death, there is life.

As a species we are growing, expanding and constantly evolving.  As they say, we stand on the shoulders of the great men who came before us.  Each of us is contributing to the evolution of all.  Each life, long or short, matters.  We are all connected in more ways than we realize.  Even after death, we live on in our children our grandchildren, and the many people we touch during our lifetime.

My friend was the epitome of life force.  He lived each day of his summer to the fullest, and left a long legacy of service to others.  Although he is gone, his loving influence continues to impact those who knew him.  He died doing something he loved.

This post is dedicated to my friend Steve Benavidez and his loving wife Neva.  Steve, you are missed by all.  Rest easy under the snow, my friend.  We’ll meet again in the spring.

Neva and Steve during Happy Times

Obituary for Stephen E. Benavidez

Age 55, Stephen unexpectedly passed away on Thursday, April 3, 2014. He is survived by his wife, Neva M. King of Albuquerque; mother, Eva M. Parker; children, Allison N. Parraz, Leslie S. Benavidez; grandchildren Dominic, Jude, Addison, and Ruby; siblings Bernadette Vadurro, Ben Benavidez, Annette Stephens, and Anthony Benavidez; many nieces, nephews and friends. Steve was preceded in death by his father, Nap Benavidez and nephew; Michael Ortiz. Steve proudly served as a Sergeant in the United States Air Force. He was a parishioner at Risen Savior Catholic Community and formerly a parishioner, lector, Eucharistic Minister, Scholarship Committee Member, and Youth Group Minister at Aquinas Newman Center. He was active in his profession as a Project Manager Team Leader for SW District, Trane, with an MM98 Mechanical Licensure. Steve was a former president of the NM Chapter of the Association of Energy Engineers; member and scholarship chairman of ASHRAE; and served as a committee member at CNM. He selflessly donated 70+ gallons of blood in his lifetime to United Blood Services and during his military service. In addition, he gave one of his kidneys to his brother. Steve was a NAUI certified scuba diver since 1979. He was a competitive racquetball player, earning first place state titles in 2010 and 2011, and second place in 2013. He coached his two daughters in little league and coached/played competitive slow pitch softball, leading his team to an undefeated season (16-0). Always a loyal fan of the New Mexico Lobos Basketball team and the Dallas Cowboys, Steve loved sports throughout the years. He was passionate about many facets of life. Since the age of 13 he walked 30+ years to Santuario de Chimayo, a 26 mile pilgrimage. He was known for his infectious laugh and humor. He always lit up a room with his smile. His kind and generous nature made him a leader by example. Steve was a very intelligent man who loved to read. Always a gentleman, he never missed an opportunity to cherish his wife, Neva, and his love for her was evident to all. Being a grandfather meant the world to him. He was his grandson Dominic’s role model and he never missed an opportunity to show his love and support. The legacy Steve leaves behind is an enduring love for his wife, family and friends. Rosary will be recited Thursday, April 10, 2014, 6:00 p.m. at FRENCH – Wyoming. Friends may visit beginning at 5:00 p.m. Mass will be celebrated Friday, April 11, 2014, 10:00 a.m., at Risen Savior Catholic Community, 7701 Wyoming Blvd. NE. Interment will follow at 2:15 p.m. at Santa Fe National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Stephen E. Benavidez Scholarship for Energy Engineers. Checks may be mailed to Attn: NMAEE, 2600 American Rd. SE, Suite 360, Rio Rancho, NM 87124.  

 

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Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

Is it possible for the best year of your life and the worst to be one and the same?  I believe 2013 was that for me.

In our family we have the habit on certain holidays or other significant dates throughout the year to ask the question, “I wonder where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing next year at this time?”

With holiday traditions, things tend not to change much.  For 28 years, for instance, Lisa has had a chocolate layer cake on her birthday with multi-colored sprinkles and a large number candle in the middle of the smaller candles denoting the time she’s been on the planet.  This has been handy when reviewing old photos, because we can always tell during which birthday the photo in question was taken.

But this year our family has been turned upside down and inside out.  After almost 34 years in the same house, we have moved.  After 55 years in New Mexico, we’re moving on.  Future pictures will not have the same features we’ve grown to love.  New traditions will have to be forged.

We’ve essentially been homeless for the past six months.  Although we own a lovely and quite (more than) adequate house in Montana, it doesn’t do us much good while we’re stuck in New Mexico.  Friends and relatives alike have been exceptionally giving and gracious in helping to put a roof over our heads and a place to park our stuff until we are allowed by Mr. Boeing and the U.S. Government to get on with our lives.

In a detailed horoscope done when I was just a teenager I remember reading about myself that I would make strong friendships early in life and those relationships would endure throughout my life.  That has pretty much been the case.  Most of my closest friends have been around for years—in the case of Joanie, we’ve been fast friends since the age of 12.  I don’t have a lot of friends but the ones in my life are incredibly important to me, and I would do anything for them.  I know they feel the same about me as evidenced by the outpouring of love and support during what has been an extremely challenging time for Grant and me.

The social animal who has never met a stranger seems to have skipped a generation between my Dad and my daughter.  Show up anywhere and the two of them will know the names and life story of everyone within a two mile radius.

I on the other hand tend towards being the happy hermit—someone who has low expectations of anyone who isn’t a lifetime friend and mostly a lack of desire to know anything about anyone outside my inner circle.

Since this past year was a time of extreme personal growth and change I guess the Universe decided to send me one last lesson at the end of 2013.

It all started with the little house Lisa and Matt bought late this fall.  The place is almost 100 years old, and has the distinction of having once been the local post office.  The most amazing thing about the house was the purchase price—an incredible $13,000—a mere pittance by today’s standards.  The low price of the house was a Godsend to the kids who have had to deal with the closing of a successful business in September that had contributed significantly to their bottom line.  Once the business went under, not only did the ends not meet, they were miles apart.

Enter Travis Clark.  He’s the guy who introduced them.  He’s also the guy who is one of the 14 residents of Brinktown, MO and who knew that the bank had owned the house next door to his for the last three years and was desperate to unload it.  The fact that Matt will have a 3 ½ hour drive to work is immaterial (he only goes once a week).  Did I mention the house only cost $13,000?

The Little House in Brinktown, MO

The Little House in Brinktown, MO

Speaking of low expectations, when one pays such a miserly sum for a home, one has extremely low ones.  Yet the bones of the house were strong, including a new furnace and fresh paint on the exterior.  The inside, however, was quite cosmetically challenged.

As 2013, the year of incredible change and upheaval drew toward the end; it became apparent that if Lisa and Matt were going to be able to move by the end of the year, Grant and I would have to make a trip to Missouri to do some work to the house for it to be reasonably functional and comfortable.

Backing up to our relationship with Travis Clark, the guy who started this whole project, we met him and his parents about fourteen years ago when we sold Travis an airplane.  He was just a kid at the time–barely nineteen and still in college.  Grant being Grant, he took a liking to the kid and agreed to do an annual on the airplane free of charge over the next few years.  So we saw the Clark family off and on for a couple of years during that time.

We liked the elder Clarks, a humble farm family who were pleasant and charming, and who generously invited Lisa to come spend a week with them in Missouri during her 15th summer.  The next year we bought the house at Bull Lake and the whole Clark family came to visit for a few days.  After that it was the yearly Christmas card and occasional update from Lisa, who kept in touch with Travis.

When we started making plans to go to Brinktown, the elder Clarks immediately offered to let us stay at their farm.  It did make sense, as they live only 8 miles away whereas the nearest official hotel was would be a significant daily drive.  At first I resisted.  I always hate to impose on people, especially those I barely know.

Yet as we drove on toward Missouri, our daughter called to say the Clarks were expecting us and gave us a number to call for specific directions.

We skidded into “town” (term used loosely) at 10:00 p.m. barely ahead of a major ice storm and just days before Christmas.  Terry Clark met us at a crossroads and we followed his Ford pickup the last mile down a dirt track to the farm.  After a short visit we were shown the digs that would become our home for almost three weeks—a room paneled and floored in oak and cedar with origins in the woods behind the house.

The next morning over a breakfast of fresh made cinnamon rolls, we discovered, to our surprise that this couple who is a good ten years older than us, had every intention of working alongside us to finish the repairs to the house.

Over the ensuing days the four of us, with the help of Travis’ wife, Casey, put in twelve and thirteen hour days while Lisa and Matt frantically packed their house in New Mexico in preparation for the move.

Christmas Day dawned clear and cold.  It was a weird feeling to think we wouldn’t see a single relative and the only turkey we would consume would be the cold cuts on the sandwich we’d have for lunch.  I had been waiting for the Clarks to mention their Christmas plans.  While they had given generously of their time, I knew that Christmas Day would be solo for Grant and I as virtually everyone I know has Christmas traditions to uphold.

After the cows were fed and we were heading for the door, this generous couple informed us they would be along shortly, as there was still much to do before the kids showed up.  Grant and I looked at each other, shocked.  Was it even possible for someone to be that generous?

We all worked out tails off that day.  There was no fancy dinner.  There were no presents.  There were no Christmas carols, no pie, no relatives.  But I will never forget what it was like to discover the generosity of the human spirit.  I’ll be forever grateful to this family that took us in during the holidays, put aside their own needs and desires, and gave so much of themselves to us and our kids.

That afternoon their younger son and his wife showed up.  They were immediately put to work.  When I voiced my surprise to Casey Clark, who was on “vacation” from her job as a music teacher, she said “You obviously don’t know what it is like to live here in the Ozarks.”  To these people, helping folks out is just what you do.

During one of many epiphanies realized during this time, I knew this was the kind of relationships I’d yearned for.  This is what finally pushed me to give up my beloved home in New Mexico, to leave old friends and precious relatives, to move to another part of the country with a culture rooted in the past, where relationships are more important than “stuff,” where your neighbors are your extended family and you pull together during tough times to help each other out.  I’d had a glimpse of this way of thinking in Montana, but it took a trip to the Ozarks to drive it home to me.

Santa didn’t come to our family in the normal way this year.  The gifts of Christmas 2013 were not tied up with shiny ribbons and left under the tree.  But I would not trade the experience for anything.

There is still a lot to do on the little house in the Ozarks.  Terry teases Tyler that he expects a lot of help on the farm this spring when calving starts.  I think it is probably the single best thing that could have happened to my grandson.  I feel blessed to have new “lifetime friends” to add to my inner circle.  Like my Dad always said, it’s not the mileage, it’s the condition.

DSCN1399The picture above is of Travis Clark (center) along with Grant and Tucky in Lisa’s new kitchen.  I imagine they’re wondering what is for dinner!

 

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