Saturday, January 31, 2009

January's Chill

A January storm settles in and the flakes fall silently hour after hour. Pumpernickel bread rises slowly on my stove. The rough dark chocolate color looks as warm as it does hearty. After experiencing the sustainable rural way of life in the Andes region, I couldn’t help but reclaim my old commitment to baking our bread. I was reminded on that trip how food made from scratch added a certain satisfaction that couldn’t be found any other way. And so, this morning I wait to put it in the oven and return to a lost, but familiar rhythm of kneading, rising,and baking.

As the bread rises, I watch Lena, Candy, Barbie, Daddy’s Girl, and Allie make their way slowly to the feeder in the meadow, single file, their heads low, their steps deliberate. Lena and Candy, their bellies round and lower than the rest, will be the only mothers this spring. By the hay shed, the yearlings, Katie, Snickers, Flirtina, and Hustler repeat the same coming and going, their pace the same along the single track to the feeder. Occasionally, they rattle January’s stillness and kick up their heels when the wind blows in or they trot toward Pete when he feeds in the morning or they greet meet me when I snowshoe through their meadow. But their daily mid-winter rhythm remains simple: eat, walk to water, perhaps nap and then back again.

Each year, when we’re deep into January’s winter chill, Pete and I ask ourselves, “How do they survive, how do they stand the cold?” We know a hand beneath their manes feels comfortable and warm, just like a horse blanket over a passenger’s legs in a horse buggy years ago. But how do they really survive? A search for a scientific answer led me to Paard Naturlijk, a Dutch horseman, who says horses are better acclimated to cool weather than humans. According to Paard, a horse’s energy neutral range is 15-60 degrees. A human’s is 50-85 degrees. Both ranges indicate the temperatures in which humans and horses are able to sustain their core temperatures without additional changes in their basic metabolic rates. He says the horse is created to produce and maintain heat, while humans are built to dissipate heat.

When colder weather does settle in, a horse’s metabolism adapts by increasing. This increase means greater caloric demand. In order to meet this demand, it’s necessary to increase their feed from 20-25 lbs. to 35-40 lbs. of hay a day. Their natural digestive and metabolic processes actually contribute to the total heat generating capability of their bodies. The extremities are an interesting exception. They have less muscle mass, require less blood circulation, lose less heat and therefore have less metabolic demand. The horse’s coat also insulates from the animal from the cold. The horse’s hair coat straightens as the weather chills, creating a pocket of insulation between the skin and the outside air.

So, when the temperatures dip again and I watch the snow falls outside the window, I won’t feel the need to ask Pete this perennial question when overnight temperatures reach 20 degrees below zero. I will watch the girls meander, graze, and water. I will watch the foals keep each other company for a long winter’s night and know that they are in their element. Then I will return to a comfortable mid-winter retreat, feeling sated in my element: the bread browning, the rhythm of baking and of the seasons naturally reassuring.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Mail Box Part III: Excerpt from: "At Home in the Elk River Valley"

Not long after the ranch auction, a realtor put up two large red and white For Sale signs at the entrance to the ranch: “May Ranch for Sale - 380 Acres.” The brochure in the newspaper appealed to the imagination of those who long to be a part of the West: “Here’s your opportunity to be a part of a ranching legacy.” The asking price, six million dollars. That’s just about $15,000 an acre. Not an unusual price for land in this county. However for a cattleman to make a profit on land priced at $15,000 acre, he would have to raise over 1200 head of cattle on 380 acres. Depending on how the ground was used--part pasture, part hay ground--those 380 acres might sustain fifty head and produce 400 tons of hay.

Today however, the real value in the land for the new westerner is in the protection of the hay meadows through a conservation easement. The conserved and protected open land, stretching from the hillside to the river bank, eventually drew in a successful entrepreneur in his thirties. After purchasing the ranch, he improved the river and it shores, built a barn and arena, and created roads and improved fence lines. As I and other neighbors pass by, we’ve watched intently. While we regret the leave taking of the May family, we are pleased to know we will always see open meadows, a beautiful waterway, and the iconic barn just beyond the banks of the Elk. We are pleased this new westerner valued the land for its ability to produce hay, the river for its ability to slack thirst, and that we will continue to find in them both, a neighborhood still familiar.

It’s been years since I saw Cynthia walk across County Road 129 to get her mail. It was safer then to walk across the road that takes traffic to north Routt County. Nowadays, more than 2000 cars a day pass by the May place, most of them commuters, and in the summer, boaters, campers, hikers, and fishermen. I don’t see any balloons on the mailbox or a flag on the fourth of July.

We no longer slow down after branding time when the May’s drive their cattle up to their Bureau of Land Management lease ground for summer pasture. (Their lease with the BLM is one of 18,000 grazing permits nation wide allowing ranchers to utilize public lands for their livestock.) And we no longer close our front gates when the herd passes by late in the fall on their way back home. Cynthia’s note cards of local flowers in black ink are no longer for sale, and while the Fence Post, a statewide agricultural publication, continues to publish Bill’s column about the history of his family and ranch operation, someone else is choosing and submitting his articles. We won’t hear Bill read his cowboy poetry or play his guitar at the Moonhill School House, once a local gathering place for holiday potlucks.

I hold the memories close, embracing them so I don’t forget how important neighbors, traditions, the seasons, and a moment in time are. I want to remember to watch for the bald eagles that still fly over the Elk. I want to hold onto the importance of celebrating the family and the seasons. And I will always hope, that if Cynthia were still around, when the snowplow ran over her mailbox, and she was dragging it out of the barrow pit with her tractor, and Bill would happily directed local traffic, and those who waited, would understand their chore and get out of their cars to offer help.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Mail Box Part II: Excerpt from, "At Home in the Elk River Valley"

Bill and Cynthia worked hard on their place, although people often thought Cynthia worked harder than Bill. The story in the valley goes that Bill drove the tractor while Cynthia pitched hay off the back of the hay sled at feeding time. Bill rode the horse, and Cynthia walked while they gathered cattle. And Cynthia drove to town, and Bill got a ride with her. Whatever the arrangement, it was evident the two shared the love and the labor on their place.

It’s not surprising however, that Cynthia always wore pants. Cynthia worked on the ranch and that meant pants not dresses. Only once did I see her in a dress. That was for an annual 4-H awards gathering. She looked beautiful in her soft lavender gown. Her work day wear included large men’s shirts, roomy pants with elastic waistbands, and comfortable shoes. I never saw her in a pair of cowboy boots. Contrary to what many believe, wearing cowboy boots doesn’t make a rancher or a cowboy. Cynthia went for functional, comfortable shoes while she worked all day on her feet.

Cynthia had other trademarks, too. I could always tell that it was Cynthia who was waving her hand out of the truck to slow the traffic when they drove their cattle down the road. Her hats and bandanas, varying with the seasons, gave her away: wool hats with flaps for winter feeding, sunhats tied under her chin for spring branding, and ball caps for riding the summer range. Cynthia wore bandanas around her neck for warmth in the winter and to absorb the sweat in the summer.

I followed the seasons watching the Mays’ mailbox too, Cynthia used to put a wreath on the wagon wheels in December. Sometimes she’d add an old boot or two. On the fourth of July, a flag signaled a certain pride found so often in rural settings. And when the children and grandchildren started getting married on the ranch, a poster board sign was tacked onto the wagon wheels with balloons. The wagon wheel mailbox acted as a message board to the passersby; little reminders of the season and announcements of celebrations to the neighborhood. We knew the S Bar S Ranch was alive, even though it was hard to catch a glimpse of it tucked behind the cottonwoods.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Mailbox Part I: Excerpt from: "At Home in the Elk River Valley"

In twenty-five years, I’d never seen the May’s wagon wheel mailbox overturned in the barrow pit. But there it was, totaled, by the side of the road. During our winters, the snowplows roll along like defensive linemen tackling a quarterback, with a certain undeniable commitment to the task. A toppled mailbox in winter usually means a new driver behind the wheel who hasn’t developed the right touch, a subtle, but exacting pull of the wheel to the right or left. It’s as if his brain hasn’t yet measured the time and distance correctly.

The mailbox in the barrow pit sadly mirrored the times at the May’s S Bar S ranch. Late last summer, the boys arranged for a ranch auction to sell off old equipment, saddles and tack, household goods, furniture, and a few antiques. Bill and Cynthia had moved to a nursing home in eastern Utah. Bill struggled with Parkinson’s for a number of years and recently lost his battle with the disease. Cynthia had cancer and needed help during her treatment and recovery.

Bill’s grandparents homesteaded the S Bar S Ranch in the late 1800s. The original ranch consisted of two separate parcels, much of it fertile hay ground and the rest oak brush hillside, ideal for summer grazing. Bill and his wife, Cynthia, were fourth generation ranchers on the place. They raised three children there, two boys and a girl. Cynthia’s grandfather, Bittle, rode the trails up through the plains of Texas with Charles Goodnight, who established early cattle trail driving routes to the northern railheads in the second half the nineteenth century. Roots running deep like this in the west make up the bedrock of river bottoms, the foundations of historic barns, and stories told carefully enough to resonate with children born to the twenty-first century.

The Elk River flows around a bend at the May’s place where the cottonwoods and dogwoods share the banks with woodchucks. In the fall and spring, the bare dogwood branches dazzle commuters as the sun sets through their bare spray, turning the growth to burgundy velvet. The ranch now consists of 380 acres of beautiful hay meadow. Behind the cottonwoods, the homestead house used to stand near numerous corrals and sheds. A couple of older log cabins housed help, and an old hay sled sat near the barn.

Near the May’s entrance, I once watched a bald eagle sail back and forth above the river as I waited in my car behind an oversized trailer hauling a newly constructed outhouse for the Forest Service. Others in the car line poked their heads out of their windows and communicated their discovery in sign language to other drivers. The urge to get home dissipated and we forgot about the outhouse as a roadblock. Instead, we dropped our push to get home and relished the flight and freedom of the eagle.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bob's Christmas Music

My husband and I were closing in on fourteen hours of a sixteen hour drive to Texas when the radio scanned Bob’s Christmas Music Station out of Wichita Falls, Texas. Immediately we wondered who Bob was. As we continued to carry along south, we enjoyed Bing, Aretha, the Beach Boys, Faith Hill, and others but didn’t gather any answers about Bob.

Once home, my curiosity drew me to Google “Bob” and there he was in the form of a radio station: “100.9 BOB FM.” I find that others had asked the same question, “Who’s Bob?” The website explains to the curious that Bob, a child of the sixties, was born in Texoma, an area on both sides of the border between Texas and Oklahoma. Throughout his adult life he amassed a large music collection, regularly burning CD collections for friends and family. Then in 2007 he decided to share his passion with a larger audience and signed on with the only independently owned FM radio station, currently referred to simply as “BOB FM.”

With two hours left in our drive, the novelty of Bob and his music had a way of reminding me my husband and I would be spending our first snow-less Christmas away from home in 34 years. Christmas ornaments collected during our marriage remained tucked away in their storage boxes in the basement at home. As I listened to Away in a Manger, I realized the Texas landscape outside the car window and beneath the starry night would most likely remain a dry landscape on Christmas morning. Our family wouldn’t think about cross country skiing or laying a fire on Christmas Eve. We wouldn’t feed the horses after a late Christmas morning breakfast nor would we have Christmas dinner with extended family. Our Christmas would be recast in Texas as we gathered around our two adult children.

Our daughter was ready to begin her research project at Texas A&M University. In preparation for studying the role of magnesium in horses tying up, she had broken and trained the horses to drive a weighted sled. This would create the stress load needed for her study. In order to be ready for the starting date she had to remain at the University to keep them in good physical condition. So, we decided what many parents do, we’d gather around our children, wherever they may be. Our son was not far away outside Fort Worth so, we would embrace a Christmas away from home together.

Closing in on our last hour, we were disappointed that Bob’s cheerful accompaniment didn’t last. A hundred miles or so out of Wichita Falls, the music ended, disappearing into a dark December night. However, about that time the Christmas lights began appearing in the small north Texas towns we passed through. Texans seemed to love their Christmas lights: candy canes, nativity scenes, Santa and his sleigh, and houses lit up like sparkly gingerbread houses. The most creative were custom designed and lit structures of oxen pulling carts, John Deere tractors, teams of horses pulling stagecoaches, and trees covered fully with white lights.

It was clear. Snow was not a prerequisite for Christmas in Texas. And neither was it for us. We found Christmas in simply being with one another: wandering in a Texas-sized market and making plans for dinner; by sitting with our stockings on Christmas morning waiting to see what Santa had dropped into each one. We found it in the extraordinary Christmas light display created by an entrepreneur with a little land, a handy hammer, and an eye for design; we found it in creating a new family tradition of a taste testing foreign microbrews and cheeses; and we found it in joining new friends for Christmas dinner, their home open and warm, much like the Texas people we’ve come to know.

We appreciated hearing Bob’s Christmas music that night. Looking back, it seemed to serve as encouragement to embrace a change in our Christmas history. We found Bob’s music a pleasant surprise, the novelty awakening us to what we might find in the coming days, Texas style.

For more information on BOB FM, click: