Friday, December 10, 2010


In 1990, Pete purchased a young, racing bred mare. Mighty Threat, a two-year old bay filly had built in spirit and speed. We loved her diminutive but phenomenal athletic build, her spunky spirit and the small half-moon marking on her forehead. Mighty also gave birth to some of our favorite horses, like Jet, Threat, Vegas, and Allie.

Whenever Pete rode Mighty he knew he could count on two things: Mighty would buck at least once and she would consistently ride out with great heart regardless of the terrain, the task, or the speed required for the work. Listening to Pete talk about Mighty it’s as though he speaks of a best friend, a friend that comes along only now and then in a lifetime.

Approaching her late teens, Mighty began to founder, particularly in the spring and early summer months. Foundering or laminitis in horses is a painful infection of the tissue that connects the coffin bone to the hoof wall. Laminitis can be caused by a variety of factors, including consuming too much grain, unlimited grazing on rich pasture, weight issues, or overwork on hard surfaces.

Once foundered, a horse is likely to founder again. Unfortunately, this was the case for Mighty. During the winter months she could tolerate a feed of dry hay, but once the snows thawed and the meadow grass began to grow, she would founder on the season’s new grass. So, Pete would confine her to a run and a feed of dry hay throughout the summer months.

Walking by this past summer, we often saw her with head hanging down, her withers protruding, and her back drooping from age. Now, twenty-one, how depressing it must be for her, a horse that instinctually grazes free, to be kept confined. In the mornings and evenings, when feeding time arrived though, she’d stick her head out over the half-door door of the stall hoping someone would come by and say hello, rub her head, or say something sweet to her.

One late summer night, Pete was awakened by a loud banging as though something were hitting the stall walls. Quickly alert, he dressed and ran downstairs to gather up his coat and gloves. Once he reached the stalls he knew it was Mighty. In the throes of colic, Mighty was thrashing about the stall, rolling from her side to her back and back again, her legs hitting the stall walls. The term colic is a general term for intestinal distress. It can be a simple intestinal upset or it can be what is referred to as a twisted gut where the intestines actually become twisted. Colic is often unforgiving and causes unimaginable pain. Pete knew Mighty was facing a formidable foe.

In order to try and prevent her from hurting herself anymore, Pete managed to get her up and walk her out into the arena, about fifty yards away. There, at one in the morning, he immediately gave her a shot of Banamine, an anti-inflammatory pain reliever, to help ease her distress. Sitting beside her on the ground, he stroked her side and thought about their twenty years together. It seemed so unfair that she had to suffer like this at the end of her life.

Over the years, Pete has had numerous experiences with colicky horses. He soon realized Mighty probably wouldn’t live through this episode and every minute she was alive she would be in agony. Even if he could reach a vet at that time of night, he knew the vet would advise putting Mighty down. So rather than prolong her suffering, Pete reluctantly walked to the house to get his twenty-two. Back out at the arena he loaded his rifle and struggled with knowing what he should do and the reality of ending Mighty’s life.

I hadn’t heard Mighty or Pete go out or even the gunshot. I didn’t realize what the night had brought until Pete came downstairs in the morning. Sitting in the kitchen the next morning, through tearful recounting, he said the worst part was listening to her moan and watching her body writhe in pain.

For over thirty years, we’ve come to know that determining life and death on a ranch is very often both a heart wrenching and a compassionate act. For Pete to raise his rifle and stop Mighty’s suffering in this way would never be his first choice, but when there is no other solution at that moment, he was compelled to act.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Keeper of the Flame

Late in July, Pete and I hosted the 2010 Mortensen Family Reunion. The ranch filled with Mortensen family members from across the United States, Canada, Panama, and Denmark. Axel Mortensen, who emigrated from Denmark, was my maternal grandfather. Members of my grandfather’s offspring and members of two of his brother’s offspring all made their way to the Elk River Valley for our gathering. In all, there were over eighty including representatives from four generations, eight great-great grandchildren, and nine relatives from Denmark.

Over the course of four days we shared meals, oral history, live acappella, mandolin, and fiddle music, plein air art, croquet tournaments, orienteering, stick horse races, blind-man tractor contests, a fund-raising silent auction, rodeo demonstrations, and a sky lantern memorial for family members whom have passed away. The final event of the long weekend was a traditional family reunion service on Sunday morning conducted by my uncle, Joe Mortensen, a retired First Baptist minister. He began by asking, “…why (do) we go to the trouble of get-togethers like the one we’ve just had…why do we have a reunion?”

Having just returned from Ghana in West Africa, my uncle recalled visiting the Coast Castle, a fortress from which slaves were shipped for labor. A fellow traveler, an African-American woman, was deeply touched by the site of the “door of no return” through which slaves were taken to waiting boats. In response, she said, “You all know where you came from. I never did. But now I know. In reflection, my uncle suggested to our gathering, “Our reunion helps us know where we came from.”

Through great genealogical research efforts by my Aunt Mary and other family members, the history of both my maternal grandfather’s family and my grandmother’s family is known—we are fortunate to know from where we came. For the reunion my aunt created detailed family trees of three of the seven Mortensen siblings represented at the reunion. They were on display all weekend along with photo albums and other related historical items. In the perusing of the family trees, small groups would read and point fingers, and then ask questions about who and whom and where and when. Most often they would refer to my aunt for the answer or others would join in on stories they had heard or had been handed down.

Reflecting on my Aunt Mary’s genealogical work and collection of memorabilia, my uncle said, “Every tribe or clan has one or a few people who are the Keepers of the Flame. They are the ones who know the secret of making a fire. Mary is our Keeper of the Flame, collecting pictures and other memorabilia, making charts of our families so we can see who is connected to whom…” My Aunt Mary does indeed nourish our family tree--the roots, buds, and branches. With detailed connections in the form of a paper tree and her on-going emotional commitment to the clan, she lights, she stirs, and lovingly keeps the Mortensen flame burning.

When my uncle finished his remarks, I looked across the picnic table at my two children. I quietly hoped that they identified and saw more clearly from whom they came and therefore who they are. For in the dark of the night, on days when the winds of life unexpectedly shift, or when a sense of true north bobbles, the needle of the compass undecided, remembering their clan and their branch on the family tree will offer a place of clarity, a point of steadiness.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Word Notes

Pete and I recently drove to California to see our son, Andy, at his new winter location outside Exeter, California. We hauled a three-horse live-in trailer and three recipient mares across western Colorado, the high deserts of Utah, the barren Mojave Desert, and finally into the San Joaquin Valley. On the way we planned for a stop-over in Moab, Utah where I attended a workshop at Moab’s annual Confluence, a reading and writing conference. I was pleased to hear one of my favorite authors present. Bill deBuys, conservationist and author of The Walk, discussed the art and craft of writing. He noted the importance of pace and rhythm in writing, likening it to creating a musical lyric. Those of us in attendance all nodded in agreement about the appeal of lyrical writing.

Traveling with Pete the following week, I found myself thinking about Bill’s presentation and how words and their phrasing create music for the listening ear. After we had safely delivered the live-in trailer and three mares, Pete and I enjoyed a couple of days in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. Reading my way through the park museums and literature I didn’t find what I thought of as lyrical writing but I did find words that sang out, holding my curiosity until I understood their meaning. I found it an interesting exercise and discovered a number of intriguing words both in their tone and definition: words like sapwood, heartwood, talus, Silver Apron, Ahwahnechee, chuckhars, and nunataks.

In Sequoia National Park, where the world’s tallest tree stands, nearly 400 feet high, its longevity is attributed to its unusually thick bark and the layers of wood within, namely sapwood and heartwood. Sapwood is the youngest wood of the tree, drawing in and managing water reserves from the roots to the leaves of the tree. The heartwood, the innermost wood, is the oldest wood, particularly resistant to decay. Through the adversity of weather, fire, and insects, these layers of wood adapt, heal, and continue to grow for centuries.

In Yosemite’s deep valley, talus is created when the tall granite wall’s top surface layers slough off as a result of natural weather and mechanical erosion. A talus, in simple terms, is a rock pile. The talus provides nooks and crannies in which native animals find physical protection year round. Hiking upwards to the precipice of Vernal Falls we discovered the Silver Apron, a once a rugged granite surface now worn smooth over millions of years by the waters of the Merced River. The transparent and silken river flows over the Apron moments before it takes a thousand foot tumble over a stunning granite cliff.

In the recently renovated Yosemite Museum I discovered the history of the Ahwahnechee, the first native tribe to inhabit the valley floor. These early inhabitants called their home, Yosemite, the valley of the gaping mouth. They subsisted largely upon acorns which were stored in chuckhars, an oval storage bin made out of natural materials, much like a birds nest, and supported by poles up off the ground. The acorns were ground into flour which was then leached to remove toxic tannins. Crossing Tioga Pass to the east as we headed home, a line of nunataks appeared in the distance in sharp contrast to the smooth and rounded granite domes and walls of Yosemite Valley. Nunataks are rugged high mountain ridges standing high enough above the glacial fields to have escaped glacial erosion.

The simple exercise of listening for the music I heard in words captured my curiosity and imagination. Whether these words have their origin in Latin or Greek or a Native American language, once enticed, I began walking my way through the landscape of their use, whether it was the heart of giant Sequoia or the clever and practical storage bin for life sustaining acorns.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Andy Hits the Road

Andy Winters at Whitney’s Wild Oaks Ranch

In late October, with his six-horse trailer fully loaded and his two dogs, Brute and Pearl curled up in the cab of the pick-up, Andy headed west to the Whitney Oaks Ranch outside Exeter, California. The decision to winter in California was a difficult one, but the opportunity to train at the Whitney Oaks Ranch was a valuable one. The facility includes a fully equipped barn, large covered arena, 1½ mile track, cutting arena, round pen, and boarding paddocks. In addition to his horses in training, Andy is caring for four recipient brood mares until they foal next spring. In all, thirteen horses made their way to the ranch from Steamboat in the last couple of weeks.

Andy joins horse trainer, Brandon Staebler, at the facility. Brandon won the Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2004 and continues to find success in competition and training. Andy looks forward to sharing training time with Brandon. Trainers are always learning and facing different challenges with their horses in training and often times they work in an isolated environment. So, this winter Andy will have the opportunity to process ideas and problematic training issues with another trainer.

For more information on the Whitney Wild Oaks Ranch, go to:

Andy Readies for the AQHA World Show

As if the calendar weren’t full enough with his move to California, Andy is pleased to be on his way to the World Show in Oklahoma City November 6-20th. He and Annabelles Playgun qualified in the working cow horse event scheduled at the World Show for November 15th.

According to the AQHA’s website, “The World Show is the pinnacle event for American Quarter Horse owners and exhibitors around the world, who must qualify for the event by earning a predetermined number of points to compete in each of the classes representing halter, English and western disciplines. More than 3,300 entries from the United States, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, United Kingdom and Venezuela are competing at this year’s event.”

We wish Andy and Annabelle the very best on the 15th.

For more information about the AQHA World Show, go to:

Also, please visit Andy at: for news, results, and updates.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Note Cards Now Available!

I now know, unequivocally, that the creative process has a clock of its own. It’s been almost a year since I began exploring ways to produce my new photographic note cards. Between the natural flow of schedules, unexpected technological complications, and the real time it takes to create a product that is thoroughly considered, the creative process can’t help but move at its own pace.

So, it is with excitement I am pleased to announce that At Home in the Elk River Valley Note Cards are now available for purchase. Offering a colorful window into the world of the Kurtz Ranch in the Elk River Valley, they are perfect for just a short note of thanks, a friendly greeting, an easy hostess gift, or for your holiday gift giving.

My note card series consists of four differently themed sets of cards, including:

• Ranch Animals
• Ranchscapes
• Winter Landscapes
• Ranch Gardens

Each boxed set consists of twelve cards, two each of six different images. On the back of each 4 1/4 X 5 1/2 note card I have written a personalized reflection about the photograph. Views of all the images in each note card set are shown here on my blog and they are also available on my website.

Each boxed set of twelve note cards is $18.00 plus shipping and handling

Ordering is simple. Just visit: and click on the "Store" link.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Day at the Ranch

Every now and then I’m asked what I do. And every now and then I wonder what to say. So, this morning when the neighbor called and said we had a heifer covered in porcupine quills over half of her face, I decided to grab my camera and record the day.

The day actually began before the phone call. This morning I answered five emails to friends and family; and to individuals with whom I’m working on my book. I finished gathering more photographs I’ll be including in my book and later in the day delivered them to a photographic print maker, who formats them for black and white and in some cases, also scans historic photos.

Then mid-morning, as I walked out to the barn, Pete and Dawn, our hired-hand, were bringing in a small group of heifers from across the road. The one with the porcupine quills was included, and the rest were used later in the morning by our son, Andy, who trains horses for cow work in our arena.

Before Andy arrived, Pete, Dawn, and I walked the quilled heifer into the alley way in the corrals behind the barn and put her in the chute. With a pair of needle-nosed pliers, Pete began to take out approximately a hundred quills. The heifer seemed to be in as much pain as she was feeling some relief after each pull of the pliers. Intermittently bawling and protesting, Pete had to be careful not to get clocked as she threw her head from side to side.

Just as we finished up Andy and his assistant trainer, Beth, rolled in. They’d brought just three horses to train today. They usually haul six. Andy, Beth, and Pete are all preparing for the Colorado State Fair horse events: Andy and Pete will be competing in the reined cow horse event and Beth will be competing in the reining events. So, today they did some light work on the cows and also reining practice, concentrating on spins and stops or run-downs.

As we saddled up, I watched Hercules, Cassidy’s goat, who joined the mares and babies at the barn well. Hercules came from Texas with Cassidy when she moved back to Steamboat. He’s been out at Andy’s training barn, but he’s been kept stalled with an injured and recuperating horse. Cassidy thought he might be depressed, so last time she came out to ride her barrel horse she brought him and he stayed. He seems to be in heaven, pairing up with the horses and sticking close to the barn.

With horses saddled and at the ready, we all help put up panels to create a cutting pen. Once the cattle are released into the pen we’ve created, Andy took advantage of the opportunity to work his cow dog, Pearl, on the cattle for a few minutes. Pearl’s a talented working dog and she and Andy have made great progress in working together.

Next, the horses are up. Andy works first on Annabelle, the family show horse. Today, he wasn’t very happy with the cows. They’ve been used all summer and they’re familiar with the activity and were slow to move. But, it’s what he had to work with and he made do. Pete, Dawn, and I took a turn working our horses and as we do, the others assist the rider by keeping the cow away from the herd and contained in a small space.

After this session, I headed to the house for a little lunch and to check my email. I was waiting for a reply from a woman whose family used to own our ranch. I had asked her to read an essay from my manuscript to check it for historical accuracy. Her reply was in my email. She shared homesteading abstracts and personal stories of buildings and the development of the ranch over the twenty-four years her family owned it. I also contacted a woman who’s the director of the Yampa Valley Land Trust. I knew she would have an historic photograph of a well-known ranch here in the valley called, the Warren Ranch, of which I’ve also written an essay. In our conversation I learned about new developments in structuring conservation easements and the preservation of agricultural lands.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the photographs with the photographic printmaker in town and also once again at home. The disc I used to store many of the photographs wouldn’t work on his computer or mine. So, I went through the whole process of transferring the originals now to a flash drive.

About 5:30 or 6:00 PM I checked in again out at the barn. Pete just finished schooling Bob in the roping box. Bob reportedly had a “Hi-O-Silver” moment, rearing up and bucking with all four feet in the air. He’d also put Timmy, a client’s horse, in the round pen with a saddle on for the first time. Pete said, “Boy, did he buck! Straight up in the air and around and around. Then he just stopped. He has a good mind. He realized it (the saddle) wasn’t going to hurt him.”

I told Pete I’d see him for dinner and decided to sit down and write about this day on the ranch. So, here is where I’ll leave the reader: dinner still ahead, a bit of laundry, and an hour or so of still and quiet. Perhaps, the best reply to the question of “What do you do?” is, “While much of what I do is the same, no one day is ever quite the same. And with a little of this and little of that, the mixture makes for on occasion, a fragmented day, and on other occasions, a rich, stimulating life."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Essay Earns Award

We’ve attended the Routt County Fair since our children were young. It is as much a celebration of the season as of community. Over the years Andy and Cassidy looked forward to spending the better part of a week with 4-H friends and families: showing horses, swine, steers, rabbits, and poultry. I also enjoyed preparing canned or baked goods and participating in the Home Arts show. Some years a loaf of bread would actually turn out well enough I thought it would pass a judge’s muster; and other years, I left it at home. I would perennially marvel at the handiwork, craftsmanship, and artistry that, in our contemporary world seem to be disappearing: beautiful canned peaches, meats, pickles; beautifully shaped loaves of bread; meticulously stitched quilts; plentiful cabbage, zucchini, squashes, tomatoes, and herbs; and some years a large variety of cut flowers and well-tended arrangements.

I haven’t entered every year, but now and then I enjoy participating. This year I took my raspberries, my newly produced photographic note cards, and two of my essays: “Gifts of the Harvest” and “My Grandfather’s Footsteps,” both essays included in my memoir, At Home in the Elk River Valley. To my surprise, “My Grandfather’s Footsteps” was awarded the Reserve Grand Champion Overall Adult Art Exhibit. The Grand Champion Award went to a metal sculptor who created a horse out of horseshoe nails, thousands of nails. I marveled at his welding feat.

Viewing my ribbon and the judge’s few comments; I wondered what had truly resonated with the judge. Was it the story? Was it the writing? Was there something familiar in the judge’s family history? I believe writers, for the most part, like to know what stirs the reader. When a reader shares what resonated, I believe the act of writing comes to full fruition. It is then, when a writer connects with a reader, the act of writing offers its fullest satisfaction. So, while I’ll never know what exactly stirred the judge, I will take satisfaction in simply knowing he or she was moved by a story of an immigrant who steadily found his way west and in doing so, found a place and community of support, in which to raise and nurture his family.

Leaving the exhibit hall that afternoon, I imagined I and the other exhibitors, experienced a sense of our existence in sharing what we had created or nurtured in our kitchens, gardens, or workshops. Entering our creations offered not only an opportunity to participate in community, but offered the opportunity to be known through the products we brought to life.

To read “My Grandfather’s Footsteps,” go to:

Also, watch for the official release of my “At Home in the Elk River Valley” Note Cards. Coming soon! Great for birthdays, family and friends, and upcoming holiday gift-giving.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cassidy Returns to Routt County

We still can’t quite believe it, but Cassidy has returned home to accept the position of the Routt County 4-H Extension Agent. After interviewing for three different positions here in Colorado and California, she was fortunate to be hired here in Steamboat Springs.

Soon after she began work, the reality came into finer focus when Tom Ross, a local reporter with the Steamboat Today newspaper, called to ask if I had a photograph of Cassidy he could use and he needed it ASAP. It was 4:45 PM. He was writing an article on our long-time 4-H Extension Agent, Jay Whaley, who was leaving his position to take a job as the FFA teacher in a nearby high school. Accompanying the article he wanted to introduce Cassidy as the new 4-H agent.

“Aren’t you and Pete thrilled to have Cassidy back in Steamboat? It’s great she’s able to find a way to be back here.”

I said, “Yes, absolutely. We just can’t quite believe it. We’re grateful she has a job and we’re delighted she has a job in agriculture.”

Both Cassidy and her predecessor, Jay Whaley, grew up in the Routt County 4-H program. Jay served as the extension agent for twelve years and CJ Mucklow, our CSU Extension Agent, has worked for twenty-one years. Both Jay and CJ have said that the continuity in their office helps make their program one of the strongest in the state.

I believe in our transient and mobile society this longevity and history may very well be anomalies. Both of these individuals served as important role models and offered clear guidance and support to Cassidy during her childhood and adolescence. Their enduring relationships through on-going communications, letters of recommendation during her post-high school education, and now the opportunity to work in an area she feels passionate about feel like the workings of a tightly knit community, one in which the leadership nurtures life-long relationships with the next generation so they too may not only survive but thrive.

Cassidy’s return to Steamboat and her newfound employment in agricultural education reminded of an essay I’d written about CJ and Jay several years ago. Titled, Days Ahead, I wrote about a conversation I had with them about the future of agriculture and the future for young people who want to be involved in the agricultural industry. They both acknowledged the difficulty in painting a bright picture. Young people today can be involved in agricultural education, research, medicine, niche markets for agricultural products, or work for a ranch owner who can afford to pay land prices above and beyond what their agricultural value. CJ went so far as to say it was difficult to encourage kids to go into agriculture because of the challenges in realizing a true living. In the end, Jay said he thought kids went into agriculture not for the money but for the quality of life and community in which they would live and work.

Pete and I had always wondered if we should have discouraged our children from majoring in agriculture in college. Was it realistic and practical to think they could find a viable way of life? In a tough job market Cassidy found the search for employment difficult. She spent a winter training colts while she continued to search for a position.

After receiving Tom’s request for a photo, I realized how fortunate we all were. Cassidy will be hopping right into the middle of the Routt County Fair in her new position, an immediate initiation. While I imagine it will be stressful and overwhelming at times, she will at least be familiar with the landscape, one in which she walked for ten years as a 4-H member. She too knows there will be the same kind of familiar support in those around her, the kind of nurturing support that guides and affirms our abilities and future growth.

See for news of Cassidy’s first fair as the 4-H Extension Agent.

I also invite you to read “Days Ahead” on my website at:

*Accompanying photo courtesy of the Steamboat Springs Pilot and Today Newspaper

Friday, August 6, 2010


Pete walked in my office and said, “What are you doing this morning?” Implied in this ritual inquiry is a need for help.

My usual response is a question. “What’s going on?”

This particular morning Pete replies, “There’s no water. The ditch is completely dry. Can’t imagine why. Either they (adjacent ranch owners) shut it off or the river dropped overnight. But I’ve got to go up to the head gate and try to dam up the river.”

Shoring up or extending the damn in the river so the flow increases into the irrigation ditch usually requires that Pete drive the tractor into the river. But this year, a neighbor channeled the river too deep for Pete’s tractor and we’ll have to try and damn up enough of the lower flowing river by winging out by hand the present dam with additional river rocks. So, I follow Pete into the mudroom and we both put on our irrigating boots. Hopping into the Gator, an ATV, Emma and Griz join us and we drive up to the head gate where our irrigation water flows in from the Elk River, about a mile away.

Once at the head gate we both make our way into the river and begin extending the damn. The river naturally recedes throughout the summer, but every now and then we’ll witness a significant drop in a matter of a day or two. As we work, we surmise this is the case. So, we carefully walk back and forth in the river placing rocks of all sizes into our mini-dam.

We share irrigation water with two other adjacent land owners. Each neighbor owns different water rights to the river. Our water rights date back to 1905. Sharing of the water begins as soon as the river and meadows open up. We need the water for our livestock, hay production, lawns, and gardens. Our neighbors use the irrigation water primarily for hay production. With great consistency, our neighbors make executive decisions about when and how the water is released and controlled. We are reminded at these times that, even though we’ve shared irrigation water and access every year for twenty-four years, the West is still home to independent thought and action.

One morning a neighbor’s irrigator called and said, “Just wanted to let you know I’m shuttin’ off the water.” He’s a good guy, but he failed to inquire about whether or not we still needed water. He’d forgotten that, even though we’re haying and don’t need irrigation water, we still need water for our livestock.

Managing shared water is most likely one of the most difficult transactions in the rural West. We continue to do our best to dance with those who often listen to different music and sometimes we think even music in a different dance hall. If a phone call is necessary, we make it. Otherwise, we attempt to make do with whatever remedy we can create.

As Pete and I created our remedy in the river that morning, my mind wandered. In between carefully placing my feet on wet river rock and strategically placing big rocks and little rocks side by side so as to invite more water into the water flow for the irrigation ditch, I imagined what it must have required of pioneers who first coerced water out of the river. What effort it must have taken to envision, dig by hand, and adapt the first irrigation ditches through this river bottom.

I knew the little bit of our Sunday morning spent in the river carrying rocks to and fro could never share the same narrative of the early days of developing the irrigation system that flows through our meadows. Those pioneering men and women removed dirt and rocks one shovel at a time and stayed with the task until it was done. Our mini-damn project was a window just big enough to allow us to simply imagine and entertain what it must have been like to create a water system with one’s own physical labor without which their new life could not be sustained.

The dam Pete and I made worked quite well. Ours was a relatively easy task. Watching the water begin to flow in the ditch near the house, the difficulties of communicating over the management of the water with our neighbors receded to the background. I stood near the garden bridge and quietly watched as the water’s life giving energy re-entered my landscape: the same life-giving energy the pioneers sought and successfully coerced as they settled the Elk River Valley.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest of a Different Kind

A week ago, as we prepared to leave for dinner with a friend, I spotted some movement coming down the driveway. In an instant I knew it was a bear, but my mind kept double checking to be sure. Quick on its heels was Griz who, in his chase, sent the bear up between two cottonwoods. I rushed out the door to call Griz in to the house. And then we watched as a beautiful yearling cinnamon bear hung snuggly in the cottonwoods.

He appeared tired to us, perhaps he'd negotiated the main county road to the river and then meandered into ranch and couldn't find an easy way out. We watched as he eventually came down out of the cottonwoods and rested beneath them catching his breath and bearings.

In a few minutes he walked across the driveway and the garden bridge and seemed to settle in for a bit behind the garden shed. We left him there and Emma and Griz in the house. Our dinner date awaited us and our unexpected guest seemed content.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Paint Brush Meditation

For those of you who regularly read my blog, you may have wondered where I’ve disappeared. As I wrote in my blog on May 25th, we started the summer season working on deferred maintenance projects around the ranch in preparation of a family reunion later this month. We’ve been at it since then and only recently did the list shorten. In fact, I think this morning at breakfast Pete and I caught sight of something glimmering at the end of the tunnel.

But in short, the answer to the question is, I’ve been at the end of a paint brush. I started with those fuel tanks, then it was high temperature paint for a grill, thick shiny metal paint for the trampoline, sticky stain for an arbor, redwood stain for the deck for my garden bench and the decks, and cedar stain for the house. The other night I sat down after dinner and told Pete I felt like the inside of a paint can.

I’ve found, however, painting akin to mediation, particularly when I don’t have to move my ladder very often or when the detail of a small area or door frame requires greater concentration. In the meditation I find myself wandering through memories of this house and my children. While kneeling down to cover the aged front porch with redwood sequoia stain, I thought you know there were some important events that occurred on this porch over the last twenty-four years.

One image came quickly to mind. It was the photo of Cassidy’s first day of kindergarten. She was wearing the blue calico dress I had made for her, the collar stenciled in flowers and vines. Much to her dismay, she had to wear a large sign around her neck with her name spelled in large letters. Holding the strings attached to the sign, she looks up at the camera with one eye squinting and her smile anxiously hopeful. Looking back, I think she wondered if she would survive the attention each time someone greeted her and pointed to the letters in her name and said, “Good morning, Cassidy. We’re so glad you’re here.” She did survive that first day in the hands of a very loving and supportive teacher; and that blue calico dress is stored away in case there’s another little girl whom it might one day fit.

In the next moment I remember standing on the edge of the porch telling my son, Andy, he was a dumbs… as he walked out to get in his truck and head to town. Pete and I had told our children all their growing up about the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol; but at sixteen, Andy was naturally trying the world out and I’d found chewing tobacco in his laundry. I was surprised that what we thought of as enlightened parenting had resulted in a soggy bag of Red Man in my laundry room. I wasn’t one to let loose with my children very often, but when I did, they knew the conviction with which I spoke. So, to this day Andy describes the moment I followed him out the door, stood on the edge of the porch and called him a “dumbs… for using chewing tobacco, an indelible and defining moment in his growing up.

Making my way around the house with my paint brush, the memories frequently come and go. And when I get impatient about the work and hoping that all the projects hurry up and get done before the reunion weekend, I tell myself to slow down. This house, this place has given us so much. Wouldn’t I be better served to consider the acts of repairing and refinishing an offering of thanks and recognition for the shelter and security of having such a place to call home? For our house and the enduring landscape of this ranch provide not only physical shelter, but an intangible sense of self and history; one which we have internalized and has become a part of who we are and always will be.

Pioneering Lupine

With my chore for the afternoon finished - staining the deck - and a gentle June breeze coming in from the west, I felt the need to run on the hillside of what we call the TV Tower, named after its signal equipment stationed on top. Putting on my running shoes, Griz and Emma barked and herded me out the door. They always know what it means what I tie my sneakers and fill my Camelbak.

Heading up the first small rise I realize the mule ears and lupine lining my path are in full bloom. The happy yellow blossoms of the mule ears invite optimism and the wild lupine, so much smaller than their domesticated relatives in my garden, ask for closer attention: they grow closer to the ground and their whorls stand only six to eight inches tall.

My steps continue in and out of the lavender lupine and Griz and Emma trot in and out of fresh young sage sniffing under the oaks and along game trails. Sometimes I lose sight of them and call, “Emma Lou, Grizzly Bear!” They emerge back on the road, sometimes ahead of me and sometimes from behind me as if to say, “Just checking things out. No need to worry.” I usually don’t worry too much about them, but I’m also a little more aware on the hillside after spotting mountain lion tracks this winter and after recently hearing about a friend’s dog that was clawed by a mountain lion before it was scared off. I think, “If I make noise with my hollering, maybe it will deter either a lion or a bear.”

Once on top, a vertical climb of over 800 feet, our traveling pack seeks some shade and a minute to catch our breath. Congratulating Griz on his climb with a rub of his ears, I spot a Chiming bluebell in full bloom. I think Griz looks as happy as the bluebells beside him. And then I catch sight of the deep purple larkspur and sticky geranium, its delicate pink a striking contrast to the rocky outcropping beneath our feet. While I know most of the wildflowers on the hill, I fail to know all of them.

Upon my return home, I found in the welcome of the wildflower bloom an invitation to find out more about what I’d seen. I first looked up mule ears and find the common mountain sunflower was first collected in 1893 by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, a Massachusetts merchant who in 1832 traveled by land to Oregon; and his botanist friend, Nathaniel Nuttall. In 1934, Nuttall named the sunflower after Wyeth, christening it, Wyethia x magna.

Next, I googled the lovely and diminutive lupine. It turns out the lupine is actually a pioneering plant of sorts. Its ability to tolerate barren and infertile soils, combined with its ability to fertilize the soil for other plants, establishes a foothold not only for the lupine, but for other plants. In essence, it claims a “plant homestead” by making the infertile fertile and hospitable.

So, from Wyeth and Nuttall to the sweet lavender lupine, little did I know that I had run on the hillside in the company of seekers and pioneers. I was, perhaps, most taken by the pioneering role of the lupine. To settle in a formidable landscape is an admirable achievement. I thought of the parallels to the many pioneers who attempted to do the same in the West: establishing a foothold, often in formidable landscapes: creating shelter, securing a source of water, and then growing enough food for their families and the next generation. They too, like the lupine, first found that foothold and when successful, provided sustenance and support for others.

The wildflower bloom is hard won for our winter season is long and deep. When the mule ears, lupine, chiming bluebells, larkspur, and sticky geranium sing-out on the top of the hill, they too have triumphed over the odds of an arid western climate and rocky soils. As I write, I conclude that the spirit of their bloom and the spirit in the dreams of all those hardy seekers and pioneers must be one in the same.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bugsy: A High Water Rescue

Sitting on the arena observation deck last week, Pete, Andy, Dawn, our hired-hand, and Beth, Andy’s assistant trainer, were enjoying a lunch break after working our horses. It was what we think of as a perfect afternoon: the air quiet, the aspen and cottonwood stands around the arena steeped in spring’s vibrant color, and the temperature in the mid-70s, Colorado’s elixir for a very long winter. Relaxing, we couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Then from beyond the cottonwood bank of the river, we all heard a “Whoop!” as if a river rafter were coming through the rapids loving the adrenaline rush. But in our minds we knew river rafters don’t come through flood stage water. And then we heard what we thought sounded like, “Horse!” Andy scanned the river through the cottonwoods and within a few seconds exclaimed, “There’s a horse in the river!” Leaping off the rail he ran to a small beach area not far from the arena. Holding onto willows he waded carefully into the water but was unable to make contact with the horse. At that point, Andy, with Pete not far behind, ran to the southern edge of the ranch hoping to find and rope the horse, pulling him to the banks’ edge where he could step onto dry ground.

Back in the barnyard, another question quickly came to everyone’s minds: If there’s a saddled and bridled horse in the river, there’s got to be a rider. And we all wondered where he or she was. Just as I ran through the barnyard and asked Beth, Andy’s assistant trainer, if she had seen anyone come out of the river, a man in boots, spurs, jeans, and a t-shirt came out of the brush. To my astonishment, it was a neighbor who came walking toward me. Thoughts flooded my mind: a rider survived the high water and he was walking through our barnyard. How was it he was in the river with his horse? How could he have survived? I had known Paul for twenty-four years. He and his wife live three miles west of us and I see them regularly when I’m out with Emma and Griz running on the road.

After asking him if he were alright, Paul and I quickly walked through the barn to see where Pete and Andy were. Coming back up from the river, they were hurrying to open gates and get the Gator through. Passing us, Andy said hurriedly, “We missed him but we’re going down to the bridge on County Road 54 to see if he passes through.” They all immediately loaded up in the truck and headed out.

Dawn and I stayed behind to take care of abandoned horses at the arena and barn. While we waited to hear what they found at the bridge, it was hard to not be with them. Knowing Andy had stepped into the river concerned me. I’ve heard too many stories about individuals going in to save someone or something and never coming back even though they may have saved the victim. When I’d run through the barnyard, I told Beth, “I can’t believe Andy went into the river and tried to grab the horse. This isn’t worth a life.” Unequivocally though, Beth replied, “To tell you truth, I would have done the same thing,” Before Paul hopped on the truck, he shook his head and repeated, “No, this isn’t worth a life.”

We expect high water from late May through early June when the surface of the Elk River transforms from a clear and quiet early spring flow to a muddy and roiling pregnant waterway. This year the run-off rapidly increased because of daily temperatures’ quick rise. Water began to flood areas here at the ranch where it had never flooded before. Andy and Pete navigated two feet of water in a meadow to get to the lower river access.

About forty-five minutes after they’d left, I couldn’t wait any longer to find out what they’d found at the bridge. I called and Pete answered, “He didn’t show up at the bridge, so Paul, Andy, and Beth all headed up river. I’m going to drive to Trish’s driveway (a neighbor downriver) and access the river there.” When Pete got there, he saw Paul, who had just spotted Bugsy. Walking along thick willow and cottonwood stands, the three of them had made their way a mile north along the banks of the Elk. Paul was the first to spot Bugsy, his nine-year old bay gelding. Stuck up against an island after traveling a mile and a half down river, he’d come to rest at a bend in the river. From the group’s report, Paul was lucky to have even caught sight of him in the turn and thick of the riverbank.

Once located, they had to figure out how to reach Bugsy. It would mean crossing two deep channels. And when they could got to him, how would they ever get him out, as he stood chest deep in the river. At first they thought, they’d have to leave him and hope the river would come down enough in the next twenty-four hours that he could get himself out onto the island. They concluded however, they would have to try and get Bugsy out.

The rescuers and Bugsy were in the water for three hours, water which was snow in the high country the day before. Our concern had been for Paul. He seemed terribly chilled and in mild shock but he kept going. Andy and Beth at one point told him to take off his t-shirt and hug Bugsy to get warm while they talked about their options for getting Bugsy out of the river.

At the same time, Pete called me and said, “I think you better get some dry clothes down here for Paul. We’re worried he’s hypothermic.” Grabbing three different sweatshirts and pullovers, I started out the door and was met by Paul's wife, Bobbie. She's gotten a call at work from Paul, using Pete's cell phone. I told her where everyone was and that Paul was OK, but that I was worried that everyone would stay safe trying to save Bugsy. She headed out and Dawn and I quickly loaded up and followed Bobbie to Trish's. We handed the clothing off to Pete who took them out to Paul along with the ropes they would use to hopefully get Bugsy out of the river.

With Paul warmed a bit with a dry sweatshirt, the group took two ropes and a Westerner’s can-do attitude and shimmied across a log to cross the first channel. Their plan was put a rope under and around the swell and another rope, fashioned into a halter, over Bugsy head. Paul would stay behind and pop Bugsy on the rump, Andy, Beth, and now Pete, who had made his way to the far bank would belay the ropes to a tree. They hoped Bugsy would take a true leap of faith or two and jump across the eight foot channel. And that’s just what Bugsy did. With the first jump he landed in the channel and with the second he leapt onto the bank where the threesome secured him until he caught his balance. Then they led him carefully through the brush and down timber to a nearby meadow which was under six to twelve inches of water.

Although Bugsy had a couple of scraps and was surely sore from being tossed around and struggling to keep his head above water as he was forced down river, once onto to the open meadow he calmly began grazing. At that point, all of us commented on Bugsy had turned over his complete trust to his rescuers and displayed a calm confidence in doing what they asked of him. And now that he was on dry ground, all was truly right with the world.

While our ranch borders a half a mile of the Elk River, we’ve never seen or experienced the river in this way. Everyone was lucky to survive, particularly Paul and his horse, Bugsy. Both seemed to have a calm steadiness that served their survival. I was grateful that Pete, Andy, and Beth all survived without being injured or swept away.

From those moments of spring bliss, enjoying a lunchtime respite, to the shocking scene of life and death in flood stage waters was difficult to process while it was happening. But there was an intense realistic urgency, propelled by adrenaline and primitive instincts to save and protect life. The three hours it took to complete this high water rescue was, in the end worth the time spent, because it allowed for everyone’s instinctual need to preserve life to be tempered by clear thought, realistic planning, and collaborative action.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Street-Smart Homebody

This morning while I drank my usual cup of coffee, Kitty sat next to me curled up as close as she could be. Happy to be settled in for a few quiet moments, I was unseated when Griz suddenly growled and raced for the door. It wasn't too surprising to let Griz out: he loves to check out his territory. But as I saw him rush to the south, I caught sight of a large animal heading toward the hillside. I grabbed the binoculars and was surprised to see a very large coyote. The scene---with Kitty at my side and Griz chasing off, what I believe was a large male coyote, reminded me of an essay I'd written about Kitty a number of years ago.


I thought Kitty was dead. She usually travels in and out of the house as freely as a teenager, especially in the spring when cold weather recedes: comes home for sleep and food. Every now and then she cuddles up close. But yesterday she didn’t climb the screen to knock on the door.

Kitty’s been with us for three years. She came out of a mean and wild barn litter. I didn’t particularly want a cat at the time, but I did want to obliterate the mice that had found a sneak hole into my house. A young friend sealed the deal when he offered a mouser out of his latest litter. When I arrived to pick her up, he had on welding gloves in order to remove her from the box. I thought, “What have I done? Adopted an attack cat?”

A beautiful long white coat with shadings of gray and brown covered her small frightened body. We named her “Shadow,” but that never stuck. Maybe the consonants were too soft; maybe the wild in her didn’t want such a personal touch. Kitty hid for two days in our house. At the end of the second day she warily walked down the stairs on what looked like a reconnaissance mission. We gave her a wide berth. Slowly she ate, meowed, asked to go out, and finally let a hand caress her soft coat. Now, she insists on a brushing before she eats, morning and night, long and slow, over and over again. Some winter evenings she’ll come to sit in my lap right on top of my crossword puzzle as if we’d bonded somewhere along the way.
Last night as we sat down to dinner, my husband looked out the window to the south. He noticed two creatures walking carefully across the meadow. “Are those foxes or are those coyotes?” Studying them, but unsure, I said, “I don’t know.” The muted light of dusk made it hard to sort out the shape of the tail and the shape of the head.

He grabbed the binoculars and followed the two heading away from the river and turning north. Most animals that go down to the river come back up and head due west back into the hills. “Why are they headed north? What are they after?” I wondered out loud.

“Those are coyotes; healthy looking ones, too. Wonder what they’ve been doing around here in the daylight? They’ve sure been thick at night.”
Lying in bed at night we often hear the coyotes’ chorus across the way in the hills. They yowl, yelp, and bark. Just like a baby’s cry the coyotes communicate different intents in their chorus. The “howl” marks their territory. A “yelp” is a sign of play. And a “bark” is a parent’s command to their offspring. Most nights I hear them staking out their territory.

After watching them trot on north, I register my concern with Pete, “I hope they don’t think Kitty’s in the neighborhood. I think she’s too smart for them anyway, but I worry too. Coyotes are opportunistic predators and I know they are characteristically evasive. I just hope Kitty’s survived three years here for good reason---she knows the neighborhood.

Cat lovers who visit often ask if we let Kitty out. I’m surprised by the question. We’ve always let out our cats believing that’s where they’re meant to be. This winter on NPR, I heard a writer refer to the out of doors as the “daily newspaper for dogs” and I think the same is true for Kitty---it’s her required reading.
Every day she slips out the side door into her neighborhood, replete with smells, comings and goings, sunshine, brisk air, green grass to roll in, and soft garden spots to rest in. Peacefully she sits, eyes purveying her place, taking the pulse on the natural world she lives in when she’s not curled up on her favorite chair. As she ventures she may sit on large boulder in the shady garden under the old cottonwoods listening to the birds, spying the fox that live under the old chicken house, following mice in the new grass, or looking for anyone unfamiliar to her neighborhood.

When she hadn’t knocked on the door in twenty-fours, I began to look for walking to and from the barn. I scouted out for her in the matted down grass. I looked for any sign of a fight: a wounded Kitty, a bleeding Kitty, or even a dead Kitty. The predators could have won last night. Should I have held her captive in the house? What was I thinking, that she had special powers over these sly cat hunting neighborhood gangs? I wondered if she slipped up, if the opportunistic coyotes surrounded her and she couldn’t walk her way out of it. Guilt settled in.
I tried to forget about her absence. I hung on to her stable history of surviving her time outdoors. I found a cleaning project to do so I wouldn’t think about my guilt and the “what ifs.”

Late the next afternoon, I wandered downstairs after sorting through some old storage. On the rug at the foot of the stairs Kitty rolled playfully as though the neighborhood party just happened to last all night. No need to worry. Her carefree look reminded me of my own teenagers’ reactions to my worry over their midnight escapades. “What’s the big deal, Mom? Geez, you worry too much.”

“I thought you’d be happy to see here,” Pete says.

“Where did she come from?” I ask in happy disbelief.

“I don’t know. She was just waiting at the door when I came home. She seems to be all right. No signs of a fight. She’s just too smart I guess.”

Thankfully, safe and unhurt, she’d outfoxed her predators and wound her way back home again: Kitty, my street-smart homebody.

*Previously published in Cats and Kittens July 2006

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Renewal First Requires a History

With a large family reunion scheduled for later this summer, all of us here at the ranch have a list of chores to do in order to get ready to host guests from several foreign countries and from around the United States. My first project was painting the ranch fuel tanks which haven’t been refurbished since we arrived here in 1985. With an institutional gray and Navajo read paint made for “metal substrates” in hand, I began the 2010 Kurtz Ranch summer renewal project.

As I drew my brush across the front of the diesel fuel tank, I carefully painted around an identification tag screwed onto the tank. It read: “S.O. CO. Indiana, 1946 (Standard Oil Company of Indiana). I began to contemplate those who had purchased these tanks so they could run their tractors for feeding and haying nearly sixty-five years ago. And with a shift of my ladder, I drew my brush across the dents on one side of the tank: remnants of the tank being accidently knocked off its stand by a tractor maneuvering in a small space. How thankful we were that day that diesel fuel does not ignite easily.

The communal acts of painting, repairing, and rebuilding easily meet the history that created the wearing and tearing down. Many of our refurbishing projects have been long overdue. For Pete and me it started in 1979 when we first came to the Elk River Valley. We lived south of here for six years before purchasing our ranch from an old ranch family, the Bedell’s. The history of the ranch goes back to the late 1800s after the mining boom in Hahn’s Peak died out and settlers sought homesteads in the Elk River Valley. Pioneering newcomers found grazing land for sheep and cattle and a rich river bottom in which to raise hay and a variety of crops like lettuce, potatoes, and rhubarb. A Dutchman by the name of Winkleman bought up homesteads all around this part of the Valley in 1895, including our ranch, finding the land down valley perfect for raising sheep. He settled in a half-mile north of where we live on a small creek, he called, Dutchman’s Ditch.

In the early 1900s, Winkleman sold off some of his land to sheep men, Harry and Ralph Drake. Part of their land became the land on which our ranch rests. It changed hands from family to family several times until Travis and Bernice Arnett purchased the ranch in 1961. They owned it until 1968 when they sold it to their daughter Sharon and her husband, Orval Bedell. The Bedell’s summered their sheep and cattle here and then wintered in Jensen, Utah with their two boys, Chad and Travis. While here in the summer, they lived in the old homestead cabin built on the sight of our new large cabin at the entrance to the ranch. The timbers used to build the old cabin were charred: remnants of the fires the Utes started in local forests in order to discourage the white settlers. These charred timbers, which were also used to build our barn, were actually strengthened by their exposure to the heat created by the fires.

We purchased our ranch from the Bedell’s in 1985. Our son, Andy, was almost six and our daughter, Cassidy, was just a year old. They grew as they explored the landscape of the ranch and in doing so the inner landscapes of their strengths and limitations. They were introduced to life and death in the birth and death of pets, stillbirths, and long-time horse soulmates; the and the satisfaction of physical and often times inconvenient work. And when they then left to explore a wider world not only with a diploma in hand and dreams of their future, they left knowing how to do a few things like change oil, turn a runaway horse, and tighten a fence wire.

This summer my painting will continue. With each stroke, I renew and remember. I recently finished Cassidy’s bedroom, which she painted her favorite color of blue thirteen years ago. I re-stained the garden bench in which my mother sits when she visits at fair time in August. And I will soon begin staining the equipment shed and then tackle the house Pete and I walked into twenty-four years ago. With each stroke, I tell some history to myself, and then look forward to the coming days when we will continue to write more stories.

This is how it will be, too, come July when my extended family will sit around the campfire in reunion to renew and remember: celebrating not only the stories of their lives, but also the historical ties that bind and hold them together.

Friday, April 23, 2010

It's Official: Spring Arrives on the Ranch

In a little less than four days, the location of my measurement for the snowpack in the meadows went from twelve inches to dry ground. The date was April 20th. According to the wives’ tale, spring should have arrived on April 16th, but with the additional snowfall early in the month, the estimate missed the mark by a few days. However, when spring truly arrived a few days ago, it arrived overnight with warmth. The outer edges of the lawn appeared and turned green in what seemed like a matter of hours. The hyacinths, crocus, and jonquils suddenly appeared and have begun inching toward bloom. Drainage off the hillsides began rushing through the culverts under the country road literally in twenty-four hours. The ditch traveling through the barnyard flooded and two mallards found a temporary home. A pair of sandhill cranes stood in my neighbor’s meadow, the robin perches on the top fence rails, and a bald eagle flew above the cottonwoods over the Elk River near the arena. However, the most exciting sign of spring here on the ranch was the arrival of the first of our six foals last Saturday and the arrival of the second, Flo’s baby, today.

Flo Foals

The phone call was from Pete. “Hey, Flo’s having her baby. She just started. The feet are out but that’s it.”

Closing out my document and grabbing my camera, I said, “I’ll be out.”

Peeking over the stall door, Pete and I looked at Flo quietly waiting for her foal to complete the birthing process. The sack had torn, he laid with his body half in and half out of his mother. Flo rested patiently, as if she were both a young mother and old mid-wife all in one: patient, alert, knowingly waiting for the natural process to take its course. The small foal, a buckskin, with a small white blaze, waiting for the next contraction, scrambled with his front feet at times, leaning to one side and the other working to release himself from his mother, the birthing sack still partially wrapped around his hips. Flo laid still, waiting and watching, looking as though she knew it would just be a matter of time: the foal knew what to do, she just needed to allow him time to make his way.

Within a matter of minutes, the foal had separated and had begun the instinctive process to stand and nurse. Through a process of trial and error, repeated attempts to throw his front feet out in front of him, steady himself, and then instantly gather up his hind legs, the foal eventually managed to stand, if all for a brief second the first time, losing his balance and falling. After a brief respite, he tried again and succeeded, his legs ever so wobbly underneath him, the neurons waking up and firing continually as he worked to master the steadiness to nurse. As he worked his way through this process, Flo carefully licked and nuzzled just enough each time to stimulate his nervous system, saying, “I know you can do this, you need to do this.” The colt finally stood, wobbled alongside his mother, and instinctively began attempting to nurse.

Pete and I left the two alone knowing once the colt was up and had nursed, the important milestones had been met. We don’t always see the live birth of our foals. But each time we are privileged to witness it, we remember that the life cycle is a powerful force, one in which there is this amazing miracle and gift of a new life.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Update: Meadow Measurement

Last Friday, when I measured the snowpack, we'd lost a foot of snow in a week. The meadows are down to 12" of snowpack now and winter is retreating rapidly: pools of water cover portions of the meadows; the creek that flows near our home and down by the barn flooded for several days, and daytime temperatures invite us to linger in the barnyard as we visit with neighbors that pass by to say hello.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part IV Leave It

My memory is clear. Early in our dog obedience class, Emma’s paws rested properly under her chin as she waited to receive permission to take a treat from our trainer. Valerie knelt on the floor in front of Emma, pointed her finger at Emma and said, “Leave it.” Just inches from her nose, the doggie treat was a great temptation for a six-month old puppy. Emma’s eyes looked intently at Valerie and then furtively my way, as if to say, “What do I do?”

The smell of the treat drifted temptingly over Emma. She couldn’t resist, pulling herself part way up to reach it. Valerie quickly reprimands her and said, “No, Emma.” And back down Emma went. The second trial succeeded as Emma waited just a few seconds before being released with Valerie’s, “Get it, Emma.” Emma instantly enjoyed her treat, a reward for respecting the boundary Valerie had set: “This isn’t for you right now.” Later, in our work together, we would expand boundary setting to include things that weren’t good for her and things or situations with people or other dogs from which she should stay away.

I’ve always been impressed with Emma’s ability to, “Leave It.” Just like her “Sit and Wait,” she responds with the promptness of a Marine. I see it as I run along our road with Emma. The scents on the roadside and in the barrow pit irresistibly draw Emma. She seeks them out with a consuming instinctual drive. Sometimes tracking scents is Emma’s way of learning about what’s going on in the neighborhood. On other occasions however, the scent may lead to road kill and if Emma chews on it, she risks the possibility of an intestinal bug which can threaten her health. When I suspect she’s involved with the remains of an animal, I quickly say, “Leave it,” and Emma, in the time it takes to process my command, turns and continues to follow me down the road. She is quite reliable the majority of the time. However, there are occasions when it’s more difficult for her to turn and walk away.

When Emma submits to temptations like chasing the cat when the cat doesn’t care to be harassed; grabbing a Frisbee before I have a chance to throw it; or chasing a car that’s passed by when she hears a barking dog inside; the command, “Leave it,” is more difficult for her to obey. She protests by continuing the behavior I’ve asked her to stop. But, I repeat the command, “Leave it,” and she eventually pulls back and sits and waits anxiously.

Observing Emma’s ability to turn and walk away from that which she should leave alone, I realize I, too, wrestle with setting healthy boundaries in my own world. If Emma were a friend with whom I could have a conversation, I know she and I would talk about how to leave the things that do not belong to me or I do not have control over. For instance, when my children were young, it was easy to be tempted to solve a problem for them whether it was in school or with a friend. Knowing when to leave them to their own resources was important to their development, but sometimes difficult to figure out.

I know some of our conversations would have easy and apparent answers. But there would also be conversations in which the answers would be more difficult to distill. We would discuss how much discipline it requires to leave an unhealthy focus on anything in our lives: whether it’s Emma obsessively biting her favorite 36” exercise ball until it pops as she rolls it mightily across the living room; or my over-focusing on writing projects and failing to go for a walk, a run, or a snowshoe with Emma and Griz. We would discuss how we know whether or not to leave the unresolved, unresolved: for Emma, perhaps a territorial doggie dispute that could cause harm without settling the issue; or for me, a disagreement in a work setting or in a relationship.

As Emma and I carry on down the road in the days ahead, I know we will continue to find the command "Leave It," a point of reference in answering the questions about the important relationships that make up our daily lives. Whether the questions over healthy boundaries are easy or difficult for us to sort out, I believe our ultimate desire is to settle in a place of peace, with ourselves and our world.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Update: Measuring the Meadow's Snowpack

Even though the measurement of the snow in the meadow is two inches greater than my measurement on March 25th, it's good news. This last week we've had 18-20 inches of snowfall and between warmer ground temperatures, winds, and a storm that blew sideways for the better part of a day, the snow didn't stick around. I measured 24 inches today. And I found an additional sign of good news when I walked out across the yard to the meadow this morning: I noticed the brave emergence of hyacinth leaves in one of the south facing gardens and with it, my optimism rises.

For more information on my measurements, please read my blog posting on March 22nd where I explain the North Routt wives' tale about the arrival of spring here at the ranch.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Springtime Memory

Walking along our county road a couple of days ago, a male Red-winged Blackbird caught my eye. Perched in oak brush, he pecked away under his wing perhaps preening or attending to a discomfort. His presence triggered a memory of other spring days many years ago.

When Pete and I first came to the Elk River Valley, we lived in an old renovated dairy barn with a small seasonal creek running through the front yard. Bergen Creek was named after the homesteading family who lived there at the turn of the century. In the early 1980s, our young children enjoyed the freedom of walking through that inviting creek, gathering eggs from our first laying hens, and heading out over the small hillside to the neighbors for play time. Most late afternoons, while Pete watched Andy and Cassidy, I ran on a county road nearby for a brief respite from mothering. The Red-winged Blackbirds were always plentiful in the spring, sitting on fence posts, singing out with a characteristic quick note and then a lovely trill.

Recalling this nearly thirty-year old memory the other day, I remembered a poem I’d written then describing the return of spring and the Red-winged Blackbirds. Thinking that poem might be a nice posting for my blog, I went hunting for it in "The Bergen Creek Journal," a collection of articles I wrote in 1981. Once those articles were written, compiled, hand-typed, illustrated, and copied at the local office supply store, I sent it off to family and friends, assuming of course, they were interested in what I had to say.

Scanning through the rumpled copies I’d saved, I found a young writer filled with idealism. I found articles and reflections on the raising of livestock, sustainable food production, disciplining with love, reducing energy consumption, composting, and ways to restore the simplicity of the past in our society. When I came across the poem, I felt disappointed in my memory of it. I wondered to myself, “Why had I remembered it in such a positive light?” I realized in the intervening years, I had remembered not so much the poem, but a supportive comment my mother-in-law made about the poem after she received her May-June issue of the Journal.

My poem, “Spring on Bergen Creek,” began:

I step out the door, the air I breathe brushes across my face and says, “spring.” There’s no doubt.
The birds singing away in the cottonwoods – busily, contentedly – remind me of how closely I live with nature.
The Red-winged Blackbirds, too, are back. They sit on fence posts and accompany me as I jog down the road.
Baby buckwheats have peeked out of the cracks in the moist earth, giving promise of more spring color to come…

I wrote then as a hobby, satisfying a creative urge to share my world as the young mother of a growing family settled in a rural landscape. My attempts at poetry in 1981 sound young and awkward to me today, as though the heart and mind had yet to develop a full confidence in one another. But I know at the time, the words on the page satisfied and brought a part of me to life.

Between then and the time my children left home, I wrote sparingly, a journal entry or reflection when my world stopped for a brief interlude in the quiet of an afternoon. It was only when the house emptied out, I returned to my old hobby. Along the way, I was told writers should save everything they’ve ever written. I balked at the thought of saving every file of everything I’ve ever written. Where does one keep all that stuff? I usually sort through files several times a year and gratefully find clarity in what I leave in my files.

I am pleased however, that when the memory of that spring poem was triggered by the Red-winged Blackbirds on my walk the other day, I had saved my old issues from "The Bergen Creek Journal." For inside, I found evidence that in sharing one's life narrative with others we are brought to life just as the Red-winged Blackbirds joyful song brings to life their existence atop fence posts come spring.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Whose First Day of Spring?

I heard on the news that spring arrived yesterday, Saturday, March 20th. At 7 AM Saturday morning, I was having a cup of coffee by our kitchen stove. I leaned over to look at the thermometer and it read minus two. And the day before, I awoke to six inches of new snow outside my window which fell on top of close to two feet still on the ground around my house and in the meadows. When I later went for a walk, I wore my down parka, a hat, and gloves. Gusts of twenty mile an hour wind blew right through my 20x jeans as Griz, Emma, and I periodically pushed through drifted snow on the road.

I’m not sure the weather people have it right. Spring here at ranch arrives of its own accord. We watch with an eagle eye for it to come in earnest: the driveway stays mud-less for the better part of a week; the meadows recede and hopeful blades of grass begin to color the valley floor; my crocus peak out knowing their timing is right, but they just might get a dusting of snow before their show is over; and finally, after anticipating the arrival of our foals, we watch in awe as they struggle to stand and nurse.

One wives' tale about the real arrival of spring here in North Routt goes something like this: if we measure the depth of the snow in our meadows on March 25th, the number of inches will equate to the number of days until our meadows are clear. In our experience, this more accurately equates with the first day of spring. We follow this rite every year and over a period of twenty-six years it comes close to marking the arrival of our spring season here at the ranch.

So, this coming Friday the 25th, I’ll eagerly begin counting.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Lucky 2 Ranch

Once we turn our calendars to March, it’s not unusual for cabin fever to set in here at the ranch. The winter season has marked our time for over three months and the need to see dry ground drives us to thoughts of the open road and time away from winter’s enclosure.

Our escape from cabin fever this year was to the Flathead Valley of Montana, an expansive and beautiful area of lakes, glaciers, and stunning mountain ranges. Our friends, Ken and Nancy Jones, had invited us to come and enjoy their home in the upper reaches of the northwest between Kalispell and Whitefish, Montana just an hour away from the Canadian border.

After living in Colorado most of their adult lives--Ken previously managed the Home Ranch in Clark, Colorado and Nancy spent most of her working life in Boulder, Colorado working for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory--they feel at home here. They call their place the “Lucky 2 Ranch” for good reason: they feel fortunate not only to be together but to be settled in such a nurturing landscape right on the edge of open meadows and surrounded by protective pines.

When Ken retired from the Home Ranch and they were newly married, Ken and Nancy searched for the perfect place in which to settle and create a new life together. Ken had spent time in Montana as a child and his father eventually settled on a ranch outside Big Timber, Montana. It wasn’t surprising then that Montana drew him back, those stores of fond childhood memories sounding the call. They each found the Flathead Valley’s stunning visual landscape captivating. Ken said, “I don’t think there’s a prettier place anywhere, at least in the lower forty-eight. I love it here.” The commitment to environmental awareness and conservation by local communities also beckoned both Ken and Nancy’s sensitivities to the importance of living a conscientious life.

During the winter months Ken makes saddles and other leather products such as headstalls, stick horses, purses, and knife and cell phone cases. The saddle currently in Ken’s leather shop is made for a female rider. It is complete with custom pouches for a cell phone, sunscreen, knife, or lip gloss. Ken not only has the practical idea for the storage compartment but he integrates it visually into the saddle. The lines of the pouch mirror the lines of the saddle skirt and seat.

While Pete has made custom mohair western cinches, he’d also been interested in learning about leather work. So, he asked Ken if he would show him a few basics of leather working. So, while Nancy and I discussed our writing lives, (Nancy writes for a variety of local and regional publications in Kalispell and for the Great Falls newspaper), visited a local art community and the inspiring Glacial National Park, Ken and Pete spent time creating a custom headstall complete with our brand, the Two Quarter Circle. Ken’s attention to detail and drive for perfection led to a work of art: the entire headstall is cut by hand, hand stamped, lined with fine latigo leather, and finished with Jeremiah Watt’s hardware.

When the winter season gives way to spring, the Luck 2 Ranch transforms into a classroom for Ken and Nancy’s business, Equimersion. With Ken’s lifelong background in the world of horses, he offers an open air classroom for one on one or small group horseback riding and natural horsemanship instruction. Riders who are interested in improving their riding come to the Lucky 2 Ranch where Ken enthusiastically shares his love of horses and the relationship between horse and rider. Nancy graciously provides the riders with a place to rest and reenergize while away from home.

After visiting the Lucky 2 Ranch, we too felt fortunate to have experienced Ken and Nancy’s home, Ken’s leather workshop, and the powerful sense of place that exists in the Flathead Valley at the foot of the inspiring Livingston Range in Glacial National Park. We returned home, our cabin fever cooled by the fresh air of the open road and our spirits lifted by good friends, the lengthening of daylight and a growing awakening to the promise crocus and hyacinth will soon bring.

For more information on the Equimersion program and the Lucky 2 Ranch, go to

Friday, March 5, 2010

From My Bookshelf: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

My mother-in-law recently handed me this book and said, “I know you don’t normally read fiction but you should read this book. I think you’ll like it.”

She was right.

Jeannette Walls’ writes a beautifully engaging story. In her grandmother’s voice, Walls tells the story of her grandmother’s life growing up in west Texas, New Mexico, and later in life in Arizona. Lily Casey Smith was the oldest of three children. Lily, her younger brother, Buster, and younger sister, Helen, were each challenged by the tough conditions of living in sod houses, seasons of drought and flash floods, a father who thrived from time to time on taking others to court, and a mother who drew back from life finding the harshness of ranch living overwhelming.

Of all the Lily Casey stories, the following is the one that we’ll remain with me long after I put this book on the shelf. At fifteen, after her father withdrew her from boarding school because he’d spent her tuition money on four Great Danes for breeding purposes, Lily secured a teaching job in northern Arizona and headed out on her own. She saddled up her favorite “half broke horse,” Patches, and traveled alone from outside Roswell, New Mexico to north of Flagstaff Arizona carrying only hardtack, biscuits, and the pearl handled gun her father put her hands as she left the KC Hondo Ranch. She had been hired as a teacher at a school near Red Lakes just south of the Grand Canyon. The journey took her twenty-eight days. In her lifetime she would make this trip a total of three times.

Even though this book is classified as fiction, it is referred to as a “True Life Novel.” So, I am inclined to believe this story of Lily’s ride has some factual basis. In her author notes, Ms. Walls clarifies that even though she remembers hearing stories about her grandmother and reading a number of the stories documented in other books, she had to fill in the gaps and the fine details of her grandmother’s life. She concludes, “…the only honest thing to do is to call the book a novel.”

As a result, believing the story to be essentially true, I took out my atlas and began to try and piece together where Lily had gone, what trail had she followed to Red Lakes. It was possible from a few of the details in the book to know that she headed northwest from Roswell to Albuquerque, Gallup, on to the Painted Cliffs near the border with Arizona and then across the Navajo Reservation and finally to Flagstaff. On her first journey she tells of finding food in the settlements she passed through, roughly a day apart.

I found Lily’s self-possessed strength at fifteen years of age and faith in her ability to strike out on her own, riding approximately 500 miles across an often barren desert, beyond my ability to imagine for myself at fifteen. In reading her story, it appears from early in her life Lily inherently displayed the maturity of adult. She cared for her siblings and her mother; and even testified in court for her father in a dispute with a neighbor over the killing of the four Great Danes. And then for whatever reasons, her father supported her ride to northern Arizona slipping that pearl handled gun in her hands believing that Lily would surely be successful in taking care of herself. With a mix of a “can-do” attitude, a reason to strike out on her own, and perhaps good luck, Lily safely rode into Red Lakes and began teaching school children, some of which weren’t much younger than she.

I wasn’t surprised that I liked the book so much: for the most part, the life of Lily was true. Ms. Walls succeeds in writing a compelling story about the survival of her grandmother in a barren and challenging Western landscape. I believe anyone who imagines that strength and faith in oneself can and does achieve great things will enjoy the story she has told.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Comfort in Comfrey

Returning from an afternoon walk, I spotted my neighbor, Mike Braal, tossing feed to the birds. His bag contained a coarsely ground suet compliments of one of the local grocery stores. Mike has always fed the birds and because of it I think they call his place home. He’s a naturalist at heart and in part, by profession. He’s a winter ski and snowshoe guide at a nearby guest ranch and in the summer he’s the captain of his own eco-tourism boat off the coast of southern Alaska. Several years ago we joined him for a week of touring around Gustavus and Glacial Bay National Park, Alaska. We watched grizzly hunt for salmon, cooked up halibut and crab for dinner, and enjoyed 500 year old glacial ice in our water glasses at night.

As we waved to one another, Mike asks, “Where are your snowshoes?”

I answer backed, “I broke my toe. I can’t go out in my boots, but my running shoes seem to work for at least a walk.”

In a thoughtful voice he asked, “Have you ever tried comfrey?”

“No, I haven't.”

He told me an old friend, who’s a massage therapist, recommended it to her clients who had broken bones, sprains, and bruises. He said, “Just make up a pot of comfrey tea and soak your foot in it. I usually collect it from the old garden out back. I’m sure you’ve seen it around here in the summer.”

I admit my lack of knowledge about comfrey and say, “I’ll look for it next summer. But I’m going to town tomorrow. Maybe I can find some at Bamboo Market(a natural health food store).”

Comfrey is a perennial herb with large broad hairy leaves and small bell shaped flowers ranging in color from white to pink to purple. The plant is native to Europe and parts of Asia and has been cultivated since 400 B.C. Its common name is “knitbone,” derived from one of its most common uses as a poultice to treat burns, bruises, swelling, and broken bones. Comfrey is considered toxic to the liver if taken orally as a supplement and has been banned for that purpose in the United States since 2001.

After catching up with the rest of our mid-winter lives, I headed on home. No sooner had I taken my shoes off than Griz started barking. I opened the door to find Mike driving up. Rolling down his window he said, “I checked to see what I had and I have plenty.”

I reached out to take a gallon jar filled two-thirds full of dried comfrey leaves.
“How many should I use? Are you sure you have enough?”

“I’ve got plenty at home. Go ahead and use it all. Just crush some of it up and pour hot water over it.”

After dinner I made Mike’s comfrey tea and enjoyed soaking my broken toe.

I never know what I’ll discover when I meet Mike on the road. Sometimes a critique of politics, sometimes an invitation to ski at the guest ranch where he works, or sometimes Mike’s making a delivery of canned salmon he caught and prepared on his boat in Alaska. In our meeting I enjoy our knowing one another for over twenty-five years: the naturalist, the guide, the fisherman, and today my herbalist offering the comfort of his summer harvest of comfrey.

To learn more about Mike’s charter tours in Alaska go to:

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part III - Here

This morning Emma, Griz, and I headed out for a brisk run. The thermometer read 18 degrees. Emma flew down the driveway after Griz and just as quickly he headed for the nearest snow bank in order to escape Emma’s intense terrier style play. It’s the dance that begins our journey down the road.

The traffic on our county road has increased over the years. So, when a car or truck approaches, I shout out, “Here, Emma, here Griz.” They usually trot toward me, turn, sit, and wait while the vehicle passes by. But sometimes Emma heads off down the side of the road on the trail of a scent. When this happens it’s difficult for Emma to comply. Something more powerful is calling her attention. But I insist that she comply and order returns to our small traveling pack.

I fondly remember teaching Emma to come, to respond to the command “here.” At six months I signed Emma up for doggie obedience school with a local instructor, Valerie, who was known for her intuitive understanding of dogs. The night we learned to ask our dogs to come to us, Valerie directed us to walk with our dogs all the while asking that they keep their eyes on us: mirroring our movements, turning when we turned, stopping when we stopped, and moving out when we began again. If they did not, a little pull on the leash and the command of “here” would right the ship.

However, because Boston’s like Emma are known for their independence and distractibility, Valerie insisted that Emma and I also work with a clicker, a small device you squeeze, making the sound of a cricket, something akin to a small party favor I remember having as a child. Training with a clicker, clicking it the instant the dog responds correctly to your command, makes dogs like Emma pay better attention to the trainer instead of their own ideas about what to worry about or what to do next.

Now I not only had a leash, a dog, a clicker, and a treat to manage in my hands, I also had a sequence of tasks I had to order in my head correctly so I could lead Emma through them. Walk ahead, turn and click (the instant Emma complied correctly), treat; walk to the left, turn and click, treat; walk to the right, turn and click, treat; and so on. I fumbled, I lost the sequence and I miscued Emma enough times to erase any learning curve we may have begun to climb. With leashes, clickers, treats, dog at my feet, I felt irritated that I had begun this new project in which my sense of discomfort, clumsiness, and embarrassment weren’t exactly the feelings I’d anticipated when I’d dreamt of a cuddly, unconditional new companion.

As the sound of clickers, dog tags, and an occasionally growl and bark carried on until eight o’clock. I submitted to the task at hand, steeling myself to let go of the disquiet inside. It was as though Valerie had also said to me and the other owners, “Here, pay attention to me, pay attention to the task at hand.” Valerie’s direction contained my discomfort. In doing so I worked toward the same disciplined attention I was asking of Emma and it was there I found order and a quieting of my unease.

It occurred to me that this call to be present, whatever it is that contains and demands our attention, provides rich ground for growth. For example, choosing to be present within the demands and constraints of parenthood or life’s work or relationship requires that we face our comfort and discomfort, our competence and incompetence. If we respond to the call, we are offered the opportunity to grow and over time we discover in ourselves the responsible parent, the competent worker, or the committed partner in relationship.

Despite my discomfort and Emma’s distractibility and independence that night at doggie obedience school, we worked to respond to Valerie’s command of, “Here, pay attention.” And in doing so, Emma and I found the beginning of a reliable “here” in our growing list of training commands.
As Emma, Griz, and I made our way back to the ranch this morning, I called out to Emma, "Here!" pointing to the right side of the road. We were climbing a small rise where it's difficult to see oncoming traffic so I switch from the left side of the road to the right where there's better visibility. We do this every time as we return home and as soon as I say, "Here," Emma knows that she needs to switch sides of the road. Griz also follows suit dutifully moving to join us as we take on the rise.
If Emma could talk I think she would agree with me that we are grateful that one night in doggie obedience school Valerie insisted that we both pay attention and respond successfully to the simple command of "here," for we are now one happy and cooperative traveling pack on the open road.

A postscript: Valerie Appell passed away this past December after losing her battle with cancer. In addition to her career as a nurse, she was active in fostering the therapy dog program, Heeling Friends. After leaving Steamboat in 2007 she continued to work with hospitals and schools nurturing healing
relationships between dogs and people in need.