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.