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.