Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Greetings

My mailbox began filling up with Christmas cards shortly after Thanksgiving. I’ve even received a number of Christmas email greetings on my computer. In North Routt County where I live, Christmas cards have been delivered by rural delivery drivers since the early 20th century. Today, the mail is delivered from Denver to nearby Steamboat Springs. It’s then brought north to our local post office in Clark, Colorado by our mail delivery employee and then he or she heads out in his or her SUV to deliver the mail to the rural residents of the Elk River Valley.

Years ago, the mail was delivered by a Rural Free Delivery (RFD) driver who drove a team of horses with a box sled in the winter and an early model jeep in the summer months. I recently dropped by to see my neighbor, Jo Semotan, who remembers the days of RFD coming to her mail box in a horse drawn box sled. Her father's family homesteaded in Deep Creek, just west of where I live. Her father, Quentin Semotan, was one of the founding father’s of the quarter horse industry. Her mother, Evelyn, and her family lived in Hahn's Peak, Strawberry Park, Steamboat Springs, and Mt. Harris. As rural residents often have, Jo decorated her mail box for the holiday season. Jo’s mailbox was adorned with pine garlands, red bows, a barb wire wreath, and an original mail bag used from the 1930s until the 1950s hanging over her official mailbox.

The RFD driver for Jo’s family was a Scotsman named, Grover Campbell. He would bring the Semotan’s mail from the Clark Post Office in a canvas bag with her father’s name on it. When Grover draped it over the mail post, he’d retrieve a second empty bag to take with him for the next day’s mail. Jo shared with me that residents along Grover’s route would give him a bottle of his favorite drink during the holidays. They’d share a nip with Grover and then send him on his way with wishes for a Merry Christmas. One year, Jo and her mother, Evelyn, spotted Grover’s box sled stopped on the bridge at the end of his route near his homestead. Knowing it was unusual that he would be parked there in the winter, Jo’s mother quickly gathered 4-year-old Jo and went to check things out. Once there, Evelyn found that Grover had suffered from one too many nips of holiday cheer. She lifted Jo into the box sled and drove the horses with Grover in tow back to the barn. Once there, Jo's father, Quentin, and his hired hand, Buck bundled up Grover and got him back home to his wife, Isabel.

As Jo relives Grover's deliveries, I find myself traveling back to her childhood and easily sense the warmth and pleasure in her reminiscing. Whether delivered by hand, by horse drawn box sled, jeep, or modern day SUV rural delivery, the ritual of the delivery of holiday greetings seems to nudge us to remember, to hold onto, and to value the friends and family members who make up our history, our story. Grover Campbell’s story was not only his, but Jo’s as well. His deliveries by horse drawn box sled made up an important part of the fabric of rural living when Jo was growing up. And the stories of Grover sharing a nip at each stop at Christmas time create a touchstone for Jo of not only a time gone by, but a fond memory of both her dear parents, Evelyn and Quentin.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading at the Bud Werner Memorial Library

I'm looking forward to reading selections from my book tonight, December 15th, at the Bud Memorial Library. In preparing for the evening, I'm wondering which essays attendees would like to hear. I have my favorites, but I know everyone has their own perspective on life and the world. Sharon Carmack, my writing teacher and editor, particularly likes, "A Robin's Nest." An editor with Farm and Ranch Living liked "Gifts of the Harvest" well enough to publish it. Jennifer Lay, the events coordinator at the library likes "The Bull Sale." And one of the first men to read my book after its publication liked reading my essay about my Boston Terrier.

In past readings I've selected "Gifts of the Harvest" not just because of its shorter length, but its illustration of the long-held ranching tradition of hay season. On another occasion I read "Quilting Cattlewomen" at the annual meeting of our Cattlewomen. They were of course interested because they were the focus of the story. Tonight, with an unknown audience, I will have a couple of essays in mind and then check in with my audience to see which one might make a nice fit.

I've appreciated being able to share my essays in this way. I think the reading of the written word, mine or anyone else's, has a way of transforming the story. I wonder if it's not a result of the dearth of live experiences in our modern culture. Our experience today is so confined to a colored monitor, television screen, iPhone, iPad, or gaming screen. Storytelling in person, whether it's around the dinner table, at a Christmas party, or in a library hall, connect us, not only to the story, but to the "teller." And in that connection we come to know something more about ourselves, as well as others and the world in which we live.

I'd like to thank Jenny Lay and all the staff at the library as well as the crew at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore for their support and help in hosting this event.

For more information, visit:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Emma's Cataracts Progress

Last week, Emma and I visited with Dr. Chavkin, a veterinarian opthamologist with the Veterinarian Referral Center of Colorado. Emma has been seen by both Dr. Chavkin and Dr. Nushbaum at VRCC since her cogenital cataracts were diagnosed in 2008.

During this visit Dr. Chavkin continued to assess the progression of the cataracts in both eyes. The cataract in the left eye had matured to 70% and the cataract in right eye had matured to just 20%. While cataract surgery in dogs today has a 90% success rate, the success rate in Boston Terriers is about 70%. Dr. Chavkin said it's not always advisable to go ahead with the surgery. Even if the surgery is succesful, eyes in Boston Terriers have a tendency to develop a variety of conditions including glaucoma, detached retinas, and infection post-surgery.

I told Dr Chavkin I'd always thought if Emma were a lap dog and, or at least ten years old or older, I probably wouldn't commit to the surgery. But I told him my concern was for Emma's safety. She had run into a tree and a manure spreader at full speed this past summer and just about knocked herself out. If her eyesite continues to deteriorate, it may very well put her in more harm's way with her busyness and the coming and goings of large vehicles and livestock on the ranch.

After further evaluations including an ultra-sound of the eye, pressure readings, blood, and urine tests, Dr. Chavkin thought surgery would be advisable for Emma. He also said that the outcome of this surgery will give us a good idea if, when the time comes, it will be necessary to consider surgery on the left eye, too.

I am always impressed with the professionalism of both Dr. Chavkin, Dr. Nushbaum, and the staff at the VRCC. Emma and I will return in early January for her surgery with the hope she will see the world with a wonderful and renewed clarity.
For more information, please visit VRCC at:

Friday, December 9, 2011

Holiday in the Rockies

Tomorrow, December 10th, I'll be participating in the Steamboat Arts Council Holiday in the Rockies Arts and Crafts Show. This annual event has been a tradition in Steamboat Springs for over three decades. I remember making Christmas ornaments with a dear friend when our children were toddlers: planning and toiling away deep into the night finalizing our creations for the well attended community event. Neither my friend nor I made a great deal of money each December, but we obviously relished in participating with other community members in the creating and selling our wares.

As I prepare today for my last holiday show of this season, I feel the same way. Sharing my creations, my book, prints, and note cards, at a community event is not so much a significant money making endeavor, but an opportunity to share with new and old friends tangible evidence of my creative imaginings.

If you're in our beautiful part of the world, please stop by and wander through Library Hall and the Depot Baggage Room from 9-4 PM and enjoy the creative spirit of our community. Live music will be featured throughout the day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Headed to Market

Every late fall I mark the season when I pass livestock trucks on our main county road coming in and out of the valley loaded up with cattle or sheep headed to market. Interspersed in traffic are semis filled with grass hay. Northwest Colorado has always been known as good country for both summer livestock grazing land and high quality hay ground. This year hay headed out of our country in abundance. With our late and wet spring, hay production was the best we've ever had here at the ranch.

Cattle also thrive. Cattle producers have summered cattle in this part of the world for over a century because their animals gain so well. Our small group of heifers gained at a rate of over 300 pounds on average. Pete sold a portion of them last week at Centennial Livestock Auction in Fort Collins and his sales figures reflected the current strength of the cattle market.

I'm happy to say it's been a good year for agricultural producers in north Routt County.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Winter Slips In

Winter’s quiet settles in among the cottonwoods. An evening snowfall gently lays a fleece over the meadows, frosting fence rails, and building crystal caches in bare aspen crooks.

I look out the window as I huddle over my hot oatmeal and think it will feel right to be inside at my desk today. But Pete looks out and says, “I never quite get all the fire wood cut before the snow falls and then I have to bundle up for the snow.” While we’re not surprised as we look out, we fiddle to reset our seasonal logbook to winter. We ask ourselves, “Is this really it?” And when we come to the realization that it is, we know that the hardest part is not being in it, but simply walking out the door. Once outside, we can be quite comfortable, the brisk air and crunch beneath our boots along the trail to the barn, invigorating.

Aside from the firewood and a project to renovate two manure spreaders, the ranch is fairly well buttoned up this year. The chores, now pared down to feeding the horses and cattle, and plowing snow when needed, feels like a relief. However, for Pete, it also feels as though the outside world has closed in: he can no longer ride and train his horses or work with his hands as he does from April to November.

However, the winter season does bring additional challenges to rural living. In our area of northwestern Colorado, we can see 300-500 inches a year fall in the surrounding mountains and three to four feet on the ground here at our ranch. So, driveways, hay sheds, and barn yards need to be kept plowed and every fence gate has to be kept cleared so it can swing freely. If it snows a foot or more, they have to be cleared either by hand or by the blade on a tractor. And sometimes, later in the winter, when there’s been a thaw and a return of freezing temperatures, the chore is made even more difficult by a mix of ice and hard packed snow.

In the depths of winter, when temperatures can go twenty and thirty below zero, keeping a tractor’s engine heated at night is a necessity and if one forgets, feeding time is delayed in the morning. Freezing temperatures also threaten access to water for our livestock. Waterers near the barn and access to river water must be kept open so the horses and cattle can keep well hydrated. If they don’t, their gut can easily become compacted and the risk of death increases. If they lack fresh water and must resort to eating snow, the energy it takes to warm and turn snowflakes into drinking water unnecessarily drains their energy reserves, as well.

Simply driving to town can quite easily be considered adventure travel. The greatest challenge is watching out for oncoming traffic and fearful drivers who hug the center line. Those of us who live here largely take it in stride. But many newcomers struggle their first winter to master winter mountain driving conditions and some, opt to live in town: the adventure traveling commute too much for their idea of the low stress life they’d expected in the country.

As I type, snow falls mute, the smallest of breezes causing motion in the tips of the aspen branches outside my window. The mares remain huddled around the feeder devouring the hay Pete gave them a short time ago. Griz, our Blue Heeler-Border Collie cross, carries on his love affair with winter and all things crisp and cool. He eats the snow, he rolls in the snow, and he jumps and races as though he’s choreographing a routine of joy.

Winter has surely slipped in and we are trying her on today. We will wiggle a bit, but the fit will settle in around us and we will look out the window again and know that it will comfortable once again, whether we are inside by the fire or outside, bundled up, clearing a spot for the comings and goings of the ranch in wintertime.

*This blog was originally posted in November of 2008.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Is Weather a Place?

A week ago, after reading a number excerpts from my book to the Steamboat Kiwanis Club, one of the members asked me, “How is it that you thought of weather as a place?” I had just read the following paragraph from my essay on Junior Bedell, a long-time resident of the Elk River Valley:

Weather’s always the first point of contact after hello. Once I thought it was silly, superficial, until I heard someone say, “The subject of weather is a safe common denominator. We all experience weather, so it’s a place we can meet quickly.” And for Junior, me, and other farmers and ranchers, weather is an agricultural heartbeat we hear. We understand its power to create and take away: deep snow pack brings timothy and alfalfa grass to the valley come summer, yet late spring snowstorms endanger newborns.

I have to confess that I hadn’t thought about the fact I’d referred to weather as a place until this gentleman asked me. But after thinking about it, I do experience weather as both a place where I engage with others in regular weather commentary as well as an element of the physical place in which I live day to day.

Snowshoeing to the spring on the TV Tower hill yesterday I thought, although we might think of “place” as a static and physical locale, my sense of place at any given moment on that hillside is in part created by the state of the atmosphere: the calm, the breeze, the gray, the sunlight, the heat, and the chill. The dirt or snowpack beneath my feet, the distant horizon, volcanic peaks, and low-lying hillsides are all transformed at any given moment by the mood of the day.

I often think how I love my place on the hillside, whether it’s running in the heat of a summer day or snowshoeing through a winter storm whistling out of the southwest. It is in fact on those days when the weather is the most present, perhaps the most dramatic, that I love the place, the hillside I call the TV Tower even more.

Watch for the 2011 Steamboat Kiwanis Club Christmas Ornament sales. This year's ornament is graced with the artwork of Jean Perry.