Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Through Donna's Eyes

My sister Donna moved to the east coast over thirty years ago. She went for an adventure. She didn’t really mean to stay that long, but stay she did. She’s the reason we’ve seen most of the Smithsonian museums, Gettysburg, Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Vernon and Monticello. We’ve sailed the Chesapeake Bay, driven the Blue Ridge Mts., and strolled the boardwalks of Rehoboth Beach because of her. We’ve missed having her here these long years, but it’s enriched our lives having her home as a pinpoint on the map of the U.S.

It was her turn this year to come out west. When she pulled into our driveway she immediately started taking photographs of our freshly rained on fall-colored home site. She’s never been the one taking pictures, but with her smart phone has discovered a new hobby. Her images see our home from a different perspective.

She was here for sister retreat, our annual trip to reconnect us six sisters. This year we traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, to the south, and Stevensville, Montana, to the north.

We viewed our grandmother’s “special collection” at the JW Marriott Library at the University of Utah. The staff had us put our bags and cell phones in a locker at the front of the collection and slip on white gloves to view the photographs put away by our grandmother many years ago for safekeeping.

We had gone to Salt Lake City for a history lesson. On our Mom’s side, we found our great grandfather’s simple grave marker among the 120,000 souls interred in the Salt Lake Cemetery. And from our Dad’s side, we searched the military rolls at Fort Douglas for a civil war soldier that played a poignant part of our history.

In the evenings we laughed in the hot tub, played Jenga, and assigned each sister the task of coming up with a one-word characteristic to describe each of us.  “Selfless,” “tough,” “eclectic,” “peacemaker,” “poised,” “over-thinker” all made the list.

We got back home and added our brother for an afternoon tour of the local graveyards looking for ancestors. Merle, my genealogically minded sis, had a list of names and photos, which along with colorful oral stories she knows by heart, made it an afternoon to remember. Bright sunshine and fall leaves scattered over the graves made the scene complete.

We’re now all immersed in our lives again. Left with the emailed images from a cell phone camera back at work selling houses in Maryland. The images, the impressions, of my East Coast sis - or as she calls herself, "our faraway sister."  

Jemmett headstone at Hillcrest Cemetery

storm over Higham's Peak

the olive and grandpa's table

fall pasture

October's freshly blooming black-eyed susans 

Reid Valley apples

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

To Everything its Season

We’ve had a string of cow-working days. Preparation for winter means weaning calves and processing individuals to update their vaccinations, and giving them their annual dose of parasiticide. The bulls are taken to their own pasture. The calves are trucked to the valley where they can eat our best feed. The adults stay in the mountains until snow forces us out.    

Ask any cowman or woman, and they’ll tell you that fall is their favorite time of year. The weather has cooled, the horseflies are gone. The mature perennial grasses are a soft, buttery color. The trees and brush go from yellow and rust to shades of grey. And when the calves come off a silence descends on the herd that’s like winter herself.  

We walked the cows to their fall pasture yesterday. They stretched for more than a mile, walking single file. Watching them this time of year, I always think of the word “resolute.” They know where they’re headed. They trust us.  

My sis rode with us a couple of days. She enjoyed it a lot, and having her along made me remember why I married a rancher in the first place. Riding horses and trailing cows was a grand activity when we were kids. And I still love it, it’s just that the burden of ownership gets in the way.  

Yesterday was near perfect. Not only was the weather sublime and the cattle willing, but we had some excitement before the day was over when we collided with a band of sheep. The big white dogs that provide predator protection to the sheep started chasing our cows. The sheep got in the action and all three species came barreling toward us scaring our horses. Kit took her frightened horse out of the melee and I got off Jane, afraid that in her fear she might remember she knows how to buck. Mark got control of his Doc horse and with the dogs got the sheep collected and away from the cattle. In a few minutes all was quiet again and the herd was safely through the gate.  

Kit has come back to riding horses. She was too busy raising kids, and working and owning a family business, to commit the time, energy, and money required to keep a horse fit. Never mind the tack and pickup and trailer to have on the side. She had an epiphany a couple of years ago when she had a rare day off and happened to ride a friend’s mare, one of those memorable horses that is kind, responsive and an absolute joy to handle. Kit remembered just how much horseback riding had meant to her as a young woman. Now she has a good, safe horse, her own saddle and her own transportation.

Most of all she has the luxury of time . . . and a post-fifty mindset that says, “it’s later than you think." Time to put first things first.

counting them through the working corrals

my sis and me

weaning day

Doc and Jane, our helpmates

before the sheep incident

Monday, October 5, 2015


It’s not what it used to be.

We run cattle in a grazing cooperative that’s been around since 1916. My great grandmother was a founding shareholder. Mark's family also has a history in the cooperative. We've heard stories of round-up for many years. Used to be that men (and men only!) rode their horses from area to area to gather cattle together in bunches. Each owner cut his cattle from the most numerous brand of the day and trailed his group back to his grazing area. Everyone rode each allotment because with no fences the cattle could roam over large distances. It meant the cowboys stayed overnight in the mountains for 10 days or so and rode in a different direction each day.

Now we have fences that divide up the range so mixing of brands is minimized. Usually a couple of days will get the cattle collected. Other things have changed of course. It's usually done on the weekend so it doesn't conflict with town jobs. Most of us sleep in our own beds in the valley instead of throwing a bedroll on the cold ground or riding from a far off cabin before and after the day’s work.  

But some things haven’t changed. If you're less experienced you're expected to hold herd and let the real cowboys do the work of cutting out strays. Holding herd is an important job, but boring. Cutting out is loads of fun. I told Mark I’m sick of holding herd. I’ve paid my dues so let me in the herd already! It still pays to know everyone’s brand and ear tag. And for heaven’s sake cut out pairs, never singles, or you cause yourself more work by mismatched mothers and kids searching for each other. Be conscious of how your neighbors handle their cattle, keep an eye out for sick calves that need treated, and remember in the end it’s all about relationships so be respectful of one another.  

Some things have improved. Our crew on Saturday included Gary at 70 plus, the senior cowhand, and Harli, a “fuhst grader.” Harli rode with her grandma or me the afternoon we were together. We three females would not have been included in the old days. Or I dare say, even wanted.

With many hands comes light work and we gathered the high country, the low country and the in-between country in a quick hurry. Rain threatened all day but it never materialized. Just those incredible angry skies to pull our eyes to the beauty beyond the mountain tops.

I'm trying to instill a habit of saying “thank you Lord” throughout my days. Some days are better than others. Round-up day was a “better” day.  Especially since I got to cut.  

Friday, October 2, 2015


September slipped away last night. That was fast.

I read that if we want time to slow down (don’t we all?) then we need to quit rushing from one thing to another, stuffing more and more into our lives. Instead we should practice being in the moment, mindful of, and grateful for, the world right in front of us.

In hindsight that is just what Mark and I did when we drove to north Idaho to see Anna and celebrate with other aggies at the University of Idaho’s annual Ag Days festivities. It was a good excuse to give Mark’s wrists another few days to heal as well.  

The campus was wrapped in its early autumn beauty, the locusts lining sixth street in full yellow color. We attended the full slate of College of Ag activities which coincided with Dad’s weekend and state FFA competitions. Mark and Anna now have matching Gamma Phi t-shirts! We explored the pre-game event and even lucked into a couple of passes to get into the VIP box at the football game which meant food and drink and cushy seats for two.  

We planned to stay through Monday night so we set a leisurely pace. As I look back, it’s the details that come to mind. Anna brought a friend along one morning and we walked through Idler’s Rest nature preserve. It’s only 35 acres but a real gem. It’s a shady foray through cedars, pines, and firs (yes, Mark knows the difference) in stark contrast to the manicured dry farms stretching out in every direction. Both environments are majestic in their own way.  

I took in the Farmer’s Market in downtown Moscow on Saturday morning. Purple eggplants and squash of every color, fragrant basil, cheeses, something for everyone. My favorites were the end-of-season flowers.  I bought  a bouquet of everlastings to take home to our host for the weekend. Only $6.00 for a generous bunch of statice; what a buy! A loaf of artisan potato bread and berry cream cheese croissants rounded out my armful of goodies

We enjoyed the lunar eclipse on Sunday, as our hosts, Karen and Carl, prepared leg of lamb. But it was the supermoon, the harvest moon, that was even more spectacular the next night as it hung in the treetops over the rolling Palouse hills. Wow.

The drive home was mindful as well. We usually hustle home, but instead of a marathon drive we took a detour to visit the Big Hole Valley of Montana. Thirty years ago the meadows this time of year would have been filled with dozens of loose hay stacks picturesquely surrounded by pole fences. Now only a few stalwart ranchers continue the tradition. The beauty of the stacks, made more so by their rarity, was not wasted on me. We even took time to walk out across the meadows and see a beaverslide, the implement used to create the stacks and its accompanying framework up close. 

They say ranching is an art, I think they were talking about the haystacks of the Big Hole.