Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Even More Blog Favorites

In case you're wondering, I'm posting these two a at time because that's about as many blog posts as I can read in one sitting, so a top ten list sorta blows my mind, and I never get to the ones at the bottom and I wanted everyone on my list to get a fair shake. That's me, always thinking.

Today, imagine yourself as a writer. You've dreamed of the day your book is done, and a literary agent reads it and loves it and signs you to a contract. You imagine all of the pithy emails and witty conversations you'll exchange with the agent in question.

In all those daydreams, you never imagined a scenario where your pants would prank call your agent. Welcome to Sean Ferrell's world. First, let's hear about it from his agent:

Aha! I'm Not Crazy

Then, there's Sean's side of the story:

Pants 1, Sean 0

And while you're at it, check out the cover and blurb of Sean's soon to be released novel, Numb. And add yourself to the pre-order list. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fry Bread and Indigenous People Tacos

Yeah, the title is a poke at political correctness. Until the Indian Country News changes its name, I'm not going to bother insisting on being called a Native American or indigenous person or first person or whatever. Every once in awhile another committee comes along, pushing to change the names of local landmarks like Squaw Flat. Which I'm okay with, as long as they don't mess with Chief  Mountain:

But back to the subject at hand: Fry Bread and Indian Tacos. It has come to my attention that some of you have never had the pleasure of these culinary delights. So look and learn.

Fry Bread is a hunk of fried bread dough. Go figure, huh? Any bread dough will do, although for the purpose of Indian Tacos you may not want to use sweet dough. Yes, you non-baking types can even use frozen bread dough from the grocery store (I'm looking at you, CPosey). Let it thaw and rise first. Whack off a chunk of dough about the size of a tennis ball. Stretch it out to about an inch thick and poke your finger through the center to make a small hole. Then fry it in hot oil. (No, I don't know how hot. Somewhere between smoking and the dough just sitting in there like a big pale lump. Or you could be nitpicky and get out a cookbook and see how hot the oil is supposed to be to fry donuts.)

I also don't know exactly where Fry Bread came from, although I believe it is a variation on the traditional Indian bannack bread. A much improved version in my opinion, since in the old days Indians didn't have yeast or any other kind of leavening agents, so real bannack bread is has all the tenderness and flavor of baked wallpaper paste.

As for Indian Tacos, who knows, but the first indigenous type to put chili on a piece of fry bread and top it with lettuce and sour cream and cheese and tomatoes and olives and salsa deserves a place in the Indian Hall of Fame, if there is such a thing.

So plunk your fry bread on a plate. Top it with a generous serving of your favorite chili. Go wild with the toppings. Enjoy.

Then fry up one more piece of bread, because no meal of Indian Tacos is complete unless you finish it off with fry bread drenched in melted butter, then drizzled with syrup, spread with huckleberry jam, or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Or in our case, dunked in honey provided by the Bee Man, who sets up his hives alongside our alfalfa field every summer.

Hope you enjoy yours as much as I'm going to enjoy mine, as I sit here gazing out my window, across Indigenous Woman Flat at what had better remain Chief Mountain.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More blog favorites

I guess these blogs would fall under the category of Life in General. C.J. Redwine hit the nail on the head while making me thankful I only have one boy thundering around my house most days:

The Truth About Raising Boys

And the incomparable Jennifer Crusie reminded me that ranch girls aren't the only ones who are not so pretty women:

Making Up

Enjoy! I've got a few more to share in the next couple of days.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Blog Favorites

This seems to be the time of year when everyone lists their top ten something or other. I don't consider myself enough of an expert to declare any list I might compile to be the ten best of anything. But I would like to share a few of my favorite blogs written by other people in the last year.

First, let's celebrate the holidays one last time, beginning with Halloween. From clear over in Ireland, Susan at Stony River Farms really caught my imagination and made me chuckle at the same time:

Tricky Treaty

Then Toni McGee Causey came along and showed me how NOT to do Christmas:

When in Doubt, Throw Hard Candy

Hope you enjoyed. I'll be back with more as the week goes on.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Take Out, or Delivery?

A couple of readers voiced concerns yesterday about what a cow could possibly find to eat in our snow-covered pastures. One person suggested ordering in Thai food. She was very close. Actually, our cows get all of their meals delivered.

We put up our hay in two forms: small square bales and big round bales. The square bales weigh about sixty pounds on average and are used to feed the horses and smaller bunches of cows, where a thirteen hundred pound round bale would be a bit much.

The square bales are tied with twine.

The round bales are wrapped in a nylon mesh.

So I guess you could say our cows get 'tied' food delivered. (Well, I thought it was funny!) The delivery guy doesn't drive a van. His rig looks like this:

Those yellow arms on the back of the tractor open and shut to release and clamp down on the bale. In this picture it's in hauling position, with the arms clamped low on the bale to lift it off the ground. When he gets out to the pasture, he'll set it down and move the arms up so they're clamped right at the center of the bale. Then he cuts the nylon mesh, peels it off, lowers the bale so it's sitting on the ground, and drives off. The bale rolls out just like a great big sleeping bag:

The cows at the buffet line:

The other option is to put the bale in a feeder, where the cattle can reach in and eat but not stomp in and waste the hay:

The view from the delivery guy's seat:

So there you go, a room with a view...all meals included.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Moo-ving Day

As the seasons change, we rotate our cattle to different pastures. Beginning in February the cows are kept in to pasture closest to the house in preparation for calving. In June, mommas and babies go out to the south leases, where they stay until harvest is done. Then they're trailed home and turned out onto the barley and hayfields to clean up anything the combines and hay balers missed. The next move is clear north, to the pasture that runs right up to the Canadian border.

That was today.

Greg took the lead with the tractor and a hay bale. Vegas and I brought up the rear to keep everyone in line. And I do mean in line:

The cows don't normally string out that way. The snow was anywhere from six inches to two feet deep, so they were following the trail broken by the tractor.

Lookin' just like one of those movie cowgirls!

I guess you could say our cows have a room with a view...of Chief Mountain

Thursday, December 24, 2009

All I Want for Christmas...

Christmas Eve has arrived whether we're ready or not. Hope you've all been good this year...or at least had a good time. My Christmas wish list is pretty short. You can read it over on my other shared blog:  All I Want for Christmas is a Ten Minute Shower

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Tripping - The Final Chapter

If you haven't read Parts Two, Three and Four, you may want to backtrack or this could get confusing in spots. But probably not much more than usual. 

Of all the trips to the ranch for Christmas, the last drive out from Oregon in 2006 was definitely the most memorable. My brother Marty was still living in Juneau, Alaska. Sister Gina and her family were still in Pendleton, Oregon, and my brother-in-law had returned safely from Iraq, thank the Lord.

Plane tickets from Juneau to Great Falls were still pricey, so Marty flew into the airport nearest where we lived to ride home with us. Gina and Paul decided to take the train since Amtrak runs right through Cut Bank, which was great except for the small matter of a few extra packages that wouldn’t fit in their luggage.

And their dog.

Our little black Cadillac was packed to the roof when we left Hermiston. (Yes, Cadillac. You didn't honestly think we kept that Jeep, did you?) The trunk was crammed with Christmas gifts—ours, Gina’s and Marty’s. Plus suitcases and extra winter gear (we were pretty proud of ourselves for making sure the tire chains were on the TOP of the pile). Even the back window of the car and half the floor in the backseat was packed. There was barely room for three adults and a nine month old kid in a car seat.

Luckily, my sister has a small dog.

The roads were good, the traffic polite and reasonable even in Spokane, and the kid slept a lot. So did my brother. We cruised over the first three mountain passes and were in Kalispell for lunch. Gassed up, snacks replenished, we headed east over Marias Pass—the home stretch.

Halfway across, the road narrows and winds up Bear Creek canyon toward the monument marking the spot where you cross the Continental Divide. As we started up the last steep slope, we hit a snow squall. My husband slowed down. Then he said a really bad word.

The red engine light had just come on. The thermometer had suddenly jumped up off the dial. We pulled over.

Two miles back, the sun was shining. Here, the wind was howling and it was snowing sideways. Greg pulled on his hat and gloves and ventured out to look under the hood. Then he said another bad word. The big serpentine belt that operated pretty much everything on the car--including the radiator fan--was broken. The car wasn’t going any farther.

Lucky for us, this was Montana. The first pickup that came along pulled over and asked if we needed help. Greg explained our predicament.

“They said there’s a guy in Browning named Jim Jay who has a tow truck,” Greg said, when he crawled back in the car. “They’re going to call him from the phone at the Snow Slip Inn.”

“Cool!” Marty said. “He’s our cousin.”

Did I mention we’d both been living away from home for quite a few years, and our memories of our relatives had sort of faded around the edges?

Jim Jay arrived sooner than we expected, given we were thirty miles from Browning. We were so happy to see him we didn’t stop to ask ourselves how he got there so quick. Jim Jay’s tow truck was actually a flatbed car hauler, mounted on a Dodge Ram pickup. When the car was winched into place and strapped down, we realized we had a small problem. Four adults, one baby, and a single cab pickup.

Plus the dog.

Greg volunteered to ride in the car. He climbed up onto the flatbed and into the driver’s seat. Marty and I and Logan got in the pickup with Jim Jay. Nobody asked the dog her preference. I held Logan on my lap, the first time he’d ever ridden in a vehicle facing forward, looking out through the windshield. In retrospect, I’m amazed we ever got him into a car again.

Jim Jay hit the gas. At that moment, I had a vivid recollection of the last time I’d driven past his shop on Main Street in Browning. In particular, the shiny purple race car parked out front.

Oh, boy.

The road was steep, winding, and had a generous coating of snow pack that turned to slush as we descended at a rate of speed that made my cheeks pucker. We skidded around curves and flew over potholes, the car swaying and bouncing up on the flatbed. Jim Jay rammed through the gears without bothering to use the clutch.

“I didn’t realize you could speed shift a Dodge,” my brother said casually. No small feat when your teeth are clenched.

“Oh, sure, if you rev it up enough,” Jim Jay said, grabbing a higher gear. “Besides, I have a hard time with clutch since I screwed up my left ankle in that last accident.”

Back in the car, Greg tightened his seatbelt. The dog dove for cover in a Christmas gift bag.

We reached Browning in less time than I could ever have imagined…or desired. When we slowed at the edge of town, I exhaled for the first time since we’d started moving. Thank God. We made it in one piece.

“No sense stopping here, there’s not a repair shop in town anymore,” Jim Jay said. “I’ll take you on to Cut Bank.”

It’s thirty miles from Browning to Cut Bank. Mostly flat and mostly straight. A veritable drag strip. Ten miles out of town, the speedometer hit eighty. I knew this because I was sitting in the middle and had a much better view than I wanted. Then I saw the first road construction sign. Reduced speed ahead. Forty-five miles an hour, no passing. And there was an ancient Chevy pickup puttering along in front us. Jim Jay would have no choice but to slow down.

“Better get around this guy, he looks like one of those people who actually go forty-five,” Jim Jay said, and whipped out into the passing lane.

We barely cleared the Chevy and got back in our own lane when the shoulders of the road disappeared, whacked off by the construction crew, leaving a two foot drop on either side and forcing everyone to crowd the centerline. Except our flatbed stuck out a foot past the cab on either side. We met half a dozen cars, their drivers going wide-eyed at the sight of us bearing down on them. I’m fairly sure we left two or three spinning off into the ditch in our wake.

Then the pavement disappeared completely. The road turned to pitted gravel and frozen mud.

“I hate this part,” Jim Jay said. “Gotta practically crawl through here.”

The speedometer dropped to seventy. Back in the car, Greg had both hands clenched on the steering wheel, braced for when the tie straps broke and they went flying off into the ditch. The dog started reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

We arrived in Cut Bank in record time and one piece…other than four sets of shattered nerves. Jim Jay slid to a stop beside the Cadillac dealership, released the tie straps and dumped the car on the street. Then he roared off before we could even ask how much we owed him. Greg staggered out of the car, green around the gills and weak in the knees.

The dog knelt to kiss the ground.

Merry Christmas. May your holidays be happy and your family entertaining. Or vice versus.

Christmas Tripping - Part Four

In 2004, we owned two vehicles: a 1990 Ford one ton, two door dually pickup and a 1995 Ford one ton, four door dually pickup. I commuted to and from work in the ‘little’ pickup. It occurred to us, though, as I started to swell and we realized we were going to have an actual baby, that it might not be the best Mom car.
As luck would have it, a girl from Sweden had been working for my parents as part of a farm worker exchange program. She’d recently finished her term and gone home, leaving behind the cute little 1985 Jeep Cherokee she’d bought for transportation while in the States. Dad had driven it a few times and figured it would be a dandy car for us.
Plus it was cheap.
We’d ridden out to the ranch from Oregon with my sister for Christmas (see Part Three). My brother was already there (see Part Two). All of us had to get back to Oregon after the holiday. For reasons that escape me now, my sister wasn’t going back at the same time as the rest us. We decided to take the Jeep home, because hey, it was only five hundred and ninety five miles across three mountains passes in the dead of winter. What cheap used car couldn’t handle that?  
We did take it for a test drive first. We aren’t total fools. It seemed to run fine, and my husband was pretty sure the overpowering stench of gasoline was just a leaky fitting. It should fade once we got out on the highway. The lack of a functional radio wasn't so great, but we’d be driving through the mountains most of the time and there’s not much for stations, anyway.
Off we went, with my brother riding shotgun. When we hit cruising speed, we realized two things. First, the gas fumes, if anything, were getting stronger. And the fabric on the ceiling was coming unglued. The warmer it got in the interior of the car, the farther it sagged. This was especially annoying to my brother who, at six three, didn’t have a whole lot of clearance to begin with.  
We toodled over Marias Pass, only slightly dizzy from the gas fumes when we rolled into Columbia Falls. The car ran great…right up until it overheated ten miles from Kalispell.
Steam rolled from under the hood as we pulled off on the side of the highway. When it cleared, we discovered the radiator was half empty. My brother fought free of the saggy ceiling and hiked to the nearest house. He came back with two plastic milk jugs of water. Radiator replenished, we did a U-turn and went back to the Towne Pump at Columbia Falls.  With the engine idling, they scrutinized the hoses, the water pump, the radiator. Not a leak in sight. They checked the fluid level. Hadn’t dropped a millimeter.
Either the leak had repaired itself, or there wasn’t any water in the stupid radiator when we started.
We refilled the milk jugs, stashed them in the back seat, and set off again. The sun came out and the day warmed to the point where I could crack a window for fresh air without risking frost bite, which diminished the fumes significantly. Now if I could just get rid of that backache.
My pregnancy had been disgustingly easy to that point. No morning sickness, no weird food cravings. Then came the backache. The pain started on the trip out, while we were trapped on the interstate in Spokane. By the time we got to the ranch, it felt like someone stuck a hot poker under my right shoulder blade. I quickly figured out that it only bothered me when I sat for long periods of time. 
Like in a car on a twelve hour road trip.
The longer we drove, the worse the pain got, until it radiated clear around to my ribcage.  When we stopped at a convenience store to refuel and switch drivers, I bought a pack of frozen peas, climbed behind the wheel and stuffed the peas down the back of my shirt. I pointed the Jeep straight down the road.
It headed for the ditch.
“Steering’s a little loose,” my husband said from the back seat.  
Uh, yeah. Just a little. Keeping the thing between the ditches required constant correction. Veer right, veer left, veer right, veer left. The gas fumes seemed to have tripled in intensity with the fill-up. I hunched over the wheel to duck the sagging ceiling--knuckles white, shoulder frozen, melting pea juice trickling down the back of my pants--and tried not to inhale.
We reached the interstate at dusk. The sun had melted the snowpack, and a semi drenched my windows with mud splatter as I merged onto I-90. Imagine my surprise when the windshield wiper left a wide opaque streak directly in my line of vision. I hunched lower and flipped on the headlights.
The left headlight shone straight down on the yellow center line. The right one did a fantastic job of illuminating the tops of the fifty foot pine trees lining the ditch. The road in front of me remained dark--what I could see of it through the muddy windshield. I couldn’t see out of the side or rear windows at all.
Somehow, we got to Spokane in one piece. At the same convenience store where we’d experienced our car seat malfunction on the drive out, my husband bought a screwdriver and adjusted the headlights while my brother worked on the windshield wipers. I tossed my soggy bag of smushed peas into the nearest trash can, crawled in the back seat and stretched out flat. I could practically see the gasoline vapors near the floor, but I had reached the point where I was willing to sacrifice consciousness for comfort.
Lying down did the trick. I was feeling no pain when we rolled into Hermiston. Or maybe it was just the fumes. 

One more to go, for those of you who've stuck it out this long. I definitely saved the best for last. Stop by tomorrow and meet cousin Jim Jay. 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Tripping - Part Three

If you're just joining us, please go back to the previous post titled Christmas Tripping Part Two. Or don't. It's up to you. Part One is totally unrelated, but if you don't read Part Two, don't blame me if you get confused.

Two days before Christmas 2004, my sister pulled into our driveway in her minivan, already packed nearly to the roof with luggage, gifts, a pair of kids and a small dog. We eyed our own pile of luggage and gifts. Eyed the minivan. Unpacked a few things. Rearranged and re-packed. Eyed the stack of stuff that still wouldn't fit. Repeated the process. Finally, everything was loaded. Every inch of available space was in use, except for the four bucket seats and an eighteen inch wide space on the far rear seat. 

My sister strapped the kids into their car seats, then clambered over a suitcase, a cooler full of snacks and a portable video player and crammed herself into the crevice on the rear seat, between two stacks of Christmas gifts. Greg climbed behind the wheel and I rode shotgun. We could just see each other over the pile of stuff between the front seats. But we were all in, with not a sliver of space to spare.

A quarter of a mile down our gravel road my husband happened to glance in the rearview mirror. The dog was running along behind. 

We remedied that small oversight and hit the highway. The first three hours flew past on bare, dry, relatively uncrowded roads. Greg pulled into a convenience store on the southwest side of Spokane for a potty and Pepsi break. While my sister was extricating herself from the rear, Greg helped my nephew out of his car seat. He pushed a big red button that looked like it should release the chest strap. The button exploded. Pieces of plastic innards and a pair of springs disappeared into the mounds of stuff wedged into the van.

"That wasn't the right button," my sister said.

We started digging. Forty-five minutes later we had located four of the five parts. Greg jimmied a piece of wire into the remaining gap and we determined that the car seat straps were secure, although the tray table on the front was no longer quite level. Everyone performed the necessary fluid drainage and replenishment functions and we were once again on the road. We even remembered the dog.

The delay, however, was costly. We were now in the dead center of evening rush hour on Interstate 90 through Spokane. (Go ahead and laugh, those of you who live in places like L.A. and Atlanta. This is big stuff to us country folk.)  

There is highway construction on I-90 in Spokane. Always. When they get to the end, they just pack up, move to the other side of town and start over. At this particular time, they were adding additional lanes on the east side. Traffic began to thicken and slow at the Division Street exit into downtown Spokane. The farther we went east, the slower we went, until we barely crawling. 

Then we came to a complete stop, about a mile shy of the Argonne exit. And we sat. And sat. And sat some more. Obviously, this was no ordinary traffic jam. There must be an accident ahead. Greg leaned out the window as far as he dared and determined that yes, there were flashing lights in the distance. 

We sat for a while longer. 

An hour after we entered the Spokane city limits, we began to crawl forward. A row of emergency flares and a highway patrolman funneled us all into the right hand lane. We wondered if we should cover the kids' eyes, in case the accident was really horrible. Finally, we got to the scene of the crash.

Except it wasn't a crash, exactly. A belly dump eighteen wheeler gravel truck was parked in the middle lane, hazard lights flashing. The driver stood beside it, head hanging, as a backhoe scooped up mounds of gravel from the lane behind him. He had somehow dumped his entire load in the middle of the interstate, single-handedly shutting down half of Spokane.  

As we idled past him, Greg shook his head. "And I thought I felt stupid for hitting the wrong button."

Why yes, there is a Part Four. Stop by tomorrow. It's downhill from here...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Tripping--Part Two

2004 was a strange year for our family. In July, my brother-in-law was deployed to Iraq with the Oregon National Guard. My younger sister was halfway through a degree in Soil Science at Oregon State University via their distance learning program. Plus she had two kids and that pesky job. My mother and older sister spent stretches of time in Oregon while little sis traveled for work.

Me? I had the toughest job of all. I was The Tutor. I had to dredge up what was left of the chemistry I'd learned in high school and college from the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain and hope they hadn't changed all the rules since I graduated.

Meanwhile, the rodeo season had been fair to middling, with stretches of downright ugly. Then in August, I hit a hot streak unlike anything I'd ever experienced. In three weekends I vaulted from the middle of the pack to number one in the Pro West breakaway roping standings.

Oh, yeah, I also got pregnant.

Come December, it was once again time to plan the annual trek home to the ranch for Christmas. Since my sister and I lived thirty miles apart in Oregon, it only made sense that we would travel together, but five of us, a dog and all of our packages and luggage in a mini van would be a tight fit.

My brother was working in Juneau, Alaska. A plane ticket to the airport nearest the ranch was three hundred dollars more than a plane ticket to the airport nearest us. An eighty dollar Amtrak ticket would get him to Montana. He didn't want to wait around to ride with us. Plus, we didn't have room for his shaving kit, let alone six feet three inches and two hundred plus pounds of him.

He flew in at six in the evening. I was assigned the task of collecting him from the airport, feeding him, then dumping him at the train station for a nine o'clock departure. Piece of cake. Except his plane out of Juneau was delayed by fog. He barely made the flight in Seattle. His luggage didn't.

But it would be on the very next flight, the airline representative promised happily. The one that arrived at eight thirty. As in, fifteen minutes before the train departed from the station. With three miles to cover in between.

His checked luggage consisted of one large trunk. No way it was fitting into the mini-van unless we left a kid behind. He didn't want to wait and catch the train the next night. We had to try to get him and the trunk onto the train that night.

I dropped him at the depot to check in and went back to the airport to wait for the eight thirty flight, fingers crossed that the plane would be early and the train would be late. I was in luck. At eight thirty five I dragged the trunk off the carousel—what the heck was he giving for Christmas gifts, gold bars from the Yukon?—out the door and into my car. I squealed out of short term parking and onto the street. I'd carefully mapped the shortest route to the train station and drove it like I'd robbed a bank.

The train was idling at the depot when I skidded to a stop out front. My brother dashed out the door, grabbed the trunk and sprinted for the boarding area. He'd barely disappeared inside the car when the doors slammed shut and the train rolled away.

I climbed back in my car and headed home, pleased that I'd somehow failed to attract the attention of a single officer of the law.

And that was supposed to be the easy part of the family holiday trip.

(Come back for Part 3 tomorrow. It gets better. Really..)

Friday, December 18, 2009

For the Love of Shiny Snow

The post office parking lot. Sorry Al Gore, it's just not
a sub-compact kind of climate around here.

I can admit, even in the depths of winter, that fresh fallen snow is beautiful. (Note I did say 'fallen', as opposed to driven into every crack and crevice of every building on the ranch by an angry Artic wind.) Fresh snow sparkles in sunlight, glitters in moonlight. Without it, the old Christmas verses would be sadly lacking. But to my mind, there is nothing as gorgeous as shiny snow.

You see, fresh snow is also light and fluffy snow. Or maybe packed into snowdrifts snow. But until the temperature rises above freezing, it retains the potential to become blowing and drifting snow at the first hint of a breeze. In case you hadn't heard, breezes are quite common around here. Nothing under thirty miles an hour would even dare to call itself wind on the Rocky Mountain front. Combine unfettered snow and a stiff breeze, and you have a small problem when your driveway is two and half miles of this:

It's like it was designed to catch snow, isn't it? And it's been doing a wonderful job for the past two weeks. So wonderful, in fact, that until day before yesterday, the only way to get out to the main road was to cut across the hayfield, up a short section of the road blown clear by the wind, into the barley field, through a hole cut in the fence, around the cattleguard, and finally back onto the last half mile of the driveway. Needless to say, my Jeep Cherokee has been parked out at the end of the road for quite some time, while my husband ferried me back and forth in a chained up four wheel drive. Except for the two days when it was so bad I didn't get to come home from work at all (and many thanks to the relatives who put up with my cranky self for those two nights!).

Tuesday it warmed up. The sun turned up the wattage and the temperatures topped forty, and the topmost layer of snow that had been drifting and shifting and generally making our lives miserable was fused into a delicate layer of ice, just thick enough to trap all the other restless snowflakes under its shell. When I drove home today the wind was blasting away as usual, but nary a drift appeared.

I love shiny snow.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Tripping - Part One

For most people, the holidays mean travel, especially when you live in a different state than your parents. It’s 845 miles from Bath, SD to our ranch here in Montana. We made the drive at least three or four times a year in the eight years we lived out there. Out of all those trips, there was only one time we ended up broke down on the side of the road.

I bought a brand new Dodge pickup right before I moved to South Dakota. I wanted a ¾ ton with two wheel drive. Better mileage, less maintenance, and an excuse to stay home from work when the weather was bad. Turns out I was the only person in Montana who didn’t want a four wheel drive. The dealers didn't even keep them on the lot. I had exactly one to pick from in the whole town of Bozeman, and it had an automatic transmission. Not my preference, but I was only towing a two horse trailer, so I figured it would work.

That was the best truck ever built. I put two hundred and fifty thousand miles on it and replaced one water pump, one radiator, and one rear end seal. Period. We loved that truck so much when Dodge acquired the Cummins diesel engine, we went and bought a dually just like my truck, complete with the automatic transmission.

You know how they say lightning never strikes the same place twice? Neither does the good truck fairy.

Trouble reared its ugly head for the first time in North Dakota. We’d been up in the Minot area at a Saturday rodeo and were headed back to the south side to another rodeo on Sunday. Somewhere along the way, we noticed the truck was shifting weird. Revving too high, then lurching into the next gear. But it was still moving and we didn’t have a whole lot of choice but to keep going.

We planned to spend the night at the saddle club arena in Bismarck. Greg turned into the driveway and pulled up to the gate. It was padlocked. Crud. Guess we’d be finding someplace else to stay.

That’s when we realized we no longer had a reverse gear.

Luckily, no officers of the law wandered past while we broke out the tool box and removed the gate from its hinges. The next day, we chose our parking spots very carefully. We were down to only third gear by the time we got home.

Cue transmission replacement number one.

I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding the second transmission failure, probably because we recognized the warning signs and took it to the shop before it forced us to resort to breaking and entering to turn around. We were on transmission number three when we headed home for Christmas.

Number three didn’t mess around. It imploded in one big rattle and bang outside of Malta, Montana, on one of the more desolate stretches of US Highway 2. The local garage drained a sample of transmission fluid and showed us the pretty metal filings floating around in it. Then we hung around for five hours waiting for my brother to come and fetch us. The truck went home to South Dakota on a flatbed trailer.

By now, the service department at the Dodge dealership in Aberdeen had posted my husband’s picture in their break room, and mechanics scattered like rats into the woodwork when they saw him coming. They decided the overdrive was the problem. Transmission number four was a straight three speed.

Number four was the end of our transmission problems. It was also the end of our speeding ticket problems, because it was geared so low we topped out at fifty-five miles an hour. If you tried to go sixty, the engine over-heated. This was not a good thing when you were trying to work five rodeos in one weekend.

Greg put the Dodge up for sale.

He found a buyer right away. A race car owner who needed a dually to tow his car hauler, and didn’t care that he would be traveling in the slow lane. He called to say he wanted to come out for a test drive. They arranged it for the next day.

Greg figured he should take the Dodge for one last drive, for old times’ sake…and to be sure it would run. He had to make a quick trip to the neighbor’s house anyway. He gave it a little pat on the steering wheel as he slowed for the stop sign on the gravel road. Really, it hadn’t been such a bad truck, other than that pesky transmission.

Suddenly the truck heaved, and lunged, and whomp! The back end dropped flat onto the road. Greg sat for a moment, stunned. Then he looked in the rearview mirror. The entire back axle, dual tires and all, slowly rolled off into the ditch behind him.

Our next truck was Ford with a manual transmission.

*In the interest of fairness, and because I'll be in trouble if I don't, I must add that our experience is not indicative of the quality of Dodge diesel trucks in general. My parents have owned two in recent years and have never had a spot of transmission trouble. Or left any major parts lying alongside the road.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Here We Go Again...

For the second Saturday in a row we are under a winter storm warning. In twelve hours, the temperature has dropped from twenty-five above to ten below, but so far we've only had a skiff of snow. Crossing our fingers that this one slips past, we are barely able to get in and out of here now. Another six inches of snow and we'll be well and truly stuck.

We're not real fashionistas around here at the best of times, but in weather like this style really falls by the wayside. Pop over to Everybody Needs a Little Romance for my post on being a Not So Pretty Woman.

"Hey. Quit messin' with the camera and let me in the dang barn!"

Addendum: (otherwise known as I tacked this on because someone asked.) That horse is not Roo. That is Doc. This is Roo:

I can't imagine why anyone would get them confused. ;)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Call Me Chum

I'm taking a break from my usual programming to participate in a day of recognition for literary agents, because I have more reason than most to appreciate what a dedicated agent can do for a writer.

Approximately ten years ago I was an athletic trainer in eastern Oregon. Ten months out of the year I taped ankles, passed out ice bags, rehabbed shoulders and knees and elbows and generally did my best to keep the Buckaroos of Pendleton High School on the fields and the courts.

The other two months were mine.

We rodeoed as much as we could afford to, but that still left me three or four days a week to hang around the house while my husband worked. I was bored. I had a computer. So I decided to write a book. It seemed to make sense at the time. If I'd known what I was getting myself into, I'd have tossed the computer out the window and went to the bar instead.

That first book was a wandering, convoluted mess with a cast of thousands. I had a blast writing it. My husband thought it was cool because it was about a calf roper. I was hooked.

I decided maybe I should try doing it right. I checked out every book the local library had on writing, studied them carefully, and sat down to write book number two. It was still messy, but better. By the third book, I figured I had this writing deal down pat, so I signed up to pitch the book at a writers conference in August in Portland. From the list of available editors and agents, I chose three to bless with my brilliant prose.

That is how I met Janet Reid.

At the time, she and a partner were busting their butts to get their new Pacific Northwest Literary Agency off the ground. She sat patiently (and without bursting into hysterical laughter) through what I'm sure was a horrible pitch and asked me to send her the first three chapters of my book anyway. I did. A few weeks later, I got a letter asking me to send the rest. I did a happy dance and sent it. More weeks passed. I got busy with basketball season and stopped chewing my nails, wondering if I'd ever hear another word.

The State 2B basketball tournament is held in Pendleton every year around the first week of March. I was part of the sports medicine crew, parked at the scorers' table on the sideline, watching my thirty-seventh consecutive hour of hoops and debating the wisdom of ear plugs to block out the sound of a truly frightful high school band and even more frightful fans. I almost didn't hear my cell phone ring. I had to get up and go out in the lobby to hear over the screaming.

Some person I barely remembered said, "I love your book and I want to be your agent."

I'm pretty sure I screamed so loud the fans and the band had to plug their ears.

That was the spring of 2003. We polished up the manuscript and Janet sent the book out to every editor who might possibly be interested. We got some nice comments, helpful feedback, but no offers. I wrote another, better book. We got better comments, more helpful feedback, but still no contract. I started another book that fell apart three fourths of the way through and couldn't be patched up. Janet lost a partner, changed the name of her agency to Jet Reid Literary. I changed jobs, went to more rodeos, and started yet another book.

Then I got pregnant.

My son was born eleven weeks premature. He came through like a champ, but suffice to say, I didn't get much writing done that year. Then we decided, while home for Christmas in 2006, to move back to Montana and set in motion a two year plan to get it done.

I started what I hoped would be a home-based business I could run from the ranch. Most of another year passed with nothing new to send to Janet. Occasionally I would get an email, asking if I was still alive and capable of poking computer keys. I would reply with vague promises and a boatload of excuses. When I got a letter explaining Jet Reid Literary was becoming a part of Fine Print Literary Management, I was surprised to find a new contract enclosed. It had been so long since I'd submitted anything, I expected to be left in a dusty corner of the old office.

Then one day, after we had packed up and hauled ten years of accumulated baggage and horses from Oregon to Montana and got ourselves settled in, I got another email from Janet. How were things going? Was I working on anything? She'd really love to see something new from me.

That email is probably the only reason I'm still writing. I sat there looking at my computer and I thought, You are an idiot.

At any given time, there are several thousand writers who would donate their left eye to science if they thought it would get their work read by an honest to goodness New York literary agent. And I was twiddling it away.

I emailed her back, said yes, I was working on something new...and I did. It wasn't the best thing I've ever written. It will, in fact, never been seen in public. But it got me going again. Then I started a blog because Janet said I should, and I discovered a whole new side to my writing. I started another book. For the first time, I really tapped into who I am and where I came from. It's the most fun I've ever had with a computer, including the stupid Elf Bowling game that was all the rage many Christmases ago.

Last week, for the first time in four years, a book of mine ventured out into the cold cruel world of publishing houses. Maybe it will sell. Maybe it won't. But neither that book or this blog would exist if I hadn't gotten a nudge from the right person at the right time, so I guess as long as she's willing to read them, I'll keep writing them.

My agent is Janet Reid, aka The Shark, and I am honored that she considers me her chum.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Storm Breaks and Chain Cows

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, the snow and wind let up. So far it looks like everything survived, but the drifts are so deep in spots it's possible a cow could be buried and we won't find her until spring. The storm was pushed out by an Artic air mass, which means it's fifteen degrees below zero, but we were able to get out and feed all the cows so they're happier than in the midst of the storm.

It also meant I finally had time to show the Chain Cow around the ranch. (If you don't know the story of the cow, check it out here). She was wishing she'd haired up for winter before making the trip. Here she is, catching a wave--Montana style.

After taking my photos I stuck her in my pocket and went on doing chores, which in my case meant packing hay to horses. I forgot all about the cow until I was headed back to the house. I'm afraid she won't be quite as spiffy when she reaches her next destination.

So, who's next on the Chain Cow blog tour? First to raise their hand gets her, although she did mention she was hoping for someplace quite a bit farther south.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Still Hunkered

Twenty four hours after the snow started falling and it's showing no sign of letting up. The wind is blowing so hard we can't tell if the snow is still falling or it's just blowing around. The drifts between my house and my mother's are above my waist. I piggy-backed my son across the yard and the wind-driven snow stung his face so bad he started to cry.

Looking out our front door this morning. It's deeper now.

My husband, heading out to do the chores.

Looking out the same window as in the picture from last night. There's cabin only thirty yards over there, unless it blew away during the night.

We were going to grill steaks for lunch, but...

Visibility is only a few yards and it's impossible to see the big drifts. My husband got the four wheel drive stuck halfway to the barn. Times like this you pray no one gets injured or sick. There's no way we could get to the hospital. I doubt a helicopter could navigate it, either. Of course, this is when someone always does something dumb. Like when I got an infection in a blister on my hand and a red line started creeping up my arm. Or the time my brother stuck a bobby pin in the electric outlet. Luckily, both turned out okay. Didn't even need a doctor by the time the roads were cleared.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Hunkerin' In

Back in the pioneer days, before radio and television or even telephones, the first warning a rancher had of an approaching storm was the front rolling over the Milk River ridge. One look at a cloud like this sends everyone in our area scurrying around, feeding and sheltering and tying down anything that can blow away or get buried. Once the cloud gets this close, you know you've got, at best, an hour or two before the snow starts. I took this picture at lunch time.

Ember, Julie and Roo must have seen the cloud rolling in too. They were hanging around the gate all day, waiting for someone to let them in. They're under the lean to now, nibbling hay.

By three o'clock, it looked like this.

Now it looks like this out my living room window. As the snow piles up, the visibility gets worse with the wind gusting up to forty miles an hour. They're telling us it's going to last most of the day tomorrow, and the temperatures are going to drop well below zero before it's all done.

Looks like we're getting a White Christmas this year.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mail Beef- Part Two

This story actually starts long ago and far away. Well, not years and years ago, but a few weeks, on a farm in Ireland. Susan at Stony River has a beautiful farm and a lovely blog, and also had a contest. One of the winners was Carol at Rimrock English Shepherds in Ten Sleep WY. Susan sent Carol a stuffed cow.

Carol came up with the idea of sending the cow on a 'blog tour', visiting ranches around the US and maybe the world. She mailed the cow to me.

I live twelve miles from my mailbox. My mailbox lives approximately fifty yards from the Canadian border at the Del Bonita Port of Entry. Unfortunately, at this time of year it's dark when I go to work and dark when I get home, so I haven't been able to take a picture. This one I found on the web will have to suffice:

The big brown sign says 'Welcome to Montana'. The silver thing to the left of it is a set of twelve mailboxes for all the people who live out on our gravel road. Go a mile straight down that highway, take a right, drive nine miles west, take another right onto my driveway, go two and half miles north and west, off the ridge and around the curve, and you'll arrive at my house.

For perspective, here's a view of the mailboxes from the Port of Entry office, looking south:

So, back to the cow. Our mailman is not the most reliable and conscientious individual you will ever meet. It's a rare week that we don't get a letter or two that should have gone to one of the neighbors. Or someone we've never heard of. The cow arrived in a cardboard box six inches square. Which are the exact proportions of our mailbox. So he thoughtfully stuck the cow in the mailbox, rather than in the wooden structure to the left of the mailbox where packages are normally left. (No, the package bin isn't locked. Everybody's stuff is put in there together. Looks like several of the people on my aunt's Christmas list are getting gifts from Coldwater Creek this year. Nice!)

Here's the problem with putting the cow in the mailbox. The door at the back where the mailman puts stuff in is six by six, just like the box, and the package. The door we take the mail out of is five by five.

The cow was stuck.

Last night, after retrieving my husband and son off the westbound Amtrak from the Dakotas, we swung by the mailbox. A pocketknife and a few swearwords later, the box was dismantled and the cow is safely cruising around in my Jeep. Sadly, it was too dark for pictures.

She arrived just in time for three inches of snow and subzero temperatures. Looks like the cow is going to need to put on some winter hair fast, or we're going to have frozen beef.