Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Crazy Diet: Week One Diary

Site MeterIf you read what I've eaten this week, you'll notice a few things: 

* This isn't exactly a Candida diet, but similar.
* This isn't exactly Paleo, but similar. Both of these facts are because I know my body well enough to know what works, what doesn't, and what I need to do. I may limit certain foods here and there just to see how I react, too.
* I've cheated once or twice. Partly because I started on a whim before I'd been to the store, and partly because I lack an exceptional amount of self control, which is pretty necessary to be 100% successful.

In addition to the food listed here, I've been drinking a couple of mugs of hot tea (green tea, dandelion, ginger and once in awhile vanilla chai.) I add fresh lemon or lime to everything but the chai.

Day 1: Monday

I didn't go grocery shopping before I started this, so I'm working with what I have on hand for a couple days.

Breakfast: goat sausage (homemade, only goat meat and spices) sauteed with peppers, leeks and onions. Surprisingly good and very filling.

Lunch: Tuna salad (a bowl of canned tuna, olives, tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers with an apple cider vinegar-based dressing.) This would be better with some kind of cracker, or at least wrapped in lettuce, but this is what I had.

Dinner: Crock pot roast beef with quinoa on the side. Needed more veggies but all I had was carrots and potatoes, and I need to limit starchy foods for awhile. Would've been good with a pile of sauteed spinach.

I also took a pretty hefty dose of probiotics and anti-fungals, including teas and chopped raw garlic.

Day 2: Tuesday

Breakfast: quinoa with dressing.

Lunch: I skipped lunch. By this time, I could feel the die-off reaction and I laid in bed for six hours. I fully regret taking so many anti-fungal herbs all at once now. I'd never experienced die-off before and didn't think it could really be that bad. I was wrong.

Dinner: Blueberry smoothie (raw yogurt, blueberries, chia seeds and walnuts.) This was easy on my stomach that was pretty sure I was trying to kill it.

Day 3: Wednesday

Breakfast: quinoa, warm with cinnamon, stevia, and goat milk. Seriously not good. Made me miss sugar, and I usually don't mind not having sugar.

Lunch: Chipotle (we were out running errands. And finally buying groceries!) I had a chicken bowl with brown rice, chicken, lettuce, medium salsa. I only ate half.

Dinner: My leftover Chipotle bowl.

Day 4: Thursday

Breakfast: coconut flour waffles with raw butter, homemade unsweetened wild-apple sauce and sprinkled with cinnamon. Really, really good. My kids even loved the waffles, though they had theirs with maple syrup.

Lunch: My favorite version of a gluten-free "sandwich" - brown rice tortilla spread with roasted red pepper hummus, sliced turkey, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, and a fresh tomato from my garden. I love that meal and could eat it almost daily.

Dinner: Gluten free pasta (tinkyada brand) topped with a sauce I made from garden veggies: tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and basil roasted in the oven at 425 for half an hour, then blended up with a stick blender. A big salad on the side with apple cider vinaigrette.

Way too many grains today, but I didn't feel bad. In fact, my stomach is finally starting to feel normal after my excessive herb dose on Monday. Started taking a much more reasonable amount of anti-fungals again. Also taking a very high quality probiotic.

Day 5: Friday

Breakfast: blueberry smoothie with raw yogurt, blueberries, spinach, coconut oil, and chia seeds. Very tasty, but I was starving by 10:30. Had a handful of walnuts and unsweetened coconut chips for a snack.

Lunch: used the leftover gluten free pasta to make a pasta salad - tomatoes, olives, onions, proscuitto and sunflower seeds with the rest of my apple cider dressing.

Dinner: chicken tacos. I threw a (home grown) chicken in the crock pot early. I shredded it and added spices (cumin, chili powder, fresh garlic, sea salt, oregano, onion powder) and mixed it with a bit of olive oil. Also made a pico with garden tomatoes, onions, cilantro, jalapenos, lime juice and raw garlic. Instead of tortillas I made my "taco" on leaves of romaine lettuce. I loved it and didn't feel deprived at all. I also tried avocado again today. I really want to like it, but I still don't.

(Side note: you'll also notice eggs are missing from my breakfasts. It's not that I'm allergic, I just really, really hate eggs. I have since I was a child. I can't even muster up the courage to try them again yet. Maybe soon. Ugh. I know they'd be good for me.)

I also tried a Pinterest recipe for gluten, sugar, and dairy free snickerdoodles. It was a good reminder of how much cookies suck on this diet. They look like cookies. They have the texture of cookies. And yet, they taste nothing like cookies. The stevia leaves a bitter taste and doesn't really provide much sweet. Cinnamon that isn't mixed with sugar isn't very good. The texture was great though - coconut flour is interesting to work with. I might run with the base and rework it a little next time. I imagine some nuts chopped up and honey (in a few weeks) would be pretty good.

Day 6: Saturday

Breakfast: leftover chicken from last night's tacos with sauteed spinach, topped with pico. Yum!

Lunch: tuna, olives, tomato and hummus wrapped in lettuce leaves. Definitely not enough. Ate two fake snickerdoodles for a snack an hour later.

Dinner: We ran the Glow Run 5k tonight. Dinner was served after - really, really good Mexican food. I opted for a beef and bean burrito with no tortilla. It was served with rice and topped with lettuce and tomato. I'm sure there was cheating in there, but I'd just run my first 5k. I didn't care. I also followed that up with a shot of vodka on ice when I got home. (I read that, of all alcohol, vodka and gin are the "safest". I have no idea if that's true. But it was nice to have a sip of something, and I love vodka straight.)

As far as I could tell, I suffered no ill effects from my little bits of cheating today, except that I slept poorly and had a crazy-weird dream involving a Messianic woman trying to steal my husband and me getting a job at his work and having to fire the lady that works at the library. Yeah, don't ask.

Day 7: Sunday

Breakfast: blueberry smoothie with coconut chips in it. Also potatoes. Because we ate at my parents' house. It's really, really hard to say no to my mama's cooking. I packed my own smoothie, and had some hash browns while everyone else had biscuits and gravy. The feeling of deprivation was mild, surprisingly. Especially since biscuits and gravy is my favorite food.

Lunch: Chipotle. When we go to The Big City, we eat out. And apparently Chipotle will be the only place we eat anymore. It's all good though. I love me some chicken bowl. About mid-way through the afternoon, after much grocery shopping (and therefore thinking about food,) I gave in and had a blueberry Lara bar.

Dinner: I'm excited about this one. Moose steaks, mashed garlic sweet potatoes, and roasted broccoli. I mean, um, moose steaks! It was a gift from a guy that Andrew helped last week. It was so, so good to eat wild game again. I missed it. And I finally found a form of broccoli I can eat without gagging. It was, I would dare to say, almost even actually good. This dinner was a win all around.

Today was a high-sugar day, which I feel just slightly bad about. But none of it was because of sweeteners. There was a banana in my smoothie, dates in the Lara bar, and sweet potatoes for dinner. The funny thing is, I can feel myself sort of craving sugar, something I normally don't do. Not sure if there's a correlation there or not.

So, week 1 final thoughts: I'm not going to be able to do this perfectly. I know me, I know my life, and I know reality. I cheated a few times, though I haven't had any added sugar or sweeteners and I haven't had any gluten. One drink, three servings of sweet fruit... other than that, I was pretty successful. I noticed today that I wasn't experiencing my typical afternoon crash that usually happens around 2:00. No headaches, stomach pain, etc. I have tons of energy, and I feel really good. I'm also enjoying trying new recipes and new ways of cooking foods I don't normally like. I'm feeling pretty good going into week two!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

It's Time.

Site MeterIt's time again for the Crazy Diet. This was the term coined by The Oldest the last time I went on this diet. I lasted a full three months - my goal.

So what is the Crazy Diet? Basically, no sugar (or sweetener of any kind including honey, etc.), no gluten, no dairy, no caffeine, no alcohol, and limited fruit and grains.

How can I tell it's time again? I just don't feel amazing. I'm always tired, I'm moody and irritable, my skin keeps breaking out and my hair's really brittle. My stomach has a tendency to cramp to the point where my back hurts something awful every time I eat a piece of bread or a pancake. I just don't have the energy and motivation I normally do.

I'm altering the diet a bit based on what I know I need, having spent several years listening to what my body is telling me. I know I'm gluten intolerant. Every time I eat it I feel kind of sick. But I also really, really love bread so I'm usually willing to suffer. Sugar affects me too - makes me super exhausted and I don't sleep well. Because starches like white potatoes and beans convert to sugar in the body, I'm cutting those for awhile too. And fruit, because while it's healthy, it's also sugar. I'm limiting dairy to only raw goat's milk and raw goat's milk yogurt, and only in moderation. I know from experience that I can tolerate raw milk just fine.

So what am I going to eat? Pretty much just meat and vegetables. I'll have a serving of grains (whole grains, gluten free) each day if it fits into a meal, or a serving of low sugar fruit (berries and citrus.) I'm going to stay pretty strict for 3 weeks or so, do a bit of a "system restore" on my body. After that I'll head mostly paleo, with meat and veggies being primary, but adding in a bit of natural sweetener. I know I need to give up gluten and sugar for the long term.

It's not an easy diet. But I feel so, so much better when I stick to it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Sneffels Part Two: The Climb

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Before this, I'd never climbed a fourteener. I'd never really cared to. But there was something about that mountain that had drawn me to it, that made me desperate to stand on top of it. 

I was mildly confident we could do it. After all, hundreds if not thousands of people successfully climb to the top every year. If they could do it, why couldn't I? I did a fair bit of research, I had a route guide printed out complete with pictures, and I'd read blogs and trip reports. It was intimidating, but I was sure we could handle it. We're in pretty decent shape, right? But no. Those pictures, those trip reports... nothing could have prepared me for what we were about to do. I seem to have a habit of underestimating nature. I should stop that.

We walked up the trail a ways and dropped our packs. We stuffed some necessities into a day pack, put on our helmets and gloves, and started up. It got hard, fast. It doesn't look that steep until you're standing at the foot of that first slope. It's long and it goes straight up. There's what looks like a sort of trail, but as soon as you get to it you realize there's no way on God's green earth you're going to use it. It's slicker than even the Blue Lakes Pass trail. You take a step, and your foot slides out from under you as the gravel slips all around. We moved over to the left. The rocks were big, some even boulder-sized. That seemed much better. I was on all fours, using my arms as much as my legs to propel myself upward. (My gloves were the best thing I'd brought with me. I'd taken trekking poles, but didn't use them long.)

 Every third step or so, whatever rock your foot was on would drop out from under you and leave you desperately trying to find another spot to put your foot while that rock made its way down the mountain. At some point, the boulders turned into talus - rocks about the size of my hand, loose and ready to slide at any moment. There was a moment when I couldn't find anything solid to hold onto. My heart was back up in my throat - it spent a lot of time there on this trip - and I just laid on the rocks until I could get my courage back up. And then we kept going. It took an unreasonably long time to make it to the top of the slope. But then we sat there on the saddle and looked around, and it was absolutely incredible. There was only one other group of climbers at that point - they'd made it to the top just before us and had continued on. We watched them for awhile, soaked in the view, and breathed some of that thin mountain air before continuing.

What you can't see from the bottom of the scree slope is just what the Lavender Couloir actually looks like. You make it up to the col, and you think you've done great. And then you turn, and you look up. It's shorter than the first slope, but it's twice as steep and twice as rough. Back on all fours, we made our way up, hand over foot. I'm a hiker. My leg muscles are pretty stout. My arms? Not so much. And they were getting one hell of a workout.

We made pretty good time, considering. And then I remembered The Notch. I'd read about it. Everyone made it sound so scary. But I'd also seen pictures, and it didn't look so terrible. And then I got there.

"Exposure" is the word they kept using when they described it. What is exposure? Apparently it's a 100 foot sheer drop off only inches away from where you're expected to climb. It was at this moment that I developed a fear of heights. I sat against the wall and declared to my husband that I didn't really care to get to the top, after all. There was no. way. in. hell. that I was going to climb up through that God-forsaken notch and risk my life to get to the top of some silly mountain. So I sat there. And I cussed a lot. I had hit a psychological barrier and there simply would not be any going further. I wanted to cry. I almost threw up.

And then I sucked it up, and I started up. Andrew was behind me, helping me find footing. Being a short person at that notch is not ideal. But the hand holds were solid, and using some of the upper arm strength that I only managed to muster because I really didn't want to die, I pulled myself up and through it. And he followed, with no trouble. Apparently, this is a Class 3 climbing maneuver. I know now that I'm very comfortable being a Class 2 climber. Physically, I was perfectly capable. Mentally? Not so much. But I did it.

They say, "Once you get through the notch, it's easy." They lie. I think maybe it really was pretty easy, but I was still freaked out about the exposure and I was flat out terrified as we climbed the last 150 feet. It's a long way down if you screw up.

And then, there we were. On top of the tallest mountain I'd ever stood on, a solid 2,000 feet higher than I'd ever stood before. I was dizzy and elated and scared to death and so freaking happy I couldn't contain it - all at the same time. We visited with a couple other folks who had made it before us. I thought about eating something and decided that would be positively stupid. We signed the summit log and took some pictures. We stared all around us. It felt like we were on top of the world.

The views we'd enjoyed as we'd hiked through the basin were nothing compared to the way it looked from the top. It was breathtaking. It was dizzying. You could see for miles.

And then, only because there really wasn't any other option, we headed down. Down is not easy. Down is, in fact, harder than up in a lot of ways. Going through the notch was equally as scary as it was the first time - this time I was on my belly and couldn't see what I was doing. Going down the couloir was a whole new experience, one that used new muscle groups. I quickly decided the easiest way down was sitting on my butt. Most of the way, I "crab-walked" down, my arms and legs holding my butt a couple inches off the ground. (There's not far to fall if you do it this way!) On the slick parts, I'd just sit down and go for it, sliding till my feet hit a rock and stopped me. I felt a little silly, sliding like a child. Then later, I learned there's a technical term for this method: it's called a "seated descent." That made me feel better. Truthfully though, you get to the point where all you want is to get down off the mountain in one piece, and if that means sliding all the way, you do it.

My muscles were sore. I didn't use any of the hiking muscles that have gotten pretty strong this year. I used my arms and abs and muscles I didn't know I had. Putting on my pack at the bottom was a whole new experience - a painful one, because my shoulders were stiff and sore from the climb. We hiked out that afternoon.

I learned some things on this mountain, this mountain that I knew had to be my first fourteener. I learned that getting to the summit really isn't the whole point of the climb. It's the climb itself. It's pushing yourself, breaking through psychological barriers, digging out courage you didn't know you had. It's physical exertion that makes you feel incredibly strong. It's appreciating the mountain for all that it is, not just the summit. Climbing a mountain gives you this intense respect for nature - for its power and timelessness and its minute detail that is so easily overlooked, even from the base of the mountain. Reaching the summit was just the mid-way point of an awesome adventure, one I won't forget and that I'm so glad I had. Through all of it - the physical exhaustion, the fear, the breathlessness and the beauty - I never once regretted doing it.

You have to do incredible things to see incredible places. The harder it is to get there, the more worth it the trip becomes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Sneffels Trip: Part One

So let's start this post off by stating a very important fact: I'm not a mountain climber. I've never been a mountain climber, and I've never wanted to be a mountain climber. I'm a hiker. I love walking.

That said, I've spent a fair bit of time this summer walking around in the Sneffels Wilderness in the San Juan mountains, staring at that big, beautiful, brutal mountain and wondering what it would be like to stand on top of it.

So I decided to find out. 

My husband and I planned a three day trip to the Ouray area that would include camping at the Upper Blue Lake and climbing Mount Sneffels. It's fair to say this trip was somewhat spontaneous - we had a vague idea of what we planned to do and how we planned to do it, but much of it was "we'll see when we get there."

We drove to Ouray and then further on into Yankee Boy basin.

This was our second time driving this road to get to what is arguably the prettiest spot in all of Colorado. I didn't enjoy the drive much the first time, and I didn't care for it much this time, either. Single-lane shelf road, sometimes with an overhang. But getting to the most beautiful places on earth is never easy.

We drove as far as was reasonable without a Jeep, to a sign that said "Four wheel drive, high clearance, short wheel base vehicles only." This put us about a mile from the trail head. We donned our packs (mine weighed 34 lbs, his weighed 50) and started off. Instead of heading toward toward the Mt. Sneffels trailhead, we took the Blue Lakes Pass trail uphill, above treeline, and right into the center of the basin. 

It's one of those places that takes your breath away. (Or that could have been the fact that we were walking up hill above 12,000 feet.) Either way, it's gorgeous. Mount Emma to our left with Gilpin Peak behind it, and to our right, towering above us were Teakettle and Coffeepot peaks. There was a creek with cascading waterfalls along the trail falling into an incredibly deep canyon, and we passed Wright's Lake, a small glacial lake. And just past that, up a bit more of the hill, and we could see Sneffels in all its glory, towering menacingly above. No picture that has ever been taken could do this basin justice. You stand there, surrounded by these huge, jagged, foreboding peaks, and you feel so small and insignificant. Above treeline, the flora is minimal - short grasses, a few flowers that have survived into fall. And rocks. So, so many rocks - piles of them here and there, undoubtedly from rockslides in years past - these mountains are crumbling a little bit every day.

The Blue Lakes Pass summit was only about two and a half miles from the truck. Our plan was to cross the summit and continue down the other side to the Upper Blue Lake and set up camp for the night. We summited. It was a view I'd been waiting to see for months.

 Incredible and perfect and beautiful.

And then we started down.

It wasn't long before we realized it was stupid. The trail wasn't much more than a foot wide, traveling steeply downhill and not ever actually flat. And looking down was about 900 feet of elevation loss in very short time. A steep, nasty, dangerous rocky mountain. One slip and, with packs, we could find ourselves at the bottom, and likely severely injured. Why we kept going, I'll never know. But we did keep going, about halfway down the trail. It was a well packed trail with little bits of gravel scattered all over it - perfect for slipping on. I slipped several times, my heart jumping into my throat each time I steadied myself. At some point I asked why we were doing this. Plans can change, right? So we - very carefully - turned around and started heading back up. I was terrified. I actually made him hold my hand for the steepest parts. One foot in front of the other, tiny steps at a time, and we summitted the pass again. One more look down at those gorgeous, turquoise-blue lakes, and we started looking for any flat spot to pitch a tent.

We found it not far away, right at the foot of Sneffels.

We laid there in the grass, relishing the feeling of solid ground beneath us, and rested while we watched the last of the day's hikers come back down the scree slope of Sneffels. One guy fell hard - completely laid out, on his back. He slid down on his butt after that. Smart move, dude. We watched for awhile as a couple of older gals came down, slower than slow. I will never judge them for their pace. They didn't get hurt, therefore they won. Then we headed down to a mountain spring for water, about 1/4 mile down the trail. 

So while we weren't camped where we'd intended, we ended up sleeping in what is hands down the prettiest place I've ever slept in my life, in absolute solitude. We dined on freeze-dried beef stroganoff and white wine in our enamel camp cups. It was a fantastic dinner. Then we set up the tent and were asleep by 8:30, exhausted. 

Morning came quickly, and we broke down camp. It was frigid - cold enough that ice had formed inside our Nalgene bottles. We heated water for tea, ate cold bagels with cream cheese, and enjoyed our breakfast while watching the sun light up the mountains surrounding us. It was COLD. I couldn't feel my fingers, and the feeling in my toes was going fast. And in less than two hours, we'd be climbing the massive mountain we were looking at. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What I Learned In The Wilderness

Site MeterThere are so many things to learn about life, lessons that a long trail can teach you. Since I've been home, something in my attitude is changed a little bit. My outlook on life is the same, but maybe just a bit wiser.

Here are some of the things I learned on my little foray into the wilderness:

Choose your friends wisely. Pick people who make you really happy, that share your interests, and that you truly enjoy being with. Spend time with people who like to push themselves further than they've gone before. Their character will rub off on your character. Make sure they are worthy of your respect and your time. And if you're going to be hiking for a really long time in the woods, make sure you can laugh with them, talk to them for hours, and that they can keep a good attitude in what could otherwise be a miserable situation.

You'll never really get to know people if you only socialize on Facebook. There's a real life out there, folks, and real people. People that are worth getting to know on a much deeper level than social media will allow.

If you're starting to feel a little too confident, go for a hike. Mother Nature will put you right back in your place.

There is so much life to live. You aren't going to run out of amazing things to do. Don't waste your time on things that don't matter in the end. Life is short. Live it.

Take care of your body. If you do, it will take you anywhere you want to go. And don't take it for granted. You never know what will happen in the future.

Stop hating your body because it isn't perfect. Fix what you can, accept what you can't, but it's capable of incredible things. Respect it for all that it is and that it does for you.

Go NOW. Don't wait. When the opportunity comes, jump on it. It might not be a perfect time, you might have more "important" things to do. But they'll likely wait. Opportunity doesn't always wait. If it's something you want to do, go do it.

You are strong enough to do anything, if it's something you really want to do. Find your limits, acknowledge them, and push past them. Then do it again. You'll gain muscle and character.

Even the little mundane moments (of the hike or in life) are part of the journey. Appreciate them. They're getting you where you want to go.

And if you're not going where you want to go, turn around and start going there.

Don't rush. You might miss something incredible.

Never underestimate people. Never write them off because they have different ideas than you. Talk to them, listen to them, appreciate their thoughts and experiences. They have wisdom you don't. You don't have to change your beliefs, but you can learn a few things by listening.

 Choose your attitude. You can complain because the creek is cold and deep, or you can splash through it laughing and feel satisfied when you know you crossed it. Life's too short to get mad about things you're going to have to do anyway.

Don't waste your time being afraid of things you can't see. They might not even be there. Keep an eye out, stay aware, but don't let an opportunity pass you by because you're afraid of something you're probably just imagining anyway.

Don't forget how small you really are. Stand on a mountain and look around at the vastness of the world. Let it comfort you and terrify you at the same time. It'll keep you humble.

Stop and appreciate really small things. They are what add beauty and value to that immense world you a part of.

If it sounds crazy, it's probably worth doing -- and it's the doing that makes you just a little bit wiser than you were before.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Sneffels Traverse

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5 days. 32 miles. 35 pound backpacks. 


Confidence: that feeling you get before you fully understand the situation.

We were dropped off with six other people at the top of Last Dollar Pass out of Telluride, Colorado at the Alder trailhead. We watched the SUV drive away, and there we were, with nowhere to go but down the trail. It was only  moments before we were surrounded by the San Juan wildnerness. Our groups quickly separated, some walking quickly, others stopping to enjoy the scenery a bit. In about five minutes, it was just Nicole and I. We were to walk 8.3 miles through rough terrain over unmaintained trail to arrive at a tiny wooden hut in the woods before nightfall.

The first thing we did was stop and fill up our hydration packs with mountain stream water. It really was delicious, and icy cold. It wasn't long before we realized this trail wasn't going to be like any other trails we'd hiked. Every couple hundred feet there were downed logs - big ones, sometimes waist-high. Some would not quite fall to the ground before being caught by another tree, and we'd have to decide if we'd rather go over or under. The climbing trees quickly became a huge annoyance.

Do you see a trail here? Yeah, neither did I.

Filling my hydration pack from a tiny little stream.
Best water you ever tasted, hands down.

It doesn't sound so bad, but after about the twentieth log, with 35 pounds strapped to your back and throwing off your center of balance, it gets tough. At 3.3 miles we arrived at an old trapper's cabin, and our written instructions were so difficult to understand that our entire group came together to problem solve. We ended up taking what looked more like a game trail than a hiking trail based on compass readings, gps coordinates, and two maps. That game trail did, indeed, turn out to be the trail we wanted. After that point there was enough flagging tape to keep us pretty confident we were on the right track, but by mile five it started to feel like the trail would go on forever and we might never reach the hut. Climbing over those logs was using a whole new muscle group - not the walking muscles we'd worked to build up over the past several months. Every time we'd lift our legs over yet another fallen tree, our muscles would scream in agony. We were checking the GPS every few minutes, hoping we would start to see our next waypoint. At one point we realized we were averaging just about one mile an hour of hiking. On a normal hike, we are closer to 2.5 or 3 mph. Picking up the pace wasn't an option - those packs and all the trail obstacles made moving faster impossible. And to keep things interesting, there were a handful of places where the trail was destroyed by avalanche slide areas. That in itself wasn't a problem - it was easy to find the trail again. But climbing up the sides of ravines, sometimes doing what looked like gymnastics moves to get up, was a bit tricky, especially with those damn packs.
But you feel so dang accomplished 
when you do finally manage to climb them.

After what seemed like a painful eternity, we reached the four-way intersection we'd be watching for for hours. It was such a blessed sight that we stopped and celebrated with what would be the first of many, many Cliff bars and some of that delicious water. We sat, talked, laughed at how confident and in shape we'd felt just hours before, and enjoyed the complete solitude and immensity of the forest surrounding us. It was moments like these that we remembered why we were doing this.

It was a couple more hours before we found the hut. It was a ways off the trail, hidden in a clearing beyond another clearing. A tiny, brown wooden structure tucked back and away, with a view to die for. Beyond the hut was the toilet, an elevated structure with a window in the door so you could enjoy that incredible view each time you used the loo. It was after 6 pm when we arrived at the hut. Two of the folks we'd been dropped off with were already there. The four others wandered in an hour or two later, having gotten a little lost looking for the hut.

The view from outside the first hut, where we ate our meals.
Nothing beats seeing the sunrise light those mountains up.

 We heated water on the propane stove, rehydrated our Mountain House dehydrated dinners, and sat outside on stumps, staring at the gorgeous, rugged mountains, eating dinner and reveling in awe at the fact that it took Mother Nature only one day to kick our asses. We laughed and talked and sat there, completely satisfied. And also a little terrified of what Day Two would hold in store.

Day Two, as it turned out, wasn't whole lot easier than Day One, but it was a more pleasant seven miles than the first day's eight. For one thing, there were fewer trees blocking the path. Also, there were more open spaces, places we could look out see something other than dense, never-ending forest. It was also very well marked and harder to get lost. This was also the day that our trail guide started using words like "climb" and "ascend" and occasionally "steep." By the end of the day, we understood that each of those words was synonymous with "pain". At mile three we came up to a beautiful shallow creek. We donned our water shoes and frolicked in the water for awhile like children. It was so cold. We splashed around until our feet were so cold we got brain-freeze.
This moment made carrying the weight of my 
Keens totally worth it. 

 Then we had lunch and carried on. We got to the part where it said we would "climb steeply". Somewhere around mile five on that second day, we were passed by four cowboys on horseback, happily riding right up the meadow we were "climbing steeply." There may have been a moment where one of us suggested holding them up and stealing their horses. Or at the very least, begging pitifully for them to haul our packs up the hill and leave them at the top. We learned that it was less tiring if we took ten or fifteen steps and stopped to catch our breath than to try to muscle through to the top and sit there while our heart rates returned to normal.

Cocan Flats. Open meadows are like a breath of fresh air when you've been buried in deep woods for days.

At mile six we walked into Cocan Flats. This was the first really, truly awesome view. Standing there, I felt so small, so insignificant. It was one of those places that reminds you just how vast the world is, and how very small each of us is. I felt powerless and completely consumed by nature. I think every person in the world ought to feel that way at least once. It wasn't much longer to the next hut. We arrived a couple hours earlier than the night before and our group sat around eating our dehydrated dinners and visiting and starting to really get to know one another. I also drank a slightly alarming amount of whiskey, using the excuse that the more I drank, the less I had to carry the next day.

Day Three started with a slight headache and hot instant oatmeal. We'd been dreading this day. The trail guide included the word "summit", which sounded nearly insurmountable after words like "climb" and "ascend" and elicited a bit of cursing. We saw our first people on this day at the main trailhead which lead up to Wilson Summit and also out to Blue Lakes. It was a little bit strange seeing folks, and their cars. We moved on quickly. It wasn't long before we came to a creek much deeper than the others we'd previously crossed. We switched out our shoes and went for it. It was knee deep and freezing cold. We laughed and splashed along, squealing like little girls as we lost feeling in our toes. That might have been one of the highlights of the hike, it was an absolute blast. We sat on the other side, had more Cliff bars, and enjoyed our little success. Because at some point those little successes became what we lived for. There were more creek crossings (with some seriously scary bridges) before we entered what we fondly referred to as The Gates of Hell. Others, who might not be carrying all of their necessary belongings strapped to their backs, might call them "switchbacks". Up we climbed. 1,000 feet of elevation in 1 mile sounded nearly impossible. At this point we started using words like "summit" and "switchback" in place of other words. Because they really are essentially curse words at this point. Fifteen steps, stop, blow, "mothersummit sonofaswitchback", fifteen more steps. We made it. It was intense and the feeling of success was incredible. Neither of us had ever really summitted before. It was worth every minute of the struggle. The GPS waypoint was marked as "The Best View in Colorado." That might be pushing it, but it was close. The waterfall that we had been staring up and marveling at just a couple of hours before was now far below us. We sat for a long time, staring at Sneffels and Cirque and Tea Kettle mountains, looking all the way to Utah past that.
This is us, standing at the Sneffels Lookout on Wilson Summit.
Those expressions are a mix of elation, satisfaction, and exhaustion.

 It was huge and it was beautiful and it was perfect. And we'd worked so damn hard to get there, the satisfaction of being there simply could not be rivaled. We had walked just about 20 miles at that point. The hut, about a mile past the summit, was the creepiest of them all. At one point there were kamikaze mice jumping off the wall onto the girl sleeping above me. I could hear them scurry past my head and chatter and chew the way mice do. It wasn't a good night's sleep.

My bunk at the Ridgway Hut. I firmly believe they
 should rename it The Mouse House.

Day Four was practically a walk in the park compared to any of the other days. 4 miles of generally easy terrain, a wide trail that was actually a road in some places. There was only one point we really had to stop and think and not get lost. Some careful studying of our maps and GPS and we made it with no trouble. Not so for the other folks with us, who got turned around and walked a couple extra miles before realizing they were headed the wrong direction. It's a little unnerving to think how easy it really is to get lost out there. We ran across more people this day - a family in Jeeps out for a picnic, and a couple of ladies out for a little stroll. They were wearing makeup. I felt wretched. Not only had I not put on makeup in days, but I had given up brushing my hair three days earlier and couldn't remember when I'd last brushed my teeth. I was covered in grit and grime and splashes of mud and my hair was so greasy it never actually left the knot it was tied up in - even when I took the hair-tie out. And despite how wretched I felt, I didn't care. Not even a little bit. I'd walked 22 miles to get where I was, godsummit, and I'd earned every ounce of that dirt and grease. I was even just a little bit proud of how filthy I was and how awful I must have looked.

We were first to arrive at that hut and had it to ourselves for a couple hours, owing to the fact that the other folks had gotten lost and were now hiking in the rain. It was lunch time when we arrived. We unlocked, situated our bunks, and had a good lunch (if you can call a packet of tuna and a tortilla a good lunch. I thought it was.) There was a lot of sitting around that day. To fill the time, we ate as much as we could, trying to lighten our packs. I was worried when we left that I'd be starving and hadn't packed enough food. As it turned out, I hardly ate half of what I'd taken. Also, I will never eat another Cliff bar or Lara bar as long as I live. But I do still love peanut M&M's. Nicole and I pored over our map, talking about which hikes we want to do next. I think that's when I realized we really must be a little bit insane. We were exhausted, our bodies had found their limits and been pushed past them, and all we could think about was what adventure we wanted to go on next, how next to torture ourselves to the point of satisfaction and accomplishment. There's no doubt about it - we are hooked. We are officially backpackers.

I finally slept that night for more than two hours at a time. It rained much of the night, and the world outside was so clean and fresh... and wet and muddy. The last four and a half miles were in front of us. We packed up fast and ate Cliff bars as we walked. We reached Moonshine Park, a beautiful steep meadow, and virtually mud-skied down the side of it. The path was only six or eight inches wide and was lined by skunk cabbage taller than we were on both sides. Thanks to the rain, the skunk cabbage held little puddles of water that dumped all over us as we walked. It wasn't long before our shoes were full of water. We were soaking wet and every so often another little puddle of water would be dumped down our backs. The path - which had been overgrown for much of the hike - was even harder to find at times on this day.
Instead of invisible rocky paths, we now had overgrown
plants to contend with. It felt like walking through a jungle
for miles at a time.

Often when we did find it, it was so muddy and slick that it was easier and safer just to hike right through the brush. We didn't stop for breaks that last day. We were just ready to get to the Jeep and back to civilization. We pressed on past the overgrown meadows, into the forest, and out onto beautiful, rugged red sandstone cliffs. And there, far below us, was Ouray. Houses. Electric lines. Cars driving down the highway. I was happy to see it, to know we'd reached our goal, but I realized at that moment that I wasn't really sure I was ready to be done. Two miles of steep downgrade worked yet a new muscle group. My knees wanted to give out with every step. More switchbacks, this time going down. That last mile might have been the longest mile I've ever walked in my life. And then... there we were. The parking lot. The Jeep. People and cars, right there with us.

It was an odd feeling, I'm not sure how to describe it. I was elated that we were in Ouray, that we'd made it. I was also not ready to leave the mountains. We walked through the town, busy during tourist season with people milling all about, but we didn't feel like one of them. We'd just done something epic. We'd finished one of the greatest adventures of our lives just minutes before, and there we were, acting perfectly normal. It felt weird.

But we soon learned how nice showers are. And chairs. And ohmygod beds with pillows. We soaked in the hot springs, ate food that had not been dehydrated and rehydrated. We drank really cold beer. We visited with people, with each other. We laughed a lot and rode the high that can only come after such an accomplishment.

We did it. We pushed ourselves to our limits, we fulfilled our spirits, we saw things that not many other people ever will, We learned a lot about each other and ourselves. We met some amazing people, faced some fears, and built a ton of character.

I feel like none of the words I've written can even come close to describing it. Pictures don't do it justice. It wasn't the views. It wasn't the Point A to Point B. It was the journey. And it was one hell of a journey.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mae's birth story

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New mothers post a birth story after they have a baby... do I get to post the birth story of my calf? I think it's only fair!

We knew Mae cow was due sometime between the middle of July and the middle of August. We knew this because she was pastured with a bull nine months ago for about a month. But we never saw "the deed" occur, so it was a guessing game that involved a lot of staring at her backside for the past few weeks and trying to guess how close she was to birthing.

The are signs you can look for. You can watch the "pin bones" which are the pelvic bones. They begin to protrude more when the cow is nearing calving time as the ligaments soften. You can watch the vulva, which becomes looser and sometimes has mucous hanging from it. You can watch her udder, which will begin to develop and fill with colostrum (the first milk the calf will drink.) These are things you look at while trying to make some kind of educated guess as to when the calf will be born. And the fact of the matter is, no matter how many signs you watch for or see, it's going to be a mystery. Some of those things will happen, some won't, and some you won't see until after the calf is on the ground. There were a few times we thought she was really close and got up every few hours in the night to check on her. The result was no calf and a distinct lack of sleep.

Yesterday morning, as I do every morning, I checked on the cows in the pasture by looking through binoculars while I had my morning coffee. I noticed Mae was walking around with her tail held out, much like she had to go poo, but without the poo. That was all the sign I needed to know something was up. I chugged the coffee and went out to find long strings of mucous hanging from her back end. I milked Clara Belle as quickly as I could, then locked Mae into the stall on a bed of fresh straw. Then I called a neighbor as my on-call help and watched for a bit.

Side note: earlier this month, Clara Belle had her calf. She'd been bred too early (the neighbor bull tore down the fence to get to her) and the calf died in the birthing process. It had to be pulled out, something I never would have had the strength to do alone. Luckily, Andrew was here and managed, though it wasn't easy and Clara had a hard time walking for several days. I decided having a neighbor with more strength and experience close at hand would make me feel better after such a rough birth experience. Mae was (intentionally) bred to the same big Angus bull.

As I watched, she pushed. I saw hooves. Calves (and most baby animals) are born in a sort of diving position, their nose right on top of two hooves coming straight out. What I saw were two hooves and an ear, and they were coming sideways out of Mae. Sideways had the potential to be bad. I called the neighbors and asked them to go ahead and come up. I probably could have waited, but I was jittery after Clara's experience and decided I'd rather just not be facing it alone. She pushed a few times, with no progress. Then she stood up again. She paced, arched her back, and pawed the floor during a contraction. Instead of coming further out, the calf went back inside. This is normal, and didn't worry me too much. Then she laid back down, and I saw hooves again... and this time, they were straight and headed out the right direction. Shortly after that, I saw an itty bitty little calf nose. The neighbors arrived about that time. A few more pushes, and a big, healthy heifer calf was born.

Mae's an amazing mama. She jumped right up, started talking to it, and began cleaning it with vigor. A mama cow's rough tongue stimulates the calf to take its first breaths and to try to sit up. It worked. She cleaned the calve's head, it sneezed a few times to clear the amniotic fluid from its nose, and laid there calmly as Mae cleaned it carefully. Within ten minutes it was standing, wobbling around on four of the longest legs I've ever seen on a calf. She would stand, sway back and forth, and fall on her face in the straw, then try again. It wasn't long before she was up and stayed there. She tried nursing from the barn wall, the gate, and Mae's front leg before Mae got her situated where she was supposed to be. And my goodness but did that little calf go to town nursing. She's a strong little gal, and got her belly filled up nicely. The she wandered out of the barn into the corral and stared into the light, walked back inside, and plopped down for a nice little nap. Mae stood sentry over her, the way she does, still contracting while the placenta worked its way out as the calf rested at her feet. I took a break and got a bowl of cereal.

By the time I got back, the calf was nearly dry and nursing again, this time on much stronger legs. When she was finished nursing, she did a little jig, danced and hopped around the barn stall (at two hours old!) and then had another nap.

She's a pretty little red-brown calf, strong as I could hope for. The girls had her named by the time I got back out from breakfast. Her name will be Hazel because of her pretty brownish coloring and because we have a hankering for old fashioned names.

Welcome to the world, little Hazel.

This was the fourteenth birth here on our little farmstead. All but one have gone as smoothly as we could hope for and have required very little or no assistance. And every single one still leaves me in awe at the miracle of birth and the instinct of animals. This is why we do what we do!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Ins and Outs of Showing Poultry

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So Fair happened. A whole week of running crazy, surrounded by animals and good friends, full of life lessons in sportsmanship, community, and agriculture. For our family, the county fair is made of up three parts: poultry show, the livestock sale, and indoor projects.

In some ways it was a rough year for The Oldest, who is, for the last year, the only one in 4-H. (Littlest One is still just a bit too young, though she participates in much of what we do.) Out of the five chicks that we ordered this year, only three survived, and one of those got hurt pretty bad and couldn't go to fair this year. We also take older birds to fair, but here's our reality: we live on a farm. We have farm chickens, not show chickens. They free range, eat table scraps, and do whatever it is that chickens do all day when they aren't kept in indoor cages with supplemental lighting. They aren't in perfect condition - they are missing tail feathers and have broken feathers, the roosters fight sometimes and leave each other a little beat-up. For heaven's sake, they spend half their day digging in the manure pile. So when they go to show, it can be a little rough. Showing poultry is a whole different world than farming poultry. Real show birds are kept in separate cages. They are fed specific diets and are kept in pristine condition. If a feather breaks, it is immediately pulled out so a new one will grow in its place. (Broken poultry feathers do not grow back unless they fall out or are removed.)  All that said, The Oldest still walked away with a few blue ribbons, a few red ones, and even a Reserve Grand Champion rosette for the single comb clean legged bantam class.

A note on classes - there are standard chickens, and there are bantam chickens. Bantams are like mini versions of standard ones and are essentially worthless except that they lay tiny eggs and make great little pets. Of those two groups, each one is broken down into five or six smaller groups. Standards are divided into classes based on where the breed originated - Mediterranean, American, Asiatic, etc. Bantams are divided into classes based on their physical characteristics - single comb clean legged, single comb feather legged, rose comb, etc. At a poultry show, all the birds in one class are judged against each other. The judge is looking to see how well they fit The Standard. What is The Standard? It's a $60.00 book you order from the American Poultry Association that essentially tells you what your chicken is supposed to look like. It's really specific, too. It tells you what color their eyes should be, how many points should be on their comb (that red floppy thing on top of their head) what color legs they ought to have, and how many mis-colored feathers they can have for their color and breed. Some of those things, if your chicken doesn't have them, are considered a "defect" - they aren't perfect, but they can still be shown. Others are called "disqualifications" and mean that your bird isn't even allowed on the show table because essentially, it's a failure. So during a show, all the chickens from one class are brought up to the table (divided into even smaller groups of adult and young male and female birds) and the judge looks at each of them, deciding which one is most perfect according to that big, fancy book. He also looks at their condition - how perfect their feathers are, how clean they are, making sure they are as perfectly groomed as a chicken can possibly be.

The other aspect of showing poultry comes in the Showmanship part of the competition. The kids spent countless hours studying The Standard and other publications, learning all their is to know about poultry. They can define defects and disqualifications. They can identify breeds and colors of chickens just by looking at them (and there are hundreds!) They learn to identify poultry diseases and how to treat them. They learn the parts of a feather, an egg, the wing. They study the history of their chosen breed and can tell you exactly how that type of chicken got to be what it is. And then they spend even more hours training their chosen showmanship bird. The chicken must stand still and pose in a specific way for as long as it is expected to. It must accept being flipped onto its back, held upside down, held above the shoulder, having its mouth opened and its wings stretched out. The child must learn how to thoroughly inspect the bird, looking for any signs of defect or illness, and learn to show these things to the judge. And they have to get really good at talking to a perfect stranger about everything they know (which can be the hardest part for some kids.)

So poultry show isn't just taking your bird to fair and having a judge look at it. It's months of preparation and studying and practicing speaking skills and really, truly managing a poultry flock. When The Oldest decided she wanted to try showing poultry, I had no idea what we were getting into. When I see a chicken, I see a farm animal that provides fresh eggs for the family. She sees beautiful birds, some bred purely for ornamental purposes because they only lay about five miniature eggs a year. And of course, those are the ones she loves the most. We have more worthless, miniature birds running around this property eating and pooping and not laying eggs than I can count. But she has them each named, can tell you their strengths and weaker qualities, and many are tame enough to be picked up and carried around. I've learned a lot right along with my kids in the past three years of doing this. As the resident Poultry Quizzer, it's my job to come up with questions to ask them to test their knowledge. As a result, I can tell you off the top of my head which class a bantam sebright falls into even though we've never owned one, how many days it takes for a muscovy duck egg to hatch, and what a side sprig is. And here's the kicker: I really, really  don't like chickens. They stink, they are noisy, and they are just sort of creepy. And yet despite that, there's often a rooster sitting at my kitchen table, nibbling at tortilla chip crumbs and crowing away while my  kids do their math.

So that's what poultry show day actually entails. And to say that my kid walked away with fourth place in poultry showmanship in the intermediate division (ages 11-13) as one of the youngest kids in a group of twelve, I think is pretty amazing. I'm darn proud of her, and I never cease to be amazed at all the hard work she so willingly puts into raising these birds and learning about them. And her handful of other ribbons are pretty impressive too, considering her birds spend the majority of their time digging for bugs in a manure pile.

And Littlest One was able to do showmanship in the pee-wee open class division, where she got Grand Champion out of five kids ages 5-7. She memorized a speech that lasts about 6 minutes, and the judge told her she could give some of the junior and intermediate kids a run for their money in poultry showmanship. To hear a seven year old little girl talk about things like a uropygial gland and discuss pencilling of neck feathers is pretty incredible.

It wasn't a perfect year - there were some difficulties. But both girls showed their hearts out, loved their birds, and learned a lot. So I think we can call it a success.

Friday, July 17, 2015

So You Think You Want To Move To The Country

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It sounds so idyllic, doesn't it? A little piece of land far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. A safe place to raise your kids. Space enough that you don't feel so closed in. A few animals - some fresh eggs, a garden, maybe even some goat's milk.

I get it. I really do. I left the city, moved an hour away up in the mountains, just for that idyllic life. And I wouldn't trade one single second for anything in the world. But there are things you don't think about when your imagination is running wild and you're stalking Zillow for that perfect piece of land. In your head, you see fresh tomatoes and homemade yogurt and acres of pasture for your little ones to run free on. But if you're really thinking you want to live this crazy-beautiful life, there are other things you need to be aware of. Things you need to really consider before you take that leap.

1. Even if you don't know themeveryone knows you. And not only do they know you, but they know exactly where you live, how much you paid for your house, and how many water shares you have. If you're looking for anonymity, you aren't going to find it in a small town. If you've got a secret, they know it and they are talking about it. They know your schedule - when you drive by, they know where you're headed. It's a creepy sort of comforting. But honestly, no matter how much you try to stay out of the loop, you're in it.

2. If you thrive on punctuality, this isn't the place for you. Time is different here. 10:00 could mean 10:00, or it could mean 10:30, or even noon if the cows got out. Life slows down when you live in the country. You're no less busy, but things happen at their own pace and you're not going to be able to control it.  It's not that folks are unreliable. It's just that life doesn't revolve around the clock. No one is racing to get from here to there - they know they'll get there when they get there. It's insanely frustrating times, and yet so very calming.

3. You won't know lonely until you've lived way out yonder. Yes, you know two thirds of the people who live within ten miles of you. But folks are busy. They've got work to do, and visiting just doesn't happen as often as anyone would like it to. If you don't have a reason to run to town (which consists of a post office, bank, hardware, and grocery) you might not see another soul for days on end. You better really, really enjoy your own company, or you better get a dog. Or three.

4. Animals are a huge part of life. Cattle drives down main roads are a common occurrence, and you better be perfectly comfortable driving through them, around them, or waiting behind them. Hunting happens. Butchering happens, noise happens, smells happen, births happen. And shit. Lots of shit happens. You're going to drive through it, walk through it, kneel in it, and you will constantly be shoveling it if you have any animals of your own. Best get used to that.

5. There are all kinds of folks out there. Rich folks and poor folks, Classy folks and redneck folks. Drunk folks and teetotalers and friendly folks and cranky ones. And each and every one of them is a part of your town. You don't have to be good friends, but you need to learn to accept them and get used to seeing them around. A friendly hello isn't a bad idea, either.

6. Homeowners associations don't exist. You might buy a real nice place - a beautiful new house on a well-kept piece of land. And you might live right next to a single-wide with six cars up on cinder blocks in the front yard and a burn pile out back bigger than your barn. You aren't going to be able to change your neighbors, or their homes, or the way they choose to live. There aren't any rules out here.

7. If you're looking for a place to go and impress people, this isn't it. If you walk into the hardware store with makeup on, they'll ask what the special occasion is. If you run into a neighbor wearing muck boots and overalls that haven't been washed in two weeks, don't be surprised. There's not much "keeping up with the Joneses" going on here. You're just keeping up with the work. No one cares what you look like. If they love you, they're going to love you whether you're dressed for a day in the big city or you're wearing the same jeans you just helped deliver a calf in. This is a really great place to get over yourself.

8. Your neighbors are going to call you in the middle of the night. They'll realize they've lost a dog at two o'clock in the morning and they want to know if you've seen him. And you're going to call your neighbors in the middle of the night some day, too. You'll have a calf that needs pulled or a stranger in your drive or a horse that's down or maybe it's your dog that's missing. That's what neighbors do. If you aren't okay with helping folks at any hour they might need it, or if you aren't comfortable asking for the help you're going to desperately need, stick to the city where emergency services are available.

9. If you don't care about high school sports, you're going to need to start. When your local girl's basketball team makes it to state, you're going to stalk the town Facebook page for updates and you're going to care deeply and honestly about how they do. You're also going to listen for updates about how your town's 4-H clubs are doing at the county fair, and when one of your local kids wins a state championship archery tournament, you better expect to have tears in your eyes because you're so proud of her. When a local girl carries the American flag at the start of a rodeo, you're going to get goose bumps and a lump in your throat. No, they aren't your kids. You might hardly know them. But you're going to ride the high of their successes and you're going to feel the crush of defeat right along with them. Because in a small town, every single kid matters.

10. You are going to work harder than you have ever imagined. You're going to use muscles you didn't know existed, you're going to cry tears of frustration every day for weeks sometimes, you're going to be filthy and sweaty and so tired you don't think you can stand up for one more minute. You're going to learn how to do things you never thought you'd need to know, and you're going to accomplish tasks you  never thought you could. You're going to want to just not work anymore and then realize there's no one else to get it done, and you'll get 'er done. You'll face fears, you'll get hurt, you'll want more than anything to give up and walk away and then you'll suck it up and do it anyway.

This life - idyllic as it is - it's not always picture perfect. It's overwhelming in every sense of the word. If you've only ever lived in the city, it'll be like moving to the moon. Some folks thrive in a place like this. They love it - even every down side there is to it - and wouldn't trade it for the world. Others suffer through it and just aren't ever really happy. In the past four years, I've become stronger and braver and more independent than I ever thought I could. I've also learned to love the people I share this town with - or love to hate them, sometimes - and I've learned that there's no greater value than being a part of a community as tight-knit as ours is. They welcome you with open arms. They help you learn the ropes. And at some point you get to pass on that favor. The satisfaction is incredible... but only if it's something you're capable of truly loving.

Mama Kautz

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The First Gymkhana of 2015

I laugh every time I think about how I swore I'd never be a horse mom. I just spent six hours outside in 90 degree heat watching kids run around in circles on horses. I smell like sweat, sunscreen, and horseflesh. And I wouldn't trade any of it for the world.

My little horsewoman rode in her first gymkhana of the year on Fanny, the new horse. Fanny's never done anything like this before. Even after tons of practice sessions, she still couldn't figure out what on earth we were doing, making her stand out in the sun for hours on end, only running around in the arena once in awhile. She wasn't altogether pleased with the situation.

It was a rough day for Littlest One as far as gymkhanas go. She didn't place in any of the five events. Her horse - even after hours of practicing - didn't do everything perfectly. But despite that, I'm gonna call today a success. My mama-heart couldn't be more full with pride and awe. 

There were twelve kids in Littlest One's age group. She was the youngest. The oldest was four years older. While she didn't place, she was only two hundredths of a second too slow in two of the events to place. Through it all, even when her horse wanted to do something entirely wrong, she stayed patient and calm, she followed through, and worked like a real horsewoman to get Fanny to listen. Those two are an incredible team. This is a learning year, for both horse and rider. And while I wouldn't have chosen rodeo, everything in me is so happy when I watch them, when I see my little girl's character growing by leaps and bounds, when I see her sportsmanship and good attitude and that big, beautiful, missing-tooth smile as she races back to the gate. 

It was a really, really great day. 

For posterity's sake, her times today were (in seconds):

Barrels: 35
Poles: 37
Flags: DQ (missed the bucket on the first flag)
Special 1*: 38
Special 2 (Mountain Cowhorse): 17

*Can't remember the name of this one. Two barrels, up the center, around the first barrel, straight across, around the outside of the second barrel and back to the gate through the inside.

Rodeo Season is Upon Us.

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, never got the right pics to upload, and set it aside. It's still missing good pics, but I better go ahead and post it...
So, it's not winter anymore.

I realize y'all probably know that, but somehow that reality has only struck me this week. We went from a cold, dreary, rainy May to 90 degrees on the first of June. Well, hello, Summer. It's nice to see you again.

Summer in our life means two things: county fair and rodeo. 

After last summer, I swore I never wanted to see another horse or chicken as long as I lived. There would be no more hauling livestock all over the county every weekend because I was D-O-N-E. And then winter happened. We ate a lot, sat by the fire a lot, played games, rested. And now suddenly all that livestock hauling doesn't seem so bad. In fact, the idea is sort of appealing.

For the past three days, Littlest One has been working with her newest horse, Fanny. Fanny is 1200 pounds of energy, horse hair, and love. After a summer of searching we happened upon her, and she's a dream come true for Littlest One. And in four days, Fanny will make her debut as a rodeo horse.

When we got her, she didn't load in a trailer. She hadn't been in an arena and had never circled a barrel. Honestly, she didn't even neck rein (read: steer.) But she was one of those horses that you could just tell was good. She's sweet and patient and she wants to learn and please Cora. 

In the very few months Cora's had to ride her, they've come such a long way. She walks right into the trailer usually.) She reins beautifully (most of the time.) She turns barrels and weaves poles and even carries a flag now (which is a pretty big deal - flags are scary to horses.) She's as close to ready as she'll ever be to start running races.

And ya know, she probably won't win. She's faster than Angel is, but she's not that fast. She reins, but not always perfectly, and her turns are way too wide. The thing is though, it just doesn't matter. I've gotten to watch my seven year old daughter take this horse from never-been-in-an-arena to barrel racing in six months. I've watched them form this bond that's just so precious. I've watched Cora get frustrated and angry, gather herself back together, and try again. Cora stands outside and calls her name, and Fanny comes walking up. She loves her girl - you can see it in her eyes. They trust each other. They thrive on working hard to figure things out. And it's beautiful. Not always perfect, but beautiful. 

So four days from now, my rodeo-mama heart will jump into my throat as she leaves the gate for her first real barrel run. I'll cheer like a fool, jump up and down, and no matter what happens, I'll be proud of her. She's done this,. This is all hers. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

She's really reading!

The Oldest is an exceptional reader. When the time came to teach her to read, I went through the letters of the alphabet, talked about long and short vowel sounds, taught her some basic blends (ch, sh, st, etc.) and off she went. Like me, she read her first real chapter book at age seven. At age nine, she read a book that was 780 pages in less than a week. She devours several books a week now - never will you find her without a book nearby. And when she isn't reading, she's writing. She's written several ten or twelve page short stories, complete with beautiful descriptions and fantastic word choices.

Because of all this, I assumed that this must mean I'm an exceptional reading teacher.

Then the time came to teach Littlest One. That's when I realized it: I'm not an exceptional reading teacher. The Oldest is just an exceptional reader. I know this because I'm a terrible math teacher and yet Littlest One is flying through her grade in math and I know perfectly well it's no thanks to me. On the other hand... she's a very average reader.

I find myself saying, "Please just read all the letters, in the order they are actually printed on the page," at least a dozen times every reading session. Or, even though she learned it in kindergarten, I'll have to remind her that o and u together say "ou" a million times over. She opens a book and stares at it as though it's filled with a hodgepodge of unfamiliar symbols, jumbled together all over the page just waiting for her to try to make sense of it. I convinced myself she must be dyslexic. Maybe she was having vision problems. But no. When I researched it, what I found was... she is doing all the normal things kids do as they are learning to read. She guesses at words based on a few more familiar letters and the context of the sentence. She gets confused by the fact that each letter has at least two sounds (and let's not even talk about the letter 'y'!) She's making me realize that English is a God-awful language to try to read and write. Add to that the fact that she's a perfectionist - she hates making mistakes in front of anyone, even me - and reading is just not that much fun for her. She also has a sister who will always read something for her, so why should she learn to do it for herself?

I've tried every motivation tip Pinterest has to offer. I've worked diligently on my patience - because saying over and over, "No, n-e-w does not spell now, e-w says 'oo' so the word is new," really starts to wear on one's patience after awhile. I've tried several reading curriculums. I've tried leveled readers from the library. I've tried phonics curriculums and phonics games and sight word charts. For two years, I've felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall... similar to how it felt to teach the Oldest her math lessons when she was this age, actually.

It was The Oldest that finally solved it for me, or at least started the process. She gave her little sister an abridged audio CD of Black Beauty; it has full paragraphs from the book but is shortened quite a bit. Littlest One listened to it about fifteen times. Then she came to me one day and handed me the unabridged book she got off the school room shelf. "This is what I want to read." She announced it in no uncertain terms. I looked through it. My thoughts were something like, "Kid, you can't even read the word 'new' and here you're wanting to read a seventh-grade level book written in 1877 in old fashioned English. You're crazy." What I said was a little more gentle: "Sweetie, this book might still be a little difficult. Why don't we stick with your McGuffey's Readers until you're ready for something a little harder?"

She opened the book and confidently read aloud, "The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it."

That was all the convincing I needed. For an hour we sat there on the living room floor, working through Chapter 1.

Our reading lessons have changed now. If a word is too difficult, I help her through it by pointing out the blends she knows and teaching her new ones. Then I write it down in a notebook. At the end of the lesson, she writes each word in the notebook five times and we practice reading them all aloud a few more times. We're still doing second grade phonics and spelling as well, but we're on chapter six of Black Beauty now, and she's even starting to read with some inflection.

Apparently all she needed was a good horse story.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Peace: Easier said than done.

My One Word for 2015: Peace.

Fact: peace is much easier to maintain if everything is going perfectly.

It's not.

Oh, it's not that bad. It could always be worse. But for a girl who tends to be high-stress and high-anxiety with a bit of low self esteem and depression thrown in for good measure, the first six weeks of this year aren't exactly cultivating peace.

There was the news a few weeks ago that my husband would be going back to working out of town for long periods of time. There was losing one of our horses, completely unexpectedly, while I was on my own with the kids. Now it's becoming clear that my goats, who should have been due to kid in two weeks, are very clearly not bred, meaning no milk for us for at least another five months. Add in my kids' crazy 4-H schedules and volunteering up to four hours a week teaching other people's kids' 4-H projects and, well... not what I'd call a recipe for peace.

Here's what I'm learning: to achieve true peace, it can't be dependent on living a life with no stress or trials. It means finding peace in the trials. And it's not necessarily easy.

So where is my peace?

We lost a horse. I was devastated. I cried. Hard. Every animal that comes here holds a place in my heart - horses and dogs more than any other. I'd never lost either until last week and to be honest, I've been terrified of that moment since we first started bringing home animals. I mean truly, honestly, awake at night what-if-everything terrified. But here's the thing: it happened. We survived. It wasn't pretty - it involved a lot of tears on the shoulders of very kind neighbors. It involved having to call the vet, having to tell the girls and wipe away their tears, having to stand by while they put her down, and having to call the next morning to find someone to dig a grave. It was awful. And we survived. We live on a farm. Animals die, and it sucks, and sometimes you can't do anything to stop it. But what seemed like something that was impossible to handle is something that I no longer have to fear. I don't have to like it. I might still call the neighbors for moral support. But I'll survive. I can sleep at night now knowing my animals are cared for as well as they possibly could be, and that's the best I can do. I don't have to be afraid of losing them anymore.

My goats aren't bred. That means there won't be any baby goats this year, the one event that tops our Top 10 list each New Year's. That also means there will be no milk. No cream. No fresh cheese and butter. For awhile, I was bitterly disappointed. Milking goats is what I do. I love my morning time in the barn in a way I can't describe. I love the satisfaction of the whole process. I love cuddling the babies instead of doing the multitude of other things I ought to be doing. I appreciate the extra bit of cash that selling the kids provides. But having dairy animals is a HUGE responsibility. You are virtually tied to your farm. You have to be there to milk, without fail. And you have to find ways to use that milk. It's rewarding, but it's exhausting. I've since decided that instead of being disappointed, I'll just appreciate the break. We can buy milk for a year. Maybe this will keep me a little more sane when my husband is gone so much. It'll be easier to find someone to watch over our animals for a few days every now and then - maybe this year we can do some of the camping we used to love so much but haven't been able to do. One year without fresh milk is not the end of the world. And at this exact moment, maybe it's even for the better.

4-H is a crazy kind of peace. It's high energy, time consuming, and at times exhausting. But to look at these kids - my own and others - and realize the skills we're helping them to build, offers a different kind of peace. The kind of peace that gives me some hope for the next generation. Hope that all these old-fashioned skills that I've worked so hard to teach myself might be preserved for just awhile longer. It's the kind of peace that comes at night after patiently teaching crochet and cake decorating and spinning wool and canning and sewing - knowing I actually did something worthwhile, might have benefitted some kids in some way. It's not a relax-and-breathe-deeply kind of peace. It's a my-life-has-purpose kind of peace. All peace isn't low-stress, but that doesn't make it any less meaningful.

As for my husband being gone again? That one's not so easy, but I'm working on it. I'm not glad he's gone, but I'm trying really hard to find the good in it. It's great for my character. I've learned to depend on myself, to be stronger than I ever thought I was, to have the courage to ask for help when it's the last thing I want to do. I'm grateful that he has a job at a time when so many in his field are facing lay-offs and pay cuts. I'm grateful that because of that job, we can live in this blessed little community filled with the most wonderful folks on earth. I'm grateful that we have the kind of marriage that can survive this sort of difficulty and, while it isn't always easy, our relationship doesn't seem to get any weaker for the time away. I'm learning to appreciate the quiet evenings spent with my knitting and good books. I'd still rather be with him, but at least I don't dread the evenings anymore.

So... peace? It's there. It doesn't come naturally to me, and it doesn't always come easy. I've already have a few very... umm... un-peaceful moments this year. But I've learned from them. And that's the most any city-girl-turned-farm-girl can ask for, I think.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On the bright side.

For all the sadness and anxiety and depression that came with being on my own for those two years, though, there are some good points.

I never in a million years had any idea how strong I really was or what I was actually capable of handling. I've always been so content to just be a wife and mother, doing wife and mother things like cooking meals and canning jam and wiping runny noses and teaching two grades at the same time.

But, as it turns out, I'm capable of a whole lot more than I ever expected. The list of things I learned is long: I learned to hook up a truck and trailer and haul horses through a canyon a lot of people would refuse to haul through. I learned to haul my own water through snow and ice. I learned that I can be the only help available through the births of goats and cows. I can fix fences - both barbed wire and board fences. I can disassemble and reassemble forty acres' worth of side roll sprinkler and I can grow twenty tons of hay. I can manage a divider box on an irrigation canal. I can plow snow with a four wheeler and I can drive in all kinds of conditions. I can pick up dead cats and chickens and deer and dispose of their bodies. I can open the door at ten o'clock at night holding a hunting rifle when a stranger pulls up. I can catch run-away cows and I can wrangle calves as needed. I can plunge clogged toilets and repair broken water pumps. I can breast out seven geese in an hour an have them in the freezer. I can butcher an entire goat. I can be the "chute mom" among a bunch of chute dads when my youngest daughter is mutton bustin'. I can spray a wasp nest. I can manage the pump room in the basement where the water comes in and goes out. And a big thing - I really am able to ask for help.

When we moved up here, I knew I'd be depending on him to do a lot. There's just so much I've never done and don't know how to. But when we moved up here, I also didn't expect to be living here alone most of the time. There are a lot of things I don't know how to do, but I've learned that I better decide to figure them out. And usually, I do.

For all the weak moments I have... and there are sooooo many.... I really am stronger than I ever could've imagined.