Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Southsides.

Posted on | July 24, 2017 | No Comments

I noticed it first in Atlanta.  I mean there was hint of it, but I blamed it on the city.  The crowds, the exhaust, the towering skyscrapers.

However, when we were standing in Biloxi, facing the Gulf of Mexico, there was no denying it.

I stood there with my sweat-soaked shirt already stuck to my body at 9am and wondered,

“Where’s the ocean breeze?”

Because there wasn’t one.  Not even enough breeze to stir a single hair on your head.

It was so humid that I felt like I was breathing in water, not just looking at it.  And that didn’t change when we left Mississippi for Louisiana.

New Orleans was dirty and fancy and sweaty, all at the same time.  Which is exactly what New Orleans is famous for.

Just outside the city we hit the swamps at Barateria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Historic Park.  Where the heat and humidity becomes a living presence.  This is the side of the south so familiar to many of us from books and movies.  The images that characterize the Deep South—-the cypress and live oak and Spanish moss, the enveloping thrum of crickets and frogs and insect—-come to life.

Do not miss the nature preserve if you are in the New Orleans area.  Also, do not lose track of where you are in the swamp.  We wandered way off down the trails in search of alligators and attempting to get a photo of the nutria instead of just seeing them scurry away in our peripheral vision.  The result was that we were a couple miles from our car when an afternoon thunderstorm rolled up.  Luckily, Big and Middle got bored with our expedition an hour earlier and had returned to the car.  So a cell phone conversation ensued describing our location (um, we’re looking at some trees and some water and….um, a bunch of foliage) and Big came to rescue us by driving the minivan to an access point much closer to our location.  Remember when your teens rescued you from the swamp?  No?  Don’t worry—they’ll remind you of it endlessly.

We woke up the next morning in Baton Rouge, where my morning activities with the early risers involved a walking tour of the downtown while the sleepyheads of the family hung out in the condo.  The temperature wasn’t any more comfortable in Baton Rouge, but the city was beautiful, clean, and picturesque.  We had an amazing view from the top of the State Capitol Building of the Mississippi River flowing by the city.

In contrast to New Orleans, the downtown was fancy without the dirty (but still sweaty).  Lots of green space, public art, historic buildings, and a riverfront with stairs right down to the water’s edge so we could put our hands in the mighty Mississippi.  Who knew this about Baton Rouge??

That, people, is the magic of travel.  If you had asked me to describe Baton Rouge before this trip, I would have drawn a complete blank.  I never would have imagined a modern southern city with shiny buildings and a large university.  There are so many sides to the South!  When I shared these thought with the kids, they looked at me funny.

“Well, isn’t Baton Rouge the capital of Louisiana?”  they asked.

Oh yeah.

I knew that.

I mean, I knew that when I was in fourth grade.  I guess I forgot it somewhere along the line.

Eh.

If I wasn’t prepared for Baton Rouge, I had actually read a bit about our next stop.  I picked up a book, “The Son” by Phillip Meyer to get a glimpse of Texas.  ”The Son”  is a sweeping historical fiction that covers the state from the days of the early settlers’ battles with the Native Americans to the war with Mexico to the oil boom.

I don’t recommend it.

Not because it isn’t a good story or because it isn’t well-written.  It’s just an incredibly depressing look at human behavior.   But the book did make the stop in Beaumont to visit Spindletop Gladys City Boom town Museum more meaningful.  The discovery of the Spindletop oilfield changed the direction of development in Texas and the Lucas Gusher was the largest gusher ever seen at that time.  Now you can visit a replica village of the boomtown and a wooden oil derrick similar to those in use at the time of the Lucas gusher.  Which is worth a stop if you are attempting to drive across Texas.  Because driving across Texas takes a long, long, long. long time.  So get out and give Spindletop a look over.

As we wandered between the printing press, the barber shop, and the saloon at Spindletop I realized I could breathe again.  I mean, I was breathing in the dust and debris kicked up by a hot southern wind, but still.  It was a breeze.  A Texas breeze.  This, then, was the beginning of the Southwest.  The humidity was gone, replaced by a gusting heat similar to standing in front of a hair dryer.

But by the time we arrived later that night in San Antonio, the sun was sinking and the Riverwalk was a cool oasis.  I spent my senior year of high school living in San Antonio and I always promised myself I’d get back to visit again.  I didn’t expect it to be more than twenty years later with 4 kids in tow.  The Riverwalk was as wonderful as I remembered it.

Although I use the term “remembered” very loosely because I got us lost and we wandered around the sidewalks and bridges until Middle spotted a late night ice cream shop up on the street level.  (Thank you Mr. Ice Cream for being open until 11pm.)  Which was a great excuse to head upstairs, have ice cream, and make our way back to our hotel the normal way.  You know, using street signs and intersections and other normal ways to orient yourself.  And without the Yellow Crowned Night Heron eyeballing me for walking past him, baffled and disoriented, for the third time.

We settled for the night at the Riverwalk Plaza hotel and the kids swam in the rooftop pool under a dark swath of Texas sky.  The American flag of the Tower Life building flapped overhead.  Ah, Texas.  Ah, America.  Ah, a hotel that leaves stacks of towels by the pool so that you can smuggle 6 or 8 towels back to your room and everyone gets a dry towel after their shower.  Instead of having to use the damp towel from the person who showered before you.  Or settle for a dry washcloth.  It was a glorious night.

By the next morning I had a map and a plan and we walked along the Riverwalk to the Alamo.

The Alamo is probably the most famous tourist site in Texas and at this point, the plot of “The Son” became really relevant.  Sure, it’s a fiction book but it maybe gave a more honest depiction of all the land-grabbing going on in Texas in the 1800’s than some of the information provided at the Alamo.  Hard to say that Texans had earned the sole right to that land any more than the Mexicans or Spanish before them.   Never mind the Native American tribes—-from Comanches to Tonkawas to Lipan Apaches—-caught up in the fighting, too.  But to the victor go the spoils.  And the right to tell the final tale.  Which is the dismal conclusion of “The Son.”  And, sometimes, of life.

I told you it was a depressing book.

Kind of like the parts of Texas between San Antonio and New Mexico.  We passed through an oil heavy region that wasn’t exactly the quaint reproduction boomtown of Spindletop/Gladys City.  More like a dry wasteland dotted with oil machinery and flames flickering against the horizon.

Image result for oil rigs along I-10 thru texas

Which it’s hard to complain about when you’re on a road trip across country on cheap fossil fuels.  It’s such a complicated world, isn’t it?  Can’t throw stones when you drive gas houses.

We were pushing hard to make Whites City, New Mexico before nightfall.  We pulled up in the “city” to find a restaurant, a post office/gift shop/grocery store combo, and abandoned adobe buildings.

Luckily we didn’t come for “city” entertainment.  We didn’t need Riverwalks or late night ice cream parlors because Whites City is right at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns.

I planned a  lot of the trip around specific places I just had to see, but this part of the trip was planned around a specific event. And there were a bunch of other people there to see this event, too.  We sat tucked in an ancient alcove, the heat of the day beginning to radiate out of the rocks, surrounded by the vast Chihuahuan desert, and waited.  And waited.

We were there when the first bat fluttered out and the park ranger called for silence.  We were sitting there on the stone benches as approximately 400,000 bats left for the night, careening into the dusk.  It was this same massive evening bat flight that Jim White spotted back in 1898, leading him to the entrance of the cave and discovery of Carlsbad Caverns.  It occurs night after night, April through October, year after year after year.

What is the word for that feeling?  That feeling you get when you’ve waited for a long time to experience something.  When you’ve imagined what it would be like, yet it is so much more.  When you stand before something grand, touch the past, witness an eternal cycle.  What is that word?

Maybe there isn’t a word for it.  Maybe there’s just the sound of whirring wings and almost inaudible chirps as darkness seeps over the lip of the cave.  The sound of frogs thrumming in the swamp or the splash of your child’s cannonball into a rooftop pool.  Maybe there’s just the thick feeling of sucking sluggish Gulf air into your lungs or the sting of sand pelting your skin beside an oil rig.   Maybe there aren’t enough words for all the sides of the South.

But there is always the laundry.  So later that night I tucked my kids into the only motel in Whites City.  Walked over to the post office/gift shop/grocery store for a Diet Coke and a candy bar.  Then walked over to the laundromat at the only campground in Whites City and washed our dirty clothes while finishing up “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West.”  Because there was still more Southwest to see and we intended to see it…..

Compromise.

Posted on | July 13, 2017 | 2 Comments

A lot of compromises went into this family vacation.  I’ve already mentioned that we were trying Airbnb in the hopes of having more space for the kids than in the average hotel room.  It was costing me some extra money, but it was costing Pretty a whole lot of aggravation.  Since I don’t have a smartphone (and she does) we were using hers to manage the Airbnb app—-messaging hosts for check in information and questions about fridges, pools, washer/dryer, etc.  For the record, I also made her use her Smartphone to search for and play podcasts for me while I was driving.  That’s what Pretty gets for being responsible enough to earn her own money and pay for her own Smartphone and service.  It’s a good lesson to learn:  The more responsible you are, the more responsibilities other people will dump on you.  (Hey, just trying to prepare her for marriage and motherhood.)  But Airbnb wasn’t the only compromise.

I also folded on the no-electronics-in-the-car rule.  I used to insist on audiobooks for the kids during car rides.  Then we tried family discussions using the Book of Questions.  That was….interesting.  But this year I gave in and borrowed a hot spot from the library and let the kids connect their devices to their hearts’ content.  The question “Are we there yet?” was quickly replaced by “Did we lose the wi-fi?”  Because there are places in the wild, wild west where there is no service, but there were actually hours and hours of silence when the kids were completely absorbed in whatever it is that they do online.  And it was lovely.  So now I promise to be a little less judgy about the people handing their toddler a Smartphone in a restaurant.  Although I am really more jealous than judgy.  Because we had to carry coloring books and crayons and help our toddlers with color-by-number or play hangman or tic-tac-toe (and let them win) while waiting for our food.  Why do modern parents get to enjoy adult conversation over dinner with just a little bit of beeping in the background?  So.  Unfair.

There was another compromise, too.

You see, I am a morning person.  Not by choice, of course.  Before I had kids and a farm and a job in EMS I liked to sleep in as much as the next person.  I was normal.  It’s just that I had to get up to feed babies at 4am and sometimes they didn’t want to go back to bed.  I had to get kids up for school at 5:30am and after they got on the bus at 6:10am their siblings were already waking up for the day.  I had roosters crowing at the crack of dawn and goats waiting to be milked soon after.  I now have a job that requires me to be at work by 5:45am and a brain that requires enough time for at least one cup of coffee before I get there.

After more than 15 years of forced early mornings, my internal clock realized that “normal” was over for me.  Done.  Kaput.  And now it considers sleeping in to be getting up at 7:30am.  Which, I know, is weird for some people.  People like the rest of my family.  So when we are on vacation, I am up and about while everyone else is hoping I will go back to bed or drop dead, whichever makes me shut up and turn off the light faster.  Meanwhile I am wondering if we really drove 1,000+ miles across the country so everyone could lay in bed, waiting for it to get to 100 degrees outside (you know, perfect hiking temperatures) before they wake up.  Needless to say these differing philosophies caused some problems last year.

So I tried to give myself some morning activities in places that we visited.  Things I could do to kill time until the lazy sleepy people got up.  Last vacation I spent a lot of early mornings visiting laundromats to do laundry while everyone else slept.  This year I found some better morning choices.  And now that Pretty is older (and a morning coffee drinker) she did a lot of them with me.  In Atlanta we got up and headed to the Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site, which was just a couple miles from where we were staying downtown.

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First Stop.

Posted on | July 10, 2017 | No Comments

The trick to traveling across country with 6 people in a minivan is getting out of the van every 3-4 hours.  In an attempt to meet this goal, we stopped at some pretty random places.  We also stopped at some great places that we should have visited a long time ago.  Our very first stop on this trip was just over the line in South Carolina at Kings Mountain National Military Park.  The battle of Kings Mountain is famous as a turning point in the Revolutionary War—the British lost a lot of Loyalist (American colonists who supported the British crown) support and the southern Patriots (American colonists rebelling against British control) were greatly buoyed by the win.

The part of the battle that resonated loudly with the Southerners in my minvan was, of course, the tale of the Overmountain Men.  As British commanders General Lord Charles Cornwallis and Major Patrick Ferguson marched north and inward from a victory in Charleston, their Loyalist troops were beleaguered by small guerrilla warfare attacks from North Carolina militia groups under Colonel Isaac Shelby and Colonel Charles McDowell.  Frustrated by these attacks, Ferguson apparently threatened to “march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.”  The land “over the mountains” was part of the Carolinas at the time, although it would become Tennessee after the Revolutionary War.  Regardless of the name, the area was populated with rugged folk who were surviving without the benefit of city comforts like colonists on the coast.  They had been alternately battling and negotiating with the Indian tribes over land while openly flouting the British Treaty of Lochaber which banned English settlement in parts of the region.

Now I realize that Ferguson didn’t have the benefit of watching Patrick Swayze in Next of Kin.  But I have to wonder if British military commanders ran around England kicking ant hills or knocking hornets’ nests out of trees with sticks.  Because threatening the land and lives of a bunch of backwoods country folk is begging for a swarm of angry rednecks to come storming out of the trees and over the hills with every ounce of fire power that they can carry.  Which is exactly what happened.  Ferguson’s threat gathered men from current day Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with an estimated 1400 men heading to battle.  Ferguson and his Loyalists ended up stranded on the the top of Kings Mountain, surrounded by Patriot forces—the patriots primarily being frontiersmen well-used to the territory and very experienced with long guns.  Ferguson died there on the hill, along with many of his men, and the loss at Kings Mountain led Cornwallis to abandon his plans to invade North Carolina. Read more

Welcome Home.

Posted on | July 3, 2017 | 1 Comment

We left friends and family in charge of the place while we were gone.  I roped a friend’s teenager into house-sitting and barn chores, assigned my dad the duty of watering the tomatoes, and tricked another friend into garden care.

The teenager did an exceptional job, especially considering that when I offered him the job I told him that there were automatic waterers in the barn.  Then Bruno the Great Pyr chewed up all the hoses so that when the teen actually arrived, he had to haul water by bucket every morning.  I mentioned it to the teen in a text as we were leaving town.  That seemed like the only reasonable way to handle that situation.

My dad was left with watering duty because he grew up on a farm.  So I knew he understood watering the tomatoes at the base of the plants to avoid splashing the leaves with dirt and spreading blight or fungus on the leaves.  Apparently he did an awesome job of carefully watering the tomato plants on the first week.  Which triggered an immediate deluge of rain that started as soon as he finished watering and lasted the rest of our time away.  Really.  One day we got over 5 inches of rain.  Since Mother Nature was handling the watering, he and my mom were then left with dead dog duty.  Because parenting never ends, people.  You just go from taking your kids to their extracurricular activities to having to bury their dead pets while they’re on vacation.  They don’t put that in What To Expect When You’re Expecting do they?

I also managed to talk a friend into covering the mowing and pest control in the garden.  Last year I lost most of my crops to squash bugs while we were on vacation.  Anything left behind was finished off by an infestation of Japanese beetles that erupted because the grass was so high and brushy.  My friend lives in a townhome and remarks regularly about how she enjoys not having the maintenance of a yard anymore.  So I figured she was the perfect person to recruit for the job.  I assured her that all she had to do was mow once a week.  Plus pick all the vining plants off the ground and wrap them around their trellises before mowing.  And prune the tomato branches to keep them out of the paths before mowing.  And tie the pepper plants to their cages in order to mow around them, too.  You know, just mowing.  Since all she had to do was mow I also asked her to spray some organic pyrethrin on the zucchini plants while she was there.  And on the squash, of course.  Probably the gourds, too.  Maybe the eggplants and green beans for flea beetles.  On the potatoes for potato beetles.  You know, just here and there…and there…and oh yeah, there, too. Read more

Train hopping.

Posted on | July 2, 2017 | 1 Comment

Train hopping is a dangerous thing.  Getting the speed and the grip just right is tricky.  You don’t always get to choose who you’re traveling with and even the familiar faces can do odd things as the walls close in and the miles pass.  You have no idea where you’re going.  Not really.  Just a guess and a hope that you end up where you need to be.

But that’s what I’ve been doing.

Oh, at first I was was in my home territory–on and off at work, the grocery store, soccer games, the library, gardening, the dump,…you know the deal.  Except I had my eyes on the curve.  Trying to see what was ahead and trying to gather everything I needed.  I was mapping the route.  Filling my boxcar with first aid supplies and water bottles and my Stress Relief aromatherapy diffuser.  Trying to judge the distance of the jump.

Then I made the switch, with my family attached, and with all my bags, which is not recommended when hopping trains.  But if you’re not a 20-something hippie without any cares or responsibilities, then you tend to travel heavy.  And do not discard that diffuser to save weight.  Do Not.  Trust me on this.

It was a hell of a train ride.  3 weeks into the unknown.  On and off in strange places.  Meeting fellow travelers.  Seeing wonderful and bizarre things.

Not for the faint of heart, people.  Not for the faint of heart.  I hear there are deadly gangs riding the rails.  I don’t think they have anything on the risks of trying to force 4 kids out of bed in the morning before the free breakfast at the hotel ends.  Never mind making the 2 teeny-tiny bath towels in the bathroom last through showers for 6 people.  Ask yourself:  What would you do to your fellow travelers to get the last remaining dry towel?  (You can’t ask the front desk for more towels because you are only paying the rate for 2 guests.)  Never mind.  Don’t answer that. Read more

Do you hear what I hear?

Posted on | March 3, 2017 | 2 Comments

It was time to burn the gourd vines and the honeysuckle off the 8′ tall chain link fence surrounding the garden.  Since that side of the garden faces the neighboring property I let the wildness grow and flourish from spring through summer and even late into winter.  But it has to come down eventually or it starts to pull at the fencing.  So I pulled down the last of the gourds hiding in the brush, careful to leave their stems and a bit of vine intact.  Then I moved them to the other side of the garden and hung them on the fence facing the driveway.  Leaving them there to stay dry and and out of the soil until I was ready to scrub them and use them for crafts.  I was surprised at how many I found lurking in the overgrowth.  And I was also pleasantly surprised at how appealing they looked on the fence.  Kind of natural and funky and arty, silhouetted against the winter trees and blue skies.

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A Little Life.

Posted on | February 22, 2017 | 2 Comments

Last night a patient asked me where I lived and when I answered, she looked at me quizzically.  She repeated the name of my town to her husband and he also looked at me blankly.  I live about 17 miles from them.  In the same county.  Granted they live in the larger, neighboring town—a town with a population of about 60,000 people including the many university students living in a dorm or off-campus apartment.  But, really, 17 miles isn’t that far away.  I had to chuckle to myself.  Because it wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten that blank stare.

I usually volunteer at my friend’s fiber farm each spring during the county’s annual farm tour.  People get out of their cars with backpacks and water bottles, stretch their arms and legs, and ooh and aah at the fields and farm animals.

“It’s so beautiful out here!”  they say.

“I just can’t believe this scenery!”  they say.

“Look at the sheep!”  they say.  (While pointing at the Angora goats.)

Then they sign in at the farm table and I see that they live in the city just outside of the neighboring town.  The city with about 245,000 people.  And about 20 miles away.

It makes me laugh.

I wouldn’t even dream of mentioning the name of my town when I am in the state capital (a whopping 40 miles away) and expect any recognition.

Oh, I realize I live in small town.  I live a little life.

And today was such a great day in my little life in my small town—I got home late from work so The Other Half had to pack the kids’ lunches.

Image result for nelson muntz ha ha

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Are We There Yet?

Posted on | February 19, 2017 | 7 Comments

The most time-consuming part of MegaTrip II is over.  That would be the planning part.  It started last year a couple weeks after we came back from MegaTrip I and I booked reservations in the National Parks.  Which needs to be done almost a year in advance.  Then I started collecting Fodor’s and Frommer’s and Lonely Planet from the used bookstore.  Then I spent hours online with Google Maps and TripAdvisor and Yelp.

But the hardest part isn’t figuring out which path to take and which stops to make along the way.  The hardest part isn’t finding sites and activities that appeal to the interests of 6 very different people.  It isn’t juggling the National Parks pass, Groupon, Yipit, and other discounts to keep down the costs.  It isn’t searching through hotel sites, and VRBO and airbnb.

The hardest part starts now.  The waiting.

Because once you have looked at all the pictures and read all the reviews and have printed your 12 page travel guide—-with mileage and drive time; sites and hikes; restaurants and lodging—-you need to go.  Now.

As a matter of fact, it seems like every minute that you are not on MegaTrip II is a waste of your life.  If it wasn’t for the fact that it takes 6 months of work to afford a MegaTrip, I’d be on the road right now. Read more

Livestock Rotation.

Posted on | February 13, 2017 | 2 Comments

Let’s say your garden needs some new layers of compost in preparation for spring and summer crops.  Ideally, this compost comes from the barnyard, where manure has been mellowing for months.   It’s just waiting for someone to haul it to the garden.

In addition to being a great opportunity for  a 4 hour Shoulder, Back, and Leg Day workout, this is an excellent time to rotate your livestock.

Here how it’s done properly. Read more

And again….

Posted on | January 29, 2017 | 1 Comment

I knew it was coming.  It always does.  The kids were excited.  The Other Half got the generator running.  My dad reminded me that if we ran the generator every month like we were supposed it wouldn’t always be broken when we needed it.  Although he is beginning to give this lecture to Big because he has given up on my generation.

I filled water pitchers in the kitchen for drinking and a water trough outside for toilet water.  Perhaps you associate ‘toilet water’ with eau de toilette or the old fashioned name of perfume.  Nope.  ’Toilet water’ has to do with living in the country with a well pump.  A well pump that only works when the electricity is working.  Figure it out.

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