Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Old West.

Posted on | August 11, 2017 | 6 Comments

There are a lot of national parks out west.  But the boys can only see so much majestic scenery before they become underwhelmed by it and ask to stay in the car.  And Pretty is a big city freak, wanting busy sidewalks and traffic and coffee shops.  And The Other Half wanted to visit small towns where people wear cowboy hats and drive old trucks.   Basically, I had to cover everything that everybody wanted on this trip.  Including me.

So we rolled up on our stay for the night, the historic San Jose House, in Tombstone, Arizona with a couple frozen Tombstone pizzas in the back of the car.  Because what I wanted was to eat a Tombstone in Tombstone.  Except the San Jose house, Tombstone’s first boarding house built in 1879, did not have an oven in it.  Or even a stove top.  Or microwave.  Historic housing is not my favorite housing.

The house manager did offer to track down a toaster oven so we could cut the frozen pizzas up and maybe toast them a piece at a time.  But that was just too depressing to face.  Luckily, she also recommended a pizza place down the street.  Which is how we ended up at Johnny Ringo’s Bar for pizza.  Or rather the Depot Steakhouse.  Because we couldn’t stay in the bar with the kids but the Depot was part of the same building and shared a dining area and was willing to let us order Johnny Ringo’s pizza.  Or Mexican food.  Because apparently the entire building was for alcohol, pizza, steaks, or Mexican food.  All in one restaurant.  Small towns are convenient like that.  Even better, Johnny Ringo’s had amazing fresh-made pizza with the unique twist of stuffing the toppings under the cheese.  Yum!

So technically I did have a Tombstone pizza in Tombstone because it was pizza made in Tombstone and eaten in Tombstone and I’m gonna check that off my list.  Check.  Plus, since historic houses don’t have coffee pots either, Pretty and I got to go out for our caffeine the next morning.  We stopped in at the OK Cafe for coffee and breakfast, nibbling our eggs and biscuits among the locals dressed in 1880’s attire in preparation for working the tourist shows in town.  Which was cool–kinda like a backstage seat to a performance.

Then we cruised around town, admiring the adobe houses and the creative use of cacti in landscaping.  Which is when we saw them!!  I couldn’t believe it.  We have Bobwhite quail where I live and they are tiny and cute and just fine for a quail.  But Arizona has Gambel’s quail—-the quail you’ve seen in every illustrated alphabet ever.  See:

Image result for illustrated alphabet, Q

Image result for illustrated alphabet, Q

Image result for illustrated alphabet, Q

Quail families scurried across the road and through the mesquite, long lines of chicks corralled by both the male and female sporting those adorable head curls.


The rest of Tombstone was loaded with touristy and tacky souvenir shops.  And since I had finished “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How It Changed the American West” by Jeff Guinn I wasn’t as awed by the heroic representations of the Earps.  Seems like a lot of the drama actually revolved around the politicians and business owners of Tombstone battling over property rights and profits with the miners and cattle ranchers living outside of the town.  Most citizens and patrons of Tombstone were just little people caught up in the fight over Big Money.  Same ol’ story, just different times.

Still, some of the historic sites were well-preserved.  The Birdcage Theatre was worth visiting, with intact murals from the 1800’s, the original staircase to the back rooms for “socializing,” and plenty of bullet holes left in the plaster walls.

And Boothill Graveyard was worth a stroll.  A bunch of the graves are fictitious, with entertaining epitaphs, but there are notables buried there including Billy Clanton and the McLaurys killed in the O.K. Corral shootout.  Even better, the hillside graveyard gives a person a real feel for the territory of Tombstone.  The arid landscape and mountains rising in the distance are probably the most authentic part of Tombstone.  The true rugged wilderness of the Old West.

Of course, things were about to get a lot more rugged.  We kept heading west and as we drove through Tucson, the cactus-studded hills of Saguaro National Park rose around us.  Entire forests of the famous saguaro popped up alongside roads and behind neighborhoods.  Standing at the Red Hills Visitor Center and driving the Scenic Bajada Loop, I was surprised at the variety of brush and vegetation that existed in the desert.  The Chihuahuan desert around Carlsbad Caverns generally receives only summer rainfall but the Sonoran desert around Saguaro National Park receives spring and summer rainfall resulting in more vegetation diversity.  This despite the fact that the Sonoran desert is hotter than the Chihuahuan desert with more days over 100°.

But it was out on the hiking trails in that 114° heat that we found what we came to see up close.  The majestic saguaro cactus.  All shapes and sizes.  Acres and acres of them.

The size of the cactus may be impressive but, in truth, it is the age that should be so awe-inspiring.  The saguaro needs to be at least 35 years old to produce flowers.  The arms or branches don’t appear until the cactus is 50-70 years old.  Adult saguaros are generally 125 years old but are believed to live up to 200 years total.  Hiking through the saguaros is passing sentinels that began their lives generations before you began yours.  The Old, Old, Old West.

We did notice the difference in temperature at Saguaro National Park.  This heat was more than the dry dusty air we’d experienced so far.  There was no breeze at all, unless you count the heat waves you could feel wafting off the sun-baked soil.  A deep breath was a bit like sucking in that surprisingly hot air that comes out of the oven when you crack it to check on your baked goods.  We kicked up tiny puffs of dirt as we walked, covering our feet in powder, but other than that the air seemed empty of any debris or even scent.  Just heat.

Even more bizarre was the fact that we didn’t even sweat when we were hiking the trails.  Only when we re-entered our air-conditioned car did sweat bead up instantly along our arms and faces.  What we discovered was that, of course, we were sweating on the trails.  It was just so hot that the sweat evaporated quicker than we could sense it.  Therein lies the danger of dry heat.  It’s really easy to dehydrate when you don’t even notice how much body fluid you’re losing.  Saguaro National Park was the first park where I insisted that we carry backpacks of water and drink it even when we didn’t feel thirsty.  But the hikes and the scenery were worth the extra baggage.  The saguaro cactus.  Only found in the Sonora desert.  The largest cactus in the United States.  The universal symbol of cactus.  Worth it!

On a side note, we didn’t see many animals at the park.  Mostly birds and lizards.  But that might be changing.  Remember the tale of the Bighorn sheep from Carlsbad?  Well, some Bighorn sheep were spotted in the spring of 2016 in Saguaro West.  The first Bighorn sheep seen in the park since the 1950’s.  Maybe by the time my kids make it back out west with their kids, the Bighorn sheep will have made it back as well.  Fingers crossed.

We spent that night in downtown Phoenix.  We made our way to a funky urban coffee shop, Lux Central, fueled up on iced coffee, and then cruised the palm tree-lined streets of the city.  It was clean and sleek with the lines for the Valley Metro Rail bisecting the wide streets.  It was also empty—apparently the city doesn’t include a lot of downtown housing so once the businesses closed for the day, the sidewalks were empty.  Providing affordable housing amidst expensive corporate high rises is a problem for a lot of cities but it certainly made for easy exploring of areas that are probably traffic-congested during the day.

The next day we headed for California, which is as west as it gets in the United States.  We trekked through the driest desert in North America, the Mojave, at Joshua Tree National Park.  We wandered among a different type of cactus at the Cholla gardens….

where we discovered a new critter, the jackrabbit.  We didn’t capture this pic of those amazing ears, but we followed a similar one as he hopped among the trail.

This park is, of course, known for the Joshua Tree and their spiky branches filled the landscape.

But it was the rounded rock formations that were unlike anything we’d seen in other deserts.  These outcroppings of monzogranite pop up everywhere and were perfect for climbing and scrambling over.

The rock climbing was so irresistible that I even captured a shot of the ever-elusive and camera-shy trip photographer,  Pretty, at Skull Rock.

Together the rocks and Joshua trees in the northwest section of the park made an odd-shaped environment right out of Dr. Seuss Book.

We finished with a hike along High View Nature Trail on the west side of the park.  The name didn’t lie as we zigzagged up to the top of the ridge for incredible views of Yucca Valley and San Gorgonio Mountain.

The trail was well-marked once we were on it but the trailhead was hard to find—-off a side road in Black Rock Campground.  Don’t forget water on this one as it has some steep sections.  As an added bonus, though, there were kangaroo rats everywhere, dashing in and out of the scrub.  Something about a long fluffy tail makes a mouse quite a bit cuter.

That night we rolled into Bakersfield, California after dark.  With oil refineries and large agriculture distribution centers throughout the city, the area was loaded with pollution.  We settled for burgers at Carl’s Jr, the Hardees of the southwest, and crashed for the night in a cheap hotel amid freight trains, oil rigs, and Buck Owens Crystal Palace.  It wasn’t exactly the area for eclectic coffee shops and city strolls.  It’s sobering to see the cities that carry the burden of providing the fuel and fruit that we so eagerly consume in other areas, without any consideration of where it comes from and how it gets from the west to the east.

But California is a big state and it had a lot more to show us.  As a matter of fact, some of the biggest sights California has to offer were planned for the very next day….

Left Behind.

Posted on | July 28, 2017 | No Comments

There is something fascinating about places that stand the test of time.  Remnants of earth’s ancient past, testaments to humankind’s presence.  From the silly to the sacred, the Southwest is filled with these places.

We were up bright and early to get back to Carlsbad Caverns and tour the cave.  We passed a herd of Barbary sheep that were already looking for shade.  These sheep are not actually sheep (or goats) and they are not native, only appearing in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  Most researchers believe they were originally escapees from the McKnight private game ranch in New Mexico that imported the breed from their native North Africa.  And such began the parks’ struggle to restore the decimated native Bighorn sheep (actually sheep) population and remove the Barbary sheep.  The Barbary sheep are winning.  Talk about humans leaving their mark.

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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.

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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

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