Battling the Bruneau Beast

I am not a competitive person.  Maybe most people say that who really are competitive.  My daughter challenged me on this subject when she brought the grandkids down to the farm for a wienie roast.  Holding her hot dog in one hand she looked at me archly.

“Oh mom, you are so competitive.  You know that right?”

I shrugged.  She sounded like the mature adult next to my adolescent resistance.  I realized our roles were reversing again, and I hated when that happened.

Being competitive was a non-issue for me—at least that’s what I thought until I hiked the Bruneau Beast.

Every summer I climb what I call the Bruneau Beast, at 470 feet the largest free standing sand dune in North America. The Bruneau Beast is also a fun run sponsored by the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park near Bruneau, Idaho.  There are no footholds or gradual switchbacks to the top of this dune.  Something to keep in mind if you ever decide to try it.  It’s all slippery sand.

This year I climbed the Beast with a dear, old friend, Sue.  Sue is usually game for anything, and like me, she enjoys playing outside and finding activities that gets her heart pumping.

“Just so you know,” I told Sue as we walked to the base of the dune, “my knee’s been acting up, so I might go a little slower than usual.”

“Oh, me too!  I’ve got something wrong with my left knee. I’ll probably need surgery soon.”

Good, I thought.  We’ll both be a couple of hobblers on the hill.

“So, you climb this dune every summer?” Sue asked.

“Yep, at least once a summer (as if I’d ever go up the Beast twice in a year even).”

“Wow,” Sue said, suitably impressed.  I picked up my pace and tried to suppress the ensuing breathlessness.

Soon though, I fell behind Sue.  How could she be so fast, I wondered.  I was over six inches taller than her, which meant her legs were a lot shorter than mine.  

The Beast hike seemed more grueling than usual.  I bent over angled against the incline, and watched frustrated, as each step I took slid back halfway in the feckless sand. When I looked up heaving and panting, Sue was well ahead of me, pausing to look at the scenery.  Or was she waiting for me to catch up?  “Where’s the fire, Sue?” I muttered grouchily as I slung my tired legs forward.  When I finally got within talking distance, I gasped out, “Sue!  How old are you?”

She smiled quizzically, but I was determined to establish she was three years (THREE YEARS!) younger than me.  Not only that, she and I both knew she was dozens of pounds lighter (not something I wanted to dwell on).  These were significant differences that needed to be noted when hiking with a partner.

“Well,” I bent at the waist and placed my hands on my knees to catch my breath better, “Just wait till you’re my age and stage (Sue was apparently hiking with her grandmother).  Then we’ll see how you feel climbing the Bruneau Beast.”

“Oh Di,” Sue tried to assure me, “This is really a tough climb.  I’m too tired to fight the sand anymore.  I think I’ll crawl the rest of the way up.”

“Crawl?  Really?  That’s a great idea!”  Then we both happily dropped to all fours and stink-bugged our way to the dune ridge.

Sometimes you don’t know how competitive you are until you find yourself in a competitive situation.

To Sue’s credit, she didn’t seem to notice or mind her friend’s weird behavior.  Going down the dune we laughed and sand-surfed on our backsides.  At the bottom, I heaved one more deep breath, a sigh of relief, because this year’s hike up the largest sand dune in North America—was done.

 

Image Credit: Bruneau Beast 

Image Credit:  Dale Hooley (Diana Hooley climbing)

Image Credit:  Dale Hooley (Diana Hooley at the top of the Bruneau Beast)

 

 

 

 

The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.

 

 

Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harsh Reality of Life on the Farm

Life gets real on the farm—meaning sometimes cruel.  Those of us who live more urbanely, shopping for hermetically sealed dairy, meat, and produce in the supermarket can easily forget this fact.  But your grandparents or great-grandparents, and if not them, your pioneer forebears knew all about the farm’s morbid facts of life.

Having lived on a farm myself for nearly a lifetime, I’ve been largely desensitized to the prey-predator drama enacted on many farms every day.  For example, I often tap the fence around our livestock pen with a stick when I walk by to roust Shirley, our pig.  She’s a curious creature, always ready to shove her wet snout through the fence slats to get a sniff of my pants.  I smile until I remember Shirley, at nearly 300 pounds, is almost butcher weight.  Honestly, if I thought about this much, I would turn vegan—or Muslim—but sadly, one of these options in America today might predispose me to being the one butchered (at least metaphorically-speaking).

This past summer I watched a charming movie, The Biggest Little Farm, about a city couple, a husband and wife from Los Angeles, who loved animals and wanted to try their hand at sustainable farming in California’s Central Valley.  It’s always fun to watch city people “do” farm life.  I think of that silly early 2000’s reality show, The Simple Life, about a spoiled heiress, Paris Hilton, and her manicured best friend, Nicole Ritchie, slogging through cow dung in waders.

But John and Molly of The Biggest Little Farm were much more serious about going “full hayseed.”  They wanted to be a model, an example, that food, both plants and animals, could be produced in humane and sustainable ways. 

Pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers were a no-go.  They wanted to prove that a bio-diverse environment, with a variety of plants, animals, and other creatures, would find a rhythm and harmony that was not only natural, but profitable.  I was cheering for them every step of the way in my movie theater seat.  If they could do it, maybe bigger farms like the one my husband and I operate, could too.

To their credit, John and Molly created a relatively honest film.  Which means—the way they controlled pests like aphids, snails, gophers, and coyotes—was by letting nature take its course.  It other words, allowing animals to eat each other, i.e. prey-predator cycle.  Of course, there was savagery in this, and not all of it was planned.

Oopsies happened, like when the coyotes broke through the fence and ripped the throats of baby lambs.  One of the trusted guard dogs even ravaged the beloved pet rooster, Greasy, Greasy’s entrails scattered across the barn yard.

As animal-lovers themselves, the way life and death played out on the farm became an unavoidable nightmare for John and Molly.  Yet, they were determined.  They acclimated.  They watched stoically as the sweet, little piglets they helped birth, were hauled off to sale and slaughter.

By the end of the movie the before/after pictures of John and Molly’s farm were not quite as dramatic as a 600-pound woman post stomach stapling surgery, but it was impressive. Where once the southern California dust skittered over alkaline patches, fruit trees bloomed and herds of sheep roamed through grass meadows.  John and Molly though, looked older, more haggard, and less enthusiastic.

It took seven years to realize their sustainable farm—and it came at a cost.  The price appeared to be their idealism.

And did they make a profit?  That was less clear.  Something my businessman-husband picked up on immediately.  For despite the Garden of Eden John and Molly had managed to nurture in the California desert, my husband’s one comment at the film’s end was:  “I want to see their spreadsheet.”

 

Image credits:  The Biggest Little Farm        Image credit:  The Simple Life        Image credit:   Diana Hooley, Hooley’s commercial, desert farm