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

The Trip to Sun Valley

 

There’s a book I read years ago about the American West, a work of fiction by the author Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose.  Stegner’s book has a long and colorful history, including a Pulitzer Prize, but what I want to talk about is its title.  I’ve always been fascinated by the title.  Angle of repose is a geological term meaning the place where rocks tumbling down a hill finally come to rest.  The title is a metaphor for the story: a young pioneering couple from the east, move west, and go through both physical and emotional upheaval before they finally find together, an angle of repose.

Maybe my fondness for this book’s title has to do with the fact that I once was an easterner.  Like many transplants, I lived other places, experiencing different landscapes and cultures before I settled in the West.

I thought about this the past weekend when I took my elderly mother and two of her friends for a little get-away to Idaho’s beautiful Sun Valley resort.  Mom said she always wanted to see Switzerland (who doesn’t?), and I thought, since international travel isn’t viable for her anymore, Sun Valley might be the next best thing.

On the trip, I told the ladies packed in the backseat of the Subaru that I first heard about Sun Valley years ago, when I was in high school back east.  I think I must have been rifling through a magazine at the school library, likely having skipped lunch, when I came upon a glitzy advertisement for the resort. The ad read: “Winter playground of the rich and famous!”  I remember the picture of people happily skiing down snow-covered mountain peaks and thinking, “Wow.  Isn’t that pretty.  Too bad I’ll never go there.”  I couldn’t imagine visiting a place like Sun Valley because, a) my family was too poor for resorts; we scrapped by on my dad’s trucker salary, and b) Sun Valley, Idaho was about 2,000 miles and several feet of elevation away from the Indiana plain where I lived.

Now that I think of it, neither my mother nor I would visit Sun Valley until we’d found our angle of repose.  We both had journeys to take, alternately exciting and challenging, before we could reach a stopping place in the inter-mountain West.

Mom had to travel to the Philippines where she worked several years as a missionary nurse.  Then, when she came back to the States, nostalgic for old friends and old places, she moved to where she’d grown up, near Bluefield, West Virginia.  She finally landed in the West when she turned eighty.

After high school, I left Indiana, spending time first in the big city of Philadelphia, and then on an Indian reservation, before going to college in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  I managed to make my way west when I met an Idaho farmer.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and the only thing I really knew about the state (like most non-Idahoans) was that they grew potatoes.  It wasn’t until I found myself teaching school and trying to raise four children that someone suggested I needed to take a few days away, all by myself.  I should go to a mountain resort just a few hours north of our farm.  Sun Valley is glorious, they said, alpine meadows and fine dining.  Lots of history.  Ernest Hemingway lived there.

I told mom and her girlfriends how over the years I’ve come to Sun Valley dozens of times, drawn mostly by its natural beauty, the sagebrush hills with the rugged Pioneer and Boulder Mountains rising behind them.

Sometimes I think about my eastern-living days:  the humidity, the always unseeable sky—blocked by either trees or buildings.

There were no mountains to scale or climb down from in northern Indiana.  No place to stop on the trail, to sit awhile, or just shut my eyes, peaceful in my repose.

 

 

Image Credit: Angle of Repose   Image Credit: Diana Hooley   Image Credit: Sun Valley poster

Buying Fireworks at the Reservation

 

We drove through the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border this past week, and I thought about the many times my husband and I took our sons to the rez to buy fireworks for the 4th of July.  As a couple of rowdy, growing boys, my sons loved going to the reservation to get “real” fireworks.

Going to Duck Valley, the home of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe, was like crossing the border into another country—and in a way, reservations are other countries.  As sovereign nations, tribes are answerable only to the federal (not state) government.

My family would watch out the car window searching the sagebrush plains, hoping to be the first one to spot a wickiup—a sure sign we’d entered reservation territory.  Someone in the car would soon say, “There’s one.”  Then we’d all look to see a conical-shaped structure made up of branches and sticks sitting in the backyard behind a house.  Wickiups look similar to the tipis of the Plains Indians, and like tipis, their original purpose was to be a temporary camp dwelling.

I remember one of our first 4th of July trips to the reservation.  Down the main drag of the little town of Owyhee, Nevada, the only town on the reservation, we saw a hand-painted fireworks sign that signaled with an arrow to make a turn.  The fireworks stand sat in front of a run-down cinderblock apartment building.  I saw a blanket used as a curtain over one window and a screen bent and hanging from another one.  My sons jumped from the car as soon as we stopped, racing to the stand to see what kind of fireworks were for sale.  The door to the apartment opened and a young man stepped out wearing a baggy pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

“How-gh!  Yá’át’ééh!” he smiled toothily and held up his hand in greeting, Indian chief-style.

“Hello!  We want to buy some fireworks,” my husband told him.

George (he introduced himself) asked us if there was any particular kind we were looking for.  Before we could say a word, both my sons offered, “M-80’s.  Bottle rockets.  The good stuff.”

George was very genial and seemed more than happy to accommodate us.  I asked him if he got a lot of firework customers way out here on the reservation.

“Oh sure.  Quite a few.  You’d be surprised.  They’re like you, looking for the kind of fireworks they can’t buy where they live.”

Everyone wants more bang for their bucks on the 4th, but I had some hesitancy about buying “real” fireworks, something I’d vocally expressed many times to the rest of my family with little success.  I’d heard enough stories about people losing fingers lighting M-80’s.  Call me sentimental, but I had this wistful hope that my sons might grow up with all their digits intact.

“Anything special happening on the reservation?” I asked George conversationally.

“Yes!  It’s time to make some money,” he grinned, taking my husband’s twenty dollar bill to make change.

“I meant to celebrate the um . . .  well, Independence Day?”

Suddenly it hit me.  I’d just realized the obvious and sad irony in celebrating America’s independence from Britain—by buying fireworks from people who’d sought their own independence from America.

But George didn’t seemed fazed by my question.  “We got a big pow wow going on, food and dancing—probably do some handgames, some sticks and bones, you know?”

I didn’t know.  But George patiently explained that handgames were an old Native American tradition.  He said the games were like small-time gambling.  Any age and any number of people could play.  We talked a little more and when we finally left the rez, our backseat was full of fireworks contraband.

Our sons are grown now, and with the West increasingly a tinder box just waiting for the match, my husband and I have little interest buying anything with the word “fire” in it.  As I write this blog though, I’m remembering George.  I wonder if he went on to bigger and better things.  He was so bright and charismatic.  I hope he’s no longer selling “real” fireworks, but instead, has found a real job—or at least something that’s enabled him to move out of his shabby cinderblock apartment and into his own home, a home of course, with a wickiup in the back yard.

 

Image credit:  Diana Hooley,  Image credit:  Diana Hooley, Image credit: wickiup

 

Di and Dale’s Egg-cellent Adventure

To those of you who ask why raise chickens, I say why not?

Chickens have many superior qualities to commend them, and though they’re not pets, they don’t bark annoyingly like dogs do.   Plus chickens lay eggs.  Dogs don’t lay eggs.  Also, chickens are very efficient animals.  They have one of the highest feed conversion ratios (FCR) of any livestock.  Feed conversion ratios look at the difference between how much it takes to feed an animal versus how much food that animal provides.  Chickens will eat your table scraps and turn them into protein-rich eggs.  If you don’t know what to do with that watermelon rind—feed it to the chickens.  What about that tub of soured yogurt in the fridge?  Chickens love yogurt.  They even eat ground rock.  It’s called grit, and it helps them digest their food better.

We’ve raised chickens on our farm on and off for years and though they’re interesting, funny creatures, they do have their challenges.  One time I had a problematic hen who was a real nester.  When it came time to gather eggs, she wouldn’t leave her nest box and scratch in the yard with the other hens.  She just wanted to sit in the box, murmuring contentedly.  I tried to surreptitiously wrap my arm around the box to grab her eggs from behind.  But she’d have none of my foolishness.  She’d squawk and flap her wings indignantly like I was some stranger with my hand up her dress.

Chickens are generally peaceable, but like humans, they’re keenly aware of social hierarchies. 

I was reminded of this fact once when I taught school and attended a faculty meeting.  I understood the “pecking order” among faculty members, but one of our new, young teachers, did not.  She had the temerity to make an innocent suggestion–without vetting her idea first with faculty leaders.

“What? Where’d you come up with that stinker?”

“That’s a dumb idea.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

I tried to defend her, rebuking fellow faculty members by saying they were all acting like a bunch of chickens picking at the youngest and newest member of our group. It was only later that I realized what a bizarre comment this was.  My only defense is I had chickens on the brain, one of the few downsides of being in the chicken-raising business.

Chickens come in variety of breeds and colors:  Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Leghorn (famously popularized by the cartoon character with the southern drawl, Foghorn Leghorn). 

Eggs come in different colors too, but there’s a popular myth about egg shell color.  Some people believe brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs.  White eggs can be just as nutritious if they’re laid by a “pastured” hen as opposed to a caged hen.  This is what really makes the difference in terms of egg nutrients.

One of the best parts of raising chickens is sharing the eggs with friends and family.  I’ll give Nancy (an older friend who is careful with her diet and prefers organic) a dozen.  Elizabeth next door needs my eggs to bake her delicious homemade cupcakes and Danish pastries.  Simon is always in a hurry when he goes to work in the morning.  He likes to break one of my eggs over a piece of bread and microwave it for a quick breakfast.  Overall, being in the chicken business has been for both me and my husband, an egg-cellent adventure.

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

 

Hanging on to Democracy

I was sitting at a stoplight on Capital Boulevard in Boise, Idaho when I heard a loud crash in the rear of my car.  I turned around and saw the hatchback window of my Prius was shattered.  I immediately pulled over and looked for the rock that did the damage.  When the policeman arrived he just shook his head, wondering how and why this incident occurred.

“Could it be a meteor?  Maybe a little chunk of meteor rock fell from the sky into my back window,” I suggested.

He looked at me doubtfully.  “I guess that could happen.”

“What about this?” I pointed to a mangled bumper sticker laying in the glass debris on the floor of the trunk.  It read:  “Blue Girl, Red State.”  Since Idaho is a more conservative state, maybe someone took offense at my politics and threw a rock at my car.

I thought my bumper sticker was fairly innocent, and I liked the colorful irony behind the slogan:  blue girl/red state.  My bumper sticker was not nearly as inflammatory as one I saw a few weeks ago:  “MAGA—Morons Are Governing America.”  And my bumper sticker definitely pales in comparison to a road-side sign I sped by on a Sunday drive: “Democrats are baby-killers.”

The policeman shifted his eyes, obviously uncomfortable with my inferring the busted window might be a political act and said, “Looks like we’ll never know.  I don’t think there’s any reason to file an accident report.”

I’ve thought about this incident, which happened a couple of years ago, many times watching the increasingly vicious political battles in Washington between Democrats and Republicans.  Our first president, George Washington, worried about partisanship.  In his day political parties were called “factions.” Washington was afraid lawmakers’ allegiance to their political parties would supersede their allegiance to the country as a whole. Compromise and Rule of Law would take a back seat to party politics.  The other side, whether Democrat or Republican, would be characterized and treated as the enemy.

Michigan Republican, Justin Amash, a member of the House of Representatives is currently being punished for his lack of party loyalty by withdrawing his support of President Trump.  He’s now being maligned with the label RINO (Republican in name only) just as many Democrats are branded DINO (Democrat in name only) because they favor a white, male candidate for president over a minority female. This kind of rigid thinking is evident on both sides of the aisle.  I saw a post on Facebook today with a picture of a Native American chief wearing a headband of feathers in his hair.

Below the picture it read:  “The right wing and the left wing are both from the same bird”–meaning we’re all Americans.  We all want our country to do well and prosper.

Beside me as I write this blog is a book I’m currently reading called How Democracies Die.  The authors posit that in countries where democracy has failed and authoritarian dictators have risen up, political parties have become so acrimonious they’ll do anything to win and keep power, including elect a flawed leader.  Sadly, there may be a risk of this scenario playing out in our country today.  Representative Amash is not officially on my “team” but if he ran for office in my state, I’d cross party lines to vote for him.  I like his courage.  Sometimes all it takes is a few brave people to turn the tide.

 

 

 

Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho

 

Snake River Canyon

There are certain places we visit so many times in our life—maybe a hill in a park or a bridge we cross every day to get to work—they become meaningful to us. The Snake River Canyon near my home is such a place for me.  I’ve hiked the canyon dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the years.  On today’s hike, I’m reminded how pretty the canyon is in the spring.  At its neck, I’m greeted by a vista of green, desert grasses lining the canyon walls.  I’m always amazed to see the canyon, brittle brown most of the year, turn Easter egg green for a brief week or two in the spring.

I remember the first time I really looked at the canyon and noticed how beautiful it was.

I was newly married and had just moved to a desert farm with my husband.  One morning we had a big fight, and I was so angry I took a walk back in the canyon just to cool off.

I barely saw where I was going, my eyes were so blurred with tears. But slowly I became aware of how lovely and quiet the trail was.  Before long, my fury was all gone, lost in the peaceful canyon wilderness.

The walls of the Snake River Canyon were shaped by the flooding of ancient Lake Idaho and Lake Bonneville thousands of years ago.  Now the Snake River runs along the bottom. I look to my right, hearing the river as it winds its way down through the canyon floor.  I’m not able to see the river though, the Russian olive trees along the bank are too dense.  Several years ago on one of my canyon hikes with our family dog, Lindsey, we walked by a particularly dark, deep stand of Russian olive trees.  Lindsey peered into the woods and suddenly went berserk, barking wildly.

“What is it girl?  What’s wrong?” I asked her, trying unsuccessfully to calm her down.

It wasn’t until she abruptly backed away from the trees and started mewling piteously, that I became afraid myself.

My mind flashed on a book I’d recently read, a Stephen King horror thriller, The Tommyknockers I think, about a dog who’d dug up something in the woods: an evil, alien, space object.  I didn’t think there was anything from outer space in that Russian olive thicket, but there might be a wild animal on the other side, drinking from the river.  Cougars were not unheard of back in the canyon.  I called Lindsey and we quickly made tracks back out of the canyon.

As peaceful as the canyon is most of the time, this was not my only scare, hiking in it.  One time I decided to climb up the canyon wall, about 450 feet, to get a view of the valley below.  Half way up, I bent over to look at a black sliver of obsidian laying in the dirt.  I didn’t want to miss finding a possible arrow head.  Then I heard the unmistakable “ping” of a bullet hitting rock not too far from me.  My head snapped around to search behind and below me.  Who was shooting at the rim rock?   I couldn’t see anyone down near the river.

Maybe ten seconds later I heard another ping of a bullet, this one sending rock flying above me. Were they shooting at me?

I didn’t stay around to find out, but started skidding down the side of the canyon wall as fast as I could, stumbling over sagebrush and basalt rocks as I went. I never found out who the shooter was, but after that, I always made sure I wore a bright cap on my head when I hiked in the canyon.

Today, as is my habit, I walk until I come to the big boulder settled among some grease wood at the base of the canyon.  Maybe it’s a little obsessive-compulsive of me, but I lightly tap the boulder’s rounded, pebbled surface, and then pivot to head back the way I came. I guess the boulder’s a touchstone of sorts, a reference point for my many walks in this scenic, wild canyon.

Image credit:  Snake River Canyon

I Am Not a Dog Lover

I am not a dog lover.  Sometimes I feel bad about that.  I read once about a man who said he’d never trust anybody who didn’t love kids or dogs.  My love of kids is all that keeps me from a criminal life.  Not surprisingly, I’m surrounded by a family of dog lovers.  The first time I visited my farmer boyfriend (soon to be husband), he met me on his dirt bike, a little Border collie puppy peeping over the top of his zippered jacket.  And I’ll never forget sleeping on a mattress at my son’s rental and waking up spewing yellow Labrador retriever hairs out of my mouth.  The pillow I’d slept on was apparently, a favorite lounging spot for his dog, Sunny.

How does anyone like dogs?  They eat their own poo (well, some do) and like to roll around in dead fish or worse, my flower beds.  They chase the cats that eat the mice we want to be rid of.  They shed hair and bark—some of them—a lot.  I’ve several unwarranted images in my head of my husband leaping up from our bed in the middle of the night and shouting out the patio door: “SHUT UP (Janie! Ring! Misty! Lindsey! Caputo!—names of our past dogs).  Shut the– &#%!@–up!!”

Given that dogs are such trouble, why is man’s best friend not a gold fish—all beauty and no bother?  Gold fish however, have little to offer in the way of help on a working farm.  I remember being amazed watching my husband send Ring, our Border collie mix, out to herd cows. His full command for Ring to herd was “Sick ‘em!” After a while all he had to do was make the “S” sound and Ring was off, paws beating the orchard grass, not slowing until he’d spotted a cow.  Then Ring did something unique to Border collies:  because of a space between the top of his shoulder blades, Ring was able to crouch and slither low to the ground like a cat, so he could slip behind a cow undetected, and nip its heels, moving the cow forward.

We eventually sold our cows.  We wanted to travel more and not be burdened by tending animals.  Dogless for several years my flower beds flourished—except for the roses.  Without the dogs keeping them away, the deer ate the roses (if it isn’t one animal, it’s another).  Then, this spring a little Border collie pup showed up on our door step, apparently abandoned.  Border collie’s are my husband’s favorite breed.  They’re the furry geniuses of the dog world.  The lineage of most modern Border collies can be traced back to a single, smart dog, Old Hemp, who sired 200 pups in the late 1800’s.

“Isn’t she cute?” my husband said of our new puppy.  I nodded and mentally began the process of fencing my flower beds again.  Clara, my eight-year-old granddaughter heard about our new Border collie–Millie we named her–and wondered if Millie might spend the weekend with her.  I was thrilled.  Having Millie spend the weekend away, felt like my kid was at camp and I was free!  But I didn’t know how my daughter, Clara’s mom, felt about having a puppy to contend with.  So, I was a little surprised when my daughter texted me after Millie’s stay and wrote, “I wish we could pet-sit Millie every weekend.”

I immediately texted back: Okay! (frantically searching for an ecstasy emoji).

Then I got another text from my daughter telling me to ignore the last text:  Clara had written it.  Clara had found her mother’s phone and decided to write grandma her secret wish.  My heart dropped until I heard the phone ping again.  It was my daughter texting:  “But…we’d be fine having Millie on the weekends…”

Yes!