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!

Surviving Donner Pass

“Chain up!” That’s what the large, electronic message board said at the side of the highway. My eighty-five-year-old mother and I were sitting in my little blue Prius at the base of Donner Pass west of Reno, Nevada. Outside our car, snow blew around a long line of semis parked with us along the highway shoulder. In the distance, dark silhouetted truckers scurried like giant ants throwing chains over their duals, anxious to be on their way.

“Mom, do you know anything about putting chains on tires?”

She looked at me horrified—and I shrugged. It was an old habit, asking mom for help. Back in Reno, I didn’t get any direction from the Les Schwab tire guy about how to do it. When I went to the store counter I noticed his name tag said, “Hunter.”

“I don’t know if we have any chains left, but I’ll check in the back. End of season you know,” Hunter commented.

“Are you sure you want to go over Donner tonight? Looks pretty bad out there,” he glanced out the big front windows at the swirling snow.

Yes we were going over Donner tonight. I thought about how excited mom and I both were to see my daughter and her granddaughter waiting for us on the other side of the mountain in our San Francisco hotel room. Besides, we were staying at the downtown Hyatt Regency in a room that the reservation clerk told me normally went for $923-a-night. Tonight they’d sell me that room at a steal—$250—since I was attending a two-day conference there. If nothing else, we’d brave the weather just to see whether our hotel beds were gold-plated.

“Hunter?” I smiled sweetly, “Would you mind . . . I mean could you put the chains on our tires?”

He was typing out my order and never looked up. “Um, you don’t want to put them on now. Wait until you get to the base of the mountain. They’re easy to hook up (my smile faded). Usually there’s a guy at the bottom of Donner you can pay thirty bucks to chain you up.”

In the car now, peering through the blowing snow, I wondered what we’d do if I couldn’t find the guy Hunter told us about. Then I saw him. He was covered head to foot in a fluorescent yellow snowsuit.

“Turn your tires to the left. FAR LEFT!” the chain-up guy shouted multiple times to me as I tried to hear him through my cracked window. “Now right. FAR RIGHT! (This was easy?—I don’t think so Hunter). Okay,” he tapped my hood, “You young ladies are good to go. Be careful up there! It’ll be dark by the time you get to the pass.”

Here’s what I learned about driving with chains on your tires: it’s like driving on marbles.

Even though chains are supposed to prevent sliding, driving at the top of Donner’s 7,000 foot pass still felt like skidding across ice cubes.

Mom chatted along as I gripped the steering wheel, our speed topping out at a formidable 25-miles-an-hour. Then a strange thing happened. Somewhere past Truckee the snow stopped and the night sky suddenly cleared.

“Oh,” mom gasped, “it’s so beautiful. Look! The moon’s out.”

The road was virtually empty except for our Prius and several dozen semi’s, but the landscape was fairy tale-like, flocked in snow under the pale moonlight. I felt a moment of awe and my fingers loosened on the steering wheel.
The descent on the other side was steep and quick and happily the snow soon turned to rain. I worked to keep our shackled tires to the recommended 35-miles-an-hour until I could bribe someone to take the chains off at a quickie-mart.

“Thanks for this adventure,” mom said smiling at me as we whizzed along the interstate now free of our chains. I realized then it really had been an adventure—and I was glad I could have one more of those with my mom.

A True Idahoan

I was reading about the lineup of candidates running for president in 2020. The Vanity Fair article said that though Beto O’Rourke lived for a time in New York City, he would always be a Texan. I don’t know what that means. Did he “howdy” his way into performances at the Met? Did he walk the streets of Broadway wearing snakeskin boots and a rodeo belt buckle? When Donald Trump first ran for office in 2016 comedian Rosie O’Donnell commented on Trump’s combative style: “He’s from Queen’s. What do you expect?” Apparently, people from the New York borough of Queens like to get into fights.

If an Idahoan ran for president, would it be apparent he’s from Idaho? How would an Idahoan be viewed in the political spotlight?

George Hansen became the unfortunate political face of Idaho for a brief time back in 1979. The country of Iran had just become our enemy and took several Americans working there, hostage. Into this international fray steps Hansen, one of two representatives from Idaho to congress. Hansen said he went to Iran to solve the hostage crisis. I remember seeing news footage of Hansen, a big, beefy man in a dark blue suit and tie, incongruously towering over crowds of angry Persians. The ABC news anchor voiced over this televised footage commenting that Hansen was acting as a lone wolf in Iran and did not have state department support or approval. The clear implication: Idaho Representative George Hansen thought he knew more than the rest of the federal government about how to resolve an international problem.

“No!” I shouted at the television (I was a young woman then and more prone to yell or throw things at the TV). Hansen did not represent me and other Idahoans I knew. Maybe he was a caricature of something Idahoan, people who like to think for themselves and act independently, but it was a cartoon caricature.

If I were to choose a figure in Idaho history to nominate as a representative Idahoan, I’d probably nominate Grace Jordan.

Jordan gained the national spotlight briefly as the wife of former Governor and Senator, Len Jordan. She’s remembered more today for her classic autobiography of homesteading a run-down sheep ranch in Hell’s Canyon during the Great Depression. In that book, Home Below Hell’s Canyon, she chronicles canning peaches, making soap, and teaching her children to read and write. What stands out in her story is her good cheer, stamina, and courage through a difficult time. And though Jordan supported her husband’s political ambitions, she also managed to carve out her own career as a writer and author.

Idaho has changed greatly since George Hansen and Grace Jordan. We now have a much broader demographic including refugees from other countries, transplanted Californians, and an expanding Mexican-American population. I’d be hard-pressed to define a specific kind of Idaho character today. The old slogan about our state: “Idaho is what America was,” is less relevant. Idaho is slowly becoming America: a mishmash of many different cultures, each making their own rich and distinctive contribution. And that’s a good thing.