What I saw at the border with Mexico …

I stood on a large rock and watched a Mexican man cross the Rio Grande River in southwest Texas.  This was not an official crossing, and no one was around except for people like myself and my husband, hikers hiking along a desolate trail near the U.S.-Mexico border.

At first I saw the man sitting with a friend in a couple of lawn chairs on the other side of the river. They were chatting under some gnarled Texas cottonwood.

The Rio Grande is so narrow at this juncture, maybe sixty feet wide, I could hear their voices, their laughter.

Next to their campsite, a corral fenced three horses nickering and munching on hay.  Soon, one of the men raised himself up out of his lawn chair, pulled a cap down over his head, and climbed on the back of a sorrel-colored horse.

Where was he going?  Watching from the opposite bank of the river, in another country, felt like I was peering out a window at a cultural drama.

The Mexican trotted his horse for a while along a sandy embankment that was sloughing away.  Then he leisurely crossed where a large gravel bar spanned much of the river.  As soon as he was on the American side, he disappeared in the trees and brush.  Probably hiding, I thought.  But no.  The man soon emerged, his horse still sauntering.

“I’d like to meet him and say hello,” my husband said, as if we were emissaries sent from earth to greet the aliens.

“What if he’s a drug runner?  The drug cartels operate near here.  Remember those women and children that were killed along the border?  And what about that family that was attacked last week?”

Watching our Mexican man peacefully riding his horse, my comment seemed ludicrous.  Around a bend in the trail we saw some trinkets and a plastic jug lined up on a pile of rocks.  A little note said:  “Thank you for your purchase.  Your donation will help school children.”  Whose school children?  Likely this Mexican man’s. The trinkets—scorpions, tarantulas, and road runners made of meticulously twisted wire and beads—were labeled with prices.  Most of them cost five dollars, but some were tagged seven.

I looked up and saw that the man on the horse had stopped at a similar cache of trinkets down the path.  He slid off his horse, and picked up the plastic money jug, dumping what money was there, into his hands.  He was a businessman checking his sales.  Capitalism at its finest.  Free enterprise, or unfree perhaps.

We walked on down the trail toward the Mexican.  He looked up, and we waved and said, “Buenas dias!”

In broken English he told us his name was Benicio and asked us if we were interested in buying one of his trinkets.  He picked up the scorpion with its beaded tail.  As we looked over his merchandise, I asked him if he was worried about the border guards finding him.

“Los guardias fronterizos no son problema (the border police are not a problem),” he told us.

One of the items he had for sale was a walking stick covered with pictures of bright green cactus.  Along one side of the stick was written a distinctive message from our neighbors to the south:  “NO WALL.”

Driving on the way to our Texas hiking spot, we saw the border wall in El Paso.  Through the metal mesh of the wall I saw a city bus pick up people in Juarez on the Mexican side.  Buildings seemed smaller and older in Juarez, but more colorful. Adobe exteriors were painted aqua, yellow, and pink.  A thought came to me then:  if the wall was built to fence out Mexicans, why did I feel so fenced in?  I wanted to cut through the wall mesh and walk past the dry arroyo, to an old mission church I saw in the distance.

 

All image credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

Night skies at Christmas: all is calm, all is bright

I live on the Snake River where there’s little light pollution at night to dim the stars of a December sky.  Night skies are so black here, our area is under consideration for designation as an IDSP (International Dark Sky Place).  Sometimes, after supper when the sun’s set, I like to take a walk down the gravel road near my home.  I slip a miner’s light around the top of my head to help me see in the dark.  Usually at least once on my walk, I’ll reach up and click the headlight off to stare at the spray of stars in the sky overhead. As the song says, all is calm, all is bright.

One night many years ago I was watching the sky and saw a remarkable thing. All the stars were twinkling except one. It looked like a small white smudge on a dark canvas.  I went back inside the house to get a jacket and my binoculars. Through the binoculars I could easily see the tail of this “star.” The year was 1986, and I was viewing something people see only once every 75 or so years:  Halley’s Comet.

We miss so much in the night sky asleep in our beds. 

Ten or so years after viewing Halley’s Comet, I was jogging in the early morning dark, and suddenly the sky lit up like it was broad daylight.  It was so bright I could see our neighbor’s house a quarter of a mile away.  I stopped jogging a moment and just stood there in the middle of the road, awestruck.  The natural world took notice of the sudden light too. The perennial rustling of ducks, birds, and other wild life along the river hushed, and the only sound I heard was the gentle lapping of water.

At first I thought this strange phenomenon was an aurora borealis, but the Snake River flood plain is not really in the auroral zone.  Later I realized it was most likely another meteor streaking through space and blazing out above me in earth’s outer atmosphere.

If I was from an ancient civilization, a nomadic culture for example, living somewhere in the Middle East, I might have thought this flaming star—a sign.  

Others have noticed the spectacular night sky here on the Snake River.  In the next valley over, the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park has a public observatory and hosts star shows March through October.  I’ve seen the rings of Saturn and fantastical nebulae formations through their big “Obsession” telescope.  But much can be seen with just the naked eye.  Every morning now, around 5 o’clock, Mars rises in the east.  It’s a distinctive-looking planet with its ochre color.  Could we ever live on Mars, I wonder?

I think about this sometimes, star gazing Idaho skies, whether mankind could exist on other planets.  I’ve never wanted to leave earth, but I worry about the devastating effects of climate change. There is no “Planet B” though.  Scientific and international reports on the environment have made this very clear. We need to take better care of the planet we live on: this beautiful blue globe, this special Christmas ornament hanging in space we call earth.

Image Credit:  Night skies         Image Credit:  Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park telescope      Image Credit:  Earth in space

I heard the boom of a shotgun…

(Is hunting still a popular sport?  Why do we like the sport?  How do gun rights advocates complicate the sport of hunting?)

A penguin was standing on the welcome mat when I opened my front door.  It was Halloween, and I had a fistful of miniature Snicker bars and Reese Cups to give away.   But Halloween wasn’t the only thing on this trick-or-treater’s mind.

“Hey,” said a boy that looked about 11-years-old in a penguin costume. “Um…did you know there’s a deer in your field?”

“What?” I peered above his head and beyond him to the field beside our house.  “Yep, there’s a deer there all right.  They like to browse along the fields and river. Would you like some candy?”

“Well, if I take your candy would you let me shoot your deer?  See, it’s the last day of deer season and I haven’t got my deer yet.”

I placed a few pieces of candy in Mr. Penguin’s hand and called to my husband over my shoulder.  He’s the one who manages hunting on our property.  As I walked back down the hallway I thought about how hunting remains a rite of passage for many young men here in the rural west.  But the world is changing.  Could hunters and fall hunting ever become obsolete?

There are, after all, some good reasons not to hunt.  For one thing, despite recent research that says it’s okay to eat as much meat as you want, most nutritionists have been warning us for years to limit our consumption of red meat.  Some animal rights activists have eliminated meat entirely from their diet to protest the hunting and killing of animals.  Their main argument, and it’s a good one, is that animals are sentient, living creatures too.  Besides, they say, what chance do animals in the wild have against high-powered rifles with big scopes.

Others talk about the abundance of meat and protein sources already available in the supermarket.  Hunting is not necessary in modern times.  An elderly friend of mine would disagree with this line of thinking.  She told me once, “Growing up in the backwoods, we shot game to keep our bellies full.  All my brothers had shotguns.”  Then she looked up at me archly and said, “I sure hope you’re not one of these gun control nuts.”

Which brings me to another issue hunters contend with:  the political confusion surrounding owning guns.

Many sportsmen who own rifles and shotguns still believe in reasonable gun control legislation.

For militant gun rights advocates though, owning weapons is much more than sport.  For them, guns are power and independence.  Any threat to their owning whatever weapon they choose, including assault rifles used for killing other human beings, feels like a personal attack.

Yet given all these reasons not to hunt, every fall I see ample evidence in our river valley of people enjoying the sport of hunting. Outside my bay window this morning I heard the boom-boom of a shotgun shooting from somewhere among the islands on the river.  A duck hunter must be hoping for a holiday goose.  Off the far island I spot his silhouette.  He’s standing in the water wearing wader boots.  Suddenly he lifts his arm and signals his dog swimming toward him.  It’s an autumn tableau, beautiful and old as the changing seasons.

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley        Image Credit:  Diana Hooley      Image Credit:  Duck Hunter

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I’m Going Back to the Plough

(Which is better: city life or country life?  Why do people move?  How big is Boise, Idaho?)

I’m moving out of the city and going back to live, full-time, on the farm.  According to Allied Van Lines moving is not that unusual since in a lifetime most people change homes about 11 times (my mother moved nine times within a five-year period).  The majority of moves people make are local, from an apartment to a house in the same city, for example.

But people in my age group, the baby boomers, are the least likely of any demographic to make a big move. 

Generally, older adults have finally paid the mortgage off and are unwilling to take on any new debt, especially house loans.  And if they do change homes, they want to live closer to town, not further away.  They want to be nearer their family, goods and services, and especially medical facilities as they age.

None of those issues mattered to me though, when I decided to move back to the farm.  I simply wanted to find more peace and quiet and less rush and riot. I saw Elton John’s biopic, Rocketman, this past summer, and while I was packing boxes for my big move I found myself singing along with Elton’s “Yellow Brick Road”:  “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl, you can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough…”

The farm does have plows, which means work, so the lifestyle has not always been my panacea.  The first twenty years of my married life I plied, if not plowed, our farm.  I remember walking field roads dreaming of city streets and city lights.  I’d become a hay seed, but I longed to make hay in the big city.  I couldn’t shake wonderful memories of being a young college girl in downtown Philadelphia.  I loved the beautiful fountain at Logan’s Circle with the sculptured winged gods spouting water.  Down the boulevard from Logan’s Circle was the magnificent Philadelphia Art Museum.

I finally got the chance to leave the farm once my children were raised, and after I’d made a career change.

I moved to the biggest city around: Boise, Idaho, population 226,570.  It wasn’t the Big Apple but it was a fairly Large Potato.  When I made that move a farm girlfriend of mine asked me, “What does the city have that the country doesn’t–besides shopping?”

I thought (but didn’t say): you plebian!  A country girl could never understand the excitement, the energy, of so many people working and thinking and creating, in one big, buzzing place.  Even Michelangelo said, “I have never found salvation in nature.  I love cities above all.”

But I came to discover my plebian friend had a point.  Though cultural centers, cities are shopping meccas for most people.  In terms of daily living, this is their biggest draw.  It took some time, but eventually I found the gridlock and traffic jams a poor trade for the peace allotted to those who live among the wheat fields.

Another friend, Donna, said, “Won’t you be bored living out on the farm again?”

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to understand the upside of boredom, how it motivates you to engage with all the little things you missed before, like the litter of kittens out by the barn.  Besides, every day’s not meant to be a bell-ringer.  If you can’t stand the lethargy of time, you’ll die young—or at least sooner from rushing about so much.

So, it could be I’m moving back to the farm to save my life—or savor it. 

Really it doesn’t matter. If I’m honest, it’s how you live, not where you live that matters.  Early this morning in the dark, I opened up the back patio door on the Snake River rushing past.  When I looked up, a spray of stars twinkled in the sky.  I took a big breath, and smelled the freshly cut hay in the field next to our house.  Mornings on the farm are the best.

Tap on this link for more posts on Life Passages like moving out of a home.

Image Credit: packing boxes        Image Credit:  Rocketman        Image Credit:  old barn photo by Diana Hooley

 

 

We Ken Drive the Alcan–No Problem

(How long is the Alcan Highway?  When was it built?  What does the British Commonwealth have to do with the Alcan?)

If life is a journey, our road trip down the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) highway was a mere excursion—except it didn’t feel that way.  My husband and I drove 2700 miles over four days averaging nearly 700 miles per day to get back home from Alaska to the lower 48.  We motored over mountain passes, steep grades, teeth-rattling frost heaves, and sharp curves with no guard rails and 700 foot drops over the side of the road.

The really remarkable thing though, is we did it all in our little Prius hatchback, our noble steed of a car. 

The Alcan is very near mythic.  I heard about this road in the early 70’s when a friend of ours, Ernie, attempted to drive it on a motorcycle.  The Alcan at that time was mostly a gravel road.  Ernie might have made it up to Alaska if not for the relentless rains sweeping through Canada that turned the gravel into rock soup.  Opened for public travel during World War II, the Alcan which connects the contiguous U.S. to Alaska, was not fully paved until the 1980’s.  Even today there are some rough patches where the pavement’s given way to broken asphalt and gravel.

For the most part, and despite the pace we’d set, I enjoyed our drive coming home from Alaska on the Alcan.  Passing through the Yukon and upper British Columbia we saw bear, buffalo, wolf, deer, and moose.  It was almost like driving through a wildlife park.  The mountain valleys were narrow and the peaks sheer.  At the bottom ran streams, turquoise in color, likely due to “glacial flour” (rock ground fine from glacier movement) lining the stream bed.  When I wasn’t sight-seeing out the window I was peacefully daydreaming.  Existential questions like “who am I” and “what is my purpose” were momentarily forgotten.  Usurped by more immediate concerns: where’s the next quiki mart and gas station?

Though our Prius hybrid takes little gas we still needed to be mindful of stations along the way.

I got worried when the gas meter dipped to two bars on the three hour stretch between Watson Lake and Northern Rockies Lodge.

We passed one boarded-up gas stop after another, closed for the winter.  Seeing the Northern Rockies Lodge open was a big relief.  I hopped out of the car to get coffee while Dale pumped gas.  A young man with a long ponytail stood behind the lobby desk talking to a chubby woman wearing a floppy hat, evidently a guest at the lodge.  I overheard their conversation, curious about the desk clerk’s brogue accent.

“Scottish,” I said when he turned to help me.

“That’s a very good guess,” he smiled.

I shrugged, the picture of modesty.  “I’m good with accents. I don’t know why, but I can usually pick out where someone’s from.”

“Ken you now?” he looked at me speculatively.  Of course I “ken.”  I’d just told him that.

“Actually, I’m not Scottish, I’m British.”

“Oh,” my eyes slid from his face then, to the lobby counter, “Well… anyhow… could you please tell me where I could buy a couple cups of coffee?”

On our trip we ran into several international people.  Canada, along with 52 other countries including Australia and India are part of the British Commonwealth, former colonies of Great Britain.  One of the fringe benefits of that exalted status is more lax immigration laws between Commonwealth countries.

We officially left the Alcan behind at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.  Next door to our motel in Dawson Creek was a casino surprisingly named: Chances.  The casino was all flashing neon lights and ringing slot machines.  I stood at our motel window gazing thoughtfully over at Chances.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to civilization.  It was so quiet on the Alcan.  So peaceful, and so natural.

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All images:  Diana Hooley

Big is Beautiful

(How big is Alaska?  What is the largest national park in the U.S.?  Why did the cod fishing industry collapse in Alaska?)

 

The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.

“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.

He just looked at me.  “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”

I shook my head humbly.

“Okay then.  You’re good to go.”  I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window.  “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.

“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.

“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state.  Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”

I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos.  But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was.  Alaska is large—and in more ways than one.  Let’s talk about geography first.  To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around.  The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S.  But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.

Then there are the Alaskan people themselves.  I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback.  He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity.  It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly.  My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.”  I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life.  I feel petite.  And that’s saying something.

I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.

Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother? 

The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking.  Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet.  I can’t complain though.  Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense:  Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.

Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear.  In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots.  I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”

Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change.  Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.

According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees.  The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment.  Halibut still seems to be plentiful though.  And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge.  I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.

One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.”  Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state.  I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze.  It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.

Tap on these links for more posts on Climate Change or happenings Out West.

 

Image Credit:  All images Diana Hooley

Going Wild in Alaska

Out the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry window is a bank of white fog that lines the shores of British Columbia.  I know beyond that is hundreds of miles of dark green forest, taiga.  It’s such a big land up here.  Miles of nothing, miles of everything plant, tree, and animal-wise. How would I do living in such wilderness?  I’ve marveled at all those eccentric homesteaders in Alaska watching that reality TV show, Alaskan Bush People.  Could I go without my Starbucks coffee—room for cream please?  What about my allergy medication?  I guess I could sneeze and cough my way through bear country.

Suddenly I’m keenly aware of how much it takes to keep me operative.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” my husband chides me.

Dale’s ready to go native, but I’m hesitant to leave life as I know it behind. And is it really an adventure to not reserve a room in Talkeetna?  To end up sleeping in the back of the Prius huddled under some hoody jackets?  To my thinking, that’s not adventure, that’s dumb.

“All I’m saying is we don’t have to plan this trip to-the-teeth.  Let’s live a little dangerously,” Dale tells me.

I think about a documentary I saw once about a young man, Timothy Treadwell, who lived his life very dangerously.  He was so fascinated by grizzly bears he decided to live among them in Alaska.  He even made friends with a few bears—or tried to.  One, he affectionately named “Brownie.”  Then, he drug his girlfriend up to his campsite to experience the wild and sadly, they both were attacked and killed by bears.  It’s a tragic tale—yet still worth mentioning under present circumstances.

My compromise on the “adventure” part of our trip to Alaska was to not book a motel for three nights of our two-week vacation.

I know, I know, it seems risky to me too, but I’m big enough to let fate decide where I lay my head and find my sustenance in the Alaskan outback.

“You know, they do have stores in Alaska,” our friend Ed told me when I voiced my concerns about roughing it.

Thinking about having an adventure in Alaska made me remember “the law of contrasts.”  I made this “law” up a long time ago when I noticed my days seemed to be blurring one into another, dependent on the same routes and routines.  I felt a little numb driving to work, picking up groceries, and doing laundry on the weekends.  It didn’t feel like madness to me.  The problem was, it didn’t feel like anything.  I was stuck beyond feeling—until I began to jog.

What I needed in my life was some contrast.

Jogging is nothing like climbing Denali, but you have to admit there is something torturous about both tasks.  I began jogging to lose weight.  Before work early in the morning when it was dark and cold outside, I’d dutifully put on my sneakers and ran down our gravel road, a mile and back.

What I discovered beyond all the jogging pain—was true gain.  For the rest of the day I usually felt good, happy even.  It could have been the mythic endorphin “rush” runners get.  But I’ve read you actually have to run the length of an Iditarod (or portion thereof) to get a real runner’s high.  I think the suffering of my morning jog elevated my mood somehow and made me notice, in contrast, how pleasant the rest of the day was.

I could remind Dale about my law of contrasts, but I don’t want to give him more ammunition for arguments against preplanning our motels in Alaska.  Instead, I’ll take my philosophizing another direction and talk about how difficult life can be, and why make it more so?  It’s so easy to just pick up the cell phone and make a reservation. They do have cell service in Alaska, don’t they?

 

Image CreditAlaskan Bush People      Image Credit:  Alaska (Diana Hooley)    Image Credit:  Dale and Diana (Diana Hooley)

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