Saturday, September 12, 2015

Radio Silence

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Radio Silence

Jesse and I count down each day, count down the remaining work we have to do on the ranch. The days, although shorter with light, feel long with hours. Only ten more days until we get on a plane and head across the ocean to a new adventure. We can hardly wait.

Jesse harvests the last leaves of the greens from the garden and turns beds to prepare them for winter. She waters the lawn in an interminable cycle of moving hoses. She takes food to the chickens and turkeys and numbers the times she’ll have to move the trailer across the fields. Seven. Six. Five.

I collect food and clothes and puzzles to send out to the Darwin for my upcoming winter. My head is overloaded with preparations. First the summer’s end, then our trip, then seven, maybe eight months out in the wilderness. It’s a lot to plan for. I make lists. I make more lists and cross off the things I’ve done. “You are so organized,” Laura tells me. And still I feel scattered, focused on too many moving parts. Boxes line the table in my cabin while in the kitchen I make the last yogurt I’ll make for the season, the last cheeses, some buttermilk. Only four more days of milking Norma.

Together Jesse and I clean out two of the guest cabins and close them up for the winter and count down the days. The remaining time. Six. Five. Four.

We print out our airline tickets, train tickets, our itinerary. I make us up little emergency kit packets with things like alcohol swabs and antihistamines and bandaids.

After a lot of thought and a poll of my friends I decide to send my computer out to the Darwin with all the other winter stuff. This decision took some hard thought on my part. I sorted through the reasons to take it along and the reasons to leave it behind. I looked at the reluctance to be without my computer and came to the conclusion that it might be a good thing to break some of my dependence there and step out of that comfort zone. Also the idea of traveling light appeals greatly to me. Perhaps this will allow me to spend more time writing by hand, talking with my sister, taking more pictures, being more thoughtful of the moment instead of rushing to get back to a place with an internet connection. What this also means is that I will not be posting blogs while I’m away. For the next seven weeks I’ll keep a detailed log of my adventures and relate them later. The stories will come. And in the meantime, I’ll try to be faithful about sharing pictures and little snippets of what’s going on. I won’t be entirely without connection.

But, as a far as blogs are concerned, as the song says: Gone Till November.

See you then. Love you all.

Radio silence in three, two, one.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hello, My Name is George

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Hello, My Name is George

We've sat down to dinner but Karen and Greg haven’t come in yet. Jesse, Laura, and I exchange glances that ask, "Can we start without them?" We wait for several long, food-cooling minutes and then I serve myself and they follow suit. Some movement catches my eye and I turn and see Greg and Karen coming across the lawn. Greg is carrying a large box. Once inside, he sets it on the table.

"Did you bring us gifts?" Laura asks.

"Go and see for yourself," Greg says with a twinkle in his eye.

(Photo Credit: Laura Traverso)
The three of us crowd around the box. Look inside. A tiny face looks back at us. Eyes dark-ringed by a bandit mask. It's a baby raccoon. He's fallen out of his tree and his family is nowhere around. Over dinner, Laura and Greg talk names. Karen says she's staying out of it. Jesse picks the little guy up. I watch and photograph.

Laura is the first mother. She texts me late that night to say she had had to put the little guy in the covered patio in his dog kennel home because he was freaking out, making too much noise.

He’s still going strong the next day, feeding off Norma's milk and riding on shoulders and hanging out by feet. He's so young he can barely walk a straight line. He falls over in his enthusiasm to be close to something, someone.

When Morgan returns from her weekend trip, she becomes the second mother. She carries the little guy around in her arms and up on her shoulders. From that height, he buries himself under her hair. He follows her around when she sets him down on the floor.

"This is George," she says on Instagram. "His hobbies include sitting on my shoulder, sleeping in laundry baskets and peeing on my homework."

The night that Morgan, Greg, and Karen go to the farmers market, Laura babysits. George wakes up from a long nap frantic with hunger. Jesse gets out the milk and George laps it up from the floor, suckles it off the ends of Jesse's fingers. He trails lines of milk across the kitchen. He complains when he can't get enough milk fast enough. I go over to find the bottle I think Morgan has been feeding George with. Then I give it over to Jesse. That's as close as I want to get. Not that I don't like George. It's complicated.

Another day, at lunch, with George running around and being adorable, Karen says Greg had come to get her when he first found George. "I don't think I can dispatch him," Greg had said. Dispatch is a gentler word for kill.

"I can see why," Karen had replied. But she had also washed her hands of George's raising and care. "Maybe Jesse and Amanda will want him," she'd said. She tells us this at lunch. Jesse and I exchange a look. Smile. Shrug. Glance down at the floor at the roaming George. "But you didn't seem to want him," she continues. "And then the cat was already out of the bag."

"I remember you said Jesse should take Lil Bit when she leaves," I say. Lil Bit is a chicken, a rooster, who mistakenly was included with the first batch of broilers. While they grew big around him at an accelerated speed, he stayed small, growing at his own pace. He survived the bear attack and the processing of all those broilers. When the new broilers, the fluffies, came along, Lil Bit became the king. Now he was the biggest one, the chicken who knew things. All those little fluffies sidled up next to him on roosts and learned to crow and graze grass and be chickens from him.

Since Karen had suggested Jesse take him along, I have often imagined us traveling through Europe with Lil Bit. Now that imagining also includes George and Little Dude, Norma’s calf. In my mind’s eye, I see Jesse with a rooster under one arm and the raccoon hanging onto her shoulder. Little Dude gallops alongside. It would certainly be a very crowded and entertaining trip. Probably very hard to book train tickets and museum visits.

Morgan leaves again on another trip and Greg becomes the third mother. He loves George. He takes him along in the truck with him when he goes to fill the water tanks. He lets George ride up on his shoulder, stick his wet nose under his shirt collar. He feeds him every couple hours and is trying to train him to do all his business outside. "Come on George," Greg says, walking across the room with George trotting behind. "He already walked from the house to the tool shed and back. If I keep walking him maybe he'll sleep for a long time."

"You don't seem to like George much," Laura says to me, later.

"It's not that I don't like him," I say. I try to think of how to explain it. How sometimes it's hard enough taking care of myself. How I'll be leaving in a few weeks. How my life is a movement from place to place, a leaving behind of people and places and things and furry friends. How so often I’d simply rather observe than be involved.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Most Adventurous Person I Know

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
The Most Adventurous Person I Know

Suddenly, September is here. I look at my calendar with something that's not quite astonishment because I know how time works. I knew that I'd blink and be at this moment, looking back at the weeks I've worked, knowing I'd made it past the hardest parts. And here I am.

In twenty days, Jesse and I will leave the ranch and head off for our European adventure. Both of us are ready to go. For both of us have had to find peace in the present moment. To make the most of the available light, as the song says. In our own ways, we found that if we looked hard enough there’s tranquility in the stress, joy in the suffering, and always the inevitable passing of time. Nothing lasts forever. There’s a song about that too.

One morning as I'm walking to the lodge I stop to listen to the coyotes yipping and howling off somewhere to the west. How lucky am I? I think, To hear this? There are people who know nothing more than the hardness of concrete under their feet and for whom the sound of passing cars is the only wind song they've ever heard. Yes, ranch days are long, at times excruciatingly so. And yet, this world of owl, elk, deer, turkey, weasel, chicken, cow, horse, rabbit, pig, goat, dog, bird, coyote, bear, chipmunk, squirrel, raccoon. This world of rain and tears and laughter. This world of new experiences and gathering expertise. What a place to be. What a life to live. What an adventure to have.

"Did you ever think you'd milk a cow?" my mom asks me over the phone.

No, I never did. I never thought I'd be so up close and personal with a milk cow or any other cow for that matter. I never thought that I'd learn by touch to tell when an udder is full and when it's empty. I never thought I’d learn that a cow loves to be scratched where its tail joins its rump. I never thought I'd want a cow to like me. And I never thought that I would love a cow named Norma and her calf Little Dude.

Greg has been running Norma in at night and we leave her there in the corral until morning to give the milk a chance to collect, to keep the Little Dude from drinking it all up. Once she's milked, we let her back out so the Little Dude can drink all he wants during the day and Norma can graze. In the mornings, when Jesse and I bring over the milking equipment to the corral, often now, Norma is waiting for us in the milking pen. Ready for relief and ready to be back out to pasture. Looking at us as if to say, Where have you guys been? I've been waiting here all night.

"She has a nice personality," I tell Jesse.

"And she's pretty too," Jesse says.

I never thought that I would take that morning milk and with the help of live cultures turn it into sour cream, cheese, buttermilk, and kefir. Those basic things a routine now, I begin to experiment with harder cheeses. There’s adventure there too.

Greg brings me a pH tester and I find some heat resistant gloves and make mozzarella. I stretch it like taffy and work it into little balls. Laura laughs at me because of my Kermit the Frog hands. Because I have to use a stepstool to be tall enough to reach down into the pot to work the cheese into shape. Once formed, I drop the balls into ice cold water and then brine them with salt. We eat the mozzarella that night for dinner. It’s good. I'm very proud of the cheese. It's like leveling up in a game. I've gone from beginner to intermediate cheese maker.

Another day, I look through the cheese recipe book again, sort through the cultures we have in the freezer, and calculate gallons of milk and our milk needs. I have enough to try a Jack cheese. So I start it. I spend the day heating milk, adding in cultures, stirring, and waiting patiently for things to separate and set and meld back together again. I press the curds together, squeeze it into a ball inside a cheesecloth, and then form it into a wheel by putting a cast iron skillet with filled water bottles on top of it all. When the pressing is done, the Jack will dry for twenty-four hours in room temperature air. Once all that waiting is over the cheese will ripen for two to four weeks.

On Monday, Jesse asks if I want her to water my trees. "You've got cheese and I've got nothing," she says.

"That should be a bumper sticker," I reply. She's got nothing because all her morning chores are done and the evening chores are still yet to come. She goes off to water half of my trees and I mess about with dairy things in the kitchen.

Later, when my Jack sits in its ripening box in the fridge, I stand in front of the refrigerator and think. I do have cheese. I have cheese, and milk, and cow friends, and days that will slowly speed by and then disappear into the past. I have the present moment to work and a future that holds the promise of new experiences and great adventure.

I'm lucky and overworked and content and ready for what's next.

You are the most adventurous person I know, one of my friends emails me and I take it as the biggest compliment. It's my day off and I reflect on her comment as I clean up the mouse poop in my bathroom. It looks as if the mice have had quite a party. In fact, their carrying on had woken me several times during the night and early morning. Keep it down, you mice!

I reflect more as I walk to the lodge to get some breakfast and a cup of coffee. Off in the pasture, Norma is already free. The Little Dude is suckling, getting sturdier and taller by the day. Once inside, I check my kombucha bottles, glance in at my ripening cheese, and put some sour cream in the fridge to set. After breakfast, I’ll go back to my cabin and sit in the sun on the porch. I’ll see the deer blending into the near trees and shake my head at a chipmunk who fusses at me for being too close. I’ll sit there and write my thoughts down. I’ll reflect on the past and imagine what the future holds. For what is life but a great adventure and what am I if not an adventurer?