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For my 50th birthday, I got a new pair of telemark ski boots from my husband! And generous birthday checks from my dad and in-laws. And I might be getting some financial help from a certain little brother towards the purchase of a compound bow. I organized a 3 day raft trip for my family and a handful of friends and ate my favorite flourless chocolate cake, complete with candles, on the banks of the river. All for my celebration of turning half a century.

And I also got a relapse of my Chronic Lyme Disease. I don’t remember asking for THAT gift…. Or did I?

It’s easy to see how I “set myself up” in hindsight, but very difficult to push away denial in the moment as the freight train is barreling through the mountain pass. The freight train I speak of would be my life and the mountain pass all the distractions in it’s path. I can look back now, as I groan from the deep aching pains in my muscles and joints, and see how I created my own perfect storm.

Yup…. It really started with Spring…. or maybe even late winter when the construction of the pole barn for the goats began… Those were fun and exciting days, but also stressful, as we had a deadline of when the goats were arriving. Stress is a killer for those of us with CLD (Chronic Lyme Disease). Six consecutive weekends of work parties with supportive friends completed our barn raising. I was either with the boys slinging my hammer, or in the house with Isla preparing a mid day feast for the crowd. I was also the project boss – in charge of design and being sure the materials were all on hand for the day of work. It was exhilarating to watch MY barn slowly raise up from the snowy ground… but stressful and exhausting too.

Then came the goats and my goat-owner-trial-by-fire began. Intense! This was all MY thing, a long time dream of mine. Randy did not want the goats. I struggled alone through fear and worry as I taught myself to milk the mama, bottle feed 2 kids, and keep them happy and safe.

Next was garden time. This began with the planting of indoor starters, tilling and raking beds in prep for planting the garden, and a new garden addition that was around 400 to 500 square feet. In our horrific soil we have to hand spade the ground first to break it, then till in 2 directions, then rake out rocks, then add whatever supplement of compost we have, then till a third time, then rake the soil into raised beds creating the paths, then plant, and THEN set up the drip irrigation! Oh, I forgot fencing. Randy handled the new fencing and 3/4 of the spading, but I did the rest. And that was just plain STUPID. I do enjoy pushing myself hard when my health is holding, but this was idiotic. I overdid it for many weekends in a row, as well as weekdays when I had the energy. While I was wrestling with the tiller in the garden addition, Randy planted ALL of the massive garden single handedly. Then I planted the addition. And I think that was when my Borrelia burgdorferi began to yawn, stretch and rub it’s sleepy eyes.

In the midst of the garden work the chicken coop was moved beside the barn with the help of 8 strong hands, and fencing was placed around it to separate goats and chickens. Soon after I found a pair of Royal Palm turkeys for trade and brought them home. Not a lot of stress and physical labor getting the dog house moved into the goat pen for the turkeys and getting them established. But certainly some.

But then the poultry drama really began. I brought home a borrowed broody bird and settled her into the broody house on top of 5 of our eggs and 18 expensive, rare breed, bought eggs. While she set on her clutch, the turkey hen went broody and began to set on a total of 18 eggs. 3 of our 5 chicken eggs hatched and a big ZERO of the 18 bought eggs. So I hustled around to two different feed stores and brought home 14 babies to tuck under the mama’s wing. After the addition of 17 chicks to our flock, the 3 chick deaths were sad, but not unexpected. But the gray fox that managed to get into the pen and kill 14 chicks and the mom – now that laid a MASSIVE emotional burden on my shoulders. And the Lyme spirochetes, hiding deep in the cells of my draining body, were on alert – they knew a chance may be coming soon for them to pounce once more.

Grief and Guilt drove me to long hours of further wrapping of the pen, securing it from all angles and heights. And creating a pen around the poultry nursery to keep goat kids from jumping off the roofs of the broody houses. Turkey poults hatched, but only five. Two of the five died leaving us with three. I was sad and disappointed. A second broody bird was borrowed and brought home to sit on top of 12 of our eggs. Meanwhile a woman in WI supposedly put 20 or so of her rare breed eggs into her incubator for me. The plan was to ship us the day old chicks who’s age would be within a day or two of the chicks hatched on our farm. But only ONE of our 12 eggs hatched and the woman in WI never put the eggs in her incubator. And she never bothered to tell me!

My plan was to double my flock this year introducing some rare breeds who laid dark chocolate brown eggs, more Americaunas (the blue-green egg layers), and some white eggs layers. AND a batch of turkey poults to sell for Thanksgiving dinners. One turkey hen will go back to the original owners of the turkey pair as agreed, one hen we would like to keep for breeding, and one turkey would be for our table. But we still don’t know the sexes. Doubtful we’ll be making any money there however, unless they are all toms. And as for doubling my chicken flock – Ha! From all the stress, loss, efforts and money invested, we end up with ONE CHICK. The joke between Randy and I is that it will probably grow up to be a rooster. However, we have LOST 2 laying hens this year to natural deaths (non-predator related), so it’s not looking good for an increase in egg production on our farm. As I write all this down, I realize I have not given the year’s poultry stresses enough weight in the Lyme equation. I think the cumulation has contributed a great deal towards this current relapse.

A year and a half ago, Randy asked what I wanted to do for my 50th birthday. Without hesitation, I said, “A raft trip down the Chama River with all my friends!” It sounded like the perfect birthday celebration! We got our permit application into the lottery in time, and were drawn for the requested weekend. The trip was on. I am the planner/organizer of the family and I LOVE doing it! All the projects and undertakings mentioned above were at my urging and pushing. Randy is garden boss, I am animal boss. And of course there is overlap. But when it comes to overall farm planning, I am self-proclaimed boss of all. (That was why I ended up doing the majority of the garden addition. It was MY idea.) Plus, when I was pregnant with Isla, it was agreed: We would buy land, create a little urban homestead, and I would run the farm and raise our daughter at home. And 3 years later, here I find myself, running our farm and raising our daughter, living the life I dreamed of. But if this career is going to work for me, I am going to have to learn to live without having ALL of my goals and dreams manifested over night.

But back to the river. The time was finally upon us and my Big 5-0 loomed in the very near future. Invites were sent out several months in advance, gear organized, menus planned and shuttles arranged. 3 weeks before launch, one family of 3 bailed. I was sad as I was looking forward to getting to know them better. We have a lot of interests in common and their daughter is only 5 months older than ours. The day before launch, my dear friend and her family of 4 had to bail as her 16 yr old was horribly ill. I was extremely sad they were canceling. I had been so looking forward to initiating them into the rafting life style and sharing this part of my life and passion with them all.

In the week leading up to launch, there seemed to be no end to the last minutes projects that needed to be completed before leaving. The turkey poults were passing easily through the chain link nursery fence, leaving their distressed mother behind. And one even continued right through the stucco netting of the goat pen out into the free world! That would NOT do! So the nursery chain link needed to be wrapped with smaller holed poultry netting and wired on. The drip irrigation needed to be finished on the garden addition and re-routed to become a 4th irrigation zone on it’s own. The garden needed harvesting and the access processed and in the freezer (a MASSIVE job). Weeding needed to be done and squash bugs had to be picked off by hand before they devastated our crop. River gear needed going through, the menu planned and bought for, and all group gear packed. Then our personal gear needed packing. THEN the house needed to be cleaned for the house sitter, and my house sitter novella edited for goats and turkeys.

It then occurred to me this was the first time we had left the farm since getting the goats and the turkeys! No WONDER I was feeling such panic and stress! I was leaving my newest babies in the care of another for 4 days. Any number of horrors could befall them in that short interval.

Three days before launch I felt the fear swirling into the dark depth of my chest. Using good judgement, I paid a friend to come help me with Isla and processing the harvest. Then again to clean the house. And I also commandeered another friend to help out over the final 2 days with whatever needed doing. The night before our final prep day there was no more denying it. I KNEW I was in trouble. I could feel the deep aching in my body, sensed the depression flooding in extinguishing all my internal fire, and a depth of exhaustion that was frightenly familiar. The warning bells began to ring. LOUDLY.

But what could I do then? I persevered… I couldn’t bail on my own trip! I busted my ass for the final prep and pack day and we drove away from the farm that evening, my heart aching with fear, my body aching from the attacking spirochetes. We spent the night in a cabin at the launch site and the next morning was more ass busting of rigging rafts, re-packing gear, and packing it all on the rafts. As the organizer I was feeling completely overwhelmed and (dare I say it?) honestly, so very relieved that 2 families had bailed and we were down to only 10. If our poor 16 yr old baby-sitter had not gotten deathly ill, causing her whole family to stay home, I would have been rowing an additional raft myself WHILE taking care of my 3 yr old and the group! I do not know if I could have done it in the state of decline I was already in.

And then on the river…. the blessed river…. which is usually my place to relax and recharge. Randy brought to my appalled attention that this was my first time organizing and being the “leader” of a group raft trip of more than 4 people. What? How could that be? Really? And we had started the trip with 17! Yet one more reason for my emotional and physical overwhelm and exhaustion. I was a wreck internally, while doing my best not to show it externally. Unfortunately for my family, Randy and Isla saw plenty of my wretchedness as my crankiness spilled out sideways in their directions. And it rained, and rained, and rained on the trip. It was the wettest Chama trip I remember in my history of 7 trips down. Isla was needy and difficult, certainly reacting to my own neediness and stress. And I was exhausted and concerned about everything running smoothly. It was hard. I was so relieved to discover that everyone else had had a great time, despite the rain! But the bummer for me was that this trip was my birthday trip and I did NOT have a good time. Because I was completely wasted and taking a full face plant into my current relapse of Lyme.

Lyme sucks. There is no other way to say it. One of the hardest things is that you look fine on the surface, so you just appear to be a lazy, cranky, complaining human suffering hypochondriac delusions. Being a person who thrives with goals and projects to constantly be working on, it hits me where it hurts most. It dumps a big bucket of river water on all my fiery passion. I drops me into depression and apathy. I was so down after we returned from the river that I didn’t even want to check if any chicks had hatched. That says a lot.

Many people ask “How do you feel?” or “How do your symptoms manifest?” Well, I know it is a bit different for each individual, but for me, the main one is pain. I am used to living with a mild level of chronic pain that never really goes away. But in a relapse the pain is much more intense. It reminds me of the pain that accompanies a very bad flu bug – body aches that leave you writhing and moaning in bed sort of pain. Pain in the muscles, pain in the joints. Arthritic symptoms that are mild in the good times become claw shaped hands in the morning with a relapse. Thank God Randy has taken over morning milkings because my hands hurt so badly in the morning that I am not sure I could do it. Before this relapse I sometimes had to rub my hands under hot water before heading to the barn with the milk pail. I’ll find out in a couple days what lengths I have to go to now, as Randy leaves town Fri for an over night backpacking trip.

Brain fog is a large symptom. My neurological symptoms have always been tough for me. Word choice can be very difficult when speaking. Sometimes I can not finish a sentence, as I stop to work out the next word and then forget what the sentence and thought was about. I walk into a room and can’t remember what the reason was. I can not remember to call people back or return emails. I can’t remember what I am supposed to do. I often forget simple things like brushing my and Isla’s teeth in the morning, or brushing our hair. I feel like I am walking through a thick fog, a dream, a surreal land. Sometimes I hear my own voice as though it’s far away or another person speaking. I can have a thought but can not voice it. Writing can be quite entertaining at times when I go back to edit. There are typos and entire words that aren’t even CLOSE to what I meant to have in their places.

Depression sets in leaving me numb, unmotivated, and apathetic. I feel shame and have a strong sense of self-loathing. I feel like I am a bad person – a bad mother, a bad wife, and bad friend. I feel so dependent and needy that it disgusts me. I feel like a pathetic burden on my friends and husband. I want to isolate and suffer in solitude where I won’t effect anyone else. I want to push people away so they can’t see me like this. Even people close to me. I am dreadfully emotional. I want to crawl into a cave and sob for eternity.

And the exhaustion can be so intense that I can not get out of bed. My kid begs me to get up and I am not sure how to do it. I sit in a filthy house and can’t imagine how I will ever get it clean and organized again. I know I need to do at least SOME work at home but there are days I simply can’t. Nothing.

Fortunately I am describing the worst case scenario days, and they are not all this bad. But I cycle in and out, up and down. Yesterday was a great day! My dearest mama friend and her entire family came over for the day. While her husband worked me over on his massage table for 2 solid hours, my friend took our 3 collective kiddos out to the garden and harvested for an hour or so, then came inside and start dealing with harvest as well as making lunch for us all, and doing the dishes in her wake. They were saviors. I was overflowing with love when they left and felt so very hopeful again. I was able to get a lot done, even after they left!

But today I am paying the piper for too much fun yesterday. I am back at the bottom – not quite in the dregs yet, but hovering only a bit above. The house looks like a cyclone hit it. And I just don’t care.

The other side of Lyme is the Tough Love Teacher. It always has something to teach me, whether I am interested in learning it or not. What I am learning through this relapse is gratitude, forgiveness, humility, gentleness. I am learning to love myself and take this one day at a time. I am learning that no one will die if they have to live in a house that is filthier that the goat barn. I am learning that my husband can actually enjoy milking our goat at 5:30AM! I am learning to stop, breath, feel grateful for all I have – grateful for the water I am drinking, the food I eat from our garden, the fresh milk I make my kefir with. I am learning to reach out to the higher power of my choosing and ask for help, strength, support and guidance on my healing path. I am learning that my friends and community love me and are there for me. I am overwhelmed with the offers of help, the prayers sent, the love poured upon me. I am learning to open my heart and receive these gifts, which is a damn hard thing for a self-sufficient, stubborn, fiery, Scot-Irish girl like myself. I am forgiving myself. I am drinking slow pots of tea. Lots of them. On the porch. While the weeds grow in the garden like Little Shop of Horrors.

OK Lyme Disease – you’ve got me again. But I will do my damnedest to stay afloat and see my glass half full. I open my heart and  embrace your lessons and choose to see this relapse as an opportunity.

An opportunity to learn, heal, and grow.

PS: Good news! I stared this post about a week ago and it has taken some time and energy to edit. But during this editing, I have seen a marked improvement in my energy with a dramatic decrease in my pain. It would appear the protocol I set out for myself is working. I feel very hopeful that I have caught this crash in time. Perhaps I won’t plummet ALL the way down this time around. Keep your fingers crossed for me…..

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“You were heroic Honey,” he said with empathy and tenderness.

Well, I don’t know about heroic. I felt more like… pathetic and helpless. But I tried to let my husband’s complement soothe my shaking muscles.

The storm had started about an hour up the river from the first camp site. The thunder and flashes of lightening warned us for some time as it echoed between the red cliff walls of the Chama River canyon. The rain began lightly, gently, forgiving, granting me the time to pass off the oars and wrestle Isla’s little life jacket off. And then to wrestle back on her rash guard top, rain bibs, and rain jacket, once again zipped all into place with the life jacket. Then myself into my splash gear. Randy, forever the optimist, was a bit more leisurely about digging out his. But the rain settled in getting harder and harder. Then came the hail as the thunder boomed and rolled and the raft rocked it’s way down the rapids…. and Isla fell dead asleep in my arms.

Finally the campsite came into view and Randy bumped the bow of the raft against the willow choked bank, leaping to shore with bowline in hand. Isla slept on. He helped me out and onto, uh, land, but definitely not DRY land. I stumbled up the bank with my 30 lb sack of potatoes held in arms that had gone numb 30 minutes prior, and staggered towards the thickest juniper tree canopy I saw. Thankfully, there was a limb just at the height of Isla’s butt. That took a bit of her weight off me but not much. As the hail returned with an ernest will, exploding sprays of slush off my daughter’s wee head, I noted that Bonita, our trip mascot, had scurried off her raft and under the shelter of Isla’s body to seek refuge from the storm. I was really starting to feel miserable by this time.

The 3rd raft bumped the bank, and the solo duckie, and the boys quickly dug the river wing (group tarp) out of our raft and began fumbling with the massive lump of sodden cloth while flashes of light tore the sky asunder. When enough guys lines were in place to make something to stand under, I ducked beneath the tarp and sank gratefully down into the mud as my child continued to snore in my dead arms. By this time I was shivering violently. Greg, Randy and RG got the tarp staked out in record time and RG hauled a Paco pad (rubberized sleeping mat) up from the shore. With that unrolled I was able to lay my little love lump down, her head 2′ from a new stream that had begun running down the main path through the campsite. This was serious flash flood weather so I kept a close eye on that stream as it had formed in about 30 seconds. More flashing and booming as I tried to make my shaking, cramped body preform. Our dry bag was dropped beside me and I fished out uh, whatever – a rug came first and that worked just fine for a temporary blanket for my wet rat of a baby. Once she was tucked in, so to speak, I dug out the tent, completely at a loss as to how I was going to set it up without turning it first into a wading pool. But I knew my top priority was to get my kid into dry clothes and a warm sleeping bag, my shivering self close on her heels. So I yanked my thinking cap down over my head.

Once I could move around again, blood flow resumed and my shaking quieted. I pulled out poles and snapped them together. I pulled out ground tarps and the tent body and stood staring at them beneath the river wing. I was alone, as the remaining 8 boaters were all taking care of their own stormy dilemmas, and I was pretty helpless to proceed without assistance. When Randy and RG came up with another load of dry bags, I commandeered them to hold the tent fly out as best they could while we ran as a huddled mass to the closest tent site and I fumbled beneath the fly as fast as I could. Poles were whipping against the boy’s frigid bare legs and I was tripping over bundled ground tarps and rip stop nylon. I have no idea how I did it, or how they held their arms outstretched for what felt like eternity, but somehow we got that 4 person tent sort of pitched.

Then Isie woke up, confused and crying. All I could do was haul her back out into the pouring rain to stand and cry beside me while I continued to fumble with the tent with false cheerfulness. “MAAAMAAA! I neeeed you!” The boys helped me when they could but their plate was pretty darn full with all the hauling of gear they had to do and helping others. I found my microfiber camp towel and dried out the interior as best I could, dried off the Paco pads and got them inside, and then I tossed in the stuff sacks of sleeping bags. My sleepy toddler bawled in the downpour as I raced on. All our personal dry bags were into the vestibule, and I could FINALLY zip myself and Isla under cover. Then there was the laborious peeling off of layers while Isla continued to howl and drip in the vestibule. Life jacket, rain coat, sun hat, rain bibs, river shoes peeled off her white water-logged feet, rash guard off, bathing suit, board shorts…. and no seasoned mom would bypass the naked opportunity for relieving their 3 year old’s bladder…. then into cotton PJs, wooly top and bottoms, wooly socks, cashmere hat, and I shoved her gently into the down sleeping bag. With her Sarah doll in one hand and book 7 of Little House on the Prairie in the other, she calmed and settled, snuggling deep into the warmth of her feather nest.

Me next? Oh don’t I wish.

Then I made several more gear trips from the raft to the designated kitchen site under the river wing, and began to set up the group kitchen. Folding tables, stove, propane tanks, water jug, hand wash station, unfolding camp chairs, cooler, food bags, cookware set…. etc. Randy cracked off the top of a bottle of tequila and we each took a swig straight from the bottle. Warmth and peace trickled through my body, one limb at a time. Deep breath. Back to set up. THEN, once I knew everyone else was OK and order was restored and the rain had settled back to a light drizzle, I went to the tent to strip off my own river gear. I still had on my life jacket.

Once in dry clothes, I was immediately on cooking duty to whip up a fajita dinner for 10. A powerful margarita in one hand helped tremendously.

I am no stranger to the river. This was my 7th trip down the Chama alone, not to mention 3 trips down the San Juan, 23 days down the Grand Canyon on a private trip, and countless rivers on the east coast. And it was my second time with my child, last year being her initiation into multi-day river tripping at 2 1/2. But it was my first time organizing a group rafting trip (of more than 4 people) and my first time taking my child rafting with other families. It never occurred to me there would be much of a difference from previous raft trips. I was very comfortable being the organizer and being in charge. But oh my….. nothing like a worst case scenario, as Randy said, to really make the lessons apparent. And the number one lesson was:

1. I could not be a good mother to my child while taking care of 8 other people. Period. And as a self-proclaimed mother hen of all, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

Granted, I doubt they felt they NEEDED to be taken care of, but as the “leader”, I saw this as my responsibility. Fortunately I think everyone had a great time despite the generous doses of daily rain, and it appears my nerves, and patience (with my child) were the only things that truly suffered.

But if I was “heroic”, then I was merely 1 out of 10 heros this past weekend.

Randy, as always, my faithful pack mule, was hauling gear up and down hills, rigging and de-rigging the raft, helping me with cooking, cleaning, tent set up and break down, driving the laden trailer to and from the river, getting the gear to and from the BLM (where he works and the rafting gear is stored – this was a river patrol trip for him), dealing with my stress and crankiness, and still finding time and energy to play with and love our daughter.

RG, manning the ducky, on his second ever river trip, was always our right hand man. He helped me personally at the house for two days prior to even leaving town! There was a tremendous amount of different things that needed to be done from barn and animal project prep to garden harvest and processing, to packing of river gear and meals, to entertaining Isla. He did any and all jobs I laid before him. And on the trip he was constantly there to lend a hand, never shirking, always with a goofy pun ready and a heartfelt laugh, even after dunking into the river and loosing his glasses in the current.

The Gustina family were amazing troopers. I couldn’t believe how tough the girls were, ages 10 and 13. Even when sodden and frozen, initially without rain pants, they sung and giggled their way through the storms, perched on the mountain of gear in the stern of their raft. They were constantly offering to help and showed stoic stamina with Isla’s continuous requests to play doctor. Emily and Greg Gustina seemed to be on constant dish duty in addition to packing up a weekend of delicious lunches. And Greg, the wildlife biologist of the trip, could always give us an interesting factoid of nature.

Leilani, with her 7 months pregnant belly, hefted herself and her bambino about with grace, and was always willing to help watch and entertain Isla for me (a godsent!). While her husband, Justin, did, well, EVERYTHING for the 2 of them as that was the condition on which he agreed to bring her. (Leilani had already been hospitalized for early contractions.) And he STILL had time and energy to sing to us, accompanied by his expert guitar and fiddle playing, and cook two excellent meals.

Weren’t we all heros?

Of course, the trip wasn’t all a sodden, muddy rain fest. We had many memorable sunny moments, or at least rain-free ones. The clouds parted for a rousing all-terrain bocce tournament Sat evening that took us on a wild goose chase through the dripping ponderosas and scrub oak. There was a Yatzee play off under the river wing, and the mandatory music and singing. On a bedtime trip back from the groover (portable river potty system), Isla and I startled a massive toad with the beam of our headlamp, who in turn caused us to jump a few inches off the spongey, needle strewn path. It took two hands to hold the enormous amphibian for a few night time photos. There was the red fox who stared at us furtively from the bank as we drifted past, before slinking behind a bushy juniper. And an adult turkey that flew from a high ponderosa roost on one bank to the opposite shore, it impressive wing span pumping slowly over the drizzly water. Countless families of wild geese were our ever present escorts with babies from wee to teens. And a mother duck with 5 newly hatched ducklings slipped stealthily through a tunnel of overhanging river grass beside our raft. Isla and I found an 18″ river snake at our take-out while the group loaded the trailers and we made drip castles on a mud flat. It was the first snake she had ever touched, feeling it’s muscular length wind itself between her mama’s fingers. Hundreds of swallows darted in and out of their upside down nests of mud stuck fast under cliff overhangs. Red, thread-thin worms wiggled across the glassy surfaces of our mud pies at river side. And there was time for an adventurous hike up a stunning box canyon to it’s dead end pour off of red slick rock. Rocks were collected, bird’s nests found, and sticks turned into ballerinas.

But there are always hardships in our life’s path. So we “suck it up cupcake” and “buck up and deal”. We are all heros at some point along the trail. Because sometime, somewhere, the rain ceases and the storm clouds move aside to reveal the palette of the setting desert sun reflecting off the red and buff cliff walls, and glinting off the tail feathers of that lone golden eagle perched on the grassy knoll, mantling over it’s dinner of black tailed jack. That’s why we do it. That’s why we persevere.

So sure. I’ll embrace my husband’s complement and agree – I was heroic. And today, amidst the aftermath of sore muscles, muddy dry bags and sodden laundry, I am still heroic, for today I turned 50.

And if that ain’t heroic, I don’t know what is.

Rigging the rafts at the put in below El Vado Dam

Isla helps cinch a cam strap

Strapping in the gear

Finally on the river, starting the trip in sun!

A man and his craft. RG (Randy Grubiss)

Isla immediately wanted to help row!

Justin and Leilani Dean, their pup Bonita, and Junior who is due in 2 months

Bonita, the trip mascot

The remains of the Ward Ranch, a historical site that was vandalized by arson in the past year. Heart breaking…

Remains of the stable

Leilani warms up a chilly Isla who insisted on being dunked over the side within 5 minutes of leaving shore.

Captain Roch back at the helm

13 yr old Eila Gustina gets a rowing lesson from her papa, Greg

A family of ducks

At the first campsite, the rain let up long enough for Eila and Justin to serenade the group

Eila, Emily and Tally Gustina keeping dry under the river wing

Randy Roch and Greg Gustina take dish washing seriously

Checking on the boats before bedtime

2 birthdays on this trip!

Justin and I unabashedly sing happy birthday to ourselves

Isla stares at the BIG toad

I can’t imagine a raft trip without music. Thank you Justin!

Packing back up the next day

Justin and Leilani heading into Aragon rapid

Floating past Tiger Wall

Isla and I about to dig into to Sunday morning breakfast of french toast with whipped cream and fruit!

Sunday morning hike up the Huck Bay wash

RG checks out the pour off at the dead end of the box canyon

At the Chavez take out, Isla gets some rain-free time on a sand bar

Meeting a water snake while the trailers are loaded

Our group, heading home

Bye bye Chama River! See you next year.

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Being the animal boss of the farm is a hard job. It’s not only the physical aspect of it, and the logistics, and the nights and days spent worrying… but the inevitable attrition of the animals. I am not talking about “culling” the mean roosters for the freezer. I mean death by unknown causes or predators. Last year, in 3 separate attacks, we lost 2 mama hens and 4 out of 6 chicks, as well as a laying hen, to unknown predators. This year we’ve lost Gertie, the flock Matriarch, and Jackie, one of our sweet Americanas who I nursed back to health as a chick with dropperfuls of milk. I never knew the exact cause of either death but Isla and I respectfully buried their bodies in the frosty adobe soil. But the worst of all was just last week. We lost another mama hen with 14 chicks!!! Only one chick remained, hidden under the feeder tray overhanging a brick in the broody house. I discovered the piles of feathers blowing in the dawn breeze when I went out to milk. My heart sank. I KNEW what I would find. I went numb, my heart rate and breathing lowered – a sort of shock I think. I did not even go to the broody house. I went first to open the main coop, then checked on Isabelle, our setting turkey hen. Then, slowly, with tremendous dread, I opened the broody house. Feathers. An overturned water bottle. I could feel the fear and bedlam oozing out of the door. My heart clenched tight. My numbness deepened.

I switched on the autopilot. Then I milked Hazelnut, fed and watered chickens, goats and turkeys, and I began a detailed search of the surroundings, just in case a chick had escaped. And then I heard it…. the little tiny peep of a 5 day old chick. I looked under, between, around, and finally back inside. And there it was. The one remaining Marans chick out of the family of 14 plus mama. I scooped it up and tucked it into the neck of my fleece jacket. It was a chilly morning in late spring and the little peep shivered and shook against my chest. I grabbed the pail and walked slowly to the house.

Randy was at the computer sipping a mug of steaming coffee. He knew immediately something was wrong. “They’re gone. They are all gone. Except for this one…” His mouth dropped open and his face turned pale. I held the little peep in my hands, then took off my cashmere hat and tucked her deep in the warmth of it’s darkness. The peeping stopped. Randy took me in his strong arms and my tears began. My body shook silently against his for a long time. I thought of the terror all those chicks, and the mama, had faced before their death. I wondered what had done it. And I blamed myself fiercely. The mama was a borrowed broody Americana from a friend. We named her Inky as she was our Incubator. And she was the coolest, sweetest chicken I had ever had the honor to have known. She would fly up to my shoulder, and even onto the top of my sun hat once. When I held her she relaxed into my embrace and lay her head on my arm. She was genuinely the coolest bird ever. After falling in love, I officially traded her by buying my friend 3 little peeps to add to her new batch.

And now she was gone.

While Randy held my hat with the traumatized chick, I scoured the dust around the pen in the rising sun. There. And there. Definitely not our Pyrenees. Not a skunk. Not a weasel. Too round for a coyote. It looks like… a large… cat. Do we have bobcats in this urban neighborhood? I doubted it. I pulled Randy out for a look, and took pictures, and then thumbed through our tracking books. There it was – Gray fox. “Looks like the tracks of a large cat but with obvious claw marks.” Yep. Mr Fox. I had never seen a fox here. Plenty of coyotes, but never a fox. 5 days later our suspicion was confirmed as I had the “pleasure” of chasing Mr. Fox off in my pajamas. He had come back to the barnyard cafeteria for seconds. And he was small and beautiful and very fast.

This summer has been a complicated chicken summer. My business plan is to double my flock, adding in laying hens of dark chocolate brown eggs (Marans and Penedenscas), a few more blue-green layers (Americanas mainly) and some white layers (Andalusians). I already have plenty of tan and light brown, and with two of my three hen deaths this spring being Americanas, the blue eggs are getting thin. I figured with the addition of 1 turkey egg per dozen (off white with milk coffee spots), a colorful spread like that would make my cartons really stand out in people’s mind. Plus, being free range, foraging and organic birds, my yolks are orange, dense and delicious. The sale of eggs don’t exactly cover costs, but it sure helps. So I had done my research and found my hatchery for incubation eggs. When my friend announced a broody bird at her coop, I ordered 18 expensive very rare eggs and brought Inky over.

To give the mama something to do, I put her on 5 of my own flock’s eggs. The shipped eggs were suppose to arrive in 2-3 days. It took 5 days instead which made the timing tricky between my eggs and the shipped ones. They were technically 5 days off their hatching dates. At 21 days, sure as clockwork, the first little peep cracked a wee window through it’s shell and into the big new world. And for the first time ever, I was there to see it! It struggled mightily to push through, and being the type A person I am, I helped it by splitting the egg just a tiny bit for it to wriggle out. Within 20 minutes it was a fluffy black ball with a blonde head spot and utterly adorable. 2 more hatched in the next 24 hrs from my eggs, but I could see Inky was loosing patience with the remaining eggs. $130 worth of eggs. She kept pushing out the dark brown ones and pulling in the tan and blue ones. I guess they were just too foreign for her. I called feed stores near by and found one with Rhode Island Reds and Americanas, both 2 days old. So I zipped over and returned with 2 of each. Inky barely blinked as I lifted her multicolored wing and slipped the chicks under, one by one. And she was quite content with 7.

Inky with her first wee peep hatched from our egg.

But I wasn’t. 5 days after the first little fluffernugget emerged was the next hatch date, and nothing happened. I did in fact find a fully developed chick in it’s crushed shell, quite dead and covered with wood shavings from the bedding. I think Inky may have been too distracted to realize what was going on under her with 7 wigglers already there beneath and quite active. Isla and I carefully cracked open the remaining eggs to find only one other partially formed chick, and a bunch of reeking, rotten ones. From the 18 shipped eggs, only 2 had been fertile and neither had lived.

I was angry, and determined to meet my goal in as much as I could. I drove an hour to another feed store who actually had Marans, and returned with 5 Marans, 2 California whites, 2 Speckled Sussex, and 1 Black Astralorp. As I unloaded the chicks one by one into Inky’s box, I discovered one of the Marans was very small and had deformed feet. She wobbled uncertainly, her eyes half mast. I did not expect her to survive, and she didn’t. But what I didn’t expect was to find both Speckled Sussexes stiff in the wood shavings with their heads eaten off. There are definitely aspects of chickens that I prefer to ignore and cannibalism is one of them. Why the Speckled Sussexes? I will never know. And now Inky was down to 14 chicks. It was manageable.

It was the day after that when all the chicks made it out of the box with mama. I admit I helped the smallest, even though I swore I wouldn’t. But it was hard for Inky to have 9 outside scratching and pecking under the sage brush with her, while 5 cheeped pitifully from inside. Isla and I both got sunburned sitting mesmerized in the dirt as 14 little chicks cruised around us, over us, and through us, exploring their new world. It was an idyllic, delightful hour.

And the very next day – they were gone.

With red rimmed eyes, I contacted my friend, knowing she had the peeps I had just dropped off with her a few days prior, and drove over with the sole survivor still tucked into my hat. It was 6:45AM. I was still crying. And I cried more in Heather’s pajama-ed embrace. I felt physically ill. Nauseous. Why hadn’t I finished wrapping the stock panels in stucco netting? Well, I know why. Because being a farm manager and mom of a 3 yr old, I have a list of to do projects that would keep 3 people busy full time. But that didn’t keep the proverbial 2×4 from continuing to bash down on my head. Not only was there the loss of life, the loss of an awesome hen, the loss of those fluffy little nuggets, the loss of the $130 worth of eggs, and the loss of 21 days plus of waiting, but there was also the loss of my business plan.

I took out my anger on the egg company and they offered to reship the same order to me for just the cost of shipping. Some consolation at least, but my Inky-Incubator was gone. I had no time to hand raise chicks. I researched Marans chicks for sale on the web and found only one small mom and pop farm who had all the breeds I wanted. They would have to hatch to order. And it was incredibly impossible to catch the woman on the phone as she worked constantly and the chickens were just her side hobby. But finally we connected and agreed on the order, which due to the probability of hatchings, is vague. But she placed the desired eggs in the incubator for me last monday with a verbal commitment. It is going to be expensive. AND she wants me to agree to overnight shipping so she worries less about her babies. The next day, Tues, Heather told me she was pretty sure another of her birds had gone broody – a Buff Orpington. Did I want to borrow her and try again? Sigh. Weds it was confirmed – she was in the zone. And Weds evening I brought home The Golden Girl and plopped her in the broody box on top of 12 of our eggs. The timing for the shipment of day old chicks from Wisconsin would be only a day off. Hopefully Goldie would go for the adoption idea as easily as Inky did. And the ages of the chicks would be closer.

So this morning I stumble out the door at 5:30AM with milking pail in hand, aware of an unusual ruckus coming from the coop. But I knew the chickens were closed up tight and safe so I didn’t worry. I tossed a flake of hay over the fence to the goats, wiping the alfalfa dust from my bleary eyes. I scooped out the grain rations into the red enamel bowl and balanced it on top of the gate post. I took the pail through the gate and hung it on the branch stub on the post in the pole barn. I pushed through the 2nd gate to the coop pen and opened the coop door. Birds piled out blinking in the rosy light. I tossed scratch on the ground, filled the layer mash tube, petted Little Willie, and hefted the water tube noting it needed filling. I shuffled sleepily back out of the chicken pen, inadvertently releasing one of my wildest Barred Rocks, Checkers, into the goat pen. Sigh. 10 minutes later I had her back on her side of the fence and I went to open Isabelle’s door. Isabelle is our Royal Palm turkey hen who has been sitting on 18 eggs for longer than I anticipated. Yesterday one fuzzy yellow poult finally appeared. I am still waiting for more. I petted Thomas, her mate, and went to check on G.G..

WTF? She was gone! The box was empty! She was NOWHERE. I took a few deep breaths to made my brain work again.

We had turned the pen into Fort Knox over the weekend since the tragedy had occurred. It would have been close to impossible for a predator to get her now. The pen currently consists of 52″ stock panels, wrapped in 36″ of 17 gauge stucco netting (NEVER use 20 gauge poultry netting – it is a joke), and 18″ of horse fencing both buried in the ground and attached to the top of the stock panels. PLUS the turkey/chicken broody nursery is enclosed with dog kennel panels within the goat pen – it’s own inner sanctum. I looked in the sage brush within the kennel and even looked in the depths of Isabelle’s house, receiving a warning hiss in my face. Where was the freakin’ chicken?? The only thing I could imagine is that she had managed to fly over the 5′ fence into the adjoining free range chicken pen. Which would mean she would be hiding under the massive clump of sage brush where all the chickens hang during the day. Ahhh.. I remembered that ruckus earlier and the mystery unfolded in my head. So she managed to fly over into the free range pen, then followed the flock back into the coop pen, and then into the coop to roost. AND she managed to escape the night time head count before the door was bolted shut on the coop. This morning, as the chickens jumped down off their perches in anticipation of release, the pecking order was being re-established due to the new member. Hence the noise. Sneaky little mama. Smart little mama. But would she go back into the broody zone?

I milked Hazelnut and finished the feeding and watering chores. I strained the milk and plopped the jars into their ice bath. Then I took a deep breath, donned my sun hat, and headed out to the free range pen. I found G.G. quickly. She was one of the few who did not come out of the brush when I set down a bowl of cheese whey for the flock. I squatted and talked sweetly to her through the scratchy dead sage branches. I did a little courtship dance around the clump of brush, hoping to lure her out. I kneeled down and asked politely. And finally I started pushing myself sun hat first into the brush on hands and knees. Of course G.G. just walked out the opposite side leaving me ensnared and sweating. After a few of these episodes into various sage brush thickets, I herded her into the coop pen. Now I had to climb over the fence as I could not fit through the chicken hole. Interesting. Once in the smaller pen, I had a slightly better chance. After 5 or so minutes I was able to get her cornered, and secured, and then back in the broody house with the doorway blocked off with an extra queen excluder from my hive. She showed no interest in the clutch of eggs. I left her to walk our Pyrenees and returned to the house and a fussy, just woken up 3 yr old.

Later in the day, Goldie was sitting beside the eggs but not on them. Come on girl – give it a little broody try, eh? At last glance she was obliging. I shoved 2 stray eggs under her and let her be. In 21 days I will tell the rest of the tale: Did she stay broody? How many of my eggs hatched? What chick breeds did I end up getting in the mail? How many will be roosters? Will G.G. adopt them? How many laying hens will I end up with at the end of this ridiculous goose chase? Will I be able to get the new coop addition onto the pole barn before winter? How many turkey poults will hatch? How many more poultry deaths will there be this year?

And will my first dark brown egg, some time next winter, taste like….

chocolate?

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Well, not many people would call Santa Fe “the city”, but when comparing to Taos, it feels that way to me.

I had an allergy testing appointment – one of those FUN ones with a total of 76 individual pricks over both forearms and biceps. And then the nurse says “DO NOT SCRATCH!!!” And, as my arms felt like they were covered with 50,000 crawling ants, with welts popping up like prairie dogs, that warning made me want to punch… something! Good thing she was so sweet. So I sat there in the testing room, reading my book on how to run a small goat dairy, after being hastily hooked up to oxygen when they feared I was going into anaphylactic shock. I was starving for something green. I was not allowed to eat ANYTHING with Vitamin C in it for 3 full days prior, as Vitamin C can mask the histamine response to an allergy, subsequently giving false negative results. That means no fruits and no vegetables. It was almost funny, except it wasn’t. So when I wasn’t reading about lactation curves, and getting a high off the O2, I was fantasizing about the trough of salad I was going to have in just a few… more… minutes.

I arrived at the restaurant, excited to have lunch with my new friend. She is a wonderful woman who has a heart the size of the state of Texas she hails from. She arrived with an ear to ear grin, even more beautiful than when I first met her last fall – outside AND in. Being with her is akin to being washed from head to toe with love, acceptance, and appreciation. Is there anyone who can’t use a dose of those? We had lots to talk about over soup, salad, and a hot chai for me. In the parking lot I passed off her delivery: goat milk, goat kefir, kefir grains, goat chevre, olive bruschetta, and 1 doz eggs. My second ever goat product sale! And I drove reluctantly away, with my back seat full of generous gifts for the family, and my heart even fuller from her presence.

It was a good thing she had filled me up with positive energy, because I was heading for the emotional dungeon….

Disney World. Or at least that is what a mall feels like to me. But I had been forced into it – I had to buy new bras. I am embarrassed to admit I was still subsisting off the same two nursing bras I had bought 3 years ago, and my daughter had been weaned for 6 months! Not only were these 2 archeological antiquities threadbare, they were WAY too big now. Imagine a pair of hammocks with tiny, limp, water balloons hiding in the depths of each, swinging glumly, side by side, a bit like Eyore’s tail. Breast feeding is hard on a woman’s body image, I’ll tell you! As I pulled into a parking space I thought back to Hazelnut’s shriveled, pendulous teats this morning as I walked away with my  milking pail a 1/3 full. The resemblance was uncanny. Except for the hair (thank god). But my mama friend told me I probably needed to be measured as I would be a totally different size by now (Size F – for Flaccid), and this was the only place I knew to go for this demeaning task. I might even prefer a mammogram. Because I was now walking, al beit with extreme difficulty, toward THAT store! You know… THAT ONE! The dreaded VICTORIA’S SECRET! And I can tell you what her secret is too: 10% of the female population, or less, can actually wear the bras in this store! HA! And guess where my water balloons fall on that statistic? (yes, down to my belly button – I know, I know!)

I was cranky with anticipation, so the store barely had a chance. But I walked boldly in, sheilding my eyes from the relentless spread of neon colors, and ignoring my frayed pants hem 3 inches above my sockless shoes. I smelled of goats. I barely cared. I took one lap and headed back out the entrance. There was NOTHING for me in there! Who WERE those mannequins modeled after anyway?? And how many retouches did that poster take? Grrr….. I took a deep breath, pivoted on my dirty heels caked with “nanny berries”, and re-entered, only slightly more composed. I found a sales chick (because I could not have called her a woman) and asked where the non-neon bras were without underwire and push up pads. She said they had two models without underwire and neither were push ups. The “regular” colors (black, white and nude) were in the drawers. She showed me, then pushed a lock of dyed hair from her eye, stiff with a milking pail full of hair gel. They were padded. I explained I did not need a padded bra (nor had I since I’d been 11). She said all their bras were “lined” (as in – with foam). I sighed. She measured me, with my arms outstretched like a sacrificial maiden (and I hoped hysterically that my pits REALLY stank), and gave me several choices to try. Again I heaved a sigh. When asked how the bras were fitting, I unabashedly opened the dressing room door, grabbed a pinch full of loose skin from the sides of the bra cups, lifted them up in synch, and said, “Not very well.” I saw the girl glance instead at my arms which were riddled with what appeared to be track marks of an intravenous drug user. “Allergy testing”, I said and smiled. She smiled back. One look at my country mouse farm clothes was all it took to convince her of the truth. I probably didn’t look like I’d been “shooting up” with my morning coffee.

So I said a grouchy farewell to Disney World and drove out through the maze of parking, still wearing my boob-beaten, sweat filled bra, feeling like a little test mouse in a research maze. Mini Mouse perhaps? And the further away I got from the neon pink thong bikinis and neon green pushup bras, the better I felt. I headed north, deciding what I might need to fully return myself to my former dignity. Hmmm… perhaps a quick stop at Home Depot to fondle some power tools? Some heavy petting with the coveted Dewalt table saw? Naw, I didn’t have the guts to get across the 6 lanes of traffic in time. Then my steering wheel started pulling to the right… HARD. Whoa! Right into the Toyota dealership! Time to drool over some Tundra trucks I guess. I asked for my favorite salesman, a 6′-5″ Isreali who had changed his name to Aspen Leaf after immigrating. One of my favorite past times is picking on him until he cracks a smile. I’ve bought 3 Toyotas from him trying. But Aspen was not in and there were no used crew cab Tundras.

The only thing still missing was my always dependable Attitude Adjuster (nope, not the margarita – I was still driving). CHOCOLATE! So back on the road to figure out where that fancy pants chocolate store was. The 18′ stretch limo parked in back clued me in. I slowly sipped my Havana Rum hot chocolate back to my Happy Place as I read about manger designs and how to trim a hoof correctly. Ahh. In my body once more. Time to head home.

A fierce windstorm buffeted me violently just north of Espanola, followed by driving rain of a spring squall. But as I enter the Gorge of the Rio Grande, the rain shifted to a gentle drizzle, just enough to keep my intermittent wipers clicking rhythmically across the crack in my windshield. The gorge opened up through Rinconda and the flood plain burst forth with a symphony of greens and pastels! Fruit orchards were heavy with blossom and lilacs flashed past in ice cream colors: lovely lavender, very berry and violent violet! Spreading, long leaf willows struggled to release new leaflets from their winter bondage. Purple catkins drooped heavily from the stately cottonwoods that marched along the river bank. In another week or two they would release their namesake fluff on the wind to go forth and propagate. Then the walls closed back in and I happily dodged fallen rocks while watching the sinuous Rio wind it’s way up the rift of shiny, black basalt. As a rainbow appeared from behind a tall cliff, I was overcome with a feeling of expansive gratitude. OK, that was hard on my ego, but I am SO thankful to have these 2 teats – I mean breasts – that nurtured my child for 2-1/2 yrs. I am SO thankful to have a husband who loves me whether he finds those breasts at my waist or above it.

And I am SO thankful to have a daughter who will grow up free of the damaging, sexualizing media of television and magazines, reveling in her strong, athletic body, knowing what REAL woman’s bodies REALLY look like.

And believing that every body is perfect…

…just as it is.

Hazelnut and I can relate around REAL mammaries (and daughters).

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I never liked her much, but it seemed like a good… learning opportunity for my almost 3 yr old. I am speaking of my chicken, Gertie. She died last night. It was not particularly tragic, but there was great need for verbal and emotional processing. From Isla anyway. And perhaps from me too. The “Part One” of this story can be read here.

We found her this morning, as I expected, stiff and quite dead where we had left her. Although the “Part One” tells the touching tale of Dot, the caring Americana, who “stood” by Gertie’s death bed, supporting her physically and emotionally through her transition – the rest of the story was slightly less… touching.

Last night I loaded Isla into the back on my back, covered her and me against the wet spring snowstorm, and sloshed out into the dark to “put the chickens to bed”. Of course, the goats now get first priority, especially as Bucky is still being bottle fed. But after the goats were tucked in, we headed to the coop to shut the girls and Little Willie up. And, of course, check on the “almost dead Gertie”. I expected another tender scene of flock devotion for the failing Queen. Instead we found Gertie at the bottom of the coop ramp laying the snow and mud, struggling on her side. Ouch. She was bleeding heavily from her comb. I could only imagine one of the other chickens, perhaps the “next in line”, pecking aggressively at her head as she lay helpless and dying on the floor of the coop. And perhaps Gertie struggled to escape, ending in a tumble out the door and down the ramp. It made us very sad.

We raised the hatch on the “chicken condo”, the screwed on coop addition for our expanding flock, and took a look within. Perfect! Only Rosie, sweet Rosie Livingston Seagull Chicken. She was our first chicken and Gertie was our second. They were fast buds for an entire summer of camping in our yard. Rosie would not harm her. I picked up Gertie tenderly and laid her on the fresh, dry, wood shavings inside the condo, and even turned on the heat lamp. Her legs were already growing stiff. Rosie stood, shifted, and nestled back into the shavings beside her dying, old friend. I believed Gertie would be able to pass into the spirit world safely beside Rosie. I HAD to believe, or I would not sleep. Isla witnessed it all over my shoulder by the light of my headlamp – the Biggest Lesson of all – Life and Death and the harshness of Nature. Farm life never glosses over uncomfortable realities. Farm life never says “Oh it’s OK, they’ll just be happy up in Heaven watching over us.” Life and Death is never… “OK”, it just… IS.

And as we lay in the dark warmth of our down comforter, the processing began. Isla is a BIG verbal processor. We talked and talked about Gertie and her spirit and how her spirit would leave her body behind. We discussed how she would not need her body anymore, and that her spirit would go to the spirit world and be free of her physical body and unencumbered. I told her I felt certain that she would be dead in the morning. We discussed the act of burial. And Isla made the obvious comparison to her own dead brother, Rowan. “Will Gertie’s spirit be with Rowan’s spirit Mama?” “That’s hard to say Sweetie. It’s possible. Chicken spirits and little boy spirits may not go to the same places. Would you like for Gertie and Rowan to be together?” She thought long and hard on that question, but the answer never came. She had finally, gratefully, fallen asleep.

With 6″ of fresh, wet, heavy, spring snow this morning, I thought I would wait until after nap for Gertie’s ceremony. I re-dressed my groggy, cranky toddler at 4:30 PM and we headed out the door in our muck boots for afternoon farm chores. Goats first, then scraps and scratch to the chickens, and collection of eggs (only 4 today instead of the usually 7-8). Then with shovel in hand, I hefted Old Dead Gertie by her legs, and we headed out of our gate and across the trail to the vacant lot to the east. I chose a nice spot next to the acequia and stamped the shovel into the clay. It was a mud fest. The clumps of wet snow had soaked into the earth creating a slick bog that a mud wrestler would envy. I dug and dug, determined to keep the coyotes away from her grave. Isla watched, talked about Gertie, and squished her boots into the mud. I laid our old Matriarch in her grave and explained the process of saying a little something and then sprinkling her body with dirt. After I had my go at a chicken epithet, Isla took the podium: “Gertie, you were a good chicken. I love you.”

We sprinkled our handfuls of dirt over her rust colored feathers, the red clay nearly the same color as her body. Then I began a chant, dredged up from my short stint with Paganism, and as we stomped down the dirt we droned along… “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return, like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.” On and on we chanted and stomped as the newest snow flurry blew in around us from the north. And we continued to sing as we slopped back along the edge of the acequia, kept upright by the shared shovel. Green blades of grass poked up through the remaining clumps of snow, lining the path homeward. Our boots were 5 lbs each by the time we reached the coop again, pausing briefly to grab up the egg basket. These signs of rebirth, these cycles of life, were not lost on me…. spring snow, green grass poking through, eggs, and Easter less than a week away. Life and death are forever inseparable. Our compost pile rots all winter to give us fresh wormy dirt for our spring beds. Gertie will go back to the earth and the same red wigglers that once fed her, will feed on her, leading her slowly and steadily back to the Grand Mother of us all.

We sighed, leaned the shovel against the porch post, kicked off our boots and went back inside.

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It’s Saturday. A not too abnormal Saturday. The 3 of us began to tangle about in the untucked sheets around 6:10 AM. Isla said suddenly and loudly, “Mama, I want to get up!”  Groan. “Soon honey. I am not quite ready.” I mumbled. “Popee, I want to get up!” The sound of “Murph!” issued from the dusky blob on the far side of the bed. The room began to slowly lighten and I heard Little Willie protesting his dawn captivity with a trumpeting crow. “OK Isla, I’m ready.” I said.

We dropped our bare feet onto the floor and pattered through our bathroom routines, Papa on our heels. The tea kettle on, I filled Bucky’s beer bottle of goat milk and settled it into a pot of water on the remaining working stove unit. Randy’s espresso pot waited in line. Tea kettle whistled and the timer went off for the milk. A few minutes later, the espresso hissed to life. I filled the milk crate with the milking pail, a tub of rolled barley and equine pellets (goat kibble), Bucky’s nippled bottle, a small jar of olive oil (teat lube), and a tub of warm water with grapefruit seed extract and rag (teat wash). I was looking forward to when we could move these goat feed bins out of the living room. My pot of green tea slowly steeped. Randy checked email. Isla nibbled on some honey and butter toast. With a contented sigh, I sipped carefully and thankfully from my steamy mug – currently my favorite mug – from an apple orchard in Hancock, NH that I used to visit every fall. My vision began to clear as the dark green, bitter brew infused into my veins. Staring thoughtfully at the spreading green apple tree across the grey ceramic backdrop, I admitted – it’s going to be a busy day…

And so it unfolded….

Randy stepped into the brightening dawn first to open the chicken coop, a fuzzy Isla on his hip, her bed-headed, golden mohawk waving and glowing in the shimmering morning air.

The same 2 family members started some breakfast while I bottle fed Bucky, milked Hazelnut (only 5 cups of milk as Fiona and Bucky were coursing off the milking stand pissing both mamas off to the extreme). As I grumbled and elbowed off another flying kid, I mentally designed the detention pen I would build the next day. Alfalfa flakes and grain were dumped into respected tubs and bowls and 5 gal buckets of water hauled to another tub from a spigot way too far away. Gave the chickens a quick check, topped off their tube of layer mash, checked their water tube (low). Molly leaped repeated beside me, wondering why I didn’t have her lead in my free 7th hand.

We ate a sustaining farm breaky of sausage, fried eggs, toast and sauerkraut. I always prefer a cooked breakfast to cereal and seem to need the protein. And as Randy and Isla headed to the hardware store for lumber and a new faucet, I headed back to the salt mines, I mean apartment, to continue where I had left off cleaning from the 1-1/2hrs of the day before. I cursed. A lot. At least I only needed to walk 4 steps from door to door.

3 hrs later I was done, in more ways than one, and exhausted, and pissed off by the state the tenants had left it in. I felt violated and taken advantage of as we had given them such a killer deal. Lesson number one – nice gals don’t always finish first. I dragged into our half of the house in time to pull bee suit and tools out of the closet. Then Robert, our bagpipping, retired-doctor friend, who is also a beekeeper, arrived in his bright red Madza convertible with bee suit in hand (but no bagpipes I was sad to see). I was thankful for his presence this day. It had been years since I had had a bee mentor and I was delighted to have him agree to be such for me. Of course it had been St. Paddy’s Day, at the local brew pub, and we were drinking…. he was playing bagpipes in full Scottish attire. I reminded him of who I was –  “MacLaren Scott, remember? You played at my wedding. There is my husband Randy over there. Perhaps you’d remember him better if you imagined him on stage, in his skivvies, being “kilted” by my father and 2 brothers, in front of 300 guests at our reception?” But Robert remembered long before I got my story out. I had hoped he hadn’t thought better about our beer induced agreement by today.

But here he was, right on time. We donned suits and fired up my smoker on the back porch. I glanced longingly through the french doors at the hot quesadillas Randy had just set on the table, settled my bee veil and hat on my head, and the 2 of us walked to the hive with my stomach gurgling loudly. We smoked liberally, removed the entrance reducer, and cracked the lid. More smoke. We cracked the inner cover. More smoke. Slowly we removed several frames to find them chocked full of honey… and bees. By that time I was wishing I had brought a large serving spoon with my hive tools. The good news was the bees were fit as a fiddles and had plenty of food. I did not even need to feed them. The hive was full and the colony healthy. Bad news was I didn’t get to steal any honey… yet.

Robert and I chatted as we slowly meandered away from the hive, waiting for the bees to get bored of us and go home. We took a circuitous route as their interest was not waning. While commiserating over all the bear attacks fellow bee keepers have recently been victim to, we were finally able to take off veils and suits, and return for introductions to the kids and Hazelnut. It would seem the bees didn’t recognize us without the white coveralls on. And then a farewell in the driveway which overlapped a hello in the same location with our new apartment guests. As this Canadian couple were our first “official” guests in the apartment, reserved through our airbnb site, I had hoped to make an impression. And I am sure I did – with my half naked child clinging to me like a baby monkey, bee helmut hair sticking out in all directions, stinking of smoke, stomach growling as loud as an attacking bear, and farm clothes covered in milk and little muddy hoof prints. But it wasn’t exactly the impression I was aiming for.

Flustered, I settled the Canadians into the apartment, and returned to our kitchen famished and shaky. I devoured the now cold quesadillas, grateful my hubby had gone all domestic on me this day. Daddy and daughter had laid down for books and quiet time so I crept in stealthily to slip in beside them. “Mama, I don’t want you in bed with us. I just want Papa.” Ouch. “Well dear, it’s my bed as well and I need to rest a bit too, so I AM going to lie down with you.” I slithered between the sheets and drifted to the sounds of Randy reading. Then delightful silence. Ahhhh. 25 minutes later I was done and slipped back out to resume the day.

While Isla napped and Randy surfed, I grabbed the keys and headed out for errands. After restocking the apartment at the natural foods store, I headed to the kitchen store to replace items that had been… trashed. Sigh. Our first unofficial guests had been a definite trial by fire.

Then home again for Bucky’s 4:30ish feeding and evening farm chores. More water, more alfalfa, more grain and kibble, more bottle feeding, and affection to all 3 goats. Isla amused herself in the mud puddle I’d created with the old water I’d poured out of their tub. Randy worked on cutting a hole through the outer fence so we could bring in the new hay bales that had been delivered the day before. We needed to store them properly on pallets beside the goat pen. I had finally resorted to cashing in almost all of my measly IRA in order to stock pile the hay now, before the shortage left my goats with no food. The report from John, who was bucking our bales off the back of his flat bed, was: only one more batch of bales coming, and those would cost $20-$25 a bale! From the goat pen I saw that one of our new guests had found Randy outside and they were chatting by the green stack. I hoped I looked impressive in my Australian fur felt hat lugging a 5 gallon bucket of water through the gate. I was impressed I was still standing at all!

Then back to the chickens with the scrap pan, I scattered scratch on the ground, refilled layer mash, hefted the water tube (noting it would need filling first thing in the morning), and collected eggs. I stooped low to scoop up Little Willie for a few minutes of rooster therapy, convinced this was the key to keeping him gentle. Whenever I thought he was getting too rough with the girls, I would carry him over to the outdoor freezer, open the door and point to what remained of his mean brothers. “Don’t forget Willie. I’m watching you Mister.” But for this therapy session, I simply stroked his shimmering sunset feathers and iridescent green tail. He was a very handsome boy. I hoped he would behave for many years… long enough for generations of little Willies, or preferably Willaminas, to cruise through the sage brush behind their mamas. Time for a quick cuddle with Bobo, my favorite Black Australorp. Then I strolled over to Randy who was chatting now with both guests, swinging the egg basket with confidence. I had a second chance at making a good impression and didn’t want to blow it. Smiling broadly, I offered Connie her pick of 4 fresh eggs, so very glad I had thought to knock the poop off the shells first. She beamed back at me, choosing a lovely blue egg and 3 shades of brown.  The 4 of us chatted a bit, then I led the group into the goat pen for the requisite introductions. Isla was now total mud from toe to thigh and finger tip to elbow. Fortunately Connie and Ken found this amusing. And I am sure I made quite a lasting impression when I stood my child on a stump of the goat play ground and stripped off her pants and boots, leaving them behind in a muddy heap. I departed with a loving smile towards my husband, “Honey, could you grab those for me please?” and swung my monkey back on my hip, headed for the house.

It was too bad I took off her rain pants and muck boots as she was right back outside on her balance bike, in her clean PJs, within 10 minutes. So I gave up the fight, mixed up 2 strong margaritas with fresh squeezed lime and hobbled back out to find Randy. He was by the garden fence talking with Ken, so I offered them each a glass. They were definitely big enough to share with spouses. Once Ken headed back to the apartment, Randy and I had a rare moment, sitting side by side on the porch love seat, sharing the last of the one margie, watching our child taking dust baths under a sage brush with her chickens. Glorious! Much too short. Then I headed for the bath, reminding myself there were always more PJs.

Randy continued to work on moving hay bales while Isla filled her wheelbarrow with dirt and gave it to him as a present. When my dusty child trotted into the bathroom, I was nicely soaked, so I stepped out and let her climb into the same bath water. It’s a good practice in the high desert. I laid naked across our king bed, the cool sheets absorbing my sweat, listening to the trickle of Randy’s shower and Isla’s constant chatter to her tub friends. I was too tired to cook dinner. Thank god for rice noodles and jars of pasta sauce. Randy joined me on the bed, naked as well. It had been a hot day for March – probably had hit 70. The room was warm. The waterfall in the koi pond tickled my ears through the open window. A cooling breeze moved the wind chimes. Chickens bucked and Bucky bleated. Molly barked once from the west. “I’m ready to get out Mama!”

After a simple pasta meal, Randy began the teethbrushing and getting in bed march of death. I started to heat Bucky another bottle of milk and sat down to write. The timer beeped, I donned my head lamp, and stepped out into the night. Bucky ran out of the barn to greet me and inhaled the milk in seconds. Once again, I had that uncomfortable feeling that he was starving. I ducked inside the barn to give Hazelnut and Fiona goodnight pats where they were nestled in the straw. Then with Molly’s escort, I went to put the chickens to bed. Closed one gate, closed the coop door, and did a head count through the window. Only 14. Hmmm…. Lifted the nesting box flap and looked through sideways. As I thought – there was Dot, under the roosting bars on the floor. 15 all accounted for. I felt great gratitude to Randy for replacing the constantly falling upper roosting bar the day before. The chickens were so much happier with 2. Last gate closed. I took a deep breath of the night air.

Stopping in the sage as I headed to the house, I switched off my headlamp and stood still. The night sky was stunning. And this was the sky I knew well from my winter sailing days in the tropics. Orion the Hunter was high above me in his end-of-winter position. Taurus, the bull was close by… Cassiopeia… the Pleiades or 7 Sisters (known to me as The Shopping Cart)… the Big Dipper…. Jupiter and Venus were hanging one over the other in the western sky. And just on the western horizon was the setting crescent moon beneath the planets, the entire orb visible as a faint illuminated tracing. Neighborhood sounds filled my ears: dogs barking here and there, cars on the main road, a distant siren. I don’t think this would be considered the country… quite… but currently, it was our paradise. Then as I passed the koi pond I saw a flicker of motion from the edge of my lamp. Ahhh, yet another koi had survived the winter – the little orange and white one. Two so far. It put a smile on my face.

I fed Molly on the back porch and wrote some more. Still no internet service. Still no cell phone service. I felt isolated from the world and mildly content about it. I kept struggling with the urge to check the NASA site for solar flare activity – but of course, I couldn’t. As Molly had been barking for a minute or so, I stepped onto the back porch once more to quiet her. A flash of light stole my glance and I looked up in time to catch the burning blaze of a shooting star streak across the western sky. It felt like something strange and magical was afoot – the alignment of planets and new moon, the shooting star, the cell and web outage. A coyote howled in the distance sending a shiver up my spine. But then again, magic was always afoot. I only had to remember to look up from my chores to see it. A good reminder as I said goodnight to the darkness and headed gratefully off to bed…. without starting the new batch of goat chevre.

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Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh….

Shifting my butt, I glanced up through the barn doors at the snowy southern mountains. My hands ache from the repetitive motion.

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh…

After 10 days this all seemed so… normal now: me with the shiny stainless steel between my knees, my nose mere inches from a goat’s butt, while Isla jumped off a hay bale, taking turns with her caprine siblings.

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh…

Hazelnut leaned on her right leg and stomped her left hoof once. Being a (self-proclaimed) expert by now, I smoothly slipped the bucket back until she settled, then took her teats again…

…and continued my ruminations on how I might actually be using my college degree in my current Dream Life.

10 days ago, on a stormy Sunday, Isla (my almost 3 yr old), Randy Grubiss (loyal friend and vice president of the Three Goats Health and Fitness Club), and Kim Keyser (kayaker/rafter/neighbor/parmacist), walked ceremoniously through the gate of the goat pen – the gate that was being tied onto the posts as we had not yet had time to mount the hinges. RG carried 20 day old Fiona, Kim – Fiona’s 9 day old buckling cousin Buckbeak, I led Mama Hazelnut on a spare dog leash, and Isla showed us the way through. It was not the ribbon-cutting event I had imaged – me weeping with joy and publicly thanking my husband for his timely change of attitude and undaunting, backbreaking work to help make my Dream of Goats become a reality. I had even imagined breaking a bottle of champagne on the gate post to properly christen the beautiful barn and pen, expensive bubbles succumbing to the force of gravity as they wound their rivulets through the fuzzy cedar bark. But instead of scissors and red ribbons, there was nervous stress, fresh snow and moody skies. Randy, back at his paying job, was conspicuously absent for this monumental event. Molly, our farm Pyrenees, lunged at the end of her cable, attached firmly to the back porch, dying to lick the babies into slimy, wet heaps. The goats were jumpy and frightened. The gate listed. And my fingers fumbled at Hazelnut’s collar.

Breathe…..

Would I be able to milk her? What if Buckbeak wouldn’t take the bottle for me? What if we ran out of hay (a very real concern as a tragic hay shortage was threatening many farms and animals in our area and the supply was just about out)? I did not have enough money saved to stockpile through the 5 months until July and the first cutting of the year – yet. But I would by god! If I could just sell our LED monitor… or my black, leather motorcycle jacket…. or my lovely, old road bike… And how will I get the money together to purchase a used horse trailer before fire season?

Getting a loving greeting from Buckbeak and Fiona at the Pieper's farm.

14 yr old Gwendolyn Pieper says goodbye to her sweet Fiona...

Chris gives Hazelnut some encouragement from the rear. She is not keen on a car ride. And Elana and Gwendolyn get their last snuggles from the kids.

All 3 kids in the backseat. Buckbeak is still sporting his homemade sweater.

Bringing the goats through the gate of their new home.

Randy sneaks home from work to help with the first bottle feeding. Fiona, the amazing lap goat, is ALWAYS in someone's lap!

I had lain awake through a good portion of last summer’s drought, designing mobile goat/chicken/bee barn-trailers to evac the farm animals in case of wildfire (and I didn’t even HAVE goats then!). It was a very real concern as the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history was raging unchecked a mere 60 miles to the SW, sweeping past the Los Alamos National Labs, past the barrels of nuclear waste stored above ground in fabric tents waiting for a forever storage location to be approved. And that was just one of several fires that had filled our high desert valley with choking smoke for weeks. I finally packed up my 2 yr old and a SUV full of group camping gear and drove…. away. I wasn’t sure how far we would need to go to reach clean air once more. We found an ideal guerilla camping spot in the National Forest, a few miles outside of Pagosa Springs, CO, on the banks of the East Fork of the San Juan River. Over the 10 days the 2 of us were refugees, 3 other Taos families joined us for a few days here and a few days there. It was much harder than I had imagined – guerilla camping with a 2 yr old. Randy had to stay at home as he managed the BLM Lower Gorge rec area. He explained that he couldn’t very well dessert his staff unless they all decided to bail as well. I had made a mad scramble around town before leaving, borrowing enough dog transport cages to hold our entire flock of chickens. I gave him specific instructions on how to catch them, what food to bring, etc. It was all worked out in my mind. But though the smoke was horrific most days with 1 mile visibility at times, he persevered and did not leave his post.

After too long away from home, Isla and I were finally convinced to return. There had been several days of clear skies as the fire had moved north and Papa missed his girls as much as his girls missed him. But the day we began our drive back, the noxious smoke bank moved back in. I pulled into our driveway in tears – both from smoke and from disappointment. I was too tired to turn around and just frigging wanted to be HOME. Ah – but thankfully it was merely a tease and the wind graciously nudged the wall back west in time for my birthday dinner outside in the yard. That was a scary time. I didn’t doubt it may happen again this summer. I needed to be ready to move the animals out of harms way and with very little notice. A dry lightening strike down wind of us could send up a blaze on a windy summer day in a short hour. It could travel north through our neighborhood so fast the wildfire crews would barely have time to assemble and mobilize their rigs. It has happened many times in our town’s history. The scars on the hillsides and painful memories of the great losses of property and forest, remain as proof.

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh…

The pressurized streams of warm milk frothed the surface like one of Isla’s bubble baths. I felt pride at having figured it out after my harrowing trial by fire. Note to others: Never bring home a lactating milking goat, as a newbie, 30 minutes before the previous owners are leaving town… to spend several days in an area not accessible by their cell phone. Just don’t do it. Trust me. Don’t. Hazelnuts teats were beginning to resemble elongated prunes. My job was almost done. I massaged her udder and gave the bag some bounces and jiggles, approximating the abuse regularly given by a suckling kid. A few more squeezes, and I patted her on her rump and thanked her for her milk.

Yup! It’s finally true –

I Milk Goats!

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