Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lonely Cowboy

I'm at work, on lunch, hiding out in the library.

I can't get thoughts of horses and cattle and ranches and wide open spaces out of my head.  Sometimes it's like a disease consuming my mind, and it absolutely paralyzes me.  This morning as I sat through back to back meetings, it was all I could do to feign interest.  

I'm sitting here with my headphones on listening to Willie and Waylon, feeling like I just want to go to sleep for a long, long time and wake up in a different world.

I want to wake up in a world with no staff meetings.  No long days staring into a computer.  No artificial deadlines.  A world that's a little less soft, a little more adventurous.  A little more rewarding in less tangible ways.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Well it's official.  I know exactly what I want out of life; no ifs, ands or buts about it.

I've been on this little farmstead going on five months, and already I can't believe I ever lived in town -- any town -- for so much of my adult life.  I have friends with farms and ranches, and I've spent a lot of time on them.  I dreamt for so many years about having a ranch in Colorado.  But always there lingered a question, a doubt about whether such a thing would really make me happy.  I might miss being in or close to town.  I might miss people.  I might miss the convenience and the culture of city life.

Nah.  No f'ing chance.  I've been back downtown several times since I moved, and each time I get out as quickly as possible.  Too many people.  Too many cars.  Too many vagrants.  Too much stuff going on.

I've only got 5 acres here.  And water use (a shared well) is a little restrictive, so no real irrigation is possible.  But I now have 39 chickens, four turkeys, two ducks, several thousand bees, a dozen goldfish, a great dog and a smattering of raised garden beds.  Daily I'm scheming about how to get more animals, and how to ensure they can pay for themselves.  Rabbits and goats are next on my list.

But even that won't be enough.  I am dead set on starting a cattle ranch, having a hell of a lot more land, and being further away from town.  I need cows and horses.  I need a few pigs.  I need way more chickens and ducks, goats and sheep, geese and rabbits, another dog, a cat and more turkeys, to name what immediately comes to mind.

For a long time my idea of a dream ranch really was more of a cabin in the woods.  There was certainly some livestock involved, but my fantasy was mostly focused on hunting and fishing and being in the cabin.  That dream hasn't changed except that the balance has shifted.  I now see myself spending the bulk of my time tending my animals, with periodic trips into the mountains for hunting and fishing.

I always had animals growing up, and being here has reminded me how much was missing from my life by not having any.  It isn't just taking care of animals, of course.  I've got a workshop and storage buildings.  I've got a yard to tend to.  I've got chores to do.  But the animals are what really put the life into my world.  They make me feel alive again.  Hopeful, even.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Farmstead

So apparently some people -- who shall remain nameless -- think I change my mind too much.  I don't change my mind so often that it's debilitating.  I change my mind just as often as it takes for me to figure out if I like or want something.  Isn't that what life is all about?  Trying new things?  Finding oneself and all of that?

Regardless, I've moved into the house I mentioned in my New Year's post.  I have five acres of prairie just below the foothills.  I have a dog.  I have seven adult hens, and just bought ten new chicks a few days old.  I have a large shed with an covered extension that's partially enclosed by a wood fence and a small chicken coop.  I've come to call that little complex "the barn."

There's a lot of wildlife out here.  We regularly see coyotes, rabbits, prairie dogs, hawks, and a pretty wide variety of smaller birds, some of which congregate in great numbers very close to the house and barn.

Most mornings I wake up early, before sunrise.  I started drinking coffee several mornings each week.  Prior to this, I drank coffee about twice a year.  We cook every meal at home now.  Before breakfast I take the dog out, feed and water the chickens, and pretend for a little while that I'm a real rancher.  On a real ranch.

The morning chores, such as they are, are followed with coffee and breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, butter, preserves, coffee, fresh milk, and apple juice.  All but the coffee came from either our chickens, a local farm, or is something I made with stuff I bought from local farms.  I churned the butter from raw milk from a local dairy.  I made the preserves from fruit I bought last fall at the farmer's market.  You get the idea.

When I'm home, I spend a lot of time looking out over the prairie, though its a bit bleak seeing as it's winter and we're in a drought.  I also spend a lot of time fussing over the chickens and trying to decide which projects I should actually take on, considering I'm just renting for a year or two (hopefully.)

Late this afternoon I ran down to the feed store just before they closed and picked up 7 bales of straw.  I put on my leather work gloves and relished every moment of stacking them neatly in the barn.  I love bales of straw and hay.  I always have.  I love the way they look.  I love the way they smell.  I love the little bits that stick to my clothes.  I love the way it dusts the ground, making a beautiful, soft bedding wherever it's stored.  You can use it as bedding for any barnyard animal.  They make great seats, especially at backyard parties.  You can feed it to most barnyard animals.  It's cheap (usually.)  It's biodegradable.  Stacked, it makes a great wind break or privacy wall.  It's great exercise throwing it around.  What's not to love about baled, dried grasses?

One of my best memories ever of hay bales was one beautiful Colorado afternoon after I had finished doing some work at a horse rescue.  I went into the barn (they had a real, very impressive barn) and I sat down in a perfect seat of hay bales.  Behind me were stacked hundreds more in a huge, rising wall like a fortress.  From my vantage point I could see and hear horses grazing, and beyond them the rolling prairie.  After a few minutes a barn cat appeared from somewhere among the hay bales and kept me company.  It was one of those simple, perfect moments one never forgets.


I tried going back to college.  (Mind you I have a BS, several certificates and have done some graduate work.)  I tried a second BS.  But I hated it.  I just hated being in class with 20 year old kids just starting out.  I hated the idea of tests and cramming.  I hated the idea of starting over at the bottom.  I've already been through all that.  I have a great career and a great employer.  More college, I now know for certain, is not what I want or need in my life.  There's no longer anything that college can offer me that would make me happier or more fulfilled.  You know what makes me happy?  You know what really fulfills me?  It's the stuff I do every moment I have free time.  It's hay bales and horses.  It's gardens and cooking.  It's chickens and goats and dogs.  It's fly fishing a gorgeous Rocky Mountain stream, hunting turkey out on the plains, or elk high in the mountains.  It's sewing curtains and churning butter, making peach preserves and butchering my own meat.  It's building chicken coops and hanging out in the barn. It's marveling at the beauty of the mountains and the vastness of the prairie, and laughing with friends and family gathered around a big table covered with great food.  All of that, that's living.  That's life.  That's what it's all about for me.  Everything else in my life is just a means to try and get more of the good stuff in my life, that's all.  College was a way to get a job, to make money, to be able to afford the life I just described.  What's sad is that work -- and I'm talking about a desk job, not the work involved in running a farm or ranch -- cuts way, way too much into the good stuff.  There's plenty of "work" that's good stuff, and even my desk job certainly has its awesome moments.  But I really feel like my heart belongs close to the earth.  Whether it's hunting or growing a garden or ranching a herd of cattle, my heart longs to be there.  I just need more "life" in my life.

Sometimes I really wish I were Amish.  Sometimes I think I could put up with -- even fake -- the religion, if the trade off meant that I could live in a community where a simple, agricultural life and a supportive community were so highly valued that people actually lived that way.  That's all I want out of life, to live much as people have lived for thousands of years.  Is that so much, really?  I don't need TV or computers, or even electricity.  I need something real and genuine and honest and simple.

I want to get a few goats and a pig.  And we're going to have a big garden come spring.  And I'm thinking about bringing one of my horses here.  I want a vibrant, living community here around me.  Words can't express how much joy the dog has brought me.  The chickens too, and these little baby chicks.  Feeding them, interacting with them, just watching them I can get lost for hours in the connectedness of things.  In one of my favorite books, Animal Vegetable Miracle, the author describes one of her Amish friends who describes his work plowing the fields (with a horse, mind you) and how the whole day to him is just joy as he soaks up the spring sunshine and watches the birds and animals go about their business.  It's a beautiful description of a feeling I know very well but don't get to experience as often as I'd like.

I guess I've rambled enough.  I need to go read something about ranching or homesteading so I can live vicariously.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Evolution of Self

Over a year since my last post.  I hadn't even thought of this blog in forever, and yet tonight, on the first day of the new year, I find myself unable to sleep and needing to clear my head.

So what's been going on since my last post?  Quite a lot.  I've done a lot of hunting, done some serious packing in the mountains, made some new friends, learned a lot, went back to school, and finally got tired of life in Boulder among much else.

While any of the above topics could make a lengthy blog post by itself, the major topic on my mind tonight is that I seem to be having a major shift.  For years, decades in fact, I've fantasized about a log cabin in the mountains.  I've always loved the West.  I still love it dearly, with all my heart.  But, having lived out here for many years now, my perspective has shifted.  I find myself fantasizing more and more not about living in a lonely cabin in the mountains, not even about a sprawling Western ranch, but instead about a lush, green farmstead in the East.  Weird. 

I grew up in East Texas, which gets about 40 inches of annual rainfall.  It's hot and humid in the summer, quite mild (but still humid) in the winter.  It's flat.  There's not an abundance of large wildlife.  There are no really large tracts of wild public land.  But it's green.  Where I grew up, the trees are tall and thick.  The lakes are muddy, but abundant. 

Where I live now in Colorado, we get less than half that amount of rain.  At about 15 inches annual, the short grass prairie is one step away from sandy desert.  It's sunny and dry, which makes for a very pleasant climate, but it makes for a very hard living if you don't depend on food and water being trucked in from far away places.  It's gorgeous here, of course.  The hunting and fishing are good (though, unless you live in a pretty remote place, you still have to drive to get to them.)  There are thick forests up in the mountains, but the soil is thin and rocky, the weather harsh, the growing season short.

It's very clear to me now that I suffer easily from cabin fever.  During the hunting season I'm good.  There's plenty to get out and do.  But during the rest of the year, I find myself going stir crazy, even when the weather is nice.  I've noticed that when I close my eyes at night, I'm no longer drifting off to a log cabin hidden deep in the mountains.  I'm not longer visiting vast cattle ranches on the lonely plains.  Instead, I'm on a quiet but thriving farm.  The farm is a patchwork of thick hardwood forests full of birds and deer, open meadows with waist high grasses, and old apple orchards filled with pink blossoms in the spring and crisp, sweet fruit in the fall.  Instead of a cabin, I see a quaint old farmhouse with a wraparound porch.  There's a big red barn, a huge vegetable garden, chickens, goats, a few dairy cows, a pig pen full of happy spotted pigs, a big old draft horse, a barn cat and a border collie.  There's a nice pond out back stocked with fish where I go skinny dipping in the heat of summer.  There's a root cellar, and a pantry full of home-canned produce.  There's a big stack of firewood I cut from my own woodlot.  There's an outhouse, a well, a stream full of trout, a big compost pile.  The whole place is alive and green in summer, bursting with flowers in spring, painted in deep reds and yellows in autumn, and of course at least a little snowy in the winter. 

Sometimes I really miss the tall trees.  I miss walking in the rain.  I miss thick, rich soils that support an abundance of lush growth.  I miss hardwoods, good for building and burning and smoking meats.  Often I find myself wanting to settle not in a cabin in the mountains with nothing to do 9 months out of the year, but instead to be part of an active, living farm.  I love pigs.  I love cows.  I love dogs and cats and goats and chickens and horses.  I love canning and growing.  The problem with the west is that, if you strip away the modern infrastructure, it's one hell of a hard place for a human to live, and is best suited for a nomadic lifestyle, just like the hunter-gatherers who once called this place home.  I want the safety and comfort of a farmstead.  And I want the responsibility that comes with it.  I need projects.  And I need companionship of animals rather than people.  I still want self-sufficiency, but I now realize I can be much more self sufficient on a farmstead.  I can produce far more on far less land, and I won't have to range over wild, rugged terrain to do it. 

I'm torn over this evolving perspective.  On the one hand I still feel like my heart is here in the West.  On the other, I find myself longing for a life like the Amish, only without all the religious bullshit. 

I feel a little better writing about it, but it just isn't enough.  I think I need to take a vacation, a roadtrip out east.  I haven't done that in probably 15 years.  I've always loved the Deep South.  Tennessee and Virginia were some of the pretties places I've been.  Even being from East Texas, I remember being struck and by how tall and thick the forests were in Missouri. 

Could I ever really leave my beloved Rocky Mountains?  It's hard to imagine myself being a resident of Tennessee or Virginia or Georgia.  But it's easy to imagine myself on a lush farmstead, too. 

I'm moving next month.  I'm moving out of town and renting a small house on 4 acres.  I'm already halfway packed.  I'm getting dogs, chickens, pigs.  I'm going to try my hand and being a farmer, or as much of a farmer as I can be considering I work a full time career and I live on a semi-arid plain at the foot of the mountains.  I'm taking this time to experiment, sort some things out.  I'm curious to see where this will go.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brain Tanning

I've fallen in love with brain tanning. What is brain tanning? It's when one turns an animal hide into either a furry pelt or a cloth-like material (buckskin) that can be used for making clothes, bags and other useful things. And one accomplishes this not by using toxic modern chemical concoctions, but the animal's own brain as stone age people have done since long before the advent of agriculture.

It's interesting to see the process of turning a furry little squirrel or rabbit or deer into dinner, tools, and clothing. It's amazing, really. I mean who anymore knows how to prepare their own food? Most modern Westerners can't even grow a garden. Fewer still know how to successfully hunt and butcher a wild animal. And I can probably count on two hands how many people can take the next step of turning the "useless" parts like skin and bones into clothing using nothing but their own two hands and a few simple tools fashioned out of rocks and animal bones.

Everything we need, nature provides.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Flannel is Cool

Tonight I stopped into Alfalfa's for a couple of items as I often do in the evening. Upon checking out a cute young female cashier who I frequently see said to me, "You always wear the coolest flannels!"

What's awesome about that? First, that sense of community. It's nice to go someplace and be not just recognized but acknowledged. There are a number of places around town where people smile and strike up a conversation with me simply out of familiarity. The second thing that's so awesome about what she said is that I live in a place where flannel is cool. She's not the first to compliment me on my flannel. When I lived in Texas it was a big joke that only lesbians wore flannel, but I always loved it. At one point in years past, friends came over and persuaded me I needed to get rid of all my flannel and plaid and restock my wardrobe with something more fitting the urban gay lifestyle. I took their advice, but over the years my wardrobe turned plaid again. I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Squirrel Stew

Tonight we're getting our first real snow of the season; up to 19 inches are forecast by tomorrow afternoon, along with temperatures hovering around 13 degrees. Tonight we've got the fireplace going and I made a big pot of squirrel stew and cornbread.

Think I'll work from home tomorrow and keep my fingers crossed for a snow day. I love this time of year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cabin in the Woods. Again.

Hate is a strong word. Regarding my last post, I didn't mean to use that word. I just get really frustrated sometimes, and I am grateful to have a great career, especially in this economy. But overall I meant everything else I said.

This weekend I picked a burlap sack full of wild fox grapes and turned them into jelly. I also picked a sack full of chokecherries which I plan to dry this week. I couldn't pick enough chokecherries to make jelly. It's so late in the year now there aren't many left.

Chokecherries were one of the staple foods for the nomadic Native Americans. They grow abundant and wild in the Rockies, though few people today even notice them. The Indians typically dried them into fruit leathers or used them in pemmican, and European pioneers liked to make preserves and jellies out of them. They're tasty, nutritious, abundant, and once prepared will easily last the winter. And chokecherries aren't the only wild foods that nature grows in her Rocky Mountain garden. To name but a few edible fruits, we've got bearberries, raspberries, blueberries, haws, grouseberries, cranberries, strawberries, gooseberries, currants, huckleberries, false wintergreen, saskatoons, plums, grapes, nuts and more. That's to say nothing of edible barks, ferns, bulbs, roots, shoots, mushrooms and greens. And then, of course, there's the wildlife: mule deer, wapiti, buffalo (now extinct in the wilds of Colorado), white tail deer, pronghorn, beaver, bear, chickaree, Abert's squirrel, trout, grouse, ptarmigan, turkey, a host of waterfowl and a number of other lesser known creatures all make great meals, clothing, tools and shelter.

There's something wholly satisfying to me about going out into the forest and bringing a wild animal or a sack full of berries back home and preparing dinner -- and especially if I can prepare it and store it away for dinners yet to come during those wonderful, long winter nights. Conversely, there's something both sad and terrifying about going to the grocery store to buy faceless food -- food whose story I cannot know, from a soulless entity I do not trust. I liken it to the difference between a lion hunting wildebeest on the open Serengeti, and a lion lying in a cage at a zoo being tossed a block of meat at regularly scheduled intervals. It's disgusting. It's disturbing. It's amoral. It is entirely artificial and counter to the way nature operates.

I still get the majority of my food directly from local farmers, which I love, but I'm getting a larger portion of my food from the wild these days.

Tonight I'm dreaming of my cabin, off the grid, out of the system. I can see it as if I were in it right now: the big stone fireplace, the bearskin rug, the hardwood floors. I'm standing at the window in my cotton night pants. I feel the cold on my skin through the glass. The hour is late, but the full moon reflects off the snow and lights up the valley. It is silent and still, like a painting. The dogs are snoozing by dying the fire. The root cellar is full of smoked and dried wild meats, fish, mushrooms and berries, supplemented with a few barrels of potatoes, flour, sugar, onions, squashes, salt and apples that I picked up at the farmers market in town last fall. I've also got dried and fermented vegetables and a couple of wheels of cheese, and shelves stacked deep with jams, jellies, fruit butters, pemmican, maple syrup and pickled peppers. I have no refrigerator; I have no use for one. I have no electricity; I have no need of it. I have no indoor plumbing; it serves no purpose.

But from where I stand at the window, hot cup of tea in hand, I can see my smokehouse and my outhouse and the stream that brings me an endless supply of clean, cold water. I can see the cords of firewood I carefully chopped, stacked and dried all summer long to feed my wood burning stove throughout the winter. I can see my wood shop, and the barn where I keep the horses on the coldest nights. Over the fireplace hangs my rifle. In the dining room sits the table and chairs I crafted of Douglas fir some years ago. On the wall hangs the snowshoes I made, and which I use on winter hunting trips.

And from up in the loft I hear the gentle, rhythmic rumble of a man in a deep sleep, nestled in thick, soft blankets, keeping my spot warm. I sip the last of my tea and set the cup down without a sound. In the ghostly light of dying embers I give the pooches a soft scratch behind the ears, but they hardly move. Up the ladder I slip into the shadows, out of my night pants, and into a cave of blankets. I press against my partner, and his bare skin is so hot I give a quick shutter at realizing how chilly I had gotten down by the window. We curl up like a couple of bears settling in for a long winter's sleep. I am in heaven.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Welcome Back Rant

As my last post indicated, I tried moving my blog to Wordpress. I got it in my head that I was going to build a more robust site with "how-to" pages and other resources, but it turned out it was just too much work. I have little interest in taking on more commitments, especially ones that are technology-dependent. I also got sidetracked by Facebook for awhile, but I got sick of people posting about the mundane things in their ordinary lives. No offense to them, I'm just not interested. I suppose my life is plenty mundane, or at least odd and incomprehensible, to most of them.

Blogger gives me a release, without the complication of building a resource, and without the distraction and even greater complication of Facebook.

So I guess I'm back, and though I do try to avoid all-out rants, today I think is going to be a rough one.

Why today? I'm at work and wholly depressed, which isn't a big surprise if you've read anything I've written over the years. I have a high-paying job with wonderful benefits that contributes to a cleaner, greener world, my peers respect me, my work environment is low-stress and my employer is generous.

And I hate my job. I hate it in the way that a lover of fine dining might hate giving up juicy steaks, fine wines, crisp fruits, tender vegetables, crusty breads and silken desserts for the futuristic meal-in-a-pill. It isn't that it tastes bad, or that it lacks nutrition (assuming humans could actually achieve this), but rather that it tastes like nothing and leaves the soul malnourished. I feel like a suburban drone, passing the days not by the rhythms of nature but by the wholly artificial ticking of the clock. I feel unstimulated. Unmoved. Unmotivated. Pointless. Wasteful. Sad.

I have to get out.

My coworkers praise my work, my work ethic, and my good-natured personality. But I'm just going through the motions. My body is here earning money to pay everyone else to provide my "living," but my heart roams the forested mountains in search of something real.

I watched a movie called The New World last night. It was a little slow as it was more a love story than anything, but it put me in a mood. It reminded me (as if I needed reminding) just how f*ed up white people and Western society are and always have been. If I came ashore in America in 1607 I would join the Indians and never look back. They had it made. The mere fact that they managed to live on this continent for 14,000 years and not destroy it, and we managed to take it to the brink in just a few centuries speaks volumes.

I despise money and the clock and the calendar. I despise the Western social hierarchy, the greed and the gluttony and the backstabbing. I hate fashion and gadgets and everything that Pottery Barn represents. I hate that we're not only willing, but eager to trade timeless, unspoiled wilderness for a metaphorical minute of suburbia. I hate annual performance reviews and standardized tests. I hate car culture and television and processed industrial calories that pass as food. I hate human stupidity and I hate being part of the whole f*ed up system. I hate religion, especially the "big three."

All I want is to live deliberately. All I want is to hunt and gather and grow my own food, to build my own home, to laugh with friends, to breathe clean air and drink clean water, to walk among ancient forests and to wonder and ponder over the midnight stars. I don't need "stuff" beyond what I can make from what the forest provides. I don't need "culture" or "entertainment." I don't even need to own land. I just need to live with the land, and after I die let someone else walk in my footsteps. That's all. You know, the way most humans have lived for three million years. Is that so much ask? Really? I don't want fame and fortune, I have no interest in keeping up with the Jones', and you can keep your plastic suburban fantasy. I want to extricate myself from it entirely. If I don't do something soon I will go mad.

I've thought about going back to school and becoming a biologist, but even scientists often irk me. As Ian Malcom said in Jurassic Park, "what you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world." I'm not at all comfortable with poking and prodding nature merely to see "what makes it tick." Some things, I think, are best left to the realm of the mysterious. I don't need to know what's happening on a cellular level inside of Clostridium botulinum, or even that it exists. Is it not enough to know that cooking certain foods keeps one from getting sick? Is it not enough to gain wisdom from observing and interacting with the natural world, rather than gain information by dissecting it under a microscope?

Why must I "get a job?" I'm not lazy, not at all. I love work. A few weeks ago I spent an entire day felling, limbing, bucking and splitting firewood in the forest using nothing but a double ax, an antique bucking saw and a maul. I used no fossil fuels except to drive my truck up in the mountains because I don't have and anyway wouldn't be allowed to use a horse drawn cart on modern roads. And anyway if it weren't for the "advancements" of society I wouldn't even need the cart or to cut down trees. Natives had small fires burning twigs and dung that kept them quite warm with no need even for harvesting firewood as we know it. Talk about efficiency!

That said, I'm not opposed to learning a trade. I need to work with my hands more. I need to walk and interact with things that are real, like wood and wildlife, not plastic and suburban cube-zombies.

When the weekend comes and I'm in the Rockies, I feel alive and happy and deeply interested. When the weekdays come I feel dead and numb, like my spirit is broken. Work is an endless procession of pointless days doing pointless work to live a life I don't want in the first place. How do I get out?

How do I get out?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tales of the Mountain Men

I'm reading Tales of the Mountain Men, a collection of excerpts edited by Lamar Underwood.

I've been off work for eleven straight days. I've spent most of that time celebrating with friends and family, cooking, reading and snowshoeing (and shopping with mom, as previously noted.) Tomorrow I have to go back to the office. I'd rather pack up a string of horses and mules and ride for days deep into the mountains. There I would find my cozy little cabin nestled at the foot of the mountains on the edge of a wide meadow. I'd like to wade into an icy creek and set a beaver trap. I'd like to trap a few beaver, skin them out, tan the hides and sew them into a coat. I'd like to chop firewood for the stove. I'd like to eat fried beaver tail and winter pemmican. I'd like to hear the old wood planks creak gently beneath my feet as I gaze out the window across the snow-blanketed valley. I'd like to stretch out on the buffalo robe in front of the fire with my dogs and sleep away the long winter nights.

But that's only a dream. I live in cube land. I am a mountain man spirit trapped in the life of a cube bunny. Nobody ever said life was fair.