Wednesday, December 31, 2014

State of the Ranch 2014

Dear Reader,

Please forgive our tardiness in posting. We were otherwise occupied.

Thank you.

Page Management

We were so excited this spring to settle into ranching and demolishing and building and fixing. Instead, we're did anything but.

Dude finally came under some tough deadlines for his railroad book due for publication this coming spring. This is a publisher who requires strict adherence to image size, dots per inch, original source permissions, even wording -- down to wanting "photo by permission of author" instead of "photo by author." Or something like that... the details of it all are a bit fuzzy for me at this point. Suffice it to say that he was working 60+ hours a week, and still trying to track down family members of some old train buff to get proper permission in his off-time.

As for me, I decided to run for office. I ran to be a representative to our state capitol from the longest district in our state -- more than five hours across, and a couple hours north to south in some areas. I spent almost more time in the car than I did at home, and you could tell by peeking in the car windows. The down side was that I was knocking on all these wonderful doors, thinking "oh, I like that idea!," and then not getting to do anything with all those creative ideas. But this was something I was passionate about and felt I needed to do. By the time of the general election, it was the beginning of winter around here, and then I was hiding by the heater again.

Munchkin is more of a homebody, and really didn't want to knock on doors (though she's enjoyed walking in the parades), so she stepped up to help here at home. Cleaning, maintaining, plus doing her schoolwork -- she was busy too. But she decided to teach herself to learn to code computers, so it wasn't all work.

AuntI moved out in June. Her health needs were just too much for us to handle, and she doesn't fit in any of our vehicles; she hadn't left the house in nine months. So she is now in a care facility, getting the health care and hopefully social interaction she needs. We'll see how this turns out. We never really grew close to her -- two households in one small space, essentially -- so it's as much a relief to her as it is to us. She gets waited on and left alone. We get privacy back and the use of our space. But it still took us all some time to adjust.

Some of the major differences we did have out here, though, are significant. We brought in a storage container. We fixed the septic. Many animals arrived, and many departed. And many little changes were made to the house interior and ranch exterior that will make for many posts over the coming months.

We're also trying to sell off a small chunk of property to some friends of ours, and that's been a zoo too. There are farm programs that demand certain concessions in all this, surveying to do, water tables to find (the more we learn about them, the more unusual we find them out here), construction to do, and so much more. But it will benefit both families for the "community" we're developing between us, one of which is the "auntie"-type relationships Munchkin will develop with the ladies in the family.

So, honestly, not much has happened this year. We're sorry. Your entertainment -- er, "education" -- is of utmost importance to us, and we've been delinquent. Forgive us, don't give up on us, and maybe we'll be able to carve out a little more time for you and for our adventure out here in the sagebrush!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Warm Blankets

sheets of glass obstruction
It was November, and despite the unseasonably warm weather this year, I was already cold. Sitting here dressed in socks (very unusual), a jacket and my nordic pipi-longstockings cap by the heater (remember it's the ONLY heater), I'm still really hoping to have a warmer winter, inside the house at least.

About a month before, Dude suddenly started thinking about it too. He picked up a few rolls of insulation and took them up the attic, laying them in at the far end of the house -- right above the heater. It didn't help, probably because that covered less than a tenth of the completely uninsulated attic.

asking for another sheet of insulation
Yes, that's right, NO INSULATION. None whatsoever. No wonder I'm a popsicle every winter. We don't know if they just had such a great deal on heating oil that they didn't need to insulate; Dude's mom says it was usually too hot in here when they turned that on. Unc had to shut his bedroom door (right next to the oil heater grate in the floor) just to keep his room cool enough to sleep in at night. Maybe they were just less acclimated to warmth or they wore more layers than we do. No idea, but it was a situation that had to be remedied.

This time, Dude brought home large shrink-wrapped packs of insulation which barely fit into the back of Little Truckie. And which he was barely able to move by himself. Several loads later, we are a few rolls shy of a finished attic.

Up to Dude
It definitely wasn't an easy job. The general setup went something like this: the pack was drug across the floor into the kitchen, into the narrow passage between the game cabinet and the peninsula. It was cut open, filling the space and blocking any movement between the kitchen and the basement. Each blanket of insulation was folded in half lengthwise and then shoved up into the attic by the Munchkin, standing on the ladder which was wedged into the tiny vestibule between the mud room and basement doors. Dude was up in the attic, dodging screw tips poking through the ceilings, placing the blankets between the joists. I ended up going up to help for the final push, since I was best suited to squish into the smallest of spaces and push the blankets into the tiny corners of our hip roof.

"I can't put my arms down!"
Munchkin was bundled like the kid on "A Christmas Story," since she's really not a big fan of glass shards in her hands or face or neck. Dude wore gloves and braved it otherwise. I, on the other hand, have never had any problems with insulation, so didn't dress for the job. I regretted it for days after. I found myself crawling around up there in pajama pants, moccasin slippers and an low-cleavage shirt. Arms and hands were fine, chest and and face had little irritation, but I could feel the glass in my rear with every move. I seriously considered having Dude use duct tape across my rump to catch all the little glass slivers and free me of such frustrating discomfort.

So here I sit in the cold, hoping it's just a slight fever during my recuperation. Hoping that the insulation really is holding the heat in. Hoping we won't be popsicles this year. Hoping, but not yet believing. I'm still expecting to be found on the rug in front of the heater, snuggled up to it as if my life depended on it.

Attic blankets
'Cause it does...

Monday, December 29, 2014

Food Fights

One of the drawbacks to living in the sticks is the amount of time it takes to get anywhere else. It means greater planning for excursions, rolling multiple errands and responsibilities into one large, overwhelming mass that drains all your energy, as well as your bank account. On those days, there’s really no expectation to be back home at any reasonable hour. And this means trying to figure out how to feed animals without being there. (This is why we still don’t have a milk cow or goat.)

We don’t tend to feed the horses in the summer,since we have so much open pasture. Wintertime gets a little busier, but being out after dark in the cold season means dense fog and unpassable roads, so we tend to me home more in the evenings.

The dogs are working animals, so we didn’t want them limited by our possible misunderstanding of their food needs. We bought a big gravity dispenser, and let them have at it. Seems to work well.

The chickens and ducks are entirely free-range, spending their days roaming the yards, sagebrush and decomposing buildings. Good for us in the bug department. They also get out-of-date chips when Dude does inventory at work. Not so good for us, but works for now since we aren’t eating these birds. One of these days I’ll post a video of the flock emerging from the hills like the Israelites traversing the desert, running for the yard and their daily you-can’t-eat-just-one snack. Being foragers, though, they also discovered the dogs’ food dispenser, taking turns like the muppet chickens at a piano. No matter what we try, they get into it. Persistent little buggers.

Just as an aside, the horses and dogs like the chips too, as did the now-gone llamas. The dogs muscle the birds aside, and the horses kick and bite at the garbage can to knock it over. This gets exciting late at night, and lots of weapons appear in expectation of intruders.

The cats have been the most problem. When AuntI was living alone, we nailed a wider piece of plywood and a plastic litter box to the railing so she could fill their food from the porch. There was always a lot of jockeying, hissing, growling and even some shift eating. Twenty-some unaltered felines in one small space gets a little chaotic. The bin eventually broke free, and was moved to the top of the straw-bale dog house. It offered a little more room, but more noise, since the roof is tin. The problem here was the constant disappearance of the bin after feeding time – between big dogs, chickens and fighting cats.

So we bought a second gravity feeder. Same giant size, but this one sits on the railing of the porch, braced on the window sill. Cats can eat as they like, limiting cat fights and strange noises outside the window. But several other problems have arisen. First, the cats aren’t generally in favor of using their heads to open doors and then don’t usually have enough strength (especially little ones) to counter the magnetic closure. We solved this at first by putting a stick in there, then a hammer, then a wine bottle – anything to keep it slightly open for the benefit of the cats. The chickens soon found it, though, and began their morning song: “We love cat food!” Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. “We love cat food!” Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Dude finally removed the magnet; we’ll see how long it takes them to figure out that the visual may be gone, but the magnetic barrier is as well.

The other main problem we’ve had is kittens getting stuck inside. As new generations have filtered through the ranch, a little one inevitably gets too exuberant and pushes in front of the others, getting left behind when the flap closes. This happened with the dog food bin too, but seemingly less often. In the last month, one little guy has been stuck in the cat food bin three times. He’s a vocal one, and so we weren’t too worried about hearing him cry in the morning, wanting inside. It was only when we broke down in pity to bring him inside that we discovered a disconnected voice emanating from the echo chamber of the feeder. It’s not really pleasant, petting an oil-covered purring machine who’s just grateful to not be dead.

Someday we’ll have specialized places for each of these creatures, designed with their specific needs in mind and safe from predators or other animals stealing their food. For now, the menagerie that gathers around our door is varied and entertaining. Sometimes.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Frozen in Arendelle

People say spring comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. I don’t know what they say about winter, but there was sure a lot of nasty growling in it this year. One week it was 50 degrees and the next it was nine, and it wasn't even December yet.

It was already chilly, dipping into the 30s at night. The cats, dogs, birds and horses all had nice heavy winter coats, looking fluffy and fuzzy and cushy touchable – the stage that makes us fall in love with them because they’re so cute.  We had done some winterizing, and were working on those last few cleanup projects when the cold snap hit like an icy fist. Suddenly we were scrambling for heavy gloves and stocking caps. Even with all the new insulation and the heaters running hard, the intense cold gripped the house. I’ve sat huddled in front of the heater now for two weeks trying to regain body temperature; my body hurts from crouching on a small stool, rotating myself to successively burn every piece of skin just to have enough heat to make it to the kitchen and back. This would be far easier if I was on a rotisserie.

Outside, the animals huddled together for a little warmth when they weren’t moving around. We learned several years ago not to give them heat lamps until we hit negative temps, so they’ll grow thick winter coats. It worked as planned, but the huddling configurations have been amusing. Behemoth was found hiding under the porch once, having muscled aside the plywood blocking the space in the hope of giving the cats a dog-free zone; mission failed on that point, but he was happy. Another day, we found Behemoth, The Ditz, and several cats all snuggling together in the straw bale doghouse. It’s a packed house in there with him alone, but it was so kind of him to share his space and his warmth with his charges.

Standing on the ice in the trough
Canners of water
The horses don’t seem to even notice the cold, except when it affects their water source. The tank heater we dropped into the concrete trough the day before the cold hit suddenly failed. We had been joking that we could probably walk on the ice on the trough, it was so cold. Little did we know, we actually could. In a 24-hour period, the heater failed and the trough iced over – to the tune of several inches. The White Butt pulled his Houdini impression and escaped, which is his MO when the water is out of reach of his mini snout; this was my first clue something was wrong – his little hoofprints in the driveway. The Red Partials were scraping the ice with their teeth, impatient that the replacement heater wasn’t melting it fast enough. I brought them full water-bath canners and stood on the ice between them while they drank, partially to prevent Sticky from bullying Nickel into giving up her portion, but partially to protect my canners. The White Butt wasn’t interested in his, since he had partially drained the water for the other animals (leaving the ducks out of reach of their own water source) and had Houdini’d himself back into the pasture. Dude replaced the wiring and brought my canners back to the house. Ice situation dissolved.

Then there was snow. Munchkin can’t remember the white stuff ever arriving this early. Me either, to be honest. It was only a thick dusting, and dematerialized about as fast as it arrived, but the delight on Munchkin’s face was worth it. Just don’t tell her or she’ll pray for more. Then again, maybe that’s the white fluff that will make the winter lion’s departure lamb-like.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Storage Wars

AuntI used to like watching endless hours of those storage unit auction shows. You know the ones... complete strangers get a three-minute view of an abandoned unit from only the doorway, and then bid outrageous sums in the hope that some piece of furniture or barely-visible storage box held something of value. It's part Las Vegas gamble, part psychology, part experiment and experience.

We always wondered what people would make of our storage unit. A mix of old restaurant equipment, thousands of canning jars, old ranch crap with no value whatsoever, a dozen bins of fabric, boxed decor and candles, and a strange collection of unmatched cheap furniture. Some of it pristine, some of it covered in an inch of dust and cigarette tar. Lawn games, two fishtanks, camping gear, baby clothes, glass insulators, kitchen silverware... and, of course, most of it in unlabeled boxes.

That's a pet peeve I just remedied. Over the last two months, we've been slowly unloading, sorting, and re-storing our stuff from the boat-storage unit in Little Town to our new shipping container on the ranch. Every box and bin coming in is now labeled, and shelved in the themed "rooms" we created from large shelving units. No more wondering where something is or which box at the bottom of the stack it might be hidden in. I'm delighted!

The now broken cast iron skillet we used
 as a hammer...
By the time we moved out here, we had been packing for four years. I had begun with a well-ordered labeling system of colored and numbered notecards and an accompanying enumerated list of boxes and their contents. It lasted all of a month. Dude got a motivation bug one day and just threw stuff in boxes, dropping it off at the unit without my oversight. He was so proud of himself! I would have been too if I had some way of knowing what was in the boxes and where they were stacked. The outside perimeter of the unit was to be our stuff, and the inner section to be displaced ranch stuff; this plan didn't last too long either, leaving me in complete frustration with every visit to the unit.

The $1200 annual rental rate eventually seemed ridiculous for an overgrown garage, so we bit the bullet and purchased something to put on our own place, to be put to any number of potential uses, all without another fee.

Delivery day was exciting; our landforms and buildings and piles of metal in the yard waiting to go to recycling this spring made it rather complicated for the large truck that showed up. Deliver it, he did, though, on top of the new layer of gravel brought out by Red. When we were finally alone with our container, we had to take a series of flip-book style pictures. Honestly, it just begged us.

A week or so later, the shelves arrived. It was less than one full pallet of shelving, but it weighed so much that we again welcomed a giant truck in our driveway with nothing in it but our small order of shelves. Dude and Munchkin put them together, lining them along the left wall with perpendicular shelving jutting out from there to create the rooms.

When the first truckload of our junk arrived from the unit, the bins of fabric were the first items into the shelves. How wonderful that was! Every bin within reach, everything labeled, all together in one area... It was motivational!

The sewing room...
Twenty truckloads (Little Trucky-size, mind you) of stuff came back. Much was sorted out in the muddy driveway: canning jars versus old ranch glass, dishes we'd use versus ranch dishes we wouldn't, seasonal kitchen equipment versus use-all-the-time small kitchen appliances. The rotten bottom boxes, which had sat on the gravel floor of the sauna we called a storage unit, had to be replaced with strong new boxes. The right wall of the container became the new home for the canning jars, now sorted and labeled for size. Some stuff was stored in the container, some in other areas of the ranch, some boxed for delivery to family or second-hand stores, and some just outright burned. Almost made you want to stay out in the cold to enjoy the flaming embers of freedom from materialism...

Today we picked up the proof box, scoured the gravel for anything we missed, took our lock and closed the door of the unit. Another phase down. We are now entirely in one location and on our way to self-sufficiency, one little step at a time.

And no one will need to bid that we might have something of value in an abandoned storage unit. Still don't have much of value, but at least it's only our friends and family that will be fighting over not getting our stuff now.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How the Mighty Have Fallen

With Little Dog in Medium Town
Strange to think of him that way, but he was truly the mighty warrior of the ranch.

This week, we lost Behemoth. I should never question how much more we could lose, because the next thing I know, we've lost it.

Hangin' with Little Dog
Behemoth was helping Dude on the ranch. Little Truckie was parked on the slope in the driveway. Behemoth laid down in front of the wheel for a nap. Dude released the brake to roll to the parking zone, but didn't start the engine. Behemoth didn't know to move.  With major compound fractures to his leg, there was no way the major surgery at a distant animal hospital could ever return him to functional duty on the ranch -- that which he instinctively did without being asked. We decided it was better to let him go in peace instead of at the mercy of Daring and the Coyote Mafia.
Leading the excursion, as always

It all happened so fast, and I'm not sure we've totally come to terms with it. We've begun the search for a new pyrenees, as well as a rott and more barn cats (because they're disappearing faster than a WalMart sale on cheap TVs). Chickens are starting to disappear. The Ditz (our new little lab mix, adopted from friends of Red and Chevy Mama) just isn't cut out for ranch life, and while barking at them, has no idea how else to deal with the Mafia. I think we're only beginning to understand how vital the Behemoth was to our protection out here.
With one of the wild barn cats

We picked him up for ranch protection when we removed Unc's cat-hating dog, Atticus, a year after Unc died. Behemoth was only 18 months old. When I went to meet him, he leaned against my legs and then leaned back, nearly knocking me over but looking into my soul with those giant brown eyes. After a long trip home and dog puke all over the back seat, we left him at the ranch with AuntI and went home to Medium Town

The one creature he didn't get along with
He was bored. AuntI never ventured outside the door, so there was no other creature to interact with for a dog used to multiple canine companions, let alone the human ones. So he ran three miles to the neighbor's house, where he visited with her three dogs. She claimed he was her old pyr reincarnated. I don't believe in that kind of thing, but I now understand the sentiment from having owned one of the most amazing breeds in the world.  We drove up the 30 miles, and led him down the snow-covered roads with a lead line out the window; he never did like riding in vehicles, and was always happy for a romp in the snow. Then we'd drive back home. We did this routine every day for nearly a week, and then decided he needed training, and brought him to our suburban location. He and Little Dog bonded, and there was no other roaming (except once, at Little Dog's lead -- ever the social party animal).
Ever loving... ever loved.

When we moved up here, Behemoth was delighted. Space to roam. Animals to patrol. Ponds to swim in and coyotes to chase. He was happy. One of my favorite memories was watching him run behind the truck at we lumbered around the ranch, ears flapping, tongue and drool hanging from his jowls, and usually covered in wet mud up to this belly.

Winter was his favorite, though. He loved snow -- burrowing in it, jumping in it, sleeping in it, wanting it thrown in his face. Two days before he passed, he was again running in the snow, jumping around like a puppy and grinning from ear to ear.

So, again, we mourn the loss of our farm friends, but move on, knowing our mourning doesn't stop the onslaught of nature and predators. But he held a special place in our hearts for five years, and will never be forgotten. Happy winter, Behemoth!