UNDER DAKOTA SKIES

Temperate Air Tried In Vain To

Make Its Way Into The Small Porch

Filled With The Stench of Mothballs.

Mom’s head was barely visible as she bent into the trunk in search of uniforms.  Her elbows flew amidst loud shrieks of frustration when items simply would not appear. My dad and brother Mike stood silently by watching as she dug ever deeper. “Here they are” she cried, her voice still full of exasperation.

Wrinkled suits of aging, gray, woolen fabric trimmed in red would once again be prepared for another season.  Mom clucked her tongue in disgust at finding tiny holes in the wool where moths had dared to snack despite her generous dousing of mothballs. As she effortlessly wielded needle and thread the flaws swiftly disappeared.  From a frayed clothesline Mom carefully hung the uniforms where they drooped listlessly hoping for a slight breeze that would drive away the noxious odor before the men had to suit up.

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Long awaited spring finally made her appearance in North Dakota beneath vibrant, sapphire, skies.  Farmers had begun planting crops, and no doubt the players amongst them were turning their thoughts to the up coming ball season.

It was Sunday and Mom hurried to finish the customary lunch of chicken noodle soup after Mass. The air was filled with the excitement of going to town to watch the game. Anxious to don uniforms, Dad and Mike rushed through the main course skipping the best banana cream pie ever made.

Within minutes of eating, the men folk appeared in their rejuvenated outfits for a final inspection. With her trusty Fuller clothes brush Mom revived the nap, plucking pilling along the way. Dad and Mike looked eager to leave as they tied laces on well-worn cleated shoes, but Mom’s sharp eyes spied an omisson.  Darting toward my father, grabbing her ever-present handkerchief already daubed with saliva, she removed soil from his ears.

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Ragged gloves and bats held together with duct tape were quickly gathered, and plunked into the trunk of the shiny, black, ’49 Chevy. Off they drove leaving us in clouds of dust to clean dirty dishes and join them at game time.

The major and minor leagues trade players, negotiate contracts, and have spring training in sunny Arizona. But this was rural North Dakota. There was no spring training for farmers who played the game, however there was plenty of passion for America’s favorite past time. Baseball.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Choose a whole chicken or your favorite parts of chicken (mine are dark pieces only) and place in pot of fresh cold water, generously covering chicken.

Bring to gentle simmer and cook till chicken is tender.

To pot add diced onion, pickling spices, an extra piece of bay leaf, a couple of tender celery leaves, and half of fresh medium tomato-diced. Salt to taste.

Gently simmer for about 5 minutes to marry flavors and add choice of dry noodles. I use egg noodles, vermicelli, or sometimes angel hair pasta.

Remove celery leaves before serving.

Serve when noodles are tender. Yum.

SPRING – Eventually

It will arrive any day now.  If only I could summon it  sooner.  Since the winter solstice, my days have been measured by how many additional seconds of daylight I can enjoy before spring makes her official debut.

RRuuuuugggghhh! I groan trying not to think that yet another day of gray clouds threatening snow is on Mother Nature’s agenda.  Basking in 360 days  of sunshine per year in  Colorado spoiled me.  Several shadow less Minnesota  days keeps me wondering if I will ever again see glistening flakes under a dazzling, sapphire, sky.

A couple of days ago Al Franken declared four more months of winter here in the North Country.  It is March, and as I gaze at the blizzard pummeling the deck I realize Al might be right. Another 8 inches of snow has fallen without the slightest suggestion of a patch of blue in the offing.

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            Autumn Leaves Hanging On For Dear Life

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From Amber Waves of Grain to Honey Bunches of ??

August 31, 2010

Every time I see a cereal commercial I can’t help but get irritated by all those smiling faces who are “feeding America”. Factory workers are surrounded by machinery churning out over processed, sugary, distorted grains, expecting us to believe it is breakfast food. More insulting is they want us to believe all the additives, preservatives, and numerous forms of dextrose is a healthy way to start the day.

I know it is naïve of me to think that the average American gives a fig  about how and where our food is grown. I am amazed how many people think it magically appears on grocer’s shelves in convenient packages for us to buy at outrageous prices.  We ingest these highly suspect food products, and believe we are nourishing our bodies. Advertisers lead us to believe that food is manufactured by cheerful factory workers.

In the real world, every spring, thousands of farmers gamble their savings, spending hard-earned cash purchasing corn, sunflower, wheat, oat, flax, and rye seeds.  Additional money goes to gas, machinery parts and sometimes new equipment that needs replacement.  The output of capital to begin the growing season is enormous.

Each day begins with the first sliver of light, ending with farmers begging for a few extra minutes of daylight, long after the sun has set, to finish another round of plowing and planting.

Hopes and dreams of a good crop ride on plentiful rain to nourish the seedlings. Worry sets in when black clouds threaten hail instead of moisture. Will there be an infestation of black rot, grasshoppers, or other parasites dropping out of nowhere destroying crops?

As harvest draws near, swather sickle bar blades are sharpened, and chipped ones replaced. It fascinated me watching stalks of grain fall on to  the rotating canvas as they were cut, dropping  in neat, tidy, rows on the stubble, waiting for the sun to finish ripening heads of grain bursting at their seams.

Of all the dirty jobs on a farm, I would rate combining as the worst.  These behemoths separate the grain from the stalks and chaff. In years of bumper crops, trucks drove along side combines as grain augured directly into truck beds.  Lean years would mean watching and waiting for dad to wave me in when the hopper was full.

Teeming trucks of grain empty their load into granaries to be stored, and sold when stock market prices rise.  On rare occasion, prices were high during harvest, and dad would haul our return directly to the grain elevators where it was inspected for weed content, weight, size, and color of grain.

Amber Waves of Grain

Agrarian livelihoods depend on rain, quality of grain, stock market prices, political power plays, and economic and climate conditions in far-flung places around the globe.  These are little known facts to the average person.

Farmers do not clock in and out of a job.  Their jobs begin before dawn and end after sunset 7 days a week. Meals are eaten in the field under the shade of a tractor. Unrelenting intense heat and itchy grain dust are constant companions. Health hazards, including sun stroke, heat exhaustion, loss of hearing, and farmers lung are common. At the end of the day clothing, hair, and bodies are dusted before entering the house.

All this begs the question, what the —– happens to grain from field to table?  It takes a chemist to understand and interpret the ingredients on a box of corn flakes. It is a fact that breakfast cereals have almost no nutritional value due to over processing. Their extremely high sugar content, and additives have been highly suspected to be a health hazard. Most of it is fluff and no substance, selling at exorbitant prices. We are feeding our children large doses of sugar for breakfast which makes them noticeably hyper.  It is well-known that sugar has an adverse affect on our nervous systems.

Corporations, who process food,  do not have to gamble their money on seed, weather, political climate, and economic conditions.  They “manufacture food” that is nearly devoid of nutritional value, enhanced with addictive ingredients, and contains huge amounts of dextrose. Seems Honey Bunches of Oats might keep America undernourished and hyper.

Buffalo! Still Providing

August 17, 2010

“Tis A Privilege To Live In Colorado” was the state’s tag line for many years.  Using that slogan, media outlets and advertising companies, effectively drew tourists and businesses to our state. The only problem was, western and northern Colorado benefited greatly, while points south of Colorado Springs were neglected.

Recently an ad hoc group representing five counties in south central Colorado banded together for the purpose of increasing tourism south of Colorado Springs.  “Gees, it’s like the world ends for northern Colorado and the rest of the country south of Colorado Springs.” quips Gloria from Freemont County.

Our meetings are held monthly rotating between the 5 counties. Most destinations are around a 2 hour drive through incredibly beautiful country side. I am in heaven each time I take to the small, narrow, highway to Westcliffe or LaVeta.  Tons of dirt and gravel roads entice me to take a left hand turn on a back road where I know I will discover another haven, another spot to soothe my ruffled feathers, another magic moment.

My first trip to Westcliffe was beyond my wildest expectations.   Sweet, early morning rain had escalated to a blustery down pour as I headed out of my loft. By the time I reached the edge of town my windshield wipers were working overtime.  “Great,” I thought. We need all the rain we can get.

Turning onto a small highway heading northwest, the weather was reduced to drizzle with fog playing hide and seek between canyons and arroyos. Reminded me of Sherlock Holmes mystery movies, wherein Dr. Watson is roaming the foggy Scottish moors.

Suddenly a break in the mist revealed a rare sight. Buffalo! This was either a hallucination or a mystery. I brought my car to a screeching halt half way into the ditch, and ran to the other side of the road mouth agape. The haze slowly lifted revealing a huge herd of lazing buffalo. This was no mystery. There were real buffalo on the moors; a walking a tourist attraction.

Tatonka

Fortunately or unfortunately I could not get very close.  Even though buffalo weigh over 2 tons they have been clocked running 45-50 mph, can turn on a dime and will charge to death anything in their path.

Naturally, I had my camera at the ready, taking ample advantage of my happenstance. I didn’t want to be late for the meeting, but how could I pass up these *beastly beauties on hoof?  I watched in amazement the agility and grace these huge bison displayed moving toward the stream to quench their thirst, and gently nuzzling their young.

Images of these beasts remained with me for several days.  These once proud animals that roamed the Great Plains, feeding and clothing Native Americans, are now contained behind re-enforced fences on buffalo ranches. Buffalo burgers and steaks appear on menus in upscale restaurants.  Specialty stores tout fashionable outer wear made of bison hides at exorbitant prices, and Native Americans, whose existence relied on their beloved tatonka, are on reservations.

Western images of a home on the range is glorified in movies and books, but the reality is, it is a part of our painful history.

*This photo was entered in a photography show which placed second.

Not Everyone Screamed for Ice Cream

August 9, 2010

Join Us For: Concert & Grill Event

Date:  Sunday, August 1st

Time:  4:00 p.m.

Place:  Joan & Al’s home

I arrived Colorado time greeted by Al’s calm, smiling face. Joan’s voice was heard in the background urging people to, “Please help yourself to corn chips.  The dip is cheezy with zesty thingies in it. I hope you like the guacamole. It’s freshly made, but I forgot the cilantro. There are Nacho cheese and plain Nacho chips to go with the guacamole.”

Entering the lower deck I recognized several people, but there were a few faces I had never seen.  Linda was busy in the kitchen putting finishing touches on several trays of food. With plate in hand she greeted me with a warm hug and began filling my plate with grilled shrimp. Linda is a hard worker, a survivor of many hardships, and I consider her one of the beautiful people. Her generosity of spirit and kind heartedness endears her to all of us.

Two very large tables were already over flowing with various dishes and platters stacked high with food. Judging by the enormous amounts of provisions I was imagining the house and decks would soon be over flowing with at least 100 people.

“Oh Arlys, I’d like to introduce you to everyone. Arlys, this is everyone. Everyone, this is Arlys.  She is new in town, does wonderful photography, has a unique style of painting and makes luscious designs in fabric.” says Joan in passing,  vegies and dip in tow heading towards the deck. Several people nod a greeting.

I work my way towards the cole-slaw and huge pieces of grilled drum sticks and thighs. Oooh, my kind of chicken. None of that dry, white meat that sticks in one’s throat. My favorite, hummus and savory crackers, just had to have a bit. Leafy green salad instead of ice berg! Whoa. This is a feast. I grabbed a mini puff and corn muffin to top off my meal.

“Hi darlin,” cries Trish as she waves me over to her table. Trish, President of the Trinidad Area Arts Council, works like a donkey keeping two galleries afloat.  It is my enormous pleasure and privilege working with her as a board member.  Her knowledge and expertise of curating and hanging art shows is what makes our art community a success.

Trish is not only an extremely talented potter, her business savvy selling art work is superlative.   She knows every art patron in town, their taste in artwork and favorite artist. She has a knack for ensuring they attend all the right shows.

I am about to join Trish when Joan sweeps through the room announcing, “Al just grilled brats, hot dogs and Polish sausage. Let me serve you while they’re hot.” Linda follows listing condiments and asks if you prefer whole wheat or white hot dog buns. Trish and I declined, gesturing to let her know, our plates were full.

Trish introduced me to Tom, a local business owner, and his wife Maria, a teacher, who are also fairly new to Trinidad. Approaching the table with packed plates are Ray and Shana, owners of  the “Old Pass Art Gallery” in Raton, New Mexico. Raton is a mere 17 miles from Trinidad, and you must drive over Raton Pass, which can get very nasty in the winter, to get to Raton.

Originally from San Francisco, Ray owned  several very successful art galleries in the Bay Area before making Raton his home. He is a fantastic curator, and finds exceptionally talented artists in the hinter-lands of North Central New Mexico.   His tag line reads, “Welcome to Raton where we’re  up to our Pass in Art.”

Conversation turns to the bear nuisance.  Several home owners in the area have awakened to hungry bears knocking on their doors. Pat was hilarious recounting how she was expecting visitors, and to her surprise thee bears were on the other side of the door instead. We all laughed and began calling her Goldie Locks.

“Oh Linda, the grilled pineapple is ready.  Can you please pass those juicy slices around?”  shouts Joan from the deck. Everyone at the table was half way through their meal, remarking how much food had been prepared.  Little did we realize that Joan and Al were just gearing up.

Ken, Trishs’ husband, slipped through the patio door with a glass of wine for Trish and a bottle of beer for himself. He learned the intricate craft of carving flutes from a master carver and has quite a following. His designs and craftsman ship are flawless as well as extraordinarily beautiful.

My eyes were drawn to the stairs where bold, wild flowers on a white back ground  were descending to join us. It was Sheigla, looking very Carmen Mirandaesque, informing us there was delicious dips and crackers on the upper deck along with petite nibbles of several kinds of cheeses.

Sheigla

Sheigla, an accomplished artist, decided to make Trinidad her home over 7 years ago. Her resume includes shows in well-known galleries in Paris, New York, Rome, San Francisco, Dallas, and Denver.  It is difficult to maintain a flower garden at this altitude, and I am positive she was unaware how she made the perfect walking garden.

Trish and I were discussing the feasibility of inviting artists from Taos for our fall show, when Al began dishing out hamburgers, and all the fixin’s.  Several of us declined as we were almost finished eating, and were OMGing that more food was on its way. We began to giggle in disbelief at the amount of provisions being served. Ken quickly pointed out that he had discovered to die for potato salad behind a platter of cream cheese covered in picca pepper sauce surrounded by three sizes of pretzels. Oh, yeah, just what we needed.

Several more people arrived. Yes, in Colorado it isn’t that it is fashionable to be late, it is just that, well, that’s the way it is.  A photographer and wood-carver were welcomed to the festivities. They too were a bit overwhelmed by the incredible spread before them.

We all looked up in unison as a large dish came towards the table. As it came closer Ray peeked out from the side exclaiming he had found the most interesting dish, and was sure it was dessert. He was about to dig into scrumptious mounds of crumbles when Joan began,  “Oh, I hope you like the cobbler.  I made it with fresh pears, cranberries and lots of other yummy things I just can’t remember right now. Brownies and cup cakes are right beside the vegies and dip.  I hope you all can find the vegies and dip along with the brownies.”

Even though all of us were stuffed  we could not resist the fruity smell of the cobbler. We took very small portions, and began laughing, noting  there was enough food for a battalion.

Dog lover, Marie, was supplying a side-splitting story about a stranger who had wandered into her yard, and was afraid of her poodle and threatened to hit her dog with his man purse. As laughter subsided Al began serving steak. “The rare steak is on the left, the medium rare is in the middle and the right has well done steaks.” We shook our heads disbelief.

Joan entered from the opposite direction carrying a large dish with pot holders. “You must have a portion of this baked dish of fresh cauliflower from the farmers market along with fresh onions, and I forget what kind of cheese I used. It has some sort of cheese that is terribly delicious.” The food just kept coming.

The sun was fading signaling it was time for the musician to tune up. We grabbed chairs and gathered round the guitarist as he began setting up his equipment on the lawn. Joan had plates at the ready prodding us to “Please take a piece of corn on the cob, and a piece of water mellon to nosh on during the concert.”

Before the entertainment part of the evening began Joan thanked everyone for RSVPing.

“Which we didn’t.” Says Trish.

“Of course you did. You said maybe.” Replies Joan.

Chef  Dame Joan

Joan can only  be described as the grande dame of Trinidad. Trish dubbed her St. Joan, patron of local artists.  Joan and Al’s home is filled with clay totem poles crafted by Trish,  Doug Holdread fine art, photos by Michelle Goodall,,,,,,, yes, the list is very long.

Many of her art purchases are sent to her daughter in Philadelphia where Joan was born.  Her priority is educating her child and grand children, whom have never been west, that there is indeed life and culture west of the Mississippi. She settled in Trinidad via Philadelphia, New York and California, taking to all things western like a duck to water.

Joan is an extraordinary woman. She is founder of Concerts for a Cause which brings live music to the area.  Shows are held at one of the local restaurants with proceeds donated to a local charity. The musical performances are always jam-packed providing a great place to meet, mingle and make merry.

There we were, a conglomerate of East coast sophistication, genteel Southerners, and  West Coast avant-garde, tapping our toes to old Gene Autry and Arlo Gutherie tunes.

Fishers Peak

Of course, the sunset  painted Fishers Peak as it disappeared into the horizon.

“Oh, bye the bye, ice cream and cookies will be served after the concert.”

Drought and Bumper Crops

August 2, 2010

Traveling as many back roads as possible to attend my grand nieces wedding, I was surprised how incredibly green the landscape was. The weather was perfect traveling through Wyoming and the Dakotas.

Gentle rains freshened the air as intoxicating fragrances from nearby fields of grain nourished my senses.  The country side was luxuriantly green.  The heads of wheat, flax and oat crops were already bursting at their seams, heavily weighing the stalks that were just beginning to ripen.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I walked into several fields, and to my astonishment the crops were almost to my hips and the growing season was not yet over.  There was a bumper crop in the making, and I was ecstatic for the farmers.

I was drawn to take several gravel roads, which beckoned me to explore dirt paths as well.  Scurrying along the paths, wild turkeys, pheasants, ducks, fox, geese, and grouse darted in and out of ditches dense with towering, pungent grasses.  I never was quick enough to catch them with my camera.

South Central North Dakota

As I walked inhaling  the breathless scene around me, I mounted a gentle knoll. Embracing oceans of green stretching for hundreds of miles, I remembered a very different and cruel summer of my youth.

I was quite young when we suffered a severe drought. Spring was particularly disheartening, and foreshadowed a disastrous summer and meager harvest.

My dad came home day after day from spring planting shaking his head in disbelief.  The winter had been bitterly cold, and very, very dry. Without snow and early spring rains to saturate the soil it was impossible to plow. When the earth is sufficiently wet, it turns over easily. As it was, the soil was so dry that it simply would not turn over, but instead created clouds of dust as it briefly caught air and crumbled beneath plow shears.

I could tell my dad was worried by the way he paced back and forth in the kitchen.  Day after bone dry day he searched the sky for rain clouds  as we worked the fields together.  At night he would sit on the entrance steps, and look towards the West hoping moisture would come at last.

On rare occasion storm clouds would gather, with the smell of rain carried by a breeze, as thunder and lightning streaked the skies, but produced no precipitation. Dad stood in the door way watching and hoping for a down pour, and praying it would not hail.

He was distressed. His eyes were sad and anxious as he nervously paced. The heat was so intense it parched the earth creating deep cracks. The air was so dry and hot it made breathing extremely difficult.

Very slowly signs of wheat, oats, corn and flax began to break through the dry, cracked soil.  It was pitiful as they appeared weak from the struggle to break the surface without water.

The crops had barely grown two inches, when swarms of grasshoppers anchored strips of wheat and oats, and began munching their way towards the center. Within four days they had eaten their way through a quarter of the rain starved crops.  I had never seen such huge grasshoppers. They were nasty, and they bit everything in sight.

The heat was searing as well as relentless. The entire countryside  wilted before our eyes. Pastures were burning quickly, leaving our cattle grazing on barely green stubs of grass. Our large herd demanded more grass than was available, and we were forced to sell off over half of our livestock. I could see the disappointment on my fathers face when he returned from the cattle auction. The beef market was flooded plummeting prices to  to an all time low. Dad had to sell our cattle  for 7 cents per pound.

One early, hot, August day, we awoke to  dark ominous clouds on the horizon. Ordinarily my dad would have been thrilled, but he knew it was not a good sign.  Hail, the size of a half-dollar, pummeled the already sagging stalks of grain,  shredding them to bits.

By mid August my dad knew there would be no harvest. What was left of the crops was too short to swathe, much less combine, and the heads of grain were only half full.  We mowed down the crops and fed our reduced herd of cattle, hogs and chickens, hoping it would be enough to see us through another bitter winter.

The memories of that drought, hail, and bug infestation destroying our crops, drastically reducing our income to poverty level, are still etched in my mind.

Slowly I made my way back to the road, and continued toward my destination.  I realized experiencing the waves of abundance before me is much like life itself.  There is always a drought of time, money, food, or love, followed by a bumper crop.  We just need to learn how to be resourceful and have faith that our trials will pass.

Beauty Amidst the Thorns

July 27, 2010

It’s hot! Temperatures during the day vary as much as 45 degrees.  I awaken to 55 degrees and by noon it is in the mid-nineties.  By late afternoon storm clouds have gathered and I begin to worry how severely my car will be damaged by golf ball size hail, should mother nature get nasty.

I find the landscape in this area similar to the temperature; incredibly unpredictable. Recently I have been leaving town to get in my daily walk. I am fortunate that I have many places to walk and explore at the same time.  It is amazing to me that within a 5 mile radius I amble next to verdant pastures sloping gently upward into stately pines and craggy rocks beneath towering peaks. In the opposite direction, barely green pastures compete for moisture with copious cacti in rugged terrain.

What amazes me the most is how quickly moisture evaporates. Dirt roads made wet with rain showers during the night smell fresh and clean. By the time I am back in my car heading home, clouds of billowing dust trail behind me.

The landscape of my childhood consisted of gently sloping acres sectioned off into 40, 60, and 120 acre lots, which produced wheat, corn, oats, flax, barley, alfalfa and hay. This holds true for the northern states in general. I have always seen land used in the production of food.

I have had to adjust to the beautiful, but very rugged terrain in Southern Colorado. There are no verdant fields producing crops.  Instead, semi-parched pastures sustain cattle dodging cacti and huge rocks as they graze.  It seems to be too barren, too brown, too dry. It is impossible to till this region. It will never submit to a plow.

Although I appreciated its intrinsic beauty when I first arrived, it didn’t resonate with me like the pastoral scenes I am accustomed to when traveling in northern climes. It was lacking something I could not quite put my finger on until recently. Where was the serenity in this landscape? Cacti are not exactly soothing to the eye.

Off the Beaten Path Towards Westcliff

Taking a few detours to a meeting in Westcliff, the wild, untamed beauty of the land, began to pop up all around. All the prickly cacti that seemed the worse for wear, were alive in a riotous display of bright pinks, brilliant magentas, and yellows, ranging from lemon shades to deep apricot tones. I couldn’t help but smile and feel giddy. It was as if the cacti festooned the pastures for their annual summer gala.

For the first time I found myself deeply appreciating the harsh beauty of Southern Colorado.  The unexpected magic show combining exquisite beauty with menacing thorns is truly a wonder to behold.  Reminds me of a few people I know.  Lovely to look at but dangerous to get close to.