Feline Foolishness

This particularly snowy cold winter’s day, I shall amuse myself with a whimsical little tale about life with cats. Three cats to be exact, and a dog, and a couple of horses. That’s a lot of feeding and poop removal and vet care. Still, it is not as much as when I was tending to a herd of cows and this winter I am infinetly relieved I am not schlepping to cows. But today the cat care proved most challenging.

My little herd of critters and I moved here in July when the grass was tall and thick as fur. This old house required much vermin eradication. My three cats and the dog have been busy catching mice, shrews, and moles. There are gophers too, but no one can catch them. So, as is the way with cats and vermin, worms make their way into the cats’ systems. The veterinarian however, is only seven miles away, and today it was time for shots and worm medication.

I own a cat carrier, but it is stored in an old garage with a rather large and intimidating snow drift blocking the door. I have moved these cats before, I admonish myself, without a stupid carrier. Because I am lucky enough to live in a house with an attached garage with an electric door, I feel confident I can get all the animals in the pickup before I back it out of the garage. The dog, Lulu, goes everywhere I go. She gets afraid if I leave her alone because her people have left before without her and not returned. So she’s in, the cats are in, the garage door goes up and I back out. But then, something is wrong with the door opener — or closer — as the damn thing won’t close. The vehicle is running, the animals are loaded, all I have to do is run in, push the button and jump back in the pickup.

Well, the cats aren’t all that content in the vehicle. They want out. When I return to the pickup, it is locked. What??? There stands Muenster (or Sully as he is named for the charming monster in MONSTERS, INC.), a 17 pound seal point Siamese, with his feet near the door lock. He proceeds to meow insistently at me in his tiny little kitten voice, demanding to be freed. My pickup is a GMC dual cab with electric door and window switches on the armrest. This is not the first time I have been locked out of my vehicle when it is running. In fact, I had a door key made and placed safely in a magnetic key keeper on the vehicle. Ten minutes later I am still looking for that key keeper. The other cats, Romeo, a 13.5 pound yellow tabby (my green-eyed putty pie who actually likes to get inside the pickup) is sitting on the console watching me, and Gilly, a 13 pound flame point Siamese who isn’t that thrilled about being in the pickup is on the back of the seat in the rear window. Lulu sitting in the front passenger seat is disgusted with the whole situation. She is probably the only one who does not want out.

Okay, damn! Well, I know how to break into the vehicle, have had to do it before, but the wind is biting and I am seriously frustrated and I am about to be late for my vet appointment. I know I have another set of keys somewhere. I have decided my key keeper fell off. Guess that extra strong magnet wasn’t strong enough. Back into the house I go, searching every drawer, every tin can, every safe place, every box … no joy. Okay, next step: get the tools to break into it. Foul language ensues. I call the vet to give her the news of my stupidity and while on the phone glance out the window to the pickup … and … what? The window is down and Muenster is marching to the door demanding to be let into the house. Good kitty.

Back into the pickup we go. Seven miles with three hefty, agitated cats meowing and prowling around over my dash, underfoot, into the back seat. I drive all over the road while trying to wrangle the cats. Lulu relinquishes her front seat position to Romeo and Gilly. There are entirely too many free ranging animals inside this pickup cab! Muenster pees on the floorboard in a box that I left for him — he gets very nervous. He sits and pants and squalls like someone is killing him. Gilly is trying to go through the steering wheel onto the dash. He turns on the blinkers and temporarily blocks my view. I give him a shove and return to my lane — which by the way is snow covered and drifting. Muenster crawls into my lap from under the dash employing at least three of the large claws on his back feet. Gilly figures out that stand-on-the-window-switch just as I turn the corner into town. I yank both he and Romeo by a leg or a tail or whatever I can get ahold of and run the window back up in their faces. I am almost but not quite up on the curb. That turns out to be the longest seven miles I have ever driven.

Now the real indiginities begin: shots and worm pills with a teeny tiny balling gun (ag people will know that term). Gilly puts up the biggest fuss. He has a bad tooth and will need to come back for dental work. Oh goodie! But now, we’re safely back home. No one threw up. There was no more peeing in the pickup. They have all forgiven me. Except Lulu. She doesn’t see the point of cats. She ends up killing the vermin with which they merely play or deposit at my feet for me to kill.

Lessons in life are often simple and uncomplicated and really a matter of finding a solution to a problem. So, what have I learned for the next time I need to transport cats? Take the Ford which does NOT have electric switches on the armrest. And get another door key cut. Boom!


Horse Sense

The winter of 2003 was nothing like this winter … until it was. Dad and I were blissfully enjoying El Nino or La Nina, whichever cycle keeps February mild. We were dry, warm, and worry-free heading into calving. We had extra hay, old grass, and unfrozen water supplies. There had been no shoveling or putting on of chains and while drought loomed large, we could not complain about the ease with which we were sailing through winter and into calving.

Then the excrement hit the fan. The weather service warned us about an Arctic blast but complacent and disbelieving we waited. Overnight the temperature plunged. We awoke to several inches of snow and a howling icy wind. We had our old cow bunch a few miles from home in a pasture with a heavily timbered ridge running along the northern property line. The fence halfway up the back of that ridge was more of a suggestion: two strands of barbed wire running east and west along the property line between steep grass slope going up and volcanic rock slide below. The ridge’s south face is rock wall and the north is steep grassy slope veined with deep coulees, rock outcroppings, and that stupid fence. Our cows were not as complacent as Dad and I. They could feel the weather coming and climbed up behind that damned ridge. There was nothing to do but go after them.

The elevation of the game trail up behind that ridge happens fast. Because of the south-facing rock wall, one must navigate around the west end of the ridge along the fence, over boulders and tree roots, and low hanging unbreakable branches the size of a man’s arm. At one point, a seemingly vertical section adjacent to the barbed wire fence forces a scrabble-lunge maneuver from your horse. I always want to get off and walk because I feel safer on my own two feet. I figured dismounting from a skittish horse on a side hill while wearing insulated coveralls and bulky snowboots would have been stupid. Once over that sharp rise, the back of the ridge gets less treacherous but continues to rise steeply to the southeast. There is no flat place unless you go completely to the top or over along the east fence in heavily timbered coulees. The trail is challenging on a good day but we could not hear or see above the screaming wind and drifting snow. My tough little mare Dixie is a brat, but she has a big heart and a lot of “try”. Dad’s little mare Roanie, is a machine! They are both in snow up to their knees and so far we do not see a single cow track but we know there have to be thirty or forty head up there somewhere. The horses labor along across the slope stumbling and slipping until we reach the next rocky ridge that runs perpendicular to our path and the fence. Neither of us believes the cows have gone higher so we break over into the timbered coulees that fan out to the east from our position.

The cows are so well ensconced in the brush we have to check each coulee for them. Many are hunkered under overhanging tree branches and bunched tightly in the snow wells for shelter. Finding each pair is an emotional roller coaster. The calves are up but cold, wet and miserable next to their mothers or frozen in a heap having slid downhill after birth from their mother’s attempts at licking some life into them. We have to get the potential calvers off that ridge. We would drive a few head out of shelter, go after others, and the first few would turn around and go back to their places. It is difficult to drive cows into a cold wind on flat ground let alone force them out on the side of a ridge, but go they must. Shouting and flailing the cows with our ropes, our horses biting first one then the next, we got them moving. I had one Hereford we called “Freight Train”. She was long, tall, and gentle as a dead pig. We managed to drive her and a couple other older leader cows and finally they all started wallowing back down the slope toward that break-over point. They knew where the trail ought to be and were attempting to stay in our tracks but the footing was treacherous. Ole Freight Train turned downhill toward that steep rise next to the fence and started sliding on the icy rocks. It was as if she were on skis. I expected her to plunge into the fence and disappear down the slide but she must have caught a toe on a tree root or something and managed to swing into the trail at the last minute. Mouth agape, I looked above me at Dad. Freight Train’s near disaster seemed a signal to the rest of the bunch. They began pouring off the nearly vertical west grade above me on the hill. Dad shrugged, shook his head, and turned his roan in behind them. The cows were trying to stay on horizontal paths around the end of that ridge, but that just took them onto steeper rock slides. There was nothing for them to do but go down. The last I saw of Dad and Roanie they were right behind them … and Dad was walking. I never wanted to appear weak or lacking confidence in front of Dad, but if he was walking, I was all for it! Cows were skidding and bumping into trees, but I figured if Freight Train could survive going down that slope, so could I. The next day, Freight Train had twins.

We were all rather stunned for a day or two afterwards and admittedly sorry to see winter arrive and remain deep into April. Dad, a genuine cowboy who had been in many a harrowing scrape before, always managed to make them sound like grand adventures. However, regarding that day, in the telling of it, he would shake his head, look off in the distance, and slightly shrug as if in disbelief — about what I shall never know. I have never pretended to know anything about training a horse, but Dixie was young and we were learning together. That day I also learned a little about Dad, my horse, and myself. I know I was scared, but my horse was all business. We lost only three calves to that storm. We should have moved them the day before and we felt bad about that but as is often the case with ranching, more is gained in experience than lost in revenue. Dixie is a helluva cow horse, the one you want when searching out baby calves, or bulls hiding in the brush. She is a brat, and a mutt, but I was glad to have her under me that day.


How to Hold Illusions in the Wind

Does the term “classical guitar” conjure visions of dust motes dancing over half-lit stages awash in cigarette smoke or does it seem more likely such would occur in full concert halls festooned in red velvet and crystal chandeliers? Imagining some lengthy Bach piece in an obscure minor key?  Would you expect to hear an award-winning classical guitar virtuoso in a school lunchroom in Hobson, Montana? What? Wait … Hobson, Montana?

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Andy Hackbarth, a Colorado native, and handsome personable young man holding a Bachelor of Music in classical guitar, appeared in Hobson with his tribute to “the Father of the Classical Guitar” on Sunday, November 18. Aside from the uncomfortable metal folding chairs, the stage, lighting, and sound system were surprisingly adequate. Thanks to the Judith Arts society, PO Box 254, Hobson, MT  59452, Andy’s tribute to Andres Segovia was both entertaining and educational.

We all assume that “classical guitar” is a method but it is also an entirely different kind of guitar. The neck is wider allowing for the fingering method specific to classical guitar — strumming and picking the strings on the face and fingering much like picking a lead on the neck. The guitar itself is shaped differently allowing for greater manipulation of the strings which were traditionally catgut but for longevity are now made of nylon. The base strings or larger gauge strings are now nylon wrapped in steel. The tuning pins extend toward the back instead of the side. Andy created an extraordinary sound and has performed in bars and concert halls alike. As a self-proclaimed extreme sports junkie, he enjoys a good adventure and travel. Add cruise ships and now Hobson, MT, to his list of touring sites.

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Andy’s style of  sitting is similar to a traditional “Flamenco” player. (The socks were seasonal fun.)
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Andy’s performance includes musical education.


“Nah,” you may say to yourself, “I like country music.” Well, Andy Hackbarth also plays a mean rendition of most country tunes you can name (and invites you to sing along), writes his own, has country and classical CDs, points out that Chet Atkins was a classical guitarist, and will generally debunk any objections imaginable. When not touring, he is based out of Nashville and Colorado.

Classical guitar is mesmerizing and soothing and at one point the feral wind moaning through the window panes of the lunchroom seemed to add a certain spiritual quality.  Maintaining any sense of joy or tranquility (let alone hairstyles) when buffeted by our central Montana weather is challenging. Sometimes it beats about our ears with a vengeance whether we are participating in sports or just throwing hay to bovine. Andy Hackbarth’s concert banished all day-to-day concerns. Feeling cultured, avoiding the distraction of speaking to anyone, clutching my signed CDs, I hurried down to Tallboys Tavern for a glass of wine with Curried Walley, and allowed the experience to linger.

I recommend going online at http://www.AndyHackbarth.com and checking out his free 5-song sampler.  Or ask your favorite music source to play some. He is on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Quality entertainment … in a school lunchroom … in a tiny town in the middle of Montana.  Go figure!



Chickens Steal the Show

Tall Boys Tavern & Catering in Hobson, MT,  hosted a Farm to Fab Unveiling Tuesday, September 19th, highlighting Loni Carr’s unique photography. Cheese, wine and micro brews complimented the vibrant display of art adorning the walls of the bar and dining room.

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Loni Carr in front of a few photographs.
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Hostesses, and models for some of the artwork.

Whether portrait or pin-up, Loni’s pastoral photographs feature horses, dogs, chickens, cows, and the occasional goat. Sometimes black and white, but often vividly colored, old barns or pickups often embellish the setting. During a quiet moment’s reflection, Loni’s subjects seem bathed in shades of light or cigarette haze. One could label the artwork but it is simply honest. Loni captures light and reality in her cheeky compositions and will bring a smile.  Check out her images at http://www.whiskeyginger.com.

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Even when Tall Boys is not hosting a bit of culture and art, it will meet your steakhouse, fine dining, or original lunch option expectations. This “Fancy, but not fancy!” establishment’s atmosphere is modern but rustic. Their appetizers range from Curry Fries ($9) to Rocky Mountain Oysters ($18).  Experience a finely crafted soup or perhaps the spicy crispy fried buffalo chicken salad with buttermilk bleu cheese, bacon, and green onions ($12.95 ). The sandwiches will not disappoint either. Try a Tavern Beef  with shaved prime rib, Swiss, sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions on ciabatta ($12.95), or the Carolina with house smoked pulled pork, creamy coleslaw, their famous Carolina sauce, on a brioche bun ($10.95), or just get to the meat of the matter with Oven Roasted Prime Rib after 5 on Fridays and Saturdays, and all day Sunday.  Using Certified Black Angus Beef,  the ribs and flat-iron steaks are also cooked to specification and artfully paired with favorite sides. I recommend the Shannon Ridge Cab. Remember the fish and poultry options as well. Perhaps a Curried Walleye served with cilantro lime cream ($25) or the grilled Spinach Artichoke Chicken ($18.95) excites the palate. There is also a kids’ menu and a separate catering menu. All options can be found at http://www.TALLBOYSTAVERN.com



Ranch Rule Number 4: Tell it with Conviction!


There is no arguing with DNA: you get what you get, you are what you are. Genealogy used to be more guess than science, but most families know from whence their ancestors hail. Like most of us in America, my family was immigrants. We came from Europe several generations ago. A mixture of Scandinavian and British ethnicity, we tout Norwegian royalty.

My paternal Grandfather and his siblings were all well-educated, well-read people. Highly communicative, they wrote letters. They played music and entertained themselves and others. The same can be said of my Mother’s side regarding entertainment but, well, they told stories. My great Uncle Kenneth related tales that bordered on bovine scatology. He was the Stafford/McClelland Ferry operator on the Missouri for years and enjoyed regaling each passenger with an anecdote. By the end of the summer, he had honed the telling to precision timing and knew when to pause for a laugh or add the right gesture. He would shuck his shoulders up and down, snicker through his teeth, point out the trailer window over his shoulder to the exact spot the tale occurred, and end with a flourish. He could look anyone in the eye and stretch the parameters of the truth almost – almost – beyond belief. At some point, the listener laughingly went away with that tiny nugget of doubt wondering just how much to believe. Great Uncle Kenny was a master at it. (He could also wiggle his ears independently and would eat the mud pies we offered him as children.)

Many years ago, I read something in one of those “how to influence people” articles about a manner of speaking. In short, if the presentation is strong, people tend to believe the speaker. I was not surprised. My family has been using that strategy for generations! We are an opinionated bunch. We support our points of view sometimes with facts, but more often with the strength of our beliefs. Some of us see ourselves as being right and cannot comprehend how anyone can see the point differently. It seems that somehow, if we speak with enough conviction, we can convince the listener and change their position.

Then there is my Mother. Reference Great Uncle Kenneth. She spent her formative years in the glow of his comedic ability. The penchant for prevarication is strong in her veins. Mom inherited that ability to tell a “windy” as Dad called them. It is, really, an indication of the imagination she possesses and her voracious reading. Over the past couple of decades, she has told some whoppers. The sad part is that as she ages and her reality recedes in time, her stories have become wild fabrications. Whether she has seen something on the Discovery Channel, or perhaps read it in National Geographic, the facts and points of interest from all over the globe are astounding and she figures prominently as the hero or protagonist. Irritating though it may be at times, I will relish her stories – and even write some of them down. Ranch Rule Number 4 has always been for you, Mom, keep on telling it with conviction!

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Mom and Lulu

Ranch Rule Number 3

Recently, while attending an Art Business Workshop in Santa Fe, NM, I needed a ride to the Albuquerque airport. As with most Uber or cabdrivers, friendly chitchat ensues. Whenever I tell a random stranger that I live in Montana, I get varying degrees of admiration for our fair state and many remarks about unpopulated and wide-open spaces. I smile benignly, nod and admit it is pretty great. Most of the time, the random stranger knows only what has been on TV maybe in a movie or on the news when West Yellowstone is again the coldest place in the nation. However, even some Montanans do not have an appreciation for the seriously isolated areas where 45 miles of gravel will get you to the edge of civilization. Such is the reality of our family homestead. A place where the Missouri River breaks and the Bear’s Paw mountains wrestle for topographical control. As a kid, I recall going days, even weeks without seeing a vehicle on the county road a mile north of our house. Circumstances have changed since, of course, but we still live a damn long way from town.
It was a damn long way when my grandparents first homesteaded there because the roads were literally wagon tracks. Neighbors were close though and were the only social contact available. My grandmother would always add a potato to the pot for the rider just over the hill. She knew there might be an extra for supper. My grandfather would share too. His goodies were often of the liquid variety: home brewed beer, whisky, or wine. Dad grew up enjoying that old world custom and so became a fan of the cocktail hour. He liked a crystal glass that had some weight in the hand. He liked Lord Calvert and 7-Up. The older he became, the earlier came the cocktail hour. Dad called it “tink time” because of the sound ice makes in the crystal glasses. As the neighbors soon came to discover, tink time served better than the nearest bar – since that was 35 miles away – and would cost almost nothing.
Dad, shy and unpresuming, generous with his whisky, generally appreciated his guests at tink time to be equally amiable. He did not embrace the bartenders are good listeners maxim. As he poured himself, a neighbor, a grandson, or a daughter, another drink he would remark, “You may as well be drunk as the way you are.” Now I know some people may be offended by that remark and load it with all manner of implications. Dad was not suggesting alcohol would fix problems, or that anyone should become a drunk, but he did not care much for folks who liked to whine or complain. He had lived long enough to know that no matter what personal load you carried, there were always others who carried one heavier. Dumping personal problems on Dad’s social hour would get the whisky bottle put discreetly away when the whiner drove into the yard. Dad could not help most folks with their problems anyway so I suppose it was better than saying “here, have another drink and shut the hell up”. It was a uniquely Dad kind of saying and became Ranch Rule Number 3.CE19

Ranch Rule Number 2

Sometimes a rancher’s best tool is a reliable pickup. Dad had a 2007 Dodge Diesel Cummings. It sounded sexy and looked tough. That Hydra Bed bale loader accessorized with two six-foot chains with grab hooks on either end became our MVP. We moved everything with it.  At any time during the year, the flatbed held a conglomeration of cross-seasonal supplies from wooden posts and a chainsaw to buckets of pellets and an axe. Standard equipment included the bars, shovel, and wire stretchers. There is one problem however with a flatbed lacking side rails.

Our homestead in South Blaine County sports ever-changing creek banks, shale and rock slides, limestone deposits concealed by head-high sagebrush, coulees and washes and their subsequent bogs, and deceptive black sand sinkholes. It can be a challenging place to ride a horse, let alone drive a vehicle laden with supplies. Charmingly enough, the road leading up to the house crosses a creek and runs up a short, steep hill. Periodically, runoff creates a gully down the middle of that hill or, more often, a diagonal wash that necessitates clever driving.

From the beginning, the Dodge exhibited certain quirkiness. One of its first issues was a faulty emergency brake. Parking it with the motor running was tricky. Often, after loading hay and pellets, Dad would pull up in front of the house and leave the Dodge idling while he enjoyed another cup of coffee. That damn pickup would idle there for ten minutes three days out of five but would occasionally vibrate into a slow roll, coast down that hill, and creatively park itself in the creek! Sometimes the creek had a sheer two-foot drop on the downstream side of the crossing. Once, Dad had to get the Caterpillar to doze the Dodge out of the hole. Once the runaway commenced closer to the barn and ended in the lilac bush after smashing the yard fence.

Ranch Rule Number 2 came about on a specific early spring day. My niece, sister, and I were riding on the road east from the house to the corrals where we had planned a short branding. Dad had transported the branding pot and propane tank and sent my brother-in-law back with the Dodge for the Vet box. We were already across the aforementioned creek and about halfway to the first gate when I heard a terrific clatter. I turned in my saddle to see my brother-in-law running alongside the Dodge as it charged across the road toward the hill and the creek. He had the door open and his right hand on the headache rack as if he might prevent it from rolling over or perhaps he was imagining a vaulting  trick-rider mount. The equipment avalanche barely missed him. Luckily, the front passenger-side tire dropped in the washout, slammed the wheels to the right, and abruptly ended the runaway. Crisis averted, my most capable brother-in-law gathered the equipment and later confessed only minor concern. Too late for a warning about the Dodge’s runaway habits, impossible to control the mishap from a quarter of a mile away, all I could do was watch — in horror. Thus originated Ranch Rule Number 2, which is, Sometimes You Just Have to Ride Away.

Ranch Rule Number 1

Anthropologists have found that cavemen and modern rodeo cowboys have similar skeletal damages. Not all cowboys are rodeo cowboys and some are in fact cowgirls, or as I like to call them, cowhands (because it has been a few years since I was a girl). In addition, Dad’s primary mandate on the ranch was “make a hand”. Standing by and watching someone work was not really an option. However, as with most things in life, ranch work  and the people who do it change over time. Sure, handling livestock and the associated equipment can indeed be dangerous. Anthropologists as well as occupational record keepers have noted that farmers and ranchers hurt themselves worse than in any other occupation. Logically than, to avoid maiming or dismemberment or worse, safety is important. Whoever said cowhands were logical?

Dad modernized our operation over time by putting a DoAll Loader on our 1030 Case, buying a Ford with a DewEze, and later putting a Hydra Bed bale loader on a Dodge. Then we needed a few round bale feeders. Then I talked him into a portable head catch because pulling a calf alone with that rope around a hitching post was going to cost me a finger. Then we decided we had to have some of those portable panels. Dad was a genuine cowboy for sixty years before he trailered his horses anywhere, but that gooseneck fifth wheel trailer sure looked fine. We lamented not having a gun rack in the cab on which to hang our ropes.  We were real ranchers now! We discovered with some trial and error that all that awkward heavy stuff had to be moved and sometimes further than one wanted to road a tractor. The Hydra Bed became our favorite tool. With a couple of small six-foot chains with hooks on either end, we could move anything with the arms of the Hydra Bed.

Moving panels is a difficult chore that absolutely requires working TOGETHER. Dad pushed, I pulled, we would stumble, there were words …. We would lower and widen the arms of the Hydra Bed so the spinners on the ends were close to the height of the panels. We would stand the panels in a stack just under the spinners at the end of the arms so the weight of the panel was against the arms. When we had the desired number of panels chained on the spinners, we would lift the whole mess for transport. That sounds reasonable enough except the hydraulic pump on the Hydra Bed would lose oil and unless the pickup was running, the arms would settle. Unfortunately, the Dodge did not have a reliable emergency brake so we could not leave it running. If we did not have the panels balanced perfectly, the whole shebang would crash to the ground. That is about 800 pounds that one person simply can not or should not attempt to hold up. Hence, Ranch Rule Number One: Let Go and Jump Back! Eventually, stacking the panels against something other than the Hydra Bed arms before we chained them for transport became the norm.

The Dodge became the chief workhorse on the ranch and gave rise to many interesting adventures as well as Ranch Rule Number Two: Sometimes You Just Have to Ride Away. More on that later.




An Open Letter to Dementia

Notice: This post contains foul language.



Ravaged like a swarm of locusts through grain, there is but an empty rattling husk remaining. The brilliant vibrant woman is mauled, diminished. I would crush your center, eradicate you if I could, but you lurk there in her brain sneering evilly at me through her dead shot eyes, smiling through the stupid lopsided grin, saliva, a shiny smear on stained teeth.

I still hear her there behind the embarrassed giggle when she wonders about springtime calving and I remind her it is August. Her stories now wild fabrications, she yammers on in an endless loop as she snaps green beans with weak, blue-veined chicken skin hands.

Linear time disappears behind a repeated question and I am schooled on living in the moment with humor, as she does. I join her in as many moments as I can and must be content that she still recognizes me and where she is even if she does not know the day or the week or sometimes the hour.

I know you are probably waiting for me, Dementia, and my sisters, but it is not in my nature to allow such encroachment without battle. I will fight you with everything I am because that is all that I have. I will learn as many languages as I can, play and write music, paint with harsh glaring obnoxious colors on eight foot high canvases if that will keep you at bay. Dementia, I hate you, but not with impotent rage. I am coming for you, you fucker, I will fight you!




Magic and Passion in a Glass

People are still asking me questions about my late March, early April Italy trip to Florence, Siena, and Arezzo. Prior to departure, I said I was going for the art. Turns out, I went for the wine! I believe that Tuscany conjures iconic images for most Americans: columnar cypress-lined lanes leading up to stone houses, rosemary growing like weeds, and rolling hills covered in vineyards.


Understandably, Chianti is one of the first wines that comes to mind,  but the Sangiovese  varietal has long been my favorite and before I stepped foot in Tuscany my research revealed Viator’s small-group Brunello di Montalcino Wine-Tasting trip from Siena (5493MONTALCINO). Our guide, Daniel, was well-informed and eager to talk about a subject close to his heart. He picked me up at Hotel Italia S.p.A., on Viale Cavour 67.  Hotel Italia is adorable and has the friendliest most helpful staff I have ever enjoyed anywhere. With one more stop to get the rest of our group, a lovely Ohio family, we were away into the hills.

While I knew to some degree what to expect in wine, I did not expect the astonishing array of  viticulture philosophies. As a country kid from Montana, I understand the business of operating a family agricultural estate: grow, market, and harvest a crop. Wine is, after all, an agriculture product, a branch of the science of horticulture to be exact, and as such, it is regulated meticulously. There are specific requirements to which a vintner must adhere throughout Tuscany and all of Italy, but even more for a wine to be called a Brunello. Daniel humorously shared with remarkable insight his extensive knowledge about the business as well as the three wineries we visited.

Like most agriculturists making a living from the soil, viticulturists are an independent lot and have strong opinions about their production practices. First, understand that planting a vine and seeing it to maturity takes a few years. There is no instant return on the investment. Every year conditions change, the vines adjust and adapt, and thus the wine is different. All factors are considered: altitudes, acidity in the soil, amount of precipitation, tillage, pests, timing, heat…. For example, the philosophy driving the crew at the Podere Le Ripi Vineyard is somewhat radical. Their vines are not planted in neat rows far enough apart so that a tractor may till the weeds in between. A grapevine’s natural practice, horticulturally speaking, is to spread the roots a few inches under the soil to access the available moisture. But the soil under the Podere Le Ripi Vineyard is a heavy clay which holds more moisture longer, so their vines are planted a few inches apart forcing the vines to push their roots deeper into the soil toward that heavy clay, and do it faster. The vines are so close together they provide shade for their roots and keep invasive weeds from taking over.

Our little group also visited the Molino Di Saint’Antimo winery where the wine was equally delicious and wonderful, but there I was more impressed by the women. Here in Montana, I would call them Ranch Divas. There, well, it still applies. One daughter, our host, is in charge of marketing. Her sister is in charge of the vines.  I was over-whelmed by the sheer beauty of their estate. Their father, an architect, renovated the  simple stone structure where the bottom level was traditionally used to house the livestock  with the living quarters upstairs into a wholly modern structure without losing the inherent beauty.

Their mother made the most delicious lunch with simple bruschetta, uovo pomodoro (eggs poached in tomato sauce), and a light spaghetti in a garlic sauce all served with wonderful white and red wine pairings from their estate . We sat in their dining room over-looking the wine cellar and talked of how an Italian farmer’s life is not much different from any other farmer’s life. I rather wished they would adopt me!

The more I spoke with these vineyard farmers, the more impressed I became by their modern manipulation of centuries old practices to coax the absolute best from the grapes in spite of all seasonal challenges. The Il Paradiso Di Frassina winery was considered down right crazy no doubt when Carlo Cignozzi first began using music in his vineyard in 1999. But then an interested sound guy from Boston, USA, got involved, and the Bose Corporation assisted in placing speakers directly in the vineyard where the grapes bask in the perfection that is Mozart. I know it sounds crazy at first, but think about it, music is nothing but the vibration of sound waves at specific intervals and for varying lengths of time. What the guess that turned into an experiment revealed is that not only do the vines sprout sooner and grow more consistently under constant musical accompaniment, but certain destructive insects are driven away by the same vibration.



Italy has much to offer a serious wino like myself. But there is more to it than just growing a productive vine. These people are serious about combining traditional practices with modern ideas. They talk about science, the pull of the moon, the resonation of matter on a molecular level, and even though they spend every year trying to work with Ma Nature to the best advantage of the grapes and thus a good product to sell, it is clear to me that we are not just drinking wine. That head-rush bouquet, garnet colour, and velvety mouth feel of a fine Brunello is truly passion and magic in a glass.