For the Love of Dirt

This is a story about dirt. It includes cowboys and horses, trains and timber, mining and farming, war and politics, and settling the west. It is about hard work and hard times, choices and commitments. It is an American history lesson that spans a century. While it is not unlike most homestead stories in the early 1900’s, this is our story. It is a family tale about the Wortman Homestead, founded one hundred years ago. It is a love story about dirt.

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Homestead legislation was a hotly debated political issue at the time. Before the Civil War, the southern states had voted against homestead legislation because they foresaw its ultimate result. Opening the settlement of western territory added to the number and political influence of the Free states. The Free Soil party of 1848-52 and the new Republican Party after 1854 supported the idea of “yeoman farmers” which contrasted sharply with slave owners controlling large estates. The Homestead Act signed into law in May of 1862 allowed any applicant including single women and freed slaves, to put in a claim for up to 160 acres. Forty-seven years later, The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 supposedly encouraged dry-land farming. Most of the low-lying alluvial tracts next to rivers had been claimed. Because the more marginal tracts could not be easily irrigated, legislators doubled the allotment to 320 acres. Unfortunately, for many, legislators grossly underestimated the climate and soil condition of the western plains. The more marginal the tract of land, the more difficult it became to “prove-up” on the homestead. Many did not succeed. However, a century ago, that siren call of free land originated the merging of two families who claimed their marginal tracts next to a seasonal creek called Black Coulee, 45 miles east of Big Sandy through the southern foothills of the diminutive Bear Paw Mountains in south Blaine County.

Leonidas Wortman, born in 1859 in Missouri, came to Montana territory in about 1884. He staked out his claim near Salesville, MT, presently called the Gallatin Gateway, near Bozeman. He then returned home to marry his long-time sweetheart Mary Rosetta Billington. They had five children all born in Salesville. She had an abdominal malady and actually died on the operating table in 1904. Apparently devastated by that loss, Leonidas sold his land in Salesville and moved his young brood to the Kalispell area. He most likely worked as a teamster freighting goods to the mining fields. Leonidas died in 1918, one month shy of 60. The first child of Mary and Leonidas, Rosetta (Rosie) Louisa, born 1888, died at 21 of tuberculosis. Florence Lele, born 1892, became the mother influence. The younger children were James Ernest, born 1894, Alma Lavina, born 1896, and Everett Alexander, my grandfather, born April 16, 1899.

Everett and Jim traveled around western Montana taking whatever jobs were available. They worked as miners, loggers, and cowboys. At some point, Everett learned the skills of  a blacksmith. Florence Wortman married George Howard, a telegraph operator, in 1914, and together they moved to south Blaine County but did not apparently prove up on their homestead. Florence’s persuasive letters however brought her younger brothers to the area where the Homestead was established in 1916. When their father, Leonidas, died in 1918, Everett joined his brother Jim on the homestead.

A little over two miles east of Black Coulee resided another family who came to Montana from Peabody, Kansas. William H. and Mary Ellen Godsey, people of property, had thirteen children. William was reportedly a  man who raised his children to recognize opportunity. His daughter Grace with her husband Harry Bence had moved to Montana where he worked in the mines. His son Bill with his wife Jennie had moved to Idaho, but after a year or so moved to Montana. With his daughter Edna, her husband Claude Loveall, Claude’s folks and the bachelor brother Roy, they rented a freight car and moved to Montana to Homestead in 1912. The brutally cold winter convinced William and Mary that a year in California visiting William’s brother John sounded more pleasant. They returned to Peabody, Kansas. It was another four years before Mary Addaline Godsey Stevens, my grandmother, having left a disappointing marriage in Oklahoma and returned to Peabody with her four young children, was swept toward Montana in a box car with her parents, her children, some chickens, her milk cow, and “old Sam” her horse. She was thirty years old. Needing that all important “grub stake”, she worked at the Blue Moon Cafe in Big Sandy for nearly a year before coming further west to Black Coulee. Her little chunk of ground had a partial building on it from a failed homestead but in the early 1900’s, South Blaine County was a thriving community. There were neighbors and family nearby with tools and willingness to help with the manual labor. It was not long before the little cabin had a new roof, the chickens had a coop, and Addaline had a root cellar. Grandma’s homestead was just south of The Cow Island Trail and a mile from the Wortman boys’ place. No stranger to adversity or hard work, Adde, as Grandma came to be known, needed wages and after placing her children in the care of sister Edna, catching a passing freight wagon into Big Sandy and on to Fort Benton, she washed and ironed clothes in the Chinese laundry.

Meanwhile, up the creek, Jim and Ev Wortman of solid German stock were going about the business of erecting cabins. They spent the first year in a dug out lean-to next to the spring. With their work horses and logging knowledge, they cut and drug timber off the nearby hills to build each of them a cabin. They too had root cellar, a chicken coop and eventually a  log barn, and a blacksmith shop. People came from all around for two things from Ev Wortman: getting horses shod and a haircut.

Even though Addaline and Everett were neighborly and no doubt noticed each other, the flu epidemic cemented their relationship. It is one thing to assist a neighbor with her roofing issues, but it is another to render medical attention to a woman and her children all suffering  from the flu. Perhaps my Grandmother knew that she would always be safe with my Grandfather. She knew after he tended her livestock, hauled in water, kept the wood box full and a fire going, and fed and bathed all of them, that he would always take care of  her and her children. History proved the truth in that romantic notion. Addaline was eleven years older than Everett and there was much frowning from Ev’s big sister, Florence, about the match, but the two were married on May 16, 1922, in Havre, MT. They lived fifty-three years together here on the Homestead until the end of their love story in 1975 when they died just one week apart.

Their marriage wrought more than a homestead and two children, my father, Jim Richard (Dick) Wortman, born in 1922, and his sister Betty Eileen, born in 1924. A simple choice, using simple tools, they cleared land of rocks and sagebrush, planted and harvested crops and a massive garden, canned produce, kept chickens for eggs, cut fence posts out of nearby coulees and dug post holes. Using an ax and shovel and the ever-present team of horses, using the strength of their backs and convictions, they literally chopped and dug a life out of Black Coulee.Without a milk cow and a garden, there was no butter or spuds to put it on. That vital root cellar had to be full before fall or it would be a lean winter. They butchered their own chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows. They even made a little wine and whisky. In the winter, there was more wood needed for a fire, ice chopped open for livestock, and blocks of ice cut to put in the root cellar under saw dust or straw. My Grandfather, called Pa, was a master with an ax. It was all about survival, not necessarily prospering, but they were entirely self-sufficient. Country folks still needed sacks of flour, sugar, and coffee from time to time though, so occasionally town trips happened, but the mail carrier became everyone’s best friend. Still, working away from the homestead part of the year was — and remains — necessary. For example, my father was born in Denton because his parents were working with a threshing crew there. My grandparents’ partnership, their choice, infused a respect, at least in me, for making a commitment to building something beyond them.

They played just as hard as they worked. Although one-room school houses became community halls, many would hold parties in their houses. There was “Fiddling Swede” up the creek, Blotto’s to the east, Walker’s to the West, to name a few. Great Uncle Jim, Dad’s namesake, was reportedly the fiddler. Dad and his sister Betty would sneak up outside of Uncle Jim’s cabin and listen to him play impossibly fast reels and jigs. Great Uncle Jim suffered mustard gas poisoning in the war and died at 42. Pa learned to play the fiddle by purchasing gramophone records and practicing with them (much to Grandma’s dismay) until he could play the tune. At these parties, the kids asleep on the floor or in one another’s beds, Grandma played a slide guitar on her lap with Pa fiddling, and handful of neighbors danced around making the glass chimneys of the kerosene lamps jiggle. Anyone who had an instrument came and played. There were no closing hours, only a long wagon ride home at dawn in time to milk the cow. In addition, every community prepared a baseball field for their team. The Sourdough Flats team here with Pa pitching and Dad catching would go down to the Missouri River to play the team from Winnifred. They played the Chinook Valley Owls who were reportedly tough to beat. Dad grumbled once about that, saying the town boys had more time to practice and less work to do. Taking a baseball to the eye was just another right-of-passage around here as Dad lobbed one toward us kids out in the yard.

Playing ball and music became as much a part of the legacy as the skill to use an ax. Dad was playing the drums in a one-room school-house when a buxom blonde girl from Chinook walked in and hooked that young cowboy’s heart. Eulela May Ness, born January 12, 1932, in Dodson, MT, had lived her childhood with her two younger sisters in Bullwhacker, a miserably harsh, dry coulee several miles east of Pa and Grandma’s Homestead. She lived with her Grandparents, Josephine and P.S. Gilmore, while her Dad, Gordon Ness, worked on the West Coast. It was prewar years and work was hard to find here. Her Mom, Annie, living in Chinook, was too ill to manage three young girls. When they were old enough, they attended high school in Chinook. Dad was smitten at that dance, and soon they became a couple, marrying on November 21st, 1947.

Grandma and Pa took them under their wing and into the house as they began their married life. The homestead cabin became too small however when Dick and Lela’s first daughter Christine Vey made her entrance and they moved down to Uncle Lee’s place. Lee Stevens, Dad’s half-brother, had his place adjacent to but further south down the bench below Grandma’s. Houses moved from off the prairie and attached together made our home. That working-away-from-the-homestead policy was immediately put into effect as Dad, Mom, baby Christine, Aunt Betty with first baby Mike and Charlie Rutherford, went to work “skinnin’ cat” near Fort Peck. It was 1954 before electricity came to the community. Dad helped as a lineman, working with John Broesder, the line boss. Mom recalls going to town to buy an electric toaster, radio and coffee pot. That February their second daughter, Glenna Lou, was born. Three years later, their third daughter, Gayla Marie came on board, and in 1961, I was born. Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie had their second son, Ross, in December of 1960. Mom and Dad harvested and hayed and farmed and ranched as a team for sixty-five years! When Pa and Grandma passed, Mom and Dad swapped again with Uncle Lee and we moved back up to the homestead.

South Blaine County, Black Coulee specifically, is not the best ground. It is rock and clay and shale banks. Thirty below in the winter is as common as 95 above in the summer. Annual precipitation averages ten inches. The soil supports sagebrush and cactus well, but will seal over in a hot year and hold seeds until the conditions are right, then bloom into a stunning display of plants as hardy as the people who have lived on it. It is “next year” country. It will break your heart and crush your will one year, and flood you with joy and ambition the next. It is only dirt, but it is ours.

I find I am living with ghosts.  I can lay my hands on the actual tools that carved century old logs into a home. I need only step to the barn to hear Pa’s great cheerful guffaw or sit on the upturned corner post of Grandma’s garden to feel them with me. I am living in a renovated one-room schoolhouse with cupboards Pa made for the old house. On the back of one of the drawers are tiny little numbers, carpentry notes in Pa’s handwriting. To see them is to feel like I am working with him. My grandparents and my parents infused their love into every broad ax handle, every log, every fence post. Yes, I have dug a toilet hole by hand, and I do dig post holes with a shovel, and I can wield an ax well enough. If my back allows, I can trim a horse’s hoof and I am learning to play slide guitar. I grow a tiny garden and freeze rather than can anything. Grandma would raise an eyebrow at that, and the fact that I do not have a root cellar … or a husband. She might have been disappointed in me for that, not for my independence or feminism, but because this place requires a team. Dad is gone now too and a century of conviction is on my shoulders. The “proving up” for this marginal piece of dry-land homestead is more personal now and the emotional scenery is changing. I am getting comfortable with being just a placeholder for the next generation. I fervently hope that somewhere Addaline and Everett Wortman feel content with that and maybe even approve.

Credit for genealogy research goes to Gayla Wortman Oehmcke.

 

The Cusp of Spring

The year I turned five, Dad and I set the parameters of our relationship. Huge piles of snow figure prominently in pictures of that 1966 winter. I have seen a picture of me, unrecognizable bundle on dad’s best mare, next to him astride his favorite gelding, snow piled all around, with a caption reading “pretty cold for a four-year old”. I was born in March of 1961. My earliest memories do not include any of my three older sisters, or my Mother. My earliest memories do not include anyone else at all. It was solely Dad and me. I have no memory of my oldest sister, Christine, graduating from high school that May. I remember being aware that she went to some mysterious place called “college”, which no one ever explained to me. I thought I would never see her again. I know now that Mom and my sisters were gone to town, 45 miles away, for school during the week, and came home on weekends, roads permitting. Dad filled up my world, my consciousness, my existence with his reality. So, my earliest memories are only me and Dad, a barn, and horses.

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Dad had no choice other than taking me with him wherever he went. I do not remember learning to ride, but then I do not remember learning to walk either. I rode his buckskin mare named for the forties song “Mairzy Doats”. I didn’t know the words then: “mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?” I simply heard the words mashed together into Marezydoates. She was already old and experienced by the time I came along and she taught me more about riding and myself than any horse or human ever did. I rode her that year, my feet in thick socks stuffed into cheap kids’ boots. I have dressed a few stubborn four-year olds in winter wear before, so I imagine the conversation every morning that winter could not have been particularly … easy for either of us. I cannot now say how Dad acted towards me on those mornings, getting me dressed, fed (he told me I wouldn’t eat oatmeal), ready for a big girl day. I know he expected much from me and perhaps because of that I have never considered not doing any necessary difficult task. I recall the usual argument about wearing my cowboy boots of course, but it was too cold. I recall bulky outer wear, a scratchy knitted hat with a hood over it, and itchy tights under whatever snow pants I wore. I hate tights to this day. It seemed like I was always cold. I was either born tough or thought it was important to be tough (there is a damned thin line between tough and stupid) or maybe I was merely proud and willful and stubborn. Snot and tears were frozen on my face, but I would not admit being cold when Dad asked. I never admitted needing to pee either. If you are cold and miserable and a couple of miles from home horseback, wetting your pants does not improve your situation. I did that once. I do not remember doing it a second time. Finally back at the barn, Dad would lift me off. I would be so cold and stiff that my toes, fingers, and cheeks were all numb, but I would hang out with Dad just the same while he unsaddled the horses and tended the tack. We rarely got back in time to enjoy the late afternoon sun slanting into the barn’s south door, cheering and warming the interior, but I was always glad to be in it.

Dad purchased our barn from a place up in the Bear Paws Mountains — hills really. The wonders of the barn, a simple structure of substance, included a hayloft, a bronc stall, cow stanchions added by Dad, and numerous carved brands from long gone cowboys. It was situated away from the prevailing winds so the large heavy wooden sliding doors were north and south on either end with stalls along the east side. It had wide boards as saddle racks nailed high enough to the heavy studs of the walls so that horses could walk along without knocking the saddles down. Milk cow calves would sometimes suck on the saddle strings or latigo ends. By the time I was six, I was tending to my own horse. I would prop my saddle on its horn, wrestle it onto my head, stand, and from there lift with both arms and jump to reach those racks. That winter, Dad would tell me to go on into the house to get warm. I would stay with him though. Of course, he still had chores to do because we needed supper and then he would do the dishes. There were probably cows to milk too. There may have been warm baths, but I don’t recall that. I must have been whimpering or crying loud enough for him to hear in my own bed. He came and brought me to bed in his room. I remember wanting very much to snuggle next to him, but I felt afraid to touch him. He was never demonstrative, and so like still water that reflects the sun and the stars and the moon, I have never been either. I would lie stone still next to him as close as possible. His broad back radiated warmth, and, like the barn, loomed strong and secure next to me in the dark. It was like falling asleep next to a stove.

March may be the cusp of spring, but it doesn’t always materialize as one might like. By the end of January, I am tired of winter. If I were snow skiing or ice skating or snowmobiling, it might be different, but following bovine around all winter with the added effort of staying warm and making equipment run is exhausting. I remind myself that Dad did it without equipment or electricity. Dad had a team and wagon and forked the hay on and off. Sometimes he had to sling bags of feed over his saddle horn and together with the ax ride out to the cows. Dad did it because he loved the life style. But that was before my time. Sometimes, I think it has all been before, or outside of, or beyond my time. The winter of 2013 was mild but particularly awful as Dad was unable to leave the house easily. Going about the chores took on a lonelier cast with no good-natured banter between us. Without the support and companionship of my sisters, it could not have been born. Every year, Dad expected a February thaw and promised it to himself as much as to me. Perhaps not coincidentally, he died smack in the middle of February on a day that reached fifty degrees. It had been warm for days before. The snow in the mountains released a glut of water and the creek rose and eliminated that ice chopping for the cows.

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Dad had chosen his own burial site on Grandpa’s homestead. Mom and Dad had moved there, a mile and a half from my childhood home, after Dad’s parents died. They had moved the barn as well. The day we buried him was bright, clear and cold, and there had been a nasty little snow storm a few days before. I found it remarkably suitable to follow on horseback behind Dad’s casket on a horse-drawn wagon to that site. It felt appropriate too leading his last best mare, his spurs buckled through a cinch ring chinking when she jogged, almost as if he were there. It was eminently fitting as well, I suppose, that I was cold and stiff and shivering, with tears and snot on my face and my feet stuffed stupidly into my cowboy boots. A few hundred yards northwest of the buildings, the site allows a full view of either road coming into the creek and close access to first calf heifers grazing by amiably or muzzling in nearby feed bunks. A hard, bitter wind beat at us the day we scraped an old wagon and some other deteriorated horse-drawn equipment out of the frozen ground in our best attempt at preparation. Dad would be pleased we got rid of the junk.

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That day, after the burial, the task completed, Dad would have told me to go to the house and get warm but he would not have been the least bit surprised if I had stood stubbornly there while his grandchildren covered the casket. But this time with that watery half-light of a winter’s late afternoon slouched around the south-facing door, I went back to the barn without him. My feet like blocks, his coat sloppy around my shoulders, to tend the horses, remove the tack and spend a minute with his gear, comforted by horse smells and sounds, in the first best place I knew him. A place, no doubt, I will visit more often than the grave site   to discover what I will do now in my own time, and who I will be without him.

The Giant Naked Marble Dude

Michelangelo’s David, a Carrara marble statue over 14 feet in height, is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture created between 1501 and 1504. It represents the Biblical hero David. You know, the guy who slew the giant with a slingshot. Is it the world’s greatest sculpture? Possibly. And possibly it was created by the world’s greatest sculptor. It glows, glistens as if from perspiration, but seems oddly pale. One might almost expect it to be warm to the touch. I viewed it with all proper awe and respect, but it might just be too perfect.

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Oh sure, the right hand is disproportionately large because in the middle ages David was considered strong of hand, and yes, David is holding the sling in his left hand because he was left-handed. Consider the etymology: from middle English sinistre, “unlucky”, from Old French sinistra, “left” from Latin sinestra, “left hand” and in present day English, sinister. But David displays Michelangelo’s perfect understanding of human anatomy — all from another sculptor’s cast-off: a flawed block of stone.

There are other notable facts about the David. He was originally planned to be placed on top of the Duomo,  but when interested parties (including Leonardo and Botticelli) saw the finished product they decided it would be a waste way up there.  They formed a commission and placed it in the Palazzo Vecchio and it became a political statement — sort of like, hey you enemies, you don’t scare us! Some clown threw a chair out a window and broke the left arm in three places, but he stayed there until 1872 when he was moved to the Galleria. With train tracks laid in the street, it took three days for David to trundle on a cart to his present location.

But hold up a minute. The Hall of Slaves or Prisoners leads up to the David in the Accademia Galleria. Huge blocks of marble seemingly unfinished with figures writhing and straining against the grip and weight of the stone. Why did he leave these unfinished? Maybe he’s chipping away with his hammer and chisel and decides he can’t get these pieces quite right so he just quits? This from the guy who whacked the knee of a statue with his hammer and yelled at it about speaking to him? Nah, not our guy Michelangelo who believed that it was the work of a sculptor to release the statue already in the stone. These pieces seem to represent the human struggle to be free of whatever holds us back from completion and thus perfection. Remember that M. did not work from plaster casts or mark the blocks of stone in any way. He just went to chipping on a piece of stone and let the work emerge from it. David was a commissioned piece. And it is perfect. The Prisoners or Slaves are masterpieces of a different sort and are a personal message, a philosophy, if you will, of an artist.

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Michelangelo was more than just possibly the finest sculptor ever. He painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling of course and drew and painted all his life. He was also a renown poet. From humble beginnings at his father’s quarry, Michelangelo learned to wield a hammer and chisel while working for a stone cutter, proving that humble tools in the right hands may render extraordinary truths across the centuries.

I Have Become a Biker Babe!

The first time I saw A ROMAN HOLIDAY with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, I fell in love with the idea of riding a Vespa through the cobbled streets in Italy. Because my recent trip to Florence fell on my birthday, I decided it was an excellent time for such whimsy. Walkabout Florence Tours put the whole experience over the top.

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After determining our ability to ride the adorable bikes, Angle, our guide (on right, below), escorted us in a Vintage Fiat out of Florence and into the nearby hills where the views were postcard perfect. I enjoyed immensely sharing my birthday and the tour with three American sorority sisters. We thought we should have secret agent code names. Riding a scooter is a hoot! After multiple photo stops, we were ready for our included lunch at a beautiful facility set on the side of a hill. A little wine,  penne pasta in tomato sauce, and a desert of unparalleled perfection made me exclaim “This is my wish!” when they asked me to blow out my candle.

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I loved this tour so much, I considered doing it again the next day. I was off to Siena, however, and still had to navigate the Italian bus system. Most people believe that travelling by train is best. However, the train station is at the bottom of a hill, stops along the way, may include changing trains, and takes longer. The bus trip from Florence to Siena is about 50 minutes and the station is centrally located.

I stayed in Siena at Hotel Italia on Viale Cavour, which is a short walk to the historic center. After getting my bearings and finding my spot, Al Peccatore on Via Camollia, where I enjoyed both fresh and aged pecorino cheese served with honey for drizzling, as it should be, rustic bread and a glass of red, I prepared to enjoy my five days in Siena. I was still thrilled by my Vespa tour in Florence so enlisted the aid of the exceptionally friendly and accommodating staff at Hotel Italia to book another Vespa tour.

Though not vintage, this Vespa was bright red. I joined a group of folks from Ohio, and one couple from Mexico, who all drove Fiats. In spite of a good drenching and fog, the ride was thrilling. For the first few miles, I needed wind shield wipers on my glasses. After we stopped in an ancient village and then enjoyed lunch and a little wine at Poggio Amorelli, a small winery, the rain gave way to sunshine and puffy clouds. We toured the Monteriggioni castle and thus ended my second Vespa tour.

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The Great Shoe Caper

Travel challenges can be daunting, especially when flying overseas. If you have been keeping up with my Crazy Aunt Tracy Facebook page, you are no doubt aware that this post originates from my Corkscrew Adventure of the Italian kind.  It has been five years since I visited Europe. I enjoy a good challenge, but I forgot a few things.

 

Thee single most important rule of travelling: wear comfortable shoes! Come on! I know those brown Clark’s are the ugliest thing since original sin, but they can be worn for days without ill effect. I thought about wearing them, but vanity got the better of me. However, I did wear what I thought were perfectly comfortable shoes, low heel, slip on, shiny red! They are my ruby slippers but this ain’t THE WIZARD OF OZ, baby. They look good with trousers or jeans and I have been successful wearing them travelling in the past. Of course, I only flew across the country for about six hours, so ….  I did great until the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. I should have gone to the first toilet — or changed on the plane — and put on a pair of pants that would look good with the perfectly comfortable and stylish flats I had in my carry-on!  I marched my way along what seemed like two miles of airport concourse until I arrived at the gate for my final leg to Firenze (Florence), Italy. I looked good, but my toe hurt. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon. I put on my Italian made boots purchased five years ago in Napels and went looking for a place to eat. I had not worn those boots for months, but I had them in my suitcase. I admit I also had included a pair of heels I had been breaking in for weeks by wearing them vacuuming and another soft pair of flats. So, if you’re keeping track, the shoe count is as follows: the ones I had on, two pair of flats, the boots, and the heels.

There were two places open in which I could find sustenance: a small grocery store where I bought a bottle of wine for 8 euros, and an amazing restaurant, pizzeria actually, wherein I ate too much, and drank more wine. The next day, having discovered that Hotel La Fortezza was not centrally located I ventured forth a foot, nevertheless. Florence is not huge, by city standards, but it is confusing especially if as a country girl like me you pay more attention to directions like east and west. The map of Florence in my opinion is upside down. Even though I had on comfortable shoes, I was completely turned around in the narrow streets overshadowed with tall buildings. I finally found the river and realized which direction was my hotel but by the time I made it there, my little toe on my left foot was a bloody pulp. Knowing I could not walk a step further in any of MY shoes, I hobbled to the nearest shoe store and bought some roomy and sparkly loafers. Add that to the shoe tally.

Sadly, this was not my first shoe caper. Once in New York City I hobbled myself with new sandals and had to buy ugly shower shoes in a local pharmacy. I loved them. This time, it wasn’t until I got to Siena where I found my new favorite pair: Birkenstock water sandals! And, I admit, I found two pair of lovely Italian-made shoes on sale. The shoe tally was up to nine pair. I was not about to haul around all those shoes though. I mailed myself several pair before embarking further. So perhaps a good rule of travel is to remember that pride will cost you, and give you blisters.

 

Vorrei Andare L’Italia … Take Two!

A year ago, I pulled the biggest bonehead travel stunt of all time. I did not have enough time on my passport. Not everybody knows that it is a good idea to have six months. Italy requires three months from the arrival date. I only had two. The lovely and helpful Sherri Thomas at Delta waived the three hundred dollar flight change penalty and gave me credit for that trip. So, I learned some things and blogged about those things and became loyal – loyal – loyal to Delta, so much so that it would take a free flight to get me on any other airline.

So now I’m back in planning mode because on the 19th of March, three days before my 55th birthday, I am trying again. This is not my first trip to Italy, nor, I am confident in saying, will it be my last. My first trip to Italy was five years ago. A friend and I flew into the Naples airport and drove the short distance to Sorrento, a magical little sea side village. This time, I am off to Florence, the home of Michelangelo’s David. Sculpting the big giant naked dude in marble was kind of a career maker for Michelangelo. After it was unveiled, the Pope, Giulio II, called him back to Rome where he would paint the famous Sistine Chapel. I kind of want to see the big naked marble dude.

There are many other things I wish to enjoy while in Florence, reportedly the most beautiful of all Italian cities. I wonder what the other cities think of that. I’m searching the websites I tried last time for things like culinary tours, museum passes … putting the Uffizi on my list, and the “old bridge”, the Ponte Vecchio. Now if you think about this bridge, you have to admire the name in general. Nobody gave it a fancy name because it really is the old bridge. It dates back before the 1300’s  — was reconstructed twice after some flooding — and was sort of revolutionary in design because it had the segmental arches that give it strength. So, I’d like to see that. Also, there are a lot of vendors on it offering good touristy stuff.

Some folks do not care for the planning stage of a trip, but it delights the hell out of me. I learn some history, I see some beautiful pictures, and I can let my inner control freak out to play. I will keep you posted in the days ahead. Maybe you will enjoy the trip with me … without the annoying jet lag or wallop to your bank account. Ciao for now.

 

My Cincinnati Fix

For the last three years, celebrating Thanksgiving for me has meant flying to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit my niece, a textile conservator at the Cincinnati Museum. Cincy, as the locals affectionately call her, reclines casually out from the Ohio River across history toward America’s Rhineland. Cincinnati may appear elegant and sophisticated but she is not without a little edgy drama. Interested people are taking back Cincy’s sketchy parts, one neighborhood at a time.

One such neighborhood referred to as “Over-the-Rhine” (OTR) due to the extensive German immigrant population is a damned cool place to enjoy some food and wine. Begin with a simple address: 1215 Vine Street. 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab tucked into a deep narrow chunk of Cincinnati’s historical downtown, sports a back bar of abundant wine soaring to the mysterious depths of the ceiling. A casual, trendy, romantic, full bar offering the usual fair is perfect for after work cocktails or before dinner wine. Our restaurant texted us just as we finished our cheese plate.

Directly across the street at A Tavola (at table), 1220 Vine Street, the casual atmosphere perfectly complements the handmade, wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, wines, craft beers and cocktails. Carnivores will appreciate the wild boar or Cinghiale meatballs in the house red sauce over rice with artichoke and greens salad with one of the best house balsamic vinaigrettes anywhere. The meatballs were savory, juicy delicousness the size of a pool cue.

A Tavola's Cinghiale meatballs and salad.
A Tavola’s Cinghiale meatballs and salad.

Vegetarians will love the asparagus and mushroom pizza with piles of cheese. Our meal was not super expensive either. Three of us enjoyed wine and dinner for less than seventy bucks before tip.

Also in the OTR near Cincinnati’s impressive collection of breweries, Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market provides a bright, festive display and year round gastronomical choices from the humble potato to the sweetest honey. Located at 1801 Race St., Findlay Market hosts farmers’ markets and other outdoor vendors, street performers, and special events from March to December. We indulged our sweet teeth with sumptuous pumpkin spice fudge that alone would make me go back!

With Cincinnati’s abundant and varied dinning and drinking experiences, we upped our interest a notch by throwing art into the mix. The 21c Museum Hotel on Walnut is a combination contemporary art museum and boutique hotel, at once intimate and universal. With a glass of wine from the ever-rotating selection of world wines in the bar, we wandered through the exhibits throughout the first two floors. The Metropole restaurant inside the hotel fulfils elegant expectations by retaining the historical mosaic tile floors and arched windows, but adds a layer of casual comfort and warmth in a sublime balance. The Metropole features an “old world fireplace” on which the region’s sustainable farm products are prepared. Our starters – three for $16 – were the seven-hour egg, hot olives, and the Hudson flower, a sheep cheese. While my palette failed to discern the difference between the seven-hour egg and one boiled in the usual fashion, I will never eat a cold olive again! Every variety of olive ever grown seemed to be on display: an amazing array of sizes and colors from deepest purple to pale chartreuse. Chef Michael Paley’s menu at the time included burnt carrot salad featuring watercress, feta, red onions, and grilled shallots all topped with flavorful vinaigrette, for $9, and yellow fin tuna with quinoa fritters, and yellow beets. A savory and rich entrée of smoked woodland farm pork with Kentucky grits, roasted autumn crisp grapes and Brussels sprouts paired well with a side of charred sweet potatoes with pistachios and pomegranate. We also enjoyed a lemon tart created by Pastry Chef Suzanne Church.

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It had just the right touch of cardamom and lemon in a buttery delicious shell with nuts. The presentation was so superior we hesitated before mauling it with our forks. We also enjoyed a moderately priced 2009 Serra Barbaresco from Italy. Their current Executive Chef is Jared Bennett. Check out their site at www.21cmuseumhotels.com for a full menu, or better yet, think of an excuse to go experience it yourself. If you are into art and urban awesomeness, Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel is the place.

Visiting Cincinnati is like getting a big old American hug from your favorite Aunt, the cool and hip Aunt. It is a lovely town, a beautiful city, in picturesque and historical surroundings. So I will return because Cincinnati is a city to soothe the rough edges of any rural existence or brighten an everyday routine with some big city glam.

Once Upon a Weekend Merry!

Thirty years ago, I went to university at Missoula, Montana: home of the Grizzlies. As a fresh-from-the-country twenty something, Missoula proved educational in many ways. Downtown bars and restaurants in Missoula are just plain cool. Missoula Club, or locally, The Mo Club, provides THEE best pre-game/post party burger I’ve had anywhere. But there are lots of equally cool spots to consider.

Now there are new notable names downtown. For an authentic bowl of Jambalaya or Gumbo or anything Cajun, definitely try the Dinosaur Café inside Charlie B’s. There’s the Old Post for colossal, tasty, and nutritious lunches or The Iron Horse for a bushel of nachos. One can always find a good gluten-free kale, quinoa all-natural-with-sticks-and-berries kind of meal in Missoula, but I enjoyed a cooked-to-perfection bison burger at James Bar.

Plonk, a wine bar, was superb, but missed the Missoula vibe. They need some bead curtains and a fern or two to soften that slick west coast feel. There’s no need to mention the numerous breweries available to any beer officiannado, but a new kind of drink experience can be found at the Montgomery Distillery where they like to spank their rosemary in a Honeybee Highball including vodka, Wustner brothers honey shrub, lemon soda, and that naughty rosemary. An intriguing menu of unique ingredients provides such delicately flavored drinks as a Rosy Finch comprised of vodka, lime, kaffir lime-vanilla syrup, watermelon puree, and house aromatic bitters served over ice (below right). The other drink pictured is a Rocky Mountain Flip with gin, fir-tip/juniper syrup, egg white, cardamom bitters, lemon and nutmeg, shaken of course.

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Montgomery Distillery, Missoula, MT

When I attended the U of M, naïve young farm girls did not go into Reds unattended. I don’t know what it is like now. Conversely, the university bar used to be Stockman’s. Presently I’m told, not so much. Then, as now, if you desire live music The Top Hat is the place to go. With its recent complete renovation it feels current, hip, exhibits logical use of the space to accommodate a long bar, band stand and dance floor, as well as more intimate seating sections.

The Brothers Gow at The Top Hat
The Brothers Gow at The Top Hat

The Brothers Gow, based in San Diego, jazzed their rock with hints of reggae into a high energy blend. With no cover charge and exhilarating light show, they made The Top Hat my new favorite place in Missoula. They’ll be in Flagstaff, AZ next. Read more about them at http://www.brothersgow.com/the-band.html.

Yes, Missoula still has that wonderful hippy feel and it is still at its heart a college town where you’ll find countless twenty something males with their ball caps on backwards and their female counterparts with wide lace headbands pulled down to just above their eyebrows. People may come to Missoula for all manner of reasons. Perhaps they come to enjoy the numerous recreational opportunities, to enjoy the culture, the art, the scenery, the food and drink and music, or like me, they may just revisit a comfortable familiar mind set. The Garden City, snuggled in its picturesque valley, is still all about acceptance and open-mindedness, so they don’t look askance at an old weirdo like me when I join their ranks for a weekend.

Just When You Think You’ve Had Enough

Sunday afternoon, Red Ants Pants Music Festival, White Sulphur Springs, Montana, and I am done! I’m hot and tired and if I were three, I’d rub grubby fists into my eyes and there would be dust smeared into the stickiness from my Italian Ice around my mouth. But I’m a full-grown woman and even though recalcitrant Ma Nature beat our pop-ups and canopies into mangled spiders with 40 mph winds Thursday night, increased prices and people tested my resolve to hear every band (I failed miserably), I resolutely attended, slumped in my chair, waiting for the next group.

Stamina is required. Without pacing yourself, you’ll never make it. It is also impossible to adequately review here every band so I’ll just hit the high points. My high came early on Friday night. True to Montana weather, Friday was beautiful after the storm. The Shook Twins, hailing now from Portland, Oregon, retro microphone and all, rocked their harmony with tempered folk-pop instrumentation. Followed by Lucero — a voice like Joe Cocker — a Memphis band that swings from moody blues to wild rock, there was little time to fill my wine cup. Next, with her melodic tones and song writing skills, Lee Ann Womack knows how to reach her audience. If you have never heard “I Hope You Dance”, crawl out of your cellar! She is just plain fabulous and a wonderful performer. Then a group about whom I knew nothing came on stage. Reminiscent of Boz Skaggs, Keb ‘Mo’, a three-time Grammy winner, lulled me with his guitar work and beguiling lyrics. Listening to the blues of Keb ‘Mo’ was like rolling the darkest richest wine around in my mouth. Like velvet, their four voices blended into smooth perfection. And yes, I bought the CD.

Keb 'Mo' Hat

Saturday brought another full day beginning with The Cattle Women’s breakfast, yoga, a book sale downtown, talent demonstrations, hay wagon rides and (pause for effect) The Music. Del Barber, it was remarked, is as good a story teller as musician. Holly Williams showed off her song writing chops with the poignant lyrics “Waitin’ on June”, a song which had us all weepy. Her frank comments about her Dad, Hank Williams, Jr., and the subsequent song about her Mom’s grace under such conditions proved her a remarkable talent. Red Molly, a return group from 2014, showcased their pure three-part harmony and (along with my grandmother) gave me added motivation to learn the slide guitar. The Turnpike Troubadours, hailing from Oklahoma, showered us with a gutsy roots-rock-folk-country sound. I’ll be downloading some of that to my phone! And last but not least, Ryan Bingham brought Saturday night to a thunderous climax as the dust from the mosh pit rose above the crowd and dissipated into the lavender twilight.

Red Ants Pants night stage

Then it was Sunday and I was pooped. Inspired Saturday night, we played our own instruments in our camp and, as I’ve said, you have to pace yourself. So at noon when The Easy Leaves came on, I was hunkered in the shade of a pop-up behind the crowded seating section. I loved their sound so much I jostled my way toward the stage to get a visual, but had returned to the shade, slurping my Italian Ice, when Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants founder, announced the next band. She said we might not have ever heard of them, but we would not forget them. Intrigued, I re-claimed my seat closer in. Parsonsfield is a five-piece Americana band from Connecticut whose music is more than bluegrass and folk. Their Appalachian sound (including a saw) broadens into a modern and edgy high-energy performance that will raise goose flesh! If you can sit in your chair while listening to Parsonsfield, you are, as my Dad used to say, “Dead from the ass both ways!” Thrilling and provocative and laugh out loud enjoyable, I forgot how tired I was, jumped up and down, sang along, and purchased their music! I wasn’t ready for their set to be over, but they primed my interest for the sweet lyrics and melodies of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis up next. Finally, this year’s Headliner was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As seasoned performers, they know how to engage an audience and through their music for a few minutes recall the feeling of the bygone decades of our lives. They, along with another light show from Nature, closed down 2015’s Red Ants Pants Music Festival in fine fashion.

I’m always dazed when I leave, inspired, motivated to delve into music further, to get it on me, to wallow in tempo, harmony, lyrics; wearing it into a familiar soft wrap around my heart. That’s what music should be. It should move you, touch you, and the diversity of talent at the Red Ants Pants Music festival will do just that. I’m already wondering who will perform next year.

Merle Haggard, Red Ants Pants 2013
Merle Haggard, Red Ants Pants 2013

Seven days ’til Music town!

Every year in July, I put down my fencing pliers, stash the lawn mower and weed eater in the shed, turn my saddle horse up the creek, hook up my 1964 Honorbilt camper trailer, and journey to White Sulphur Springs to arguably the greatest music festival of all time.

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The first year I attended was six months after my Father’s death and I needed a different perspective. A casual reference from a friend led me online and I discovered the headliner was none other than Merle Haggard. The headliner comes on last, on Sunday evening, after the street dance and two days of impressively talented musicians from across the nation. I didn’t know any of that. I was going to see The Hag in person!

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Founded (2011) by Sarah Calhoun, the Red Ants Pants company is dedicated to making work wear for women. That’s cool. I remember a time when I cussed Carharts company pretty loudly because I bought the pants and had to sew darts in them so they wouldn’t gap open around my waist. Apparently at that time, women didn’t need heavy duty insulated work pants. So, good on ya’, Sarah Calhoun. The Red Ants Pants store is located in White Sulphur Springs hence the music festival in the nearby cow pasture. White Sulphur Springs IS small town Montana with a single main street which is really just the highway. It doesn’t look much different than a hundred other small towns in Montana centered between vistas of large round bales scattered like dice between mountain ranges or expanses of golden wheat fields shoved up against river bluffs or across wide open prairie.

Camping on The Jackson Ranch a smidge outside White Sulphur Springs is challenging because the rest of the year it’s a cow pasture with an impressive assortment of rocks and holes. I figure if you can’t make it from the festival grounds back to your camper, you’ve had too much to drink! Seriously, I don’t know if it was all the people, the heat, the wine, or the two full days of amazing musical stimulation, but by the time Mr. Haggard was up, I felt either I would burst into tears or wet my pants from excitement. Nobody sat down. Everybody sang along. It was full-on amazing, and I was honored to see a country music legend in an extraordinary venue. I vowed I would never miss another Red Ants Pants Music Festival.

I wasn’t such a rookie last year and when the camp site concerts began I was there holding a couple of flashlights on The Last Revel, three guys who said they drove seventeen hours so they could play fifteen minutes on the side stage. But they won the people’s choice vote and will be on the main stage this year along with returning talent like Red Molly or first timers to Red Ants like Keb ‘Mo’, Lee Ann Womack, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ryan Bingham, and Holly Williams to name a few.

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I am already giddy with anticipation, so don’t try to contact me next week. I’ve got my 150 dollar Fender tuned and I’m gearing up for my favorite Corkscrew Adventure of all time. Ciao!