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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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 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.

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 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

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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



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

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!