Winter in Big Creek

My “castle” is surrounded by a moat of boot-sucking bog muck mud and glop.  There’s a forest and a mail box and an entire world beyond that mud – but the moat must be negotiated before reaching Any of it.  In the Florida swamps the Calusa Indians built shell mounds which became islands which they eventually were able to live on.  The ponies and goats have similar “islands” around the yard built up from old hay but there is still plenty of muck to be crossed between them.  The winter urge to hibernate is strong, especially when there’s only one warm room/cave!   I fear that the bog moat has gotten into my psyche a bit – making it a struggle to emerge, engage, extend myself beyond my mental moat.  After years of being always in public and forever with (wonderful and caring) strangers I find myself living very much inside the bounds of my home and my mind.  The pendulum swings.  Blessings on the Cave.  Blessings on Signs of Spring!

One of the problems with my “holing up” for the winter has been a huge lag in writing postcards and thank you notes and all other forms of correspondence.  I’m up to Tennessee – Please bear with me!  I’m not spending much time on the ‘phone these days either, but I did have a lovely conversation with my dear Auntie Pat yesterday.  She said that after she got married she had 500 thank you notes to write.  She only got about 90% of them done and it took her a year to do that many.  I’m three months in and half way through the 500 post cards.  Her story made me feel a little better about my lack of progress and was simultaneously an encouragement to persevere because the unwritten 10% haunt her to this day – and she got married in 1969!

Last Sunday morning the sheriff and mayor of Big Creek were in my driveway because there were hoofprints in the neighbor’s yard – again.  At 5:30am Saint Finehorn (who for unfathomable reasons of her own elects to respect the white tape and stay within the yard) whickered outside my window, waking me up and letting me know that Jesse James was AWOL – again.  I was up and dressed and out the door in minutes but not fast enough.  Jesse is now on tether until a better solution can be devised, which makes him glum.  The previous Sunday somebody from the church across the street called somebody who called yet a third somebody who let me know that my goats were eating Baptist shrubberies. That was the first time the goats had ventured forth alone, but we’re back to a system of only one goat allowed out at a time.  Brilliant solutions such as fences and pastures have been suggested and duly considered.  A fence that will keep in both horses and goats is a spendy proposition – well beyond the current means – however I’m hopeful that by this coming Sunday we’ll have found a pony pasture at the very least.

Last Sunday the words “Turbulence Upon Reentry” kept going through my head, along with the feeling of: “I’m just no good at having a normal life.”  (as if this were any sort of ‘normal’ life!)  I was scrolling back through facebook messages trying to find contact information for a family in Tennessee and I barely recognized the woman and two horses living the life mirrored there!  This winter has been a time of massive readjustment, not back to a comfortable and familiar sort of life, but forward into something completely new and unknown and more than a little daunting.  Riding across the country with two horses was Easy and Simple compared to moving into an old house in a tiny town in Mississippi. This requires a completely different skill set and persona.  When somebody recently said “You’re in Culture Shock”  I remembered my brother talking about this when he was a missionary with FHI in Bolivia and that there were stages people tended to go through (just like grieving) and when I googled it there I was – the “Honeymoon” is over and I’m into “Negotiation” which happens “usually around 3 months, depending on the individual.” Bingo! though I’m not sure having a label makes me feel any better.  Towards the end of the ride a former nurse pointed out that I was suffering from “Compassion Fatigue” (which he recognized from personal experience after many years of nursing).  Naming it didn’t lessen the symptoms, but it at least put a new spin on my bouts of grumpy reclusiveness.
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On a happy note, the glam chickens have caused no problems, continue to be entertaining visually as well as audibly, and the girls have produced 5 eggs between them in the past 4 days.  Last night I made a quiche from fresh, home-grown eggs – happy day!  The two roosters have taken to leaping loudly over one another’s heads; like leap frog played face to face.  Not-Bowie seems to have secured breeding rights, tho whether this is due to superior leaping skills or simply because the hens think he has a better hair-do remains a mystery.
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Meanwhile, in the Upper Room, during an ice storm, Angi from Ontario captured George Barnett and I on our first run-throughs trying to learn Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” – enjoy!
(Ahem, it’s been rather a lot of years since I last picked up my cello… )

And while we’re almost on the topic of social media – if you missed it I posted a series of “Strange Yard Creature of the Day” photos on the Free Range Rodeo facebook page introducing the menagerie.  You should be able to link over there from the FRR blog even if you’re not officially “on facebook”.

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Got Milk!

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Yesterday the big news was snow in Big Creek and the arrival of Angi from Ontario.  This morning I went out to feed and there was another arrival, this one a week earlier than anticipated – Mama Pearl was standing in the trailer looking down at her brand new kid.  I was So grateful for Angi’s presence in that moment, not that she’d ever midwifed a baby goat before, but she stayed very calm and we got the baby cleaned up just in time to realize that Pearl was trying to have kid #2 through the trailer wall.  That obviously wasn’t happening so she stood up and without so much as a chance to wash my hands I was catching a baby goat,  who lingered half-in and half-out for what seemed like the longest, slippery time before Pearl got around to finishing the job.  All of this in below-freezing dampness and caught unprepared!
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6 hours later both kids (one buckling, one doeling) have been up and about, have had their first meal (with a bit of assistance) and seem to be doing well.  Tonight is forecast 30*F with a wintry mix.  We have a heat lamp out there and a space blanket tarp stretched across inside at the level of the first open slat.  I know goats have been having babies for millennia – but the whole thing is feeling a bit nerve-wracking.  Spot and Taz are spending the night on a hay pile on the front porch, along with Stretchy who has elected herself the official porch chicken.  This weekend the goat bungalow will be constructed (mostly from wood and tin salvaged from old barns and sheds up the road – thanks to Ray.)  I know this is short, but just wanted to share the news and some photos – more soon!
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free range menagerie

the ponies dreaming of the open road

the ponies dreaming of the open road

The days are spinning into weeks faster than I can weave them into any sort of sense, my journal lies untouched, my calendar is blank.  This doesn’t mean that nothing is happening – but the sense I had on the ride of moving forward every day towards a tangible goal has been (temporarily?) suspended.  I feel like I’m living in a kaleidoscope of moments: of chores and weather and animals and morning mochas and visitations and sudden crises and random miracles and riding in vehicles and my very own mail box and house training two dogs and wee bits of progress and Gryph visiting from Vermont and sweet potatoes and venison and happy new year and frozen pipes (bad) and frozen biscuits (good) and “your horses are on my lawn” and a $30 trip to the laundromat in Calhoun City and late morning sunshine on the front steps of the porch and the bathtub starting to sink…

…all the while negotiating the wood stove and keeping a fire burning at an appropriate level  - until the morning I walked across the floor and the stove pipe came apart inside the house and smoke came pouring into the room and lucky for me I was on the ‘phone with Jess and he told me to shut the damper quick!  Then I held the hot pipes mostly in place with a folded towel while Jess called Mike and asked him to come rescue me real quick.  I guess the floor is going down a little under the weight and heat of the stove?  In any case, with four hands we could fit the pipes back together and there’s a new (and very useful!) wire in place, pulling the vertical pipe back towards the wall.

That was the same day I woke to the sound of Jesse James clomping his way up the steps and across the front porch and banging on the front door because 8am is enough of a lie-in for any sort of human and where’s his breakfast?  The afternoon before, he’d come up wondering where I was disappearing to – so I showed him the house and he discovered where the feed is stored.  He’d really like to live inside with me and once it’s warmer I’ll be outside a lot more (and the windows will be open so he can visit) but meanwhile there’s a hay string tied across the porch as a reminder that the floor probably isn’t strong enough for him to live on.

The ponies had spent a couple of weeks in a pasture down the road and they loved the chance to stretch their legs a bit but I missed them and mr.James was feeling sad and barely speaking to me and there was another mare already in residence who seemed determined to be divisive, not only driving Jesse and Finehorn apart, but trying to keep them from me as well.  Then came the honk in the driveway at 8:30pm, horses out again! Gryph and I found Saint Finehorn restless in the pasture and she walked with us through the Cold Dark Night in search of the outlaws.  She was spectacular, a great golden beast, solid and confident in her pursuit; she led over half a mile us to the Chapel Hill Cemetery where Jesse did his best to apologize to her (she was having none of it) and Cocoa did her best to keep us from getting a halter on mr.James (with no better luck).  We got home with the herd before 11pm, the stars were epic!  Then Cocoa went running through the goat fence, tangling it all up and eventually spent the night tied to a tree since she wouldn’t leave the other two alone.  Next day her owner came and retrieved her and we ran tape through the woods to make a big enough yard – tho house yard or barn yard would be tough to figure.

The word “menagerie” comes to us from the French.  In the 1700s it referred to housekeeping, which at that time included the care of domestic (farm) animals.  In modern English usage it refers to “a collection of wild or unusual animals, usually kept for exhibition.”  The past month has given me a much deeper understanding of that sort of devolution.  The ponies and I have been joined by one Perfect Cat, two dogs (Sheela and Brownie), three goats (of the original four picked up in TN) and four ridiculously glamorous Polish chickens (two hens and two roosters).  This brings our current numbers to 13 – with Luna Jack yet to return from Texas.

I’d had very definite ideas about the animals I planned to have here.  Very definite ideas about a lot of things, but the animals in particular I’d really thought about.  The idea of a smallholding is a measure of self-sufficiency including some surplus to barter or sell.  I had two young goats (Spot and Spotless) waiting for me in Tennessee from last summer. They’re half Saanen (Swiss milk goats, lovely serene temperament and lots of milk) and half Nigerian Dwarf (mischevous African multi-purpose goats, higher butterfat content – for better cheese).  I also picked up Mama Pearl, a full Saanen doe, coming 3 years old and in kid to a Saanen buck.  She’s an experienced milker and a good mom, walks on a leash, gentle with people, a lady.  The girls were supposed to be bred when I picked them up but that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Instead I also acquired a (still a bit too young to do the job) Dwarf Myotonic billy goat – aka Tennessee Fainting Goat – except he doesn’t seem particularly prone to fainting which makes him devilish hard to catch.  Gryph claimed him on sight and named him Billy Taz – which suits him (but I hadn’t planned to have a billy on the property).

Meanwhile, early on, I came out to find Spotless lying dead with her horns in the electric fence.  There was no sign of struggle (the fence is super flimsy and I didn’t even have to reset it) and there’s not nearly enough current to electrocute anything – but there she lay, dead.  Bad morning, that one.  So – three goats – and not 100% sure Mama Pearl is pregnant because she’s theoretically due on Valentine’s Day and she doesn’t seem nearly fat enough.  Gryph and I got a new pen set up around the hedges so the goats can browse the landscape and today I’m experimenting with letting Mama Pearl roam free while the two youngsters are in the pen.  At night they’re all still locked up safe in the stock trailer until I can figure out a barn.

I’d planned on a herding dog – thought I’d lined things up to pick up a 12 week old English Shepherd puppy on the way down, but she had found another home by the time I arrived and somehow I wound up with Sheela-na-gig.  Eight month old survivor of a puppy mill, agoraphobic and crazy smart and practically feral.  At one point she holed up under the house and it took me two days and offerings of raw duck meat to get her back out.  Most of the time she’s either hiding under the bed or under the house, generally with a leash attached so I can retrieve her.  She’s slowly getting better, loves to cuddle, hasn’t messed in the house in several days now – and runs away from the goats when they so much as look at her.

Then, a watch/guard dog.  My idea had been a Great Pyrenees or something along those lines, to live outside and keep predators away.  Well, the best laid plans…  A friend’s father passed away, leaving 7 dogs in need of homes.  Brownie waited for me at the Humane Society in Oxford until I could get to Mississippi and bring him home.  He’s 19 months, a hound cross, meaty, beaty, big and bouncy – and no respecter of boundaries.  One day I tied him up while I went to visit the ponies and when I turned around, there he was, having cheerfully chewed through the rope because I couldn’t possibly have meant to leave him behind!  He’s absolutely determined to be a house dog and wasn’t even close to house trained when he arrived.  The doors in this house are mere formalities, not a one of them closes securely, certainly not enough to keep out (or in!) a determined dog.  Brownie is gimpy with pins in his left shoulder from when he tried to herd a car and it honestly hasn’t occurred to him that I might like to know if somebody shows up – but his friendliness extends to the goats and the chickens and everybody else and he lives here now – so be it!

I’d envisioned a grizzled old Tom Cat, battle scarred and maybe a little grumpy, to keep the rodent population at bay and sleep in the sunshine.  Instead I’ve been adopted by The Perfect Cat (which has become his name) who is young and beautiful and brash and self-confident and sleeps on the bed more than I’d thought possible and has such incredible rat mojo that I haven’t seen Any sign of a live rodent since he arrived.  (That’s saying something considering the open bags of feed in the parlour!)  Gryph was instantly enamored and I keep thinking of that line from The Sound of Music, “somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good”.  Every once in awhile I do find myself saying things like, “Perfect Cat, that was an imperfect action.”  But those times are rare indeed.

Then we come to the topic of chickens.  I’d done my research and I had my heart set on French Marans.  Plump, black, multi-purpose hens that lay dark chocolate colored eggs, rare enough to be worth a bit if I had extras, but desirable mostly because they’re good layers and the surplus roosters would be tasty additions to the larder.  Then Chris and PeeWee showed up with a wee chicken house and constructed a pen and Cathy brought me 4 Polish chickens (which are from the Netherlands, not Poland) – two hens and two roosters.  Polish chickens are mostly ornamental, glamorous and silly and bred for looks. We named one of the roosters Bowie (David, not Jim of the Knife), the orange one became not-Bowie, the hens are the Bobettes and there you have it.  They make lovely sounds and Jesse James thinks they go perfectly with his go-go boots – he has taken to sleeping by the chicken coop at night.

Gryph and I found a bunch of Hedgehog mushrooms in the forest next to the driveway last week, brought them in and sauteed them in butter and garlic with a pinch of pink salt – yummy!  Hedgehogs are my favorite mushroom, and these are much bigger than the ones in the North East – Hydnum Repandum, they’ve got “teeth” instead of gills or pores underneath and nothing poisonous looks even remotely like them.  Really an exciting find and I’ve marked where they grow so I don’t do anything do disturb the area.  Unexpected Treasure!
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Just to keep life interesting the weather has ranged from the high 70s with a tornado warning (no tornado, but the big winds blew a tree down across the driveway) to a low of 7 (during a multi-day cold spell which froze all the water except for the cold faucet in the kitchen sink which I kept running for the duration – glad I know how to flush with a bucket!)  The rain has been frequent enough to make the “yard” rather swampy (when it’s not frozen) and the sun has been shining enough to make life more cheerful than not, even when it’s too chilly to sit on the porch for very long.  Yesterday morning I went to make coffee and the pilot lights had gone out – a little proud of myself for swapping out the propane tank “all by myself” (yes – silly).  Meanwhile it’s taken me three days (between everything else) to get this blog post written, photos loaded, etc. because the internet keeps cutting in and out.  Such is the life of a modern day “pioneer lady” (which is what they call me in town).

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First Impressions

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I woke up Sunday, the third morning in my own bed, in my own house, went out to say good morning to the ponies – and they were gone.  Saturday night we’d ridden in Big Creek’s Redneck Christmas parade and I guess they’d decided that it felt good to be out on the road again stretching their legs.  I headed out after them on gut instinct alone, no clue how long they’d been gone or which way they might have decided to go.  I had a terrified young dog on a lead rope for moral support and very little knowledge of the lay of the land.  At the end of the driveway I looked left and right, hoping that the ponies had left a trail of droppings to follow them by – no such luck – so I headed towards the town park where Jesse had found some tasty acorns while waiting for the parade to start.  No ponies.  I went down the alley behind the steak house, turning towards a bit of unfenced pasture I’d seen the day before and there they were, strolling down the road away from me, nonchalant as can be.  When I whistled they looked over their shoulders and slowed down a bit and finally Finehorn stopped and let me put a halter on her.  mr.James was still playing hard to get so Finehorn and I started for home and he managed to stay out of the road and keep us in sight while maintaining his independence until we reached the yard.

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Tuesday morning I awoke to knocking and male voices calling “Hello!”  Two men who introduced themselves as local farmers were offering corn for the horses and did I need any firewood?  As the men were leaving one of them asked me if I ate duck.  “I love duck!”  The next thing I know I’m holding a brace of still-warm wood ducks by their necks and the men are driving away.  Heads, beautiful feathers, beautiful dead birds, guts and all – dinner, theoretically.  OK.  Deep Breath, I can handle this.  So I did the sensible thing and walked over to the Big Creek Store, serving breakfast and lunch, presided over by Nell.  I explained my dilemma and asked for help.  We made a date and at 12:30 I walked over again, carrying the ducks by their necks, to find a large plastic bag and a cardboard box on the floor of the kitchen.  Nell worked on one duck and I mimicked her on the other and relatively quickly we’d plucked off enough feathers to enable us to skin and remove the breast meat (the majority of what’s edible) from the two ducks.  They went into a coolwhip container in salt water and I carried them home.  Now they’re in the crock pot with spuds and onion and garlic and a hot pepper and some sundried tomatoes.

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It’s a funny thing to see a place for ten minutes, hold it in memory for 8 months or so, and then drive up the driveway of an impulsive commitment held together by a fantasy of potential.  The house is quite a bit larger than I’d remembered.  The yard is smaller by half.  There are more places through which I can see outside (that aren’t windows!) than I’d anticipated.  Yesterday George and I wrestled the old Fridge outside and (after George picked up the dead rat with a pair of pliers and tossed it into the woods) I raked my kitchen floor!  The mud daubers have done a magnificent job of colonizing the place (really glad it’s winter!)  The previous owners left an array of treasures and trash behind.  The amount of DIRT that accumulates over 40 years is beyond comprehension (or simple cleaning methods).

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The neighbors have been wonderful!  Largely thanks to George and Jess I have a wood stove for heat, safe electricity in most of the house, hot and cold running water, a rudimentary kitchen and a working loo!  There’s wood on the front and back porches, hay for the horses and goats, and I’m not feeling entirely alone, daunted and terrified!  ;-)  Yesterday a woman drove up in a green golf cart with a bowl of fruit and crackers, introduced herself as Jo and welcomed me to Big Creek.  She and her husband live on the other side of “my” woods – strange enough to own a house – incomprehensible to “own” a forest!?  I have been given an old barn – it only needs to be disassembled, transported and built back up into a new barn.  One of the farmers from this morning is the pastor of the Baptist Church across the street and he helped arrange pasture for the ponies as of today (only 1/4 mile from the house)!  The other brought a 5 gallon bucket full of beautiful sweet potatoes – one of the major crops here.  Later they showed up with a truck full of firewood and a crew to unload it and stack it on the porch!  I’ve moved a Lot in my life and I’ve never felt so welcomed and taken in.  I’m grateful beyond words – because without that care I’d be really freaking out about now!

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On a happy note, I picked up a young dog Thursday morning in Corinth on the way home.  She’s a English Shepherd and spent the first 8 months of her life in a cage.  She knows pretty much nothing – I literally had to teach her to go up and down stairs!  She’s scared of almost everything and spends a lot of time hiding in small places.  Yesterday afternoon she voluntarily joined me outside for the first time; usually it takes the security of a leash to move from a smaller space into a larger one.  She’s incredibly smart and eager to learn.  Already she’ll sit for the leash and has learned that she’s only allowed on the bed at night and to wait for an invitation.  Even trembling with fear she’s never offered the least hint of aggression – gentle and sweet.  She seems to have chosen the name Sheela, so that’s what I’m calling her.

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Then Sunday night after the Redneck Christmas parade (I had two of the three horses – the third one carried Mary and babydoll Jesus, led by Joseph – who was Mary’s grandmother.  There were lots of revving trucks – one dragging duck decoys instead of tin cans – another with a lit-up seesaw on the hood pulling a float with somebody fishing on it – and ATVs and sirens and lights and unfortunately the camera battery was left home in the charger!  The ponies did really well once we were actually moving down the road.) Anyhow – after the parade I was invited to the Steak House in town and when I emerged well fed and happy I encountered a beautiful young grey cat who said he was looking for a home.  I told him he had to be sweet to the dog and hunt mice and rats.  He looked up solemnly and gave a silent mew and he’s been absolutely true to his word. He walked into the house and Sheela ran and hid.  While I was reassuring her he came up and rubbed himself all over her, purring! He’s absolutely the perfect cat, gently making friends with Sheela, hunting inside and out, nice to have around and he purrs when I pick him up to pet him.  Lovely.

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I’ve started to learn a few things about the house, which hasn’t been lived in in over 40 years.  There used to be a weekly quilting bee in the front room with the bay window and there’s still a spool on the door half way between the handle and the ground so the little kids could let themselves in.  There’s a fallen down smoke house and an outhouse that a tree fell on out back.  The forest is thick and brambly with vines and wee orange mushrooms growing out of pine cones.  The room I’m sleeping/living in started out as the original log cabin and it’s absolutely silent – no old house creaking or groaning – it’s long time settled and solid.  One night I didn’t even realize it was raining until i went out to the kitchen and only in the morning did I realize that it was so windy three doors blew open in the night.  The wood stove keeps it cozy – a good winter room.
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This morning I decided to ignore all that there is to be done inside.  I’m sitting on my front porch in a rocking chair in the sunshine with Sheela the dog and the as-yet-unnamed cat. Gentle mr.James is keeping me company and occasionally begging treats; Saint Finehorn is guarding the driveway (on tether since she’s feeling prone to wandering).  I’m drinking real coffee from my lovely new mug and remembering that even pioneers sometimes have to set a spell and catch people up on the happenings.  More to come….

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Guest post from Dad – to entertain you while I’m en route!

I am Chuck, Sea’s Dad.
My beautiful picture

Because of Sea, Sally Jo and I have had a variety of experiences, mostly very good.  Sea says that being our child has been an interesting experience!   I think it is safe to say, a mutual admiration society.

According to Sea, throughout this most recent experience many have asked how her mom and dad feel about the trip….how worried about her we must be.  She asked me to write this blog.

Yes, there have been a few times when we have worried about Sea, though perhaps concerned is a better word.  Sally Jo and I have maintained a good relationship with Sea throughout her 48 years.  Some of what she has done has made us uncomfortable – it is not what we would have chosen for her….but this ride across the United States?  No reservations about it at all.  Sea has wanted to make this ride for perhaps 35 years, and was as prepared to take the trip as was perhaps humanly possible.

at the pony penning

at the pony penning

Sea was 10 when I became the Director of Sky Ranch in TX.  For 7 years the ranch had 30 – 50 horses, and Sea worked in the barn all summer and every weekend.  When Sea was 11, we drove to Chincoteague Island and bought a pony at the wild horse auction.  She trained the filly to ride.  Sadly she outgrew the little horse.  During this period she became, for the Camp Horsemanship Association, a certified instructor in both English and western.

In August, after 7 years as the Director of Sky Ranch, I was told I would receive 4 months compensation if I would resign.  No warning!  Total surprise!!!  Sea had 2 horses at the ranch.  To keep her horses, Sea knew she had to have  income, so, when 16, she began her own riding school right next to a large shopping center in North Dallas.  The land was waiting to be developed….the stable was in rough shape…but the price was right!  Hundreds of people knew Sea through Sky Ranch, and when she had stable arrangements, she had students.  Soon Sea was teaching 20 students, ages 4 to 44, beginning on Friday after school and continuing into Saturday evening.  Sea paid her stable fees…with money to spare.  Sea’s business was going well.  When it became financially necessary for our family, she sold her expensive horse.  Fortunately a family she knew loaned her a suitable horse to use, and she was immediately back in business.

After directing the Christian Camping International Convention, I became the Director of Deerfoot Lodge (, a wilderness boy’s camp in the Adirondack Mountains, located 5 miles from the nearest power line, an hour from the nearest hospital.
My beautiful picture

Time to buy a house in New York.  Sea wanted a horse, her sister, Jenna, wanted her pigeons to go up with us   I found a house in need of work located on 5 acres.  We had a simple, two stall, pole barn built with a small tack and feed room built…and soon had horses. Our second summer, when Sea was 18, she and a friend rode their horses 106 miles up to camp.

Just as Sea learned horsemanship through the context of our family over many years, she learned camping skills.  Before Sea was born, Sally Jo and I were camping together.  In the context of Deerfoot Lodge, our children were in the Adirondacks throughout the year. Occasionally we would cross country ski into our log cabin, knowing it would go well below zero at night.  No electricity or central heat or running water.  Our wood stove provided considerable heat – in one room.  Our water came from the hole we chopped in the ice.  Deerfoot Lodge, in winter, is a wonderland.  Beautiful, untracked snow.  Absolute quiet.  Great cross country skiing, sledding, and tubing.

Risk?  Of course!  We learned to manage risk, winter and summer.  Every week every Deerfoot Lodge camper took a hike or canoe trip.  Eventually 14 maxi-vans were taking 162 campers and 40 staff to locations from Canada to the Allagash River in Maine.  Staff members were very carefully trained, and I never missed a night’s sleep.  (Sea, Sally Jo and I, with 9 friends, shared an 8 day Allagash River canoe trip.)
My beautiful picture

When Sea was 35 she said “Mom and Dad, how would you feel about my hiking the Appalachian Trail?”  The next spring we drove her to Georgia, where the trail began.  Sea had hiked over 800 miles of the trail when her ankle said “no more!”

Didn’t we worry about her getting hurt?  We knew she would get hurt – physically, and emotionally.

Life does this to us – all of us.  We almost always heal and are stronger through the experience.  Did Sea get hurt? Of course she did!

Now…one more perspective to add to Sea’s preparation – for all of life.  Sally Jo and I are Christians.  In a very real sense, we saw Sea as a trust from the Lord.  We gave her back to the Lord when she was born, and we did our best to enable her to grow in her understanding of, her trust in the Lord.  In many ways this was not much different than helping our children learn camping skills.
My beautiful picture

Our children watched us seeking to live lives pleasing to the Lord.  They heard us pray to our loving heavenly Father, the Creator of the universe we live in, that we enjoy.  At Christmas our family celebrates the birth of Jesus.  On Good Friday and Easter we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught us, by example and words, how to live.  He died out of his love for us, that our broken relationship with God could be restored.  Our family frequently saw the evidence of the living God at work.
My beautiful picture

Eight years ago Sea moved to Vieques, an island 10 miles east of Puerto Rico.  There she supported herself through using her training as a massage therapist.  Soon she was also leading 7 hour eco-kayak tours.  She was asked to cater, and additional requests to provide private chef service followed. During this time Sea, friends and family built, on a very step hillside, a 16 X 20 “casita” located “off the grid.” It is a delightful little place where Sally Jo and I have spent several weeks.  Life there is simple; the views of the ocean are wonderful.  Sea and her friend, Gryph, opened a food cart restaurant located where most people heading to the beaches drove by.  When their “eating establishment” was written about in the island newspaper, Sea and Gryph had a continual line outside their service window.

Four 1/2 years ago Sea and Gryph were offered a very good price for their business.  They found jobs as crew and cooks on small sail boats cruising the Caribbean.  When they learned they could crew and cook on a motor yacht going from Ireland to Singapore where they had friends working for Reader’s Digest, they headed for Ireland via New York City.  We met them in NYC – it was Sea’s birthday.  Sea and Gryph gave Sally Jo and me a pretty glass container, about 5” in diameter, containing thousands of beautiful red and black ojito beans.  We were to remove 1 bean each day to remind us to pray for them.  Whereas we have not always removed a bean each day, we have prayed for them at least once every day for these 4 years.

On this 25 month, 5000 mile horse back ride across the United States, Sea has used all of her camping and horseback riding skills – and these skills keep growing.  She has also used her experience living as God’s child, and this “skill” continues to grow.  You, who have followed her blog, have read about many of her experiences.  I am confident the book she will write will encourage and challenge all of us.

Sea is already transitioning from a 25 month, 5,000 mile trail ride to an unknown reality.  Sea must transition into a somewhat normal life after years of adventure, most recently 25 months of being primarily concerned about the events of the day she was living:  “Where can I find food, water for the ponies, and shelter for all of us if a bad storm is coming? As she has traveled, she has met many of you.  You often provided the food and water for the ponies.  You have often provided Sea with shelter, food, water, and encouragement.  When she has been sick or “broken”, you have cared for her.  You have suggested the best route to ride, and occasionally you have taken her by horse trailer where there was a large river to cross, or there was no suitable trail or road to ride.  In many cases, you were God’s miraculous provision for her, and she knows this.
My beautiful picture

With this transition have come many, many tears – tears you cannot feel as you read her blogs.  Sea plans to live in Big Creek, Mississippi.  Population 60!  The house, which began as a log cabin in about 1850, has been in one family since it was built.  No one has lived in the house since the early 70’s, and the floor in one room has collapsed.  The family has replaced the roof and maintained the essential structure.  Water and electric stop at the road.  There is no heat source.  There is no working plumbing, no garage, and no barn.  Now Sally Jo and I own a casita in Vieques…and Sea has a place to call home.  (Annual property tax: $138.00)

mom with romulus

mom with romulus

Why this town?  This house?

In March, Sea rode into this beautiful area and enjoyed the people she met.  By invitation, she stayed a few days.  She shared a wonderful evening with 30 – 40 others, strumming, singing and talking.  Local people showed her the house and encouraged her to return to be part of their little community, and to write her book.  Sea had been looking for a place to live, to write, since she had headed out on the trip.  She had been invited to return to many locations.  Nothing had clicked….until Big Creek.

Picture yourself moving into an abandoned house in a small southern town with two horses and no car.  Picture yourself doing this with few carpentry, plumbing or electrical skills – and almost no money.

Know this!  Sally Jo and I will continue to take seeds out of the bottle every day.
My beautiful picture

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one time only

One week from tonight (Good Lord willing and Big Creek don’t rise) I will be sleeping in my new house for the first time!  After weeks of exploring options I found a man with a truck and trailer who is willing to drive me and the ponies and my stuff down to Big Creek for the cost of gas. He’s coming to pick us up next Tuesday and we’re due to arrive in Big Creek mid-day on Thursday the 12th of December .  This feels a lot like a miracle, considering some of the other possibilities I’ve considered.  There’s only one little problem with this plan: I don’t currently have the money to pay for the gas!

It has taken me two weeks to work up the courage to write this brief blog post.  I have been so blessed on this Journey by so many people who have seen a need and offered assistance (this includes many of You!) that it feels very awkward to ask for more help at this stage.  All along the way, everything I’ve needed has been provided exactly as I’ve needed it – and so I wrestle with whether asking is a lack of Faith on my part.

Over the past two years I’ve had the experience that when I’ve knocked, the door Has been opened to me – and so this time I am trusting “Ask, and ye shall receive.”  It’s 1300 miles from my folks’ house to Big Creek, Mississippi.  I’ve got places to stay lined up between here and there; I’ve got a home and work waiting for me; I’ve got a book to write (which I’m hoping to have in the hands of an editor within 6 months) – but I need to get down there!  If you’re in a position to help and feel led to do so, I would greatly appreciate your assistance.  There are donate buttons on both the blog and the Free Range Rodeo  facebook page.  My mailing address can be found on the contact page at the top of the blog. If there’s anything left af  ter gas has been paid for, it will go to the basics: hay for the herd, portable fencing, a cord of wood, groceries, etc.  Thank you in advance!



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Finehorn and the Runaway Christmas Tree

This morning I looked out into the back yard and saw a large Christmas tree lying on its side. It needed to be transported roughly 400 feet to the front porch.  Thinking of Saint Finehorn’s future, I volunteered.  Never mind that she’s not yet trained to harness nor has she ever pulled anything in her life.  Never mind that I don’t have a harness, or even a western saddle with a saddle horn. She’s steady minded and we have a good working relationship, how hard could this really be?  I grabbed two western girths and some rope from the garage and went out and caught Finehorn.  She stood quietly while I tied the two girths into a collar of sorts and seemed happy to be finally Doing Something.  I led her out to the cut pine tree and attached a rope from the tree to one side of her makeshift collar.  “Step Up.”  She knows the command and moved forward, felt the weight of the tree and stopped, looking a bit confused.  I praised her and asked her to move forward once again.  She complied, the tree moved, she skittered a bit, grinding her teeth, then settled down.  I told her what a brilliant pony she was.  She was licking and chewing, obviously thinking hard about this new situation.  We tried again but she kept moving sideways so I wised up and fashioned the rope into traces, one on either side of her, both fastened to the tree.  This was much more to her liking and very quickly she was walking calmly across the lawn, dragging the tree, looking quite proud of herself.  I praised her lavishly and we approached the gate.

Jesse James meanwhile had been pawing the ground, lying down and rolling, jumping up and snorting, much more agitated about the situation than Finehorn.  I was ignoring him; focused on Finehorn and the job at hand, thinking it didn’t really have much to do with him and he was just being silly.  I’ll know better next time!  When we got to the gate I said “Whoa, stand.”  Finehorn stopped and stood calmly and I opened the gate as wide as it would go (just barely wide enough for the tree), then returned and asked her to “Step up.”  As she stepped forward Jesse rushed the gate, leapt over the tree and headed toward the road, tail in the air.  Finehorn followed, tree in tow, and I was left behind with my heart in my mouth as the careening tree narrowly missed the Jeep, the Prius, the mailbox – and hit the road at a run.  I grabbed Jesse’s halter from the fence and gave chase.

Jesse didn’t go far.  I caught him right in front of the house, put his halter on, led him back into the yard, shut the gate and went off in search of Finehorn.  Finehorn was headed towards town, and the golf course ($150/hoofprint!) and by the time I got back out to the road she was out of sight.  Not good.  I went running down the road, berating myself for letting a positive training experience turn into a disaster, wondering if she’d ever be willing to pull anything behind her ever again.  As I’d been catching Jesse I’d seen somebody in the road with their arms out trying to stop Finehorn but there was no sight of anybody now.  Of course I didn’t have my glasses on.  I saw a bundle at the end of the neighbor’s drive and wondered what had gotten destroyed but as I got closer it turned out to be a dropped armload of firewood.  I literally couldn’t see to the end of the road.  At least I hadn’t heard squealing tires or the sounds of a collision…

My folks had been out walking the dog in that direction and my hope was that they’d managed to intercept her without getting run over by a stampeding pony or broadsided by a renegade Christmas tree.  Finally I saw a dark shape of about the right size at the end of the street.  I kept running, feeling a bit more hopeful.  As I approached the dark shape resolved into the form of our good neighbor Evan, leading Finehorn (with the big pine tree still in town behind her) calmly up the road.  He’d hopped in his car, managed to cut her off at the pass, gotten her calmed down – and she was fine!  I thanked him profusely and he went back to retrieve his car while I walked Finehorn back to the house.  Several treats and much praise later we delivered the Christmas tree to the front porch just as my folks walked up with the dog asking “What happened?  Evan wouldn’t tell us!”
Sea Scape!! 002

I think it turned out to be a pretty good first lesson for Finehorn after all, especially since she didn’t manage to get rid of the tree (or get hurt!)  It was also a good lesson in the importance of good neighbors!  It was also a good reminder for me not to ignore mr.James; even if he’s not directly involved in something he still takes his role as herd protector seriously and the sight of a horizontal pine tree chasing his mare around wasn’t something he took lightly.

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how does it feel?

I keep getting asked this question, or these questions: How does it feel to have crossed a continent on horseback?  How does it feel to be done with your ride?  How does it feel to have accomplished your life’s dream – and now to be facing the rest of your life?  How does it feel to be sitting in your parent’s warm house, looking out at snow, living apart from the herd, getting around via automobile, cooking standing up in a familiar kitchen, not wondering where you’re going to sleep every night, to be safe and comfortable and have a long, hot bath any time you want one?  How does it feel when the ponies look at you like a food-providing, two-legged almost-stranger?  How does it feel to come “home” after living for two years immersed in another culture?  How have you changed?  What have you learned?  What have you done to yourself and how will that matter to your future?

Finehorn's commentary

Finehorn’s commentary

In many ways I feel that I shall be unfolding the answers to these questions for the rest of my life.  But right now these questions are about how it’s unfolding right now.  Two weeks and three days ago I finished the ride in Minot.  Two weeks and three days from now I will be walking into my new home.  I find myself existing in the between.  It’s a strange realm, Between, a bit like knowing I’m “safe” in the eye of the hurricane but that the only way out is through.  On many levels what I am feeling is a deep gratitude.  Gratitude that the ponies and I are together and safe and still reasonably sound, gratitude that the ponies and I have this place to rest, to hide, to decompress, to have time to figure things out a little bit.  (And there’s a Lot to figure out!)  Gratitude for all of the people I’ve met, the havens I’ve been offered, the conversations I’ve had, the meals I’ve enjoyed, the bales of hay and help with maps - the daily miracles of guidance and provision.  Gratitude that Life backed me into the sort of corner where the only reasonable option was to actually Do the thing I’ve always known deep in my heart was mine to do.  Gratitude for Gryph who joined up to get me started and Jesse James and Saint Finehorn who carried and informed this Journey from beginning to end.  Gratitude for my parents who prepared me so well and have been so patient and understanding in the aftermath as I try to get my two legs back under me after so long being carried by 8 hooves.
I’m crying a lot, tho less than I was two weeks ago.  Not tears of grief, particularly – just an overwhelm of FEELING that pours out of my eyes and rolls down my face.  I want to curl up in my bed and hibernate – forever!  It’s taking as much will power as I currently possess to deal with the absolutely essential ‘phone calls and correspondence necessary to deal with life and prepare for the impending move to Big Creek.  Last weekend I went and retrieved a bunch of boxes from a friend’s self-storage, things I put there 10 years ago (!) and I honestly don’t remember the woman who set such store on those possessions – I kept shaking my head and saying, “what was I thinking?  what am I doing?  who Was I?” And yet somehow, by the very saving of those things over time I have become responsible for them.  Books mostly, papers and journals and the paraphernalia of a kitchen, childhood keepsakes, oddments of clothing and a pack saddle from the last time I thought I was going to ride across the country – a pack saddle I was mightily surprised to see and that might have come in handy if I’d remembered it was there!

The hardest thing, and the thing I didn’t expect, is the feeling of estrangement from the herd.  The ponies live outside and I live inside and we’re not doing anything together any more.  I go out to feed and water them and they’re polite but that’s about as far as it goes.  We’re losing our common tongue.  The mission is over and they’re not really interested in just hanging out once in awhile.  They don’t want to be patted or scratched.  They’re bored and we’re not going anywhere.  After all this time of living, sleeping, travelling, grazing and communicating as a herd on the move we’ve stopped.  Our security and companionship is no longer with one another – and that’s hard.  Harder on me than it is on them, I think.

When I reached the Atlantic Ocean on many levels “my” ride was finished.  I was quite ill with a cold that had gone into my chest, the weather had turned and my enthusiasm was flatlined.  That was the last day that I packed Finehorn and I was and am incredibly, deeply grateful that I was offered places to rest and recuperate between that day (24.October) and the day we rode to Minot (8.November).  The celebration in Minot was the “official” end of the Journey.  It was planned and public and really wonderful!  Not many Long Riders end their rides with any amount of fanfare and I feel very lucky and blessed on that account.  So, there have already been two endings to this ride, yet on another very real level, my Journey isn’t done.  There is still a book to write.  On some level that I can’t explain, this is part of the contract for me, part of how I can give back, part of the assignment, the culmination of the dream.  My plan at this point is to keep the blog (and Free Range Rodeo facebook page) going as I Settle in to Smallholding in Big Creek, Mississippi and write the book.  I really hope you’ll stick with me through that process!  Meanwhile, I’m heading over the river and through the woods for a much anticipated Thanksgiving Celebration with family – and Gryph has come to spend some time with the ponies and care for them while I’m away.

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parade report

en route to the cemetery

en route to the cemetery

I found this blog post about the Minot parade when somebody linked to my blog from there – was fun to read another perspective on things ;-)  also good photos – enjoy!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the ponies are cavorting and bucking and running about the back yard, they know we’re done and they’re celebrating in their way.  They love being at my folks’ place, roaming the huge back yard, gazing up at the remaining apples high up in the trees – wistfully – then at the house of the humans – expectantly and a bit impatiently.  It’s getting cold, windy, wintery.  The humans spend most of their time inside.  I’m trying to balance how much there is that needs to be done and figured out in the next three weeks with how much I need rest and a bit of down time.  Today I did laundry and worked on putting together a post card.  It felt good Not to Go Anywhere all day.

I have much to write about the end of the Journey, or rather the ends of the Journey – reaching the Atlantic Ocean and the Mesannie Wilkins Day parade and festivities in Minot.  They were very different endings and I’m grateful for both experiences.  Most Long Rides don’t end with a lot of fanfare – which in one sense might seem sad, but a Long Ride is first and foremost about the relationship the Long Rider develops with the herd, whether it be one equine (like Katie Cooper and her good mule Sir Walter the Red) or Anna and Gilles – currently riding across Brazil with four horses.  Reaching the Atlantic was the culmination of a pact between me and the ponies and when I tried to lead them into the Ocean and they looked at me like I was daft, calling me on my silly human agenda of literal water to water, I had to laugh at how explicitly they communicate, how confident they are in their opinions, the funny 3-way partnership we’ve evolved over the past two years.  It seemed strange in Minot to be upstairs in a grange hall talking about the Journey while the ponies were several miles away in a pasture.  I found myself wondering about the logistics of ponies and stairs…

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Sun Journal Article and Photos

Gryph Wulfkil, Sea G Rhydr, Lucy Leaf

Gryph Wulfkil, Sea G Rhydr, Lucy Leaf

The ponies and I are back in Greenville at my folks’ place after an incredible, long, emotional, fun, intense and wonderful weekend in Minot, Maine.  Tomorrow morning Dad and I return the borrowed horse trailer to Hollis, NH and the borrowed truck to Albany, NY.  It’s cold and windy and spitting tonight so 10pm found Dad and me backing his ’65 Chevy pick-up out of the barn, covering it with plastic, checking the stall for potential pony hazards and putting hay down for the herd.  We’re All exhausted.  It’s after midnight now so I’ll keep this brief, but wanted to let you know there’s an article in the Sun Journal with 113 photos of the muster and parade.  You can find it here:


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