Category Archives: Community

Borderland

The drone hung low in the sky as the road curved back to Fort Davis. It hung in the sky on a faint line tethered to the ground somewhere out in the desert. A mile away…fifty? It’s hard to judge distances in Texas.

It was white and metallic. It was a lurking thing and a lonely-looking one, too, in an odd way — this man-made bird up there with the kestrels and an occasional passing cloud.

High desert plains

High desert plains looking back at Marfa, TX

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

I first saw it a week earlier as we drove north from the U.S. border town of Presidio. We climbed over the mountains and into the high desert plateau on our way to the bustling railroad town of Marfa. It was further off then but still waiting in the air, hovering high above the purple mountains that frame the town.

This isn’t quite like the killing drones we’ve been hearing about lately. It’s for surveillance along our border with Mexico and is officially called an “aerostat” or “drug blimp,” as locals dub it. During the day, this faceless bird stays motionless. At night, it combs the border with its infrared sensors for body heat, tracking suspicious cars with its eyes above the clouds.

It’s pretty spooky.

Marfa's old courthouse

Marfa’s old courthouse

Old theatre

Old theatre

Old hotel

Old hotel

Local flavor

Local flavor

Of course the weirdness has worn off on locals. Now the drone is just a part of the landscape; a new cloud in the sky that formed soon after 9/11 to make us safer.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t.

What’s more certain is that things in West Texas are different now. Continue reading

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Thanking The Turkey

Yesterday was one of my favorite days. I don’t think I’m unique in loving Thanksgiving — there’s just something about the ritual of sitting around a table with people, be they friends or strangers, sharing food together. I like passing the potatoes. I like the community. I like the idea of us collectively taking a big breath in as a nation and thinking about what makes life truly rich.

Nothing says thanksgiving like a homemade sign

A great looking table for fifteen

After-dinner fiddle and folk songs

The most beautiful pie

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving fresh off the trail, having spent two weeks camping in Utah’s canyon land, and was amazed to wake up to warm toes and hashbrowns in Prescott, Arizona.

This year, I was just at the bottom of the hill at a friends’ house here in Tamworth, New Hampshire. They have a wonderful bond with their neighbors and so all were over for the good meal. Most of the food, in fact, was all grown by them in their shared garden — potatoes, beets, celeriac, squash, brussell sprouts, kale, onions. The cranberry sauce was made from berries harvested up the road (in the local bog!) and even the turkey had been raised and butchered by them.

Taking down this season’s turkey pen with gratitude and some relief

Farm stand all boarded up for winter

Cows earlier in September watching me watch them

New eating technique: get inside the trough

We’ve even got locally-grown mushrooms (these are “blue oysters”)

And locally-made biodiesel to run our farms! 

The funny thing is how normal this has become to me — to be eating what you grow and raise. I knew nothing of plants and animals when I lived in Chicago. I couldn’t tell you growing seasons for vegetables. I paid no attention to how far my blueberries had traveled to my table. I didn’t know that cucumbers are sort of spiky and I certainly had no clue how to kill a pig.

More poignantly, I can recognize a change in my relation to meat. I see what I eat as animal now — not just as a strange, never-living protein object. The fine bones in a salmon’s muscles remind me that he once fought his way upstream. The chicken once tucked her head into those buffalo wings. The fatty bacon strips were once a pig’s belly, laying lazily in the mud. Continue reading

Birthday Climb

Last Sunday I rang in 27 years with a 5am wake up call and that nervous, whooshing, happy feeling you get in your stomach when you’re bound for an adventure.

I’ve come full circle back to New Hampshire and have been working on a farm around the corner from my Gramma’s house for the past month. When I lived here last August, I spent hours pouring over maps of the White Mountains, and even more hours hiking them, but somehow didn’t quite end up doing the big one.

Climbing up Huntington Ravine looking southeast at the White Mountains

Looking up at the top of the ravine

Going up some steep stuff

At an elevation of 6288 ft, Mt. Washington gets to brag about two things. It’s the highest in New England (“second highest east of the Mississippi” — but who’s counting?) and has some of the most unpredictable weather (“fastest wind speed ever recorded” — 231 mph if you are into counting). I honestly didn’t know how wowed I’d be by it. Not to be a total alpine snob, but hiking in Alaska can kind of ruin you for, well, anything that’s not Alaska. I was glad to be wrong.

I met my new farm friends at the end of the driveway and we bopped our way down the dirt roads, our morning sleepiness burning off slowly with the sun. After whittling down to one car, we pointed north, grabbed a quick breakfast, and were on the trail in an hour.

Great way to celebrate with new friends and a new challenge

Time for a snack and view break

Alpine meadow with cairns leading to Lion’s Head (coming back for that route sometime!)

Heading up to the Ball Crag

Even though we’ve all grown up in the area (and I can barely claim this having just spent summers visiting here), none of us have climbed Mt. Washington before. We dodged the crowds and headed up Huntington Ravine. We had it all to ourselves — scree fields, thin waterfalls snaking down rocks, yellow wildflowers tucked into cracks. A couple miles into Huntington, we found our favorite (and hardest) part of the day — a slanted rock slab where we twisted our arms and feet to find footholds. Giddy at the top, we rewarded ourselves with a snack break in the sun. We laid around and watched a few rock climbers pass, towing their gear towards some granite. “Great day to be out,” one said. It was.

An hour later we were way above the trees in an alpine meadow. Tall piles of rocks marked the trail and petered off into the distant fog. Another hour and we were in the clouds on top of Ball Crag.

Finding clouds, wind, and cool 50 degrees on top of the crag

We reached the summit not long after and had that odd experience where you go from wilderness to civilization in a matter of seconds — tourists, motorcycles, cars, a cafeteria, a train, even a U.S. post office. We skipped the lunch line, put on fleeces, and hunkered down under a rock to eat lunch. (I have to say farm cucumbers make for some surprisingly good trail eatin’.)

Compadres on the summit

Back in the trees, back in the sun and, 8 hours later, almost back at the car!

We chose Tuckerman’s Ravine for our way back. It was honestly a pretty tough climb down for me (nothing will make you feel more like you’ve just turned 27 than having a pack of 16 year-olds sprint by you ever 10 minutes), and we all were pretty happy to see the car at the end, but nothing could shake that good feeling of satisfaction at a day well done.

We switched from boots to sandals, pointed the car home, and had only one key question left to answer. “Hey, what’s for dinner?”

Pele’s Island

Well, I haven’t written a word about my two months on the Big Island. I could blame it on the sparse internet and the black hole of cell reception that was my corner of the world but I’d be lying. I wanted a break; a chance to just feel out the place and see what emerged.

The issue now of course is that so much has happened, in my outer and inner life, that I’m at a bit of a loss for how to say it all. How can I describe falling asleep in my Kapoho shack, the tropical nighttime music of coqui frog, ocean, and confused rooster just outside the screen crowing at the moon? How can my words show you the dirt road twisting through the lush mango grove only to open onto the dry wasteland of a raw lava field? Can you see the tiny ‘ohia tree with its red blossoms emerging from that new rock?

I told my uncle my quandary when I made it to his house in Honolulu in April. How do I say it all, uncle? “You don’t,” he told me. He’s right, of course. You just “talk story,” as the locals call it, and let the stories go where they want to…

An active crater at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A Kapoho shack

A pink blossom covered road, tucked away in Waipi’o Valley

The first thing that hit me about the Big Island, stepping off the plane from cushy L.A., was its rawness. Clocking in at under a million years old, Hawai’i is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands. (The oldest, Kauai, is six million.) Both originated from volcanoes and coral polyps where a new species might be introduced once every 20,000 years. (If you want to read a really dramatized version of this creation story, check out the opening chapter to James Michener’s 1959 classic novel on the islands.)

The Big Island is still in the active volcano stage with three of its five volcanoes going strong. You drive around and get to know places by what used to be there. “Oh, here was Kapoho town,” they say, and all you see is the gray black of the 1960 lava that took out the railroad, the general store, the homes, the cemeteries, everything. “Oh, here was the Royal Gardens, the famous black sand beach of Kaimu with its shady coconut palms.” Now, where there was ocean meeting sand, there is dried a’a (Hawaiian for “stony rough lava;” pronounced “ah ah,” like the sound you would make if you had to walk barefoot on it) extending for a mile to the sea. Continue reading

Meanwhile Back At The Ranch…

Thirty miles south of Prescott, Arizona is a road called Wagoner. It’s also known as Walnut Grove and occasionally just “the dirt one after the Kirkland junction.” To get to it from Prescott, you either go up and over the Bradshaw mountains or take the Iron Springs road around them. This is the way I like. On it, you’ll find the Kirkland Bar, built as a stagecoach stop turned bordello in 1863, and the somewhat ominously named town of Skull Valley.

And that’s all before you’ve even hit the dirt.

Once you’re on Wagoner, you’ll cross cattle guard after cattle guard belonging to ranches that have existed for over a hundred years (one family claims to be the first white ranchers in all of Arizona). If you follow the road back to mile 26 up and down some grizzly ruts and canyons, you’ll find the gold mining turned ghost town of Crown King. You’ll also find the occasional junk yard, stray horse, and wild javelina.

Welcome to the ranch!

View out the back door with the Bradshaws blue in the distance

Gold Bar's 100 year-old ranch house. Front porch was a haven for cats, chickens, a very determined skunk, and an unfortunate end to a pumpkin pie.

Riding horses home on the road on Christmas evening

But more than any of that, the road is the neighborhood. It’s the place where people pass each other in their trucks, on their horses, on foot, and slow down for the latest news or maybe to show off the coyote, tomcat, and, sometimes, mountain lion pelt they’ve got in the back from the latest hunt (I’ll save the story about my own lion hunt for another day…).

I called mile 11 home for most of late November and December. There, tucked away beside a creek and cottonwoods, stands Ella and Mike’s Gold Bar Ranch. This was my second experience as a roaming farmhand through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (aka “WWOOF”), having spent November at a vineyard in southeastern Utah, and it was just as great an immersion into a different way of life.

Giving me the stare down after we loaded her friends up for auction (sorry!)

Barn in the late afternoon sun

You can't run a ranch without some good gates and...

...some good rope.

My first Tuesday at the ranch and we were off to the Chino Valley livestock auction with a bull and a calf for sale (after we had herded them through a squeeze box into the trailer). The auction sees about 1000 cattle pass through it a day (plus a cool 800 goats and sheep) and is the main one in Arizona. It’s mostly composed of a metal-sided building with a system of wooden pens, gates, and cut-throughs that stretch off into the distance behind it. Inside, there’s a front room where you can pick up your latest copy of Beef Today with article after article extolling the health benefits of beef and a small arena where you sit on cement bleachers and watch cattle come through, one by one, onto the sawdust show floor.

Continue reading

Out In It, Again

A month ago I was reunited with a former flame. It’s been over three years (I’m sad to say) since we’ve enjoyed each other’s company. But, now that we’ve realized how better our lives are together, I doubt we’ll ever part again.

I’m talking about camping, of course.

The ranch I was working on near Monticello, Utah closed for the season on November 15th and so a farmhand friend and I headed to Canyonlands National Park (with a stop for pizza, long-awaited cell service, and to see if we could convince a couple others to come). For the next eight nights, we slept outside and, with temps dipping into the 20s, got used to wearing every single layer we own to bed.

There’s a certain rhythm to living your entire life outside that I love. I think it’s the simplicity of it. You wake up because that’s when the sun’s decided to wake up. You make a fire. You make oatmeal and coffee. (You do this because you’re more cold than hungry and because the act of doing it will warm you up too.) You strike camp. And then, one foot, two foot, go. You set out on your path.

Our first BLM campsite, curiously called "Hamburger Rock." There were a few hungry nights we wished it was more than just a name...

Start of our first day hike in Canyonlands looking out at La Sal mountains

Here's some nice red needles!

Meandering down the walls

Druid Arch, a not-too-shabby final destination

Continue reading

Canyon Life

I’ve been living in a canyon the past three weeks that’s roughly 50 miles long, has four houses, an infinite number of cattle guards, and the occasional cowboy on horseback moving a herd of cows. It is a beautiful place.

The canyon from up top!

Cowboys moving cattle down canyon -- we'd have to race to get the gates locked to keep them from getting into the orchards!

I’ve been here long enough to learn what time it is by where the sun sits on the canyon walls. I’ve gotten used to the stillness — so quiet sometimes you can hear the flap, flap, flap of a crow’s wings. I’ve watched the cottonwood trees in the creek go from bright yellow to a now faded amber and the apple trees in the vineyard shed their fall bounty. But most of all, I’ve been here long enough to make friends, share a lot of laughs, eat delicious meals, and go on some fine adventures.

My home has been the Montezuma Canyon Ranch and Vineyards in Utah — on a canyon road unknown even to most locals and within close reach of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. My friends have been fellow “WWOOFers” or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a network (of sorts) where people from all over the world interested in getting their hands dirty can connect with farms eager to grow great food. (There’s also the magical added bonus that you get to stay and eat said food for free.) Continue reading