Saturday, August 22, 2015

O Canada!

I can smell you burning!

The pictures don't really do it justice. The smoke haze has been awful for the last three days, and my world smells like someone left the poutine on the barbie too long.

Didn't keep me from my appointed rounds though.

One of the nice things about my life is that I can take the time, if i like, to pull out a camp chair, kick back, and read. Reading is enjoyable anywhere, anytime, but outside on the prairie is kinda special. The temperature was nearly 100 and I'd been toiling in the sweltering heat, rebuilding washed out five-wire fence. I got tired and faint, and realized I needed a sit-down with a book and a nice jug of lukewarm formerly iced tea. It was a divine hour I spent in the slender shade of juniper, surrounded by grazing cows and calves, reading from Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy. Heaven.

In the morning I took a little hike to check mushrooms.

This is a Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea. They're quite common on the shortgrass prairie in mid- to late-summer, particularly following a rain. That said, I've never seen them so large. Of course I've never seen such a wet, rainy year. The puffballs are edible and somewhat prized in certain mushrooming circles. They sure smell like edible mushrooms, midway between the white button and baby bella shrooms we can get at our local (ahem) supermarket. If I were younger and still convinced of my immortality I'd have slaughtered and cooked a batch of these puffballs. But I am not younger and I am no longer convinced, therefore I'll leave these for those who are.

I was reading the other day that the FBI recently warned of isisisil "barry's own" terrorist cells operating in Cheyenne and in Greeley, Colo. Sixty miles away. The local constabulary is "somewhat" aware of this. So that's about five of us. And another reason that I choose to exercise one of my Constitutional rights.

I don't make a big deal about it, and as a CCW holder most of my friends and neighbors have not the faintest idea that I'm one of those crazy insane psychologically emasculated nut jobs. I'm not as spry as I once was and I believe I'll leave the unarmed terrorist hunting to callow utes like those on the Amsterdam-Paris train the other day. Me, I'll rely on Ol' Betsy.

Back by popular Badger demand, the rusty bike.

Which is actually a trike.

It's been there as long as I can remember, and I'd guess since at least WWII. Maybe WWI. I have no idea what the story behind it might be, and there's no one around with more information.

The other day it was cool and foggy. One might even say cold and miserable -- for August. I had a workout hike scheduled and couldn't let the conditions defeat me, so off I went.

I went 5.3 miles or so and was soaked and chilled to the bone when I finished. I got to thinking about one of Sarge's post-horsepistol posts, the one featuring Michael Caine and an image of Shepherd's cottage pie. My mouth watered.

So I went to work.

I'm afraid I was too hungry to take any mouth-watering images of the completed project. Such images would have been disappointing, anyway, because what I made was more properly cottage upside-down pie. In other words, I was to lazy (and hungry) to put the mashed potatoes on top and bake. So I put the mashed potatoes on a plate and covered them with the filling. My stomach seems not to have known the difference.

Finally, here's a confused milkweed bug and a snap of a friendly bullsnake. Note the round pupil.

And last but not least, we return to where we began, more or less, with a tiny annual sunflower blossom set against the backdrop of an evening sky filled with burning poutine.

Hope you're all having a wonderful day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Fast Eagle

I got a call last Thursday from the long-time editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald newspaper, Steve Frederick. Steve nearly retired recently but decided to stay on to visit with, write about and photograph the things he enjoys, including people of the Panhandle and much of the natural history of the region.

For some reason Steve wanted to do a story on the ranch, and I was happy to answer some questions and show him around.

Here's a link to the story:

It was time well spent and I enjoyed the outing. I got some nice local comments too, and those are always appreciated.

One big bonus was a blog comment and an email from a fellow who I served with back in the glory days. I was surprised to find that a CVW-8 alumnus lives just down (well, up) the road a piece. Shouldn't have been surprised, I guess. Everyone knows that the best sailors were all raised at least 1,000 miles from the sea!

So here's to you, Devin, a little wikimedia commons Fast Eagle action from Desert Storm. Those were the days!

And some Victory and Fast Eagle love from "slightly before" DS.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


The thing I hate most about getting older is the ebb of effortless physicality. I hate, hate, HATE, HATE, HATE it! BIG FRICKIN' FROWNY FACE!!!

This morning is a good example. It was all I could do to keep my legs going long enough to get up on step and get the main circulating pump up into operating range. It took a good mile of trudging along on aching, quivering pins before I started to feel human. And it's not just the legs; it's the back and the shoulders and even the damn fingers. It's all old and creaky! Meine verdammten Körper aufgibt auf mich!

Only a decade ago, when I was pushing 50, I could still roll out of the rack and dive in to hard physical exertion. Today it takes a lot of priming.

I shouldn't complain so bitterly, for I'm really blessed. I'm in excellent health, particularly in light of the hard use I've made of my body over the years. And I can still get out and get after it, can still push really hard, can still put in a reasonable days work. It just takes longer to get going, and more effort and willpower to keep going. And then everything hurts at night.


Sometimes I dream about my salad days. I used to be able to drink until 4 a.m., sleep for an hour, get up, throw up, go run five miles, suck down 4,000 calories of grease at the chow hall, shower, work all day, then start the whole cycle again, fresh as a daisy. SMH. If I'd had good guidance and direction (well, if I'd followed that which was abundantly available) and left the hooch alone I could have ruled the world!

I had a nice compliment the other day from one of my (two!) local blog readers. Joe is a former navy AME (aviation structural mechanic) about 20 years my junior. Today he's in law enforcement and I work pretty closely with him from time to time.

Anyway, he went hiking with me the other day and was somewhat surprised to find it a bit more taxing than a simple stroll in the country. There's a lot of up and down out there, and the ground is quite uneven, and this year the tall grass makes it rather like walking in sand. It's a lot of work.

"I hope I'm in as good a shape as you when I'm your age," he said.

I hate to admit it, mostly because I like whining about my infirmities, but he's right. I have a number of peers -- and quite a few I played football with (mumble) years ago -- who can't take the stairs or walk across a parking lot without EMS standing by.

So what do I have to complain about? Not a damn thing. Not really.

But I still complain. I'm a right wanker, I am.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Juice of life

Most human languages have a word or phrase for alcoholic beverages that translates into “water of life.” In Latin it’s aqua vitae, in French eau de vie, in Swahili maji ya uzima, in Italian l’a acqua della vita, in Norwegian livits vann, in Korean saengmyeong-ui mul, in Yiddish vaser fun lebn, in Gaelic uisce (whisky).

In the American Naval Language there are approximately six thousand words for alcohol, and pretty much each one of them translate as “water of life” or “water of liberty.” It’s (or it was, once upon a time) a navy thing.

But this isn’t about alcohol. This is about the juice, or essence, of life.

On Monday morning I felt awful, like five hundred miles of bad road. Doesn’t really matter why, and no, it had nothing to do with alcohol, which I no longer consume, and have not consumed for many years.

I felt weak and tired and dispirited. My head ached and my stomach churned. My muscles felt like mush and my mind was moving like molasses.

I really, really needed to blow the cobs out, but I wasn’t sure I had enough get up and go in the tank.

I finished checking cattle and parked up on top of a ridge near the northwest corner of the south unit. I dragged myself out of the pickup, pulled out my trusty camera, and started taking pictures. I let my eye pick out the shots and made my feet take me to where the camera needed to be.

Slowly, ever so slowly, my mind and my soul began to perk up. It was a lovely morning, still cool at 7:30 a.m., with the promise of heat in the photons cast down from the infant sun. All around me the grass was lush and tall and vibrantly green, perhaps one of the most unusual sights you will ever see in early August in this part of the country.

The smell of the morning was amazing. Warm, moist soil, the green smell of growing plants, the heavy damp smell of evaporation and transpiration, the sharp smell of fresh cow manure, the chalky, astringent smell of baking, lichen encrusted siltstone. And wafting among all the other August prairie odors was the sharp, resinous scent of gumweed, skunkbush sumac, stinkgrass, and fencepost creosote. Those last four take me directly to happy places.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories include those scents. They play like a kaleidoscope as I move along, flashes of sunshiney moments seemingly hardwired into my DNA. The decades between now and then vanish, and it seems I’m stepping effortlessly back and forth through forty and fifty years of time.

“All of these moments,” said the fictional character Roy Batty, “will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.”

He may be right. But they’re not lost yet, and will not be, so long as I live and breathe and experience.

And that is the essence, the juice, of life. Experience. At least it is for me.

After an hour or so I take a break from snapping pictures and look around. I see, then, what my feet have done for me.

They’ve led me across a broad valley and up onto a piece of high ground along the north perimeter of the unit. I’m at a familiar and perfect starting point for a vigorous hike. I look back toward my pickup, parked about a mile away. I can slink back and drive away, letting the weariness and malaise take me. Or I can suck it up and drive on. I turn my back on the pickup and forge ahead.

From where I begin a great circle route around the perimeter of this 1,400 acre unit will add up to about seven miles by the time I return to the pickup.

As I hike the sun shines down and the air warms up. Air flows in and out of my lungs, meeting a lot of resistance at first, but soon it smooths into the rhythm of a proper hiking cadence. In, out, in, out, in, out. Stride, stride, stride, stride.

The ground is uneven, the way nature made it. In this part of the world siltstone is overlain by decomposing gravel and sand and a thin skin of rich, organic topsoil. The grasses and forbs that flourish here are not those of a park or golf course. They blanket the uneven ground and introduce their own unevenness. It takes practice and experience and toughened muscles and joints and good boots to navigate the shortgrass prairie afoot without succumbing to injury.

As I march up and down broad and varied slopes the sweat begins to flow in earnest and the main circulatory pump shifts from low range to high range. The pump sends blood coursing through every bit of my ageing carcass; first to the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, then on to all the organs and muscles and tissue, where the oxygen powers cellular combustion of glucose. Deep inside my body raging microscopic fires make the energy that drives me along, stride after stride after stride.

That glucose comes from the food I eat, meat and plants. The energy that comes from the meat -- that once animated the meat -- came from plants. And the energy that gave the plants life came from the sun. Those tiny cellular fires burning throughout my body as I hike and sweat and breathe and experience are miniscule suns in their own right. I am, the meat and cattle and grasses and forbs are, concentrated sunshine.

The hiking feels good and I drive myself hard. I still don’t feel great, but the exertion and the increased circulation and respiration and perspiration relentlessly attack the feelings of not good and drive them back, back, back.

I hike across mixed shortgrass prairie. The grasses are broadly divided in two main groups, cool season and warm season. The cool season grasses are first to green up in the spring and do the bulk of their annual growing during rapid growth windows which coincide neatly with springtime rains and springtime air temperatures.

Green needlegrass, needleandthread, western wheatgrass, prairie junegrass, smooth brome, slender wheatgrass. If there’s moisture in the soil when the springtime thaw occurs, these grasses green up and begin to photosynthesize. As air temperatures climb into the 60’s, and provided there’s enough moisture, they take off. On a warm spring day with plenty of sunshine and abundant moisture in the ground you can lay down, close your eyes, and actually hear the grass growing. Some of these grasses, including the ubiquitous but non-native crested wheatgrass, are bunch grasses. They grow in clumps or bunches and contribute to the uneven nature of the prairie.

Later in the summer, when air temperatures venture into the 80’s and above, and again so long as there’s adequate moisture in the ground, warm season grasses hit their stride. On the EJE ranch these are primarily blue grama, sideoats grama, hairy grama, and buffalo grass. Here and there a few clumps of little bluestem join the party, but there’s not a lot of Nebraska’s state grass in this part of the Panhandle.

There are plenty of forbs and shrubs present as well. As I hike along I pass the late-summer examples mentioned above, gumweed and skunkbush sumac. Here and there, mostly along fencelines and ditches, the summer annual stinkgrass shows up. These plants are highly aromatic, and the pounding photons of the summer sun drive their scents into the hot, close air.

The scent of gumweed is one of my earliest memories and I remember being repeatedly chastised as a very young lad for coming home covered with the sticky, aromatic sap. It wasn’t my fault the dog kept knocking me down in the gummy, smelly stuff!

The smell of stinkgrass rings a memory bell from my high school days, when we mighty Longhorns gathered twice a day on the practice field to prepare for the coming football season. That smell always calls up the recollection of sweat and exertion and running and exhaustion and fun.

The odor of skunkbush sumac and the smell of hot creosote-impregnated fenceposts takes me back to countless hot, exhausting days of building and mending fence. We have a lot of fence on the ranch and there is no fencepost and no strand of wire that I have not personally manipulated.

All those memories wash together and mingle, playing snippets of sensory recollection in and about me as I trudge across my prairie home. Yes. My prairie home. This is that place, and these are those memories that signify the very essence -- the juice -- of my life.

I turn a corner and pound along a fenceline in the home stretch of my hike. I’ve come about six miles and have two to go. I’m moving easily now, heart and lungs working at good capacity and keeping time with my swinging stride. I increase my pace, searching for that elusive surge of endorphins. I spy a couple of abandoned fence posts along my path and snatch them up to add a bit of mass to my workout. Each post is eight feet long, four inches in diameter, and weighs in at about thirty pounds. I balance each post on an opposing shoulder and press my pace harder.

With sweat stinging my eyes, hot breath rasping in and out, and leg muscles beginning to burn I finally hit overdrive. It’s a strange juxtaposition of agonizing exertion and overwhelming serenity. The effort is enormous and painful, yet at the same time I seem to float along on a cloud of effortless wellbeing. I’m at once within my body and without. I feel the extreme exertion, the pounding of my heart and the straining labor as my diaphragm struggles to provide adequate respiration. My fingertips begin to tingle as my lungs blow off great draughts of carbon dioxide and the chemistry of my coursing blood flirts with hypocapnia and alkalosis. At the same time I seem to float alongside myself on a wave of euphoria.

The last quarter mile is agony and ecstasy. It seems to take forever and no time at all. When I arrive at my pickup and fling down the dead weight of two creosote soaked cedar posts my legs keep moving. I want to stop and rest but at the same time I want to keep driving as hard and as long as I can. I slow my pace and walk several hundred cool-down yards in a big loop around the truck. Finally, I stop.

I lean back against the sun-warmed flank of my pickup and look around. I’m standing in the midst of lush shortgrass prairie in early August. Above me towers a deep blue sky, dominated by the blazing sun and garnished with a few fleecy white clouds. The air is warm and close, inching toward the mid-90’s, and suffused with those wondrous scents. My skin cools as sweat evaporates. Slowly my breathing returns to normal and my heart rate falls below 100, then 90, then 80, then 70, and finally settles out around 60 beats per minute. My muscles luxuriate in the glow of recent hard use and peak oxygenation.  The tingling leaves my fingertips.  I’m in a state of bliss.

What, I wonder, in all my nearly 21,000 days of life, have I ever done to deserve this? Nothing. Not one single thing.

One day it will be gone. Perhaps quickly, perhaps slowly. But that day is not yet come. It still resides in that far, undiscovered country. For now it is enough -- far more than enough -- to be supremely blessed.