Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Puking Children‏

Memories of last year’s road trip…Alone in the middle of nowhere with puke, diarrhea, sick crying baby, mess, four kids to care for and still 700 miles of driving to go before home…now this is livin’.

After a week of jam-packed family time in Montana, we are HOME! Yesterday we pulled into our driveway at 5 AM after 16 hours on the road.  (Wrote this after Thanksgiving 2013.)

Wide open views from the (in town) backyard of my husband's parents in Montana.

Wide open views from the (in town) backyard of my husband’s parents in Montana.

By all-nighter road trip standards, we had a great trip: dry roads the whole way, no close calls with deer, no road construction, no vehicle issues whatsoever, no sick kids. And for all of that, I am very thankful.

By ordinary living standards, it is pretty miserable: crammed van stuffed with people, Christmas presents, and luggage, not enough leg room, tired kids that cry when street lights pass over, feeling too hot then too cold over and over again, two exhausted parents that don’t feel like driving but just want to get home, just under 1,000 miles to cover.

When we finally arrived home, we carried the kids into their beds, and felt thankful for winter darkness at 5 AM that let us sneak our kids into bed and keep them sleeping for a few more hours. After riding in constant motion for 16 hours on the road, when I flopped into our bed, that nice, flat, motionless bed felt like it was moving.

I’m glad I’m not a trucker. I’m also glad this isn’t last year’s road trip.

Last year my husband Jarred stayed in Montana a little after Thanksgiving to work on a scale project. That meant when it was time to saddle up and head back to Minnesota to take the kids back to school, I performed the feat of hauling four kids from Montana to Minnesota by myself. Last year, my oldest was 6 and the youngest just 19 months. For extra challenge, we added in stomach flu.

When this was fresh in my mind last year, my husband hadn’t arrived home yet, so I didn’t really want to publicize that I was home alone with four kids, and I never did write about it. Nothing like sitting in a van for hours on end, though, to bring back those fond memories that really are just too good to not share…

Last year’s solo road trip went fairly smoothly for the first few hours. I left at nap time and the kids all rested. A few hours in, I congratulated myself for rigging up our DVD player with the plastic tie from a garbage bag, which enabled the kids to see the screen and be content, which of course, meant I could drive.

About an hour later, somewhere on Hwy 212 east of Broadus, MT, on the stretch of road that is about 100 miles of no civilization, stomach flu kicked in for my baby. I heard a gurgling sound, and looked in my rear view mirror to see her puking all over herself and her car seat. I immediately pulled over and put on my flashers, although I don’t recall if anybody ever actually drove past.

Here are a few realities of puke in a vehicle:
1. Car seats have bottomless crevices.
2. Baby wipes become both bath tub and washing machine.
3. Smell permeates quickly and lingers indefinitely in a confined area.

I cleaned up the poor little girl, stripping off her dirty clothes and bagging them in a plastic sack. I scooped up chunks and wiped down her car seat with copious amounts of baby wipes. And I really wished it had been just puke, but it was an all-inclusive stomach flu, so I also had to change her leaky messy (and very smelly) diaper as well.

Alone in the middle of nowhere with puke, diarrhea, sick crying baby, mess, four kids to care for and still 700 miles of driving to go before home…now this is livin’.

After that episode, I managed to crank out a few more hours of driving, but by 7 PM in Rapid City, I was completely spent. We checked into a hotel and after wrangling check-in, luggage, and settling down kids in unfamiliar beds, we went to sleep.

Four kids hanging out in the hotel with Mom.  As you might guess from all the smiles, this was not the trip with the stomach flu.

Four kids hanging out in the hotel with Mom. As you might guess from all the smiles, this was not the trip with the stomach flu.

Kids are early risers, and by 6 AM with everyone awake, we dressed in swimming suits and headed to the hotel indoor pool. A little relaxing in water, hot tub, and water slide made the thought of a day full of driving a little more bearable. That combined with some waffles, and we felt ready for another day on the road.

I forget the details, but picture an endless day in South Dakota alternating keeping peace, passing out snacks, making gas stops and cranking out miles.

Needing a break at supper time, we pulled into the McDonald’s in Worthington, MN. Normally, I hate McDonald’s and its Play Place with claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that smell like stinky feet and chicken nuggets. That night, though, I was thankful for a spot for the kids to run around and play while being contained.

Just when I thought we’d have a little down time, stomach flu hit again.

I hauled my little three-year-old son into the bathroom with a terrible mess in his pants. While my two oldest kids played in the Play Place (and I felt paranoid about not being able to watch them), I cleaned up my son in the McDonald’s bathroom. Meanwhile, I tried to keep my baby from touching anything gross in the public restroom. And of course, everything in a public restroom at toddler height is pretty gross.

By the time he seemed clean again, I’d used half a package of baby wipes. I bagged up the wipes along with the completely filthy pants and threw it all in the garbage. No pair of handed down sweat pants is worth the cleaning effort at that point in a long road trip.

I just consider those pants an offering to the road trip gods. The McDonald’s bathroom garbage seems like an appropriate place to make an offering to road trips gods, right? Every time I go past Worthington, MN, I think of those pants. In my head, they’re still sitting in the garbage can. I hope they’re not.

I dressed my little boy in clean clothes, we all washed our hands very thoroughly, and my kids had a little play time before the last four hours on the road. You know when you’ve been on the road for a while when “just four more hours” sounds like a relief.

At our last gas station stop of the trip, I refueled and went inside the store to quickly grab milk and eggs for home. Milk and eggs are essentials for survival at our house.

I walked inside to find only one half gallon of milk in the entire store. With a crew of avid milk drinkers, a half gallon of milk is a joke. When the cashier told me they had no eggs left, that was the point in the trip that I about lost it.

Throughout that trip, I really tried to just be calm and roll with whatever came up: puke, yelling, crying…I knew we’d all survive all that. But after 30 hours alone on the road with four kids, I really just wanted to punch the guy who had no eggs. That was my last straw.

When I get gas, I don’t need 25 kinds of energy drinks or 50 kind of tobacco, and my kids don’t eat lottery tickets. But, I really do need milk and eggs, especially on the tail end of a 950-mile trip.

All frustrations, sickness, and exhaustion aside, we arrived home safely that night. Road trip mission accomplished. I tucked four kids into their own beds at home and for several days after, I held down the fort, but was pretty much worthless.

Last year’s trip was definitely a feat of motherhood endurance.

And today, I’m once again exhausted after a long road trip. But all in all, I’m thankful for the relative easiness of this road trip compared to the one last year at this time.

More than anything, despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes with these trips, I am committed to what these road trips mean: connection with family. With my husband’s family in Montana and mine in Minnesota, we’ve committed to a lifetime of road trips in order to keep connections with family that we love.

Being held by Great Grandpa Thelmer on Thanksgiving morning is just fine.

Being held by Great Grandpa Thelmer on Thanksgiving morning is just fine.

gingerbread house tag team

Five cousins show off their completed houses.

Five cousins show off their completed houses.

Exhausting road trips mean hugs from Great Grandma and Grandpa, making gingerbread houses with Montana cousins, eating breakfasts with Grandma and Grandpa, my kids watching Grandma sew their Christmas blankets, and countless hours playing and reconnecting.

And for that, neither snow, nor rain, nor puking children will stop us from hitting the road.

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Over the Missouri and Across the Plains to Grandmother’s House We Go

At night, I sometimes love South Dakota. The majority of the tacky tourist signs have no lights, so they just fade away. . . .It’s nothing but empty highway surrounded by wide open prairie under a starry black sky. 

Thanksgiving for us means loading up our van and heading 950 miles west to Broadview, Montana. Instead of making the trip in two days, we crank it out in one long blur of a night. We load up the kids, luggage, snacks and coffee, and hop on I-90 west.

The kids get “comfy,” which means arguing about foot placement, head space, blankets, heat, and noise, then laugh giddily, yell in tired frustration, listen to several rounds of “shh….it’s time to go to sleep,” and then finally drifting off one by one to a mediocre at best night of sleep in the van.

And then we drive, and drive, and drive…over the Missouri River and across the plains, to grandmother’s house we go.

It’s a long way from SE Minnesota to SE Montana, but we make this trek at least twice a year to see family. Our trek used to start in Montana and end in Minnesota, and for the last year and a half since moving into our new home, we’ve swapped starting points.

As exhausting as it is to make an over-the-road trucker trek with four kids in tow, there is also something exciting about it all. Our home is now in Minnesota, but heading to Montana feels like heading home. After living there for about 12 years, I just get excited when we start heading west. I love the change of scenery, wide open spaces, and the fresh perspective that comes from time hitting the road.

Granted, sometimes that excitement is pretty covered over in exhaustion of packing up a family of six to be gone for a week.

It’s a never ending packing list, combined with four anxious kids that keep asking “Why can’t we just leave NOW?!”, completely oblivious to the fact that we can’t just let the supper dishes and milk sit out on the table for a week or so until we get back.

And by the time we pull in to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Montana, we’re mostly just a shell of our usual selves: fried, edgy, tired.

In the midst of the all-night road trip, though, there is a period of “golden hours” that I really do love.

The golden hours are when we hit South Dakota. Now, if you’ve ever driven across South Dakota, you’d probably agree with me that it’s generally not a state to be excited about. On I-90, it’s a 400-mile stretch of grass land at varying elevations, interrupted with an excessive amount of road signs suggesting you visit a reptile garden, or a pioneer something or other, or a drug store-turned tourist attraction.

At night, though, I sometimes love South Dakota. The majority of the tacky tourist signs have no lights, so they just fade away. It’s nothing but a long stretch of mostly straight highway. At 2 AM, the traffic is almost non-existent. Driving along at the 75 mph speed limit, I sometimes go six minutes before I see a car on either side of the highway. And while the kids and my husband sleep, it’s nothing but empty highway surrounded by wide open prairie under a starry black sky. It’s so peaceful.

That’s when I love South Dakota. It’s when I think I’d be quite content to have a house plunked out in the middle of all that nothingness, where as far as you look, you can’t see a single light but your own headlights.

South Dakota at 2 AM is my thinking time. Driving along at night is one of the few times that I am completely alone with my thoughts. Nobody else is there (awake, anyway), and there are no other distractions to fill my head.

Almost invariably, it makes me think of the very first time I headed west to go to college. Just barely 20, I loaded up my Buick that I bought from money earned working the night shifts over several summers at Lakeside Foods. I drove alone to Bozeman, Montana to start my junior year of college.

When the Buick and I arrived safe and sound in Bozeman, I didn’t know a single person in the state of Montana.

It’s amazing to me to ponder how that trip out west for college started a whole sequence of events that lead me to the point of today. College, marriage, and four kids later, we now make treks to Montana as a family of six.

As I drive along, my head sorts through six months of life since our last trip. If I had some sort of device to convert mental thoughts to words on a computer, I’d have about six weeks of articles all completed. As it is though, by the time the night ends, my mind is fried and I can’t remember all the thoughts I had in my head.

Maybe my mind is slightly fried because we’ve had five cases of strep throat at our house in the last ten days.

The bad news: five of us had strep throat in the last ten days, just before a big road trip.  The good news: my daughter has great imagination and coordination to arrange empty medicine syringes to look like rockets, telling me "One, two, three...blast off!"

The bad news: five of us had strep throat in the last ten days, just before a big road trip. The good news: my daughter has great imagination and coordination to arrange empty medicine syringes to look like rockets, telling me “One, two, three…blast off!”

In the time before I get too tired and switch off driving with my husband, I’m thankful for the fullness of my life. I can’t say I’m thankful for strep throat, but I’m grateful that the sickness in my house is an easy fix with basic antibiotics.

And on this nearly thousand mile road trip, I’m thankful for clear roads, no deer on the highway, and most of all, the families that continually give us a wonderful reason to make road trips back and forth to Montana and Minnesota. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday.

Chariots of Fool’s Five

While I usually run alone, on Sunday I ran the Fool’s Five with my favorite running partner: my daughter.

Starting my count at 7th grade cross country, I’ve been a runner for 23 years. After high school, running became a mostly solitary adventure.

I like that about running. I don’t need a team to play. I just go out and do it. A few times a year, though, I like to stand on a starting line with hundreds or thousands of other people, run in a race, and collect a new t-shirt.

I have to admit, standing on a starting line often gets me choked up. It feels like checking in with the world. Days and years can blur together like a string of run-on sentences. Races, though, are like little exclamation points in life.

On the starting line, I wear a race number that often has my age printed on it for identification. Sometimes seeing my age in print surprises me because I seldom think about the number. Here I am: 34, female.

Seeing the number printed out often leads me tally up the rest of my life, too: eight zip codes, four kids, eleven years since college. It’s an easy way to mark time.

As for the Fool’s Five, it’s been sixteen years since I stood on the starting line in Lewiston. Sixteen years ago, I wore my Fool’s Five t-shirt to my last month of classes at RCTC, then wore that shirt a few months later in the dorms at Montana State.

Seven years ago at this time, I was nowhere near the Fool’s Five, but I was running. I still lived in Montana, about 950 miles west of Lewiston, MN. I had a brand new running stroller and a brand new two-month old baby girl to put in it for our very first run together. I dressed her in her “running suit” from a baby shower, teeny sunglasses and tiny baseball cap. I tucked her in with a cushioned head support and wrapped her in what is now her favorite blankie.

My daughter at two months, out for her very first "run" in 2006.

My daughter at two months, out for her very first “run” in 2006.

On the first quarter-mile, I walked the stroller cautiously over the big, jagged rocks of the gravel road where we lived. I was pretty sure bouncing over rocks that size would give her a case of Shaken Baby Syndrome. After waiting a long time for a baby, oh man, I certainly wasn’t going to turn her brain to mush by bouncing her stroller over those big rocks.

Once we reached the county line, the gravel ended, and I took off running on the smooth hard-packed dirt, just me and my new little running partner offspring. She rolled along napping in the sunshine and not even once did she careen over an embankment, despite my fears.

Freedom to run AND a happy baby? It was a little slice of heaven on a dirt road in Big Sky Country. I wondered back then if taking her running as a baby would influence her as she got older.

And now, this year, I had that same little girl pestering me to go online and register us for the Fool’s Five. We decided to do the one-mile together. It would be her very first race, and she was too excited to sleep the night before the run.

For whatever reason, the opening title sequence of Chariots of Fire came to mind, so I played the scene for her online. We watched the guys gloriously running barefooted on the beach in white t-shirts and shorts with THAT song playing in the background. I told her we were going to run just like they said in the movie, “with hope in our hearts, and wings on our heels.” Yep, we were running for the pure joy of being able to run.

We arrived at the race a little later than planned after bottle-feeding our new lamb. In addition to the wings on her heels, my daughter ran with some butterflies in her stomach, nervous that she’d miss the race. Hand in hand we weaved through the crowd, collected our race numbers after a computer glitch, and ran to the starting line.

When we showed up at the starting line, the front runners were already off and running, and I lifted her up high over my head to give her a quick view of the massive crowd of people all running together. Look at all those people! Cool, Mom!

Normally, I’d run for time in a race. This race, though, was all about a little girl running her first mile. We held hands for about half of the race, partly for security to weave through the crowds of people, and partly because it was just nice to be together, just the two of us.

We suffered a little setback early-on when we had a “Collision with Greatness.” After not running this race in years, I forgot that we needed to watch out for the lead runners heading back to the finish. Skirting too close to the right side of the street, my daughter got a hard elbow smack by the second or third place runner on his final sprint to the finish.

I take responsibility for that one. On his part, I know it was purely accidental. He probably didn’t even seen her. I understand when you’re running full speed, kicking in to the finish, you get tunnel vision. She got tears in her eyes and we walked for a minute or two, then she took off running again. Good to go.

The rest of the mile, she ran like a champ, and I don’t know who was more proud at the finish line, her or me.

My daughter, now seven, giving two thumbs up during the Fool's Five race.

My daughter, now seven, giving two thumbs up during the Fool’s Five race.

I have no idea what our time was, and I don’t care. We had a blast. We ran, weaved around people, she got clocked by a fast guy, and she finished the race with a tired, thirsty body and a big sense of accomplishment.

“Mom, I want to wear my race shirt to school tomorrow. I can’t wait to tell my gym teacher. Do you think the people watching could see that I was running really hard at the finish?” Yes, I definitely do.

Sunburns, Easter Eggs, and Amazing Grace

What in the world?!  There’s an antelope standing out there on the street!

If I can say that and it sounds believable on the morning of April Fool’s Day, I’m either A) in Montana or B) surrounded by people that could use some morning coffee.  Both A and B are correct.  We headed off to Montana the week before Easter to fill up on a dose of our Montana family that we’ve all been missing.

When left our house in MN to head off on the trip, I cautiously left behind our kids’ snow pants.  Leaving a yard completely covered in white, taking no snow pants felt a little risky.  As I drove across western South Dakota on an I-90 thickly covered in a sheet of ice, I again questioned my decision.

Snow-covered mountain plateaus in the distance and sweeping views on our drive on the snowy Hwy 212 in south-eastern Montana.

Snow-covered mountain plateaus in the distance and sweeping views on our drive on the snowy Hwy 212 in south-eastern Montana.

By the time we pulled into the driveway at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Broadview, Montana, though, our kids were wondering why I didn’t think to pack their spring jackets.

We all know the heady rush of joy of feeling a 50 degree day for the very first time in the spring.  Imagine, then, what a few 60 degree days with blue sky and sunshine did for our kids (ok, and Mom and Dad, too).  With new kid-sized garden shovels in hand from the bargain bin, they struck out for Grandma’s perennial garden, making dirt fly.  I believe no tulips were harmed, but I can’t be certain of that.

Then they headed to the West side of her house where the grass never grows, and spent an afternoon cooking mud pies.  My three-year-old  gave me his detailed “recipe” if I wanted to try it later.  That evening, our kids came in with rosy cheeks and a fresh sprinkling of freckles on their cheeks.

Our oldest daughter even had a light sunburn.  Here I wondered about snow pants, when I should have packed the sunscreen.

The next day we met up with a friend (and former neighbor) to catch up over coffee while our kids ran around playing.  The temperature soared to the mid 60’s, and that, of course, is cause for shorts early on in the year.  Our two littlest kids shed their shirts as they played in the dirt pile out back behind my friend’s house, rubbing their bellies in the sunshine when the shirts came off.

Temps in the 60s: No shirt needed when digging in dirt while in MT.

Temps in the 60s: No shirt needed when digging in dirt while in MT.

After endless piles of snow and cold temps, I felt like we’d headed off on a tropical vacation.  We just headed to Montana to see our family, but the unexpected warm temperatures and sunshine?  Just what the doctor ordered.

In the melee of cousins, friends, and playing, a more somber note intermixed with it all as my mother-in-law made countless phone calls and trips to town to help organize her mother’s funeral.  After many years of painful illness, we all believe Grandma Carol is now at peace.  On Saturday, tucked right in between Good Friday and Easter, we attended her memorial service.

It was a touching moment to see my husband, his brother, father, and uncle stand together up front to play guitar and sing “Amazing Grace” and “Children of the Heavenly Father” during his grandma’s service.  The second song had special meaning as a song that was also played during Grandma Carol’s mother’s funeral (my husband’s great-grandmother).

Funerals are gathering places of family, and we caught up with my husband’s extended family, held his cousin’s new baby girl, heard about an engagement, and just reconnected with family that we never get to see often enough.

After the funeral, we gathered at my husband’s brother’s house on Mosdal Road.  Yes, the road has the family name.  We had amazing homemade pasta.  Most importantly, our kids learned a valuable lesson from their older cousins:  a package of Mentos candies shoved into a 2-liter bottle of pop make a terrific fountain.  The 10-foot geyser of pop on the gravel road was, no surprise, a definite crowd pleaser.

Mentos candies plus a bottle of pop and some cousins equals lots of fun.

Mentos candies + a bottle of pop + cousins = lots of fun.

Easter Sunday came with all the usual: clean, new Easter outfits, chocolate candy that streaks Easter outfits, church, loads of ham, a full house of family, and of course…THE hunt.  The Easter egg Hunt is a big deal in this family.  Like ripping open presents on Christmas morning, it’s a 10-minute event that kids wait for all year.

My sister-in-law and her husband live on “the home farm” where his grandparents used to live.  Hiding the Easter eggs used to be his grandfather’s favorite thing all year.  My brother-in-law told how he and his brothers used to find well-hidden eggs all summer long when they were kids running around on the ranch. That said, I’m sure as this new generation of pint-sized kids tore around the yard on the hunt for eggs, his grandpa, Carl, would have been quite pleased with it all.

Surveying the egg hunt on the ranch.

Surveying the egg hunt on the ranch.

Today, Easter candy mostly gone and leftover ham in the fridge, we are heading back home to Minnesota.  We will attempt to find and pack the stray socks and shirts that our kids scattered throughout Grandma’s house.  My three-year-old hook-obsessed son packed up his new treasure box: a small cardboard box filled with new key chain and carabiner treasures gleaned (with permission) from his grandparents.

We’ll head out on I-90 East hauling our crew back home.  Our kids are also picked up some souvenir coughs and runny noses from the latest germ bug in Montana.  We’ll leave behind their baby cousin, although my five-year-old did wish we could bring her and maybe just keep her little and cute forever.

With some luck, creative parenting, and a whole lot of patience, we’ll trek across 1,000 miles.  Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, we will pull into our driveway in Minnesota.  Our own beds will never feel better, and we’ll hopefully be filled with enough Montana family time to last us until the next trip west.

Thanksgiving in Montana: In Numbers and Pictures

With half of our family living in another state, long distance road trips followed by marathon family visits are the norm.  When we only make the trips about twice a year, there is a desire to try to fill up a half a year’s worth of family interaction in just a week.  When it comes time to leave again, it’s never quite enough, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

This Thanksgiving, we made the trip to Montana.  Like many other trips, when we first saw our teenage nieces and nephews, I had a few moments of disbelief at how much all of them have grown.  In my head, I sometimes still picture them in their preschool size, but the reality is, almost all of them are now taller than me.  That really can’t be, and I have no idea how it happened.  We all exchange a few “I can’t believe how tall you are/how long your hair is/how long those legs are,” and settle into getting to know again the new versions of the family we love.

On our big family trips, the specific people gathered and the events vary, but every trip involves multiple big gatherings for family meals, plenty of sitting around together, and kids running through all of it.  After a week or so, we head home.  At the end, it’s all a busy blur, and the days and meals run together, but it’s just enough to get us through until the next time we can see our family in person.  As I write this, we are wrapping up our trip and preparing to make the drive back to Minnesota.  It’s always bittersweet to leave.  There’s the excitement of knowing we’ll soon sleep in our own beds again, but there’s the sadness in knowing that pulling away from Grandma’s house means we won’t get to see our family in Montana again for several months.

In that time, we’ll miss countless daily events in their lives, but we’ll have all sorts of stories to tell the next time we see each other again.  And in the middle while we wait, phone calls, text messages, and facebook help fill the gaps.

As I gather up our things to leave for MN, I took stock of our Thanksgiving trip in a few numbers…
1,000–Miles to drive each way.

Wide views of blue sky during the sunrise on Thanksgiving morning in Broadview, Montana.

Wide views of blue sky during the sunrise on Thanksgiving morning on Comanche Flat, south of  Broadview, Montana.

24–Family members gathered together on Thanksgiving day.

Our baby takes a Thanksgiving nap on Dad just before the big meal.

Our baby takes a Thanksgiving nap on Dad just before the big meal.

5–(At least) meals of turkey dinners over the days.  Yum.

4–Month-old niece, with adorably thick hair and blue eyes, that we all finally got to see and hold for the first time.

My three-year-old happily asked to hold his newest cousin several times, "Aww, she's so cute!"

My three-year-old happily asked to hold his newest cousin several times, “Aww, she’s so cute!”

3.1–Miles that I ran in Billings, Montana during the Run, Turkey, Run! race on Thanksgiving morning before the big feast.

On Thanksgiving morning I ran a 5k and got to enjoy a complimentary beer afterward, all before ten in the morning.  With the proceeds going to the food bank, I think this may be my new holiday tradition!

On Thanksgiving morning I ran a 5k and got to enjoy a complimentary Dirty Girl beer afterward, all before ten in the morning. With the proceeds going to the food bank, I think this may be my new holiday tradition!

2–Nieces baptized on Sunday, through a series of clever last-minute arrangements.

A big family crowd watched our two nieces get baptized over the holiday weekend.

A big family crowd watched our two nieces get baptized over the holiday weekend.

1–Snowfall, making my kids very happy for their first time playing in snow for this winter season.

Add to that countless smiles and laughs, a few tears, a couple of kid tantrums, and a great glass of wine with my mother-in-law.
It all adds up to great memories of this year’s Thanksgiving with our family in Montana.

An early Christmas present puppet theatre makes a very happy girl.

An early Christmas present puppet theatre makes a very happy girl.

12 Things I’m Thankful for During a Day in 2012

By the time most people read this, the turkey will be picked over and someone will already be trampled from a Black Friday shopping rush. As I write this, though, it’s just a quiet Monday morning before Thanksgiving. We’re contentedly hanging out at Grandma’s house, in Broadview, Montana. Yep, over the Missouri River and across the prairie, to Grandmother’s house we go. A few days after our all-night driving trek, we’re still wiped out, but very happy to be here.

While 1,000 miles between our families is a big odyssey with four kids in tow, what I love is that no matter if we are heading east to Minnesota or west to Montana, it feels like we are going home. Family is home. We cheer when we finally hit Montana on the way west, and we cheer when we finally hit Minnesota on the drive back east.

To be completely honest, though, I have absolutely no desire to sit in front of the laptop and write this morning. We’ve been waiting for months to see our family here in Montana, and all I want to do is just hang out and play. It’s been six busy months since we last visited family in Montana, several of us moved into different homes during that time, and a baby was born. But right now we are in the midst of that great, but all too short, time of getting to see everyone in person again.

After the overnight drive I’m still groggy and a little rough around the edges, but I’m happy to be here for Thanksgiving, the holiday focused on gratitude. I could fill a book with the many people and things that I’m grateful for, but right now, I’m just thinking of today. So as I’m sitting here, I’m counting my blessings for what I have, this very day.

I’m Thankful For:

1. Church Bursting with Kids–The Broadview Lutheran Church, with a usual Sunday congregation of 5-8 people, swelled with our extended family. We had ten young Mosdal cousins hanging out there together, including our four kids. A zoo of children is a happy sight in my world.

2. A New Baby–Four months after she was born, I finally saw my new niece for the first time. The newest little cousin in the family has an amazing shock of thick reddish brown hair, sweet blue eyes, and perfect creamy white skin. I got to hold her and snuggle with her long enough to soak in some of that baby goodness, and my kids, her cousins, held her and proudly proclaimed “she’s so cute.” We also watched her little fingers grab for the homemade cinnamon rolls at church. Obviously, she’s got good taste.

3. Ice Cream with Great-Grandparents–Noticeably absent on Sunday at church were two long-time church goers: my husband’s grandparents, Grace and Thelmer. Three months ago, they moved off the farm and into assisted living. On Sunday afternoon we brought our kids to the ice cream social where they now live. Grace and Thelmer enjoyed seeing four kids devouring ice cream, and they beamed with pride as other people walked by and asked about the kids. We enjoyed seeing that they now live in a nice little apartment and have three meals a day (plus cookie time snacks) provided. It was good for all of us.

4. Early Coffee With In-laws. Our kids are still on Minnesota time, despite losing all sorts of sleep on the drive. The kids are up and at ’em around five AM, even though they go to bed late the night before. It’s a busy, bustling breakfast time with hungry, chattering squirrels waiting for food, but eating breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa just makes it all feel festive, even if we are all tired. And the coffee and pancakes? Superb.

Sleepy eyes peek into the bowl to watch Grandma mixing waffles early in the morning.

Sleepy eyes peek into the bowl to watch Grandma mixing waffles early in the morning.

5. Napping Baby–After several long days, our 19 mo. old finally crashed for a real nap this morning. Seeing her peacefully recharging her batteries makes me feel more rested, even if I don’t get a nap myself.

6. Craft time with Grandma–It’s a simple thing, but our kids hanging out at the kitchen table putting together craft foam snowmen with Grandma is a lot of fun. We all just need time together.

7. Cashews, not a Hernia–Our three-year-old’s love affair with cashews drove him to bring his little snack bowl over three times to get a pile of cashews from me. At the time he was eating, I was distracted by other things, and it didn’t dawn on me that the quantity he ate was a fair bit beyond normal preschool cashew capacity. Later on, tummy trouble made that fact fairly obvious. In the midst of him crying that his tummy hurt, I couldn’t help but be thankful that this stomach pain was only from too much of a good thing. The last time he cried about his tummy, he needed emergency hernia surgery. I’ll take the cashews. In fact, I’ll probably just take the cashews away.

8. Uncles on Horses–In the afternoon, I glanced out the front door and to my amazement, Jarred’s brother was outside on horseback, with his second horse following on a rope. He’d ridden into town from their place out in the country, and he gave our kids their very first horse ride. Seeing our animal-loving 19 mo. old’s eyes light up at seeing the horses, and then happily take a little ride with her uncle was pretty priceless.

9. Friends Across the Street–My six-year-old daughter headed kitty-corner across the street from grandma’s house this afternoon to her friend’s house. The two little girls wrote letters back and forth from MN and MT over the summer, and today they played together in person once again.

10. Run, Turkey, Run–Today I discovered a Thanksgiving run in Billings, MT. My new Turkey Day plan is to take the short drive to Billings on Thanksgiving morning, run a 5k among silly people in turkey costumes, drink my free pint of ale post-race (you know, replenish any calories burned), and be back to Broadview with plenty of time to consume the required gigantic Thanksgiving meal. Runners are often a crazy, quirky lot, and runners in turkey gear just sounds too good to miss. Best of all, the run benefits the local food bank. It’s a win/win for everyone.

11. Van-Free for 36 Hours. After spending long, grinding hours in the van during the last few days, we parked the van and gave it a much needed rest. I informed my kids that we were not leaving Grandma’s house today, and there would be no driving. At all. Staying put never felt so good.

12. Bedtime. After baths, pajamas gymnastics, several repeat offenders on bathroom and drink requests, all the kids finally got in bed. Two big kids finally fell asleep on their living room couch “beds,” two little ones fall asleep on their beds in the guest room, and the house bursting with people is suddenly fairly quiet. And that, my friends, is cause for thanks-giving.

Wishing all of you a wonderful Thanksgiving!

That Sprinkler in Your Lawn Just Might be a Rattlesnake

 “Dear Dad, Thanks for chopping the head off the snake. I love you.” 

If snakes give you nightmares, better just stop reading right now. Never mind, you probably can’t help yourself.  It’s like unexpectedly coming across a gigantic bug. You can’t hardly stand to look at it, but you also can’t stand to not take a look, either.

First of all, many thanks to the little fox snake sitting on our basement steps recently as my daughter went downstairs to get some dog food. Without you, you darn snake, I might not have snakes on my mind.

In the last few years, I’ve had entirely more contact with snakes that I’ve ever wanted. Growing up, my childhood was blissfully snake free. I knew we had rattlesnakes in SE Minnesota, but I only ever saw them behind aquarium glass at Whitewater State Park. And even with the glass between us, I still wondered if maybe the snake could somehow get out. I can recall only two other snake sightings in my entire childhood out in the country, and those snakes weren’t rattlers.

Rattlesnake Adventures

Broadview Montana rattlesnakes

Mosdal Road in Broadview, Montana. Population: two grandparents, and a few pesky rattlesnakes.

Where we now live Minnesota, there was a bounty paid for rattlesnakes many years ago.  The numbers declined sharply and now the timber rattlesnake is listed as a threatened species. In Montana, by contrast, the western rattlesnake is alive, well, and quite bountiful.

My first run-in with a rattlesnake happened the summer of 2003, shortly after we moved to our trailer house on my husband’s grandparents’ farm in Broadview, Montana. I sat out on the front steps one evening, just after our five nieces and nephews left our house after a visit to play in our yard. As I sat there on that quiet night, I heard the sprinkler running by our house… but hey, wait a minute…we don’t have a sprinkler.

There, less than 10 feet from the front steps, right where some of my favorite kiddos played moments before, was a rattlesnake busily shaking its tail. I don’t remember the specific method my husband, Jarred, used to get rid of it, but I believe it involved a shovel, some chopping motion, and then a garbage can.

Rattlesnakes around the Broadview, MT area are a common sight. While I was teaching at the school there, the elementary teachers one day nervously came in from the playground reporting that they’d found a baby rattler on the playground. Locals there say the babies are particularly dangerous because when they bite, they don’t hold back, and will use their full supply of venom when they strike. I believe our janitor at school had a small, slithery extra duty that day in addition to sweeping the floors.

As for me, I had several more encounters with rattlesnakes while we lived in our trailer. Every summer we’d find at least one rattlesnake, and some years three or four, right by our house. Standard practice is grabbing the nearest hoe or shovel: they are not a threatened species in MT. My brother-in-law, a Montana native, wisely advises, “How do you know when a rattlesnake is dead? When the shovel breaks.” I can’t say I personally ever had the guts to kill a rattlesnake with a shovel, but I did squish one with a strategically placed Buick tire once or twice.

When we moved out of our trailer house in the country, I excitedly hoped we’d see far less snakes living in our new little log house on the edge of town. As “luck” would have it, that didn’t exactly happen. Playing outside one day on the side of the house, we found a rattlesnake just off our front steps. Just as we saw it, my then three-year-old daughter came around the house.

Nothing made my heart sink more than seeing my daughter no more than 15 feet from me, with a rattlesnake in the middle between us. Fearing that my little girl would get scared of the snake and instinctively run toward me, and inadvertently run closer to the snake, I screamed her name and yelled at her to stop. It’s a tough balance to convey urgency, but not panic, when every fiber in me is terrified because my daughter is within striking distance of a venomous snake.

Luckily, she did as she was told, and her dad came to the rescue and killed the rattlesnake. He then dumped the snake in the garbage can. It continued to involuntarily coil and twist its body around for long enough afterward that I had to go inside because I couldn’t stand hearing the sound of a dead snake’s body twisting around in the garbage. The thought still makes me cringe.

Rattlesnake snakes often travel in breeding pairs, and just a few days after the near run-in with our daughter, we found another rattler by the back steps. Jarred added it to our collection in the garbage can. We just really didn’t have any room for that kind of wildlife in our yard with two toddlers out and about.

Rattlesnake encounter

The side of our house, where kids, the dog, and a rattlesnake hung out.

Just this spring while unpacking, I came across a Father’s Day card from that year, a card I’d completely forgotten about. On the card was a special message to Dad that I transcribed for our daughter, “Dear Dad, Thanks for chopping the head off the snake. I love you.

Now that’s a card that not every dad gets on his special day from his little girl.

I’d like to say that this is the extent of my snake tales to tell, unfortunately, it is not. While snakes completely freak me out, it is sort of therapeutic writing snake tales, much like describing a bad dream to someone makes the dream not so scary. I actually don’t have room in this week’s column to tell my um, “favorite” snake tale. That story will have to wait until another time, which probably makes you either say “Ooooh!” or “Eeeeew!” depending on your feelings about animals with no legs. I’ll give you a teaser line though: Bull snakes can climb walls!

Which brings me back to the present, when my now six-year-old girl discovered a little coiled snake sitting on the steps as she came back up from the basement. An internet search led me to the “Snakes and Lizards of Minnesota” pamphlet available online from the Department of Natural Resources. There I learned by looking at photos, and reading utterly helpful but not terribly comforting information about snakes, that our home visitor was likely the Western Fox Snake. Mystery solved.

Unfortunately, I kept reading and found this entirely unsettling tidbit, “This snake is frequently encountered in people’s homes, especially homes with stone foundations.” Care to venture a guess on what our foundation is made of? I really do not enjoy snakes, and I would prefer ignorance on the issue, thinking that this snake just made a horrible mistake, not a preferential habitat selection at our house.

Jarred scooped up the little guy in a plastic garbage bag and he relocated it behind his shop. It obviously wasn’t a rattler, and if it wants to catch some mice, we aren’t going to get in its way. We aren’t just indiscriminate snake killers, for the record.

Just the same, it is a snake, and apparently the kind that likes houses. Sometimes I hate the internet and the information it so easily provides. I just didn’t want to know that.

The Honeymoon is Over When a Packrat Eats Your Floor

Pack rats look like hamsters’ big adorable cousins, but they wreak havoc on a trailer house. (Image from animacenter.org)

The following tale is a western adventure involving a cat, a couple of pack rats, my favorite kitchen utensils, and ends with a crescent wrench. This is a true story. I will not tell you, however, that none of the animals were harmed in the creation of this tale.

Everyone with a little bit of cowboy in them dreams of living on the wide open plains of Montana. Wild, windswept prairie, endless views, buttes rising up in the distance, antelope grazing in your backyard, and empty land…we actually lived that dream. In 2003, my husband took over his grandparent’s 30-year-old scale and feed cart business, and we moved into our first owned home: a single wide trailer set on top of a wide open rise on his grandparent’s land in Broadview, Montana.

We also lived in reality, where drought and well pump problems meant no running water for the first four weeks. Rattlesnakes, mice, and pack rats were our first “pets.” Pack rats are Montana varmints about the size of a big pocket gopher, but unlike gophers, pack rats enjoy entering homes. We quickly enlisted a stray cat as the family exterminator. Pack rats are formidable enough, though, that our cat was afraid of a dead pack rat on her first encounter, until she ate it.

Our cat had a late night roaming habit. In the evening before we went to bed, she went outside and prowled the land. And being a clever kitty, she learned how to get herself let in as she pleased in the morning. Our bedroom was in the back of the trailer, with our bed was against the back wall just below a window.

On the outside of the house, just below that window was a decomposing particle board shelf, installed to hold an air conditioner that we did not own. Our cat discovered, though, that by straining to the limits of her vertical jumping abilities, and after several attempts, she could snag the shelf with a claw or two, slide down and create a raucous, repeat the scenario a few times, and eventually perch on top of the shelf where she would scratch at the window until she got let in.

Every morning just before dawn, her scritchity scratching woke us up, and we squeezed the two window tabs, pushed up the window and the cat crawled in, walked across our bed, and then hopped to the floor. After this became a normal morning ritual, I could elbow my husband, we’d each push a tab and let the cat saunter in and we could be back sleeping before our heads hit the pillow and our kitty’s feet landed on the floor in our room.

One morning, however, after conducting our usual scratch-open-sleep routine, our sleep got interrupted by an unfamiliar crunching sound. After it became too persistent to ignore, I climbed over my husband to see our cat with her head tilted in concentration and her jaw opening wide to gnaw on a pack rat. On the floor, in our bedroom.

As disturbing as it was to see our cat eating a pack rat on our new white berber carpet, it was even more disturbing to realize that she entered through the window with said treasure, and then dragged that dead pack rat past our heads on our pillows, and across our fluffy down comforter before taking her little delicacy to the soft, clean carpet to savor and enjoy.

Reason and logic would suggest that a person, and most definitely two people, would notice a large pack rat in the mouth of a cat sitting on a window ledge at face level directly in front of them.

Sometimes, however, we defy both reason and logic. We had no clue that a dead varmint entered our premises until we heard crunching.

I don’t know what the honorable or dignified solution is when you find yourself in the awkward position of hearing your cat enjoying a pack rat on your carpet, but we opted for no intervention. Neither one of us wanted to pick up a partially consumed pack rat and dispose of it properly. (What is the proper disposal method for a pack rat these days? Are they hazardous waste? Can they be recycled?)

Instead, we just let the cat clean up the mess herself. In the quiet of the early morning, we laid there in bed listening for an extraordinarily long time to the grinding crunch of pack rat bones in our cat’s mouth. Finally, the crunching stopped and she commenced licking her fur, and we snoozed for a few more minutes, assuming it was all over.

We discovered, however, that not all parts of a pack rat are edible. After laying in a bed defiled by a dead pack rat, a shower seemed like the proper thing. Jarred climbed out of bed to head to the shower, and his foot came in contact with not soft carpet, but a wet, squishy thing. I don’t know what the dark green organ is on a pack rat, but I do know that it definitely does not taste good. The cat was kind enough to leave it in the exact foot path of those first groggy steps out of bed.

The golf ball-sized green organ thingy smashed on a foot really just leaves a dirty feeling that no soap can wash away.

No need to worry, though, about the loss of life, pack rats are among the more prolific of God’s creatures, and they continued to grace our lives that first year in our trailer. On the domestic front, you might enjoy knowing that while Pampered Chef spatulas are heat-resistant, they are pack rat-irresistable. As newlyweds, many of our possessions were second hand cast-offs acquired during our college years. That made my fancy, expensive spatula a particular treasure. Discovering deep gnaw marks defacing the smooth tip made my blood boil.

The kitchen utensil carnage continued for several days. Each morning I pulled open the drawer to discover wooden spoons and more spatulas falling victim to the gnawing ways of some blasted pack rat. At one point he chewed a hole all the way up through the subfloor and living room carpet, a hole large enough to plug with a tennis ball. This is true.

If that wasn’t bad enough, in the evenings, the varmint made enough packrat racket in our bathroom that it sounded like someone was doing a bathroom remodel under our tub. Every night we heard scraping of wood that could be heard all the way down the hallway in our living room, with the tv on at normal volume.

I started envisioning a little pack rat with a construction hat and a tool belt conducting his own little This Old Trailer House episode right under our tub. In a pack rat New England accent he’d say, “Now, we need to remove a little excess wood from this arear ovah heah.” (gnaw, gnaw, gnaw…)

Finally, though, that pack rat became the Saturday Night Main Event. One night in bed, we heard the gnawing again in the bathroom. Jarred sprang into action, and removed the access panel to the tub. He managed to get the varmint cornered between the tub, wall, and an Igloo cooler (as per standard pest control protocol).

What happened next is best described as vigilante justice. In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for theft is losing one’s hand. In Montana, the punishment for consumption of Pampered Chef spatulas, my wooden spoons, and our house studs and subfloor is, well…you get the picture. A large crescent wrench is in fact all one needs to control a pest infestation. A few thuds and a triumphant yell later, we drifted off to sleep under the quiet of our starry prairie skies. And of course, we lived happily ever after.

 © 2012

On the Road to Home

Written March 24, 2012.

Right now it’s 10:30 on Saturday night, and we’re eastbound, just past Crow Agency, Montana. It’s been six months since we first signed a purchase agreement for our new place in Minnesota, and about six years since we first started talking about making a move to leave Montana and head back to the midwest. And now, we are on the road, headed home.

Laying in bed this morning talking about our day and things to do, we had no plans to move out today. I talked about our baby girl’s upcoming 1st birthday party on April 2nd, wondering when and where we should celebrate her big day, and we had a general feeling of ennui, just tired of waiting to move, but we had no intentions to leave just yet.

Then at breakfast, our 6-year-old event planner asked if we could go to Minnesota today. I jokingly told her to hurry up and grab her little suitcase and get her bunny, and maybe go out and start the van for us. We laughed and I went back to making eggs, and then a few minutes later Jarred said to me, “What if we did go to Minnesota today?” And then we looked at each other, and a few minutes later we had a plan for the day that included getting on with our life.

While packing up to get on the road, I noticed our daughter’s beloved bunny was now sporting a backpack, crammed full of bunny travel essentials. If only everyone packed up as quickly as the bunny.

It’s been a long time coming. Moving away from Jarred’s hometown of Broadview, Montana and coming back to the area where I grew up in Minnesota is an extension of a continual discussion in our lives. Late at night, over lunch, or driving in the car, we entertain a million different ideas about what to do with our lives. We have definite preferences about what we like and ultimately want for ourselves and our children, but we are flexible, adaptable, and adventurous enough to also know that we could have a good life in many different scenarios.

There are times that I think life decisions might be easier for us if we considered more choices to be black and white. If there is only one “right” path to take, it’s easy to follow that road. It’s much more tricky looking at a big road map, and seeing there are lots of ways to arrive at the same destination. For us, we seriously tossed around Alaska and Hawaii and many things in between, but where we ultimately fixed our compass looks really similar to a late-night scrawled “wish list” that we wrote about four years ago.

Late one night after the kids were in bed and we had time to think, we jotted down a wish list on the magnetic cardboard backside of a used up grocery list pad.  The list stuck on the side of our fridge for several years, got covered with notes and pictures, and later got tucked away in a box.  In packing to move, I came across the list again after not seeing it for a long time.

On our dream wish list we wanted green grass, room to roam, large established trees, space to ride a 4-wheeler, a garden, a house with history that had elbow room enough for a big family, a shop for Jarred’s metal working tools, a tree swing, a big front porch, living within 20 minutes of family, and a short work commute.

Finding the list again, it’s amazing to read down it and see how nearly all of the 20 or so wish list items are met in the place we’re headed to in Minnesota, right down to the short work “commute” that will be Jarred’s upstairs office and his shop across the yard. At the time we wrote those things down, they seemed like a far off “some day” dream, something that might be 10 or 20 years in the making. And now, I really can’t wrap my head around the fact that at this very moment we are driving to that home we’d always hoped to find.

As overwhelmingly antsy as we all have been these last few weeks while Jarred is finishing up his scale and hopper installation project, pulling out of Broadview, Montana this evening was no easy task. I love my family here.  Two days ago I watched our baby girl fall asleep in the arms of her 86-year-old great grandpa.  Just before we took off, we had supper at Jarred’s sister’s house.  The dining room overflowed with a sea of busy kids, a mountain of spaghetti dinner, and a family with grandparents down to grandkids all gathered around two tables.

Knowing it would be hard to leave, we did our goodbyes fairly quickly, like pulling off a Band-Aid in one quick motion instead of slowly prolonging the sting.  Just the same, as we left, I was going to be a big girl, but I burst into tears and it quickly spread to everyone else.  Our kids said goodbye to everyone, we made one last stop to say goodbye to the house we’d lived in for a year.

And ironically, just when we were ready to head off into the sunset, two trains went through town, and one stopped and blocked the roads out of town for about ten minutes.  The trains come through Broadview several times daily, blaring annoyingly long horns night and day.  It only seems appropriate, then, that the good old Burlington Northern Santa Fe gave us a goodbye, as well.

Two days before leaving, we played on the “climbing rocks” at the top of the hill on Great Grandpa Thelmer Mosdal’s land. Warm sun, a high perch, and wide open views for at least ten miles in any direction gives kids the giddy sense that they are on the top of the world.

Tonight we’ll drive straight through the night, cross through South Dakota, hit the Minnesota border around daybreak, stop for breakfast at the Perkins in Worthington, MN where we “always” stop since it’s happened three times in a row, and then roll in to my mom’s house just in time for Sunday brunch at noon.

We didn’t tell anybody in Minnesota that we’d be arriving Sunday morning, so even though they know we’re moving here, nobody (including us) knew it was going to be today.  And best of all, once we eat at mom’s, we will make the short drive to our house that I haven’t seen for six months, pull into the driveway, and I’ll tell the kids, “We’re home!!!”

© 2012

Backseat Rice Patties and Rotting Celery: Fond Gardening Mishaps

To be honest, we don’t actually know if it was the rice that was growing or if the rice acted as growing medium for some mushrooms to sprout. Just the same, the moral of the story is this: use the back seat more often.

Written February 13, 2012.

The wind gusted a wild, wintery 37 mph while I ran today here in Montana. That’s strong enough to give you a “brain freeze” headache through a stocking cap. More impressively, on the best gusts of wind, my spit sailed ten feet through the air before landing. As I ran on the hard frozen gravel and dodged ice patches, my mind was off in Minnesota digging in warm dirt and planting a garden and flowers. I blame the Gurney’s Seed Catalog.

When the catalog appears in the mail box, I greet its arrival with the same excitement I had for the JC Penney Christmas Catalog as a kid. When I was five, I pored over the toy section in the catalog, absorbing the images and studying the options. I gleefully circled each and every wonderful thing that I wanted. Even then as a young kid, I fully realized that I would not get all of the circled toys, but just the same, the act of circling the toys made them mine. Circling things was deeply satisfying. And so, a few years ago, when my first seed catalog arrived, I restarted my routine of circling everything I wanted. I did it surreptitiously at first, not really wanting my husband, Jarred, to notice that my inner five year-old was wielding a Sharpie, but then I cast that aside and began circling beautiful growing things with wanton abandon. Daisies! Hydrangeas! Bleeding Hearts! Raspberry bushes! These. Will. Be. Mine. Some day, that is.

Finally, that some day is arriving. This coming summer in Minnesota will usher in a new era of planting fervor at our home. We planted gardens in past summers, but I don’t define them as “real” gardens by my midwest farm girl standards because they either were not on our own land or because the gardens just barely grew to a third of their promised height. As I scheme and dream about the magical things I will grow at our new place this coming summer, I’m taking a little time to reflect back on wonderfully fond memories of gardening mishaps of yesteryear.

In our romantic first summer of marriage, our gardening was simple. Simple, that is, because we didn’t plant a thing. We lived in Poulsbo, WA, a gardener’s paradise, but our yard interests leaned more toward sitting around our bonfire pit until the wee hours of the morning with our friends than pulling weeds out of parsnips. Nonetheless, we did unintentionally grow things that summer.

Rice Patties

In the spring, we started with rice. We got married on the pier a few miles from our house, and our family happily chucked handfuls of rice at us as we got into Jarred’s ’67 Mustang to ride off into the sunset. As luck would have it, sometimes classic cars are not wholly water tight. In dryland Montana, that was never an issue, but in water-logged Western Washington, the rain sometimes seeped in a little when the wind was just right. A few months after getting married, we glanced at the floor mats in the back and noticed that the grains of rice that landed there on our wedding day had indeed started to grow. To be honest, we don’t actually know if it was the rice that was growing or if the rice acted as growing medium for some mushrooms to sprout. Just the same, the moral of the story is this: use the back seat more often.

Rotting Celery

That same summer, cleaning out our fridge one day, I found a few long-forgotten stalks of celery lurking in the back. I took the wilted sad things and, standing on the deck, practiced my spear-throwing technique and launched them toward the woods at the back of our house. Natural composting, if you will. To our complete amazement, when we wandered back to the long-forgotten celery a month or two later, we discovered the celery we left for dead actually put down roots and sprouted new celery. We never checked it again, but the way things grow in Washington, that celery might still be alive today.

Grow celery in 3 easy steps: 1. Abandon celery stalks in fridge until disgusting. 2. Hurl celery into woods to die. 3. Wander by months later and harvest the new crop.

Packrats and Drought

After all of that rain, living in a place where we could harvest a bountiful crop of ‘shrooms right off our roof if we had been interested, a year later we settled in the high plains desert of Broadview, Montana. The annual rainfall in Broadview is just 14 inches (for comparison, Rochester, MN, has an annual rainfall of 30 inches). We settled in Broadview, MT during the peak of a long drought, with precipitation four inches below normal in an already arid land.

Overly optimistic, I planted a little garden under the “shelter” of our trailer house hitch. I watered the garden like crazy, and rabbits and pack rats devoured the little that grew (pack rats are gopher-like varmints that love to chew up your newlywed rubber spatulas when they sneak in at night…but that’s another article). The wind eventually shredded the remainder of the garden that the sun didn’t bake away. My mammoth sunflowers that promised 10-12 foot stalks on the package didn’t even grow waist high. Living is tough with little topsoil in full sun, high wind, prolonged 100 degree temps, and no rain.

Not so Beefy Beefsteaks

A few years and a few kids later, I took on a more modest attempt at Broadview, Montana gardening. If the topsoil’s a bit miserable, a container garden seemed like the answer. I dumped some Miracle Grow potting soil in a terra cotta pot, and lovingly planted a beefsteak tomato plant, dreaming of the softball-sized juicy deliciousness to come. I watered the plant religiously, but in the town of Broadview you can’t just use tap water because the naturally-occurring high level of salts dries out and eventually kills plants. Yep, you can kill plants with kindness here, if the kindness is tap water. So, I watered my tomatoes using our drinking water that comes in those big, blue 5-gallon water cooler jugs. At the end of the summer, I harvested a disheartening six cherry-sized “beefsteak” tomatoes. After working so hard to grow them, the tomatoes seemed too special to just gobble up, so I kept them on the counter like a museum exhibit. The water investment alone was about $30, for six tiny tomatoes that slowly shriveled up and then eventually got thrown away. A tomato travesty.

This year, though, things will be different. I will plant my garden in the land of milk and honey, in the black dirt and plentiful rain of SE MN. And of course, I will plant it in the style I learned growing up: Plant with zeal and tend to it closely all the way through June. Then, interest will wane as the humidity increases, and by August, the garden will be left to it’s own devices. In September, I will dig through waist high weeds and with amazement find pails of tomatoes and cucumbers that overflow cake pans. And it will be grand. See you next week.

© 2012