Back 40 Adventures

I do believe that to grow up properly, every kid needs to spend a little time on exploring adventures. My favorite playground growing up was our “Back 40:” about 240 acres or so of cropland, CRP, woods, rolling hills, ponds, and ravines on our farm.

Around 5th grade, my Saturday afternoon jobs were to vacuum the den and haul everyone’s clean clothes from the utility room up to the bedrooms upstairs. I particularly hated vacuuming the den. Usually, I made it an all day affair stalling to avoid the 15 minutes of vacuuming, and often enough, everyone tripped over the vacuum for a week because I never actually vacuumed.

My biggest motivation, though, to complete the torture of vacuuming for 15 whole minutes was going out exploring afterward. Once I had my afternoon jobs done, I was free to head outside.

I’d grab my jacket, and head upstairs to get my special survival gear fanny pack off the hook in my closet. My “survival pack” was a bright red fanny pack with the Kool Aid man on the front. I’d ordered it after carefully saving Kool Aid Points from the back of every drink packet all summer long.

Inside I had all the survival essentials: matches that I’d waterproofed in melted wax, a short candle, an emergency poncho, a jack knife from my brother, a lighter, fingernail clippers, a candy bar, a space blanket and even a toilet paper packet from an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that came from one of my siblings in the military.

I’d tell my mom I was headed out exploring and promise to be back by supper. Then I’d call Sparky or Bandit or Buck to come along, and the dogs and I headed out on a walkabout to the back of the farm.

I’d round the corner at the silos, go past the yellow shed and hog unit, and past the windbreak. When I climbed over the gate, leaving the farm yard and entering the open fields, that marked the official start of exploring, just a girl and her dogs.

After a few trips, the dogs knew the routine, and eagerly took off ahead of me down the field lane, zig-zagging back and forth, following any scent trails that crossed their paths and marking their territory with a seemingly endless well of “marking spray.” I walked down the dirt path of the field lane and passed the corn, soybeans, and hay, and usually headed out toward the pond.

On the way to the pond I’d usually avoid the big stand of pine trees that my family planted before I was born. I was fairly sure someone would be hiding behind one of those trees. In hindsight, the possibility of a “bad guy” randomly waiting behind a pine tree on the back of our farm, ten miles from town seems awfully remote, but at the time they seemed dark and scary.

When I reached the pond, I’d throw a few rocks in, watch the splashes, and let the dogs walk in the mud and get a drink.

Most of the time, I’d then head to the woods. On the back end of the farm, past the pond, we had rolling tree-covered hills which connect to the Whitewater Valley. I’d crawl on my belly to get under the barbed wire fence, and then follow along animal trails.

I’d walk along logs, climb up steep hills, and make my way through thick underbrush. I’d flip over rocks to check out the bugs and dig in mud with sticks. I’d collect little treasures and sometimes find secret hideouts. I’d imagine where I would sleep if I was stranded out there all night, and what I would do to survive.

Periodically, when I hadn’t seen the dogs in a while, I’d whistle and call them back. They’d circle back within sight to check in, and head off again on their adventures. As long as I had the dogs along and my survival pack, I knew I was safe.

Once I plucked a little white daisy-like flower with a yellow center, and had a sick feeling in my stomach seeing that it began to “bleed” after I picked it. Slightly afraid I’d done something bad, I told Mom about it later, and learned first hand about the blood root flower.

Another time, I brought home a dried out weed with a large swollen round bulge near the top. That’s when my brother, Greg, taught me about wax worms. I believe we later smashed open the bulge on the weed to check out the wormy contents inside.

Mostly, I just wandered…because I could. That was the era when I loved books about dogs and the outdoors, and read through everything I could get my hands on by Jim Kjelgaard, the author of Big Red. In elementary school, I spent a lot of time doing what other people wanted. Out exploring, though, I had independence. I could wander anywhere I wanted as long as I stayed on our land.

I loved the smell of wet dirt and damp fall air. I liked the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. I crunched on crispy old leaves and felt the soft squish of thick piles of pine needles on the ground. I loved the thrill of being off alone on an adventure, relying on myself to remember my paths and get back home again before suppertime.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids' exploring adventures.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids’ exploring adventures.

I was always struck by the world apart from our house. Inside our house was all the business and busyness of life, projects, things to do, TV, noise, people. Outside exploring, the world was nothing but wide open fields, woods, and quiet.

As a kid, my Saturday afternoon exploring was the favorite part of my week, and I couldn’t imagine what kids did in town when they didn’t have their own farm to explore. When looking at my watch told me I needed to head back in time for supper at six, I always felt a little sad that my exploring was done for the week.

I think that little explorer in me is partly what lead me to head to Bozeman, Montana for college, to Seville, Spain to study abroad, and to still have a need for new adventures. The explorer in me is also what sent my kids outside today to go play in what I jokingly call our “Back Four,” the windbreak of tall pine trees on the east side of our land. I’m fairly certain that trees, dirt, and burdocks are essentials for learning.

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Happiness Is…

Written October 14, 2013.

Some days, my cup is half empty. All I see are messes, everything grates on my nerves, and I just wish it was bedtime.

It’s those times when I wistfully remember the simplicity of life before kids and daydream about that far off future when we have the freedom of being empty nesters, of days when kids aren’t constantly pulling on my arm yelling “Mom!”.

But the truth is, happiness isn’t when a long off “finally” day arrives. Happiness doesn’t come when everything is finally perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist.

Happiness is the million little things that happen every single day. This is happiness for me, last Sunday:

Happiness is…

-Waking up to a window view of sun shining on orange leaves fluttering in the wind.

-Happiness is kids that dress themselves without being asked a second time.

-A hug and an “I love you, Mom” after helping my four-year-old with his shoes.

-Getting ready to yell at him for messing around on the way out the door, but stopping in my tracks when he says, “I’m looking for my little Bible book.”

-Happiness is hearing your two-year-old chatting on and on with the ladies at church about her sparkly red shoes and plans to be Elmo for Halloween.

-Happiness is starving after a long morning at church, and heading to Grandma’s house where brunch is all ready and waiting when we arrive.

-Happiness is bacon.

-Happiness is a warm cup of tea and a few handfuls peanut M&Ms.

-Happiness is laying down on a soft bed with a tired toddler who needs a nap. Happiness is taking a Sunday nap of my own, too.

-Happiness is a little boy who rediscovered his special collection of linked key chains that had been lost at grandma’s for a week.

-Happiness is when he figures out how to hook a key chain to his belt loop, and repeatedly tells me the rest of the day, “Look, Mom, I haven’t lost my chains because I hooked it on!”

-Happiness is getting out of the house for a walk to the city park with my family.

-Happiness is my little boy pedaling his trike through dry leaves on the way.

Happiness is riding your tricycle through the crunchy dried leaves.

Happiness is riding your tricycle through the crunchy dried leaves.

-Happiness is the sound of crunching leaves that remind me of Coach Arnold and the cross country season back in high school.

-Happiness running into a group of boys at the park that seemed like they came right out of Mayberry: holding nets and pails, wading in the creek to catch crayfish.

-Happiness is hearing the boys describe how they will use the crayfish as bait for trapping season later on.

-Happiness is seeing kids that know how to play outside in a creek.

-Happiness is remembering catching a crayfish as a kid with my brother Mike down at Black Bill’s cabin on the North Branch of the Whitewater River.

-Happiness is hearing about childhood crayfish boils from my Tennessee-born sister-in-law.

And, happiness is…

-Cousins making a train while sliding down the slide.

-Two six-year-old cousins making a secret world under the lilac bush at the park.

-A two-year-old yelling “Hi!” under the highway bridge walking home from the park, and then saying “it echoes.”

-An afternoon of blue sky, sunshine, and crisp fall air.

-The rustling sound wind blowing through the dry leaves of a corn field.

-Watching my adult brother ride a little girl’s bike to the park because that’s what’s in Grandma’s garage, and why not.

-Watching my husband take a turn on the little girl’s bike on the ride back from the park.

Happiness is a husband who will happily ride a little pink bike home from a Sunday afternoon at the city park.

-Watching cool kids stare in disbelief and teenage disgust at the man riding a girl’s bike.

-A mountain of mini pumpkin gourds shared from my sister’s garden.

-Laughter from hearing another sister ate one of the gourds last year.

-Happiness is eating chicken and gravy and cream puff dessert made by my mom.

-Two-year-old and three-year-old cousins having a discussion at suppertime. “I’m three.” “You too little to ride bus.”

-Happiness is seeing my younger brother rediscover his long-lost RC airplane.

-Happiness is reading a book, and then hearing “read it again, Mom.”

-Seeing my 2nd grader absorbed in the Fleet Farm Toyland catalog. And happiness is being grown up enough to resist the urge to snatch the catalog and look at it myself.

-Happiness is remembering the smell of ink and paper of the Sears Christmas catalogs as a kid.

-My seven-year-old daughter’s giggle of delight at bedtime realizing the upcoming week of school is just three days long.

-My two-year-old girl’s delight at catching a lady bug and watching it crawl across her hand (even though she wasn’t brushing her teeth like I asked).

-Happiness is that same little girl darting across the hallway to yell “Mom, we need more ‘washcoffs’ ” while standing with no clothes on and holding a glass vase with a lady bug inside.

-Happiness is my six-year-old son at bedtime saying “I just can’t ever hug you enough, Mom.”

-Happiness is stumbling across family videos after the kids went to bed.

-Happiness is watching those videos and feeling thankful that we no longer have melted carpet from a curious toddler with an iron.

“Chicken Day:” 110 Hot Chicks on the Farm

“Chicken Day” is now one of my favorite memories of the summer and my brother, Mike.  On June 6th, our chickens arrived.  I wrote the article below for the paper the following week.  Less than two weeks after Chicken Day, we lost Mike.  I’m so thankful and happy that we had this day together, where I got to “play farm” with my brother and learn some of his farming knowledge.  I wasn’t at all done learning from him, but I’m so grateful for the time we had together.  

We all had such a great time that we didn’t want the day to end.  Mike and Tricia and their kids, along with my sister, Karen, ending up staying for supper.  We made homemade pizza and popcorn and had a bonfire that lasted until we were too tired to stay up anymore.  A great day on the farm…

When we first moved in here a little over a year ago, a neighbor stopped by to visit. Looking at an empty barn, shed, and chicken coop, she said, “Why, you could have all sorts of animals here.”  I thought to myself, “Animals?  Nah, too much work.  Well, maybe I’d get a cat or two.”

At the time, we owned a dog.  That’s it.

By my count today, 144 animals reside on our little acreage:  the same old dog, along with goats, sheep, chickens, cats and kittens. Sometimes I’m still surprised that they’re here.  Did they just sneak in when I was doing laundry or something?

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Mike helping my two-year-old hold a new fluffy chick.

The biggest batch of little critters arrived here in our minivan just a few days ago.  We headed down to Rushford and picked up an order of 110 balls of fluff from the Farmers Co-op.  In the days leading up to the chicks’ arrival, the kids kept mentioning them, wondering, and asking if they could maybe name a few.  I said yes, you can each name 27 of your very own.  Is that enough?  Eyes got pretty big at that point.

When I walked into the Co-op, four kids beat me inside.  They made a bee line for the little stack of peeping cardboard boxes, and my kids had the lids popped off before I even got inside the door.

It was Chicken Christmas.

My two-year-old had absolutely no need for instructions about proper chick handling.  Sure, I mentioned phrases like “be gentle,” “don’t squeeze it’s neck,” and “that chick can’t breathe when you do that,”  but she was far too busy doling out intense chick affection to be bothered with my ramblings.

Currently, four days after the chicks’ arrival, all chicks are alive and well.  I do count that as a fairly major success considering the amount of loving attention they’ve received over the last few days.

My nephew and son each snuggle a pile of chicks on their laps.

My nephew and son each snuggle a pile of chicks on their laps.

Our kids do recognize, though, that life is fragile, especially for baby animals.  On the ride bringing the chicks home, my very practical seven-year-old instructed her siblings that sometimes a little chick might die, but it would be okay because we would still have plenty of other chicks.  I believe she might have been coaching herself, as well.

On Chicken Day (because such events get names when you have kids), we even picked up fried chicken from the grocery store for lunch.  Perhaps that is in poor taste considering we carried a load of baby chicks home at the same time, but the kids giggled with excitement over fried chicken AND baby chicks, all in one day.  One of them even said, “Someday some of you little chicks will be delicious chicken, too.”

When the chickens arrived home, we had a full entourage of family here to take part in the excitement.  My brother, Mike (our resident farming expert), along with his family, came out and helped set things up in the coop for the chicks.  Two of my sisters came out, too, and a slew of cousins all spent some time helping out with the new little chicks, holding them, and picking out favorites.

A flock of cousins play with the new chicks.

A flock of cousins play with the new chicks.

We set up feeders, waterers, and heat lamps (hence the title “Hot Chicks,” of course), and soon after lunch, 110 busy peeping chicks hopped around in their new home.  We now have 60 fluffy yellow broilers, 25 Production Reds that will someday give us brown eggs, and 25 Americana chicks that will lay the kids’ favorite: blue-green eggs.  The most-loved chick in the bunch is a mix-up: one rogue all-black chick that somehow arrived with our delivery.

And what, exactly, do we plan to do with that many chickens?  Our oldest two kids possess some grand ideas about eventually selling the eggs and making “lots of money.”  We did big math in simple terms, and told them if they kept selling eggs, they could earn enough to buy their very own car when they reached driving age in 9-10 years.

Again, they had wide eyes.

They’re pretty helpful little kids, but I’m fairly certain the person that will actually be heading out to check on chicken welfare, especially when the wind chill is -30, is someone who earned the money for her first car a long time ago.

As if the excitement of 110 fluff balls and future earnings wasn’t enough, the day after the chicks arrived our kids discovered yet another surprise.  In the corner of the shed, in the hay where Lamby likes to sleep, I heard the mewing sound of a new batch of kittens.

In awe of the brand new baby kitten.

In awe of the brand new baby kitten.

All of the kids left the chicks to go check out the new surprise.  We headed to the corner of the shed and found the mother cat with five kittens, a few still wet.  As we crouched around her, I noticed that one was being born at that very instant.

Number six was black with an orange star on its head, which is just what my red-haired boy wanted on a chick of his own, but none had those markings.  It turned out that his request was answered in a baby kitten instead, and one that he got to see be born.

And then, just to blow our kids’ minds completely, our other pregnant cat had kittens the following day.  We now have two mother cats who curl up in the same nest of hay and share nursing responsibilities of the two batches of kittens.   Looks like I’ll need to readjust the animal count that I mentioned earlier.

Article written June 10, 2013.

Neglect: The Latest Innovation in Gardening

Written June 3, 2013.

My kids are highly innovative horticulturists, despite a lack of any formal training.

Last week I wrote about a few of my researched plans for the garden this year, but who needs to read books or chit chat with gardening pros when you have kids around?  This week I learned a new planting technique from my kids that’s sure to take the gardening world by storm.

Regretfully, I do not have any photos of my wonderful sprouted seed packets in the plastic bag.  I was so moved that I forgot to grab my camera to record the amazing new gardening technique.  My daughter, however, is quite happy to apply her advanced gardening techniques to a variety of plants.

Regretfully, I do not have any photos of my wonderful sprouted seed packets in the plastic bag. I was so moved that I forgot to grab my camera to record the amazing new gardening technique. My daughter, however, is quite happy to apply her advanced gardening techniques to a variety of plants.

I call our new technique “sprouting in the seed packet.”  And if you are one of those people that sees something about gardening and just groans because you have absolutely no interest, you can still read this, I assure you.

Step One: Plant a few rows of seeds just before bedtime.  Crucial procedure: Lay plastic grocery bag containing 6-8 seed packets on the grass next to the garden.   Then, when it’s time to go in, ask kids to “bring the stuff in.”  Do not verify completion of assigned task.

Immediately engage your mind with a million other projects that need attention.  A few distraction options: a sink full of dishes, a cracker smashed onto the living room carpet, a pile of dirt left on the floor in the bathroom, four wild and tired kids upstairs dancing on the extra bed instead of putting on pajamas.

Step Two: Apply rain, lots of rain.  Repeated rainfall intermixed with cold and wind for seemingly weeks on end works best.  Forlornly look at garden from living room window.

Step Three: Realize June arrived and the garden really needs to be planted.  Realize also that the plastic bag of full of seed packets disappeared.  Wander over to check out the garden and discover the plastic bag laying in the grass near the garden.  (It will be in the exact location where you left it weeks before.)

Step Four: Cautiously peer into bag.  Observe mass of congealed paper seed packets, adhered together in an amorphous mix of paper goo, melting ink, and myriad sprouting seeds of several varieties.  (Hanging head in gardening shame is appropriate at this point.)

Step Five: Haul bag of sprouting seed packets and paper goo to porch.  Set bag on porch with good intentions for something, but you are not sure quite what.  Let bag rest on porch for 1-2 days.

Step Six: Relocate said bag to kitchen window where it is sure to get some “proper attention.”  Allow to mature here for an additional 2-3 days.

Step Seven:  After supper, when the wind picks up and it’s sure to storm again, it’s cold, and it’s nearly bedtime, you have found the optimal time to care for the sprouted seeds.

Step Eight: Sift through sprouted seedlings and shredded packets, separating plant species, more or less.  Dig haphazard holes and rows to plant seeds.

Step Nine:  Allow children to plant seedlings.  What lacks in care will be made up for with zeal and enthusiasm.

Step Ten:  Rest.  Tomorrow is another day, with more plants to kill (oops) I mean grow.

While this technique of sprouting seeds while still in the packet may seem laborious and cumbersome, in actuality, it is quite carefree.  The technique presents several advantages over conventional seed planting:

1.  Easy Open Packets.  How many times have you fumbled with the pesky paper seed packet, trying to open it ever so carefully?  When seeds are allowed to germinate while still in the seed packet, the spouted seeds will actually burst open the packet for you.  Now that’s convenient, very convenient.

2.  Eliminates Gardeners’ Biggest Question: Will it Grow?  With the “sprout in the packet” technique, you know the answer is YES!  You most assuredly chose hardy seed stock.  When left in the rain for a few weeks, seeds can germinate in the seed packet, even while in a plastic bag.  Now carefully peel away the gooey paper, pick up those delicate little seedlings with teeny fragile roots, and plant with confidence! You are growing things already!  Germinating seeds in dirt is so old-fashioned.

3.  Companion Planting is a Breeze.  Master gardeners devote entire books to companion plantings, sharing which plant thrives best when planted near another.  The sprout in the packet technique, however, allows for spontaneous combinations of plant species.  No more stressing over “proper” companion plantings, it’s already been done right there in the bag!  Spinach mixed with radishes will surely be a garden hit.  They’re already growing together in the bag, right?

While “sprouting in the seed packet” is our most innovative gardening technique this year, I can assure you that my children do not rest after that sort of success.

Truly, I could go on and on about innovative gardening methods generated by my children, but I’d hate to brag too much.  I didn’t even tell you about the merits of removing pepper plants from their plastic containers, digging a shallow grave for them in the flower bed, stacking the plants in a pig pile, and then allowing the roots to “sun” for a few days.  The results are nothing short of spectacular.

Camp Mosdal

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Written July 15, 2013.

When summer was just around the corner, we picked up a 12-person tent.  We tucked it away safely in the attic, just waiting for that nice night when we’d set up that new portable house in the yard with the kids.

Then another snow storm came, and another.  And then came the rains.  If you live around here, you know the ones.  The tent sat untouched for about four months, nearly forgotten.

It might not have seen the light of day this summer if it hadn’t been for a sheet of paper tacked up in our kitchen, labelled “Summer of Fun 2013.”  It’s the list we made in about five minutes one morning in May before the school bus arrived, back when the kids wanted school to be done for the year.

When I see the list on the wall, it feels like it came from a lifetime ago, long before anybody could imagine that we’d lose my brother this summer.  I wouldn’t call this the Summer of Fun at this point.  The list is still up on the wall, though, and this week my seven-year-old noticed we really needed to get something checked off the list: Camping.

Last Thursday seemed like the night.  We celebrated a highly anticipated fourth birthday at our house.  With the weather forecast looking good, we decided to haul our two tents out of the attic and camp that night to celebrate.  Our brand new tent is a giant: a 10′ x 18′ two room behemoth.  It’s just shy of the square footage of our kids’ two bedrooms in the last house we owned.

The kids and I hauled our new treasure out under the shade of our walnut tree on a nice flat spot and began to assemble it.  While they excitedly helped, we managed to not lose any stakes in the high grass and nobody busted a zipper or tore a hole in the screens.  With four little kids running around, that seemed pretty successful.

To finally get it all set up, my husband and I exchanged a few short comments with each other, as per the requirement when assembling a new tent.  And when it finally stood complete, all was well.

Our kids immediately began hauling armloads of toys into the tent, to make it a little more “homey,” of course.

Our plans for the evening pretty much ended with “hey, let’s set up the tents,” but with short notice on a week night, a few of our kids’ cousins and my sister, Karen, came over and also spent the night.

In the midst of hauling out blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags, we almost forgot about my son’s birthday cake.  I sat it out on our porch table with candles ready to light, and then got busy doing other things.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Cats, however, love birthday celebrations and do not forget about such things like birthday cake.  I came out of the house with an armful of blankets to discover three cats circled around his highly anticipated angel food cake, busily gnawing away.

My biggest disappointment is that my arms were so full of blankets.  My gut instinct desired nothing more than to scoop them all up and launch them from the porch.  I believe they sensed that as well, and with my scream they called an end to their birthday party and instantly scattered.

Birthday cake issues aside, we had a great night.

My husband, Jarred, even installed our porch swing that evening.  We bought the swing on Craig’s List about a year ago, but just never got around to installing it.  Just when I’d grown accustomed to that porch swing sitting on the ground like a legless bench, all of a sudden, we had a swing!  My little boy sat on it and said, “It’s for my birthday!”  Just knowing I can now go out and sip iced tea on the porch swing makes me feel utterly content.

But, back to camping.  We had fireflies all around, a bonfire, kids giggling in the tent, and a beautiful summer night.  By midnight, the last holdout went to bed.  (Ironically, it was our two-year-old.)  We slept outside under a starry sky, in the peaceful silence of a night out in the country.

And despite our kids’ fears, nobody was eaten by coyotes, not even a little bit.

That peaceful night didn’t last very long.  Around 4 AM began the song bird wake-up call.  By 5 AM, the rooster and my birthday boy were both up.  They both share a love of making excessively loud noises every morning.  By six, pretty much everyone was awake.  Soon after, a groggy but happy load of kids swung on the porch swing.

I believe if you can’t get a good night of sleep, you better at least have a good breakfast.  I whipped up a batch of pancakes while my sister made bacon.  Jarred decided to cook rugged-camp style, and he made a bunch of bacon and eggs over the red coals of the bonfire from the night before.

And then we had a stroke of genius. Almost out of syrup, we mashed up a huge bowl of strawberries that came from the neighbors’ patch.  And then, we topped it all off with a big batch of whipped cream, made from a half gallon jug of cream we got from Kappers’ Dairy in Chatfield.   We ate outside at the porch table with our little crew of campers, eight kids and three adults.  Great food, fun kids and good coffee seemed like a great start to a day.

Enjoying a big breakfast on the porch after a night of camping.

Enjoying a big breakfast on the porch after a night of camping.

We didn’t have any plans, but after breakfast, we herded the kids out to help feed and water the chicks.  Our former fluff balls are rapidly growing into big, meaty birds and good looking little hens.

This happens to be the time of year when our windbreak is loaded with black raspberries.  Jarred had the inspiration to gather a bunch of bowls, and many of us headed out to pick berries.  (And pick, and pick, and pick.)  With a busy crew of helpers, we had 15 pounds of berries when we finished.   The berries are small, and many of the berry pickers were young, so we felt all the more impressed with our bounty.

A bounty of black raspberries harvested from our yard.

A bounty of black raspberries (black caps) harvested from our yard.

By then, it was time for lunch.  I fired up the grill and made burgers.  And for dessert, we finally got around to the birthday cake.  We sawed off all areas of possible cat-contamination on the cake.  Naughty cats. For the tail end of the longest impromptu birthday celebration ever, we sang happy birthday, had cat-free angel food cake, ice cream and berries.

 Cousins celebrating our four-year-old's birthday with some cat-free cake and ice cream.

Cousins celebrating our four-year-old’s birthday with some cat-free cake and ice cream.

Without really making any plans other than deciding to set up our tents, Camp Mosdal turned into a great day…and a half.  By late afternoon the campers went home, and we crashed, tired but happy.

And if you happen to drive by our house, you might still see the tent set up.  Four days later, it still is, anyway.  You can also still find a heap of blankets dumped in our living room from our festivities.  Tents and camping equipment, just like Christmas decorations, are much more exciting to set up than take down.

A Series of Fortunate Events

Normally, milking a goat for the first time would be a pretty memorable event for me. But this past week, I almost forgot I even did that. It’s really spring and life is running at full speed at our house.

The to-do list started while driving home in the evening on the Sunday after the big May snow storm. I noticed that the final patches of snow melted in the fields. I pointed it out to my kids, reminding them how we still saw plenty of snow around at noon that day. As I contemplated feeling confident enough to finally pack snow pants and mittens for the season, my six-year-old said, “We need to get our crops planted, Mom.” That’s what he calls our garden.

Wait a minute. He’s right. What?! Snow pants…garden…I’m sorry, but I just have trouble wrapping my head around a garden when I helped my kids build a snowman two days earlier. I just haven’t allowed myself to get excited about a garden this year when every time I look at seed catalogs, we get a snowstorm. With summer vacation just a few weeks away, it’s finally sinking in that the time is now to get all of our projects in high gear.

New Kids on the Block
The goats living at our place have been quite busy themselves.

 Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Right now we’re hosting four “foster goats” at our place. They belong to my brother and his family. On Tuesday, I looked out at the goats in the pasture and wondered when my husband put our little lamb in with the goats. Then I noticed the “lamb” was the wrong color and half the size he should be. We had a new baby goat!! I wandered into the barn, and discovered Big Momma (because that’s her name, of course) had not one baby, but twins. In this age of instant communication, I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my brother and sister-in-law to share their new baby news.

Then I noticed that Big Momma had a big swollen udder on one side and a teat swollen like a water balloon. I’m no goat whisperer, but I am a mom, and I know from experience that that sort of thing hurts, a lot. I called my brother, Mike, and we talked about it, and I decided I’d try to milk her by hand to relieve some of the pressure.

Now, before you get the wrong impression about my animal skills, let me tell you about my previous goat experience: Once, when I was in third grade, I saw pygmy goats at a petting zoo while visiting my sister in Oklahoma. One of the goats nibbled the corner off of my paper bag from the gift store, which bothered me enough that I still remember it to this day.

I remember that many of the goats at the zoo were hugely pregnant. Somewhere, there is a picture of me from that day sitting on one of those pregnant goats. Because when I saw a big heavy pregnant momma, I thought it would be fun to take a picture riding her. Now isn’t that, um, sweet? So, that is my experience with goats. Yep, I’m a regular James Herriot.

Between my husband (who also has never milked anything) and I, along with the assistance of four kids, a billy goat who bumps you when you bend over, and a curious dog, we managed to get about a pint of milk in a bucket, and probably another cup on the floor. We fed the goat milk to our bottle-fed lamb, who at first had no interest, and then decided the milk was quite tasty, and he sucked it up.

We took the edge off for Big Momma, and Lamba Lamba Ding Dong (Lamby) had some milk that came from a live animal, not a bag of powder. It was already past bedtime for the kids, so we called that a success, or good enough, anyway.

Sand Mountains
Before the little goat kids stole the show at our house, the big attraction of Tuesday was a new mountain of sand. My husband ordered two truckloads of sand for the base of what will eventually be a concrete floor in our shop. For the short term, though, our kiddos play in sand pile heaven.

We topped the sand pile with a child-sized wooden bridge, a free find from the curb in Utica. The bridge is meant to be a landscaping feature, but temporarily on a sand pile, it makes a perfect spot where the kids can dig a tunnel. Everyone, of course, needs a little spot to dig and hide.

A New Herd of Grass Mowers
Automatic, self-guided grass mowers were another addition to our springtime projects. On Wednesday, we added ten ewes to our list of random farm animals that we are collecting. Seeing sheep in our pasture is nothing new, since last year our neighbor rented out the pasture for his sheep. This year, however, we actually bought the sheep. After the sheep arrived, I looked at my husband, Jarred, and said, “We just bought livestock for the first time.”

Next project on the list? Fencing off more land for the sheep. They want plenty of grass, and we don’t want to mow everything. Win, win.

A Herd of Kindergarteners
Friday was a big day at our house: a birthday party with a slew of kindergarten boys, and a brand new play set for the yard.

When we moved here a year ago, we left our swing set in Montana, with a promise to the kids to get a new one here in Minnesota. Our kids reminded us fairly often of that promise. A Sunday conversation led to a great solution to our play set dilemma. My brother’s kids were outgrowing theirs, and we needed one…perfect!

The play set that is now in our yard is the same one that I remember playing on with my nephew and nieces while I babysat them back in high school. The wood set is about 15 years old, but my brother’s an engineer, so that sucker still looks just as sturdy and as good as new. With a new colorful canopy in place and the slide still a bright yellow, it’s a hugely exciting addition to our backyard.

On Friday afternoon, my kindergarten boy, along with ten buddies and a few cousins, all played on it for the first time. Our kids had no idea that my husband was getting that play set, so when they hopped off of the school bus and spotted it in the back yard…well, I bet you can imagine the excitement… I have to say, I love it, too.

As if a birthday party and new play set weren’t enough, the goat named Baby also had a new baby that day. Little kids at the party got to see a brand new goat kid, play in an enormous pile of sand, climb on a new play set, and play with Lamby, who roams around the yard like a second dog. We capped off the night with a bonfire, and called it a great day.

On Saturday, I was pretty much worthless after wrangling a busy party, but my husband had the energy to make a new tree swing for the giant oak tree in our backyard. He built it big enough for an adult, so we all took plenty of turns on it. The kids declared that it was a Mother’s Day gift for me, and so, it was. I do love tree swings.

Mother’s Day Queen
On Mother’s Day, my cup runneth over with little kid presents: a paper locket necklace, a decorated picture frame, toast in bed, and a paper crown declaring me “Mother’s Day Queen.” I wore my crown, ate specially made toast, and read to my kids the Mother’s Day letter I wrote for them, the one printed last week in the paper.

Wearing new my crown and  locket, reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

Wearing my new crown and locket (and my pajamas), reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

My kitchen floor is a muddy disaster and I could give you a mile long list of imperfections around here, but all that aside, when we have four kids running around chasing a lamb, holding baby animals, playing on sand piles, and swinging from a tree swing, sometimes I feel like we are permanently on vacation out here in the country.

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.