Here a blog, there a blog

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. There were many moments when I was inspired to write, but just couldn’t find time for it. The holidays bring a flurry of activity – gatherings with friends & family, winter travel and its inherent unpredictabilty, rich & plentiful meals complete with luxurious deserts, hand-crafting gifts & cards – all packed into a couple of weeks during a special time of the year, the winter solstice. Although there is now a thick blanket of snow on the ground, I captured the following in my journal back in mid-December when the ground was mostly brown:

I’ve been taking sunset hikes in the late afternoon up on the high piece of prairie we call the CRP*. I set out from the corrals and head north towards the Snowy Mountains, which are capped in clouds tinted pink with the setting sun’s rays. A flock of ravens flies low overhead en route to their evening roost. One raven breaks off from the group and swoops down over Doc’s head – curious about this odd interloper. He circles once and with a flap, satisfied that there is no meal here, he rises towards the clouds to join the rest of the group on their path south. Doc runs off to the edge of the sky, becoming small as a grain of rice. His creamy white fur catches the suns’ rays, illuminating his outline momentarily in a flash of gold.

We circle south along the edge of the property and soon see the Crazy Mountains, a jagged high range, in the distance. Our friends live at the doorstep of these mountains, a 90-minute drive away, but with much the same view we have from here. Such is the landscape of central Montana, endless sky and long stretches of rolling prairie broken up by mountain ranges and small towns. The corrals – and soon, our home – are located on Belmont Rd. I didn’t think much of this until my mother, who studied French in high school, pointed out that belle mont is French for beautiful mountain. “But of course!” I said with my best French accent. From here we can see five different mountain ranges, which are most certainly beautiful if not occasionally mind-blowing for this easterner accustomed to densely wooded spaces. As I head back on the last leg of my loop hike, the moon launches into the sky over the Bull Mountains and the darkening horizon; now soft blue then deep purple before dimming to the enveloping darkness of a rural night.

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Obligatory cute photo: Doc finds a resting place on our chopping block and enjoys a sun bath on the morning of the solstice

* The CRP land was formerly part of the federal crop reserve program

In the early morning hours

Soon after I arise in the morning, I usually bundle up to head out to the bathroom. Yes – out – to the bathroom, as in outdoors to the outhouse. When it’s in the single digits or below, I wear my quilted coveralls, down vest, jacket, alpaca wool hat with earflaps, mittens, and occasionally even a scarf. Some mornings this seems like a chore. Doesn’t the modern innovation – indoor bathrooms – make life just so much easier!?! Yes, I suppose they do, but easier is not always better.

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As soon as I am out the door into the dark morning, I inhale the fresh air and glance up at fading stars in the west and barely lit pink clouds in the east. At these moments I feel truly grateful to be right where I am. On a few mornings, I’ve even caught sight of a shooting star, and heard a pair of great horned owls greeting the day as I stroll to the bathroom. There is nothing quite as special as witnessing this magic in the quiet early hours of the morning. Fresh from the dreamworld, these moments close to nature keep me grounded and prevent me from rushing headlong into the to-do list of the day.

On my way back to the house, I visit the chicken coop. The girls are always up and chattering away. If it’s been extremely cold overnight, I’ll bring their water inside to deice it by the fire. Most mornings, I simply fill their food hopper, and collect the first eggs of the day. One – maybe two – of the chickens have developed the nasty habit of breaking and eating eggs. If I knew which one I would wring her neck, literally. But alas I have not yet caught her in action so we lose one to two eggs a day to this barbaric thief. When I collect the first eggs really early in the morning, I am one step ahead of her in the game.

Back in the house, my layers come off one by one in front of the crackling fire. I lay the fresh eggs on the counter, warm up my cup of coffee, and give thanks for our cozy cabin. I really couldn’t ask for more.

Not quite an old fashioned barn-raising

As I walk to work at quarter of eight, the eastern sky is ablaze with colors. But the sun itself yet hides below the horizon, late to rise and early to set these days. To the north, the Snowy Mountains loom darkly on the horizon, their tops frosted with the very snow for which they are named. Above me, a noisy flock of geese forms a V, late migrants to warmer climes. It is mid December, and we are entering the dark heart of winter.

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We experienced one cold snap already, but this week we’ve been hit by a tropical heat wave. With sunshine and daytime temperatures in the fifties, the thin blanket of snow has melted, giving way to moisture and mud. It’s warm enough that Bart is working outdoors, putting tin on our new barn. We started the barn back in August with the help of our friend Brad… and some heavy machinery. Bart used the big yellow machine with an extendable bucket (this is not my area of expertise) to place the corner posts in the ground before Brad arrived.

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The first corner post goes up as Bart masters the post-setting technique
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All ready for the roof

Brad, Bart, and my father-in-law, Dan, then labored under a hot sun, framing the roof and installing the trusses. IMG_3480 Back on the ground, I helped level the posts and handed supplies up to them in their perches on ladders or the tractor bucket IMG_3482   Mid-day, we all took a break in the thin slice of shade made by the pickup truck for lunch – with plenty of water, iced tea, and sandwiches. After cleaning up from the picnic, I laid down in the shade and surprised myself by dozing off, partaking in the ancient art of the siesta. I awoke after a few moments coated in sweat, despite my airy tank top and shorts. Meanwhile the guys, wearing jeans and long-sleeves, were back at it in the sun, determined to finish despite the heat. I watched and tried to learn. Carpentry, like heavy machinery, is not my forte. IMG_3484         Doc spent the day playing in the log pile. He has become quite an accomplished mouser! Brad’s dog, Osa, had more sense and quickly claimed a piece of shade early in the morning. IMG_2883 Soon Doc’s playground will be gone. Bart logged in southeastern Montana where the Rosebud Fires burned in the summerIMG_3446 of 2012. He has already milled several of the logs – making boards for the corrals and barn. Here’s how our corrals and barn looked in mid-September after a couple more weeks of work. More photos showing the progression of the corrals are now posted here: https://couleecreekranch.com/grassfed-beef/ It was a busy summer, but we are glad to be right where we need to be for calving in the spring! IMG_3796

Friday’s Thankful

Yup, I know it’s immensely cliched, but today I have to say it: I am thankful for my family. They live scattered across the country, from Chicago to Colorado, Syracuse to Seattle, and Boston to Austin. The Clark and Ristow families literally have the United States covered… except Hawaii and Alaska, which someone really should work on so that I can come visit!

Some of the Clark family made it out to Montana for our wedding reception. Photo copyright Jill Fineis photography.
Some of the Clark family made it out to Montana for our wedding reception! Photo copyright Jill Fineis Photography.
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Grandma Clark, on her birthday. She is now 97 years young and sharp as a tack.

Growing up, we used to drive to my Grandma Clark’s house in Syracuse on Thanksgiving morning. It was only an hour, but at the time it seemed like a very long journey. Now that I live in Montana, where we drive one hour to get to a grocery store, the Rochester – Syracuse jaunt seems like a plausible daily commute. Back then, upon arriving at my grandma’s house and fresh from a nap in the car, we’d spend the first half hour hugging all the relatives. And I mean all of them. Every last person on the premises would get up for a hug and a kiss whenever someone new arrived. The same thing happened in reverse whenever anybody was going out the door. No quiet arrivals or departures here! You can’t just slip into Grandma Clark’s house without being noticed, even though some 30+ people of all ages would be there.

No matter what our differences are, no matter when the last time was that we’ve seen each other – heck, no matter that I am often called by my sister Lara’s name – I feel welcome, supported, and loved by my family. This base of love and support allowed me to go out into the world and become whatever I dreamed possible, for which I am eternally grateful.

The Chicago Ristow family came to the end of the world for our wedding reception. Photograph copyright Jill Fineis Photography.
The Chicago Ristow family drove out to the end of the world for our wedding reception. Photograph copyright Jill Fineis Photography.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I skipped an entry, yesterday I was feeling thankful for the ability to turn off the computer and walk away from the internet for 24 hours. Instead I baked pies all morning, and enjoyed the company of my in-laws in Billings.

My new in-laws, the Bilden family. Copyright Jill Fineis photography.
At our wedding reception with my new in-laws, the Bilden family. Copyright Jill Fineis photography.

Thankful for Cows Around

IMG_3237It’s Wednesday of my week of thankfuls, and today I must pause to pay tribute to both cows and Corb Lund’s ode to the ungulate, “Cows Around”.

Yesterday we had the immense pleasure of singing and dancing the night away with friends at the Murray Bar in Livingston. Outside, heavy snow blanketed the city while inside Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans lit up the stage and filled the packed house with irresistably danceable tunes.

At this point if you are saying to yourself, “Corb who?“, I will redirect you to this clip from the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. And if you know Corb Lund’s music already, you’ll probably want to go listen again so you too can have it stuck in your head all day like I did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKoYT4febHM

I think the music really speaks for itself here. Yes, we had to get up before dawn this morning while our friends slumbered away peacefully. And yes, we had to navigate home on the snow-covered thruway before it was properly plowed. But why? Because we have the joy of keeping cows around, and had to get home to them. So am I sleep deprived today? You betcha. But am I happy? Oh yes!!! Because everything is better with some cows around. IMG_3767Living in town really was getting me down… take it away Corb!

A Quilt from My Mother

IMG_3849At the end of the day, I snuggle into bed underneath a warm cotton flannel quilt. This quilt is especially cozy because my mother made it for me. Several years ago, she and I spent an afternoon picking out fabrics at the quilt store. As someone who likes to sew, I am easily absorbed by the process of selecting fabrics, envisioning all the things I could make – so I have fond memories of looking at fabrics and talking about quilt patterns with my mom. After a few unavoidable delays – back surgery and a move to Colorado – my mom got down to work. She finished the quilt and gave it to me and Bart as a wedding present shortly after we eloped in October of 2012.

The quilt has a deep yellow background with “flying geese” of various vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds. They are framed by a cool blue inner border and outer border of maroon and forest green. IMG_3848They are the warm colors of autumn – my favorite season. In the afternoon, the sun streams through our bedroom window onto the quilt, inviting me in to read and relax… or perhaps even to take a nap. I hoped to catch the radiant colors of the sun-lit quilt in my photos today, but stormy clouds have taken a hold of the sky and cast a grey pallor on the world. With the winter storm arriving, I will be especially thankful for our warm flannel quilt as I cozy into bed tonight.

Monday’s Thankful

IMG_2402When I get out of bed in the dark hours of early morning, I head straight to our wood-burning stove. Barely awake, I stoke the fire, adding a log or more kindling, and opening up the damper. Next, I make coffee. When both tasks are complete, I stand in a reverie in front of the stove. I take my first sips of coffee and slowly wake up while basking in the warmth of the fire. It is truly the most marvelous way to start a winter’s day. So today as the days become shorter and colder, I am thankful for fire.

I love the whole process of gathering wood for the stove – from chopping to splitting and stacking it in neat piles on our porch. We often do this on crisp fall and mid-winter days when it feels good to get outside and work up a sweat. On Saturday, we brought home a truck-load of firewood in preparation for the coming cold front. IMG_3840I feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I walk by the wall of wood adjacent to our door. Let the snow begin – I am ready to cozy up by the fire!

If you missed the introduction to my week of thankfuls, you can read it below or here https://couleecreekranch.com/reflections/

A Thankful for Sunday

IMG_0551Today I am thankful for all the furry friends in my life – past, present, and future. They shower me with unconditional love, and when they joyfully greet me, they always bring a smile to my face even after the roughest of days. They ask little in return – some food, water, shelter, and occasional ear rubbings. I, of course, tend to spoil them rotten with attention and daily romps on the prairie.

I am especially thankful this year for Ox, our big friend who passed away in August. He had been Bart’s faithful companion for 10+ years. When I began dating Bart, he’d walk over to my house in Billings, crossing the campus of MSU-B with Ox in tow. We’d inevitably get looks and questions about Ox in Billings, even though it is in close proximity to sheep ranches with Great Pyrenees dogs like Ox. Is that a bear? What kind of dog is that? He’s like a little horse! And always – can I pet him? Ox graciously submitted to multiple sessions of petting by enthusiastic kids. He was gentle and kind, with just a little wild and stubborn streak in him.

On our first backpacking trip together in 2008, Bart and I ventured into the Beartooth Mountains in early October, despite a three foot and counting dump of heavy snow. Luckily, Ox pitched in and broke miles of trail for us – his furry back just grazing the top of white blankets of snow. He plowed ahead, giving our legs a much-needed rest. IMG_0506

Ox loved winter the best. He was famous for his snow angels and would get down and roll around in every little patch of snow he encountered. IMG_2782 He accompanied us on many ski trips – slogging up the hill behind us and then joyfully careening down the slope in our ski tracks. He even trekked with us on the infamously long Reefer Ridge ski run – off the top of Beartooth Pass to the Rock Creek valley outside of Red Lodge.

IMG_0853One time we camped off the Beartooth Highway on a side road just past a sign that said “Grizzly Bear Country. Store Food Properly”. As dusk fell on the Plateau, headlights came slowly down the dirt road toward us. Ox, curious about the noise after an evening of relative peace, roused himself and stood out by the dirt road. As the car approached, the passengers rolled down their window and checked him out. Then they hollered to us with a laugh, “hey, the sign said to watch out for grizzly bears… not polar bears!”.

I miss my big hairy white guy, the polar bear. I am thankful for all the laughs, love and adventures that we shared with Ox. We all miss him terribly, perhaps Doc most of all.

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Synchronized Sleeping
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Ox had a calming effect on Doc
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Sometimes, you just have one of those days where you want to hide your head in the fur of a friend and forget about it all!

My Thankfuls

Evan, age 2
Evan, age 2

When I sit down for dinner with my nephew, Evan, we always say our “thankfuls”. Evan brought this tradition home from preschool, where the kids learned to pause a moment and reflect on the things for which they are grateful. Saying thankfuls with Evan is always a treat. As the sole vocal member of the youngest generation of our family, the spotlight is on Evan as he picks who says thankfuls first. I prefer not to be picked right away. I want the opportunity to collect my thoughts and speak from the heart. I love listening to everyone share their thoughts while I deeply inhale the rich scents of the hearty meal that we are about to enjoy. The meal always tastes better and the company more joyful after we say our thankfuls.  This week I’ll share a daily thankful in honor of Thanksgiving and the tradition begun by Evan.

Soon to be a scrumptious cuke
Soon to be a crunchy cucumber
Baby butternut squash
Baby butternut squash

Today, I am thankful for the harvest from our garden. In August, September, and even into October, I canned, froze, fermented, cured, and dried a variety of vegetables – from pumpkins and peppers to beans and cucumbers. Meals now are accentuated by produce that we grew. They taste somehow sweeter and more satisfying for all the work that we put into growing them.

A typical August day's harvest
A typical August day’s harvest

This morning I pulled four gallon-sized bags of tomatoes out of the freezer. All day they’ve been stewing on my stove, warming our cabin as they cook down to a thick sauce. I’ve added our onions and carrots from a neighbor’s garden, along with basil I dried back in July. Some of the sauce will go into lasagne tonight – the perfect meal for a windy and brisk autumn evening!

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Straight from the freezer to the pot

Ranch Camp, Part II

Like many good mothers, Pippi takes lots of photos. She recently shared all these wonderful pictures from her week here with the kids for Ranch Camp. You can find Part I here: https://couleecreekranch.com/2014/10/16/ranch-camp-2014/

It’s such a pleasure to think back to the golden days of autumn now that winter is settling in around us and whisking the last brown leaves off trees with icy fingers. I continue to hope that winter, with its long dark nights, will bring me more time for writing and reminiscing here. For now, here are the last of the fall memories:

Nothing captures the taste of fall as well as fresh-pressed apple cider
Nothing captures the taste of fall as well as fresh-pressed apple cider
Yum!
Lip-smacking good!
Time for French toast!
It’s time for some French toast
Pickin' 'maters before the temperature drops - they arrived on a 90 degree day and were ushered out by 40 degree winds
Picking the last of the ‘maters before the temperature drops. Pippi and family arrived on a 90 degree day, so hot we went swimming. They were ushered out five days later by 30 degree winds and snow
Red Talus meets Red Angus cattle, aka hamburger cows
Red Talus meets Red Angus cattle, aka hamburger cows
Baby Annika's first 4-wheeler ride (with Talus, Doc, and me)
Baby Annika’s first 4-wheeler ride