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    August 2012
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Spontaneous Confusion

The first weekend in July all of us (ten adults, six kids) were gathering at the ranch, so we thought we should do something special. And hey, it doesn’t get any more special than this:

That is Chief Mountain, as seen from my living room window. I’ve been looking at it all my life and we’ve been talking about climbing it for almost as long because…well…damn. It’s right there. And it’s not as bad as it looks. The back side slopes off, so it’s more like an extremely steep hike, no special gear required. We finally designated a day and said, “Let’s do it.”

Then the day came and there were thunderstorms and none of us really wanted to stand on the top of a huge rock while lightning crashed around us, so the Chief remains unconquered.

Probably just as well. I’ve heard it said that overplanning is the death of spontaneity. If that’s the case, spontaneity will never expire at the hands of my family.

A couple of years ago we met my sister and her husband at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. Our original plan (yes, we did have one) was relatively simple. Meet at a campground, have a picnic lunch, then we—me, my husband, son and parents—would lounge and play on the beach while they—sis and husband—went scuba diving in an underwater forest. Then maybe we’d go for a hike.

It rained. It always rains when I go to Lake McDonald. My most vivid memory of the place is ruining a brand new pair of leather moccasins when I was a kid because it rained the whole time we were there and I hadn’t thought to bring along any other shoes. We had our picnic, huddled around the table with one eye on the clouds and the other on the increasingly aggressive waves. Just as we polished off the last of the chicken, the clouds let loose.

We grabbed up our stuff and ran for the cars. So much for Plan A. We wandered down to Lake McDonald Lodge and chased the boy child out of the gift shop and away from the piano and out of the huge fireplace and away from the electric organ and out of the restaurant and off of the balcony and down the guest hallways and out of the flower planters and away from the pop machine. Just at the point where we were debating whether to give up and go home or drive clear to Columbia Falls to toss the kid in the motel pool, the rain stopped. Time to go hiking.

I grabbed a map. Later, it was suggested that it might have been a good idea to grab several maps. Being the grabber, I was mostly concerned that I knew where I was. The rest were on their own.

We studied the nearby trails and determined that the one most suited to our varied ages and levels of enthusiasm was one called John’s Lake Loop. In addition to the tiny lake, the trail skirted McDonald Creek and dipped past two waterfalls, all in a short three miles. Perfect. The loop was down the road from the lodge. A couple of minutes in a car, or a short hike, according to my map. My sister and I opted for the hike. The others piled in the cars.

And here’s where it all started to fall apart.

My husband pointed out—after the fact, of course—that is it generally advisable to consult the little scale thing in the corner of the map that indicates miles per inch (or in this case, half inch) to determine the actual distance. We went with ‘it doesn’t look far’. We hiked. And we hiked. And we hiked some more. Just at the point where we decided we had somehow zipped right past the stupid loop and the stupid parking lot and even the stupid lake, we finally came to the intersection of the trails. Straight ahead led to the lake. Left and down the hill to the parking lot. We went down.

Approximately three minutes, it turned out, after my parents took the other fork.

We found my brother in law asleep in one car, my husband chasing the boy child up and down the hillside to keep him out of traffic, and my parents nowhere in sight. “They got tired of waiting and went ahead to the lake,” my husband said. “How did you miss them?” I should probably reiterate that I was still the only person with a map.

My sister went to wake up her husband. My little family decided to head around the loop in the opposite direction from the lake, toward the downstream waterfall, because we figured that was the outer limit of how far the boy would hike before insisting on ‘a ride’, despite the fact that he was capable of running non-stop for forty-five minutes inside the house and did so nightly.

So off we went—husband plus child plus me plus map. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to ask my sister where she planned to go before we left.

We took our time, strolling along, stopping to watch a woodpecker that was incredibly fascinating to a four year old and almost as fascinating to his mother, figuring there was no rush because my parents were going around the loop the other way and we’d have to meet eventually. When my sister didn’t catch up, we assumed they’d gone after my parents. We reached the waterfall. Admired it, took pictures of it, repeatedly snatched the boy back from the twenty foot cliff above it. No sign of parents or sister.

When our nerves had had all they could take of the waterfall, we herded the boy back down the nice trail that ran well back from the edge of the creek. At the bridge, we stopped to admire the view, enjoy the sun that was now shining, and drag the boy down from the railing half a dozen times.

After twenty minutes or so, my sister and her husband came strolling along. Yes, they’d reached the lake. No, they hadn’t caught up with our parents. Lacking a map, they’d been uncertain which trail went on around the loop to the waterfalls, so they turned back. “No problem,” I said. “It’s a loop. They have to come by here eventually.”

After another fifteen minutes of watching the boy whack his uncle with the stick they’d rigged up for a fishing pole and attempt to throw large rocks and himself into the water, we decided it was probably time to revert to the tried and true rodeo family failsafe plan. The one that had gotten all six of us home from every one of the hundreds of rodeos we went to when we were all young enough to still travel with Mom and Dad. Namely, go back to the truck and wait until everyone shows up.

Which was where we found our parents. Who had gone around the loop. Just not the same loop we were on because it turns out John’s Lake Loop is divided down the middle by a trail that cuts back to the parking lot and bypasses the waterfall and the bridge where we were waiting. They’d gone to the upper waterfall, then turned back because, yes, you guessed it, they didn’t have a map and weren’t sure where that other trail went.

As far as we could tell, at one point in time my sister and her husband were waiting at the lake while my parents waited at the upper falls and we waited at the lower falls. I’d say we managed to blanket the area pretty well. Imagine what we could have accomplished if the other two thirds of the family had been there.

Lake McDonald Lodge

Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real


My Favorite Pusher

I married my pusher. It was an excellent decision. A girl gets tired of having to find a different pusher at every rodeo, never knowing what she’s getting until she nods her head.

Calf pusher, of course. What other kind is there?

Breakaway roping is the fastest event in rodeo. You nod, you swing, you throw, you stop, and if you catch, the rope breaks the string that attaches it to your saddle horn. Time stops when the string snaps. All within two to four seconds. There is very little margin for error. (Never seen it? Watch this: Vegas and Me )  Therefore, the calf pusher is vital. A stall or a false step by the calf can cause the roper to break the barrier, a ten second penalty.

The pusher’s job is to be sure the calf stands straight and leaves when the gate opens. To achieve this outcome, the pusher must climb into the chute behind the calf. This is where the job description gets dicey. There are sewage ejection devices at the back end of a calf. This area is guarded by a set of sharp hooves mounted on spring-loaded levers, which are triggered by touch, movement or sound. Thanks to the above mentioned ejection of sewage, even in the midst of a ten year drought the bottom of the chute will be ankle deep in pungent muck.

Above the pusher’s head there are additional levers, bars and bolts, ideally situated for removing hide from scalps. These mechanisms are operated by a gate man who habitually drops the rear gate just as the pusher is ducking under it. To avoid all this hardware, the pusher is forced to assume a hunched position, which brings his face in closer proximity to the sharp hooves and the raw sewage. Then they close the rear gate and lock him in.

As romantic as it sounds, people are rarely standing in line to push calves. Finding a pusher can be especially problematic for a woman. The issue is the lack of reciprocity. If my husband needs a pusher, he simply rides up to another calf roper.

“Give me a shove?” he asks.

“Sure, what out are you?”

“Fourth. You need me to get you?”

“Yeah. I’m gunner.”

Translated: “Will you push my calf?” “Sure, what number are you on the list?” “Fourth. Do you need me to push your calf?” “Yes, I’m first.” Even trade, all parties satisfied with the transaction. But in one of the finer chauvinistic traditions of rodeo—and I say that in all honesty, having no love for calf poop running down the front of my jeans—women are hardly ever expected to push a calf.

Which is great, except it means in lieu of trading pushes, we have to resort to asking favors. Breakaway roper says, “Uh, Jim? Could I get you to push my calf?”

Jim looks around wildly, realizing he has somehow allowed himself to be the only fool who didn’t vacate the roping chutes well before the breakaway roping. He heaves a resigned sigh. “Yeah. Sure.”

The woman can, of course, sweeten the pot by rewarding her pusher with the alcoholic beverage of his choice after the rodeo, but this strategy has its pitfalls. The biggest being Jim’s girlfriend.

After many years of scavenging for pushers, imagine my delight when I realized that I now had one under contract. If it isn’t in the wedding vows, it should be, right after that ‘cherish and obey’ part. Not only did I not have to worry who would push my calf, but I knew he would do it well. After all, my winnings were his winnings. Or so he seemed to think.

A good pusher can make all the difference. We once rolled into Buffalo Gap, SD only minutes before the performance started. The arena was knee deep in mud. I checked the stock draw and noted the number of my calf. Then I went looking for someone who’d watched the morning slack. As soon as I said the number,

Billy gave me a pitying look. “Piece of junk. Ducked left both times he was run this morning.”

Crud. I might as well have mailed my entry fees and saved the gas money.

“I’ll talk to your husband,” Billy said. “Be ready to get your rope out of your hand in a hurry.”

He and Greg had a quick consultation. Greg climbed into the chute to push the calf. Billy strolled out to help the liners whose job it was to make the calves go as straight as possible. My mare and I slurped through the mud and into the box. When all was set, I nodded. Greg shoved the calf’s butt so hard to the left that it staggered out of the chute sideways. Billy fired a mud clod across its bow for good measure. The calf spooked to the right, in front of my horse. I took one swing and threw before it realized it had made a wrong turn. Snap! Second place.

If only it was always that easy.

Later the same summer, we were in Taber, Alberta. Breakaway roping hadn’t caught on up there yet, and only seven ropers entered the rodeo. The committee rounded up a handful of feedlot yearlings so fat their bellies hung up as they tried to leave the chute. There was barely room for Greg to squeeze in behind. I backed in the corner and nodded.

The calf bailed out of the chute in one long lunge. I roped him quick and looked back to see if I’d broken the barrier. My husband was prostrate in the dirt, blood running down the side of his head. It seems some teenaged kid who knew nothing about cattle got the bright idea to prod the calf when the gate opened. Startled, the calf jumped, kicking with both hind feet, one of which connected squarely with Greg’s eyebrow.

My dad helped him stagger to his feet, then dragged him from the arena before he could choke the chute help. I met them at the camper. Greg was still bleeding. His eye was swelling shut. We were in Canada, we had no idea whether our insurance company paid bills that were submitted in loonies, and a visit to the emergency room would definitely cost more than the hundred and ten bucks I’d won.

Here’s where the day job in sports medicine came in handy. After determining that any brain damage appeared temporary, I slapped an ice pack on his head. Then we found a drug store. I bought Steri-Strips, benzoin and iodine, cleaned the wound, and reattached his eyebrow to his forehead. Did a pretty good job if I say so myself. Strangers hardly ever gawk at the scar when they meet him on the street.

The whole experience put a damper on Greg’s enthusiasm for pushing calves, though. At the next rodeo, he eyed the chute, eyed the calf, then looked at me and said, “Maybe I’ll just stand outside and tail him.”

Obviously, it was time to review his contract.

Going Out in Style

Yesterday my old dog disappeared.

And yes, this is where I usually come up with some cute twist on words, or tell a funny story about how my husband and I got our wires crossed and forgot the dog at the neighbor’s or some such thing. This time, though, there is no punch line. My dog is really gone.

As I said, she was an old dog. She would have been sixteen on Labor Day weekend. She was mostly deaf, mostly blind, and occasionally suffered seizures that made her fall over and twitch. Still, she somehow always knew when the younger dog Max was anywhere near, and was still able and willing to kick punk puppy butt.

She was a cow dog, a rodeo dog, never an actual house dog other than her quarters in the porch or garage of wherever we lived. We raised her ourselves, the last female of the last batch out of my husband’s best working dog, Squeak. It was inevitable that we would name her Pip. (Pipsqueak. Get it?)

My husband and I had each had dogs when we married. Pip was the first that was ours. She rode a hundred thousand miles in the back seat of our pickup, to rodeos all over Montana and the Pacific Northwest. Spent equally as many hours hunkered under the pickup and trailer, defending her temporary turf from any dog that dared venture too near. She never left that space, never had to be tied.

She despised the UPS man and children of any stripe but would have happily invited a gang of thugs in for coffee and divvying up of the silverware as long as they were all over the age of eleven.

She unequivocally refused to fetch.

Four years ago, when we first moved back here to the ranch, she was still a working dog. The second year she slowed down, and by the third she’d gone into retirement, rarely venturing beyond the front yard. My mother’s porch was her domain, not to be shared with upstart Border Collies. The shitzu, though, could be tolerated. Even protected.

Sunday night Pip left the yard for the first time in months. My brother finally found her the next morning, lying in the reeds in a swampy area below the house. They carried her up to the barn, fed and watered her. The minute they left, she made a beeline right back down to the swamp. When I got home Monday night they had her locked in the barn for her own good.

I gathered armloads of slick grass hay and made her a soft, fragrant bed, then curled up with her for a good long time. Petting, scratching, talking. Sharing memories. She was alert, angling her head this way and that to give me access to her favorite scratching spots. Growling if Max ventured too close.  She drank. She ate. But her eyes had gone dull, her ears drooped, and overnight it seemed as if all the flesh had melted from her bones. I left the barn fully aware that it would probably be the last time I saw her alive.

The next day she was gone. Poof. Somehow she’d found her way the length of the barn, up a step, through a cluttered tack room and out a back door that had been left open a gap. Not a small feat for a blind, staggering dog. Once outside, she vanished into the acres and acres of waist high grass surrounding our tree belt and outbuildings. Every square foot my mother doesn’t mow is a veritable jungle. And it’s thick. I could search for days, walk within a few feet of a motionless dog and never know it.

I didn’t search.

There is a belief among the Navajo that when a dying person reaches their last moments they should be moved outside, where the spirits released by their final breath can dissipate into the air. My dog was of a like mind. She knew it was time to go and she was determined to do it in her own way. Her last vision was not going to be of a clothes dryer. Her last breath would not reek of Tide. She chose to walk away with dignity and die under the endless stretch of Montana sky.

Some people might wonder how we could not look for her. Subconsciously I suppose we will, everywhere we walk for many, many weeks.

I hope we don’t find her. I hope we never find her. I prefer to imagine she found a soft place to curl up, cradled by lush green grass, the smell of damp earth and sweet summer rain filling her lungs as she departed the body that had become a burden to her. A quiet fade into the soft haze of memory.

God speed to you, Pip, wherever you are. You were a damn good dog.

Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real

Father’s Day 911

Hey, all! Kari Lynn Dell here. Life has intervened as it will from time to time so Keri Stevens won’t be by until later with her regular post. In the meantime, I’m asking for your help.

My dad and my husband both have e-readers so I’m on the hunt for book recommendations for Father’s Day. They’re both fairly eclectic readers, so rather than pin you to any particular genre I’m just going to ask in general. What book or books would you recommend, or what book or books does the man in your life love?

And for the men in the crowd, Happy Father’s Day!

Kari Lynn Dell



It’s All in the Name

Creating people from scratch is a tricky business. Just ask the Big Guy upstairs. Except in my case I’m not creating real people, just the kind that run around in my head and in my stories. And then I have to name them. Which is like naming your kid, only harder because not only does it have to be a name that suits this imaginary person, but it can’t be too much like the names of any of the other imaginary people in the story or readers will get confused, and it can’t be a name that reminds people of someone famous…or worse, infamous.

So after much pondering and puzzling, I named my character Blaize. Then I spent a year writing a book in which he played, if not a leading role, at least a fairly major part. Then I sat down with my agent to rework the book and the first thing she said was, “You have to change his name. Blaize is what strippers call themselves.”

Oh. Well. Another lesson learned in the big city by this country hick.

So I pondered and puzzled a whole lot more because if finding a name is hard, changing a name this late in the game is like re-christening your child when they start high school. Or maybe college. Finally I narrowed it down to two: Dylan or Delon. I was leaning toward the second, but I kept thinking, “Would these Texans really name their kid Delon?” Then I recalled the story my sister told me about why her son’s name didn’t turn out to be exactly what she planned. But rather than me explaining, I’ll let Delon tell you himself.

How I Got this Way

My name is Delon Sanchez. Yeah, I know. Not exactly a traditional Hispanic name, Delon. Sounds like I should be a basketball player from inner city Houston not a cowboy from out by Amarillo, but there’s a pretty good story behind it.

My dad’s grandparents immigrated from Mexico back in the late forties and worked their way up to the Texas Panhandle. Like most of his generation of the family my dad speaks Spanish, but he doesn’t write or read it much. My mother was the first in her family to be born in the United States. She grew up in a border town where Spanish was the dominant language and though she speaks English well enough, she still has a strong accent.

And yes, this matters when it comes to how I became Delon.

When my older brother was born my mother didn’t get any say in what he was named because he’s The Man, the heir to the throne at Sanchez Trucking. He got saddled with the names handed down by my dad and my granddad: Benito Gilberto Sanchez Rivera. They call him Gil so’s not to confuse him with my dad, Benito.

When my mother found out I was going to be a boy, she informed my dad that she was naming this one whatever she wanted. I imagine there were a few arguments. There are always arguments between my parents. They seem to like it. At some point my mother must’ve won, and then my dad tuned out because that’s what he does when he doesn’t get his way, and he wasn’t really listening when my mother declared she was naming me after her favorite singer. Meh. Who paid attention to singers, anyway?

So the big day came. Things didn’t go as expected and I ended up being delivered by C-section. Mom was still off in La-La Land when they came around to see what name to put on the birth certificate, but Dad knew what she wanted so he filled it out and sent them on their way.

I’d been home from the hospital almost two weeks when the official version of my birth certificate came in the mail. According to my aunt, she heard the shrieking from clear across town. My mother shoved it under Dad’s nose. “What the hell is this? Day-loan? What kind of name is that? He’s supposed to be named after Bob Dylan.”

“What are you talking about?” Dad grabbed the certificate, pointed at the name. “Dee-lon. I wrote it down exactly how you said it.”

So here I am.

Kari Lynn Dell- Montana for Real

Operation Kindergarten Completion

Tomorrow is my son’s last day as a kindergartner. I can hardly believe we made it. The year has been nothing if not interesting, and I’m fairly sure we got a lot more educated than the kid.

However, given that we are the same parents who managed to forget the child at daycare on at least three occasions while we lived in Oregon, we did pretty damn good. My husband didn’t once fail to show up at the bus stop, although there were a couple of occasions when he had to drive really fast. And there was only that once when I was eyeball deep in work and suddenly realized it was five past when I was supposed to pick the kid up from his school. As far as I know, he was fully dressed every day and most of the time we even remembered his gloves.

Best of all is this:

We started the year with a backpack and a lunchbox, nicely matched. On the first day of school the boy was issued a folder in which all of his papers and school announcements and such were to travel back and forth between us and his teacher. I am proud to announce that yes, those ARE the same backpack, lunchbox and folder from the beginning of the year.

Not only did we manage to keep track of the folder, there was only one day that it went missing and didn’t make the trip to school, but we located it that night in the belly of our recliner couch. A close call given that the same couch has crunched up several CDs, a Mario Kart game and the external hard drive for my laptop. Note that the folder is not torn, chewed or trampled. It has not been taped, stapled or otherwise patched. It is, in fact, darn close to pristine.

We get a gold star for that, right?

Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real

Go ahead and chime in. What’s your proudest accomplishment of the last school year? Or any school year, as far as that goes!

A World Without Pickups

And no, I don’t mean the “Hey, baby, wanna get lucky?” kind. I’m talking Fords, Chevys, big ol’ Dodge Rams. I just went three full days without seeing a single pickup truck.

Where on earth could this kind of insanity happen, you ask?

Yep, that’s New York. The Big Apple. This hick’s been in the city, and I gotta say…I loved it.

First off, there’s a bakery on every corner. Pastries. Red velvet cupcakes. Flan. Bagels. Let me stop now before I drown my keyboard in drool. There is also this thing called lunch delivery, by which a single slice of cheese pizza and a Pepsi miraculously appear at your door.

It is also the only place I’ve ever been where everybody walks as fast as me. My entire life I’ve had people trailing along in my wake, glaring at my back because I can’t seem to pace myself. In New York I had to stride out a little to keep up, even with my friend Juliet’s kids along for the stroll. Oh yeah. I could live here.

Except there are no pickups.

It makes sense, when you think about it. What use does a New Yorker have for a vehicle with an open box? Anything you leave in there is going to either get soaked or disappear as soon as you park and walk away. Or possibly at the next stoplight. I assume that’s why even the construction workers drive vans.

So yeah, it makes sense. But sadly, that puts paid to my brief fantasy of having a twenty four hour bakery across the street from my office. I simply can’t exist in a world without pickups. Sure was delicious while it lasted, though.

Kari Lynn Dell – back in Montana for Real

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