Staying Home

January 31, 2015


Mercifully, yesterday’s drive was only eleven hours.

I had been so scared of the weather report that I’d seriously debated taking my truck. I figured the bad alternator would be charged on the drive and we’d be much safer in the big truck in a blizzard. However, my mechanic friend D nixed the idea. His vocabulary is limited but expressive. “That alternator shits out on you, you’re gonna be fucked.” He could tell from my silence on the phone that I had no idea what he was talking about. “Headlights’d drain the battery,” he said impatiently. “Truck would go dead on the road.” Oh.

So I headed out in the little Honda, fingers gripping the wheel. To my relief the worst of the predicted storm passed us by. I drove in and out of snow squalls all the way to New Hampshire, but the drive home was mostly clear. This morning it is a gorgeous blue day and -15°.


I’ve decided to give myself the gift of a day at home. I have slept so little for the past week that I am going to try to simply do my usual 2.5 hours of barn chores and otherwise have a restful day cleaning, changing beds, baking bread, folding laundry, and tackling a little of the mountain of paperwork desperately awaiting my attention.

Oh, yes, and enjoying my girl!

DH has emailed that he may be able to leave the city early and get back tonight.

A perfect day.

On the Road

January 30, 2015

Toby and Lucy, reading on the couch at Christmas

I drive to pick up my girl Lucy from school today. I am excited to have her home for the weekend. I am a confident driver and never mind long trips except under two circumstances: twisty mountains roads with sheer drops, and snowstorms. In both cases I tend to whimper, pull over, and ask DH to drive.

This is when DH makes jokes about me needing a Big Strong Man.

I will be pushing through a snowstorm across New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire today. I may whimper, but there will be no pulling over: DH is on a business trip to Manhattan. I will have Lucy’s little dog Toby with me, as ten hours (the drive time without snow) is too long to leave him alone. Eighteen pounds, happy, and excitable, Toby is not a candidate for the Big Strong Man role.

Meanwhile I have to manage the livestock. It is due to snow all day with falling temperatures. My computer is chirping to warn me that the windchill is expected to drop to -32° F by 7 PM. I may not be home until several hours after that. (On one of my trips to get Lucy last year, we crept through a white-out and didn’t make it home until after midnight.) Over the next few days, the high will hover around 0° F.

Under normal circumstances I would turn the cattle and sheep out this morning and bring them in promptly after work. They would be snow-covered but fine. However the combination of wet snow and long hours of wind worries me. I think I will turn them out this morning, muck the barn, and bring them back in after an hour to dry stalls with plenty of hay. They won’t like spending the day inside — change in routine is always upsetting — but it will be one less thing for me to worry about.

Fingers crossed that this trip is not an epic.


Still Cold

January 29, 2015

-20° F this morning. Truck dead again, water frozen. For the past few days I have been waking up at 2:30 AM, worrying about all my undone work for teaching and for the farm. I try to make myself stay in bed until 3. Then coffee and lists.

I have been lucky. Every day recently it has been — just barely — warm enough (the tipping point seems to be about 7°) by afternoon chores for the paddock water hydrant to thaw briefly. Every evening I fill the trough.

I am stressed but I remind myself that any day I don’t have to carry 800 pounds of water is a good day.

No Snowstorm Here

January 27, 2015

As this is a small northern mountain town utterly dependent on ski tourism, everyone has been watching warnings of the “epic” blizzard dumping snow on downstate New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island with glum envy.

Here we have the road equipment and would welcome the snowfall (not me, particularly, but I’d be happy for the locals). However, so far nary a flake.

We are due to receive a scant few inches. Clouds have moved in and warmed us up to a cozy 0° F, with 30 mph wind gusts.

At these temperatures, my barn cat Flossie prefers to curl up in the loose chaff in the hayloft to sleep.


Only when it is colder than about -15° does Flossie bother to climb down the ladder to snooze in her rubber feed tub lined with a heating pad in the tack room.


Red Sky at Night…

January 26, 2015


… ice cube’s delight.

Above was the sunset Saturday night from the front door of the barn. Yesterday morning it was snowing and 24° F at 4 AM. Then the skies cleared and the temperature began to drop. By evening chores it was -7° and this morning it is 24° below zero.

The truck is dead. The barn paddock water is frozen. I imagine the apartment water is frozen.

Next week is due to be colder.

I am tired.


January 25, 2015

Our family has its peculiarities. My daughter Lucy, 17, is home from school for the weekend for a ski race. This morning she emerged from her bedroom sleepy-eyed in her pajamas and reported, “I had an awful nightmare. I dreamed that it rained!”

We laughed over this terrifying thought.

I told her how yesterday afternoon, watching my friend Damon operating my tractor, I’d been so thrilled to have the driveway cleaned up that I’d found myself thinking, “Happiness is a pushed-up manure pile!”

We are peculiar. Luckily we all understand each other.


Out of Pocket

January 24, 2015

In the past few years, the phrase “out of pocket” has taken on a new meaning among busy executives. “Sorry — I’ll be out of pocket this weekend.” My guess is that this is shorthand for: “My trendy iPhone/ Android/ Blackberry will be out of my pocket this weekend, so you, poor rube, will not be able to reach me.”

Out of pocket means something entirely different here.

I am the original pocket lady. In my absentmindedness I generally put things down without noticing; therefore, I like to have pockets so at least I end up carrying the items along with me. Whenever I lose something, my husband asks patiently, “Have you checked your pockets?”

My problem in winter is that I am wearing so many layers that the number of my pockets explodes. Four pockets in my jeans. Two pockets in my sweatshirt. Six pockets in my coveralls. Two pockets in my down vest. Three pockets in my jacket. That’s 17 pockets, each one carrying its forgetful load of wrenches, snaps, screws, bolts, knife, and the occasional syringe. When I peel off my barn clothes at night there is a shower of hardware.

Often in winter I miss calls because I hear a muffled ringing and can’t unzip to the layer in which the phone is tucked before the caller gives up. Meanwhile I don’t notice particularly what’s going on with my outermost layers as I climb up and down the hayloft ladder, muck the stalls and push the wheelbarrow outside, wade through the snow to spread flakes of hay, or carry sacks in from the grain shed.

The three items I try hardest to keep track of day to day are my cell phone, my camera, and my little iPod Shuffle. My track record with all three is so poor that I’ve learned to keep them inexpensive. I buy used cell phones and cameras on Ebay for under $30. This makes the inevitable “oh dear” moments less painful.

Still, the past fortnight was notable.

I sat on my phone (in the back pocket of my coveralls) in the hayloft and cracked the screen, rendering it unreadable.

IMG_1569I lost my Shuffle. I found it a week later, frozen under an inch of clear ice in the barn paddock like Han Solo locked in carbonite. Obviously it had fallen out of one of my pockets. I chipped the Shuffle out carefully, dried it, and it still works.

However, in the days that I was looking for my Shuffle, I lost my camera. (“Gosh, it’s tiring to be me,” I told my husband.)

This morning I found the camera. It, too, had fallen out of one of my outside pockets into the snow. From the dent in its case, it’s clear something stepped on it. The lens was extended and the entire camera covered with snow crystals. I removed the battery so the lens couldn’t thaw and retract while wet. After chores I dried the camera carefully with a hair dryer. Again, I was lucky. Though the case is battered and the viewfinder badly scratched, the camera still works.

Here are the teenaged boys Mike, Leo, Marty, and Harvey this afternoon, clearly wondering with anticipation what will be “out of pocket” next.


Dead Battery

January 22, 2015


Last summer both our aged vehicles had to be replaced in an alarming one-month span. I managed to find a good deal on a used Honda downstate (DH stopped with me for five minutes on his way to South America and signed the papers) and another on a 2008 Chevrolet truck. With scraping and pinching, I brought both home.

The truck had been harder to locate than the car, simply because of all the things I did not want. No back seat, no bells and whistles, no leather, no frills. Apparently no one but me wants a truck like this. Still, I located one eventually. The “new” truck doesn’t even have power windows. It barely has a gas gauge and radio. But the price was good and I love it.

There were a few problems in the first month under warranty and by bull-dogging the dealer (and doing internet research to pinpoint the issues the mechanic could not find) I had them taken care of. However, over the past few months I had begun to realize something else was wrong. The clock in the dashboard kept losing time. I didn’t think it could be the battery, as the battery was new.

“Loose wire, maybe, or your alternator,” my friend Damon said briefly.

This is above my paygrade. I wouldn’t know an alternator if it shook my hand.

Life has been so busy that I have had no time to take the truck anywhere for repairs. With the temperatures below zero the engine has been dead almost every day for the past two weeks. This, in addition to the frozen water at the barn, the frozen pipes at the farm apartment, and the teaching job. The only thing to do has been to jump-start the truck every morning and keep working on the rest of my list.

Back in 2007, someone at Chevy apparently thought it would be a smart idea to move the battery and hide it under the hinge of the hood, making it a tricky thing to reach with cables — especially when your fingers are clumsy inside thick winter gloves.

Every morning I think of that person crossly and wonder if he’s still employed by Chevrolet.



January 21, 2015

Always in the driver’s seat. Allen circa 1948, with his sister Gail in his lap

My friend Allen is having heart surgery today. I am anxious. He’s had so many, he says he is not worried. I hear he’s even having his wife bring his little dog to the hospital. (Punkie is also elderly and hasn’t been well.) It’s typical that Allen is more concerned about his dog than about himself.

But I am anxious.

*    *    *

It’s 10° F this morning. After all my ministrations on Sunday, the paddock hydrant thawed overnight and flooded. Yesterday morning it was frozen again. Allen thinks I need a new hydrant, that the entire system should be dug up once more and replaced.

I said eagerly, “Yes, you can dig it out with a backhoe in the spring!”

Allen gave a little tired chuckle. “In the spring, sure.”

Passing the Torch

January 19, 2015

The barn paddock water froze two weeks ago. This “frost-free” hydrant has frozen every winter since it was installed in 2009. My elderly friend Allen has fixed it countless times, even once bringing a backhoe and his son, digging up the whole thing six feet underground, and resetting it in gravel. It still freezes.

Ten days ago I worked on the hydrant myself. It appeared to me that part of the problem was that it leaks around the piston in the head and the head freezes solid. Fighting the ice, I managed to snap the bolt in the handle — another brief setback. However I scrounged another bolt and on my trip to the big city I bought a fresh heat tape to replace the old dead one. I wrapped the tape up and around the head and for several days I had water.


I was pleased — but wary. From painful experience I guessed this was simply an opening skirmish in the annual Winter Water War.

Sure enough, on Saturday at -20° F the water was frozen again despite the heat tape. When I tried to force the handle, the set-screw that pulls up the piston rod simply scraped off shavings of brass and moved without it. The rod was clearly frozen deep underground.

This happens every winter, and every winter I have called Allen. I kept a stool at the barn for Allen and I have so many memories of him bundled up and sitting patiently in the snow with his propane torch, working on the water. I’m sure we’ve enacted this little story a dozen times.

23565b6e-4541-4fb2-ba25-f5ace12b5886_400But Allen’s health is terribly fragile now. His heart is failing. He is on oxygen and isn’t strong enough to go outside. When I called him to tell him about the frozen hydrant, he said, “You need to buy a torch, honey.”

My heart was heavy. However after carrying twenty 5-gallon, 40-pound buckets of water at morning chores, scrambling over ice and sloshing freezing water down the legs of my coveralls, of course I drove into town and bought the $35 torch.

Allen’s stool had become so rickety by last summer that I’d put it on the burn pile. Yesterday afternoon I sat on an overturned bucket, held the torch to the steel standpipe, and missed Allen. I missed his jokes, his whistling, and his authority that never seemed fazed by any problem.


As usually happens, the cattle came to watch. My cow Katika always spent hours watching Allen at work on an excavator. (“I’m her TV!”) I held the torch, talked to the steers, and missed Allen.


Mike, Leo, and Harvey investigating

I sat and sat.


By the time I quit to go home, I could hear water boiling far down in the pipe but it still wouldn’t flow.

Allen would know what to do. Sigh.

These days it’s hard sometimes, not to get stuck wishing for the past.