Raising Cowgirls - The Real Kind



If you are lucky, you will have a moment when you realize that your child is becoming strong and independent and confident in the best possible way.

I have that moment captured in a series of pictures.

Taken a few years ago in the haze of 100 degree heat and wildfire smoke mixed with the dust of an eastern Washington show arena, the pictures show my ballerina-slim daughter Lindsay facing off with a 1100 pound show cow that has had enough.

The cow is trying to yank the halter rope out of her hands and run out of the arena, but Lindsay sets the heels of her boots in the dirt and tightens her grip. In one of the photos, you can see Lindsay flying up off the ground while the cow tries to get the better of her, but in the final photo, you see the cow following obediently, while Lindsay wears a big smile.

If you are outweighed by an animal 10 to one, your only advantages are confidence, courage and determination.

I have cow shows to thank for that.

Around the country kids are getting their animals ready for fair. 4H and FFA are youth programs that help guide and grow young minds through dedication to community service and innovation through hands-on learning.

More than 100 years ago, 4H started as a way to introduce reluctant farmers to new agriculture techniques through youth projects that showed real-world results.   For generations, these programs have formed core experiences for not only future farmers but for future community  leaders as well.

Lindsay started at the tiny Wahkiakum county fair when she was 10 with bottle-fed polled hereford bull calf named Bozo. He was a handful,  but she learned quickly how to not let him push her around.

Since then she has shown heifers - female cows that haven’t had their first calf. These are older and bigger than that first bull-calf -- usually a little short of two years old, pregnant and over 1000 pounds.  Quite a bit bigger than the kids showing them.

Since Nelson Polled Herefords is focused on improving the bloodlines of the breed, showing off heifers promotes the health and quality of the animals.  Lindsay’s second year showing we were invited over to Eastern Washington to a show called the Summer Sizzle in Connell.

It was a little taste of big time livestock shows where farm kids from around the state compete with their animals to earn money for college. It was hot and dusty, a lot of sitting around in the barn waiting, punctuated by a crescendo of the behind the scenes controlled-chaos leading up to tense moments in the show arena.

Despite the hours of training to get here, you never know if your animal is going to act up in the ring in a way that it never did back home. Nervous trauma-nurse dad paced the ring-side those first few years, picturing worst case scenarios.

However, the girls - first Lindsay, then younger sister Grace - love it. They loved being in the barn with other farm girls, taking care of their animals’ feed and water as well as washing and blow dry. They love learning from Leslie Bennett - the Connell 4H leader - as well as the older kids who show them what to do and what the judges want to see. Somehow, while this is fierce competition with big money on the line, everyone is helpful, supportive and kind.

Leslie Bennett is the granddaughter of the famous Bill Bennett of BB Cattle Company which has partnered with Nelson Polled Herefords for the past 30 years. Bennetts have been a part of 4H for a long time. Sitting around their kitchen table eating grapes and watermelon this year, we picked out a young Bill and wife Norma in a photo from 4H conference at Washington State University in 1948.

We don’t win. The style these days is for a different type of animal and the kids we are showing against have mountains more experience under their belt from the summer show circuit. For our heifer, it is often their first chance in a show ring. Yet the girls love it.

For both cows and kids it is a good warm-up for the county fair in August. The beef barn was empty that first year we brought little Bozo to fair. In the years since we’ve seen a little resurgence as more kids and cows come in. Lindsay and Grace have been good ambassadors for the 4H and for their cows. The heifers are so gentle and tame by fair time that they lay down and let the girls cuddle with them in the straw.  Last year, Lindsay and Grace even took their cows to state fair.

After fair, the bond between the girls and their animals remains such that they can walk up to the old show cows in the field and pet them.

Meanwhile, Lindsay will be a senior next year. She’s spent the last two years as a statewide 4H Ambassador, traveling all over the Northwest promoting the benefits of 4H and organizing camps and conferences for teenagers like the one Bill and Norma Bennett attended way back in 1948.

If you ask her what gave her the confidence to do the things she does, she always points you back to training and showing cows and lessons learned along the way.

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Touching Base: Finding Renewal in the Wild of Younger Days

And in my mind I still need a place to go
All my changes were there


  • Neil Young, Helpless


Sometimes you can be connected to a place and returning to it can renew you.

My family immigrated to Washington state in 1978, packed into a Ford station wagon driving across the country from New Jersey.

I like to joke that my parents saw the movie “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” one too many times.

The courses of our lives are guided by decisions and events much more complicated than that. Yet it would be futile to gather all the scraps for circumstance that led us from the suburbs of New Jersey -- sight unseen -- to the rugged architecture of the Columbia River Gorge.

To a nine year old boy,  our family expedition from “flat land and brown air” in the Spring of that year seemed like an endless summer vacation.

Our farm in Lyle as it looked when we first moved there in 1978.

Salamanders in the spring house, hidden fields and arrowheads, horseback rides along the windswept bluffs to abandoned farmsteads, evening walks with my father to the top of the hill to count the pink mountains almost close enough to touch.

When you are a child, you experience joy often, and appreciate it only rarely.

Each year I bring my family back to the little town in the Columbia River gorge where I grew from a child to a man.

Even though I lived nine years on the East Coast before we moved there, I always say I “grew up” in this place. I only lived there for a dozen years.  I have long since grown much deeper roots in the rainshadow green of the Grays River Valley.

Yet the rings on my tree are etched deeper and wider in those Gorge years somehow. The decade between nine and 19 is packed with so many changes -- including how we come to understand the world as something greater than our own experience -- we cannot help but be changed by it. As much rambling joy and adventure I had in the hills around Lyle, Washington, I experienced just as much fear, awkwardness and embarrassment and alienation. Yet that has faded over time, wounds have healed and joy remains.

It comes back to me on the August wind.

We started a tradition -- I don’t know how it came to be -- of having our picture taken in a certain spot along the Klickitat river. We’ve been coming to this place since Lindsay was in diapers. This year she is a senior in high school.

The waters of the Klickitat are fed from the glaciers of the mountains. Each year I dip my hat in the cold water and place it on my head, rebaptizing myself in the moment of geologic suspension.

I can flip though the old photographs and see our changes. The river is sometimes lower, sometimes higher, forcing us to climb a bit more up onto the rocks. Yet, the hills are ageless against our microscopic timelines. Years are seconds to them, too numerous to bother with counting.

Once upon a time I rode my horse through these hills and knew the trails without name. Once upon a time, my sister taught me to drive along these backroads. Here was the old junkyard where my little league baseball coach lived, here the school bus would stop to the let the trains go by.

Gone now gone. Gone to a memory that has to hold on to rails to steady itself until it gets its bearings.

On a basalt plateau above the Columbia River hides a curling trail that dives into the scrub oak and yellow grass and dares the great cliffs that judge the changes in the windswept white-capped waters. Catherine Creek is a little preserve that was first set aside the year I graduated high school. Before that we called this place “rattlesnake flats” or graydigger flats because flattened fauna that littered the asphalt of the long straight of lonely road.

My father moved back to New Jersey after just five years in the Gorge -- in some ways, against his will. Life had other plans for him.

Yet each time he comes out to visit, he brings his wife and kids and grandkids to Kathrine Creek, to hike among the wildflowers on the windy cliffs.

Until this year, I had never stopped.

When I stopped, I understood.

For in our experience, this place preserves the distilled essence of the Gorge I remember, before the wineries and windsurfers. Yellow grass clings to lichen-pocked basalt, while wildflowers grow in the cracks of the rocks or the shade of huddled scrub oak. Wind on endless warm wind braces you.

When you live in the Gorge, the wind becomes a part of the landscape such that you don’t notice it -- ever present in every August afternoon.

We take our childhoods for granted, they are so often a mix of unmet expectations, underappreciated joys and careless dreams. The summers of our lives can seem so busy that even a lazy day in a hammock can need a week’s worth of planning.

August - particularly in window of time after the fair and before the start of school -- we try to squeeze a lot of adventures into the little time we have left.

“Carpe Summer” I say -- a crude variation of Carpe Diem - latin for seize the day.”

September will be no less busy. Yet, it has a different tone and rhythm. The rains will come as early as October, and there is much around the house that needs to be done. I can sense the change each year on the drive back from the Gorge. Sun sets earlier, the mornings have chill. Early fallen leafs swirl along the side of the road.

You can feel the end of summer looming, but still, but still.

The Septembers of our lives come with a suddenness that staggers. So much still to be done before winter sets in.

It is important to touch base even now and again, to take a quiet moment in a wild place of our younger selves -- to appreciate all the days that have been given to us as well as to marvel at our survival thus far.

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One Man's Fight Against Entropy

I’m a dented-tank kind of guy.
I like fixing things, bringing them back from the dead or disrepair.
I say dented-tank because when I bought my third motorcycle I had a choice - I could have bought a garage queen - a bike that lived its life under cover, ridden on weekends and never seeing a drop of rain or mud. My other option was a bike that had been ridden hard, that had a lot of miles cross country running up from Texas by way of the California coast. I bought the bike that had survived the miles of life and had stories to tell.
I bought the bike with the dented tank.
I like restoration, even though I’m not much of a details person. I hold no illusion that I’m any good at it.
Yet, I love reviving old things that have begun on their path of increasing entropy. It is my way of fighting the deterioration of the world.
I guess I do my best to fix people too in my chosen career. As a nurse in the Emergency Department, people come in sick and I make them better -- or get them to someone else who can. It is the nature of emergency nursing to identify the problem and find a solution. It is the same process as repairing an old motorcycle or fixing plumbing.
I call it instant gratification nursing.
Our house is over a hundred years old.
When we bought it 25 years ago, entropy had settled in and made itself at home. Renters had occupied the house for several years, the roof leaked and windows were broken out of their weathered double-hung frames, the plumbing was mostly strung-together hot water heater hoses.
Yet the bones were good.  Amy and I -- married only a year at that point -- moved in with the ambitions of nesting newlywed couple. We bought old handyman books from thrift shops -- since newer books really didn’t apply to our lathe and plaster walls.  We taught ourselves as we went -- this in the days before Youtube and the Internet. Through years of sweat equity we brought it back to life - saved it from rotting away and being dragged to the ground by blackberry vines.
The first year was cold and drafty and damp, hard work made the house warm and cozy.  
Taking something broken and fixing it gives an addicting kind of satisfaction.
When the girls were younger, they wanted electronic games that I was just too cheap to buy new. So I bought used ones with broken cases and loose wires, repaired them using videos on Youtube and instructions on Ifixit.com and Instructables. Compared to my old 1960s Handyman books, the internet is a Godsend. Instant access to people who have diagnosed the problem and found a solution -- people with more knowledge and skills than I have.
Some early Apple ipods were easy to repair - so I could buy a used one for a couple bucks and have it working like new in a rainy afternoon.
Unfortunately, manufacturers have worked to keep repair information secret and limit access to parts in recent years. These companies make more money if you throw away something that is broken and buy a new one. If you simply fix it when it is broken, they don’t profit - unless you pay them to fix it.  Increasingly, companies fight green standards that enable the repair, reuse recycling and product life extension of electronics.
Companies like Apple and Microsoft will go out of their way to make sure people can’t re-use or extend the life of their products. Eric Lundgren, a California electronic waste recycler has gone to jail for making copies of restore disks that always get lost when you buy a computer. The discs were based on free information online and would only work with valid licenses.
Yet, Lundgren made it so people could reuse old computers. So Microsoft went after him in federal court. Lundgren was sent to jail.
Apple only made ipod batteries available after losing a class action lawsuit. I’ve been repairing Apple products for decades, but recently Apple customer service told me they wouldn’t help me restore a phone -- even though I was the legal owner and was fully in compliance with their published policies on the matter. It wasn’t stolen or lost, they just wanted me to throw away a perfectly good working phone because they’d rather sell me a new one.
I worked on cars when I was younger, but living in this rural area, we were often too dependent on our vehicles to trust my meager knowledge and skills. I mostly leave essential transportation to the professionals.
Moreover, newer cars are heavily dependent on computers. These computers have on-board diagnostics, but car companies try to limit access to the tools to read the codes as well as access to the tools to repair the cars themselves. They want you to bring your car to the dealer so they can make the money on the repairs -- but you own the car, you should be able to bring it to an independent shop -- or fix it yourself.
Right to Repair laws would make it so I can fix the things that I own without begging the manufacturer for permission.
Federal automotive Right to Repair legislation has been languishing under discussion for years. However, Repair.org lists 17 states that have introduced “Right to Repair” legislation requiring companies to make parts and manuals available to local shops and product owners. The legislation would also prevent use of software locks to block repairs or from remotely bricking electronics that use aftermarket parts. When it comes to electronics, however, Washington state has gone a step further with House Bill 2279. That bill would prohibit the sale of electronic products designed “to prevent reasonable diagnostic or repair functions by an independent repair provider," Designing products so they are difficult to repair or reuse "helps accelerate the path of those devices to the waste stream,” explained Washington state Rep Jeff Morris to Motherboard magazine. “So we're trying to keep the philosophy our state is behind, which is recycle, repair, reuse."
Meanwhile, I’m taking a break from old motorcycles and electronics. My latest project is a 1972 camper that needs some TLC.
Of course, there were a few others out there and for a little more money I could have had something newer.
Something that didn’t come with a leaky roof, dents and faded paint.
I guess it is a bad habit, but darn it.
If I buy something, I should be able to fix it.
I like fighting entropy.


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Ships Ashore

When I was growing up 200 miles from the ocean, my strongest memory of the coast was a rainy spring break when we came down to the beach. I remember walking around the Ilwaco boatyard looking at the old trawlers and dreaming.

Out of the water, ships loom over you, paint maybe chipping and their brightwork weathered, but still they somehow promise adventure. The ragged bones of old ships are like kneeling giants above you. They seem full of stored kinetic energy, balanced as impossibly on wood blocks and spindly jack stands.

I remember dreaming of taking one of these old boats and making it into a home on the water. Such a vagabond life, roving the 70 percent of the earth covered with oceans, was a seductive dream to a small town boy with a river at his front door.  My brother and I had dreams of living on Marine Drive houseboats and careers as airline pilots. A gypsy life in a big world.

Yet, a little taste of experience can snuff out the ambitions of ignorance in a 14 year old boy.

In college I went up to Alaska to earn money. Between herring and salmon, we were shut down and a group of us hounded the foreman for jobs to keep us working. Otherwise, we’d end up deep in debt to the company store by the time salmon season finally arrived.

The Naknek Country Club is what we called ourselves. We had occupied a vacant room in the dorm with wool-blanket carpet and blacked out windows. We mixed “punch” with ice from the freezer house walls in a plastic tote. We got a reputation for working hard at any job they would throw at us.

This included painting a boiler while it was still running -- the lead would run out of the paint before it could dry, and cleaning up a mountain of discarded boat batteries that leaked acid onto our raingear. Our biggest job, however, was cleaning up the 82 foot fishing tender Sable.

The Sable had gone down with both engines running and filled with a slime of diesel. Hauled up on a beach near the South Naknek cannery, it was our job to get her clean before she could be inspected by the Coast Guard and hopefully refloated. She was an World War II wood hull minesweeper - converted to a fish tender that took salmon from smaller boats on the fishing ground of Bristol Bay.

She was hauled up on the beach and completely out of the water with the low tide. Shipwrights were already working on the hole on the right side of her bow. Someone had taken a Sharpie and changed her name to Dis-Sable-D.

Clothed in an absorbent white bunny suit, we scraped the oil slime off the walls and floors, out of cabinets and every conceivable surface. It had worked its way all over down below. Finally, we drew straws for who would crawl into the bilge.
On the Sable, the bilge was a narrow trench on either side of the keel -- the lowest part of the ship where water is collected. The trench ran the length of the ship and was maybe 20 inches deep and two feet wide. Here the slime was thick and a little green, the diesel smell strong.


I drew the short straw.

I had to squeeze in on my chest, the space so tight that my shoulders couldn’t move. I used  an empty cat food tin to scrape up the slime and dump it into a plastic cottage cheese container.  When the container was full, they would pull me out by my ankles, my absorbent coveralls scraping the walls of the bilge clean like a human Q-tip.

Something about that job made me realize that these old boats probably had not only endless stories to tell, but an endless amount of work, as well.  

Through our efforts, the Sable was refloated in time for salmon season.

A year later, however, it burned to the water line and sank in Bristol bay.

The Sable’s fiery death was at least more dignified than the derelict vessels that die of neglect and sink at their moorings in harbors and rivers along the coast.

Large boats and ships have a lifecycle - they are sold from owner to owner and as they age, the sale price drops because they become more expensive to keep afloat. Their cheap price means they often end their lives in the hands of people with not enough financial resources to fix their problems, which leads to abandonment. Coastal states have established derelict vessel removal programs, but these efforts struggle to keep up with hundreds of ageing, abandoned boats.

Since that time, I still like to drive by the boatyard if I have a few minutes. I’ve talked with people who have brought old boats back to life -- people with more stubbornness and money than I ever possessed. I admire their dedication and I am always gladdened to see an old workboat being restored to functional condition. Best of all is when I boat I’ve watched progressively restored finally disappears from the Boat Yard.

Back in the water, I think, where she belongs.

Yet when I come home, it is to my old house -- 101 years old and still standing strong and bone dry in the winter mist. For an old house is like a ship at anchor, and our ambitions and sweat equity have been converted into restoring this leaking weatherbeaten ship into a warm home that will stay afloat in any storm.

When we bought this house 25 years ago, the roof leaked and the windows were broken, the paint was peeling off the cedar shingles. We spent weekends and evenings scraping and painting, repairing and replacing. It is solid now, and I count myself lucky to have been anchored here for so long. This ship has allowed me to raise a family and know they are going to be safe and dry no matter how strong the winds, or how deep the waters.

On a sunny spring day, I drive by the Ilwaco Boatyard to admire the hope and enterprise of the boats blocked up on the dry land. The yard is a hive of activity, repairs are underway, somewhere a Skill saw is screaming. Fresh white paint makes the old boats shine in the sun.

Old boats live to float and will do so if given even half a chance.

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