Living the Dream

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I forgot to step tall over the hot wire.

I felt my rubber muck boot catch the bottom wire of the horse fence.  My ankle caught the strand that I had strung there this summer.  My knees hit the snow.  The five gallon bucket I had been filling at the spigot fell forward out of my hands and spilled into the stark, white snow, soaking my hands through my gloves, emptying in a mockery of the small task I was trying to accomplish.

I was wearing too many layers to injure myself in the fall: my legs were insulated against their snowy landing spot by two pairs of pants and a pair of heavy duty coveralls.  Rather, the -15 degree windchill made the possibility of frostbite through my wet gloves my most pressing concern.  I stood up slowly–the only possible way to stand in coveralls–and, swearing at the wind or the weather or my own clumsiness, began to refill the bucket.  Ponies need water.  It is my job to make sure they have it, whether the process for getting it is pleasant or not.

The spigot in my horse barn has managed to remain unfrozen this year, thanks entirely to my father’s handiwork, wrapping it in heat tape and insulating it against the cold, so I haven’t spent this year’s Polar Vortex hand filling a 100 gallon trough, carrying buckets one by one up my icy lane.  Rather, when the arctic temps settled in over the midwest a few weeks ago, I found myself battling frozen auto waterers on one side of my barn, frozen furnace lines in my barn furnace (the one that heats my feed room and tack room), and frozen pipes in those same rooms.  I’ve been filling water buckets by hand, heating my rooms with space heaters, and hoping for the best.  Winter will move on eventually; it always does.  And when it does I will have a good idea of what will need to be fixed before the cold strikes again.  And something else will break next winter from completely out of left field, because that’s how farms work.

I remember when I was fourteen, walking up the barn lane in the summer, and thinking to myself that “I want a place like this someday.”  I remember that moment clearly, though there was nothing significant about it, walking the same steps on the same path that I took everyday to begin work in the morning, but something about it stuck.

I constantly hear people remark that I’m “living the dream.”  And, honestly, being here, in this place, with these animals is the culmination of years of dreaming.  For so many, myself included, land is “the dream,” horses are “the dream,” eggs from your own hens are “the dream.”

I think about that sometimes when I’m fighting sub-zero temperatures wearing soaked through gloves.  I think about it when the manure in the barn stalls is frozen to the ground and can’t be cleaned up.  I think about it when my hose lines freeze, or an animal gets injured, or a llama chokes and has to be driven to the University Livestock Hospital two hours away on the night that I’m supposed to be at my Nana’s birthday party.

This is just another reality of “the dream.”

And yet, I could take a thousand photographs and never capture the way that the snow glitters out here in the light of the full moon.  I could try to describe the way sunset paints the sky from pink to orange, then to blue and purple fading black, in every post I write from here on out and never do it justice.  I don’t know how to express the calm that settles over the horses when I feed them their evening hay, or the glee that overtakes the alpacas when they decide it’s time to play, prancing from one hill in their front pasture to the next and then erupting into bucks and a mad run.

That’s probably more what people have in mind when they decide that I’m “living the dream” out here.

The beauty.  The calm.

Dreams aren’t usually what we think they’ll be, and I think some people get discouraged when they realize that their dreams aren’t all sunshine and roses.  But, having known any number of people, myself included, who are truly living their dreams, I’m not sure this world ever offers a lifelong dream without difficulty.  It always comes at a cost.

It’s usually worth it anyway.

Right now, even though I’ve just about had enough of the cold and all the problems that accompany it, even though the cost is high, it’s worth it.

With that in mind, I’m going to go slip on boots and wander out into the snow.  I will feed horses and llamas and ponies.  I will brave the cold, again, and try not to slip on the ice.  And I will remember that winter will end soon enough, and that anything worth doing is worth doing even when it’s really, really hard.

After all, I’m still living the dream.

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The good with the bad and into the New Year

The sky is blue fading black. Snow blankets the ground. Not deep snow, but enough to cover the mud and the muck and the browned out remnants of fall and summer. It’s unmolested, still a perfect shimmering white reflecting the brightest stars, the ones that manage to shine out between the wispy clouds. The light of the moon is mirrored by the snow covered earth, giving the entire outdoors an other-earthly feel. It’s stunning beyond the ability of pictures to capture.

… And it’s so damn cold your boogers will freeze right on your face.

Weather in the Midwest is notoriously unstable. Lately, we’ve had swings of 40 degrees or so several times a week. Most of the animals are handling it fairly well, but the older among them are having some difficultly with the extremes. Couple that with a string of bad luck, and it’s been a weird couple of weeks seemingly living in reaction to the realities of the ranch.

Since just before Christmas, I’ve had three sick llamas (two with infections and one with an upset tummy), one lame llama (who stood up when her foot was asleep and pulled a muscle), two lame horses (stone bruising due to the quick deep freeze), two lame cats, a lacerated dog requiring stitches, and an injured husband.  I just came inside from the barn a few moments ago, sick myself with a nasty cough, after dealing with a llama who somehow managed to choke on crumbled grain…(Don’t ask; I have no idea.)

It was while I was walking toward the barn, mostly preoccupied with helping the choking animal Jeremiah had called to report, that I noticed the wild and untamable winter beauty of the place. It was on the way back from the other barn, with thirty mile an hour winds and a temperature of seven degrees, that I realized, pretty or not, the cold will cut through you like a knife and freeze exposed skin with a chill that somehow burns. (And your boogers, as mentioned, it will also freeze your boogers.)

This ranch is a lot like the cold, beautiful and harsh, sometimes in almost equal measure.

Llamas are usually a pretty hearty bunch, but our herd is aging. Nearly all of them are north of ten years old; several are flirting with twenty. In the past couple of weeks, mostly right around the holidays, we’ve had three vet visits to deal with the issues of various critters (one cat, one dog, one llama).

We sometimes jokingly refer to the ranch as the llama nursing home. It’s one of those jokes that’s only funny because it’s true. This summer, we had a bout of strange behavior that led both Jeremiah and I to believe that several animals were heading downhill, that they wouldn’t be with us much longer. We watched them closely and changed their diet. We put in a superbly expensive water filtration system (that eliminated the heavy metals that were disturbingly prevalent in the well). And they bounced back, but we continue to watch.

I don’t think it’s the trials themselves that make ranch life harsh, or the work. I am no stranger to hard work, nor is my husband. I think it’s the knowledge that whatever you do, out here you will eventually lose the fight. After all, as often as not, the fight is against time itself.

It’s a common saying amongst ranch people: “If you’re gunna have livestock, you’re gunna have deadstock.” My cousin and uncle who run a dairy farm and have lost far too many calves this year have muttered that adage the same way I do when one of our critters gets sick, the way I did last year when we lost two alpacas to the cold and the damp. I’ve been saying it since I was fourteen years old.

But the saying is just a saying when you watch animals you care about get sick. Last week, the three sick llamas were three of my favorites. Even though I know I will lose animals, that these creatures won’t be around forever, I was ready to raze hell for those three. Fortunately, all but one has fully recovered, and I think the last will be all better in a few days. Still, for a little while there, I felt like Molly Weasley taking on Bellatrix Lastrange in the last Harry Potter book, screaming “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Except in my case I wasn’t facing a Death Eater, just time and illness, screaming “Not my pets, you bitch!”

I know for a lot of you it probably seems strange to be so attached to such creatures; even I would have found myself less upset by everything if it had only been one, but three of my favorite animals in as many days was rough even by my standards.

However, for now, all is well. The llamas and alpacas and ponies are tucked in snug in their stalls with blankets and heat lamps as necessary. The barn doors and stall doors are shut tight against the wind and the chill. They have more hay to munch than they probably need for the night. The chickens are likewise warm in their coop, the barn cats in their tack room, even the feral kitty is tucked into the hayloft. The big horses in the back field are fluffed up with their winter coats (all four of them resembling equine Yetis). Jeremiah and I are in the house with the house pets, the dogs curled up in front of the hearth. Most everyone is well, or on the way to being well.

I know that this place with always have the bitter mixed with the sweet, that it will likely always be beautiful and harsh in equal measure, but I also know that it’s worth it. The land is worth it, the house is worth it, and, more than anything else, the animals are worth every bit of heartbreak that I will ever feel on their behalf.

So it is with that thought that I look forward, into next year, into the next stage of things.

In a place like this, in a life like mine, you must learn to take the bad with the good. But guys? There is so much good to go around.

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The bitty babies!
The bitty babies!

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