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Bison Roadblock!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A long time ago, I told you about this summer's trip to North Dakota. Now I'm circling back, even though August is throwing every diamond she has at me and it's all I can do to keep up the ooh's and aaahs, much less blog about it. The bloggy backlog, she is tremendous. Hundreds of photos lie keening in their folders, waiting to be shared.

The last couple of years, we haven't stopped in North Dakota--we've pushed farther west into Montana. Medora, North Dakota, has an irresistible pull on us. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an incredible place, a place of painted, sculptured bentonite clay--badlands, really--and abundant wildlife. It's one of the best places we know to surround yourself with bison.

Bison are big animals. Every once in awhile you stumble on a bull who is just...huge.

The really old boys have these huge Afros of black wool that flop out sideways, giving their heads a deltoid appearance, and massive pantaloons of wool that wobble as they walk.

Their horns hook back toward their skulls. It makes me wonder if they'd grow right into the skull if the bull lived long enough. He was a tank of an animal, clearly quite aged. And probably cranky enough to want to be alone most of the time.

A more modestly proportioned cow and her orange calf. The backdrop in this photo kills me.

In the days before a concerted government campaign to exterminate them, bison once covered the Great Plains, looking like a nubbly brown blanket when they were on the move. To break the resistance of Plains-dwelling Native Americans by pulling their food source out from under them, the U.S. Army and private contractors shot nearly all our bison in less than two decades. By 1890, they were all but gone. Before this summer, I’d seen bison only in small groups on private reserves. Our family trip changed all that.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western border of North Dakota has a herd of around 300 bison, with a penchant for hanging out on the park’s only roadway.

Being brought to a halt by a shaggy, blackbrown wall of bovine flesh is a thrilling thing. The animals show no concern whatsoever for the cars that quickly stack up behind their roadblock.

They separate and flow around the vehicles, a grunting, breathing, massy river. Golf-ball sized eyes roll, meeting yours as the animals trudge slowly past, an arm’s length or closer away. Knowing that this is one of North America’s most dangerous and unpredictable animals adds to the allure of the experience, at least for me. I've been told that the experience is even more heart-pounding when viewed from the back of a motorcycle. I cannot imagine being on a motorcycle in a herd of bison. Well, to start with I can't imagine riding at high speeds with my limbs and head exposed to the pavement, but riding through a herd of bison? Noooo thanks. You'd think they'd warn you at the park entrance. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here (on motorcycles)."

Ten-year-old Liam, who has been enthralled with bison since he was very young, was a quivering, pleading mess in our first bison roadblock. His apprehension only increased as time went on. “Please, Daddy. Just drive. Just go. Get away from them. Please. I beg you.” But the bison in Medora kept us stalled until well after dark, standing shoulder to shoulder, their backs turned to us, tufted tails switching insolently across their narrow haunches as we listened helplessly to our son’s pleas to get moving. The only thing to do was to relax into it, to inhale the rich, manurey smell of them, to listen to their sonorous grunts, to luxuriate in the texture of dark wool forequarters, shining black horn hooks, and smooth flanks.

I pee, unconcerned.

The bison issue only intensified when we drove on to Yellowstone National Park. Here, as many as 4,500 bison live, and bison roadblocks were apt to be correspondingly longer. Yellowstone is the only place in America where bison have lived continuously since prehistory. And these animals—the only genetically pure Plains bison left-- seem to know it. They're eerily skilled at moseying out into the road just as you think you're going to squeak by them.

In our week's stay among bison, a funny thing happened. I came to revel in the roadblocks, to look forward to them, and to crow with delight when we encountered them. To me, they were an invitation to join the herd, to watch the evening light drain out against the stark blueblack outlines of the hills and mountains, to slow it all down to bison time, even as our hearts raced at the proximity of these massive beasts. There are few places in the world where animals get to call all the shots. Those are the places I most want to be.

Still I pee. You are as nothing to me.

Running with Chet Baker

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A thoroughly inviting road. It has everything I need.

On July 30, I decided to try running. Phoebe's been running all summer, and she doesn't feel right when she can't go out. So that morning, I ran and gasped a mile behind her lithe form as it disappeared around the first bend. She met me, still outgoing, on her way back.

Running behind a 104-pound teen with a BMI of 16 is not what I, or anyone my age, should be doing. So the next morning I went by myself. Well, I went alone, but for Chet Baker. He's essential.

There followed a week of very sore legs and feet while I decided whether running was what I should be doing at my age. Ow, ow, ow. Kneeling down was excruciating. I figured I'd run right through it, every day. Didn't want to quit. Something about seeing your daughter disappear in front of you spurs you on. I'd only tried running once, when I was in college, but the harsh pavement and antique shoes killed my shins and I had to quit.

We have no pavement, only fine gravel that crunches and gives underfoot. The road stretches well beyond where I go, but I go a little farther every day.

Soon enough, the soreness went away. Stretching and a decent pair of shoes helped.

And I found that getting out in the early morning was just what I needed to get my blood circulating and my thoughts arranged.

We have Queen Anne's lace, chicory, and garnet red clover that sparkles with dew.

We have a towhee that sings alone from the fastness of a mist-wreathed forest.

We have bees that hum in the pinetops, and the odd red-eyed vireo muttering away to itself.

Sometimes we have bunnehs, but not enough to suit Chet.
They always get away.

We have our own curious cows, Angus-Holstein crosses, perhaps?

Perhaps you remember Abby and Veronica from winter sledding parties. Veronica (the mostly white calf) has grown tremendously.

They like us.

I'm glad to have them as training cows for Chet, who with their help has become completely reliable around cattle. Abby, the white-faced mom, helped by being sort of snorty and stompy to Chet when he ventured under the fence a couple of times. Good girl. Tell him he's trespassing.

Now: No scolding, no lead, no collar...just the understanding, and the trust between us.

I don't have to say a word to him. He knows we no longer harass cattle. As a two-year-old, he was wild, nipping, darting,'s hard to believe he's the same dog. They do settle down, become the dog you dreamt of, if you give them time and love and trust.

He turns on his heel and trots away. Good BOY, Chetty!

He flicks an ear back to acknowledge the praise, and there's extra spring in his step. He's proud of himself, too.

Extra Orcas for Chet Baker, you good boy, you.

Running with Chet--a month out, it's turned out to be a very good thing.

A Jersey Cow Morning

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Kismet: when everything falls into place and the universe seems to align in front of you. On my last morning in Yellow Springs, Ohio, I drove north up Route 68, passing Young's Jersey Dairy for the last time. You saw what happened there in my previous post. Slurp, slurp. Ice cream for breakfast.

As I approached the dairy, a big door opened in the milking barn and the girls poured out, fresh from their morning milking relief. (Young's milks their cows twice a day).

My dad grew up on a farm not far from Thornton, Iowa. Here's the old barn where he grew up.
Their cows were Jerseys. For him, and for me, no other milk cow compares. They produce milk with among the highest butterfat of all--Guernseys are right up there, too. Not only that, but they are exceedingly pleasant in temperament.

And they are beautiful, deerlike, airbrushed in shades of buttercream tan, with black or white points. These little gals are all tarted up like they're going to the fair--see those shaved polls and spines? They're show cows, because they're on display every day right where the ice cream and cheese made from their wonderful milk is sold.

The girls were curious about me, this woman who spoke so kindly to them and seemed so glad to stop and talk with them. I wanted to hear about their lives, and they told me with their eyes, their demeanor, and their shining coats that they had good ones.

Sweet breath huffing...

Just before her tongue lashed out for the lens.

The girls gathered under a couple of maples, enjoying the deep shade on the already-hot morning. This makes for a difficult photographic situation--your subject in deep shadow; the background brightly sunlit, but the Canon G-11 was more than up to the challenge. It picked up background colors in Landscape mode that my Rebel couldn't have. This is probably the most difficult light regime you could select, and I was impressed with its performance. I juiced the photos up just a bit in post-production, but the point is the camera caught some color in that blindingly bright and contrasting landscape, and that is something to remark upon. And it is nothing my Digital Rebel TSi could do. The G-11 continues to amaze me.

They set about replenishing the milk factory.

The gentle sound of tearing grass.

One of them had such a huge udder that I thought she must've been skipped in the milking. She had to sort of walk around it. So I looked around inside and spotted one of the employees who looked like she probably works with the cattle (in contrast to the dewy teens working most everywhere else). She told me that the older cows get enormous bags that don't shrink down after milking. Oh, that made me feel better.

A Jersey's productive milking life can be 13-14 years--much longer than a Holstein's.

It's not a bad life for a cow, all things considered. I can't say I'd want a huge milk-producing organ hanging down between my hinders, but I suppose you get used to anything.

Still, the grass outside the fence is always greener, even for a contented cow.

You beautiful little thing. Look at your eyes, your caramel hair.

Here ends our little trip to Young's Jersey Dairy, Yellow Springs, Ohio. If you visit, order black walnut ice cream for me, for Dad, and for you!

Young's Jersey Dairy

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A potent legacy from my father Dale Zickefoose is my penchant for roadfood. Not burgers and fries, but real cooking with local foods and especially small local creameries. He was in absolute heaven at the ice cream counter of a store attached right to the dairy where the cream was processed. If they had black raspberry or black walnut ice cream, they made his day, his week, his month. All the better if you could smell the cow manure in the parking lot. He was a farm boy and loved that smell. Got that gene!

Why, I believe he's eating ice cream. What do you know. Photo by Larry Fitch.

Dad ate local way before it was cool. He'd take us on road trips just to go to a little restaurant he'd ferreted out, and he'd order the weirdest thing on the menu. Not having heard of a dish was his signal to try it. I got that entire complex of genes from Dad. His food pilgrimages with the family in tow are some of my fondest childhood memories--slurping peanut soup and eating peanut pie in Surrey, Virginia, for instance. He loved a restaurant that had sweetbreads on the menu. Don't even ask. Click if you must.

Note that the statue actually depicts a Jersey cow. It is not a Holstein painted brown. I liked that. And of course I bought their homemade cheese, and it is excellent.

So, on my first trip to this part of Ohio, when I exited Interstate 70 and found this sign on Route 68 heading into Yellow Springs, it was all I could do not to slam on the brakes and stop right then and there. I went into town, met my contacts, and informed them that one thing I meant to make time to do before I left was to patronize Young's, a request my hosts happily fulfilled. I am not a diva, I explained, but there are some things I simply must demand.

I walked in and stopped before the extensive ice cream flavor menu. It was meant to be: they had Black Walnut. I ordered it for Dad, and I swear I could feel him smiling down as I devoured it.
Two of my favorite things: my little Forester, and a black walnut ice cream in a waffle cone. It was beyond delicious, Jersey rich, Jersey smooth, subtly infused with the purple notes of black walnut, with fresh little chunks of nut throughout.

On this latest trip, I made two stops there, one each day. I fought with myself a bit the last morning when I was leaving to head for Cedar Bog. Should I really have an ice cream cone at 10:30 AM?

When and where was I going to get another black walnut waffle cone made from local Jersey milk?

Carpe cream! Ice cream for breakfast!

I was the only ice cream customer. The scooper people were still tying on their aprons. I decided to give them a chance to get ready, so I watched the Cone Man making the day's waffle cones. Look closely and you can see the scoopergirl heading toward me with my second black walnut cone of the trip.

WaffleMan was pouring waffle batter into the irons when I snuck up on him.

I chatted him up (another of Dad's genes that I seem to have happily inherited) and learned that the waffle batter comes powdered from another Ohio institution, Graeter's in Columbus. Oh, good. No wonder those cones were so delectable. And fresh!

He'd take the newly baked waffle from its griddle while it was still floppy and pliable

roll it onto a forming cone

let it cool for a little bit on the metal cone,

and then remove it and place it in a rack to crisp up.

They are just perfect, not crackly crumbly; just chewy enough to stay together, ever so slightly salty, and suffused with vanilla extract. He makes about 6-700 cones a day in high summer.

Mine was Number One.

The Village Greenery

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Come on in! The air is fine inside.

I visited a special shop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, while on my Excellent Weekend Adventure to the Native Plant conference. It's The Village Greenery, and it's in King's Court, right off the main drag of coffee shops and bakeries and jewelry/craft shops that grace Yellow Springs' tourist area. I think that when we sit around and dream of having a shop selling things we love, this would be what pops into my mind.

I like to see people self-actualizing and doing things they love. I'm drawn to people like that, and it never hurts to get a little of their magic fairy dust on you, either.

Awful MonkeyCam shot taken at arms' length of me and the affably adorable Mitch George. I took it just to show him the viewing screen you can turn backerds on the Canon G-11. Mitch used to work in an old-fashioned camera store, and when he saw the little G-11, he flashed on it and started peppering me with questions. I peppered him right back with houseplant questions. We were instant friends.

Mitch has carefully selected houseplants, beautifully presented.

The bromeliads were in a case, displayed under lights like the jewels they are, and obviously happy about it.

I stayed in a home in Yellow Springs that had the prettiest houseplants--unusual, beautifully presented. No surprise to find they were all from the same place. I resolved to track The Village Greenery down.

I walked into the store and immediately sensed the higher oxygen level, the serenity of good plants, well grown. The store is so well-lit any plant could live here for good. My tranquility was the diametric opposite of the feeling that overcomes me when entering the dark, cavernous garden zone of your typical Loew's, where all the plants are silently screaming to me to save them from a dry, dark, lingering death.

The emphasis here is on finding a plant that will fit your situation, so Mitch specializes in low-light tropical foliage plants that will beautify a home without demanding too much in return. He's careful to interview prospective plant owners about their growing conditions before recommending a plant. He says that choosing the right plant for the right situation is the secret to growing success for anyone.

This seemed like an excellent opportunity to trot out my new Canon G-11, the point and shoot that could. Even as it shines at macro shots of flowers and insects, it does an amazing job of shooting low-light interiors, with or without flash. I do not know how it does it, but everything looks more beautiful in my photos even than it does in real life--saturated colors, gorgeous lighting. Dig this:

Doesn't this look like a shop where you could spend an hour and a whole lotta money? It's a good thing I was traveling and it was very hot or I'd have loaded up the car. I saw so many of my old favorite tropicals and some new ones I lusted after. I'll definitely be back to see Mitch and his lovely little shop. If he's not careful I'll bring a folding chair and set a spell.

A magical place on a magical summer morning, whisk of broom, cicadas sawing loud in the trees overhead.

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