The Great Escape

The ponies arrived last Monday!

The ponies arrived last Monday!

Gary with Ken, the ponies' breeder, and his friend Bill, with Konall in the background.

Gary with Ken, the ponies’ breeder, and his friend Bill, with Konall in the background.

Thursday was my first night alone here.  Gary had taken his truck and trailer to Madras, Oregon, to the Small Farm Journal’s annual auction of horse-drawn paraphernalia. That left me to care for our animal family, which now includes four ponies. Gary’s been acquiring harnesses and equipment so we can use our sturdy little ponies to drive and do draft work.

Not long after sunrise Friday, Ella and I woke to a deep, rumbling wind. We were headed straight out to see our four charges when, what to my wondering, pre-caffinated eyes should appear, but four ponies on the wrong side of the fence! The gate was wide open.

The ponies had arrived Monday, two days before we expected them. I left Gary still working on the fence to their pasture around 7:00 that evening, catching the phone just as I stepped in the door. The caller was a helpful stranger a few miles from here, saying a couple of gentlemen (the ponies’ breeder, Ken and his friend Bill) were stuck on a muddy, primitive road with a horse trailer and wanted to know if they were close enough to simply lead the horses home. Almost nothing is close enough for that. They would have to get the trailer unstuck, and I agreed to meet them in downtown White Salmon.  I ran to the pasture to tell Gary.

“The ponies are coming!” I cried.

Ella and I jumped in the car and drove to the bottom of the hill to wait for a truck with a horse trailer. It was well past Ella’s dinner time and mine, but if she wondered at the long wait she made no mention. Finally, the trailer appeared in my rear view mirror and I led it slowly up the long, winding road home.  When we arrived, we found an entirely new pasture fenced in; it was small, but had a white band of electric tape the horses would recognize and respect. Gary had worked quickly.

Drader, with his handsome dark forelock and black-striped mane. Duchess is in the background.

Drader, with his handsome dark forelock and black-striped mane. Duchess is in the background.

Taken from a much larger herd, the ponies now found themselves a foursome in a green pasture far from their snowy native Wisconsin. Drader and Konall are Norwegian Fjords, handsome geldings with Mohawk manes that show off their coloring. Drader, who has a striking two-toned forelock in addition to the black center stripe in his mane, quickly established himself as the lead pony. Konall is the baby of the group, four years old.

“Drader was low man on the totem pole back home,” Ken told us.


Bess relaxes while Duchess grazes. Or is it the other way around?

Bess and Duchess are Dales ponies, full sisters. Though Bess is older, Duchess is taller and more confident. Bess shied at every approach, and only Gary was able to get hold of her at first. Konall is a lover boy, ready to be petted and made over. Duchess, too, loves attention. She’s sweeter to us than to the others; she will gratuitously take a nip at her sister or Konall. Drader is calm and comfortable being petted or ridden. I make it a point to spend lots of time in the pasture, weeding the horse-toxic lupine and shoveling poop, bringing the occasional carrot, using the curry comb, and always generous with attention. The ponies are curious and every day more eager to approach me, even Bess, who only flinches now when I grab her halter.

That’s when she’s in the corral. Wandering free is a different story.

When I found the ponies, they were still close to the gate, browsing. Ella knew this was wrong, and bounced around nervously. I had to stay calm.  I sang my hellos in the usual way, petting Drader, who was closest.  Then I walked a few steps away to get hay.  The ponies like the green grass, but hay is what they’ve been eating in Wisconsin, where the snow is still a foot or better on the ground; it’s a sort of comfort food.

Hay got their attention. But they also sensed my intention, and drifted away.

I got hold of Drader’s halter as he was eating the hay. Duchess came near, and I grabbed her too. I knew I needed one Fjord and one Dales pony to be sure of getting all four back in the corral, as they bond to their own kind and would not want to be long separated.  There was no chance of me getting Bess in the first round.

Drader was reasonably obliging, but Duchess stood stock still, head raised against her halter. I told her in no uncertain terms that she could stand that way as long as she liked, but she would end up in the corral. She gave in, haltingly, and I got the two of them back behind the gate. Konall had wandered over to one of the outbuildings, peering in the window. He didn’t resist until he was mostly inside; the bump of the gate on his rear served as a final encouragement. Only Bess remained at large.

Bess had wandered to the far edge of the pasture, away from the gate. I took hay to her, and she let me approach. She wasn’t too happy when I grabbed her halter, but she didn’t resist much as we walked down to the gate and into the corral.

Gary and I meet Konall.

Gary and I meet Konall.

How did this happen?  Thursday, after Gary left, a fellow from the Department of Natural Resources stopped in unexpectedly to talk to me about forest health and cost-sharing programs available to landowners to improve the health and fire safety of their forestland.  He had let himself into the corral, and when I first saw him his back was to me as he latched the gate shut. I slip in and out of the corral between the wires rather than risk four curious horses and an open gate, so when we left the pasture we ducked between the wires. The latch is a two-pronged temporary fix Gary worked up, a hook and a clasp. My best guess is that our visitor latched the hook but not the clasp. And I, of course, failed to check.

It was a serious lapse. I went most of the day thinking the ponies had barely made their escape when I found them, congratulating myself for getting out to them early. But later in the day, as I was on a tour-de-poop picking up Ella’s droppings, I found evidence the horses had truly gone walkabout. That sobered me.

We don’t have this kind of excitement every day, thank goodness, but our days are full and we go to bed happy, tired, and thinking of all the things that didn’t quite get done that day. Before focusing on fence-building, Gary had been working on the kitchen. We have cabinets coming in a week or so, and he’s furring out the log walls so there’s a straight surface to affix the cabinets to. The walls bow outward, about five inches from the ground to countertop height, and the electrical wiring is something of a mystery. Gary tore most of the carpet out downstairs – too disgusting for words – and when we can we’ll stain the cement pad and use throw rugs as needed. Outside we’re picking up debris from a single-wide the previous owners had – glass, fiberglass, foam insulation, and miscellaneous debris like plastic salt shakers, everywhere.

Driving East on the Columbia Gorge.

Driving East on the Columbia Gorge.

All this work means plenty of errands. The nearest Home Depot is in The Dalles (rhymes with gals), nearly an hour away, though it is a beautiful drive along the Columbia Gorge.

We’re continually in need of firewood, so Gary has taken down some dead standing trees; I collect the wood in a cart and stack it on the porch. We have apple trees waiting to be planted, once we figure out where we want them and how to protect them. We’ve collected manure for our compost pile from neighbors. In early May we’re expecting our high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) in kit form, and need to find just the right place for it, considering light and wind. We were hoping to fence the garden and high tunnel in with juniper posts (they last forever, untreated, and juniper has become a water-sapping invasive species in eastern Oregon) but procuring them is a challenge.

If we don't see deer on our hill in the evening, we're not looking!

If we don’t see deer on our hill in the evening, we’re not looking!

We’ve seen deer, turkeys, ducks, a skunk (first time I ever heard Gary scream!), heard fox, and seen elk tracks. We have an enormous flock of robins in residence eating our good earthworms; we see and hear countless birds. A chorus of frogs serenades us when the evening is warm. In the true style of spring, on a given day we may have sun, rain, hail and snow. Wildflowers (or noxious weeds, I’m never sure which) are starting to bloom.

Every day we awaken with new ideas and much to do. Our work is (usually) our fun.

This is, indeed, a great escape.

Gearing Up

Gary's lifting the new wood-burning fireplace insert up to the second floor.

Gary’s lifting the new wood-burning fireplace insert up to the second floor.

With the urgency of a farmer’s spring, we are in the midst of a multi-faceted move to our fixer-upper cabin. The farm’s infrastructure is limited to a barn inhabited by our tractor and the two barn cats we acquired, partial perimeter fencing, and not much else. Nothing else, actually. But we’re working on it. As for the cabin, it needs a new kitchen, new flooring downstairs, insulation, new windows, new wood stoves, a carport and — well, let’s call those the priorities.

A "before we bought the place" shot of the kitchen; the cupboards are now history.

A “before we bought the place” shot of the kitchen; the cupboards are now history.

Our cabin has been a summer retreat, mainly, so the kitchen isn’t suited for much. It had one drawer, a few dark log cupboards encroaching on my headspace, an odoriferous refrigerator, and an old electric range that kept setting off the smoke detector until I forced myself to clean out all the black gunk. When we first saw Blue Moon Stead and knew its potential for us, I cried; these were tears not of joy, but of despair, knowing that while I might have enough money to buy the place, I might not have enough to get rid of that kitchen. Gary reassured me that we could pull it off, meaning that he has to do a good deal of the work. He started by pulling off the squirrel-eaten old cupboards, making room for one of the two new windows he’s planning to cut.  We’re ordering new cabinets and countertops, bookshelves for my many cookbooks, and looking for a new range. Our little log cabin will never be fancy, but it does deserve a functional and cheerful place to cook and eat.

The move itself has been going on for over a month now. It’s not nearly so stressful as trying to get everything down from Alaska in one go, but we’re spending way too much time driving I-5. We hope we’re on our last load; we’re camping more than living at beautiful Chimney Rock. Spring is lovely here, making it that much harder to leave: the yellow orioles have added their melody to the mix, a cacophony of frogs strikes up a serenade when the evenings are warmer, and wildflowers are budding. But once we complete this trip we’ll be all moved in, except for my stuff in storage in San Francisco and the last of Gary’s things from Alaska. All moved in, almost.

Meanwhile, the animal farm is coming into being. Someone in the neighborhood was giving away neutered barn cats; we took a pair of seven-month old kittens. I caught a glimpse of black fur as they huddled in their crate on the way to the barn, but haven’t seen them since. The only way we know they’re still there is by checking to see that some of their food is gone each day. We hope they’ll help out with mice and moles, and have the decency to stay away from our chickens when we get them.

Bess, who will turn 11 in May, and her 9-year-old sister Duchess will be joining us in April.

Bess, who will turn 11 in May, and her 9-year-old sister Duchess will be joining us in April.

Those who have known me the longest know I always wanted a pony for my birthday. I never did get one, but on my birthday this year Gary arranged to buy four ponies! Dales ponies Bess and Duchess, and a Norwegian Fjord draft team, Drader and Konal.  They’ll arrive in mid-April, so we’ll need to fence in their pasture by then.  Bess and Duchess can be ridden or driven; I have visions of riding or driving a little cart to our mailbox, which is on the road a mile and a half from our cabin.  Gary wants to use Drader and Konal to replace the tractor for some jobs, like pulling in wood. But they’ll need harnesses, so he’s back online shopping for those.

Meanwhile, I’ve been shopping for a high tunnel: an unheated greenhouse structure that will allow us to grow food year round. It might not be so urgent except that I chose as my first “cash crop” turmeric, which like ginger (which it greatly resembles) is accustomed to warmer climes. Turmeric is the main ingredient in curry, but I find I can use it almost any time I’m sautéing onions and garlic to add a warm and spicy flavor. Good thing, too, because I found ten pounds of the stuff sitting on my back porch waiting for me when we returned from our last trip to Chimney Rock. The turmeric was supposed to be delivered in late March, giving me time to set it up for pre-sprouting in the house, and to get the high tunnel set up and ready for it by the first of May. But it was shipped last week.  So I’ll be experimenting with turmeric in curries and slaws, as a tea, and maybe even pickling it while I wait for the replacement shipment that will serve as seed.

Another before-we-bought-it photo - this is the main entry downstairs.

Another before-we-bought-it photo – this is the main entry downstairs.

We’re at the pinnacle of that jumbled heap called moving. Most of our things are gone from Chimney Rock; most of them are sitting in outbuildings at Blue Moon Stead while we figure out where they’ll go. We’ve torn up most of the carpet downstairs — we think it was the original — and temporarily housed our bed in a nook just big enough for it, Ella’s bed, a dresser and a nightstand. Gary plans to acid-stain the cement pad rather than replacing the carpet, and there’s no point in moving much into the house until that’s done.

The kitchen will get much worse before it gets better. We have tons of books and no bookshelves. We should be getting our washing machine next week, but we’ll make do with a wooden drying rack inside and a clothesline outside. We’ll be putting up fences, trying to build our high tunnel from a kit, cutting new windows, replacing crumbling chinking, sanding and staining and making the place our own.

We’re gearing up, and before long Blue Moon Stead will be home to Gary, Ella, me, Drader, Konal, Bess, Duchess, and two cats who wish to remain anonymous.

Buckets and Buckets

I’ve just come in from yet another two-hour stint armed with bucket and shovel, picking up after the five dogs who recently vacated Blue Moon Stead. The yard between our porch and the pond was a landmine. In something akin to “Where’s Waldo?,” I work to find poop hidden in the grass amidst pine needles, torpedo-shaped pinecones, autumn leaves, bits of yellow-brown foam insulation and pieces of bark, and to find it before it finds me. Eventually I spy a nice big flat one with a perfectly clear treadmark and logo of my Muck boots. Or maybe Gary’s Muck boots.

Where's Waldo?

Where’s Waldo?

Not that I mind the job, really. In fact it’s a task I’ve chosen, three times now, rather than investigate the smell emanating from the aged refrigerator we’re using until we get ours moved in. I like being outdoors, working to the rush of the creek and the spring calls of the birds. At morning I wonder at the unseen bird issuing a rusty “tewee.” By the time evening puts an end to my work for the day, a mallard has begun his sharp, persistent plea.

A breeze picks up. I listen briefly for the whirr of the wind generator, pleased to think of the electricity it will bring on this cloudy day, before realizing I’m not at Brushkana. One of my last tasks there was to make a final round of the property with my bucket and shovel; I’m hoping the new owner will not even realize such a job needed doing. But we picked up after Ella every day or two or three, so it was a smaller job.

Ella earned her swim.

Ella earned her swim.

She keeps me company, Ella does, sitting at a distance with one of the tennis balls the dogs were good enough to leave behind. She knows I’m working and is content to wait, bringing me the ball only when I look like I need a break. Sometimes she places the ball pointedly next to one of the objects of my search. She brings it again once I’ve put my bucket and shovel away, knowing then that she’s earned a swim in the pond.

Meanwhile, I find myself appreciating the apt charm of expressions like “sicker than a dog,” “one sick puppy,” and “oh, crap!”.

As congenial as this work is, I’m ready to take on something new. Last week, Gary bought a used tractor in central Oregon, conveniently sold with its own trailer. I took the lead on the last leg of the trip so Gary could focus, hauling his heavy load, even as traffic grew impatient when we closed in on the greater Portland area. A narrow — very narrow — steel-grate bridge spans over the Columbia from Hood River, Oregon to Washington. As he passed a horse trailer coming the other direction, Gary felt his trailer scraping the side of the bridge.

2007_Spring_Hood_River_bridgeIf the bridge put him on edge, I nearly put him over it. I missed a turn on the final approach to our street. Gary followed. And followed, as I drove slowly up and down the steep hills along hairpin turns that make up our local byways here, a growing chain of cars impatient behind our little caravan. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, as I approached the juncture a second time I turned too early. This led to more sharp turns, a steep, narrow street or two, then success. Success in this case meant finding our road, which winds and climbs another fourteen miles to a logging road, which bumps along a mile before we reach our driveway, itself over a half-mile of dirt and potholes.

By the time we got home, it was nearly dark. But the next day, as soon as he backed the tractor off the trailer, Gary motioned for me to get in the driver’s seat: the only seat, actually. The tractor was running, set in low gear. On the pallet forks sat the front loader bucket, filled with augers and other implements.

“Drive it to the barn,” Gary shouted over the loud grumble of the machine.

My maiden voyage!

My maiden voyage!

I dug the pedal with my heel. This is one of the great things about a tractor. The gas pedal is shaped like a narrow “C.” If you push the top end with your toe, the tractor moves forward; if you press the bottom with your heel, it goes in reverse. Very logical. To compensate for this lapse in obfuscation, the lever that manages the front implement (pallet fork at the moment) will it raise up when I push down, and lower it when I push up.

Still, it was fun. In our snowmachine, a falter of uncertainty led to sure disaster. In the tractor it’s much easier to stop to take stock. After I made my way to the barn, Gary waved me in on the right side of the barn’s center pole. The forks edged through, but the bucket sitting atop the forks got ever so close to the weight-bearing center pole. Gary halted me with his hand and motioned for me to back up. Too late. As I moved back, the bucket scraped the center pole, bringing it very nearly off the cement pad.

The barn (left) is still standing!

The barn (left) is still standing!

Forward. Right. Back, oh so carefully. I’ve been on the property fewer than four days, and I’ve nearly demolished my own barn. Unruffled, Gary had me drive the tractor back to his truck again twice, returning to the barn each time with a new load. Once I had deposited the equipment in the barn, he directed me to push on the center pole with the three-point hitch, essentially backing into the very thing I had almost pulled off its moorings. Amazingly, the pole is back where it belongs.

A few days later, Gary had taken the tractor out and was out cutting dead standing trees for firewood. Ella and I took a walk to check in on him. He filled the tractor’s bucket with wood.

“I was wondering where my helpers were. Take this load back and dump it on the porch,” he said, as though this was something I could do unsupervised.

Snow has covered my tracks, but there's the wood I dumped on the porch!

Snow has covered my tracks, but there’s the wood I dumped on the porch!

So I did. When I reached the porch with that first load, it took no little experimentation to get the bucket to tip over and spill its contents onto the porch. Once I finally succeeded in emptying the bucket, in my excitement I brought the bucket within an inch or two of the second-floor deck above the porch.

Ella cringed. I keep half an eye on her when I’m in the tractor, though Gary tells me she has good sense around tractors. I am absolutely sure she cringed, making some slight motion in anticipation of the worst. Just in time, I stopped. I drove back twice for the rest of the wood like nothing happened.

She’ll never tell.


“Barbara bought the farm,” Gary delights in saying.

And so I did, and live to tell the tale.

Cabin amidst the trees from the paddle boat on Blue Moon Pond.

Cabin amidst the trees from the paddle boat on Blue Moon Pond.

Having year-round access to good organic produce and Gary’s Seattle doctors was the primary impetus for our move from Alaska, but Gary has always dreamed of growing his own food. As for me, a fifty-something woman dreaming of a second career in the great outdoors, I never expected to realize my fantasy. I am “repotting” myself again, as a dear friend tells me.

Blue Moon Stead, as our place is called, is a beautiful spot in the highlands of the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side, over 120 acres of rolling pasture edged with tall Douglas fir, pine and willow. As we walk the property, snowy Mt. Adams comes into view. Our home is a cabin built in the 1980’s by the owner, who was certainly not by trade a builder. But the foundation is sound, and the cabin is spectacularly placed on the edge of a woods overlooking a two-acre pond. We were lucky to find a sizable farm in such a dramatically scenic setting yet reasonably close in; we’re 90 minutes from Portland and four or five hours from Seattle.

Mount Adams rising up behind our pasture.

Mount Adams rising up behind our pasture.

Gary, Ella and I made our way north from Chimney Rock in Eagle Point to Hood River on Sunday the 17th with sleeping bags, clothes, Ella’s bed, and whatever fit in our tiny trailer without overburdening my Subaru. On the way we stopped to see a couple of sweet young Fell ponies for sale. We stayed overnight at Ella’s favorite hotel, where she  gets to sleep on the king-sized bed and walk along the waterfront. Monday morning we crossed the Columbia and drove up to the property to get instruction from the previous owners on the water and septic systems and other technical details, and to make Blue Moon Stead our own.

When I moved to Alaska, Gary had everything beautifully prepared for my arrival. Making Brushkana home was a conceptual, emotional process ( In this case, making the place home started with re-cleaning everything, so we can take comfort in knowing the dirt we live with is our own. I noticed a sickly-sweet fragrance downstairs, and felt dampness as I walked in my stocking feet on the ancient carpet. I assumed it was carpet cleaner; dark spots suggested that among the five dogs and one cat who had been living there somebody wasn’t thoroughly housebroken. Gary soon found that the strange night-lights were actually air fresheners, covering up who knows what past sins.

Our noisy little creek.

Our noisy little creek.

We left ourselves enough daylight to take a long walk on the property. We couldn’t walk it all, by any means, not that afternoon. But we did find some fence line and a survey monument, and started to grasp the contours of the property. Or so we thought until the next day, when we spent several hours thoroughly lost on our own land. That first night we fell asleep easily to the sound of the cascading creek; after a false start around 3 a.m., overly excited to explore our new home, we fell asleep again and woke to the calls of birds as yet unknown to us.

As a farm, the place has a poverty about it: soil that once supported alfalfa has suffered a reversal of sorts in the intervening thirty or forty years. Largely unfenced, Blue Moon Stead is as yet a poor home for the animals who will bear primary responsibility for improving the soil. Even the barn is not barn so much as theatre, built for the youth theatre camp run by Blue Moon’s recent owners.

Barn (left) and dorm building for the theatre camp. And Gary, of course.

Barn (left) and dorm building for the theatre camp. And Gary, of course.

The previous owners left a few things we could use and some things we couldn’t, like their dogs’ well-worn couch. When the truck came to pick up their dumpster, I ran out and asked if the driver would wait while we brought the couch out. He had a better idea: he backed his truck alongside the cabin, and we pushed the heavy couch over the second story deck rail into the dumpster.

We spent only a couple of days at Blue Moon Stead before returning to Chimney Rock. It was hard to leave. Ella was ecstatic being here, with the long hikes and a pond to swim in. She even rode in the paddle boat as we made our way through a thin layer of ice to the far reaches of the pond where cattails are encroaching. But with barely functional internet and phone there, we have much to do here.

Ella fetching a stick in the pond.

Ella fetching a stick in the pond.

Since our return to Chimney Rock, Gary has arranged to buy a tractor and has found a buyer for his lovely cabin at Brushkana. He put up his other property on the market (, and the realtor tells him that “every dreamer in the lower 48” wants the place. I’m shopping for a high tunnel (an unheated greenhouse) so I can plant the turmeric seed I ordered, and so we can get our spring starts going early and grow food year-round. I just finished an online course on raising pastured poultry, thinking I might generate some valuable chicken litter and perhaps have some eggs to sell on the side.

The magic of Chimney Rock - bucks sparring in front of the house.

The magic of Chimney Rock – bucks sparring in front of the house.

The move is a process, and will take a few more trips. Then we’ll take leave of beautiful Chimney Rock, which has been such a delightful refuge for us, thanks to Aunt Vee’s love and generosity. Some lucky couple or family will buy it and come to know how thoughtfully it was created for comfort, beauty, and the enjoyment of nature.

What will the future hold? Major rehabilitation of the cabin and the soil, for starters. Ponies, certainly, and maybe chickens, ducks and geese, perhaps a few cattle and sheep someday. All will do their part to make Blue Moon Stead a beautiful, vibrant farm. It strikes me as a good legacy, for when I ultimately have “bought the farm”, to have had a role in bringing abundant life back to the land.  It will be an engaging endeavor, caring for livestock and fowl who will weed and fertilize, raising crops for the sake of the soil, the animals and ourselves, and doing all this under the sun and clouds, in rain, wind and snow.

Side view of our cabin, with my Forester and tiny trailer to the right.

Side view of our cabin, with my Forester and tiny trailer to the right.

Whatever happens, I look forward to sharing our story with you in future posts. Join the adventure! If you wish to subscribe, look for the button at the bottom of this page.