Tag Archives: South Dakota

Cruising The Badlands

At the beginning of our South Dakota trip, my sister, my son, and I cruised through the Badlands.  This tradition began in 2012 when my children and I first drove through and fell in love with the stark desolation and breathtaking beauty of the skyscraper pinnacles, rounded buttes, and neck breaking coulees.  Since then, every road trip to South Dakota includes at least one Badlands Cruise.

My son scrambling down the natural stairs cut over time on a Badlands formation.

My son scrambling down the natural stairs cut over time on a Badlands formation.

We parked at the largest visitor’s stop just inside the gate to stretch and take photographs.  I was wearing a sundress  and gray Vans sneakers and my sister was wearing jelly shoes, so we weren’t dressed for hiking, but tourists rarely are.  Besides, as native South Dakotans, we had something to prove.  This was but one of our many South Dakota playgrounds, and we were ready to frolic.

Many other characters were climbing on the formations that day.  Two massive body builder types in flimsy tanks and flip flops parked next to us.  In their flip flops, they somehow scrambled up a precarious trail to a little stoop offering a panoramic view of Badlands glittering in the sun.  One of the men shed his top and began posed for his companion’s camera, the majestic scenery in the background.   We nearly interrupted their photo session when we stumbled around the corner onto the stoop, and had to turn briskly on our heels, swallowing giggles.  The man with the camera was heard to say “Oh, that’s beautiful as his friend flexed his sweaty arms.  My son was confused.  My sister grinned and murmured, “They are either updating their UFC profiles, or they are lovers, or both.”  A group of female tourists resembling Old Apostolic Lutherans climbed in matching ankle length navy blue skirts with tucked in blouses and thin canvas Keds.  Their blonde hair swished past their tiny waists and they climbed like rail thin Gazelles, speaking very quietly to one another in Nordic accents.

My sister getting a good shot for her scrapbook.

My sister getting a good shot for her scrapbook.

My son was not satisfied with our brief climb on the most popular formation.  He wanted a more challenging, less occupied spot.  We drove until coming to Saddle Pass, a deceptively harmless looking mound.  It turned out to be incredibly steep, with sliding sediment and pebbles galore to inhibit one’s climbing abilities.  My son easily scaled the trail and was waiting impatiently for my sister and me to struggle, red faced and heaving, up the pass entire minutes later.  This is where my sundress really worked against me.  In shorts I could have lunged and scurried, unimpeded by modesty.  In my skirt, I had to at least try to be more ladylike, especially after sensing that someone was moving up behind me, and fast, on the trail.  It was during my last effort to crest a tricky rise, while I made a most undignified scramble, that the wind lifted up the back of my dress and revealed brilliant purple Betsey Johnson underwear to the young man who chose to follow too closely behind.  He quickly disappeared up the trail, red faced and now schooled in Badlands trail etiquette.

Resting with my son on Saddle Pass.

Resting with my son on Saddle Pass.

I sat down to rest, and to keep my dress from blowing up around my hips.  The view was gorgeous, and we felt triumphant.  My son, still not satisfied with the  amount of hiking accomplished, wanted to go further on.  I told him to be back in five minutes.  As much as I didn’t like to let him out of my sight, I knew that he needed to go out on his own and test his limits.  He reminds me of myself, always wanting to go further up the trail, to see what lies ahead, to push the limits and rise to new challenges.

An older couple was hiking down, slowly and carefully, speaking quietly in French.  They paused where we were resting and made a polite comment about the steep trail.  I cracked “Yeah, I think it might be easier if I just hurl myself back down the trail.”  They smiled politely, not sure if I was being clever or mildly suicidal.  I noticed that the man had a nice camera, and offered to take a picture of the couple on Saddle Pass.  They politely declined and began to move away quickly, and I sensed that behind their sunglasses, their eyes had narrowed with suspicion.  After they disappeared down the trail, my sister and I smiled and shrugged at each other.

“Geez, Georgeann, trying to steal cameras from French tourists?” my sister teased.

“Did they think I was going to take off sprinting down the trail?”

We noticed that my son had been gone longer than five minutes.  I started to feel uneasy.  A young couple stopped to rest before going further up the trail.  The woman looked athletic and graceful, but the man seemed rather clumsy.  Maybe he was just nervous; maybe he was going to propose or something.  We decided to yell for Dylan to come back.

“Dylan!”  I hollered “You get down off the Badlands right now!”  The young couple giggled.  We saw and heard nothing.  My sister tried.

“Dylan, did you hear your mother?!  You get off those rocks and come back down here!” she yelled.

Within another minute we saw him shuffling easily, like a panther, back down.  His face was red and sweat trailed along his hairline, but he looked happy and relaxed.

“Did you see me?”  He asked excitedly.   “I was way over there!”  He pointed to a place far in the distance.  It seemed impossible that he could have been so far away in such a short amount of time.

My sister, thrilled to have made the ascent in her jelly shoes.

My sister, thrilled to have made the ascent in her jelly shoes.

We started back down.  My son was down the trail and waiting for us once again before we had even decided the safest way back.  We chose a very steep and ever deepening, but very narrow crevice that we could use for foot and hand holds, and we crept across.  My sister followed behind me, taking embarrassing photos when I became stuck in an awkward squat position.  We finally had to crawl out, hoisting ourselves over the scratchy edge like injured prairie dogs.  After getting back on the trail we made a dash to the bottom.  When on a steep, slippery downhill trail, I just make a dash for it and hope for the best.  The young couple we met was galloping down the trail behind us, having finished their hike.  The young man  slipped on loose pebbles and fell on his ass, confirming my suspicions about his clumsiness.  My sister and I made it down safely thanks to years of climbing on steep terrain in Idaho forests.  My son was bored, thirsty, and tired by the time we finally caught up with him.


“I’m glad you both made it back down.  I was getting really tired of waiting.” he yawned.  “I think I had enough hiking for today.”

When we got back to the car we saw the French speaking couple, parked next to us.  They were, it turned out, from Quebec.  They had changed from high tech hiking boots into regular sneakers, and the camera was nowhere to be seen.  They smiled and nodded and watched us closely as we loaded into my car.  They must have thought us mad to have been hiking in our strange clothing, with only cameras and chutzpah.  The man took a long drag on a skinny cigarette and watched as I backed out of the parking spot.  As I pulled out of the parking lot, my sister shook her head and said “Smoking a cigarette after an intense hike on a really hot day!  That is so French!”

It takes all kinds to cruise the Badlands.  I think that is why I will never get tired of going back there with my children to be part of the group of characters that hike there every summer.


More Precious Than Gold

During my trip to South Dakota, I spent a fantastic afternoon with my family on one of our Black Hills mineral claims.  Named The Razzamatazz after my parents’ dog, the claim offered easy dirt road access and a gorgeous view of both hills and meadows.  We packed enough provisions for a day of exploration and set out through the hills, singing and chattering happily.

My son enjoying a moment on a pile of stones left over from mining attempts.

My son enjoying a snack on a pile of boulders left over from past mining attempts.

After turning onto the muddy dirt track vaguely marking out a path, we spooked a doe, who melted into the trees.  A huge family of turkeys strutted across  the trail and crouched in the tall grass, eyeing us suspiciously.   We rolled down the window and yelled “Gobble, gobble!  Gobble, gobble!” Dad pointed out pastel wildflowers and we breathed in the piney scent around us.  After parking under the shade of a huge spruce, we unloaded and prepared to hike up a steep ridge so Dad could show off what he had aptly named The Hole.  He wanted a volunteer to go into The Hole, and had brought along rope to pull the volunteer back out, but the majority ruled that this sounded like a terrible idea.  Instead, my sister and son threw rocks into its never-ending darkness while I yelled at them to keep away from the crumpling edge: “Get your damn ass away from that hole!”

Raz, for whom The Razzamatazz claim is named, romping through the grass.

Raz, for whom The Razzamatazz claim is named, romping through the grass.

After the excitement and danger of The Hole wore off, we started looking for interesting rocks to take home.  Dad pointed out characteristics indicating which rocks were more likely to contain veins of gold, and showed us iron pyrite sticking out of pink quartz.  The claim we were exploring had immense reserves of schist and quartz, and had been mined in years past.  We were very likely standing on top of a huge vein of priceless minerals and gold, just deep enough to be beyond reach.  Dad believes there is more than we can imagine, but it would be extremely difficult to extract without heavy machinery and crates of explosives.

We didn’t see any obvious veins of gold in the boulders we pulled from the ground, so my father and sister hiked further up the ridge to get a view of Dad’s favorite meadow.  I helped my mother and son transport arm loads of pink and white quartz back to my SUV.  Once back at the car, we decided to take a lunch break.  I kept my eye out for mountain lions, or “MLs”, as my son calls them, while chewing my steak and red onion sandwich with horseradish mayonnaise.  It was a quiet afternoon, but on our way down the ridge we had spotted predator scat, and an animal was making faint noises in the distance.  My father and sister came back down from the ridge with tales of a colossal belt of quartz that had been pushed out of the ground by massive tree roots.  Dad was thrilled about this discovery and planned to return for more investigating.

Sword fighting on the claim.

Sword fighting on the claim.

My mother smiling and enjoying an afternoon on the gold claim.

My mother smiling and enjoying an afternoon on the gold claim.

We stopped at Dad’s camper, Chipmunk Village, as he calls it, because no matter where he parks, the camper attracts hordes of the pernicious creatures.  I needed to pick up camping gear belonging to me and my husband so we could outfit our camper (which we haven’t yet purchased).  In no hurry to leave the hills, we wandered around a field surrounding the camper and reminisced about family camp-outs from decades ago.  My sister and son fought a protracted battle over a piece of braided grass.  Mom drop kicked conks while Dad and I hauled a footlocker and folding table out of the camper.  We let the late afternoon sun seep into our bones and the smell of Black Hills Spruce trees envelope us in hazy perfume.

Nothing mattered but the feeling we felt at that moment.  We had no cell phone service and no way to get updates from the world.  For the time being, we weren’t affected by ISIS terror threats, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Robin Williams, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the stacks of bills piling up in our respective homes.  We just wanted to play out a daydream, much like my childhood full of summers camping out in pristine Idaho forests.

When it was time to go back to the real world, I don’t think that any of us really wanted to go back.  We had soaked up the sun, the smell of dry pine needles, and the memories of living a simple life, spending entire summers embracing the wilderness.  We wanted to stay in the forest, but we were out of water and food, it was time to go back, cook a big dinner, smile at all the photos we had taken, and fall asleep dreaming the dreams of children: a sunny day, a grassy field, a muddy hole and a rock perhaps hiding a sliver of gold.  We were satisfied with our consolation prize — knowing we could walk away cherishing the memory of a day that we stood on top of a priceless vein of gold that we might never possess, because we had something much more valuable: family.


At the Chipmunk Village.

At the Chipmunk Village.




He Who Owns Us

My Mini Tatanka, a treasure found at a favorite second hand shop in Belle Fourche.

My Mini Tatanka, a treasure found at a favorite second hand shop in Belle Fourche.

For the next few posts, I will be writing about my latest trip to South Dakota. Rather than start from the beginning, I have chosen to work backwards, so that in effect, the posts will read (hopefully) in chronological order once completed. I don’t know if this will actually make reading them more enjoyable, but since the return trip is freshest on my mind, I begin with this story.

It always seems to rain when it’s time to say good-bye.  I try to remember back to childhood.  Did it rain every time my grandparents finished their summer visit?  And there is a tradition in my family that no road trip to South Dakota would be complete without Mother Nature hurling her most creative weather concoctions at us as we rocket down the parched and patched roads.
My sister and I left Belle Fourche on a cloudy morning, my car so loaded with “treasures” that we could only see out the side mirrors.  Traveling this way makes some nervous, but we’ve done it so often that after looking at the pile of bags, coolers, boxes, and assorted furniture crammed into my SUV, we just shrugged, laughed, and started the ignition.  My parents were depressed to see us go, and as we prolonged our farewells, rain clouds stacked up in the sky.  I noted this but said nothing of my observation about rain and families splitting.  I volunteered to drive first so that I would be less likely to pout in the car.  I did not want to leave.  South Dakota had seeped into my bones and was coursing through my blood.  I burned with the fever of wanting to return to the dreamscape –Black Hills Spruce, impossible geography, and frosty creeks  hiding gold flecks — all muted the outside world.


The Al's Oasis sign at Oacoma, with the legendary buffalo mascot.

The Al’s Oasis sign at Oacoma, with the legendary buffalo mascot.

We made small talk in the car and let the conversation twist down whatever trail seemed appropriate.  On Interstate 90 east of Rapid City, I looked up into the sky to gauge the probability of a storm and saw an enormous bison in profile, charging majestically across his cloud prairie.  Tatanka, or He Who Owns Us, according to the Lakota language, demanded our full attention above the horizon.  The literal translation of Tatanka is buffalo bull, but the meaning of the name — He Who Owns Us — implies the Lakota’s great reverence for the king of the Plains. Legend and tradition ingrained through generations has made the bison a permanent central character defining life in South Dakota.  Symbolizing the sacredness and abundance of life on the Plains, the bison is not owned by any person.  Instead, we who walk the earth are owned by him, who has sustained us.


It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road; the Tatanka cloud was practically mesmerizing.  Within minutes it morphed into a smaller bison, maybe a cow, and soon it was strolling slowly with its humped back framed against a bluebird sky.  By the time we reached Wall, the cloud had changed once again, breaking apart to become the wispy face of an old bull, staring down as we passed the cemetery like a great sentinel watching over his vast domain.  Tatanka certainly owned us that day as we wallowed in the bittersweet memories of our adventure.

The next day we left South Dakota in the early afternoon.  It was raining.  As I said, it always rains when I have to say good-bye.  The clouds, a reflection of my breaking heart, streamed quiet wet tears down the canvas of the sky.  They swirled above and around, creating the impression that we were enclosed under a great inverted bowl of steel blue wool.  A few tears escaped from behind my sunglasses and I brushed them off my cheeks quickly.  Suddenly Tatanka appeared one last time, humped up and riding the cloud bank shot through with lightning, reminding me to keep my aching heart strong and wait for the next time I would return to South Dakota.  The question is, can I hold out?


So Things Got a Little Weird…

A trip to South Dakota usually involves some level of weirdness.  My family is pretty eccentric.  We do things differently and while it’s easy to predict that there will be weirdness happening during a visit back home, we just don’t know exactly what the weirdness will be.  So, I have compiled a list of  bizarre happenings during this year’s trip to South Dakota.

5.  Being on a week-long Prednisone regimen as a migraine preventative during the trip.  Nothing inherently strange about this, except that the major side effect was my insatiable urge to break into spontaneous song and dance in public locations, much like the Leland Palmer character in Twin Peaks.  I performed ABBA’s Dancing Queen using over-sized salt shakers and crispy corn dogs as microphones in roadside restaurants, and shimmied down grocery store aisles to Prince’s Little Red Corvette, much to the mortification of my children.  I’m fine now, absolutely NO urge to sing or dance now that the Prednisone is safely out of my system.

4.  Speaking of Twin Peaks: this totally random and un-staged reference to the show mesmerized me  in the guest room at my parents’ place.


Paging Killer Bob…

3.  Speaking of random: A visit to the Porter Sculpture Park outside of Montrose, South Dakota.  The sculpture park is a remnant from my childhood.  Originally, sculptures were dreamed up and assembled in St. Lawrence, South Dakota.  As a small child, I would walk the two or three blocks on a loose gravel road from my grandparents’ house to the Porter workshop to stare in wonder at skeletal dragons delicately sniffing daisies and giant goldfish escaping a massive silver bowl.


IMG_0088My favorite was always The Ballerina, a naked woman made of tiny metal tiles, kneeling on a platform, scooping up some of her loose tiles with a little broom and dustpan.  There is something both wistful and majestic about her, like she is mourning her loose tiles.  Seeing her on the vast South Dakota prairie was incredible.

We also looked at the giant Bull Head, an amazing structure that hides some rather weird and mystical secrets inside.  Bats, snakes, and demons are assembled inside the enormous structure.  My husband commented as we strolled away, “Does it strike you as a bit Satanic?”  The artist is an interesting fellow — friendly and all about providing tourists with an unusual experience.  He accused my husband of being a Canadian when Van turned down a complimentary post tour Hershey’s Kiss, and he offered to perform a Gypsy blessing on our SUV.  It was the best tourist attraction we’ve ever visited!


The Bull Head monument at the Porter Sculpture Park, Montrose, SD.

2.  Driving across a surreal South Dakota prairie, post October 2013 Blizzard.  I embraced the opportunity to spend time on some of South Dakota’s less known highways and found myself in areas devastated by last October’s blizzard, which killed tens of thousands of cattle.  I was simply in awe of what the weather left behind.  Instead of clear evidence of the devastation and death, there was nothing but rolling plain upon rolling plain of emerald green, yardstick tall grass, the likes of which I had never seen on the prairie in my years of living in South Dakota.  The cattle that had survived looked fat and slick as they grazed next to plump antelope.  Horses were up to their bellies in grasses, and they appeared to be swimming as they loped across pastures swaying like water.  The killing blizzard and harsh winter with heavy, lasting snows had left an abundance of  food and energy on the prairie for all that had survived, with no mention or apology for the price that had been paid for the shining beauty rolling before us.  It was a strange feeling to know and understand the harshness of the land.

1.  An early Father’s Day gift for Dad: a visit from the American Pickers!  Okay, so it wasn’t the actual Pickers, and I have no real proof of this happening.  But why would I make this up?  So a producer from the show American Pickers contacted me because last year I signed my parents up for a visit (you can do that on the show’s Website).  My parents are hoarders and they live in an 80 year old school = perfect material for the show.  Anyway, a producer from the show contacted me and said he wanted to visit the school to see what Dad had available for the guys to *pick*.  So, using my natural charm and communication skills, I did what I could to make things happen, and the crew (not the actual Pickers – sorry, I realize this is not as cool as I want it to sound) came to scope out the school and interview Dad.  I wasn’t actually there at the time.  I have no proof to back up my story.  I have nothing to indicate that anything exciting even happened, but Dad was really happy that he got to meet a friendly T.V. producer, give a tour of the school, and possibly have a return visit from the Pickers.  It made his day.

And these still weren’t the weirdest things that have ever happened during a trip to South Dakota.

— G




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Oh, Pioneer! A Blog By Any Other Name…

English: Groucho Marx & anonymous blogging

Of course there is an explanation…(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you might imagine, there is an interesting story behind my choice of blog name.  After all, it’s not as though I go by Blogging Pioneer because I have pioneered blogging.   When blogging became a thing, I was just a kid, learning to type on ancient typewriters.  Remember typewriters?  Occasionally playing the game Oregon Trail (remember the Oregon Trail?) on gigantic awkward looking Apple desktop computers was a hard-won privilege for those of us with enough fortitude to survive the death march of keyboarding exercises.  Remember the horrible typing lessons?  …. asa, fcf,  jyj, l;l, shoot me please…. So I haven’t pioneered anything in the blogging world, but before we discuss my credentials as a potential pioneer, let’s first delve into how I ended up with the name.

I originally had a great name picked out, and I was so excited to claim it that I overlooked the possibility it might not be available.  In hindsight, the name didn’t really suit the tone of my blog, but I really wanted it at the time, like that pair of hot pants that you know are wrong but you just don’t care.  I am not going to tell you the name because you might laugh.  Or you might stop reading my posts because you think that ‘blogging pioneer’ is so lame in contrast to the name I didn’t get (in which case you are lame).  Anyway, I went to the Go Daddy site and entered my name choice into the little box (whatever that is called) but was informed that the name was available only if I paid $750 to the current owner.  That is not a typo.  $750.00.  For a NAME.  Hmmm.  I had my heart set on that name, but being a thrifty pragmatist, I also had a back up list of eight other names, just in case this happened.

Every damn backup name I submitted was either not available at all, or available to purchase for several hundred dollars!  Even my own first name!  What unscrupulous bastard had purchased “Georgeann” for use as a domain name?  I decided my name was too weird anyway; most days I can’t even spell it right so why impose such high standards on anyone else?  I was about to give up when I suddenly thought “I could try ‘blogging pioneer’!  It fits with my South Dakota theme and my willingness to jump into life and try new adventures…  Surprisingly, this name was available, free, and not the dumbest one I had contrived.

It took me a few days to feel entirely comfortable with ‘bloggingpioneer’.  I wanted to live up to the name but wasn’t sure it would convey a general sense of who I am.  Then I realized that the only way to show my readers ME was through my writing.  Just starting a blog is an activity in pioneering forward in life.  It takes courage to self publish without really knowing what will happen as a consequence.  Like many Americans, I come from a long history of pioneers.  My grandfather told elaborate stories about his Scottish and Danish ancestors sailing to America and traveling west to settle in South Dakota, where they shaped farms and lives from the vast flowing plains.  I like to think I have their spirit, even if my activity isn’t as courageous as sailing across the world and taming the Great Plains.  Even a blog project can be daunting for someone as meek as myself!

My grandmother is a major inspiration.  Full of the pioneer spirit, a retired school teacher and farm wife, she wrote a column in the local newspaper.  She set up her writing office in a cool, shady spare room with a desk, typewriter, stacks of paper, and lots of little boxes of fun things like paper clips, extra pencils, and stamps from all over the world.  Grandma wrote old-timey gossipy articles, something like: “Mr. and Mrs. Hosenscheisser celebrated their 35th anniversary last weekend at the Lutheran Church on 5th Street.  Ham salad sandwiches and lime Jell-O were served with chocolate cake and terrible tasting coffee.”  She also wrote recipes for church cookbooks, composed long story-filled letters, and assembled colorful scrapbooks for her grandchildren.

With a gift for conversation, a love of details, and a strong desire to write, she would have been a wonderful blogger.  I have no doubt that she passed along her sense of urgency  for preserving family history and telling stories.  For me, being a pioneer, especially through this blog, is about revisiting my roots and reinventing myself by examining where I’ve come from and looking ahead to where I’m going.  I no longer have any doubt that I chose the perfect name.

— G

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Waiting Will Be The Hardest Part

Strawberry Wine3

Over the weekend I finished a bottle of exceptional strawberry wine from South Dakota, and now I must wait until summer to go back for another!  If I had known it would become a favorite after dinner sipping wine for cold evenings, I would have purchased at least one extra bottle to tide me over until June.  My husband and I found a new tasting room on a driving tour through the Black Hills.  I cannot remember the name of the place, but we never drive past a winery or tasting room without stopping!  We stayed an hour, chatting with the friendly stewards and sampling everything, then left with several bottles, among them a tart rhubarb (popular in South Dakota), a classic made of wild grapes harvested locally, and the fun looking strawberry.  I planned to do something ambitious with it since I don’t typically sip ultra thick sweet desert wines.

Strawberry Wine2

It didn’t take long for the strawberry wine to convince me that we were meant to be: flawed mortal flesh loves fruited whimsy served in a glass!  I poured the tiniest serving on Christmas Eve, and after sipping it demurely I poured a second glass and sipped it greedily.  On Christmas Day I thoroughly enjoyed a larger glass.  The wine and I made each other very happy for exactly one month, until I poured my last glass and sipped the final jammy remnants wistfully.  I think about how long it will be before I’ll have another bottle.  We will be on our summer vacation in South Dakota, I will be on a mission to fill my car with strawberry wine!

Strawberry Wine6

My wine puddle before I resorted to using a straw.

While pouring my final (sob) glass, I misjudged how much wine remained in the bottom of the bottle, and it overshot my port glass, leaving a huge blood red puddle on my counter.  Nooooo!  I wasted a giant sip!  Our house guest suddenly strolled into the kitchen and witnessed me sucking wine off the counter with a plastic straw.  He was speechless at my desperation, probably thinking: some people will do anything for wine.

Sipping the strawberry wine was like indulging in homemade preserves, but with the benefit of them being spiked by a sinful hand.  Jammy and full bodied, heavy on the tongue, with a slight tang to offset the pushiness of the sweet strawberries.  It paired impeccably with cheeses, any cheeses we could imagine!  I liked to pair it with goat cheese, which has a distinct funky flavor, but it also paired beautifully with cow’s milk cheese, particularly sharp, aged, or even sweet and creamy cheese.  Oh, it was a fine accompaniment to noshes!  Until I can be reunited with a new bottle, my strawberry wine will be (sweetly, not bitterly) missed.

— G

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Passing Time on a Winter’s Evening

A bee visiting a giant sunflower in my Kansas garden.

A giant bee visiting a giant sunflower in my Kansas garden.

After the shock of Christmas has worn off and all the decorations have been packed carefully into closets until next season, we settle into a generally quiet routine and wait for Winter to melt into Spring.  The signal that Spring planting is closer than we think arrives with seed catalogs in our mailbox. We usually have a stack as thick as a phone book by the end of January.  These glossy wish books full of endlessly fascinating plant varieties provide hours of entertainment during even the coldest of winter evenings.

My system for browsing seed catalogs is simple: I choose my three favorites, toss the rest, and then sit down with a hot cup of tea and religiously peruse, looking for coveted packets of heirlooms and rarities for the new year’s garden.  I dog-ear the magazine pages and make an extensive shopping list of seeds that catch my eye.  Before practicality overtakes me, imagination reigns supreme, and I write down absolutely everything the family desires, from fantastical warty pumpkins the size of enormous boulders to dwarf bushes bearing glittering gem colored berries.  Growth and food production characteristics of exotic squash, vibrantly hued okra, delicate bee enticing flowers, crisply fragrant cucumbers, and vivacious snappy carrots are researched vigorously by the glow of a warm lamp.  Only after my exhaustive list is complete, and Spring is just around the corner, do I edit items that won’t quite fit into our budget or our garden.

Asparagus established in our Kansas garden.

Asparagus established in our Kansas garden.

The heartiest plant in our garden: my $5 rosebush!

The heartiest plant in our garden: my $5 rosebush!

In past years I have kept an Excel spreadsheet on my old laptop with all my shopping lists, seed prices from catalog and Internet vendors, price comparisons, and best of all, my garden records.  When we lived in South Dakota I had a glorious garden!  The soil yielded vegetables willingly at the slightest turn of my spade, and I could spend hours fussing about with my little seedlings, helping them turn up to the sunlight.  In South Dakota we produced a bumper crop of carrots, onions, lettuces, spinach, wild kale, beans,  cucumbers and others.

Our hops going dormant last autumn.

Our hops going dormant last autumn.

Every plant was recorded in my spreadsheet, with seed type, location, date of planting, and success rate noted.  I even added  notes indicating any unusual circumstances surrounding the success or failure of the seeds.  For example, we had a terrible hail storm one year that annihilated the tomatoes, but practically every other seedling managed to dodge the hailstones plummeting to earth like icy buckshot.  After this  storm, the garden thrived and provided delicious edibles for the remainder of the year.  Noting anomalies, weather pattern effects, and strange circumstances in my spreadsheet helped me decide whether or not to continue to attempt to plant certain crops.  I eventually gave up on tomatoes after three straight years of various failures, but my husband has picked up the proverbial spade, determined to get the little buggers to grow come hell or high water (which we had in our yard last year)!

Our asparagus thriving, with bright red berries to mark the coming winter.

Our asparagus thriving, with bright red berries to mark the coming winter.

Sun Chokes, AKA Jerusalem Artichokes, have found a home.

Sun Chokes, AKA Jerusalem Artichokes, have found a home.

The garden in Kansas presented a new challenge.   Uncultivated like that of our beautiful Black Hills soil, it is ugly construction zone soil badly in need of care and refinement.  However, our first year garden in Kansas was surprisingly successful.  We had so much okra that we became tired of gumbo, stir fried okra, curries, and okra pickles, so I let the remaining pods go to seed, hoping the okra would reseed naturally the following year.  Torrential rains and a temperamental spring prevented the seeds from taking, and we had no okra.  We had  similar experiences with other vegetables.  Seeds that had sprung so lively from the soil the previous year failed to even germinate.  My heirloom lettuces and wild kale, the pride of my garden, washed away when the yard flooded in the torrential rains.  The beans were devoured by a mysterious insect, possibly grasshoppers, and Napoleon, my garden toad, could only grimace apologetically at me as if to say “I ate as many as I could!”  

The rosebush enduring the first winter storm of 2013.

The rosebush enduring the first winter storm of 2013.

The final insult felt like a sharp blow when my husband and I discovered that a varmint had plucked and eaten every last sun ripened grape from the spiraling vine I’d been nurturing and (thought I had been) protecting all summer.   As we stared at the last remnants of our efforts I know we were both thinking the same thing: all that work, and for what?  But, as I was tearfully mourning the jars of grape jelly we would never taste, my husband just said quietly, “Well, now we know what to look out for next year.”  This is the nature of gardening: so many risks, so many contingencies we can’t always plan for, and so many heartbreaks when our hard work goes unrewarded.  But every gardener knows that all the hard lessons from the past should not prevent browsing the catalogs, making seed lists, and making plans so to be prepared for the future!

As with choosing seeds for my garden, I had a very difficult time choosing related articles to add to my post…so, I chose them all!  
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Letters From Michael Dudikoff (Part 1)

Anyone else get fanmail from Michael Dudikoff during their deployment?  I didn’t think so.  Well, actually it wasn’t really him writing to me.  It was a friend from the Air Force sending hilarious letters using the (dare I say it?) legendary actor’s name on the return address.  Why?  Because it made them funnier.

19 July 2003

Dear G,

I just got back from a month and a half in Europe, Israel, and various parts of the U.S.  I was happy to come back home and see 2 letters… I thought about you every time I saw a flight going to Baghdad or Kuwait.  I flew Space-A on military ‘hopovers’ to Europe and back.  I hope this letter finds you in good spirits, and that you haven’t given up on me — ha!  Well, graduation went well and I got commissioned and all that good stuff.  I really enjoyed hanging out with you.  I don’t know why, but I felt really comfortable talking to you.  I only wish I could have met up with you before you left.  Oh well, I’m sure we’ll meet again.

(I wonder if Michael Dudikoff is flirting a tiny bit?)

I went to islands in Greece (Crete and Ios), Israel, Cambridge in the UK, and Prague.  I finally went home after three weeks, to Colorado Springs for a wedding.  It was quite lavish…They do well enough to afford it, and my buddy getting married had a great time with his newly.  After about 30 days had gone by (I had 60 days of leave!) a friend convinced me to spend the 4th of July in D.C. with him.  We watched the fireworks between the Washington Monument and the Capital while lying out on the grass.  After that we took off for Spain to run with the bulls.  We landed at Rota, Spain…then a 14 hour ride to Pamplona where the Running of the Bulls was happening.  But we were so tired by then…we decided to chalk it up and just hang out in the South of Spain.  We went to Seville and [back to] Rota too.  Since I was on the road for more than a month I decided to head back…you ever feel like just chilling?  Yeah, I thought so.

Now I’m here in Santa Maria, California and by the time you get this I will be on my way to Osan Air Base, Repulic of Korea.  Sad, eh?  I don’t think I can get much sympathy from a girl in Baghdad…I really do worry about you being there.  I heard morale is really low.  Is it?  Anyway, getting back to better things…How is your son doing?  Who is he hanging out with while Mommy’s gone?  What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen?  Do you have e-mail yet?  I hope you are well and that you remember who I am.  Listen, I will write you often and maybe when you’re having a bad day my letter will arrive and cheer you up…Be careful and Godspeed home.  May the sun always shine on your back and the sand stay out of your underwear!


Dear G,

It’s great to hear from you!  Well I can’t help but think about you and your health as the media provides daily news about the ongoing issues in Iraq.  However, I’m also a strong believer that uncomfortable, challenging situations help us grow and develop as human beings.  In that sense, I envy you.  I’m proud to know someone like you, who is over there doing your thing, and always strapping on the U.S. flag every time you go outside.

(Kinda putting me on a pedestal there, Buddy.  I may have to strap on a parachute to get back down.)

Korea is very interesting.  Everyone here keeps telling me that by this time next year when I supposedly leave, I will have learned more than I could’ve in a 2 or 3 year tour in CONUS.  I’ve been here for a month now and I don’t miss the States at all!  However, I will be going back in October for Agent Training before I return to Osan…The weather here varies between hot and humid and rainy.  Drivers are complete maniacs on the road.  Seriously!  I wonder if they realize that red means stop…Free time after work is an unusual feeling…I have more free time now to pursue my hobbies, goals, and education.

Where did you say you lived?  I remember South Dakota, but is that where you grew up or where you live now?  I hope your little boy is doing well.  He’s probably quite the little handyman with your father showing him the ropes.  How long do you have until you go home?  You should move to Europe when you return.  You know, live the Euro Trash lifestyle.  That’s hopefully where I’ll go sooner than later.  Germany or Italy or England (to study at Cambridge!).  I’ll do my best to write frequently and stay in touch.  After all, it’s the least I can do…Take care and say hi to your girlfriends for me!

P.S. I have handwriting like a 4th Grader, so sue me!

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Wednesday, 3 September 2003 @ 1:00 P.M.

Dear G,

Everyday without your presence is like a day without the welcoming of the beautiful serene sunrise…I’ve always wanted to write that in a letter to someone deployed on the line!  I don’t know what line you’re on but you get the drift.  Did you like that opening sentence?  I figured I’d mix it up a little with some romance.  In all seriousness though, I really do wish that we’ll see each other someday.  I felt you were genuine, and that’s a quality that is rare.

(Hmmm…if my husband reads this post he is going to kick Michael Dudikoff’s ass for putting the moves on me via air mail ten years ago!  Well maybe not…)

I’m wrapping up a four day weekend (Labor Day)…I go back to the States in October.  I really don’t miss [the U.S.] that much but I look forward to stepping on U.S. soil…I just got off the phone with my parents (that’s why the first line of this paragraph is darker; I was outlining the words while talking to them).  Anyway, it’s their 28th anniversary and they were both on the phone.  So Mom says “Yeah, it’s been 28 years and 3 days and it’s HELL!” I started laughing uncontrollably and they were laughing too.  It’s the kind of humor that can only come from being married that long.  I hope I can have a marriage that good, honest, and loving when I tie the knot.  I think my first step should be to find a girl.  What do you think?

(I think you are adorable.)

I’m looking at my letter thus far and realizing it looks like a freight train hit it.  Scratches everywhere;  I think your son can write better than me!  Anyway, I know you’re probably very busy.  Just try to take some deep breaths, look up at the sky or moon, and appreciate your family, friends, and good health (if you’re not catching a cold).  It’s not everyday you’re in Iraq, right!  Feel better?  Be safe and take care.

Yours Truly

P.S.  Write down the date and time you send your letter so I know how long it takes from Baghdad to Osan AB, Korea.

P.P.S.  I’m a geek.

Friday, 5 September 2003 @ 1200 hours

Dear G,

How’s Iraq nowadays?  Is it cooling off?  It [has been] raining off and on now for the last week of August and into September.  I enjoy the sun if I’m wearing a shirt and shorts, but I prefer the cloudy skies otherwise.  If I’m in a suit, I don’t like the sun beating down…guess I’m just more of a temperate climate type of guy…I’ll have to send you a picture sometime.  I keep forgetting to take my camera with me when I go out.  I tried contacting Van before I left but he never returned my call.  Oh well, it was good to see that kid before I left.  He’s only become more ‘Texan’ since I last saw him.

(Good one.  He’s only become more ‘South Dakotan’ since I married him!)

I think about the Academy days and sometimes I get…I guess I’d say nostalgic.  I don’t miss the actual BS we put up with but I think “Man, those days are gone.  That step is over in my life.  I can never get that back.”  The trivial conversations with my classmates after Taps, the smell of morning dew, the serenity of walking to the cafeteria as another suns sets over Colorado.  This is what comes to mind.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m excited about pursuing my next goals and challenges.  It’s great.  Perhaps it’s the scariness of age and life and how quickly we can move through it and not notice.  That’s what one of my goals after graduation was: no more putting life on hold until next week, next month, next year.  Now I try to enjoy every day.  Key word is “TRY”.  Some days I wish I could just skip.  I speak to people who are between 26 and 30 years old and they mention their age as “old”.  I don’t want to be like that.  I hope I don’t embrace that mentality!  If I am still clubbing at 30, trying to get with 21 year olds I’ll be a little concerned…

(I hope you are not doing this now.  Cradle robber.)

Moving on to you.  What are your thoughts on this matter?  Do you agree, or think my thoughts are askew?  It’s always great to hear from someone wiser and more mature than me.  Do you have any days off there?  What is your tent like?  Do you have enough room to have privacy?  Well I hope to continue writing you without interruption.  I know mail is always cool to get from a friend, especially one as disturbingly handsome as me (wink).  I make myself laugh!  Yeah, I’m a dork.  Have you guys had any USO celebrity visitors there?  I’m betting Michael Dudikoff (Star of American Ninja 1, 2 & 4) will be there soon, huh?  That would be sooooo awesome!  All right, I hope this letter reaches you in good health.  Thinking of you.

P.S.  I wasn’t joking about Michael Dudikoff!

P.P.S.  No, seriously.  I will have Michael’s children one day!

P.P.P.S.  Stop laughing…Be safe please.

(Oh…so that is where the Michael Dudikoff joke came from…Now it makes sense.)

Me up Close

Getting Duped in The Great Laundry Swindle

Me at Breaktime

No one wants to wash their boss’s dirty underwear.

Okay, I am going to be really candid here; I am not criticizing the National Guard.  When we deployed I was incredibly proud of my Guard unit.  Especially in South Dakota, the National Guard is a prestigious organization, and members are viewed as elite citizens in their communities.  Our Guard units are prided for being so cohesive.  One big happy family serving gallantly together is how we all likely envisioned our potential performance before deployment, and morale was high.  But things started to happen, and by the time we left Kuwait, I was doubting the leadership.

Perhaps as a consequence of being National Guard, it seemed that our unit lacked the infrastructure necessary to act the same as a regular Army unit and execute the same caliber of decisions through its chain of command.  We had less accessibility to resources, we spent less time in training, and as a group we had a general lack of knowledge when compared to our regular Army counterparts.  Even so, we were extremely efficient in our missions because our soldiers were amazing!  My peers in the company worked with dedication and immense optimism for sixteen months!  Many of our officers were also amazing, but some of our leadership demonstrated a noticeable lack of respect for subordinates.  It became obvious that some did not believe that soldiers, regardless of rank, deserved basic respect.  This empathy gap was quite possibly the biggest threat to unit morale and cohesion, and the incident known as the Great Laundry Swindle convinced me that nothing would close it.

The Great Laundry Swindle was executed one hot day while we were still in Kuwait.  There hadn’t been anything to do in quite a long time, so we were just sitting around waiting for something to happen.  Oh how trouble enters this way!  A handful of our leadership mentioned they were going into Camp Doha for a meeting and they needed several high speed volunteers to help with assorted errands.  For our efforts, we would have a free afternoon of shopping and dining in Doha’s large market.  They made it sound very simple, some light lifting, a bit of walking, nothing too laborious.  A cardinal rule in the Army is NEVER, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, VOLUNTEER FOR ANYTHING!!!  But, we were so bored that four of us said we would do it.  How bad could it be?

“By the way, Sir, what is it that you need us to do, exactly?” one soldier asked as we loaded into the Humvee.  “Oh, don’t you worry about that, Sparky… Heh heh heh…” the officer answered shiftily as he tossed laundry bags into the back with us.  We “high speeds” didn’t catch on that we and the half dozen laundry bags in the Humvee were all going to the same location until we pulled up in front of a plain building with a little brown placard marked with a name and corresponding laundry facility number.  Our fearless leaders were snickering as they unloaded their bags and dropped them on the ground in front of the building.  “Your mission today is to do our dirty laundry for us while we are in our meeting.  We’d like everything fluffed and folded too.  See you in a couple of hours.”  “Seriously?”  One of us asked with a half smile, because it HAD to be a joke.  “Yes, seriously.  Get it done,” they drove off laughing.  We stared at each other in disbelief.  “Holy shit! What the hell just happened?” the biggest NCO of the group asked.  “No really!  What.  The.  Fuck.  Just.  Happened?  I am an NCO!  I am not a damn laundry lady!!  Come back here, you motherfuckers!”

For those readers not terribly familiar with the military, here is a quick lesson.  In the chain of command, it is normal for subordinates to take orders from their superiors to do assigned military related tasks in the course of duty.  However, it is NOT normal for subordinates to wash their superiors’ fucking laundry.  Not only that, it is highly inappropriate, and an abuse of authority for a superior to coerce a subordinate into doing laundry, whether through a direct order, a threat, or in this case, trickery.  We had been duped into doing something that felt like punishment and our bosses were laughing at us.  Even in the regular Army, soldiers were never required to wash their superior officers’ smelly, nasty underwear.  The message sent was that our chain of command thought so little of us that they had lost the sensibility to treat us like real soldiers.  It was a slap in the face and an affront to what we had all worked for during our time in the Guard.  So what if we were only enlisted soldiers and junior Non Commissioned Officers?  We were still soldiers who deserved basic respect and dignity, but that had been stripped away in one very bad joke.

We spent some time discussing possible revenge strategies: mixing up all the dirty laundry and just putting it back unwashed so the bastards got each others’ disgusting socks and underwear; putting everything into the dryers still dirty to set the sweat stains and pungent smells into the fabric; or throwing the clothing out onto the street in an act of protest.  In the end we decided we were all professional even though we had been put into a degrading and embarrassing situation.  We decided to be  the bigger soldiers and do the laundry.   It was humiliating!  We washed , dried and folded it neatly, and when our so-called leadership returned we placed the clean bags into the Humvee and climbed in without so much as a word.  They could tell that we were livid and tried to make light of the situation by offering to buy us lunch.  We got an hour or so at the market, just long enough to grab lunch and browse a bit, not the “free afternoon at the market” that had been promised, but it wasn’t about that anymore.   We were still fuming from a worse betrayal.  During the drive back to camp we wracked our brains for memories of times when we had ever been treated worse, but couldn’t think of any scenarios to top this.

We returned to camp in time for the daily platoon meeting.  None of the leaders involved attended (they were probably too busy putting their clean laundry away) so we vented to the rest of our platoon about what had transpired.  They listened in disbelief.  Until that day I had worn an Army Values tag on my ID tag chain.  It was the acronym LDRSHIP: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.  I took it off during the meeting and tore it up, which was no small task since it was made of the same material as a credit card.  As long as any soldier in our unit could be abused by our leadership in such a manner, there was no such thing as Army Values, I proclaimed.   We were a great National Guard unit that did amazing things in Iraq.  Sadly, a tone had been set by leadership during that incident at the laundry; a picture was painted of officers with absolutely no respect for the driving force of our unit, the enlisted soldiers who made the unit so successful.  If they found it perfectly ethical to dupe their own soldiers into washing their laundry, where would the line be drawn?

Being a true leader is not accomplished through coercion and trickery, abuse of authority, and neglect of subordinates’ best interests; it is earned when a leader gives subordinates all the resources to realize their potential and encourages them to succeed.  Leaders have to invest in their soldiers, not draw the life out of them.  My leadership never got that.  Nobody should ever have to wash their boss’s nasty drawers!

— G

P.S.  Did a little research, and in 2011,  a National Guard brigade commander was relieved for taking bad leadership to the extreme.  Guess what…one of the unethical abuses of power that he used to degrade his subordinates was…coercing them into doing his laundry!!!  Read it here:


Farewell Blue Correction Pen

Blue Pen        My Blue Correcting Pen’s Final Adventure

A couple of weeks ago my youngest daughter Alexis used my old blue correction pen to draw a picture.  According to her, it is a dog chasing a cat, with the respective owners chasing their pets, by moonlight.  By the time I discovered her artwork, the pen had run out of ink and was ready to go into retirement.  Most people would just throw away an old pen, but this particular pen is very special to me.  I have had it longer than I’ve been married (going on ten years now) and I have some pretty special memories attached to the thing.  I can’t just toss the pen into the garbage can and forget that it existed.

This special little pen represents my short lived but extremely fun job as a receptionist in former Senator Tom Daschle’s office in Rapid City, South Dakota during his 2004 election run.  After I came home from deployment I really needed a job.  Thanks to my parents constantly harassing the Senator’s office personnel unbeknownst to me while I was gone, a representative met  with me one afternoon in a coffee shop, looked at my resume, and offered me a job on the spot.  One of the pieces of office equipment that I was issued along with a desk, computer, and potted plant was a brand new royal blue correction pen.

Working in the office was an incredible experience in professional development and constituent services.  I learned so much about what South Dakotans want and need through the stories and requests that poured into the office.  Some of their problems were easy to fix, and I felt useful being  a part of the team that was making positive changes in government.  Other times, I just wanted to bang my head against the wall.  Some problems were too great or had been around too long to be solved so simply.  It didn’t take long to realize that no matter what we did, there would always be obstacles to overcome and mistakes to make.  There was the day that I lost my temper and called an irate constituent an asshole because he called me a dumb liberal bitch during a heated exchange over the phone.  Not my most professional moment.

Then there was the day that a random crazy person wandered in with a disposable camera and took pictures of everybody in the office, one at a time.  It happened so fast and was so shocking that we all had the same “I just pooped my pants in terror” look on our faces.  We reported the incident to the police after the man casually strolled out the front door, but there really wasn’t anything that they could do since he technically didn’t threaten anyone.  A few weeks later he showed up again, all smiles, and passed the photos out to us proudly, stating “they turned out real nice!”.  That is how we knew that we all had that same terrified expression.

My absolute favorite memory however, is of a phone call I received after Daschle lost the election to Senator Thune.  I was busy cleaning out my desk when a call came in from a man who wanted to express his condolences to Daschle as well as his staffers.  He went on to say that as an openly gay man living in the ultra conservative Black Hills, he was worried that he would not have as much support without a Democrat in the Senate.  I thanked him for his support.  He then went on to say that he found Senator Thune quite attractive.  Any other time I probably would have been at a loss for words, but on that particular day I was so doped up on cold medicine and also pretty bummed about losing the job I had come to love, so I blurted out “Really?  You think Thune is hot?  I don’t see it.  I think Daschle is pretty cute though.”  And that was the last conversation I had with a constituent as a receptionist for Senator Daschle.  I am sure he would be so proud of me.

My beautiful picture

Me on my last day of work.  Notice the giant bottle of cold medicine on my desk?

I have used my blue correction pen since my last day of work to put my signature on official papers like legal and employment documents and also to sign Christmas and thank you cards.  Most recently, my children have used the pen to create artwork, like the picture Alexis drew.  Now it will be retired, kept in my mug full of pens and pencils forever, a testament to the sentimentality of simple everyday objects.   I can still look at the pen and remember specific days when I laughed with co-workers, canvased neighborhoods, talked to my sister on my lunch break, schemed my way into my husband’s heart, and kissed my son goodnight.  I will never have the strength to throw the pen away.  My blue correction pen symbolizes a job that opened my eyes to a bigger world and gave me a better future.  It is just one of the many objects that has become a part of my life and my story.