Saturday, January 27, 2018

My Worst Photography Experience

I saw a dramatic sky developing and quickly rounded up my camera and gear from the office and headed downstairs to get the dogs ready.  Thank goodness the rain finally stopped, I thought, as I finished putting their collars on and headed out the door.

It was much colder than I thought when I reached the access gate.  I released Buddy and he scrambled under and through the barbed wire like an elite athlete as if it weren’t there.  I’ve never understood how he gets his body low enough to sprint under the lowest wire at 6”.  If I try to make him wait while I open the gate, he jumps into multiple wire strands like a WWI soldier on the battlefields of Somme.  After witnessing this several times I concluded it was safer (for him and I) to let him go under.  I reached for my beanie as I watched Olive chase after Buddy, who had a 5 second lead.  When she caught up to him and chomped his neck I chuckled at the thought that I used to be the target of her biting bitchiness. 

When I reached the halfway point up the hill I noticed the wind had picked up quite a bit and was thankful I brought the small umbrella with me. The gigantic one I used last week would be destroyed in 3 seconds, I thought to myself.  I made my way to the top and began unpacking the gear at my favorite spot, excited at how great these shots would be with the dramatic skies.  I hooked up the lighting gear and as is often the case when I focus on something else for 30 seconds, Buddy was gone. 

He disappeared for the first time a month after we adopted him. When I called him back using his e-collar he back-tracked to our starting point, underneath the barbed wire, and to our house.  Our neighbor picked him up and called me to let me know he was safe.  (I’ve since learned that Buddy has a terrible sense of direction and may be the reason he’s a failed hunting dog).

I jumped up, beeped the collar, and started looking for him.  Almost immediately I saw him only a few yards away and was relieved he hadn’t gone back to the gate.  I’d never seen him roll in the grass like that, but I instantaneously knew why.

Dogs roll in shit for a number of reasons.  One of the most popular theories is that it masks the dog’s scent for hunting purposes.  They all do it, it’s universal and natural, but a muscular, energetic hound dog fully covered in fresh cow shit makes most humans irrational and angry, even if only for a few seconds.

Fuuuuuuuuuu…I screamed from the hilltop (literally) and scolded Buddy like a third grader who has torn his pants before class on picture day.  Lots of  “I can’t believe…….what are you doing……why…..get over here now……sit down”  nonsense came out of my mouth.  For 5-7 seconds I was my mother until I regained composure and realized I was talking to a dog.  I walked back to my gear and disgustedly ordered Mr. shitty pants and Olive to sit on the rock.

I picked up my gear and lowered the light into place at the same moment a gust of wind caught the umbrella and blew it 90 degrees to the right.  Olive promptly jumped down and ran to my pocket for a treat.  Every shutter click means a reward and she’s a genius at starting her forward motion a nanosecond before the shutter clicks.  Her movement caused Mr. Fecal Fur to amble over as well, his manure covered collar coming within inches of my face, causing me to stifle a gag. I got them set again and got into position so we could continue. 

Moving Just Before the Shutter Clicks

At this point, I think It’s appropriate to step back and take a snapshot of what being “in position” and ready means.

Whereas there are three distinct roles in this endeavor, there is only one of me in these hills and I must dutifully cover all three in order for a photo to be taken.  In no particular order these duties include photographer, lighting assistant, and dog wrangler.

In this scenario my left arm is the lighting assistant, holding a 5’ light stand at a downward angle with a 5 lb weight and windsock attached to the top.  Despite Lefty’s best efforts, he’s failing at keeping the windsock directed into the wind at the dogs.  My right hand and legs are the photographer.  This gaggle of limbs is holding the camera with one hand, while doing deep knee bends for 30 seconds at a time to get the correct angle.  Lefty is screaming in the photographer’s ear like a distressed boat captain that he can’t take much more and we’re about to have a catastrophic light failure.  Meanwhile, my dog wrangling consists solely of my voice and I can vaguely hear it screaming at Olive and Mr. Dung Diver to please “Just sit the f&ck down and stay”!! (Not approved by the National Association of Dog Trainers).

I think we lost the light, Captain

Suddenly I hear Lefty Scream “She’s coming down!”

A gust of wind had caught the umbrella and it swung to the right, striking my face. 

“Are you OK?” he screamed again.

“Yes, a small flesh wound, but we have a severely wounded soldier”, I replied.

The light stand had fallen and the umbrella took the brunt of the impact, the spines bent and splayed like an octopus gasping for air out of water.  I must have clicked the shutter because Olive and Mr. Manure man came running over for a treat.  Another gag.

Time for a treat, right?

“What did I tell you guys about sitting and staying?” I said, channeling my mother one more time.

I did a quick assessment and decided it was time to leave.  I packed up the camera gear and realized there was no chance the umbrella could be sheathed in its mangled condition, making it impossible to carry out.  I gave a quick invocation and then abandoned it like a dead hiker on Mt. Everest.

As I made my way down the hill and the rage began to dissipate, I had a chuckle about the whole experience.  There was Buddy gleefully running about, sniffing the drainage inlets.  There was Olive, nudging my pockets for treats, stopping for a quick bite of shit, then making her way towards the gate.   Seeing their joy quickly brought things back into focus and reminded me of why I go into the hills in the first place.  It would have been nice if they’d sat on that rock for a photo, though.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tree Walker Coonhound

"Are you shitting me, he's stuck again?", I thought as I ran towards the scrub oak I saw him disappear into.

A week before, Buddy climbed 15 feet up into a tree and found that he couldn't get down without my help.   I thought it was a one-off and had a good laugh about it while relaying the story to friends and family. The second time made me realize this behavior is way down deep in his canine DNA and I'd have to watch him closely moving forward.

We adopted Buddy several months ago and as far as we know he's a 3 year old TreeING Walker Coonhound which are bred specifically to tree raccoons (Purist owners get pissed when you suggest they have a "Tree Walker", but this is exactly what Buddy is).  His behaviors and physique lead me to believe he was, in fact, trained as a hunting dog and wasn't just a pet.  His outward appearance is very typical of a coonhound, but he's pure muscle from his neck to the floor.  In fact, he's so thick we often joke it appears he's wearing a child's hulk costume.  He also has a v notch on his left ear, indicative of being branded. He doesn't like dog play or toys and he's intensely focused on the horizon (often siting and watching for hours). The moment I put a training collar on him, I learned he has perfect recall.  He was bred to hunt.

As I approached the tree I could see he was in the canopy, some 10 feet off the ground, surrounded by smaller, protruding branches that might impale his body if he tried to jump down.  He let off a small whimper, letting me know he was stuck, but his relentless DNA informed him to look upwards and continue the never-ending pursuit of critters.  I spoke to him in my calmest voice, hoping to keep him from panicking and jumping down.  I cleared out most of the small branches to give myself a window and prepared to ascend.

I grabbed a branch as high as I could and started pulling myself up, immediately lamenting all the days that have passed since my last triceps workout (345?) when my arms gave way just slightly.  Climbing trees didn't factor into my fitness matrix in year 47 yet here I was, in a tree, rescuing a goddamn 70 lb. muscle-head with limited planning skills. When I reached his level I grabbed his collar and he immediately welcomed me up and asked me to join in the hunt by breaking into a deep, joyous, hound song, the one his tribe has sung for millennia.

If you've never had the joy of listening to this song from a distance of 6 inches, I'll try to give you an idea of what it's like.  Do you remember the band Metallica? It's like pressing one ear against a 35 foot stack of marshall amplifiers turned to 11 and having James Hatfield scream in your other ear while they play Master of Puppets. Peaceful, really.

After a lot of coaxing (and promising to join him in the trees on the next hunt), he agreed to come down, jumping into my arms like a 70 lb sack of muscle participating in a game of "Trust". As I turned to set him down I saw a neighbor standing in her driveway and I waved sheepishly.  It seems she also heard Buddy's 6:45 a.m. vocal solo and rose to witness the spectacle. When I turned back to to Buddy, he was already way off in the distance, on another scent, a slave to that desperate drive to track, a joyous prisoner to his DNA.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Big Bad Ass (Mexican) Rancher

Rancher Sanchez on his tractor. A retired Lt. Col., Jerry is a fiercely proud Mexican American.
I drove down to Cheyenne, Wyoming last week to check in on the Big Mexican and see how things are going 2 years post-retirement from the Air Force.  I knew he had cut the flowing locks since the last time I saw him, but the pain of that disappointment was replaced by the joy of knowing he owns a tractor, chickens, mature bees, and a badass blue tick hound named Chief. In other words, he's a true Wyoming rancher.

He told me to meet him at T-Joes, a local bar and restaurant near his house.  When I walked inside I found him sitting at a full table, holding court with a group of Minnesotans.  That's Jerry, always with a group, always entertaining, always drinking tomato beer.  I remember the first time he ordered a beer and a side of tomato juice.  We were in Pueblo and I thought he was bullshitting when he said he was going to combine them. It turns out it's not so bad.  Hell, Budweiser sells cans of it now. I looked around the bar and realized this could be somewhere in Pueblo circa 1993. It had the same look, the same vibe, the same banter.  He's always been true to those Pueblo roots and true to himself, it's what made him a great leader and friend.

One of the guys at the table said, "We've got a white stitcher!" in a thick Minnesota accent.  Jerry laughed and pointed to my brand new boots.  "You don't have a mark on those things", he said.  I'd been identified as a true suburbanite, an urban cowboy.

When I visited last year the bees on his property had just arrived and weren't producing honey yet, but it looked like they were thriving now. I asked him how they were doing and he quickly donned the bee suit and extracted a  honey comb to harvest.  He was surprised to learn that I was a bee keeper as well, though in a less formal manner. I looked over at his apparatus and noted the multiple combs in my ceiling didn't look anything like that when they were extracted from the drywall.

"Why the hell did you have a colony in your ceiling?", he asked.

"My bee eradication techniques didn't work", I shot back.

"What did you use?"

"Hockey gear and the hose", I deadpanned.

"Ah, common mistake", he replied.

My extraction equipment was a little different from his.  When I asked where his plastic tent and dremmel tool were, he gave me a confused look.  I explained to him how the guy I hired set up a plastic barrier, saw cut the drywall, and vacuumed out the bees.  After much discussion, it learned that's the "dumbass" way to raise bees. I can definitely certify mine as "organic", I thought.  There's nothing more natural than a biblical swarm of bees taking up residence in your rafters.

When we tasted the jar of honey a few hours later,  I surmised his method of obtaining honey was superior to mine since my jar cost me $800 in extraction fees. After being shamed for my bee raising philosophy, I asked him how the chickens were doing.  He nodded over to the right and told me to go check them out.

He pulled out a comb and made a jar of honey while I was visiting.
Very rigid and precise

My comb was free form, more artistic

When I got up near the chicken coop he built himself, I thought, "Where the hell did this skill come from?  This is not the guy I knew 20 years ago."  Everything was precise, neat, and well done.  This is not what our capstone engineering project looked like.

"How did you learn to do this?" I asked with equal parts awe and dismay. 
"I don't know, YouTube, I guess."

I'm constantly amazed by people who can build things because it's so foreign to me.  My father made it clear that I was cursed when it came to mechanical things.  He broke the news gently when I was 5 and made sure to let me know it wasn't my fault, it was simply genetic. Our broken screen door was propped open by a rock for 15 years, our own family cross to bear for having been born without the mechanical allele in our double helix.

I walked in the pen and took a closer look.  There were at least a dozen chickens and several roosters.  Inside the henhouse there were several eggs ready, which the children grabbed periodically.  I noticed the chickens roamed freely around the house and among the dogs and wondered if he had any concerns for their well being.

"Do you worry about Chief hunting these chickens?", I asked.

"Not really.  I mean, not the hunting part. He just waits for them to walk up to him and takes them down.  He's a really efficient killer.  It's random, though. We don't know when it will happen", he said.

 "Can I have him?" I asked.

"It depends on how many more he kills, but you have dibs."

I had a laugh and then walked over to the porch for a beer.

Evenings on the ranch are magical.  There's lots of food and lots of beers, bourbon, bows, and  reminiscing.  Jerry broke out the bow, handed it to me and told me to launch a few at the deer target downrange.

"I'm pretty sure I could be an Olympic shooter if I practiced for 48 hours", I said as I steadied the bow.

"OK. Just make sure you don't curl your forearm when you release the arrow", he smirked.

I pulled it back, put the sights on target, released the arrow, and realized I may have been too quick to announce my superior bow shooting abilities. I was shocked at how quickly a grotesque welt can swell up on the forearm, a bruise I would carry around for another week after leaving.  I did not, however, leave before driving the tractor.

"Here's the throttle, here's forward and backward", he said as he pointed to the knobs and pedals.  "Oh, and that over there is your Bud Light holder".  

I started the engine and immediately began laughing like an 8 year old child.  It's playground equipment with an engine.  I rolled around the open acreage, first forward, then backward, lifting the bucket up and down willy nilly.  Surprisingly I didn't damage anything like I did on that Zamboni so many years ago.

As the sun dipped down below the horizon I parked the tractor and walked over to the porch to refresh my beer.  I handed Jerry the keys and told him to take a look at my boots.

"What?", he said.

"The stitches are brown and the toe is scuffed", I said.

"Cool. I'll see you in a year Urban Cowboy", he laughed as we settled in for a night of drinking.

Live Snack

Chief , big badass Bluetick Coonhound that occasionally snacks on the live chickens.