Great Presidential Circle Tour

I recently hit the road for the latest installment of the “Presidents at Rest” tour (the beginnings of which I detailed in a recent post). I needed to go to Washington, DC for business, and decided to make it a road trip this time. After being cooped up for the better part of the year, I was craving the opportunity to get out and see the country at my own pace. I’m a “planner,” so enjoyed figuring out how to make a big loop maximizing the number of presidential burial sites (and more). By the time I’d finished, it seemed almost like a “patriotic pilgrimage.”

Jump in, fasten your seat belt, and enjoy the Great Presidential Circle Tour!

James Garfield William McKinley

In my initial plans, I thought I could hit James Garfield (in Cleveland), swing down to McKinley (in Canton), and then over to James Buchanan (in Pennsylvania). Then I realized I had a problem: sunset in Lancaster would be at 4:40PM. I could reach that cemetery in time, but it would require giving only cursory attention to the two presidents in Ohio. I didn’t want to rush either one, so I ended up bypassing Garfield in favor of McKinley for a couple of reasons: (1) the McKinley memorial has a museum attached to it (Garfield’s does not), and (2) the Garfield memorial is among the grandest in the country, and has recently undergone a magnificent facelift / restoration, but the interior will not re-open until next March. I figured it made most sense to save Garfield for a springtime Saturday day trip, when I could take the family and really enjoy the memorial in its fullness. And, in the meantime, take some time with the McKinley museum so I could learn more about him.

I hit the road before dawn, and reached Canton shortly after the McKinley museum opened. First, however, I wanted to pay my respects to the President himself. To say that the tomb was easy to find would be an understatement. I knew it was pretty big, but was unprepared for what I found when I arrived.

Unfortunately, the tomb itself is sealed up for the winter. The exterior was still accessible, however, so I climbed the steps (dodging the locals who were using them as a workout site) to get a better look. I circled all the way around it, admiring the view of the surrounding area, and then made my way to the museum. I turned out to be their first customer of the day, and had the entire place pretty much to myself!

The one surprise about the museum was how relatively little was dedicated to William McKinley himself. The great bulk of the exhibit space was about Stark County, Ohio. I ended up learning a lot not only about McKinley, but also about what life was like for the pioneers who settled the area (including some of my own ancestors, who migrated from Pennsylvania to the neighboring county in the 1830s). There was even an entire walk-through, interactive small town Main Street. The more time I spent exploring it, the more I wished the kids could’ve shared the experience. When I told Mrs. Yeoman Farmer about it, she agreed it would be a fun family road trip for sometime next year (and we could also visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which I didn’t have time to even drive past this time).

James Buchanan

Yes, he falls at or near [thank you, Andrew Johnson!] the bottom of virtually every historian’s ranking of U.S. Presidents. Yes, he fiddled while the Union burned down and civil war erupted. But James Buchanan did hold the office, and I still wanted to pay my respects. So I put Canton in my rear view mirror, set out across the rolling rural landscape of eastern Ohio, and enjoyed the many miles of quiet back roads that led to the Turnpike. Then it was easy sailing all the way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I wound my way through town, and made the final approach to Woodward Hill Cemetery with about a half-hour to spare before sunset. Driving down Chesapeake Street, I suddenly came upon an inconspicuous side gate with a tiny sign reading “Enter Here / Tomb of U.S. President / James Buchanan.” Had I blinked, I would’ve gone right past it. I’m just glad I didn’t cause an accident after slamming on the brakes.

Once inside the historic cemetery, the tomb itself was not easy to find. Directional signage was … sparse. I took more than a couple of wrong turns. (On the plus side, getting lost allowed me to see quite a few more really cool old burial plots than I’d been expecting to see!) I did have a general idea as to the location of Buchanan’s tomb within the cemetery, however, so managed to work my way in that direction. A pole flying the American Flag confirmed I was getting close. And then, there it was — in all the minimalist glory befitting the Buchanan presidency. This is the view from the curb:

A Quick Detour to Chester County, Pennsylvania

In recent weeks, I uncovered one of the “holy grails” of genealogical research: an ancestor who served in the Revolutionary War. My 5x great-grandfather, Hezekiah Davies, enlisted at the very beginning of the conflict and saw action as a lieutenant in Colonel Montgomery’s Chester County Battalion of the “Flying Camp.” He participated in the battle of Long Island, joined the retreat to Manhattan, and was taken prisoner when Fort Washington fell to the British on November 16, 1776. Once paroled, he married a young woman on Long Island, and eventually settled back in his native Chester County, PA. He and his wife, and the son through whom I descend, are buried at Great Valley Presbyterian cemetery in Malvern. Given how close this trip was taking me to the area, I simply had to add it to my itinerary.

I arrived at the cemetery early Thursday morning. Fortunately, I knew the Hezekiah Davies plot was “north of the church,” and it was clearly marked. I was able to find it without too much trouble.

His son’s burial plot, by contrast, was much harder to find because the headstone was so faded. It took a fair amount of searching, but I did eventually locate it in the same general section of the cemetery (about 50 yards away).

I spent the rest of the morning at the Chester County Historical Society library, learning more about this branch of my family tree. In preparing my application for the Sons of the American Revolution, I already had solid documentary evidence for all the lineage links from Hezekiah’s son (Nathanial) down to me. But I was aware of only one document listing Hezekiah’s children (and dates of their births): an old application to the Daughters of the American Revolution. It most likely came from someone’s family Bible, because I could find zero outside corroboration of it. SAR would accept that DAR application’s list as proof of lineage, but I was hoping to back it up with something more.

With the help of the CCHS librarian, I hit pay dirt: a probate document, buried deep in the Chester County archives, filed at the time of Hezekiah’s death. It listed the names of his surviving children — and all of those names matched the DAR list! As further proof, I found a newspaper legal notice Nathanial had posted regarding his father’s estate. I also uncovered some newspaper clippings, and magazine stories, that didn’t add to the documentary evidence but were nonetheless interesting to read.

With a huge smile, I turned the car south. And realized I had just enough time that afternoon for a quality visit to the home and burial place of Hezekiah Davies’ commander-in-chief.

George Washington

I’d visited Mount Vernon a couple of times in the past, and even took a tour of the mansion a few years ago, but couldn’t remember having visited George Washington’s final resting place. Once I’d bought my ticket and cleared the visitor center, the family tomb was my first destination.

After waiting for the crowd to dissipate, and paying my respects, I asked the attending docent what that blue flag on the right signified. She explained that it was George Washington’s personal flag. A personal flag! How cool is that?

Sunny skies and comfortable temperatures made it a perfect afternoon to stroll the grounds of Mount Vernon unhurriedly. By the time the gates closed for the day, I’d managed to see virtually every exhibit outside the mansion. I then enjoyed a quiet drive up the George Washington Parkway to the District, where I spent the evening at a long-time client’s Christmas party / dinner (the original purpose of the trip). After this long year of isolation, it was wonderful to reconnect with colleagues face-to-face.

James Monroe and John Tyler

The next morning, I crossed the Rappahannock River and cruised all the way to Richmond on I-95. I think I had “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” in my head pretty much all day. And for good reason: navigating the streets of the Confederate capital, the whole feel of the place gave this lifelong northerner the sense of being in a very different cultural milieu. That sense was “turned up to eleven” once I actually drove through the gates of Hollywood Cemetery. I couldn’t help slowing the car to a crawl, rolling down the windows, and gaping at all the historic tombs (many of them carved into hillsides). And then I spotted a Confederate States of America insignia on a gravestone. Then another. And another. Until I lost count.

I knew James Monroe and John Tyler were both interred on “Presidents Circle.” On the map I’d consulted before the trip, that section had looked like it would easy to find. But now that I was actually here, winding among trees and hillsides, I quickly realized I was lost – and my phone’s GPS was of no help. I flagged down a groundskeeper, and asked if he could point me toward Presidents Circle. I felt incredibly self-conscious, like I had a giant neon sign on my head flashing the word YANKEE. The groundskeeper soon put me at ease, though, with his super-friendly demeanor. His directions got me started in the right direction, but all the curves and hillsides again threw me off. Somehow I eventually spotted this pedestrian path leading to my goal, so I ditched the car and continued on foot.

And it was indeed a perfect morning to stroll through an historic cemetery: sunny, quiet, and with a comfortable temperature. Soon enough, I reached Presidents Circle itself.

James Monroe’s tomb sits right in the heart of the Circle — and is easily the most beautiful of all the burial sites I’ve visited. I’d read something about it before the trip, but the words (and even the pictures) didn’t really do the monument justice. The granite sarcophagus with Monroe’s remains is set inside an elaborate cast iron structure called “The Birdcage,” which apparently got a significant makeover in 2016.

John Tyler’s resting place took only another minute or two to find, back near the footpath I came in on. Tyler was notorious for siding with the Confederacy in the Civil War, and was the only U.S. President not buried under the American flag. When Tyler died in 1862, Jefferson Davis staged an elaborate funeral for him, and then Tyler’s Confederate-flag-draped casket was laid to rest here.

And speaking of Jefferson Davis … it turns out he’s interred at Hollywood Cemetery as well. Given that I was already there, I was curious to see how the Confederate States of America laid its own president to rest. It turned out to be a five minute or so drive away; thanks to another very friendly groundskeeper pointing me in the right direction, I was able to find it fairly easily. The site had a spectacular view of the James River, which I admired before taking a look at the monument itself. I’m not going to include a picture of it in this post, but it was actually fairly simple: a life-size statue of Davis, standing atop a pedestal, with the graves of Jefferson and Varina Davis in front of it.

James Madison

Most of the drive from Richmond to James Madison’s Montpelier was incredibly scenic, especially once I left I-64 and started up US-15. Think “country gentry” rolling terrain and horse farms with white rail fences. But here’s some advice if you go: map the route beforehand, sticking to main highways, and ignore Google Maps navigation if it tells you to turn onto Route 639 (AKA “Chicken Mountain Road”). The pavement ended after about a mile, and it was soon so narrow that I had no way to turn the car around. I was quickly deep in the woods, descending a steep dirt one-lane path, praying that I not plunge into a ravine. For whatever reason, Google was taking me around to the BACK, staff-only, gate. Once there, it proudly announced that I had arrived.

Yeah, thanks for that. Now, how do I get in?

Eventually I was able to work my way around to the main entrance, using guesswork and intuition to figure out which country roads to follow.

I paid my entry fee, and learned that the next showing of a series of short films about Madison would be at noon. That allowed plenty of time to explore the property. My first stop was of course the family cemetery, fenced in at the end of a long winding path. The large obelisk marks the President’s grave; the smaller one is for his wife, Dolly.

Montpelier covers thousands of acres, including miles of forest walking paths. I didn’t have time for that much exploring, but did enjoy the long walk up to the mansion from the cemetery. I took a look at the handful of outdoor exhibits surrounding it that were open (the slave cabins in particular), but all in all the experience was a bit disappointing. Because of Covid, nearly every indoor exhibit was closed. I did make it back for the showing of the informational films about Madison, and especially enjoyed the one about his genius in designing the U.S. Constitution. It managed to present a “weighty” subject in a way that was simple, understandable, and also very entertaining.

I then jumped in the car, bypassed Chicken Mountain Road, and hurried south to Charlottesville.

Thomas Jefferson

I had wanted to visit Jefferson’s Monticello for many years, and was glad I’d reserved the bulk of the afternoon to explore it. After grabbing a quick lunch at the cafe, a shuttle bus whisked me from the visitor center up to the mansion grounds. Tourist traffic happened to be light that day, so there was very little waiting in line for anything.

A docent met me just outside the mansion’s front porch, and gave a brief orientation about Jefferson and how the mansion came to be built. She then led me to the main entrance hall, filled with historical objects as it would’ve been in Jefferson’s time. A pair of docents gave a quick overview of these objects, and the general design of the foyer itself. I then peppered them with questions, which they seemed to enjoy getting the chance to answer. From there I strolled naturally from room to room, making a grand circle of the first floor, asking more questions of the docents stationed at various places. My only disappointment was that the second floor was not open on this particular day.

Once outside, I took my time simply walking around and soaking in all of the Monticello grounds and displays.

As you might expect, I made sure to visit the extensive garden plots that are still maintained in Jeffersonian fashion. (At the gift shop, you can even buy seeds harvested from the heirloom plants grown there on the grounds. Guess what Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is getting for Christmas this year!) Should I ever have the opportunity to return to Monticello with the family, I’d like to go during the summer and get a guided tour of these gardens.

Once I’d seen pretty much everything, I started down the long footpath leading back to the visitor center. Jefferson’s family cemetery is along that route, so I of course stopped to pay my respects to the man who inspired this Yeoman Farmer.

The path continued through a pleasant set of woods, which I enjoyed having to myself as I hiked back to the visitor center. Once there, I ended up spending a lot more time (and money!) in the gift shop than initially planned. The selection of items (not just the usual books, t-shirts, and coffee cups — they even had preserves made from fruit grown on the property) was outstanding. The more I browsed, the more wonderful Christmas gift ideas presented themselves to me. The sun was sinking into the Blue Ridge Mountains by the time I turned the car toward home.

Warren G. Harding

I’m still not sure how I managed to stay awake all the way to Columbus, Ohio. From there, it was an easy jaunt to the little town of Marion the next morning — my final stop along the great Presidential Circle Tour. The Harding Memorial is right along the highway that goes through the heart of Marion, so it was impossible to miss. And it was even more amazing that I’d imagined.

If you look closely, you can see an iron fence preventing visitors from entering the interior of the memorial. That’s where President and Mrs. Harding are actually interred. I got this picture by holding the camera through the fence.

As an historical note: Harding Tomb was the last of the elaborate presidential memorials. Starting with Calvin Coolidge, final resting places became more restrained, and tended to be incorporated into the grounds of a presidential library (JFK’s grave at Arlington being the exception).

As I left Marion behind, and continued north toward home, I had some quiet time to reflect on the incredible variety of memorials I’d seen among the fourteen presidents visited so far. Some are relatively simple public cemetery plots (Tyler, Buchanan, Benjamin Harrison, Taft), some are stately tombs or private plots on the grounds of a presidential home or library (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hayes, Ford), some are spectacular (McKinley, Harding), and still others are truly one of a kind (Monroe, Wilson, JFK). Not to mention that they are in all kinds of cities and towns and even rural areas. When I hit on this idea to visit presidential burial sites, I had no idea as to the extent of this variety. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the men who’ve held this office, the places in the country that shaped their lives, and the obvious pride that so many of those towns still take in having been home to a U.S. president.

On the one hand, it’s hard to believe I’ve already visited more than one-third of the burial sites. On the other hand … I’m happy there are still so many more I get to experience!

Presidents at Rest

I’ve been a lifelong student of American history, and from my youth especially interested in the men who have served as our Presidents. Sometime in grade school, I set out to memorize the whole list — and then got into a competition with a friend as who who could rattle off that entire list the fastest. We would take turns giving it our best shot (“Washingtonadamsjeffersonmadisonmonroeadamsjackson…”), judged by another kid with a stopwatch. This must’ve been before 1981, because the end of the list was “…johnsonnixonfordCARTER!” (followed by several seconds of gasping for breath).

I would read everything our school library had about each of the Presidents, and gradually learned to use the lengths of their terms as handy subdivisions of national history. I spent countless hours poring over an ancient copy of “The White House Cookbook,” salvaged from my grandmother’s collection, trying to figure out how to make some of those recepies using modern ingredients and kitchen equipment. And, yes, the made-for-TV movie “Backstairs at the White House” was among my favorites.

I don’t know where my parents found this book, but I read it and re-read it more times than I could count. It still has a privileged place on my shelf.

As the years passed, and political science became a professional pursuit, I eventually grew immersed in the dynamics of campaigns, elections, and voting behavior. But about a year ago, I realized I’d lost my sense of the flesh-and-blood men who’d held the office of the presidency. I still remembered all their names. I remembered how their dates of office related to each other, and to the great events of history. But the men themselves? It felt a little like I’d lost touch with some childhood friends.

How to change that? I supposed I could spend more time browsing the internet and reading about each President. I could keep my eyes open for History Channel documentaries, such as the outstanding three-part series they aired about U.S. Grant. But I still wanted to do something more. A little different. A little more personal.

I decided to visit the final resting places of each of the 39 deceased men who have served as our Presidents. Whenever possible, I would spend some time with whatever visitor center, museum, or library that accompanied the presidential burial site. But, at minimum, I would make sure I read something and refreshed my memories of the man’s life. And, whenever possible, I would take a kid (or kids, or the whole family) with me. I didn’t set a time limit on getting to everyone on the list, other than “as quickly as is practical, given everything else in life.”

In future blog posts, I plan to say something about each new visit along the Presidents at Rest Tour. In the current post, allow me to give a quick review of the “old friends” I’ve managed to reconnect with so far.

William Howard Taft

The tour started about a year ago, when I was in the Washington, DC area on business. And I began with the easiest: those interred at Arlington National Cemetery. I visited Taft first, for the simple reason that he was nearest the entrance. All visitors to Arlington must enter through the visitor center building; a quick look at the map there told me Taft wasn’t far away. Interestingly, he’s not buried in the section with Supreme Court justices, even though he was far happier on the Court than he was as President. He’s over in a section to the right of the main road that comes into the cemetery. His grave is a little off one of the side roads, but the way is well marked with signs. It’s among the simplest of all the presidential graves I’ve seen so far.

John F. Kennedy

The JFK burial site, with the eternal flame, is of course among the most famous and most-visited places at Arlington. I had seen it back in 1985, during a family vacation, and found it quite moving – but it had been crowded with summer tourists, many of whom had been gawking and taking pictures. Now, in December, the place had a much different feel. It was quieter. More solemn. One thing I was struck by, which I hadn’t noticed in 1985, was the dramatic view looking back across the Potomac at the city of Washington. I also couldn’t help noticing the addition of additional family members who had passed away in later years, most notably Jackie Onassis and Senator Ted Kennedy. There is also now a marker honoring the eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., though his remains were never recovered.

I had several hours free that afternoon, so took my time simply walking all over the cemetery. I tried to get off the beaten paths as much as I could, and look at the grave markers of all the ordinary and extraordinary people who are buried there. Each marker told a story. What an amazing immersion in history that was. I highly recommend spending time just wandering around Arlington on foot, going wherever your instincts lead you, especially on a quiet afternoon when the crowds of tourists are at home. You’ll find history literally everywhere you look.

Gerald R. Ford

I was born in 1969, so Gerald Ford is the first president I really remember (though I do vaguely recall asking my mother what this whole “Watergate” thing was that I kept hearing everybody talking about). What’s more, the Ford Presidential Library and Museum is in Grand Rapids, less than two hours from our farm. I decided this would make an excellent excursion for Presidents Day weekend. Our oldest daughter, who is as much a fanatical student of history as I am, accompanied me. We also took her youngest brother (age ten).

The Ford museum is extremely well done. It’s a nice, modern building and the exhibits are laid out beautifully. You naturally walk through it from room to room, covering the different major periods of his life (and then his presidency). The ten-year-old had a blast posing next to the statue of Ford as a Boy Scout, sitting in the president’s chair in the replica cabinet room, and walking through the replica Oval Office.

For me, the presidential years were a super fun trip down memory lane. As bad as the seventies were, economically and culturally, they still shine for me with the innocence of youth. And fortunately, both kids had seen enough Brady Bunch episodes so as not to be stunned at the hair and clothing styles!

President and Mrs. Ford are interred outside, in a special section of the grounds. Before heading home, we stopped by and paid our respects.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson’s tomb is inside the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The cathedral is a functioning Episcopalian church, but also a major tourist destination. However, because it is so far from any Metro stop, I’d never managed to see it on previous trips. I finally got my opportunity while in town for business on the first weekend of March. I had a good chunk of a Sunday afternoon open, and – as a bonus – Sunday is the one day when the cathedral has free admission. I took the Metro to the Woodley Park Zoo station, and then made the long hike up the hill past impressive private homes, embassies, and sprawling private schools. One nice thing about the shear size of the cathedral itself is that it’s impossible to miss. The only problem for me was figuring out which door I was supposed to use when I arrived. I eventually figured it out, and then a helpful staffer pointed me toward President Wilson’s resting place. It’s toward the front of the nave, on the right side as you face the sanctuary.

And this is a close-up of the top of his tomb:

I spent about an hour strolling around the interior of the cathedral. In addition to the beautiful artwork and stained-glass windows, there are quite a few other noteworthy people interred there. All the while, a boys’ choir was rehearsing in the large area behind the altar. The stunning acoustics had me surround by their angelic voices everywhere I went.

Of course, the whole world turned upside down and closed up within a few short weeks of my visit. Looking back, what’s most remarkable is how thoroughly normal everything was at that time – and how remote the idea that this would be the last trip I’d be able to take for many months.

Benjamin Harrison

I’ll reserve more extensive commentary about the pandemic for a separate post, but for now suffice it to say that nearly every event we typically participate in each year, including bike races, ended up cancelling. One exception was a small 12-Hour race in downstate Illinois, which my oldest daughter and I eagerly hit the road to attend. We decided to drive via Indianapolis, so as to pay our respects to America’s “Hoosier President.”

Benjamin Harrison is interred at Crown Hill Cemetery, which is a beautiful – and enormous – place. We made the mistake of arriving after the office had closed for the day, because we really should have stopped in there and gotten a map. Undaunted, we decided to give it our best shot with the daylight remaining. There’s only one entrance gate, and from there I guess I navigated by instinct toward the oldest section. Fortunately, we eventually found directional signs which took us to our destination.

The Harrison plot is a short walk from the nearest cemetery roadway. It features a large memorial marker, which looks like a tomb, but the president and his family are actually buried just in front of that marker. The sun was setting behind the marker, making for really poor lighting conditions, but I managed to get this photo of the site:

And this is a close-up shot of the text on the marker itself:

Like Arlington, Crown Hill is a fascinating cemetery which a person could easily spend an afternoon (or more) exploring. Also, the Benjamin Harrison mansion and presidential center is a few miles up the road. We unfortunately didn’t have enough time for either (and the presidential center was just getting re-opened with limited hours following Covid), but we’re definitely planning to do both of them the next time we visit Indianapolis.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Our most recent presidential election outcome has certainly generated some controversy and disputes. So … what better time to remember one of the most fiercely disputed presidential election outcomes in American history? This past weekend, my two intrepid historians and I hit the road for Freemont, Ohio, to learn more about the life and times of Rutherford B. Hayes.

What’s funny is that while the election did serve as a catalyst for our visit, and I made sure to discuss the 1876 controversy (and its impact on the end of Reconstruction) with the now-eleven-year-old before we went — once we arrived, we ended up focusing almost exclusively on the Hayes family rather than the attendant political controversies. And I guess that was really the point of the whole “Presidents at Rest” tour anyway.

The Hayes presidential center is on the 25-acre site of his family’s estate, Spiegel Grove. The two main buildings are a visitor center / museum, and then the 31-room mansion. (The buildings are only open a few days per week, so plan your visit carefully.) Tours of the museum are self-guided, and the exhibits didn’t “flow” for me as naturally as they did at, say, the Ford museum. The layout of the building is also a bit odd, with some exhibits in the basement (which has an overall fairly rough feel to it) and others upstairs on the main floor (which had a more polished feel). There were certainly a great many interesting displays, both upstairs and down, and we got a lot out of them. The eleven-year-old especially enjoyed the collection of antique weapons (including an executioner’s sword from the Philippines!).

But the hour-long guided tour of the mansion was easily the highlight of our visit. It’s set up much as it would’ve been when the Hayes family lived there, all the way down to some of the smallest details. The guide was extremely knowledgeable, and left me with a much better sense of who Rutherford B. Hayes was as a man (and what his life was like).

We also very much enjoyed exploring the 25-acre grounds. After all that time in the car, and walking carefully around the various exhibits, I know the eleven-year-old in particular relished the chance to burn off some steam. Of course, we made sure to stop by the tomb and pay our respects to President and Mrs. Hayes before heading home.

The Road Ahead

What are the plans from here? I’ve been enjoying studying the list of various burial locations, situating them on a map, and then thinking about ways to incorporate one or more of them into other trips. Reagan and Nixon are going to have to wait for California to reopen, but I’ve long been trying to find an opportunity to get out there and visit family and friends around Los Angeles. Eisenhower’s burial site may end up being the toughest to get to, because Abiline, Kansas is so far from any other place I would have a reason to go.

Sometime before the end of the year, I hope to visit the Washington, DC area again for business. This time, I’m planning to make a road trip of it, and pay my respects to a few of the 33 remaining “friends” along the way. If all goes well, I may even be able to visit Jefferson’s Monticello on the drive home. There is no other presidential site that this yeoman farmer has wanted to visit more than that one!

For Eden’s Sake

What’s the biggest, most consequential, bad decision you’ve made? How did the process of facing its consequences change you? A wonderful new young adult novel, For Eden’s Sake, takes us inside the lives of one young man and one young woman who must figure out what they’re going to do in the wake of an enormous mistake that neither of them even saw coming. It’s a well-written, well-paced story with compelling characters who I grew to care very much about.

It’s also an amazingly quick read; once I got a couple of chapters into the story, I found it very difficult to stop. I started it one afternoon, while taking a break for lunch. That evening, I picked it up again with the intention of reading just a little more while I built up time on the DVR for a television program. Within minutes, I’d forgotten the TV program entirely. I didn’t put the book down again until I finished it.

The story alternates between two first-person narrators, which helps provide a more complete perspective on the depths of their dilemma. The young man, Isaac, is a recent college graduate who’s working at his first professional job and learning to make his way in the world. He’s a solid, well-formed Catholic kid from a loving, middle-class family; he grew up in the country, on a ranch, not far from the city where he’s now working. The young woman, Rebecca, is a college student and has had a very different life; her mother died when she was quite young, a tragedy her father dealt with by immersing himself in work and amassing a small fortune. Rebecca experiences him as distant, cold, and always on the verge of completely cutting her out of his life.

For Eden's Sake

The key bad decision, which serves as the premise for the rest of the story, is a one-night stand between the two central characters; it takes place immediately before the novel itself begins, and we learn of it through flashbacks (with no graphic details). The two had never even met previously, and probably wouldn’t have crossed paths had both not happened to be in the same restaurant. The act was completely out of character for both; alcohol was involved, and both had been caught off guard by how quickly it impaired their judgment. 

But decisions are decisions, and still have consequences. Rebecca discovers that she is pregnant, and is certain of only one thing: she wants not to be. She tracks down Isaac, delivers the news, and demands that he help her make the whole thing go away. And he’s certain of only one thing: he must find a different solution. 

I won’t give away any of the subsequent plot, other than to reiterate what I said earlier about this being an engrossing story, with compelling characters who I grew to care about very much. 

Although the story is about a young man’s deepening relationship with a young woman, this isn’t really a romance novel. I’m tempted to call it an “anti-romance,” because so much of the story is backward from how a traditional novel in that genre would be structured, but that isn’t the best label. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story, but I think it can best be described as a “love story.” Through the mistakes they’ve made, and the crazy situation they have found themselves thrust into, they learn to sacrifice their own wants for the needs of another, and to grow into the more generous persons they need to be.

It’s also tempting to say the story is a “cautionary tale” that teens ought to read as a warning about the consequences of promiscuity. It certainly is a cautionary tale, but one with an ultimately more important message than simply “see how bad your life will be if you do something you’re not supposed to do.” It’s more a tale of discovering what one is capable of doing to address the consequences of an ill-considered life decision that may have hit a person so fast, and that may have been made with so little reflection, that he or she hadn’t even seen it coming. Yes, the story tells Christian teens, Do all you can not to fall, but if you should happen to do so despite your best efforts … dig deep. You’re capable of more than you might think. You can rearrange your life. God can write straight with crooked lines. And, I would add, don’t let your shame keep you from confiding in your parents, and letting them help you as well.

I’d like to conclude with a final thought that I took from the story. I’m not a gambler, and can’t remember the last time I set foot in a casino, but on occasion I enjoy watching the World Series of Poker on television. What always strikes me is the speed with which a pro can look at a newly-dealt hand and immediately decide if it’s worth playing. If not, all the cards go in the discard pile, and he’s out until the next round. That’s no doubt a smart strategy for a professional gambler, who must maximize the value the hands he chooses to play. But what a contrast it is to real life, where some of our greatest growth — and most meaningful experiences — can flow from the struggles to play out a fistful of “cards” that we’re inclined to simply run away from, because they don’t seem to add up to very much. At least not on first inspection. But so many times, that perception can change once we shift those cards around a bit and look at them in a different light. A new strategy can emerge. Perhaps we need to let go of a plan or a desire that we’d held dear. Maybe we need to pick up a new skill, take on a second job, humble ourselves to ask another person for help, or stretch ourselves in some other way.

Regardless, it’s that process of being creative and “finding a way” — rather than immediately tossing everything into the discard pile and walking away — that can bring so much meaning and true satisfaction in life. This piece of wisdom can be difficult for a parent to sit down and explain to a teen who is on the cusp of adulthood. Rather than trying to “explain,” For Eden’s Sake brings this wisdom to life through the actions of relate-able and compelling characters, allowing the reader to experience it along with them.

That, for me, is fiction at its best.

Ella’s Promise

This past week, as the anniversary of its conclusion rolled around again, you no doubt heard a great deal about the First World War. Most of the commentary and retrospectives focused on the decisive (or not so decisive) battles, and the soldiers who served. But there’s a fascinating other layer to the events of World War I, and one that we seldom hear much about: the medical personnel staffing the field hospitals, many of whom were young volunteers.

Ellen Gable’s excellent new historical romance novel, Ella’s Promise, takes us inside that world. It’s the third and final installment in her “Great War-Great Love” series (here is my review of the first novel in that series). It’s a wonderful story, and an engrossing read. I began reading it at the start of a four hour flight, and couldn’t put it down; I finished it shortly before landing. As soon as I was allowed to use my phone, I dashed off a note to the author telling her how much I enjoyed it.

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And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like romance novels! That’s in part due to this story being so much more than a romance. Yes, boy meets girl. Yes, boy loses girl. And, yes, boy gets girl back. But all of these plot points and developments are tied up with events unfolding in connection with the war, including Allied espionage operations. Ella’s love interest, Garrett, is a Canadian intelligence officer. He’s of German descent, and speaks German fluently, so is a natural for the role. We get to follow him as he infiltrates the enemy ranks, risks getting exposed, and finds himself in a position of great peril.

Ella herself is an American, and had significant medical training before the war. She spends much of the early part of the story frustrated that she isn’t allowed to put these skills to greater use. The way she ultimately “proves herself,” and manages to turn the tables on those who were trying to keep her locked in a lower level role, makes for some truly wonderful reading.

Like Garrett, Ella is also of German descent, and also fluent in the language. Interestingly, her family expressed some qualms about her going to France and working against their mother country. She insists she’s not there to support the war efforts of any particular country, or even of any particular side. She volunteers for one reason only: to help persons who need it, regardless of nationality. She’s determined to stay out of the Allies’ larger strategic operations, refusing even to use her language skills to listen in on (and report back about) the conversations of enemy soldiers in her care. Her challenge is to remain true to herself, while assuring others that she’s not an enemy sympathizer. As the story unfolds, and her relationship with Garrett grows deeper, she is forced to make more difficult decisions about her role, and what she is willing to do to support the Allied effort.

As an avid cyclist, I was fascinated by one smallish detail in the plot: the use of an innovative, folding bicycle captured from the Germans. (Being able to fold it up made it easier for transport on a vehicle.) I’d never heard of these bicycles before, so I enjoyed learning about how they operated and were put to use. I’m hoping I get to see one in a museum someday.

I should mention that Ella’s Promise is a clean and wholesome story. The courtship is chaste, with the characters observing the social conventions of the time about appropriate behavior.

One other thing I should note: although the book is part of a series, it stands on its own as a story. You don’t need to have read the other two novels to appreciate this one (and I haven’t even been able to read the second one yet). Each novel focuses on a different female volunteer, with the “non focus” volunteers playing supporting roles. For example, Ella appeared in Julia’s Gifts, as one of Julia’s friends, but there’s nothing critical about her from that story that you need to know for this one. Likewise, you’ll appreciate Julia’s appearance in the current story more if you’ve read the first novel, but there is nothing from that novel which is essential to the plot of this one.

The bottom line is that Ella’s Promise is a wonderful novel, and I enjoyed it very much. I can’t believe I missed the second book in the series. I’m going to have to go back and rectify that as soon as I can.

Stopping Traffic

This past summer, I described my experience with an overzealous TSA officer at the Detroit airport. It seems someone has decided that soft goat cheese is a dangerous substance that cannot be allowed on board an aircraft, and the officer had been on the verge of confiscating the stuff in my carry-on bag. Fortunately, after my explanation of its origin (and a chat with his supervisor), they agreed to make an exception. By way of update: My cousins thoroughly enjoyed the cheese when I shared it at our family gathering in Seattle, and we all got a good laugh from the story.

I had a different, and probably more memorable, encounter with a TSA officer last weekend. This one had nothing to do with cheese, goat or otherwise.

My son (almost ten) and I had traveled to Arizona for a few days, to visit my folks. It’s getting more challenging for them to come out to see us, so bringing the grandkid to them seemed like a natural solution. He got to experience all kinds of things he doesn’t usually get to see and do here in Michigan, like a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (an attraction I cannot recommend highly enough, BTW), attending All Saints Day Mass at his grandparents’ parish, riding around in Grandpa’s golf cart, and swimming outdoors in November. (Not to mention riding on an airplane, with a window seat.) Most of all, I enjoyed watching him get to spend a lot of solid one-on-one with his grandparents (as his siblings had been able to do more often, when they were younger). We made some wonderful memories; he doesn’t know it yet, but he will carry these memories with him the rest of his life.

There is one detail, however, that I will probably remember for much longer than he will: our interaction with a TSA officer in the Phoenix airport on our way home. We’d just dropped our luggage, and were making our way to the security checkpoint. To my relief, it was wide open and virtually empty. (Early Saturday morning is a great time to travel.) I presented my ID and our boarding passes to the first agent, a youngish and friendly-looking woman, expecting the usual cursory inspection like we’d had at DTW.

To my surprise, the agent did more than just compare me to the photo and check the names. Turning to my son, she clutched the boarding passes and said, “Okay, I have a few questions for you. Alright?”

“Okay,” he replied.

“What is your name?” she asked.

My son smiled and told her.

“And what’s your dad’s name?”

He hesitated for a second, like sometimes happens when you’re asked a question that is too obvious (and that no one has ever asked you before). My heart skipped a beat. Don’t screw this up, I thought. Then it came to him. “Chris Blunt,” he said, to my great relief.

“And where are you and your dad going?” she asked.

Again, a moment’s hesitation (or so it seemed to anxious me), before he told her “Detroit!”

The TSA agent returned my documents with a smile, saying something about how we can’t be too careful these days.

“Trafficking?” I asked.

She nodded, and related a couple of quick examples of terrible things that’d happened in the area recently. We were in no hurry, and the checkpoint was still empty, so she and I chatted for a moment. I asked if it was a special problem for Phoenix, perhaps due to their proximity to the border. She replied that, unfortunately, it was becoming a problem in every place.

I mentioned that the agent in Detroit hadn’t given us any extra attention on our way out. She shrugged and replied, “I always ask. You never know.”

I thanked her, and told her I appreciated her vigilance. My son and I sailed through the rest of the checkpoint, boarded our plane, and enjoyed a completely uneventful flight home.

The flight gave me a lot of time to think, however. Human trafficking is an issue I’d heard about and read about, but I hadn’t previously met anyone on the front lines of it. Was I a bit annoyed about being questioned, and treated (if only for a minute, and only by implication) with suspicion that I could be a trafficker? Of course. But this annoyance faded quickly. She had no way of knowing he was really my son, or if he was really the boy whose name appeared on the boarding pass. He doesn’t have a photo ID (but I’ll probably get him one before he takes his next flight). What if he, or one of my other kids, had been taken and moved somewhere against his or her will? Wouldn’t I be grateful for an alert officer, on the lookout for something that seemed out of place?

Which gets us to something obvious (but that hadn’t occurred to me immediately): my son does look out of place with me. We look absolutely nothing alike. Longtime readers know that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is of African descent, so all five of our kids are melanin enhanced. Some more than others, but none more than Kid Number Four. It wouldn’t surprise me if this had something to do with why we were asked a few additional questions. Not to mention the fact that he and I were traveling alone.

But here’s the thing: the racial aspect doesn’t bother me in the least. MYF and I actually find this sort of confusion a bit amusing. We compare stories, and laugh. She used to get asked if she was Kid Number One’s nanny. I was once asked if Kid Number Two (almost as melanin enhanced as Kid Number Four) was my foster child. And so on. Families like ours are more common than they used to be, but still unusual enough for people to have questions. I get it. I simply choose to be understanding, and not to be surprised or taken aback when confusion arises. But I will say this: we actually draw a lot less attention than I initially thought we would. My classic car probably gets more “looks” and turned heads in one trip to the grocery store than our family has in all the years we’ve lived here.

Getting back to the Phoenix airport: I didn’t catch the name of the TSA officer, but I do want to give her a shout-out for being on the ball and bringing a sense of mission to her job. I’ve done my best not to think about human trafficking, or to worry that one of my kids could fall victim to it. It’s certainly never occurred to me that one of the adults on a flight with me might be trafficking a child. I’m just glad somebody is thinking about it, and doing something to interrupt it. If that means my son and I have our trip interrupted for a moment, to answer a few questions, I don’t mind the inconvenience.

Just leave my goat cheese out of it!

Gather Ye Pumpkins

For us, this year’s Black Friday deals don’t start on November 29th — they kicked off four Fridays earlier than that. On November 1st, the price of pumpkins at our local farm market dropped to just about zero.

Well, technically not “zero.” It’s actually ten bucks for as many pumpkins as you can load in your vehicle at a time. If that’s not the most amazing, screaming good deal … I don’t know what is. (Besides the absolutely free Christmas trees that Walmart unloads on December 26th.)

All you have to do is put your $10 in the unattended coffee can (it’s the honor system), drive onto the field, and start loading. I pulled most of the seats out of our old minivan, laid down a tarp, and let her rip.

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Note the “volunteer” corn stalks. This field was planted in corn last year, and several kernels must’ve spilled during harvest.

I suppose I could’ve managed to cram a few more in there, but the suspension (and the tires) were starting to protest. As it is, with this kind of load, a Chrysler Town & Country’s handling characteristics are … interesting. I didn’t want to get greedy. I don’t mind leaving  a little open space, and coming back for additional loads. It’s only about ten minutes away.

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I included the second picture so you could get a sense of how many pumpkins are out there. I think it’s a five acre field, and most of it is still covered in orange gourds. I’ve made three trips in the last few days, and have barely made a dent.

However (and this is a big “however”), there’s a problem: not all of those pumpkins are still sound. Some are clearly rotting, or at least starting to turn (such as the one in the first picture, on the ground near the car – there’s a reason I left that one). With freezing nights getting more common, the pumpkins sitting in that open field will only deteriorate more rapidly. So, the race is on to gather the pumpkins while we may.

Meanwhile, back home, we’re piling up an impressive orange mountain downstairs in the barn. The sheep and goats are absolutely loving these things, and the chickens are doing their part to clean up any scraps the ruminants miss.

Speaking of chickens: sadly, Crazy Mama Hen lost one of the two chicks yesterday. The little black one is still hanging tough, though. I’ve already helped them into the barn tonight, so they should be safe for now.

Here’s hoping that all the pumpkin pieces inside the barn give Mama Hen one less reason to venture out into the cold!

Crazy Hen Broods On!

I didn’t really expect Sunday’s surprise, totally-out-of-season chicks to survive more than a day. So, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that they’re still going strong on Wednesday morning.

One of Henny Penny’s big challenges was getting her chicks over the curb and into the warmth / safety of the barn. She couldn’t do it alone, and she wouldn’t let me catch her in the open field. My solution: I waited until Sunday evening, and checked behind the barn. Sure enough, she was huddled against the outside wall, close to the door that most chickens use to come in for the night. From her clucking, and the way her wings were slightly poofed, I deduced that she was keeping one chick warm under each wing.

It was very easy to grab her, pressing each wing firmly against her body so as to keep the chicks in place. As I carefully carried this bundle deep into the barn, she clucked her disapproval – but didn’t struggle at all. Only when I set her down did she throw a hissy fit and charge my legs. Wanting her to turn her attention to her chicks, rather than me, I hightailed it out of the barn.

When I returned an hour or so later, there was no sign of her or the chicks. I took this as an encouraging sign; she’d clearly found a good hiding place. I turned off the lights, and called it a night.

Early Monday morning, soon after I turned the lights back on, I heard the distinctive mix of mother hen clucks and baby chick peeps. The three of them emerged from under an old milking stanchion – probably the best hiding place she could’ve selected.

Henny Penny led her chicks toward the place where we feed the birds. Here they encountered a problem: the four enormous turkeys I haven’t gotten around to butchering. All four were totally puffed up, strutting, and blocking her path to the grain. This didn’t deter her in the least. Remember the hissy fit she threw on Sunday night? She threw another one — this time directed against the turkeys.

I don’t usually post blurry photos, but there was no other way to capture what happened. She was a whirlwind of motion (and noise), all directed toward the giants she perceived as threatening her babies.

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Needless to say, the turkeys let her through.

I checked back later in the morning. I hoped she’d simply lay low and keep her chicks in the barn. No such luck; she clearly has a mind of her own. They were already back out in the grassy area behind the barn.

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Monday night and Tuesday night followed the same routine as Sunday night: I found her huddled against the outside wall of the barn, clucking reassuringly to her chicks, and then I carefully carried this bundle into the barn. And then hightailed it out.

This morning, we had really cold temperatures move in. Surprisingly (or maybe not), she again had them out in the grassy area behind the barn. I watched her for a while, and she did seem to be stopping and huddling more often, so the chicks could warm back up.

I still think she’s crazy, but I’m having an awful lot of fun watching her try to pull this off.

Our Crazy Hen

Earlier this year, I put up a post about how much fun it is when our hens hatch their own eggs and then raise the chicks themselves. By way of update: some time later, one of the three chicks disappeared. We don’t know what happened to it, but the other two chicks did just fine. They grew to full maturity, and still stick together as a pair — and sometimes still tag along with the mother hen. That’s actually kind of unusual, in our experience. Typically, once the chicks hit a certain age, the mother hen “signs off,” and then the chicks go their separate ways.

These particular birds may be sticking together because their mother repeatedly took them foraging in parts of the property that other chickens don’t tend to visit. (Such as the back yard and front yard near our house.) They are continuing to frequent these areas, as if they are a private domain. Regardless of the reason for their remaining together, it’s a charming reminder of their special origin.

It’s one thing when a hen goes broody and hatches her own eggs in the summer. It’s quite another when she waits until the THIRD OF FREAKING NOVEMBER to do so. When I was out behind the barn early this morning, feeding sheep, I heard a mix of familiar sounds behind me: the deep, reassuring clucks of a mother hen … harmonizing with the “Peep! Peep! Peep!” of newly-hatched chicks.

“No way,” I thought. But turning my attention to the goat area, I realized my ears weren’t fooling me. One of our Barred Rock hens had somehow managed to make a nest and hatch a pair of little ones — despite the recent Halloween Winter Weather Advisory, snow, rain, and other assorted nastiness. Even more remarkable, she’d probably made the nest outside someplace (most likely under a bush, where we hadn’t been able to find her).

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We need to get the hen and her brood inside, if the chicks are to have any chance of surviving (sorry, but I’m not running a heat lamp in a brooder for the several weeks it would take to get them big enough to hold their own with the full flock in the barn when the dead of winter sinks in). The problem is, the barn entrances are too high off the ground for them to go in by themselves. Mother Hen could clear the curb with no problem. Her chicks could not. They needed help.

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Even the goats seem incredulous that this is happening.

Trying to chase down a hen by oneself in an open area is a fool’s errand, so I called a couple of the Yeoman Farm Children out to help. The idea was to catch her, and then get the chicks, and move all of them deep inside the barn (where they would hopefully be content to stay).

Mother Hen had other ideas. She bolted, scolding us at the top of her lungs as she evaded our efforts to trap her in a corner of the sheep fence. She scooted through a couple of small open areas, circled around the other side of the barn and garage, and slipped back into the pasture before disappearing in the barn. We gave up the chase, and returned to where she’d left the chicks. Unfortunately, there was now no sign of them. I scoured the whole area behind the barn, listening carefully. No peeps. With hopes that they were simply hiding under thick weeds, waiting for a chance to come out, I went inside for a while.

About a half hour later, I returned to give some hay to the goats. And wouldn’t you know it … mother hen had somehow called the chicks out of whatever hiding place they’d vanished into. All three of them were roving the goat area, totally oblivious to the forty degree temperatures. Just another day to learn from Mom how to forage.

Is our hen completely crazy? Probably. And I’m not going to give up trying to move the three of them into the shelter of the barn. But maybe, just maybe, she’ll continue to shock us … and manage to raise the first set of winter chicks we’ve ever had.

If a Tree Falls in the Pasture

If a tree falls in the pasture, and the farmer isn’t there, does it make a sound? I’m sure it does, but it can also do a whole lot more. And the farmer had better be ready.

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that a goat or two was regularly getting out of the pasture. Pretty much every afternoon, we would look out in the hay field and see the main breeding buck and one other member of the herd. It wasn’t a real shocker, because he’s the master of escape … and wherever he goes, some other goat (or goats) figure out how to join him. Because the escapees were limiting themselves to munching the high weeds along the fence, and because it was just a goat or two each day, I sort of shrugged my shoulders.

As time passed, however, a larger number of goats would show up in the hay field. What’s more, they started showing up a lot earlier in the day. I asked the Yeoman Farm Children to walk the fence between the hay field and the pasture, and figure out what was going on.

They reported back that it appeared the fence was sagging between two T-posts, most likely because one of the fence ties had come loose. They re-tied it, thinking this had solved the problem.

It didn’t. The next day, the goats were back in the hay field.

The YFCs observed that some of the T-posts were kind of far apart, which can also lead to a sagging fence. They added some posts, and even tied an old tomato cage to the top of the fence in one place, to further discourage jumping.

The next morning, pretty much the whole goat herd was in the hay field. And they’d long stopped limiting themselves to browsing the fence line. They were moving like a roving mob, getting uncomfortably close to the road. I asked our oldest daughter to lock the goats into their enclosure near the barn, and walk the entire fence line of the goat pasture (not just the stretch that borders the hay field), and find the problem.

About an hour later, she reported on her findings. Along the back part of the property, near the ridge, a large chunk of a large tree had come down on the fence. But that wasn’t the worst part of it. “You’re not going to like this, Daddy,” she said. The tree hadn’t just taken out the fence. It had also landed on a goat, which had been right there at the fence. It was a smallish one, and one we’re not milking, so nobody had missed it. But it’d been tangled up with the fence, under that tree, in the sweltering summer sun, for a while. My daughter warned me that “You’ll smell it before you see it,” and that the tree would not be easy to move. We would definitely need the chainsaw.

The chainsaw. A couple of years ago, I invested in a really good Stihl Farm Boss. We’d had a succession of cheap chainsaws over the years, and each one had failed us at a critical juncture. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition, is for a farm. When you really need a chainsaw, as in the our current situation, you really need it to get the job done.

When shopping for the saw, I knew I wanted a Stihl (because of their reputation for quality). I was tired of messing around with bargain saws. Even within the Stihl line, I was willing to spend a little extra to get a more powerful model. And when it came to the option of spending a few more dollars to get the 20″ bar rather than the 18″, I didn’t hesitate. I imagined myself trying to clear an especially large fallen tree, and not having quite enough length to do it. How much would those extra inches be worth to me then? I must say, I have not been the least bit disappointed in this saw. I highly recommend it.

The one downside to a powerful chainsaw with a long bar? It’s heavy. Getting a vehicle to where the tree had fallen was a bit tricky, so I set out across the pasture on foot. With the afternoon sun beating down, the saw seemed to grow heavier with each step.

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Note the fence, to the left. Goat (not visible) was alongside that fence, at the base of the tree, when it came down.

Okay, fair warning. This next part is a little (or more than a little) disgusting. I include it to dispel the notion anyone out there might have about small farm life being all romantic, with sunshine and lollipops and rainbows. Sometimes, there are extremely unpleasant tasks that simply must be addressed no matter what.

So, back to the story. My daughter was right about one thing: I did smell the goat (or, more properly, what was left of the goat) before I saw it. But, before I smelled it, a different sense told me I was getting close: I heard it. Or, more precisely, I heard the swarm of flies.

Once I had my eye and ear protection in place, I fired up the saw. I decided to start at the point farthest from the fence and work my way toward the goat. Since the whole tree would need to be cut up for firewood anyway, I figured I’d ease slowly into the most unpleasant portion.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the importance of having a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition? Yeah, about that. As I started cutting, I noticed it was taking a long time even to trim smallish branches. Getting through the trunk itself was even slower going. That’s when I realized how long it’d been since I’d used the saw. I’d forgotten how much wear this particular cutting chain had on it. I had a new chain I could put on the bar, but it was in the garage. On the other end of that very long walk across the pasture that now seemed very large.

I formulated a plan. I would use what was left of this chain to cut the tree fairly close to the fence, yielding a smallish log that could be rolled off of the goat, which would allow us to repair the fence. Once that immediate problem was solved, I could replace the chain and finish cutting up the rest of the tree at my convenience.

I thought it was a pretty good plan. I crept as close as I could to the base of the fallen tree, took a deep breath, and started cutting. The saw made it about halfway through when the log began settling. The cut portion closed in on itself, binding the bar and chain. I’d tried to avoid this by making cuts around the sides of the log, but these were apparently not effective enough. Much as I tried to rev the saw, I couldn’t overcome the binding force. I tried shaking the saw, and pushing the log; the only effect was to stir up the swarm of flies which had been busy laying eggs on what was left of the goat. I could hear the roar of their wings even with my ear protection in place. And all that movement of the log of course further stirred up the rotting smell from the carcass.

With the saw stuck firmly in the log, I was out of options. I made the long trek back to the garage, and wasted a good 15 minutes looking for any tools that could help free the saw. The kids had misplaced the long pry bar, and the sledgehammer had also vanished. After excavating a bunch of junk, I eventually found where both of them were hiding.

I trudged back across the pasture, lugging the heavy pry bar and sledgehammer, now finally understanding why so many farmers and ranchers own an ATV. I still don’t think we would use one enough to justify the cost, but I was definitely giving it more serious consideration.

It didn’t take long to work the pry bar into the partially-cut log. By whacking it a few times with the sledge, I managed to spread the log just enough to work the chainsaw free (and, of course, stir up the swarm of flies again).

The saw seemed to have survived its capture by the log, but the chain was not going to be doing any more cutting today. Not only was it too dull, but it was hanging far too loosely on the bar. Bone tired, covered with sweat and sawdust, my nostrils filled with the smell of rotting goat, I decided I was done. Back across the pasture I went, chainsaw in one hand and pry bar / sledgehammer in the other.

Once in the garage, I went to work on the chainsaw. Much as I wanted to flop down for a nap, I knew better than to leave the saw in its current condition. I pulled everything apart, cleaned it up, and fit a new chain to the bar. Once it was put back together and adjusted to the proper tension, I topped off the fuel and oil reservoirs.

Unfortunately, I could not get the saw to fire up. I hoped that the motor was simply flooded from all the struggle to free it, and that the problem would go away with the passage of time. Regardless, it was a good excuse to retreat to a couch in my air conditioned office for some much-deserved rest.

Later that evening, to satisfy my curiosity, I tried firing up the saw again. This time, it came to life almost immediately. Relieved, I put it (and the pry bar, and the sledge) away for the night.

The next afternoon, my body still aching from the previous day’s exertions, I again trudged across the pasture with the saw. This time, I took the pry bar (and chain adjustment tool) with me, just in case.

I decided to retry the original plan, and began cutting far away from the fence. Thanks to the new chain, chunks of log began dropping like I was going through butter. I only needed the pry bar once (but was I ever glad I’d thought to bring it). This time, I stopped cutting the instant I noticed the log starting to bind the saw; it required only minimal prying to free. Within a few minutes, I was down to the fence and making my final cuts (while holding my breath and trying not to smell the rotting goat or suck any flies into my throat). I was feeling such a sense of accomplishment, and was on such a roll, I began looking around for other downed trees I could cut up. The saw made short work of a nearby cottonwood trunk that I’d cut some of last fall.

The remaining task was by far the most unpleasant: putting the fence wire back in place. We would need some twine to tie the fence material to the remaining tree, all the while working around the rotting goat carcass (there’s no way it could be moved). This would be a two person job, and I unfortunately didn’t have any YFC helpers available. The goats would be staying in for at least another day, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. We have plenty of weeds from the garden to toss in for them to feast on, and they could even be let into the backyard for short periods to do additional weed control.

You may be wondering: how will we get the cut-up pieces of log back to the house, to be split and aged for firewood? It is possible to get a vehicle out there, but it’s a long and circuitous route that involves a lot of gates. (It’s significantly more direct on foot.) In the next couple of days, my plan is to drive out in an old minivan. With all the seats removed, and a tarp spread on the floor, it will be able to transport all that wood fairly easily. Between me and the 17 y.o. boy, loading it shouldn’t be much trouble. The circuitous drive out and back may even take more time than loading the wood.

Once we get these particular logs split, I think I’m going to stack them in a special place so I can keep track of them. As I toss them into the woodstove next winter, I will particularly savor the cozy heat. And remind myself why it’s so important to keep a good quality chainsaw in perfect running condition. Always.

 

 

Racing in the Rain

One week from today, the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain opens in theaters. I haven’t seen it, so can’t comment on the quality of the film. The TV commercials look good, as does the official trailer.

Why would I put up a post about a movie I haven’t seen, and can’t review? Simple: to encourage all who have seen the ads, and heard the buzz, and who are planning to go to the theater to watch … to read the book first. It’s been my universal experience that I appreciate a movie much more if I’ve first read the book. Movies typically include lots of references that fans of the book pick up on, and will have more meaning for those who have read the story.

And it really is an excellent novel. As you may have gathered, the book is narrated by a dog (Enzo), in the first person, which makes it particularly fun (especially the way he manages to recount events that take place in areas where dogs are not allowed, such as hospitals). I very much enjoyed the story, and thought the canine narration was well-executed and effective. It’s well-written, well-paced, funny, and emotional. I grew to really care about the characters, and about seeing the central conflict resolved satisfactorily.

I’m not at all an auto racing fan, and know next-to-nothing about it, but interpreted the sections devoted to racing as thought-provoking metaphors for “real life” and how to better react to the circumstances that get thrown our way.

Furthermore, as a Seattle native, I enjoyed reading a story set in the Pacific Northwest. Immersing myself in the novel’s narrative and setting was like taking a mini-vacation back home.

That said, I did have a couple of problems with the book — and I hope these issues don’t carry over to the movie.

First off, there’s a little too much Eastern mysticism / Zen spirituality / reincarnation for my taste in some of the themes. I was fine with this up to a point; after all, the narrator is a dog, and at first it seems he simply picked up these notions from watching television. However as the story progresses, Enzo seems infused with his own mystical knowledge and speaks with the certainty of a Zen master.

The other thing that bothered me is that one particular teenage girl — whose “bad” behavior is key to the central conflict — is said to attend Holy Names Academy, which is an actual, real-life, prestigious Catholic high school in Seattle. Her school affiliation is given in a single throw-away line, and is irrelevant to the plot. Why name the school at all (or why not invent a fictitious school with a prestigious-sounding secular name), unless it’s to take a cheap shot at a Catholic institution by associating a “bad” girl with it?

That said, I would emphasize that this an otherwise absolutely wonderful story — and one I’m looking forward to seeing on the big screen. I might even try to read the book again before I go. I hope you have the chance to read it, too.