Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Chickens Are So Selfish

Every evening, an hour or so before dusk, we go out back and let the chickens out of their pen, so they can get some exercise and fresh food. We also really enjoy watching their antics.

We wait until near dusk because we live in town and although we want them to have some free-range time, we can't let them out too long without supervision or they might get into the street or bother the neighbors. And quite frankly, an hour of idle chicken-sitting out back is about all I can stand. Stuff to do, you know, stuff to do.

That really is quite the backyard flock, isn't it? The original wild chicken, our six older hens, plus the nine hens I mail-ordered (and the thirteen roosters that came free with them), and nine older hens in my next-door neighbor's old pigeon coop. We feed and water the older hens (as well as collect their eggs).

When the light starts fading, they begin making their way back into the pen. The white chickens are always the first to bed.

Chickens like to get as high off the ground as possible. We used to have a roost about two feet off the ground, but then I got the bright idea to put one up by the ceiling, with a ladder to get up there.

At first, only the white ones went up there. But now it's becoming quite the hot spot.

The problem is that the chickens are all so selfish. They only think about themselves. As soon as they get up the ramp, they settle into a comfy spot and won't budge. Since there's only one ladder, this can pose a problem.

Shove over, willya?

Traffic jam.

Then there are those who are never satisfied, even with the high roost.

P.S. Some of the chickens in the pictures are no longer with us, thanks to a neighborhood dog. We lost one of the three white, one of the three orange, two of the five black, and two roosters. The white chickens are my husband's favorites.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Murder on a Tuesday Morning

I don't have any pictures to accompany this post. You'll thank me.

Yesterday, we lost six chickens to a neighborhood dog. It was a fairly large but skinny husky that got out of his yard. He found the chicken coop and seemed to regard it as some sort of chicken vending machine. We really don't know how he got at the chickens, since there were only two small corners where the wire was not completely attached. The chickens never bothered getting out before - how on earth could a big dog get his head (or whole body) in? I guess I grossly underestimated the power of a determined predator.

However he did it, Sarah saw him kill a chicken around 10:00 a.m. and came to get me. By the time I got myself up there, two more chickens lay dead in front of the coop.

At first inspection, it appeared that we were missing ten chickens from the coop. Six of these were found, dead, lying in various places in the surrounding field. They weren't mutilated, just dead. The rest were still unaccounted for until later that afternoon, when we found them pecking around outside of the pen. The dog must have pulled them out alive, and they were able to escape into the woods.

Brian was good enough to dig a hole and go around, collecting the casualties with a shovel, while I closely inspected the chicken coop, tightly securing anything that looked small enough to get even a paw through. Then I sat out back in a car, staking out the place, waiting for the criminal to come back for his next fix.

In the meantime, Sarah went on Facebook and lo and behold, there was a picture of the murderer, posted by his distraught owner. Apparently he always came back right away whenever he got out before. Of course, that was before he discovered the chicken dispenser.

Sarah called the owner, who came up to our area. I never got to meet her, but she found him without much trouble. She told Sarah that he's a very friendly dog who wouldn't hurt anybody. She didn't offer to make restitution for the dead chickens.

All in all, it was a very eventful start to a very stressful day, and it didn't get any better after that. It was one of those days when you're just glad it's over.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Program

I've been trying to blog about the Texas trip before I forget everything, but I just have to change lanes here for a minute.

"April gardeners often forget that August is coming."

I can't remember if I read this somewhere or came up with it on my own. I can't even remember if I've gotten it correctly. All I know is that this adage has stuck with me ever since my fledgling gardening days.

This is NOT my garden.

Oh, but how I wish it was. Look how orderly and spacious. Observe the absence of weeds! Notice how easy it will be for this gardener to harvest that bounty!

This is my actual garden in May (there are actually plants planted in there; they're just too small to see) :

My garden at the end of July:

I really thought that with all that square footage that I spaced everything out adequately. As it stands, I can barely find the plants I planted. how in the world am I ever going to find all the ripe veggies before it's too late??

The weeds are taller than the potato plants. It didn't help that we were away and nobody weeded for two weeks. When we got back, we didn't even know where to start.
I could lose a small child in the tomatoes.

The cabbages and brussels sprouts are going to be swallowed up.

The corn is full of miniature ears.

Look what I found today! I didn't even know these plants were producing yet.

I only planted one watermelon plant and one canteloupe plant. I had no idea they were going to threaten to overtake the entire yard. But look what we found today, nestled under the leaves!

Part Three - Texas Visit

Trip itinerary. Please forgive me if some of the days are sketchy. There are some things that I can't remember too clearly, and some days when we really didn't do ANYTHING except kick back. On those days where I don't have much listed, the kids were swimming in the indoor pool, or playing in the orchards, or riding dirt bikes, or visiting the horse, or just hanging out with family, which was probably the best part of the visit.

Day 1, Saturday July 3 - We had fully expected to be sleeping in the RV, except for those kids who found a place to crash in my cousin's home. However, my cousin Jennifer married into a pecan farming family, and they graciously offered us the use of a older, vacant house on one of their properties. When they said "empty house," I had visions of something that had seen better days. Instead, they showed us into what Brian described as "a Spanish hotel." It was very cool and beautiful, with tiled floors, thick adobe walls, a tiled roof. It even had a billiards room, which quickly became the first destination for the kids in the morning. Some people eat breakfast, some people exercise, some shower . . . not us - we headed downstairs for our morning game of pool.

Sleeping in was impossible, however - the morning sun heartily greeted the bedroom windows first thing in the morning. Even though I had been up until well past two a.m., I was wide awake by 7:00 a.m. That day we hung around the house until early afternoon, unpacking and organizing, until all the kids had gotten up and moving. The rest of the day was spent exploring the farm and letting the kids get to know one another. We also had a houseful of El Paso relatives who came over to hang out. Andy spent the afternoon with Kevin, Jen's husband, making himself useful.

This was the day that Jen's youngest daughter, Sophia, fell completely in love with my oldest son, Scott. While we were there, Sophia was just a few days shy of her third birthday. She took to him immediately and was soon calling him "my best friend." Pretty soon he was completely unable to get away from her, and she started calling for him first thing in the morning.

After we left, Jen told me that Sophia was crying that her best friend Scott was dead, that was why she couldn't find him anymore.

Day 2, Sunday July 4 - Attended Mass at San Lorenzo parish in Clint. Afterward, my cousin and her husband threw an annual 4th of July bash at their house on the farm, with food, fireworks, and scores of children.

Day 3, Monday, July 5 - I got up early (again) thanks to the sunrise and the thoughtful farm worker who decided to mow the lawn around the house very thoroughly, and went over to Jen's house alone. Half of my kids had fallen asleep there, anyway. Everybody in the house was still asleep, but Jen had arranged for a housekeeper to come in to help clean up after the party. The housekeeper and I worked together and I got to dust off my Spanish, trying to communicate with her.

Later that afternoon, since it's no longer safe to visit Mexico, Jennifer took Sarah, Scott, Clare and I to a Mexican-style mercado (market) called Pro's Ranch Market. It was very crowded and had loud Mexican music playing over the speakers. There weren't too many major differences - you could still buy Gatorade and Cheez-Its - but nowhere in our Pennsylvania markets can you buy beef lips, beef cheeks, or an entire skinned beef head.

Besides practicing my Spanish and giving Clare a vocabulary lesson, I picked up some ingredients for a dish called sopa, which is basically Mexican Rice-A-Roni (but still delicious), and some interesting candies. I always get a kick out of ethnic candies. This place had Bubu Lubu (chocolate-covered marshmallow with strawberry jam) and Obejas (wafer disks with melted caramel in between) and foil-wrapped soccer balls with eggnog flavored creme filling.

She also took us to a store that sold quinceanera dresses - this is a very big deal ceremony for 15yo girls. There's a Mass and a reception and it can be as expensive as a wedding - sort of like a Sweet Sixteen on steroids. The dresses are out of this world - very elaborate. My wedding dress wasn't as nice.

Day 4, Tuesday, July 6 - our 20th wedding anniversary passed without much fanfare. This may have been the day that my only pair of sandals broke, so I think this was the day that we went shoe-shopping, then hit up Costco for provisions for the trip home.

Day 5, Wednesday, July 7 - today the main item on the agenda was a driving tour of all the places I knew while I lived in Texas. My church, grade school, old neighborhood, and relatives' houses were all stops along the way. It was Kevin & Jennifer, myself and Andy, my cousin Tom (Jen's oldest brother), Sarah, Scott, and one of our cousins, 16yo James. Kevin also took us along what's known as Scenic Drive, which climbs a couple thousand feet onto a mountainside and offers a panoramic view of all of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico.

This is the Zaragoza International Bridge, the only legal way to get in and out of Mexico. They tell me it's relatively easy to get into Mexico, but what you see here is a zoomed-in shot of the six lanes of stopped cars stretching beyond the bridge, waiting to get OUT.

The view is quite tremendous, and it was here that the oft-mentioned stolen camera was actually stolen. Scott, never conventional, decided that the scenic overlook wasn't quite high enough, so he took off his flip-flops and started to scale the rock mountain, barefoot. Never mind the rattlesnakes. He placed his camera with his flip-flops (unbeknownst to us), and it was gone when he came back down.

This could be the face of the thief - doesn't he look like he's chuckling to himself because he just scored a free camera??
Truth be known, I was too upset by his brainless stunt to even watch. This is THE MOST accident-prone of my kids we're talking about. I just went a few yards away and looked at the clouds until he came down.

Day 6, Thursday, July 8 - okay, now I've lost complete track of the days. I think this was the day we tried to find something Southwestern to bring home as gifts, but the only exit on I-10 we needed was closed, so we ended up driving the same half-mile stretch of busy interstate back and forth for an hour. Traffic was terrible. We then tried to find someplace to eat, but kept getting turned around, eventually ending up at what was probably the most expensive seafood restaurant in El Paso, but by then we were so hungry we didn't care anymore. We accidentally ended up at a restaurant about five minutes from my uncle & aunt's house, so we called them and they came over and chatted with us while we ate.

That evening we took two truckloads of children out to the desert to look for artifacts. Kevin took his authentic Army truck,
and the kids had a blast going up and down the sandhills.

Most of my family was surprised at how green and brushy the desert really was.

I found a real, live tumbleweed!

We didn't want to find out what lived in this hole.

We didn't find much in the way of artifacts, but one of the kids saw a strange rock, and before you knew it, Brian had unearthed a complete cow skeleton.

Friday, July 9 - was this the day I showed Jen how to make pierogies? One thing's for certain - they irrigated the pecan orchards this week. Jen neglected to mention that when they irrigate, she lets the kids go out and play in the mud.

Brian and Isabelle, Jen's oldest daughter.

This part was fun. For me, anyway. You should have seen the solid mud caked in his ears.

Saturday, July 10 - Kevin took Sarah and Scott to see Viva El Paso!, with some sight-seeing and a stop at a cafe on the way. The rest of us just hung out at the house, shooting the breeze, fully aware that this was our last night with them.

Sunday, July 11 - last day on the farm. We attended Mass at San Lorenzo again, and then readied both RVs. My family, Jennifer's family, and all four of her brothers traveled up to Carlsbad, NM. That is where I'll pick up next time.

I'm going to publish this, unfinished, and confer with the family tomorrow to see what I've left out. Anything new I add will be in a different color next time, so it's easier to spot.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Texas Road Trip, Part 2

We were making fabulous time. In fact, every time we phoned our Texas kin with our progress, they were all amazed at where we were. It looked like were were going to arrive in 31 hours. In all the years of shuttling back and forth between El Paso and Pennsylvania, nobody had ever made the trip that fast before. Nobody.

This, of course, was before mechanical problems were factored into the equation.

Before anything went awry, however, there was one upsetting incident. Scott was at the wheel for his second turn at driving, and we needed to find an RV site to dump our waste tanks. We found a dump site (on a two-lane highway) just before reaching Dallas, and Scott put on the right turn signal and slowed the RV to make the turn. As he was beginning to make the wide right turn off the highway, a pickup truck came flying past us on the right berm, very narrowly missing a collision. Scott was so shaken that he relinquished the wheel and wasn't interested in driving again for some time.

Okay, mechanical problems. Around noon, a few hours after Scott's near miss, while Andy was driving, the RV shuddered and there was a loud noise. Andy called back for us to check if anything had blown off the roof, unlikely though that was, since nothing was packed up there. Brian looked out the back window and reported that he thought we had blown a tire, since there were parts of a tire still bouncing down the road. Andy stopped and checked, and we had indeed lost a tire - the steel belted tread had completely torn away from one of the rear tires. This was worrisome but not crippling, since there is a double set of rear tires on the RV. He emptied our fresh water tank to decrease the weight on the rear tires, and we eventually located a tire place up ahead with ONE of the right size tire left in stock. To avoid a hefty roadside service fee, we decided to limp along the remaining ten miles to the repair shop.

In the southwest, they have this neat phenomenon called farm & market roads. These are essentially two-lane highways that run parallel to the interstates, although the speed limit is lower and they are interrupted with stop signs. However, we were thankful for this particular farm road (FM 349, in this case), since it allowed us to travel alongside I-20 in the proper direction while maintaining a slower speed.

We didn't make it all ten miles. With two miles to go and Andy at the wheel, we all heard a loud "PSSSSSHHHHH" and felt the left side of the RV sag. Oh, snap. The other tire couldn't stand up the pressure all alone. He pulled the RV off the farm road and we called the tire place to tell him we weren't going to make it. (Mike's Tire Service, Ranger, Texas. Hell of a guy). Anyway he sent his brother out, who put the new tire on the busted tire rim, and fixed the tire that went "PSSSHHH" - it turned out that the only thing wrong was that the air valve had blown out, so he replaced the valve and reinflated the tire. Then we followed him back to Ranger to settle the bill.

The interchange at Ranger is fairly limited - a truck stop, Dairy Queen, the tire place, and a garage that specializes in big rigs. We paid the bill at the tire place, then went over to the truck stop to fill up with gas. That was when Andy noticed that the gas he was pumping was just running out onto the ground. Oh, snap.

Back over at the garage, we learned that when the first tire had given out, the "steel" in those steel-belted radials had split into razor-sharp edges which totally shredded our gray water tank (from the sinks and shower), and sliced through the fill tube that goes from the gas cap down to the gas tank. Thank God it wasn't our fuel line or our gas tank, but we were unable to fill up with gas! It was decided that the kids and I would hang out at the Dairy Queen while Andy waited at the garage for the work to be done.

Five Hours And Eight Very Antsy Kids Later . . .

The travel time record went right out the window. The garage wasn't able to replace the waste tank, but they did find a piece of tubing that was rated for fuel, which did the trick. We gassed up and Andy napped as I took the wheel for an uneventful 3.5 hour stretch.

The next fuel stop was at Big Spring, Texas, around 8:30 p.m. The first pump didn't seem to work very well - the fuel seemed to be only trickling out. So we drove around to another pump, but again, it wasn't working. It wasn't until the third try that Andy realized that the problem was with the RV, not the pumps. It was also about that time that the credit card company was alerted to suspicious activity and unbeknownst to us, deactivated the card we'd designated for the trip. We didn't find out that the card had been suspended until days later, which is another story entirely.

There was another garage at this travel stop, but they were only insured to work on tractor-trailers so they couldn't help us. Andy determined on his own that the replacement tubing had somehow collapsed at the mouth of the gas tank. Thankfully, while waiting the five hours at the last garage, he'd had the bright idea to contact our insurance company to see if the incidental damage might be covered, and they told him to keep the damaged fill tube. So on his own, he replaced the fix job with the damaged tube, freshly repaired with that handyman's standby, duct tape. He had a screwdriver just barely long enough to reach, and he had to lay on the gas-covered ground in the rain to do it. When he was done, he was completely grimy and reeked of gasoline, but we were able to fill up, and after the best ten-dollar shower he ever had in his life, we were back in business. I drove till we needed fuel again, at the Plateau Truck Stop in Van Horn, TX, about two hours from our final destination, and here Scott took the wheel to take us the rest of the way.

My Texas kin had been in close contact me all this time, and even though it was nearing midnight, they were all still awake waiting for us to arrive. They urged me to let them know when I got to a certain point so they could drive out to guide us the rest of the way. At first I resisted - that's what a GPS is for, isn't it? - but they were so adamant that after reflecting on it, it started to freak me out. What if they knew something that I didn't? After all, we were less than two miles from the Mexican border in some places. We saw border patrol trucks and even a border patrol helicopter, closely scouring the highway and desert with a spotlight. I started thinking about how defenseless we all were - a young boy driving on a deserted highway after midnight, the entire family sleeping in the back, no gun to speak of. What if there were gangs or robbers? I had myself so worked up, worrying about the possibilities, that I was having an anxiety attack and could barely hold back the tears.

It never occurred to me that they wanted to come out to guide us in because they were so excited to see us.

Needless to say, we made it to our destination without a robbery, hijackiing, drive-by shooting or attack by bandits. They met us about fifteen minutes out, and we pulled into their driveway around 1:30 a.m.

Still no pictures of this eventful day, because the active camera was stolen and the other one still wasn't working.

Total trip mileage: 2081.4 miles
Time elapsed: 37 hours

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Texas Road Trip, Part 1

From Thursday, July 1st, until Wednesday, July 14th, our entire family traveled by RV from Central Pennsylvania to West Texas and back. Here is the first segment of my version of the trip. There are no pictures of the first half of the trip, because my camera was acting up and Scott's camera, which DID have pictures of the first half of the trip, was stolen on Day 7.

Day 0:

Andy goes in for the last of his night shifts, while I stay home trying to remember to pack every necessary thing before departure time. For some reason, my "helpful" kids are not so helpful today, wanting to stop for frequent play breaks and rest breaks. What's up with that? Don't you all know we're leaving at the crack of dawn??? At bedtime, as promised, I tuck all the younger kids into bed in the RV, so they'll still be sleeping when it's time to leave.

Day 1:

5:07 a.m. My alarm is supposed to go off in 23 minutes. Instead, I'm awakened by Sarah shouting something to Scott over the noise of the bathroom sink. They both have been up all night. I desperately try to close my eyes for a few more precious minutes of sleep, as I know I'm gonna need it. No chance. There are too many things to remember.

6:30 a.m. Andy's been home for about 15 minutes, and we think we have everything. Those of us who are awake pile into the RV. Andy climbs into a vacant spot and promptly passes out. I take the helm and drive for the next 7 hours, out of Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, Maryland and most of Virginia. Scott takes shotgun, where he spends most of the trip because he gets the most carsick.

The trip divides itself into 3-and-a-half hour segments, because that's how long we can go between fill-ups. The RV averages a solid 7.5 mpg.

Andy takes the second shift, getting us from southern Virginia to Knoxville, Tennessee. There he needs a potty break, so he hands the wheel over to Scott, who, incidentally, has never driven the RV before. Thankfully there were no incidents during his two-hour shift, and Andy took over again until midnight. Then he passed the wheel to Sarah just after midnight (who also had never driven the RV before). Sarah drove 5 hours overnight through most of Tennessee, stopping only for gas and for the friendly Tennessee state trooper who just wanted to let us know that our license plate was partially obscured, causing Sarah a mild panic attack in the process.

During all of this, I was at my wit's end. As one of the principal drivers, I knew that I desperately needed to get some sleep, but I couldn't. The loft was too hot and I got indigestion from bouncing around. The back bedroom was too bouncy as well - every little bump and sway was magnified. Finally I was able to prop myself up with about thirteen pillows, and sleep sitting up on the couch behind the driver's seat. It wasn't much, but it was better than the sleep-deprived, hair-trigger insanity to which I'd been subjecting my family up until then.

Sarah got us across the Mississippi, through all of Arkansas and Oklahoma, and into Texas. Andy took over just before dawn, which brings us to the end of the first day.