Archive for the ‘Roundrock’ category

sonder, out yonder

January 17, 2018

I once found a stubbed-out cigarette on one of the blocks of the retaining wall behind my cabin.

My first reaction was alarm. The back of the cabin is where dried out fallen leaves collect against the wooden wall. Cigarettes require a flame and themselves burn. But it seemed that the smoker was fastidious about his habit (I assume it was a “he” though I have no reason to think that) and snuffed it safely, though packing out his trash was apparently beyond the range of his perceived responsibilities.

But after my initial alarm, I began to imagine my interloper and his visit. Had he arrived by car or had he walked the considerable distance from anywhere to reach my end-of-the-road little cabin? Did he come down my road or hike cross country? Did he walk around the cabin and appreciate the setting? Or did he sit on the retaining wall as he enjoyed his cigarette? If so, why at the back of the cabin and not on the porch where he could look down on the glinting lake? Though perhaps he started there and merely sauntered. Did he try the door to see if it was open? Peer in the windows? Did he sit in one of the chairs? On the porch or around the fire ring? Did he heft the round rocks all around? Did he come with intent, to see the cabin in its place? Had he heard of it? Or was he just wandering the woods that day and come upon it? How long did he stay? And what did he think while he was there? Did he imagine for the time that the place was his own? Imagine throwing a line in the water? Throwing a steak on the grill? Telling stories around a fire? Or did he scoff at its humble setting? What was his name? Was he tired when he arrived and rested when he left? Was he alone? Did he meet someone there? Has he ever been back? Does this happen often?

I sometimes find the spoor of interlopers in my woods: beer cans, candy wrappers, footprints, emptied shotgun shells. Once, a horse shoe.

I have no illusions about the concept of private property, especially in isolated places infrequently visited. I also think it’s presumptuous in a way to think of “owning” a piece of land, at least on the time scale of land. I sometimes think of myself as more of a tenant of the 80 acres than an owner. A caretaker, maybe. A steward. Transitory. I can point to my influences, the changes I’ve made, both successful and not, and speak of the emotional connection I have to the place. But in a century, my connection won’t really be known to the next tenant in the woods. It seems unlikely that anyone will ponder who I was in my time and tenancy.

Maybe that’s why I write stories. To live beyond myself.


a day in the woods, with a three-year-old

December 22, 2017

This story begins at the place where I work. We recently merged with another company and among the many upheavals was a change to our vacation policy. Now, instead of accumulating vacation time based on the number of years you’ve worked there, you are given no specific time off and simply ask for what you want. Your manager then approves or disapproves (likely based on the number of years you’ve worked there). Never mind that this has apparently been shown at other companies to cause employees to take fewer vacation days than in the past. But the most immediate consequence of the new policy is that we can no longer carry over any unused vacation days into the new year. We have to use ’em or lose ’em. And so I did, taking Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week off.

Since I had a free day in the middle of the week, I decided to try getting something done at my cabin that I’d been wanting to do for several months (since I had finished the retaining wall near the fire ring area). I wanted to get a new load of gravel to spread around there, to level the ground a bit and perhaps get ahead of the grasses and other green things asserting themselves in the currently sparse gravel. To do this, I understood, I needed to be present to accept the delivery from the nearby quarry, and since my little cabin is very remote, I needed to lead the delivery truck to it as well. And this had to be done during the work week when the quarry was open. So I had called the quarry the week before and talked it through. The volume of gravel I thought I needed was actually too small for them to deliver, being only five tons! So arrangements had to be made with a local, independent hauler who could meet me at the quarry and then follow me in to my remote cabin. The plans were laid and I looked forward to a solo day in my woods. Even the weather looked cooperative for mid-December in the Ozarks.

But as you know from recent posts on this humble blog, I have family in town, including my three-year-old grandson, Kenneth. And somehow it became part of my plan that Kenneth and his dad would join me on my trip to Roundrock. This was fine. Kenneth, likely for lack of discernment, seems to like me and wants to do activities with me. A trip to my little cabin would be a great adventure for him.

And so the plan was executed. I picked up Kenneth and his dad, Travis, early that morning, earlier than necessary to be at the quarry at 9:00 as I’d arranged, but intended according to Travis to allow Kenneth to sleep most of the two-hours of travel time to get to the woods. No one had told Kenneth that, however, and he was awake and chattering the whole drive down, which was endearing to my black and shriveled heart.

We arrived at the cabin a hour before we needed to be at the quarry, so we knocked around a little, Kenneth leading us on a hike. Kenneth is a New York city boy. He is, apparently, used to pavement under his feet and did not much like the uneven surface of the forest floor, with rocks hidden by the generous fall of leaves. So his hike soon took us to the road leading to the cabin. We walked up the hill a ways, Travis and I comparing the lack of signals on our phones, until Kenneth said he was too tired to go on. That was fine because it was nearing the time for us to depart for the quarry. So Travis carried Kenneth back to the cabin; we got ourselves organized, and then hopped in the truck and drove to the quarry.

I had hoped that we could go into the part of the quarry where the rock is dynamited from the hillside to show Kenneth, but the man there told us we could not (as I fully expected), though we could drive around the piles of gravel and see some of the (idle) big machines. The man there also wanted me to select the kind of gravel I wanted, cleaner or with fines (powdered rock and dirt). Since my goal was partly to prevent grasses from growing around my fire ring, I didn’t want the fines. So we drove around the quarry until we came to the pile of gravel I wanted. I pocketed a handful to show the man and then returned to the “office” to wait for local hauler. And wait we did. Fortunately, I had some donut holes to keep Kenneth occupied. We had told him that it was too dangerous for him to be outside of my little truck, but he’s a clever boy and pointed out that he could stand in the bed of my truck and watch the activity of the quarry from there. (He’s only three years old!) So we did that. Later he had to push all of the buttons on my dashboard because he was flying us through space, pausing occasionally for a bite of donut hole. And finally, the local hauler arrived. His truck was weighed empty, then he drove to the pile of gravel I had selected, it was loaded and then the truck was weighed again. Some money exchanged hands and off we went.

My cabin is about five miles from the quarry, and since rock is cheap compared to its delivery cost, this is fortunate. When we finally got to the cabin — the man driving the big truck had crept along at places, which I guess is a consequence of hauling five tons of gravel on steep and twisting Ozark roads — the driver marveled at how remote the place was. (This is a common statement made by visitors.) I showed him where I wanted the pile, and he deftly turned his truck around and backed it into place. Once that was done, we allowed Kenneth to get out of my truck so he could watch the dumping operation. It was over in about thirty seconds, five tons being, it seems, a paltry amount of rock.

Kenneth’s first response to seeing the pile of gravel was the climb to the top of it. And then slide down it. And then climb it again. And so forth. Which was perfect in my mind. I wanted him to have a fun time in my woods in whatever way made sense to him. We emptied his shoes a number of times and helped him up and down as needed.

Just for show, I wanted to spread a little of the gravel behind the retaining wall. Kenneth was not too interested in this, but Travis was. I had raked away the accumulated leaves at the wall and wrestled the wheel barrow out of the cabin. Travis quickly filled it and pushed it to the cleared area, dumping the first load of gravel into place. Kenneth watched, “helping” with his little hand shovel to load the gravel but soon just “spreading” the gravel near the pile until that bored him and he returned to summiting the pile and generally getting in his dad’s way. Travis has a deluxe camera, and he took some time to set it up on the roof of my truck. It turns out he had made something like a video of his work with the gravel (a photo taken every ten seconds), and he got to work, moving nearly a third of the new pile of gravel behind the retaining wall. (The video wasn’t available at press time, but if I can arrange it, I’ll post it here.) As I said, I just wanted to shift some of the gravel as show for Kenneth, but Travis is a doer and he kept working until we began to discuss pain relievers.

Since Travis and Kenneth had evening plans with his family, and since we had some other plans at the cabin, we stopped the gravel work. Kenneth, of course, had to stomp on the piles of gravel behind the retaining wall to level them for us. Such a fine boy!

Since there had been rain in the forest recently — it’s been a dry December — I wanted to have a small fire in the ring for Kenneth to marvel at. And Travis kept reminding Kenneth that a good woodsman — hint, wink — could light a fire with only one match. (He was throwing down a challenge to me, one I was determined to meet!) So Kenneth and I collected the wood for our small fire. Mostly I collected, but he was interested.

I built the fire as I normally would though I’ll confess that I put in more tinder than I might have typically since I didn’t want to fail in front of my son-in-law and grandson. Kenneth stayed near, “helping” Grandpa with the sticks and watching closely. When it came time for me to light the fire with one match, Travis got in close too, with his camera in hand.

Needless to say, I got it roaring with only one match and Kenneth began learning about fire safety as well as how smoke can get in your eyes. He wanted to burn leaves but we told him they could fly out of the fire and burn down the forest. I think that concept was too grand for him to understand though.

Kenneth then wanted the chairs to be arranged around the fire so we could sit before it and stay warm. (I don’t know where he picks these things up.) He also assigned our seats and then later re-assigned them. He could certainly feel the heat but there was too much smoke for his little eyes.

I had deliberately used dried out, partly rotten wood for the fuel so that it would burn quickly because I didn’t want to be stuck at the cabin waiting for too many coals to wink out. (As it was, I eventually quenched the fire with two gallon jugs of water, explaining it all to Kenneth as I did so. He also “helped” me stir the ashes with the shovel.)

Time was passing, and we had a two-hour drive home. Kenneth would then need a bath (to remove the evidence of the Oreos and chocolate Kisses) to prepare for his evening hay ride with his other grandparents.

But he did say he wanted to return to Grandpa’s cabin, bringing his brother, Everett, next time. Everett is five months old, and he’s a twin to his sister Evie. But Kenneth insisted Evie could not join us. It was only for boys!


a matter of perspective

December 11, 2017

In my old blog, Roundrock Journal, I had kept a lexicon of words and phrases I used regularly that I thought readers might appreciate understanding a bit more deeply. “Tawny tussocks” for example was not an exotic dancer but a reference to little bluestem grass. “Loathsome goo” was the muck and mire at the bottom of the pond, in which I had once sunk to my thighs when I had dared to venture in there, nearly losing my shoes as I tried to extract myself.

I had also defined the distinction between “critters” and “varmints.” “Critters” were any kind of naturally occurring wildlife, looked on benignly by me. “Varmints” were critters that had gone bad, making some affront to my presumed mastery over the place. The mice that had found their way into the cabin recently were varmints.

On our trip to the woods two weekends ago, we saw more evidence of varmints. Above is the only survivor of ten shortleaf pine trees I had planted on one of the islands in the lake. (That it is rarely an island because the lake is generally too low is beside the point; the definition stands!). I had raised a chicken-wire fence around the trees — about four feet tall — and visited them regularly to do what I could to nurture them (not much). Because they had to rely on the rain to be watered and whatever nutrients might be in the rocky soil of the island, their chances had never been good, and that one of them survived at all and even thrived was a kind of validation to me.

But you see it above. It’s been vandalized. Some buck deer needed to rub the velvet off his antlers, and rather than use any of the thousands of cedar trees nearby, he apparently jumped the fence into the smallish enclosure and ravaged my pine. Those green things you see on the ground are its lower branches. Varmint!

The bark has been stripped away but this, apparently, is not a threat to the tree. Several of the pines in the plantation suffered this similar abuse and have grown into tall trees.

We repaired the fence as much as we could and continued on our hike.

And I suppose the forest could consider me a varmint. See the evidence here:

There are many trees in my forest like this. I have wedged a round rock or two into their clefts and left them there. Sometimes I find the rocks dislodged, presumably from windy days that make the trunks sway and separate. But there are others where the rocks remain, and one of them now has three rocks wedge into it, the first being nearly completely swallowed by the growing tree.

one-match fire

December 8, 2017

Once again, I didn’t intend for so much time to pass between posts, but life happens, I guess. I am sad to say that for the entire month of November, I did not make a single visit to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. And looking at the calendar for December (with family coming and holidays and obligations and such), I saw few weekends when I could visit then. So when the first weekend of December opened, I took the chance and we went to the cabin for an overnight.

The Saturday started with us driving west forty miles to my son’s house to watch little Emmett while his mom and dad strung Christmas lights on their house. He’s a sweet and busy boy and he kept us busy while they were busy. But that ended mid-morning and we returned home to pack the truck for our trip one hundred miles southeast to Roundrock. The dogs are always eager to jump in the truck, and most of the time they are going someplace nice: the park or the cabin or just a drive. Sometimes, though, they are going to “camp” where we leave them for days at a time. They’d recently gone to camp when we went to Seattle for Thanksgiving, but they seemed to have forgotten that trauma when it came time to jump in for Roundrock.

And so off we went. Arriving later in the day, and with sunset maddeningly early, my only agenda item was to burn the wooden parts of an old compost bin that had been rotting in our backyard for decades. You can see some of it in the photo above, at the top, to the left of the flames.

So once we were unpacked and the cabin was thoroughly checked for mice (none found, nor any sign), I began work on my one-match fire and soon, successfully, had it going. We were running out of daylight quickly, and we still had burgers to cook, so instead of throwing the bin bits on the fire, I put on some oak I had cut and split during the summer. I’d hoped it had seasoned enuf to burn fast and make coals. The white oak did better than the blackjack oak, but once we had some glowing embers (and the falling sun), we moved them under the grill and dropped the burgers on. I spent a lot of time fanning these embers to keep them hot, even rousing a flame now and then. (The constant heat of coals is better than the variable heat of flames for cooking.) Longer than perhaps necessary, we finally called the burgers cooked, and Libby slipped them onto waiting buns, prepared with Swiss cheese, pickles, and hot mustard. We devoured those, with the help of the dogs, and then it was time to burn the bin.

I had four panels to burn, and each was a larger dimension than the fire ring. So I simply laid the first atop the fire, letting it overlap the blocks until it burned enuf for me to push it all in.

The bin had been made by my neighbor and used in his yard for years. (In fact, a walnut tree had sprouted in it one year, thriving in the rich soil, and I dug it up — with permission — and planted it in my pine plantation. It’s thriving there now.) My neighbor did not do things half way. This bin was solid, and though I was able to separate the four walls, I did not want to break them down any farther. Hence my overlapping plan.

The first panel took its time getting ignited, but once it did, it burned bright, hot, and quick. The flames were taller than I am, and I began to wonder how recently it had rained in my little forest. The fire was contained in the ring, and I had been careful to rake away all of the leaves within a dozen feet of it, but even so, I worried that this big thing could somehow get out of control. That didn’t stop me from putting on a second panel a little while later. It did the same, burning slowly then quickly. I did decide after two, however, that that would be all for the evening. I could probably have burned the other two, but with the darkness having fallen, and me being exhausted anyway, I didn’t think it was prudent. So they wait for my next visit.

In retrospect, I probably should not have burned these panels. The wood had been treated to prevent rot — and that worked for a long time — so burning them likely released all kinds of toxins into the atmosphere. That’s also why we didn’t use their coals for cooking our food.

We did other things in our woods last weekend, including a hike and the usual general upkeep needed for a neglected cabin, but maybe I’ll tell you about that in another post.

meanwhile, back at the cabin*

October 16, 2017

We made a day trip down to Roundrock on Saturday, doing nothing special until is was time to leave. Then we got our big surprise.

I’m sure I could count on one hand (yes, I can count that high!) the number of months over the last decade when I hadn’t made at least one visit to the cabin, but with this October shaping up as it is, I was worried that it would become one of those unvisited months. Thus our trip.

We had nothing much on our agenda, and since I forgot to bring the gasoline for the chainsaws, even the vague idea to clean up here and there, was dismissed. Upon entering the cabin, though, I found that both of the mousetraps I had set on my last visit had fulfilled their destiny. There were two dead (and mostly desiccated) mice in the traps. While this was good, it was also disconcerting. How are the mice getting into the cabin after nearly a decade of not being able to? (Or not having done so?) Libby suggested that we couldn’t reuse the traps since they now had the “smell of death” on them, but I’m not sure mice have that level of existential thought, though I do think they are attracted to smells. (I had baited the traps with a piece of extra sharp Swiss cheese and a bit of a chewy dog treat, and topped them both with a dab of spicy mustard.) Either way, I threw the traps onto the ash in the fire ring, to be consumed in the next fire (and to add their metal mechanisms — sprung — to the ash).

We poked around. I swept some corners of the cabin. I screwed an attachment in a wall stud so I could hang the wheelbarrow and thus regain some floor space. I liberated some cedars from their earthly toil. I raked leaves away from the back of the cabin. I took a “nap” which mostly consisted of closed eyes and slow breaths as I imagined a scene from a story I’m working on. (This resulted in a page of notes I wrote soon after.) We ate our lunch an hour early. I pulled weeds out of the gravel near the fire ring. I loaded the wheelbarrow into the bed of my truck to take home in faraway suburbia for some much-needed yard work. That kind of thing, for about five hours. (It’s a two-hour drive each way for a cabin trip, so we strive to spend more time actually there than it takes to get to and fro.) And then it was time to begin packing to head home.

We were nearly gone — the dogs were already in the car — when Libby opened the drawer of the metal cabinet to get a tissue and made her discovery.

There was a mouse in the drawer. Not only a mouse, but a momma mouse with three babies hanging from her. (Apparently they’re called pups.) She had made a nest of the oven mitt we’d kept there. When Libby spotted the mouse, she quickly disappeared, leaving one pup behind. We slowly began emptying the drawer (and throwing out many foul-smelling things), but we could not find the mother mouse. Then we moved to the cabinet below the drawer. In here we have kept the extra sheets for the beds, towels, blankets, and all sorts of things we’d put away exactly because they would make nice mouse bedding. Slowly we began removing these, and on the fleece blanket Libby uses to keep warm on cold nights, we saw a chewed hole in it. Still, we could not find the mother mouse. But as I was holding the blanket, I saw it move and I knew the mouse was within the folds. Just has Libby had done with the one pup we’d retrieved from the drawer, I took the blanket far from the cabin and then opened it. There was momma mouse, looking bright eyed and plump, with clean, thick fur. (Another mystery is how these mice are feeding themselves in the cabin since we’ve put away all of the edibles. The conclusion is that they’re coming and going through some means mysterious.) Also with momma mouse were two pups. I shook them off the blanket and wished them well there in the woods, then I opened the blanket fully and shook it again.

We brought home all of the washables from the cabinet (and put a new oven mitt on the list of things we need for the cabin). They’ve all been laundered and are ready to be returned on our next visit.

I should say that we had purchased this metal cabinet specifically because we thought it was mouse proof. Even with it emptied (and Windexed clean), we could not find an entrance. It will get a more thorough examination on our next trip.

I’ll get more mouse traps, and I think I’ll get some of that nasty poison to stick behind the cabinet in the corner. We’ve always been reluctant to use poison because of the small dog, though there are places he can’t reach that mice can.

I intend to bring a ladder on my next visit and examine closely the eaves outside of the cabin and their corresponding parts inside. There has to be an entrance somewhere.

You may remember that we’d had a break in last spring. By squirrels, but still! Libby’s idea is that once the forest learned that there were edibles in the cabin — in that case birdseed — the word got around and now the mice, who’d never shown an interest in the cabin before, are determined to move in. That makes the most sense right now.

In my One-Match Fire story “where late the sweet birds sang” the narrator laments that his father had never been able to make their cabin mouse proof, and I was always a little smug that mine was. I am chastized.

Also, this is not a mouse:



*A paraphrase, as I’m sure you recognized, of the phrase “meanwhile, back at the ranch” which has a long and storied history.

spherical stones

October 4, 2017

so, round rocks.

Roundrock, interrupted

August 21, 2017

I made an abbreviated trip to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks over the weekend. The plan was for my wife and I, and the two dogs, to have an overnight at the cabin, with no real agenda before us but relaxing and maybe doing some chores if by some means mysterious we found the gumption. The weekend did not go as planned.

But first, a photo:

These are the stone steps leading to the cabin porch. There is a third one below these two. When the cabin was built on the sloping hillside, a good bit of gravel was pushed into place to create a level bed for the slab foundation. Once the work was done, the approach to the porch (from the east side, which is the view above) was a steep, irregular climb of a couple of feet. This arrangement persisted for many months, and my top priority during that time was to build a retaining wall in front of the cabin so that there would be no erosion (from the runoff of the roof), possibly weakening the support for the slab foundation. I got the retaining wall work done soon enuf, and future archeologists may, possibly, find wine and beer bottles in the backfill behind the wall.

Then came the eastern approach. I asked a man who has done some work for me out there if he could lay stone steps to the porch. I even showed him some large blocks of sandstone up the hill from the cabin that I thought would work well. He dismissed those and said he could provide stones much better, which he did. And now I have some rustic stone steps leading to the shady porch.

But it’s the topmost stone that is the point of all of this blather:

This is looking down on the top step and the second step, just where they overlap. (Would the lower step underlap?) What you can’t really tell from this photo is that the top stone step is actually polished from use. Many feet have tread on this step, many more than the two of us and our occasional guests could have provided in the time since the step has been there.

My idea is that this more regularly shaped slab of sandstone had graced the dooryard of some earlier Ozark home, perhaps going back to settlement days. But that’s the hopeless romantic in me thinking that. Still, it’s clearly seen use prior to coming to my little cabin. I wish I knew its story.

As for the weekend at the cabin, here is what happened. August is the peak time for horseflies in the Ozarks. Some years are worse than others, and this year has not been particularly bad with them, but you can’t tell that to my dog, Flike. He is terrified of horseflies. Never mind that he is 75 pounds of muscle and energy with a thick coat of fur and has nothing to worry about from a horsefly. If one buzzes across the porch while he is out there, he will quickly dart into the cabin and do his best to squeeze himself under one of the beds. Or into the tightest corner behind the mouse-proof cabinet. Or in my face as I’m attempting to relax on my pillow on the bed. He spent our entire time there in the cabin, panting heavily. He was terrified and traumatized.

When we saw that he wasn’t going to get any better, we decided to do him a kindness and just go back home where we could all sleep in our regular beds with no horseflies buzzing around us.