Wanderlust revisited

About a month ago, I bought an ornament displaying a portion of a world map and the words, “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

Escape. Wanderlust. Adventure.

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One of the trails at Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth is covered in leaves. Leaf-peeper season is my favorite time to visit the North Shore.

My earliest recollections of travel are family trips to the Black Hills, Wisconsin Dells and Amana Colonies. In between those adventures, I’d watch airplanes fly high above the family farm and wonder where the travelers had been and where they were going.

I was struck with wanderlust at a young age.

My favorite destination is anywhere, but I have a special fondness for ocean roads and scenic byways. From Puget Sound to the Outer Banks, I am calmed by wistfully watching the waves roll toward shore.

When the ocean is too far to reach, relax and return from in just one week, we Minnesotans can be grateful our northeastern shore follows the greatest of the Great Lakes — Lake Superior.

Last week, my mom and I set off for a three-day escape to Duluth, Two Harbors and Ely. Planning a quick getaway to see the fall colors on the same day that five inches of snow fell on the Worthington area had me a bit worried, but we packed our winter coats, hats and mittens and left town with a weather forecast predicting warmer days ahead.

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Canal Park in Duluth on a brisk October afternoon.

Cloudy skies and a brisk breeze welcomed us to Duluth’s Canal Park, where I donned my hooded winter coat and alpaca fiber mittens, grabbed my camera and traipsed down the pier to visit the familiar black and white lighthouse.

Mom, inching closer to knee replacement surgery, stayed in the car and tossed popcorn from her window for the squawking seagulls.

We both had smiles on our faces. Adventure — a change in scenery — does a body good.

After being sufficiently chilled by the pier walk, we settled into our room at a lovely harbor view motel on Minnesota Point and made steaming cups of tea. We dined on homemade sandwiches, fruit and snacks as we looked for activity in the harbor, and when it was too dark to see anything but the lights of cars traversing the Bong Memorial Bridge, I pulled a book from my travel bag and settled in for the evening.

Even reading is better with a harbor view.

Sunrise on the second day lured us down the pier to Duluth’s south breakwater lighthouse before Greta Garmin led us toward Ely on a roller coaster of a road. I maneuvered curves and hills, through snow and ice and slush, all while hoping to see a moose just beyond the next bend or hilltop.

The last time I’d made this drive — some 20 years ago — we saw a moose in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, by the time I grabbed my camera and took her picture, she was stepping into the trees and the photograph revealed a blurry brown blotch that did nothing to convince my friends of the sighting.

The only moose we saw on this trip was stuffed and on display inside the North American Bear Center in Ely. Our visit — just days before the center’s seasonal closure — included seeing black bears Ted, Lucky and Holly before they crawled into their dens to hibernate for the winter. The center features lots of educational exhibits, interactive displays and a theater that shows a short film on bears.

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One of the black bears exits from the den at the North American Bear Center in Ely in mid-October.

I’d hoped for a return visit to the International Wolf Center, also in Ely, but due to its switch to winter hours it was closed the day we were in town.

Ely is also home to the original Jim Brandenburg gallery (located right on the main highway through town), and the city is in the midst of several access points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Our quick trip to Ely left us enough time to revisit Minnesota’s iconic Split Rock Lighthouse before returning to Duluth and our room with a harbor view.

Just as quickly as our getaway plans came together, our trip drew to a close and we were homeward bound … back to laundry, back to work, back to reality … and happy to have fed our wanderlust.

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Look What the Cat(food) Dragged In

When my folks decided this summer to take in a rescued stray cat and two of her kittens, the idea was to have them live in the barn and patrol the family farm for fresh meals of whatever it was they could find.

They had bowls of water and cat food, and straw was heaped up for a cozy little cat nest. The idea lasted for less than a week.

Now, a mere two months later, Jarde and her black-and-white beauties — Tux and Cedo — have taken up residence in the garage. The boys have claimed the dog bed that once belonged to our dear, sweet lovable pooch, Molly, and Jarde, well, she’s hiding out inside a tin coat closet freshly lined with rugs and rags.

On Sept. 22, Jarde became a momma again. She gave birth to six adorable kittens inside the closet, and with the new litter, she has absolutely no love for Tux and Cedo (they came from Jarde’s springtime litter of six). The poor boys are still trying to figure out why their mom hisses and swats at them.

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Jarde’s new batch of kittens, six in all.

Looking for love elsewhere, the boys have warmed up considerably to their human caretakers. Their purrboxes are constantly rattling — even when they aren’t curled up in our arms — and they’re often attempting to get inside the house to explore. They are curious little kitties, that’s for sure.

They love to hide and pounce and paw and play and purr. For a family still missing Molly, these kitties have brought us joy, along with an occasional dead mouse or bird.

We could start a segment, “Look what the cat dragged in!”, but I’m sure you really don’t want to know.

Sunday night, it wasn’t what the cat dragged in, but rather what the dish of cat food lured into the garage.

Mom had opened the door off the kitchen, intending to shut the garage door for the night and make sure the kitties were inside. Before she pressed the button to lower the door, she saw something at the cat food dish … and it wasn’t a cat.

The beady eyes met hers before it turned around and drug it’s rat-like tail as it scurried outside.

It was an o’possum. A disgusting, pointy-nosed, fanged, hissing o’possum.

It went outside, the garage door came down and Tux and Cedo were just going to have to sleep under the stars, because Mom certainly wasn’t going to open the door and call for them.

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Tux — or Cedo — is warming up to humans and is constantly purring.

I would have done the same thing — and then some. The neighbors a quarter-mile down the road would have heard my blood-curdling scream! And then I would have slammed the door and screamed some more.

This is why I moved to town, I recall. Molly had o’possums in her dog house a couple of times when I lived in the big, rented farmhouse. Molly went around and around the light pole with a woodchuck. Molly scared up skunks. Molly killed snakes.

These kitties, as adorable as they are, are not Molly. And that’s OK, we know Molly is irreplaceable. But could they at least be attack cats and keep the riff raff out of the garage?

The Kitten Caboodle

After the death of my dear, sweet lovable pooch, Molly, in May, the farm became a rather dreary place to visit.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself before asking, “Wanna go for a walk, Molly?”, or how often I’ve looked at the spot her pet pillow once occupied, expecting to see her watching me.Kitten Caboodle blog 1

I’m sure it’s been just as, if not more, difficult for my parents, who were her caretakers to the end.

We can all agree Molly — the dog who killed snakes, ran like a deer and trained herself to become a house dog in her older age — is irreplaceable.

And so, because we needed something new to love, something furry to pat on the head, a pet to talk to and make us laugh, we now have a trio of cats. Actually, it’s a momma cat and two of her kittens.

We’re certain the momma was at one time a house cat in the city of Worthington, booted or escaped from her home and left to fend for herself on the city’s streets. A good samaritan discovered her one day in the backyard flower garden and christened her the name, “Jarde.” This same woman eventually opened her door to the very pregnant tabby, and with a level of trust built up over time, the cat went inside the apartment and eventually birthed six adorable kittens.

Eight weeks later, to the day, Jarde and the twins of the litter — Tux and Cedo — were captured in a pet carrier and driven out to the Buntjer farm.

Kitten Caboodle blog 3We are no longer petless.

The cats have worked their way into our hearts and migrated from the barn to the garage. They nap in the lawn chair, curl up inside a cardboard peach crate and rest on a nest of old clothes inside a storage cabinet. They’ve made themselves at home and, as cats often do, they think they own the place.

Jarde, who absolutely refused to be held by her previous caretaker, is comfortable enough to be picked up now. She expects to have the top of her head scratched, and actually grins when she gets her wish. I’ve even heard her purr.

The kittens, meanwhile, prefer to run and jump and play rather than be cuddled by the Buntjer grandkids. The other day, they were playing with a dead mouse in the garage.

It’s a sign our new pets are doing what we’d hoped — being hunters of unwanted and unwelcome critters around the farm yard.

Now, if only they could get rid of the snakes.

Fish, frogs and flooding

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A bullfrog soaks in the water that flooded a portion of pasture on the Buntjer farm last month.

The back pasture on the Buntjer farm provides a cacophony of chirps, croaks, splashes and buzzing these days as the waters of Peterson Slough ever so slowly recede from the grassy low spots it flooded several weeks ago.

There are no four-legged bovines to care about the water-logged land; and the residents, for that matter, don’t mind much either. If it weren’t for the huge hatch of pesky mosquitoes, and the bevy of other flying and hopping insects, I’d consider spending a little more time out there in the back 40. In nature.

I’d watch the bullfrogs submerged up to their necks in the remnant floodwaters. Listen to nature’s music. Soak it all in. It is summer, after all — that time of the year when we should be outside doing stuff, whatever that stuff may be.

Except that heat and humidity has chased me back into the air-conditioned comfort of home all too often these past few weeks.

Isn’t it strange how one notices the heat and humidity going from home to work and back home again, but when it’s vacation time and you get to sit at the end of a dock with a fishing pole in hand, the heat and humidity are unnoticed?

It was nearly a month ago already that I was sitting on the dock, listening for the loons and waiting for the tug on my fishing line at a beautiful lake up north. Meanwhile, the farm and the rest of southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa couldn’t seem to get a break from the rains.

Oh, we had rain up north, too, but we fished through the drizzle and lunched during the downpour.

In three days of fishing, my fillet knife got a workout with a bit of help from Mom. We made a mess of the fish cleaning shack and wished we could hire the work done so we’d have more time for the fun part — sitting on the lakeshore and reeling in panfish.

Like any other vacation, the time flew by. The work I’d intended to do didn’t get done because the farmhouse needed a bit of extra attention. Water-soaked basement carpets needed to be ripped up and tossed out. The Shop Vac needed to be operated. Furniture needed to be moved.

And lawns needed to be mowed.

Always, the lawns need to be mowed.

There’s rarely a dull moment, but that’s OK. It’s summer, and it’s time to get moving … or mowing.

Driving Lessons

It’s been at least a decade since I’ve driven a riding lawn mower, but it shouldn’t be that difficult, right? Isn’t it kind of like riding a bicycle — once you learn, you don’t forget?

Growing up on the farm, I logged hours upon hours steering the Big Mow back and forth across the lawn as the blades cut a nice, neat row (most of the time). It was always north to south or east to west, depending on which patch of lawn was being mowed. We never were so fancy as to do that diagonal mowing pattern. On a farm with a big front lawn, as well as trees and gardens to navigate around, that kind of mowing would be too complicated.

The real complication, in my opinion, is that green machine — or rather the two of them — that my folks invested in to keep their lawn looking lush.

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With Dad dealing with some health issues, I’ve stepped up to help with the lawn mowing chore this summer. It takes about five hours to mow everything alone, or half that if someone helps.

Last week I attempted to mow the lawn all on my own, which I’ve now realized is not a good idea and likely will not be attempted again without at least taking some Aleve — perhaps both pre- and post-mowing.

If it isn’t the constant jarring of the machine (some of which is induced by operator error), it’s the stretched shoulder muscles from trying to hold up branches as I’m mowing underneath them, scrapes on the legs and arms from mowing too close to the evergreen tree, and the beating that came from getting whacked in the torso when the tire swing I attempted to push out of the way pushed back on its return swing.

Those are life lessons, and while important to learn from, perhaps more important are the driving lessons.

Lesson No. 1, from Mom, was how to start the blasted mower. Once that was accomplished, Lesson No. 2 was how the heck it went into reverse. My push mower isn’t nearly this complicated!

When I finally reached the first grassy patch to mow, I felt confident with my route and the speed, which had to fluctuate as I neared every single obstacle — building, light pole, guy wires, asparagus patch, prairie garden, evergreen tree and other trees.

Every single time I attempted to go in reverse with the blade engaged, the green machine wanted to die, so I’d quickly hit the pedal to lurch me forward, suffering a bit of whiplash the first time it happened … along with a sore neck for the next few days.

It wasn’t until Week 2 that Dad pointed out a little yellow button that says (RIO) above it.

“Push that in when you want to go in reverse with the blade running,” he said, giving me Lesson No. 3.

Week 1 would have been so much easier, and less painful, with that knowledge.

When Week 3 mowing was in progress, I told Dad he had to go retrieve a sock from the front lawn — a tube sock he’d apparently been using as a grease rag and had stuffed into a catch-all on the mower. I’m pretty sure a tree branch caught the sock and dropped it on the ground.

When he pondered why I didn’t simply stop and pick up the sock, I gave two reasons — No. 1, every time I step off the mower, the engine dies (it’s a safety feature); and No. 2, this particular area of the lawn is known to have slithering snakes on occasion. My feet were staying on the mower.

This, of course, led to Lesson No. 4 — an orange button that, if pushed, apparently keeps the lawn mower running when the driver steps off, as long as the blades are disengaged.

After three weeks, I think I may have learned all of the driving lessons necessary to operate a riding lawnmower. If not, I’m sure Dad will give me another lesson after reading this. What I’d really like is for him to take that brute of a tire swing down from the tree.

I still look for my loveable pooch, Molly, to be watching me from the garage door as I mow. The farm is so different without her.

Yet, I give thanks to her each time I mow the lawn because, knock on wood, I haven’t seen a single garter snake yet. Molly was my snake-killer and my protector, and as far as I’m concerned, she’s still protecting me from above.

Odds are the snakes will be back some day, and when I see one when I’m out mowing lawn, Mom, Dad and the neighbors will know what the blood-curdling scream is all about.

Dear sweet Molly, I’m sorry

Molly takes a break in the pool in this photo from the summer of 2013.

“Sometimes your heart needs more time to accept what your mind already knows.”

On Monday, I made the difficult decision to have my dog — my faithful friend, my healer of bad days, my brown-eyed beauty … my Molly — breathe her last, labored breaths.

My mind knew it was time. Oh, but my heart wasn’t ready.

My mind and my heart are are in conflict.

This day had been coming for months. We all knew it as we watched the tumors grow, saw the tremors render her back legs unsteady, heard her pants for air. If only she could talk — tell me it was time to let her go, tell me the pain was too much — it would have made it easier.

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Molly’s final photo. She never wanted to look at the camera.

Lately, Molly wasn’t barking. She wasn’t whimpering. She wasn’t making noise except for the struggle it took to stand and the times she couldn’t seem to catch her breath.

As I sat on the floor by her pillow Monday noon, Molly turned her sad brown eyes and looked right into my tear-filled and apologetic baby blues.

“I’m sorry Molly. I didn’t want it to end this way. I prayed God would take you in your sleep. I didn’t want to chose the day you’d leave us.”

That was my heart talking.

My mind, however, was saying “she’s suffering.”

Only now do I realize Molly’s death date is the 14th, equal to the 14 years we were lucky to have her as a part of our family. Four generations of the Buntjer clan got to know her, scratch her belly or pat her head, perhaps tickle her ear or slip her a scrap from the dinner plate.

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Molly opening her Christmas present several years ago.

Please don’t say she’s just a dog. She was more than a dog for my parents and me — she was family.

I held back the tears as I carried her from the house to my car, but they poured out as Dad cried over her and told her goodbye.

“Why don’t you wait,” he said. “She’s having a better day today.”

Dad’s mind and his heart were in conflict, same as mine.

The support came from Mom. She had her tears too, but she knew it was time.

Molly laid atop two dog beds in the back of my car as I drove to town with Mom in the passenger seat. I’d directed my rearview mirror at Molly, who seemed to perk up a bit as she watched the farm fields roll by. Molly loved car rides, loved sticking her nose out the window and letting the wind flap her ears.

A younger Molly was super excited when the car ride included a stop at Bella Park, and less so when the car parked in front of the Veterinary Medical Center.

On Monday, instead of feeling joy over her love of car rides, I felt like I was driving a hearse. Heavy heart. Death. Oh Molly, I’m sorry.

Molly’s youthful spirit is now at the Rainbow Bridge. We brought her age-weary body back to the farm she knew as home for the past 12 years. There, Dad had gathered shovels and chosen a spot on the hilltop — part shade, part sun — for Molly’s final resting place.

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Molly, as captured on a day when she wasn’t playing with snakes.

As the first shovel of dirt landed on the box, Dad said, “You may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten.”

May she forever dream of chasing bunnies through the nearby grove; and may she always know that she was loved.

Dear readers: On days like this, writing is my therapy. Tears flowed like a river as I put into words the heartbreak of losing my Molly.

This wasn’t the first version of this column. The first one told of Molly’s younger days, how she came into my life as a giveaway, how she tested my patience as a puppy and how she became my grand protector by killing every single snake she could find. It felt, though, like I was retelling stories I’d written in the Farm Bleat, so I deleted it and started over.

If you’d like to get acquainted with Molly, you can search her name or “dogs” on my blog.

Turning Moments Into Memories

With gale-force winds at our back, my parents and I sat in the cheering section at a local baseball game Friday evening, watching my nephew Blake and rooting for the Fairmont Cardinals — even though they were playing the Trojans.

It’s kind of an odd feeling to root against the home team, but my nieces and nephews either play for the Ellsworth Panthers or the Fairmont Cardinals, and thus my allegiance goes to them when, on the rare occasion, I actually get to see them compete.IMG_4404

It was a great afternoon despite the wind that chilled us — and a far better way to enjoy the outdoors than the countless hours I logged shoveling snow these past few months.

Friday evening kicked off a flurry of spring and summertime activities, with Blake’s baseball game followed by nephew Zach’s prom Saturday evening. Next it will be niece Alayna’s dance recital, Mother’s Day, fishing, more baseball, Zach’s graduation, fishing and, well, did I say fishing? The busyness of the non-winter season is upon us, and I think we all should have built up enough excitement for spring to plunge ahead with gusto.

The trusty camera on my smartphone will capture as many moments as my iCloud storage can handle this season of celebrations. (We are celebrating the absence of snow and ice, just in case you are wondering!)

Over the weekend, I stood grinning alongside nephew Blake in his baseball uniform, and was the proud aunt alongside nephew Zach in his tuxedo. While I haven’t yet printed the actual pictures, I know these moments will become fond memories.

The images have also confirmed that I’m shrinking. I suppose it could be that these little nephews of mine are growing up — growing strong and tall, confident and serious — but in my eyes they’ll still be the boy I once paid to eat a spoonful of baked squash, and the boy who nearly burned his finger reaching for the candle on his first birthday cake.

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Moments captured. Moments turning into memories.

Over the years, I was the pathological picture taker of the family. I filled more than a dozen albums with photographic memories of special moments in the days before iCloud storage. A couple of years ago, I emptied those albums and sorted the pictures into family boxes — one for each of my three brothers.

Mom has most of the same photos tucked away in albums of her own, so I can still look through them when I want to take a stroll down memory lane.

Looking through their photo albums usually happens during those long winter days. They call it reminiscing.

Through pictures, they can see the quick progression of infant grandchildren growing into teens, young adults and then young parents. The cycle begins anew with great-grandchildren.

The circle of life — captured in moments that turn into memories.