When it rains…

Last week I wrote about perspective, and how it was too easy to focus on the mini-dramas of daily life while other people experienced true suffering. The mini-drama I was experiencing was a flood, the second of the season and one that peaked at about 16.5 feet on our nearest flood gauge. “Minor” flooding starts at 15 feet, according to the National Weather Service. The farm starts flooding at around 14 feet. At 16.5 feet, we were almost at “major” flood stage, and we thought it showed. As I mentioned in my last post, we had to do a lot of late-night scrambling to get animals to higher ground, but everyone made it safely and the waters quickly receded. It was easy to sit in my warm house and contemplate how lucky I am.

Mother Nature sure has a way of laughing at over confidence, doesn’t she? The next flood (our third in as many weeks) was predicted to crest at 18.5 feet, two feet higher than the last, and there was still standing water on the farm. The soil was completely water-logged, so there was no room for absorption. The next flood came fast, and it came big. Now this isn’t what you might imagine from a newsreel, where water is rushing by and people are being saved by daring rescuers. Here the flood doesn’t really rush in; instead it seeps in from all directions until gradually the new lakes meet in the middle.

We knew this next flood was coming for a few days, so we were a little better prepared for it. We were able to get most of our animals up to high ground early in the day. We built some temporary pens in a hay barn next to our house, and herded all of the goats, sheep, and our landlord’s two fat, little American Guinea hogs up the hill into safety. Our sows (breeding pigs) were dozing in a stock trailer parked on a concrete pad that, in our previous experiences, stays dry. The hens were locked into their house for the night next to the sows. Our market hogs had previously been moved to a new paddock in a relatively high spot, and were blissfully piled onto one another amid a deep bed of hay in a covered pen.

For the previous flood the turkeys had been moved into a dry hoop house to wait it out. The water started seeping into their house early in the morning, so I ushered them out and let them wander around the dry spaces on the farm. After the water receded we spread a large round bale of oat straw into the hoop house, set up nice roosting spaces for them, and turned them back in to happily (and dryly!) spend the last week of their lives. We knew this next flood would also get into the hoop house, but we had a hard time coming up with a good solution. Andrew thought maybe just having roosting bars would be enough to keep them out of the water. I agreed in theory, but in the last flood I learned that turkeys are drawn to the water at night. Birds have terrible night vision, and they are prey animals. They do whatever they can to be safe, and at night the water reflects light. The turkeys go towards the light, thinking, I imagine, it will be safer there. It is not. We decided to go in for dinner and revisit the issue afterwards. The floodwaters were not threatening just yet.

Our friend Ross was at the farm helping us prepare for the flood when he got stranded here. Our roads in and out of the farm are the first to go under water, so we put him up on the couch. We were grateful for this turn of events, as he was a big help getting animals safe. I should mention that in addition to the flood warnings, Western Washington was hammered with a massive windstorm that night. Our little house is up high on wheels, on top of a hill, and it was rocking in the wind. Trees behind us were smashing to the ground, which is actually pretty common; they’re old rotted plantation poplars. The wind was coming from the north, opposite from the normal pattern, and that small change gave the storm a more sinister feel. Spurts of intense rain pounded our metal roof and added to the feeling of being under fire. Ross and Andrew went out to move cows up to higher ground while I sat on the floor in the only spot I thought would be safe from shattering windows. I’m not sure that was a real possibility, but it sure felt like one! Something like 300,000 people in our area lost power that night. Remarkably ours never flickered.

Once the guys came back in we had a nice hot dinner, and thankfully the intense wind pushed the rain clouds away. We decided we had better take advantage of the clear skies and move the turkeys up to even higher ground. We moved a small tunnel that was previously the sheep house up onto the hill that was quickly resembling an ark. We herded the turkeys into it, which was a slow tedious business since it was dark. We tied the door shut and blocked off any possible escape routes, since heritage turkeys are not fond of being penned up. After that we went in for the night to try and get some sleep.

Sleep didn’t come to me, so I spent time on facebook, chatting with family across the country, which helped keep me calm. I also obsessively checked the flood prediction gauge. At 1:30 am I decided to go on a round to check on the water’s progress. It became obvious that the water was coming much more quickly now, and that the high ground where our sows and hens were parked was not going to stay “high” for long. Our ten snuggling pigs were also going to need to be moved higher. Andrew had set his alarm for 2:30 am to check on things, but I could see that we didn’t have that much time. I ran in and roused him, and we moved all of the rest of the animals up to the highest possible ground. Andrew easily passed back out (a trait of his that makes me insanely jealous), and I continued to quietly fret. A couple hours later the flood prediction jumped from 18.5 feet to over 20 feet. I panicked about this news, but there was nothing more we could do but wait.

Once morning hit we were amazed by what surrounded us. Water was everywhere. This was the first time since we’d been here that all of the farmable space was under water. We did our morning animal chores, which was relatively easy with all the animals in close confinement. We boarded our canoe to shuttle Ross across the street so he could go back home, and then we went up to our neighbors for a cup a coffee and a chat. Darryl, the patriarch of the family across the street has a million stories about this valley. His family has been living and farming here for generations, and as far as he was concerned this flood was minor. He regaled us of stories about previous floods, including one in 1990 where the peak hit 25 feet. At that level everything on the farm except possibly our house would be under water. After departing we took the canoe around the fields to investigate and take photos.

While the flood was dramatic, we were mostly prepared and everyone stayed dry and safe. We spent most of the day inside recovering, and while the animals were restless they put up with their confinement well. Thankfully the flood never reached the predicted 20 feet, and even the van our vegetable farming partners accidentally left on the farm seemed to have avoided getting water in its engine.

As I type all of this it’s hard to remember that this all happened yesterday. It seems like so long ago. I suppose lack of sleep and boosted adrenaline will do that to you. Needless to say were more than ready for bed last night. Andrew has been battling bronchitis for a week now, and I had been having sneezing fits and a plugged nose since the morning. Sleep was in order. And then, just as we started dozing off, we heard a strange sound. Actually it wasn’t that strange, it sounded exactly like gusts of wind rattling the plastic that covers the hay barn. Only there was no wind, it was an eerily still night. After this happened three or four times we ran outside to see what was up. The door on the turkey house had broken free and swung open, and the noise was the whoosh of turkey wings as they flapped out of confinement straight into the lake that now flanked our house.

Wearing only underwear, I grabbed my long down parka, which wasn’t the greatest choice considering it was now raining heavily, but I didn’t have time to think. I jammed my bare feet into my boots and ran out the door, yelling at Andrew to grab the canoe. I began wading into the frigid water to retrieve those turkeys that were within reach. The cold water rushed over my boots and filled them. I sloshed around, urging turkeys to walk up the hill. Those that were too cold to move merely stood there shuddering, so I picked them up and carried them one by one back to their pen. Some of the turkeys were in too deep, so we had to canoe over to them. We took multiple canoe trips, flinging scared, wet birds into the center of the boat while trying to maintain our balance. One bird was roosting on top of the hoop house, impossible to reach. Once we retrieved all the birds we could find we quickly realized that only about half were there. It was dark, raining, our teeth were chattering and my feet and legs were numb. We could not see or hear any other turkeys.

Defeated, we went back inside to deal with our oncoming hypothermia. The fire was out, so we put on dry clothes and crawled under the covers. I was inconsolable. The thought of helpless turkeys, birds I had raised since they were two days old, shivering and drowning in the cold was too much to bear. There really was nothing else we could do at that point but wait and hope for the best. I certainly expected the worst.

After a fitful night filled with horrible dreams of drowned turkeys and restlessness, I awoke this morning to an amazing sight. The water had receded substantially in the night, and I saw turkeys walking inland from various parts of the farm. Although they sounded hoarse from spending the night in cold water, there were no other obvious signs of distress. I don’t know how they made it through the night, but apparently they are stronger than I thought. Last night in the midst of my meltdown I proclaimed that I would never raise turkeys again. Now I’m not so sure. These guys are badass. They are survivors. It’s a strange irony knowing that I will willfully end their lives this weekend, but I am proud that they will be consumed at feasts designed for reflection and thankfulness. Everyone who has ordered a turkey will be sent the link for this post. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, I hope you will feel deep gratitude for these creatures that have given so much of themselves for us.

Now that the waters are once again receding, I have released the rest of the turkeys and the hens. They are wandering happily around acting as a kind of clean up crew, enjoying the worms and other delicious tidbits the flood dredged up. Their sounds of joy and discovery delight me, and while the logistics of this weekend are looming and our roads are still under water, somehow I know it will all be ok. And it’s all thanks to those pesky turkeys.

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Canoeing during Flood #1. Thinking, “this is fun!”
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Flood #1…
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Flood #2 was a little worse
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Flood #2…
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Trumpeter swans enjoying Flood #2. Notice all the crops that survived this one?
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Preparing for Flood #3
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Flood #3…no crops escaped this one
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Flood #3…the hoop house on the right is where the turkeys were originally hanging out.
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The view of our new houseboat!
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Silage bales (fermenting hay) were floating everywhere. The owner’s teenage son had given some of them faces.
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The turkeys in their pen on “the ark.” Pre-escape of course.
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Hens locked inside on the left, sows on the right. Water got close but stayed out of their enclosures.
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Pig Mountain. On the left is the blue covered pen where they had previously been snoozing.
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View from Pig Mountain.
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The lucky van!
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The workstation. A lot of equipment was left out under here since this is normally a high point. Thankfully the barbed wire fences around the farm caught most of the stuff that floated off.
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Water water everywhere
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The inner Ark. Goats and sheep and two little pigs.
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Thank you. Thank you.
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Lard in the Larder & Meat on the Mind

A couple of weeks ago the first over-wintering trumpeter swans began flying overhead in small groups of four or five. Their ethereal trumpeting, along with a few storms and the quickly dipping mercury, are a sure sign that Old Man Winter is slowly wrapping his gnarled hands around the farm. As I sit here typing the wind is gusting wildly, rocking the tiny house on its tractor-trailer foundation. While Andrew and our part time farm hand William run around taking apart now-empty animal enclosures and gathering loose items that are blowing about, I sit here in the warm house with the excuse of fire-tender; we have many pounds of hog lard to render and keeping the fire alight is a very important task!

Speaking of hogs, all eighteen of our wonderful pig friends have been slaughtered over the past few weeks. The hogs are a huge part of our farm and bring a lot of character, so when they are first gone I feel their absence acutely. Someday soon we would like to breed our own hogs, and at that point we would have permanent pig residents to amuse us. For now the cycle of pig life on the farm is relatively short, but ends in a year’s supply of healthy, delicious pork. Many of our customers do not claim the leaf fat from their pigs once at the butcher, and so Andrew and I are happily collecting the leftovers for our own use and for gifts. Hog lard is making a comeback people: mark my words!

Today also marks the first goat slaughter of the season. Andrew performed this task himself, and I am so proud of how efficiently and humanely he accomplished this. This man I married never ceases to amaze me. He continues to learn new skills every day, and is constantly pushing himself to be better. If I only had half the drive he has we could conquer the world! Fortunately we’re happy just plodding along on our fertile little patch of borrowed land in this gorgeous valley. Who needs the world when you have everything you need just steps away from your front door?

As winter approaches we are trying to get things ready, doing what we can to prepare for the cold. We need to cut more hardwood for heat, and insulate the pipes coming out of the new well. We need to dig up and store our carrots, beets, and dahlia tubers in sawdust to protect them from freezing. On the back burner are plans to filter our water system and get the hot water heater back up and running. In the meantime we’re still hauling in our drinking water and taking showers at the neighbor’s. I started washing dishes part time at a nearby winery (the chefs were CSA members this season and are so fun to work with!), and I’ve gotten into the habit of brining my own dirty dishes with me. Having copious amounts of hot running water right out of the tap is a luxury I am still struggling to get used to.

In my last post I mentioned I was going on vacation to visit my sister and her new baby, along with some other family members. We had a great time in beautiful Autumnal Maine, enjoying the newest addition to the family and eating our way around Portland. Little Juniper is adorable, a perfect mash-up between my twin and her husband. It was surreal and amazing to watch the girl I grew up with mothering her child. I wish we lived closer so that I could watch Juniper grow, but photos and video chats will have to do for now. Despite kind of living as if we’re still in the 19th century, Andrew and I suffer that great dilemma most modern American families face: dispersion. We’d love to have everyone all living together on one big bustling farm, but for now we’re thankful for the technology that allows us to stay connected.

Typically wintertime on the farm is spent planning and plotting our next moves. Things are going to be a little bit different for us next year, and we have a lot of work to do in order to get ready. Our passions lie in humane animal husbandry, and we’re looking forward to making that our main mission at Bright Ide Acres. While vegetables will always be a part of our own homestead, the availability of healthy, organically grown produce is widespread in this part of the world. Ethically raised meats are harder to find, and the demand for this niche product is increasing. With the rise in consumer awareness about the factory meat industry and how much more nutritious and environmentally friendly pastured meats are, we feel there is a good marketplace for us.

One big challenge for selling meat products is that the regulations required for selling cuts are proving prohibitive for us. I am adamant about having animals slaughtered on the farm rather than subjecting them to stressful transport and slaughterhouse conditions. Right now all of the large animals that are slaughtered for customers are done so under a custom arrangement, which is great for people who have the freezer space to take a half hog or quarter cow. Our mobile butchers are not USDA certified, which means we can’t take back the meat and resell it as bacon or pork chops at farmers markets or to restaurants. While some neighboring counties have USDA certified mobile slaughter units, our county currently does not.

Unfortunately many potential customers in Seattle and surrounding areas, (who have both the desire to support ethical meat and the means to do so), don’t have big freezers in their apartments and townhouses. Our goal is to find a way to create a meat CSA or cooperative whereby we can provide monthly (or so) boxes with various cuts of different animals, eggs, and honey. Another difficulty will lie in advanced funding, since most of the revenue made from animal products don’t come until after slaughter, which is later in the season. I have been mulling the idea of a Kickstarter campaign or something similar, since I know a lot of you might be interested in supporting us in our endeavors. Please let me know if a comment if you have any ideas or suggestions for farm fund-raising!

I hear some sizzling from the lard pot, so it’s time to go stoke the fire and add more fat. I hope all of you across the country stay warm during the brutal week that’s predicted ahead. If you’re feeling down about the weather I can recommend some homegrown beans simmered in a dollop of trotter gear, (gelatinous pork stock made from pig’s feet!), to keep those winter blues in check. There’s really nothing better than a steaming mug of homemade chili on a cold blustery day!

The Golden Hour

There is a time of day I like to call the “Golden Hour.” I started noticing it a month or so ago, when the weather shifted towards winter and the trumpeter swans began flying low overhead.  Just before sunset, (at 4:15!), on days when the sun is shining and the frost lingers in the shadowy areas, the light hits the trees across the river and a brilliant golden glow radiates. Golden Hour is actually a misnomer, because the moment is brief; maybe five minutes lapse before the sun’s rays weaken and twilight sets in, turning everything to muted shades of grey. But in that short time I look around, take a deep breath, and absorb the last gasp of energy from the sun while I can. This is a moment that I believe only happens in climates where the seasons are distinct and change rapidly. I have seen it before, while going to school in Ohio or when I lived in the Eastern Sierras of California, but here on the farm it is different. Maybe it’s because I’m outside most of the time it occurs, but I think it is because I am in tune with my environment like never before. I can feel the seasons switching over, and the Golden Hour is like a beautiful warning. Take heed: winter is coming.

I suppose, (since everyone keeps telling me), that we have been lucky with weather this year. Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest I have to take their word for it. Though the mercury has dropped dramatically, with night temperatures in the twenties this week, the sun has made frequent appearances. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some blustery, grey, misty, and torrential days. But they are mixed in with marvelously clear, cold, brilliant days where the snow-capped peaks in the distance pull my gaze, reminding me of their quiet splendor.

Tuesday was one of those days, and it also happened to be the day we slaughtered our five pigs. I was worried most about this day, despite having witnessed the slaughter of cows, and having taken part in the slaughter of chickens and turkeys. We raised the pigs from little weaners, and they were an integral part of our life on the farm. Daily they frolicked, squealed, played, ate, scratched, escaped, ate, grew, nuzzled, snorted, ate, ate, and ate some more. I was worried that I had become too emotionally invested in the pigs, (I did name them after all), but throughout the process I understood that the pigs had gone from friend to food in the most humane way, and I now feel a sense of peace about the totality of the process. It doesn’t hurt that as pigs get older and bigger they get a lot less cute and cuddly! It also doesn’t hurt that I watched the birthing of a calf after all the pigs were slaughtered. In death there is life and in life there is death, and to me this is the essence of farming.

Last week we spent Thanksgiving with my father and stepmother in Sacramento. We took a road trip down there, and brought with us the dog, fresh eggs, a sack full of potatoes, and one half of a 30lb turkey. We have been eating our own chickens and beef since the spring and so I am used to the tangible difference between fresh, naturally raised meat and the kind you buy shrink-wrapped at Safeway.  Even with elevated expectations, this turkey blew my mind. The juice, flavor, texture…it was absurdly divine. If you have access to a nearby farm that produces Thanksgiving turkeys, I urge you to take advantage. Sure, you pay a lot more than you would for a Butterball, but you really are buying a different product. That’s true for all sustainably-raised meat, but if you consider it a splurge, do yourself a favor and splurge on the turkey!

In addition to our Thanksgiving getaway, I have recently traveled away from the farm quite a bit. My mom came in from Australia and I spent time with her and my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle. Then I flew to Portland, Maine with my mom and spent time with my sister, her husband and some more of my extended family. I had a great time visiting with everyone, and relished the easy access to a hot shower. I found myself getting “comfortable” living the city life to which I was formerly accustomed. I worried that it would be a hard transition back to farm living, that the cold would get to me and I would regret our lack of running water and dependable electricity. Fortunately coming back to Andrew’s warm arms made all of my doubts fall away, and I am happy to be back in my little house, sitting in the glow of the lantern as the fire rumbles nearby. As long as the Golden Hour keeps the “Big Wet” at bay, you won’t find me complaining!

All About Community

There is so much to tell you, friends! I could write paragraphs about the crazy, bewildering, exhausting, frenzied, super-charged, awesome weekends spent working at Bob’s Corn in October. I could write about how much we accomplished these past weeks (more chickens were harvested, some turkeys were dispatched, we completed our CSA season, built a new goat shelter, survived a massive windstorm, huddled around the woodstove, tromped around in pig muck, etc etc). But what I’d really like to write about today is community. Now that our harvest season has ended, I want to take some time to reflect on the role our members played and how their encouragement and support made our first farming foray such a tremendous experience.

Every week for 21 weeks, the same 26 families stopped by the farm to pick up produce. Slowly but surely we learned everyone’s names, met their children, chatted about the weather. As the weeks progressed we picked up on members’ personalities, hobbies, professional interests. We traded recipe ideas, asked for advice on where to eat, play, hike in the area, and got more and more comfortable with our new friends. Two new babies were born during the season. Many of our families brought their kids to the farm so they could feed the pigs, pet the goats, have picnics, and enjoy their farm. This was more than just a weekly service. The farm is a community space, and having an authentic connection to the people I fed nourished me emotionally.

As the season progressed so did the relationships. One of our members gave us probably ten different homemade jams to try, along with cookies and treats for Zephyr. Another member brought us homemade granola. She always set aside a couple bags, one for her kids, and one for us. We received an offer to borrow kayaks, made a new fishing buddy (who always gives us new poles and bait to play with), and attended a member’s dinner party. I started reading a couple of blogs written by a few moms who are members, and they started reading mine. One of our members frequently travels to Afghanistan for work, and recently she returned with a gorgeous pashmina for me and a warm scarf for Andrew.  Another couple gave us a card with the cost of admission to a local Native American heritage museum and an invitation to have dinner with them. We have received offers of warm showers and laundry room use. One of our members is a pilot, and has promised to take me flying over the Cascades. Another member gave us some (very!) constructive criticism, and she was so worried about hurting my feelings that she was in tears (which brought me to tears) and afterwards we hugged each other tight.

These are not experiences I could have had working in an office. I miss the daily interactions with coworkers who became dear friends, but the weekly interactions with my new community eased my anxiety about living in a new place, doing something so new, fumbling my way through this farming adventure. We asked our members to complete a survey for us so that we can improve for the next season. Many people had ideas for growth, and we know that we have much to learn about how to produce the best crops possible. But over and over again we received high marks and comments about our customer service, friendliness, and personalities. This farm isn’t just a business; it is a lifestyle, a place for connection to the earth, food, and people. In other words, this is my community, and I am so grateful to have found it.

Well Hello Winter, Where Did You Come From?

Apparently when the seasons change in the Pacific Northwest, they change fast. A couple days ago I was pulling weeds in a tank top and shading my eyes from the glaring sun. Today I sit here typing this (as I wait for members to pick up boxes), and I’m wearing full on winter regalia. Or at least winter regalia as it was known to my former SoCal self.  This “brisk” autumn day reminds of me of deep December in San Diego. I knew that I would be in for it after complaining about the copious sunshine this summer, but I didn’t think late September would bring winter already! My new life as a farmer has made me more aware of the seasons than ever before. Obviously seasons matter greatly for the plants (soil temperature, daylight hours, heat units…all things I’m struggling to learn about!), but just being outside every single day has made me so much more in tune to the environment around me.

I have noticed a real change in wildlife, especially the birds. Early in the spring we had daily sightings of bald eagles, to the point that I was almost unimpressed with the one that flew over my head with a fish. Then we had gaggles of Canadian geese honking as they landed in the nearby cornfield. For a few weeks we had hundreds of barn swallows trying to make nests in really inconvenient places, like our awnings and storage spaces. Nowadays I don’t see or hear much from our feathered friends, except of course for Homer and Marge, the homing pigeons that still visit daily for their grain smorgasbord. The rabbit population has dropped dramatically, much to Zephyr’s dismay. The coyotes are seemingly more active, vocal, and closer in range as the days get shorter. I only hope there are enough rabbits to keep them occupied and away from our chickens throughout the winter.

October is gearing up to be a crazy place around here, thanks to our great neighbors at Bob’s Corn. They have everything all decked out and ready for the hoards that descend for the corn maze, pumpkin patch, squash harvest, hot cider donuts, roasted sweet corn, BBQ, etc. etc, ad infinitum. Of course all of that people-wrangling involves lots of employees, so Andrew and I have signed on to manage a hay wagon Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Our first shift was this weekend, and it was a cold, wet, windy mess. We had a great time ushering the few diehard corn maze trompers back and forth on the hay wagon, and we sipped hot cider while drying off in the country store every hour or so. The Bob’s Corn Crew is a lively, ragtag bunch and we are excited to spend some more time getting to know everyone. Not to mention we are earning a little extra spending money for our Australian excursion!

The change in season also marks the beginning of the end for our CSA. We have five short weeks left for box pick-up, and we are both sad and relieved that the end is in sight. It has been a tremendous learning experience for us both, and our newfound knowledge will surely make next year even more successful. On the other hand, we are feeling pretty fatigued and more than a little burnt out from the nonstop pace. The slow winter days with minimal chores will be a relief, and our trip to Australia is shining like a beacon on the other end of that grey, wet, cold tunnel ahead. Maybe instead of pining away for the summer that seemingly vanished just like that, I will greet the coming fall and winter with open arms, ready for what new adventures await. Now if only we had a hot shower hooked up!