Lyla the Goldendoodle: I Discover a Dog That Is All Legs

The six-month old, long-legged Lyla checks to see where Mommy (Cammie) has gone. Golden doodles  are known to suffer from separation anxiety. “Leave the radio on” the literature suggests. Had Lyla realized that ‘Mommy’ was going to be gone for five days and that Grandpa was taking over, she would have been even more anxious.

Peggy and I are in Safety Harbor, Florida about 45 minutes north of St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast. We came to visit with our son Tony, his wife Cammie, and our three grandkids: Connor, Chris and Cooper. Part of the reason for our trip was to give Tony and Cammie a short vacation. They had a challenging summer and deserved a break. As you might imagine, Grandma and Grandpa have had their hands full with three rambunctious boys aged 6, 8 and 9. They are great kids— but the comparison with herding cats applies here. I never imagined how difficult it might be to get three boys to put on three pairs of socks before the school bus arrived.

The boys were easy in comparison to the fourth kid, however. Lyla is a six-month old goldendoodle. A goldendoodle, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, is a designer dog, a mix between a golden retriever and a poodle. They come in various sizes, from mini to maxi and Lyla definitely fits the maxi description. I have never met a dog with longer legs! Goldendoodles are known for being bright, easily trainable and super family-friendly. They are also close to shed-free, which is a huge plus for people with allergies. The down-side here is that they require frequent grooming.

Cammie provides Lyla with her nightly brushing. (Photo by Tony Lumpkin.)

Lyla fell under my list of responsibilities and I soon found myself following her around outside with a bag in hand. Collecting dog poop is not how I envisioned grandpa duty, but a grandpa has to do what a grandpa has to do. I suspect there was a bit of karma involved. I had opted out of changing diapers when the boys were younger.

Mischief might very well be the puppy’s middle name. I had to persuade her that my hand was not a chew toy and that my shoes were off limits. Earlier today we found her chewing up a a pencil and her poop bags. There is a long list of what Lyla has sunk her teeth into. I was rooting for her on the poop bags.

Then there was the night that I fixed Peggy a large bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate, one of her all-time favorite desserts. She had spent an hour persuading the boys that it was bed time and I felt she deserved a treat. I had left the room for five seconds when I heard the ice cream bowl moving across the table. Ice creams bowls don’t move around on their own, I thought to myself, quickly returning. Let me report that Lyla really likes ice cream and she can eat really fast. She also likes lasagna, bread, salsa, chips, cheese, cereal, chicken, ribs, PB&J, and anything else resembling food that her long legs can reach when no-one is looking. I even caught her slurping down Peggy’s coffee and cream, and worse, licking the top of my beer bottle! Think of me as picky, but there was no way I was going to drink from the same bottle as a dog who eats her own poop bags. 

Still, with all of this, or maybe because of it, I really like the dog. She’s a real character. And she is also photogenic, which is how she made it into my blog. I don’t usually photograph pets, but with Lyla I couldn’t resist. Enjoy.

It’s hard to imagine that the long-legged Lyla started out as this puppy a few short months ago. (Photo by Cammie Lumpkin.)
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Super Pup! (Photo by Tony Lumpkin.)
A bit older, Lyla poses in her pre-clipped phase. (Photo by Bailey Bordwell.)
Cammie caught this photo of Lyla with her three boys and Tony in an ice cream cut-out board ad. Connor is on the top, Cooper in the middle, and Chris on the bottom. Lyla is the fuzzy kid with the big nose. Maybe this is where she gained her fondness for ice cream. (Photo by Cammie Lumpkin.)
Dirty Dog… after a long romp in the dog park. (Photo by Cammie Lumpkin.)
Another furry photo. And a very pink tongue. (Photo by Cammie Lumpkin.)
A decision was made to clip the doggy..
Did someone mention food?
While all the boys love Lyla, Connor seems to have a special relationship. Here they are playing who is top dog. (Connor is careful not to put his put full weight on her.) They seem to be evenly matched but Lyla’s teeth are bigger.
We are used to kids today having more toys to play with than we did growing up. But the dog!? Lyla even has her own toy box that she empties out each day. I was playing fetch with her when she got tired and took her ball over to her toy box and dropped it inside. Game over.
I couldn’t get over the length of Lyla’s legs.
Here she looked like she was running full speed. Even her ears look wind-blown.
Her feet matched her legs. Does she look like trouble, or what!
Who? Me? Trouble?
Miss Innocent.
One of my favorite photos. A throw rug comes to mind.
Lyla having a bad hair day?
Peggy says she can identify….
Lyla does have a regal side…
That really came out when she was riding a paddleboard.
Even I was inspired to try my luck. And yes, I  stood up! Just before I fell off. Eventually, I was able to stand up and paddle. (Sort of.)
I’ll conclude with this photo of Tony and Lyla demonstrating how it is supposed to look.

NEXT POST: It’s back to the PCT with the section between Castle Crags and  Burney Falls where I fall asleep while cooking dinner.

Bone Travels the PCT Looking for His Home… Backpacking the PCT at 75— and 40

Bone found this convenient PCT marker on the trail leading south out of the Echo Summit area on Highway 50 going south toward Carson Pass, about five miles from where he was discovered 40 years ago.

It was always assumed that Bone— the diminutive four-inch, five-ounce dynamo that was once part of a horse’s foot— would one day return to his home along the PCT. What’s surprising is that it took 40 years. He’s been riding along with me on my trek this summer and meeting backpackers with that goal of visiting his birthplace in mind.

My friend Tom Lovering, the owner of an outdoor/wilderness store in Sacramento, and I found Bone in 1977 hiding out in a young corn lily patch near the PCT between Echo Summit and Carson Pass.  At the time, I was scouting a new route for the 100 mile treks I led in the Northern Sierras. Tom and three women were hiking with me for company. It was early in the season and the trail kept disappearing under the snow.

Tom and I take a current photo with Bone outside the Fox and Goose Restaurant in Sacramento. The goose seems particularly interested in what we are up to. Alpine West, one of Tom’s outdoor/wilderness stores, was located in the 10th and R Building in 1974 when Tom became a sponsor of my first Sierra Trek.

Here’s the story of how Bone was found from an earlier post:

Our fourth day started out as a typical backpack day. We climbed. It was gentle at first and then became more serious. Once again snow covered large segments of the trail. We spread out and searched for tree blazes. I scrambled over a particularly steep section and found myself in a high meadow.

Something half buried in a field of young corn lilies caught my eye. A few days earlier it would have been covered with snow. Curiosity led me to detour through the still soggy ground. Mud sucked at my boots.  My treasure turned out to be a disappointing, short, squat bone. Gnaw marks suggested it had been part of someone’s dinner. I was about to toss it when a devious thought popped into my mind.

“Trash!” I hollered at Tom and held up the bone. We had a game where if one person found a piece of trash, the other person had to carry it out. But first you had to catch the other person.

Tom sprinted down the trail with me in pursuit. Once we had made it over the mountain, our route ranged from flat to downhill. Tom was very fast. We had traveled two miles and were almost to Showers Lake before he stopped, concerned about leaving our companions too far behind. Very reluctantly, he took the bone and stuffed it in his pack.

“How can you classify a bone as trash,” he whined. I figured Tom would toss his new traveling companion as soon as I was out of sight. Wrong.

Here’s Bone’s perspective on the occasion:

“I didn’t plan on seeing the world and becoming famous. Once I was part of a horse located just above the hoof. I had no freedom; I had no glory. Wherever the horse went I went, a mere slave to his desires. During the summer this meant carrying greenhorn tourists into the backcountry of the mountains above Lake Tahoe. The added pounds gave me bone-jarring headaches. Then the horse died; I like to fantasize that a large bear with big teeth and sharp claws ate him.  Hopefully he ate the tourist as well.

Whatever happened, I was free to be me, Bone. Yes, that’s right, Bone is my name. A kindly coyote picked me up and carried me to a high meadow filled with corn lilies. It was there that I discovered my Zen-like nature as I meditated through the seasons. I was alone except for a mouse that came by and nibbled on me occasionally. That hurt. In fact, it interrupted my meditation and scarred me for life; you can still see teeth marks. I blame all of my subsequent bad behavior on that flea-bitten miscreant.

My annoyance at the mouse, however, was minimal in comparison to my anger at the large, two-legged creature who yanked me from my meadow home and begin yelling I was trash as he ran down the trail in pursuit of another two-legged creature.  Can you imagine the insult? I had no way of knowing that this was the beginning of my world travels or that the two creatures, Curt Mekemson and Tom Lovering, would become my servants.”

When I arrived home and emptied my backpack, there was the bone. Tom had slipped it into my pack. I had been carrying him for several days. Small b bone had become large B Bone and begun his 40-year odyssey! A year or so later when Tom arrived in Japan and unpacked his suitcase at the beginning of a three-year journey through Asia, Africa, and Europe, there was Bone. And thus it has gone. He has never stopped traveling. (For those of you who are new to Bone’s world, I’ll list his travels and an interview with Bone in the last two posts of this series. Long time followers will have read these posts. Go here for the complete series of posts on Bone’s discovery: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The past couple of weeks, I have been exploring the area between Donner Summit and Carson Pass, retracing paths I have been hiking since I started backpacking in 1969. In many ways, I think of this area as my home. My 13-year-old grandson, Ethan, joined me two weeks ago until a sprained ankle cut short our trip. (Ethan carried Bone and now thinks of him as an heirloom. Forget great, great grandmother’s silver.) I went back in to finish this section of the PCT last week, and, of course, go on detours. Why hang out on the busy freeway when there are country roads to explore?

Bone, happy to find a new traveling companion, perches on Ethan’s knee.

When I came out at Echo Summit, my wife Peggy and I went on a day hike toward Carson Pass to take Bone back to where he was discovered. It was a sentimental journey. Bone was very excited.

While I’ve been posting photos to follow the progression of my journey down the PCT, I am skipping forward to honor Bone (and my youth) this week and next with a look at the area between Donner Summit and where Bone was discovered. I’ll then return to my trip between Castle Crags and Burney Falls. I’ll start today with my hike between Donner Summit and the Granite Chief Wilderness.

The PCT follows a ridge line south of Donner Pass. Here it makes its way up toward Tinker’s Knob.

I used to start 100 mile treks near Mary Lake, shown here. The Sugar Bowl ski area is nearby. I cross-country skied for several years along the distant ridges and down through the forests.

Wagon trains into California once made their way up and over Roller Pass. It wasn’t easy, as suggested by information sign located on the PCT. The sign notes that the “drawing is not an exaggeration.”

I’ve included this because I want to recognize the thousands of hours volunteers spend on maintaining the PCT, with some, like Don and Pat Malberg, actually adopting sections of the trail.

The folks who build and maintain the PCT take the ‘crest’ part of its name seriously. The result is great views, lots of ups and downs, and not much water, especially later in the season. I’ve often found myself hiking 10-15 miles between water sources. Anderson Peak is in the distance and Tinker’s Knob on the other side.

A closer view of Anderson Peak.

Another photo of the trail near Tinker’s Knob. The trail cuts to the left of the peak and then drops into a canyon of the American River.

A view back down the trail.

Normally, the PCT is like the ‘freeway of trails,’ broad and well graded. It can get difficult at times, especially when heading across rocky slopes like this. Hiking becomes challenging. Each step needs to be placed to avoid a sprained ankle or a tumble. Care becomes almost instinctual. The granite boulder trail reached the lava cliff and then switchbacked up the mountain.

A snag near Anderson Peak. Peggy thought ‘three witches.’

By now (late August) most flowers are past their blooming stage and have gone to seed. This fellow was still blooming, however, and goes by the rather quaint name of pussy paws because of its resemblance to cats’ feet.

Large volcanic rocks are found along the trail, speaking to the area’s volcanic history.

The trail switched back rapidly down from Tinker’s Knob and I came on my first water of the day. This rubber boa was there to greet me. Known for their gentle nature,  they are sometimes used to help people get over their fear of snakes. I picked it up and repositioned it for a photo-op. 🙂 I filled my water bottles with five liters of water knowing I would be dry camping for the night.

I didn’t have to hike much farther, finding a lovely campsite beneath Tinker’s Knob with great surrounding views.

Looking out from my kitchen as the sun set…

And another photo, a few minutes later.

Slightly later, this was my bathroom view looking in the other direction. Not bad, eh?

Early the next morning, I was treated to a sunrise view of Tinker’s Knob.

It’s for moments like these that I have spent 50 years backpacking.

My hike the next morning took me towards the mountains that form the rim of the Granite Chief Wilderness and back up to Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Needle Peak is seen to the left. I will have hiked across those mountains and several miles farther by night.

My morning walk took me through a meadow filled with drying mule ears that rustled in the wind.

Sierra thistles were looking quite bushy as they prepared to disperse their seeds.

I caught these thistles, along with mule ears, backlit by the sun.

A lone tree decorated a gap in the mountains.

Looking back, I could see Tinker’s Knob and the mountains I had camped beneath.

Looking forward, I was faced with mountains of granite and one of the Northern Sierra’s more wild areas, the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Next two posts:

  • The Granite Chief Wilderness Area
  • The Desolation Wilderness Area and Bone’s home




Just too Cute to Ignore… When Fawns Come to Visit

Missy, a Black Tail Deer, brought by her baby for a visit yesterday. The kid was all legs and just a few days old. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I had intended to put up a blog on Big Sur today, but then one of the does that hangs out on our property decided to bring by her fawn for a visit yesterday evening. It was just too cute to ignore and Peggy quickly grabbed her camera. So Big Sur can wait until later in the week! I’ve also taken several photos of the local deer herd over the past few weeks and one very bad squirrel, so I am adding them to the post. It has been a while since I’ve featured anything on the zoo we normally call our yard. Enjoy…

Missy and her baby. The kid’s older sister was there too and joined in the grooming, which is something I hadn’t seen before. Normally does drive off their kids from the previous year when they have a new baby. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Wait up Mom! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Our five acres on the Upper Applegate River in Southern Oregon at times resembles a zoo as I’ve already noted. A deer herd, foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, possums and squirrels make their home here. Earlier this week, our neighbor reported that a momma bear with two cubs was making the rounds. We quickly put bungee cords on our garbage cans!

My writing chair looks out on our backyard, which can be hazardous to the writing process. I glanced out the window the other day and a whole herd of deer had settled in for a nap.

We call this guy Little Buck. I think he is commenting on the lack of apples. He’s another of Missy’s children. Actually, he was born two years ago. Missy had driven him and his sister off last year when she had a fawn. When the fawn had an unfortunate encounter with a car, Missy re-adopted her children.

Another shot of Little Buck. His antlers are still in velvet. Bucks lose their velvet in late summer in preparation for mating season debates over who gets the girl. Little Buck will likely be a spike with no points on his antlers this year, which will leave him out of the competition.

This fellow is obviously on his way to becoming at least a ‘forked horn’ with two points. The bucks usually join together in a guys’ club until mating season. Little Buck, who is something of a momma’s boy, still hangs out with Missy and his sister.

I took this photo of Missy in our backyard a few weeks ago before she had her fawn. She is maybe 15 feet away from where I write and often keeps me company along with Little Buck and Sis.

There are lots of gray squirrels who live up in the trees and ground squirrels who live in burrows on our property. And they all love birdseed! If you accuse them of stealing it, however, they all deny they have been anywhere near the bird feeder. They claim things like executive privilege, or say they can’t remember, or plead the fifth, or argue that the information is classified. I have a T-shirt I like to wear that reflects their behavior.

Birdseed? What birdseed?

A close-up. The cheeks are an absolute give-away.

Three days ago I caught a culprit with the goods up on the railing of our deck. He still denied any knowledge of bird seed even though sunflower seed shells were scattered all over the railing. When I pointed this out to him, he, um… well, wait and see for yourself.

I looked out our bedroom window and spotted a ground squirrel eating what looked a lot like bird seed.

When I pointed out that he was surrounded by empty sunflower seed shells he claimed they proved nothing.

When I suggested he was lying, he spit out a shell and gave me an internationally recognized salute! Check out his right paw.

Just in case I didn’t get it!

That’s it for today. (grin) On Friday, I’ll be back with the post on Big Sur.







We Interrupt Thanksgiving to Bring You a Message…. the Turkeys

We, the United Turkeys of America, have a message for you.

We, the United Turkeys of America, have a message for you.

Just because we stick our necks out, doesn't mean we want them chopped off.

Just because we stick our necks out, doesn’t mean we want them chopped off. Besides, we walk around on two legs just like you. Eating things with four legs or no legs is better.

We believe that you would be much better off eating cow or pig or sheep or something slimy for Thanksgiving— or any other time. We know that you are bright, caring, loving human beings who will listen to our reasons, that you are not like Dumb Tom who seems to have problems with where he should stick his head.

Dumb Tom, in the rear, so to speak.

Dumb Tom, in the rear, so to speak.

So listen up folks… Here are four reasons why there should not be a turkey on your platter:

We are tough.

See the glint in my eye. That's a 'don't mess with me glint.'

I am one big, mean, fighting machine!

That's a 'don't mess with me glint' in my eyes.

That’s a ‘don’t mess with me glint’ in my eyes.

We are pretty.

Really, can you think of anyone more beautiful than we are?

Really, can you think of anyone more beautiful than we are? Now if we can just persuade the girls…

We are cultured, we dance!

The fan dance...

The fan dance…

The Conga line.

The Conga line…

The Tango...

The Tango…


The ballet… Check out the toes!

And for the respected elders out there: "Me and my shadow, dancing down the avenue."

And for the respected elders out there: “Me and my shadow, dancing down the avenue.”

We are native, Native Americans.

Long before Europeans came to America we were here, as ancient rock art attests to.

Long before Europeans came to America we were here, as this ancient rock art attests to. In fact, we are even more native than the Natives.

Wow, we are so pretty!

Gobble, gobble. Gobble, gobble, gobble. Translated: Eat snake, that’s what I am doing.

So, my friends…

In closing, I would like to recommend: Eat tofu.

In closing, I would like to make one final recommendation: Eat tofu.

A very Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family from Peggy and me. PS… We will be eating turkey. Don’t tell the flock.



The Squirrel… A Quickie

Ground squirrel robbing bird feeder on Applegate River in Oregon.

This little fellow is a master at stealing sunflower seeds.

I don’t know about the world, but I can certainly use some laughs. So I’ve decided to start publishing quickies on occasion, things that I find humorous,  and hope you will as well.

This fellow was impressive. Not only did he make a leap that Grey Squirrels find daunting, he had slipped through a hole that was designed to accommodate Chickadees. He did have one problem, however, and I found it hilarious. Ground squirrels are greedy fellows, right, and this one was no exception. He had filled his pouch with so many seeds that he couldn’t get out the narrow hole he had climbed in! And believe me, he tried— especially when I was getting up close and personal with my camera. Finally, he spit out his ill-gotten gains and escaped. I set my squirrel trap with lots of sunflower seeds. I knew he would be back, and given how smart he was, he would soon be gathering seeds in the feeder, spitting them over the edge, climbing out and retrieving them! I caught him and he had a lot to say to me. I can’t print them in my GP rated blog. He is now living down the road, over the bridge, on the other side of the river learning to eat dried black berries and grass seeds. He’s in good company. I have already resettled his great grandparents, grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins there. I wish him well.

There was no way he could get out of the cage with his bulging pouch!

There was no way he could get out of the cage with his bulging pouch! So he made the ultimate sacrifice, he spit out the seeds. 🙂

Tarzan Shows Me the Light… The Friday Essay

The Episcopal Church in Placerville that played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

The Episcopal Church in Placerville played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

In my last Friday essay on Finding God in all the Wrong Places, I learned that some miracles are best witnessed with your eyes shut, and that the radio preacher my brother and I listened to on Wednesday nights believed the road to heaven was paved with gold— for him. It was not the best introduction to religion. My parents had a burgeoning seven-year-old skeptic on their hands.

But they weren’t giving up on introducing their children to church.

Next on their parental road map to religious enlightenment was the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Placerville. This time they used a different tactic, bribery. After church, we stopped at Tom Raley’s grocery store and were allowed to buy a Pepsi and pick out a comic book. I would eagerly search the rack for the latest issue of Tarzan, and, on really lucky weekends, find one. It was like winning a gazillion dollars in the lottery. The mere thought of joining the ape-man on his romp through the jungle was more than I could resist. I became a devout Episcopalian.

Gradually, Tarzan was replaced by other rewards. Marshall and I were recruited to carry the California and American flags in the procession. They had great yellow tassels that we would wind up tightly and release during over-long sermons, anything beyond five minutes. The challenge was to see whose tassel would twirl the longest. When that became boring, we could always watch our parents frantically mouthing words to make us behave.

Then I was given an immense promotion. I was invited to sing in the six-person choir that consisted of five elderly white-haired ladies and me. We all had loud voices; singing on key was secondary. I often pictured Jesus wearing earplugs.

Eventually I was allowed to carry the cross and lead the whole parade. I became an acolyte and served the priest, lit candles, rang bells, carried incense and even served as a junior lay leader. I became seriously religious and entertained the thought of becoming a priest. Crosses that glowed in the dark and Brother Jones were in my distant past.

There were numerous side benefits as well. The first was having a Godmother who became my second grade teacher. She was willing to overlook my extensive first grade rap sheet. I still have my report cards where every subject was given a C and every behavior trait was checked below the line. Listens in class, no; comes to school on time, no; wears appropriate clothing, no— you get the point. I think the latter came about because I didn’t like to wear underwear. Once I got a rather delicate part of my anatomy caught in the zipper and the teacher had to help get me unstuck. That cured the underwear bit.

I quickly learned in the that being a teacher’s pet beat being spanked, which was still an option in those days. Both my grades and behavior improved.

Gainful employment was another benefit. At age 11, I obtained my first serious job of working for one of my fellow choir members, Mrs. McKenzie. She lived in a large house overlooking Placerville and had a yard full of weeds that I was paid $.75 an hour to pull. She also had a big German Shepherd named King who topped the scales at 100 pounds and had a serious attitude problem. His idea of fun was to run at me full speed, bark ferociously, and screech to a halt about six inches away, with his jaws snapping.

“He just wants to play,” Mrs. McKenzie would assure me.

Yeah, right. That dog wanted to eat me. He knew it and I knew it. My third time there he made an attempt. By the time Mrs. McKenzie responded to my yells, King had helped himself to a generous portion of my pants and was about to start on my leg. I went home with a few bruises, an extra five bucks, and the promise that King would henceforth be kept in the house. Of course he wasn’t. A month later King climbed over the fence and took a chunk out of a passerby. Mrs. McKenzie ended up with an $1100 dollar fine and a court order to keep the dog muzzled.

After that, King took a liking to me, unfortunately. I would enter the yard and he would come charging at me just like old times. He would slide to his six-inch screeching halt, pound his muzzle on my leg in a symbolic bite, and then roll over so I would rub his belly. It was a very one-sided friendship.

Along about 12, I was invited to be the church janitor. Each Saturday I would hitchhike the three miles to Placerville and earn my weekly paycheck of four dollars. While this may seem rather paltry in our present age of instant billionaires, it was a fortune to me in 1955. After cleaning the church, I would beeline it to the Hangtown Bowl, buy cherry cokes and play my favorite pinball machine. I was hot. With one thin dime I could coax enough free games to last all afternoon. My newfound wealth also meant I could peruse the Placerville Newsstand and spend $.50 a week on the latest Max Brand or Luke Short Western. I became hooked on cowboy books. Then I discovered the Gold Chain restaurant and its incredible coconut cream pie. Talk about addiction. One fourth of my weekly salary went to support my pie eating habit. After all of that, I still had a buck to get me through the week and a buck for savings.

I joined the church Boy Scout Group and the church Youth Group in addition to my roles as acolyte, choir member, janitor, etc. Had there been any more church groups, I would have joined them as well. The church became a central part of my life and got me through some tough times. I did a lot of growing up there. It even played a role in my ‘discovery’ of girls. Fortunately, confession wasn’t a requirement of the Episcopal Church given what I learned in the basement stairwell. Had I been a good Catholic, I would still be saying Hail Marys.

By my senior year in high school, I had given up my youthful thoughts of becoming a minister but still took my religion seriously and attended church regularly. College was coming, however. My faith and many other things I accepted as true were about to become maybes.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: My rock that was Peter relocates itself to an active fault zone.

The Day of the Dead… A Brief Interlude

Day of the Dead skeleton in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

This girl was all decked out for the Day of the Dead

It’s the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos in Spanish. My blogging friend, James at Gallivance, and Google inspired me to post my favorite Day of the Dead skeleton as a quick break from my kayak series. (I’ll get back to kayaking in my next blog.)

Peggy and I found this beauty at the public market in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The purpose of the day is to remember friends and family who have passed on. It’s big in Mexico. And Mexicans have made a fortune in selling representative statues to tourists.

Today, Día de Muertos is a Catholic festival, but it owes its beginning to the Aztecs. People often take the favorite foods of the deceased out to the gravesite so the dead person can feast. Got to keep those ghosts happy. Trick or treat comes to mind.

May all your ghosts be happy ghosts. –Curt

A popular restaurant in Puerto Vallarta features these to singing cuties on its balcony.

A popular restaurant in Puerto Vallarta features these two singing cuties on its balcony.

A side view of my favorite. Check out the earrings!

A side view of my favorite. Check out the earrings!

The Chicken Whisperer…

Golden Sex Link Chicken. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Boss Hen in all of her feathered glory.

Cluck cluck cluck? Cluck cluck cluck cluck. “Who are you? You are not Bryan,” Boss Hen observed suspiciously. Clearly she was upset. She pecked at my shoe. Cluck cluck! “Take that!” Or maybe it translated “Not edible.” I was still learning Chickenese. Edibility, I discovered, was Boss Hen’s primary criteria for judging everything.

I threw out a handful of chicken scratch (coarsely ground corn), which chickens regard as dessert. I was immediately forgiven for ‘not being Bryan.’ Boss Hen and her three cohorts— the Gang of Four, as I came to know them— begin pecking away at the ground and softly clucking about what a great guy I was.

Four golden sex linked chickens.

The Gang of Four, rulers of the roost.

Portrait of a gang member.

Portrait of a gang member.

Our neighbor Brian had requested that I care for his chickens for a week while he and his family went for a vacation on Vancouver Island in western Canada. Of course I said yes, but I had reservations. My knowledge of chickens was limited to brief encounters as a child and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Would Bryan arrive home and find that his fowl friends had fed the neighborhood fox?

Our family had raised a few chickens for eating. I had a vague memory of the experience, mainly of chopping off heads, sort of what you would expect a seven-year old boy to remember. But I also recall that my sister Nancy refused to eat them. She had given the chickens names and followed them around, turning over rocks so they could catch any lurking bugs. “I will not eat my pets,” she had insisted stubbornly. My perspective had been that chicken and dumplings are chicken and dumplings: mmm, mmm good.

My three Peace Corps chicken memories were more vivid. First, a Peace Corps staff member had shown up during training in California with a crate of live chickens, a hatchet, a large pot, and a box of matches. “Here’s dinner,” he had announced casually. We were left to work out the details. Second, I returned to my home in Gbarnga, Liberia after a trip and discovered a chicken roosting on our stove. It had pooped all over the kitchen. I gladly ate her. Finally, there was the rooster who crowed under our window at 5:00 a.m. each morning and then ran like hell because I kept a bucket of water ready to throw on him. I’ve blogged about these adventures. You can follow the links for the complete stories.

The rooster in Liberia convinced me that chickens are relatively intelligent birds. A February 2014 article in Scientific American confirmed this. The article reported that, “The birds are cunning, devious, and capable of empathy. And they have sophisticated communication skills.” A rooster, for example, will squawk a special warning to hens and chicks if he spots a hawk flying over. The same rooster alone in the chicken yard with a competing rooster doesn’t utter a peep, but takes evasive measures, leaving his unsuspecting competition alone with the plunging hawk. Bye, bye.

My wife Peggy and I went up to Bryan’s for instructions on Chicken Care 101 before he left. He introduced us to his brood. One pen contained the Gang of Four, all egg laying, another six younger hens, and a hormone-driven, teen-age rooster who couldn’t stop crowing about his intentions. The second pen was filled with young roosters destined to being eaten. We were to watch the chickens’ water and food, which wasn’t a problem. Bryan had labeled the food bags. But he also wanted us to let the Gang of Four and their cohorts out each morning to wander about the yard to supplement their diet. Fine, I could handle that, but what about getting them back in the pen at night?

“Not a problem,” he assured us. “The chickens will return to the pen on their own at dusk.”

“And if they don’t?” I insisted. Apparently I was to take his blue plastic bucket, throw in a couple of handfuls of scratch, and then walk into the pen while shaking the bucket. The hens and rooster would follow. I’d be the Pied Piper of Chickendom. Yeah, right. Our instructions in place, Bryan left on vacation. We were left with the chickens, his undying gratitude, and whatever eggs the chickens laid.

I’ve already described my encounter with the Gang of Four on the first morning. The younger hens had made a dash for the cover of a low-limbed Douglas fir where they liked to hang out. The randy teenage rooster took advantage of the moment to pin one of the young hens to the ground— squawk. It was over in five chicken-clucking seconds. The Gang of Four ignored the ruckus. Any time the rooster approached them, they kicked his tail feathers half way across the yard.

The rooster was quite handsome. And he knew it. Here, he was about to go under the Douglas fir where the young hens were hiding out.

The rooster was quite handsome. And he knew it. Here, he was about to go under the Douglas fir where the young hens were hiding out.

A close up of the rooster dude.

A close up of the cool rooster dude.

Letting the chickens out was a no-brainer; getting them back in lived up to my worst fears. When I arrived that evening, the four older hens were happily pecking away in the chicken pen as advertised. Everyone else was still out and about, taking advantage of unsupervised time. I dutifully went to the garage, put scratch in Bryan’s blue bucket, and started shaking it near where the younger chickens were hanging out. Being teenagers, they ignored me. Not so the Gang of Four. They came rushing out of the pen. Great. Now everyone was milling about outside.

I shook the plastic bucket and headed for the pen. The Gang of Four and three of the younger hens actually followed me. I sent a brief prayer wafting skyward to whatever god the chickens worshipped and threw a handful of scratch on the ground for thanks. More importantly, the scratch would occupy the girls inside while I worked on enticing the hens and rooster still outside.

Squawk squawk squawk squawk! Cluck, cluck, cluck!” “Oh no you don’t! No, no, no!” A skirmish was going on under the Douglas fir. Feathers were flying. Damn, I thought, the fox has arrived. I dropped the bucket and ran for the tree. Three hens burst out from under the limbs, dashed for the pen, flew up the ramp, and disappeared into the coop. Boy were they fast. Their nemesis— the rooster— followed in hot pursuit. So much for my fox theory. I laughed out loud. Lust had corralled the remaining chickens. I threw the gate closed.

Only two chores remained. Bryan had asked that I make sure that the chickens were locked up safely in their coop, not just the pen. The fence that surrounded and covered the pen showed a large dent. Apparently some animal was trying to break in during the night.

I made a shooing motion at the chickens and everyone except the Gang of Four made for the coop. Boss Hen looked up at me expectantly and clucked. She couldn’t be shooed but maybe she could be bribed. I walked over to the coop and threw a handful of scratch in the small door. About half missed and fell on the porch.

A close up of Bryan's chicken coop. The box on the side is for egg-laying.

A close up of Bryan’s chicken coop. The box on the side is for egg-laying.

The four large hens rushed over and began pecking away. The rhythm sounded familiar: — — .-. . / … -.-. .-. .- – -.-. …. Could it be Morse code? Could the Gang of Four be pecking out “More scratch.”? Nah, I decided, even though the hens looked hopefully at the blue bucket. Finally, they decided that the bucket was empty and rushed into the coop to clean up anything the rooster and hens had missed. I shut the door and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

My final chore was to check in on the roosters next door who were destined for a date with a chopping block in the near future. I opened the door carefully to make sure none escaped. They were a handsome group of youngsters. They looked up at me curiously. Their food and water was fine, so I decided to share a bit of Hobbesian Philosophy.

The young roosters listened carefully to my sage advice.

The young roosters listened carefully to my sage advice.

I warned this young fellow that sticking his neck out might be hazardous to his health.

I warned this young fellow that sticking his neck out might be hazardous to his health.

“Life is nasty, brutish and short, guys,” I told them. I didn’t have the heart to tell them just how short their life would be. “I would advise you to live in the moment, to take advantage of the time you have.”

“So, send in the chicks,” one clucked to unanimous agreement. The guys spent their day watching the hens in the yard and crowing about true love, or at least a quickie. One of the Gang had actually flown up to check them out. I wasn’t sure whether she was interested in a specific rooster or all of them. I told the youngsters I would think about their request and headed home for a well-earned beer.

Thus ended my first day of being a chicken farmer. There would be several more adventures during the week, but by the end the chickens and I had developed a working relationship. As for the Gang of Four, we had become close. Any time I showed up, they came running and clucking, filling me in on the latest news and gossip. I had become more than a source of scratch; I had become their friend— a Chicken Whisperer.

An inside view of Bryan's chicken coop, which he built, BTW. The exotic looking chickens here are supposed to lay blue eggs.

An inside view of Bryan’s chicken coop, which he built, BTW. The exotic looking chickens here are supposed to lay blue eggs.

I caught this member of the Gang of Four laying an egg. I don't think she was happy about being photographed.

I caught this member of the Gang of Four laying an egg. I don’t think she was happy about being photographed.

Part of our pay for taking care of the chickens. The Gang laid between three and four eggs a day.

Part of our pay for taking care of the chickens. The Gang laid between three and four eggs a day.

It's only appropriate that I conclude this blog with a bird's eye view of Boss Hen.

It’s only appropriate that I conclude this blog with a bird’s-eye view of Boss Hen in her favorite position of pecking up scratch.

NEXT BLOG: Peggy and I are off again. No surprise there, eh. This time we are heading for Port McNeill on the northern coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia for a week-long kayak trip out among the Orca Whales. We will then dash home and go to Burning Man. That should provide an interesting contrast— moving from the cool and wet ocean to the hot and dry desert! All this means there will be lots to blog about but no time to blog, not to mention no Internet. I do hope to get one blog up on Mt. Rainier National Park, where we were last week, and another up on some of my favorite Burning Man pictures. Maybe. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, friends. See you in September if not sooner. –Curt