Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Less You Know

Two years ago I coached soccer for the first time.  The Green Dragons finished 2nd (in a league of 3 teams) and never in history has there been a 2nd place coach who knew so little about the sport in which he/she was coaching.  Until this year.  That's right, I was asked (out of desperation, I assume) to coach again.

This is what first place looks like
I certainly haven't gotten any smarter in the last couple years, and I absolutely haven't studied up on the sport, so I was pretty confident that my knowledge of soccer had significantly decreased.  The good news?  This season our league consisted of only 2 teams.  Worst I could do was lead them to a silver.  The bad news?  Last time I coached I had an assistant who actually knew a lot about soccer, but not this round.  It was just me and my White Sharks.  Not a team name I chose, but I got outvoted.  We played the Black Panthers every Wednesday.  White Sharks vs. Black Panthers sounds more like a free speech rally that ends in tear gas and rubber bullets, so we didn't announce our team names too loudly.  Thankfully, our matches were more civil.

Grady's team.  Cooler colors, better coaches
Etna soccer is a fluid sport.  Not in the Brasilian sense that it's beautiful to watch, but in the sense that the rules, the length of the matches, hell, even the size of the field are all fluid and change on a weekly basis.  We tried to add time to the matches every week as the players got in better shape, then subtracted time when it got too dark to play.  The coaches doubled as refs, so I obviously relied heavily on the other coach to call just about everything except out of bounds; I was pretty good at that.  And "hands," I called that one correctly at least 50% of the time.

But it was, once again, fun.  I had Dylan on my team and she really took off as a team player this season.  The Sharks had a blast (probably because I gave candy bars as rewards), and I learned nothing more about soccer.  Our finally record?  3 - 3.  That's right, 1st place, baby.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Same Santa, Second Verse

It's no coincidence that I've written about Callahan Christmas nearly every year since I started writing Dispatches From the Ranch; it might be my favorite December outing.  The setting is in an old historic Grange building with walls as thick as Fort Knox's.  The cast of characters who attend represent what I love about this valley: hippies, cowboys, loggers, commune dwellers, and everyone in-between, all together, chatting and breaking bread.  The food is always a big traditional turkey and, even though I recently wrote about my normally unenthusiastic response to giant-chicken, this bird is the exception.  Plus, it's paired with potluck food, which is my favorite style of eating (food + surprises, what could be better?).  Send me to a restaurant with "family-style" seating and I'll probably stab you with my fork, but in Callahan, sitting at the long picnic tables is just part of the fun.

And then there's Santa.  Previous Saint Nicks have included a 25-year old dude, tiny frail men, cousins, and the super-legit reining Santa Champion, who had been there the last several years.  Sadly, that one passed away last year (pour a little egg nog out for Callahan Santa).  And even though the new Santa's beard and silver hair were clearly fake (the old Santa walked the walk year round), he did all the required holiday things: he was cheerful, inquisitive, and posed well for pictures.

Once the stockings get dolled out and the kids start terrorizing the Grange Hall, the adults retire to the upstairs to hang out by the wood stove.  Bottles of wine and beer emerge and stories about the past hunting season are told.  We duck the nerf footballs that the kids huck around and when the first rugrat collides with the wood pile, we gather up our salads and desserts and say our goodbyes.

Best of all, we're home before 9:00.  It's the perfect holiday tradition.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Comin' in Hot

The month of December rockets in like a couple of bogeys hot on Goose's tail.  Just when I feel like I finally digested the last piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, Freddy Fender starts yelling that he Wants To Wish Me A Merry Christmas, and I start getting pumped up (because that's the best holiday song ever).  Mostly, because I need all 24 days prior to Christmas to get prepared.  Admittedly, I gave myself a Christmas head start this year and went out on Black Friday.  What a mistake.  Twenty minutes in, and after my third lap around Cabela's, I put everything in my basket back on the shelves and curled up in a ball somewhere between the ammo and archery aisles and muttered, Why? Why? until Regina found me.  People.  Shopping.  Hunting Gear.  All things that, in theory, I think I like, but in practice, nope.

With the Thanksgiving buzz finally worn off, we were ready for Christmas, so we spent last weekend in full holiday spirit.  We hit Etna's Christmas Party, where Main Street gets blocked off to traffic and the downtown stores open up for holiday goodies.  Santa's at the hair salon, some dude (Greg) is giving holiday tattoos at the hardware store, and so on.  It's all the crowds and anxiety of Black Friday shopping, but with more candy and beer.

On Sunday, we went full Christmas.  We drove up the mountain until we hit snow, and then hiked a mile to find a tree.  We lunched in an abandoned barn and drank hot chocolate and caroled.  Ok, we didn't sing, but Regina and I did drink wine while the kids filled up on cocoa and checked for bear tracks down at the creek.  When we got home, we decorated the house.  Dylan was in charge of setting out our 57 nativity scenes while I dragged/squeezed a 12 foot tree in through the front door.  Grady hung the cat-proof ornaments on the low lying branches.  Regina mostly swept up forest chaff.  Stockings were hung.

We are as decorated as we are going to get, and we're still three weeks away from Christmas.  I guess I'll have plenty of time to hit those late season sales at the mall ... or I'll just stay put with an egg nog. That's probably better for everyone.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thankful for Button

Sunny Eugene
We spent our Thanksgiving in Eugene, or, more specifically, Crow, with the in-laws.  What can I say about giving thanks on a year that's been pretty rough?  I'm not sure, but I'm an optimist, so I can at least name a few things, generic as they may sound.  It's the usual suspects, the family-friends-health that everyone mentions before they dive into a twenty pound bird.  Enough said.

What I love about hanging with Peter and Vovo is the blend of traditional and non- that comes together during the holidays.  And let's face it, Thanksgiving is pretty blah on the holiday scale.  There's pie, sure, but no one comes to your door begging for candy and there aren't any cool decorations (don't count your lame cornucopia, Nancy).  No lights are strewn and no one goes wassailing.  The highlights are a bird no one eats 364 days a year and a day of fistfightshopping the day after.  So Lucy mixes the day up with Brasilian dishes (Pudim de Leite), American dishes, and straight up country dishes (goat).

My Dad -- forgive the digression -- was notorious for buying horses.  Good, bad, ugly, he bought them all.  He gave a second (or third) chance to a lot of ponies that were destined for the dog food factory.  One was named Chicken, because he was saved from becoming chicken food (he didn't last).  One broke his hand, another his ankle.  A few tore apart the hitching post until he had a steel one built, then they just broke lead ropes and halters.  But more often they were great.  Boy and Cody.  Mars and Pete.  So-so was paid for with his first Social Security check and was a good one.  Dylan now rides a gentle paint named Romeo, Dad's last horse.  The list of good ones goes on.

So the highlight of Thanksgiving break, for me, was we bought a horse.  Specifically, we got a little cream colored gelding from my in-laws that I've liked since they picked him up at an auction a couple of years ago.  His name is Button and I've only been on him for less than a half hour, and that was over a year ago.  But I liked him then, so we bought him now.

And I know Dad would have been thrilled that I was horse trading over the holidays.  My gut tells me he's a good one.  I've had my teeth kicked in when my gut's been wrong, but hey, I'm an optimist.  I think this one will work out fine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Yard Friends

Dylan's terrified.  Grady grabbed his BB gun.
Dylan, who usually doesn't get frantic, was frantic.  "Dad, there's a snake outside.  I think it's a rattlesnake."
"Hold on a second, Sean," I said to my buddy on the other end of the line.
"Sounds serious," he said.
"I doubt it," I replied.
"It's a rattler, Dad," she repeated.  So doubtful I was of her claims -- I mean, come on, we've lived here nearly 18 years with hardly a Garter snake in the petunias -- that I went outside in my bare feet.

And there it was.  A genuine rattler.  In the yard.  And a big one, too, mad and buzzing away.  "Oh, shit," I thought.  Our pets are so unfamiliar with venomous snakes that the cat crouched on one side of it, ready to pounce, and the dumb dog lay on the other, ready to ... who knows.  Bite the dog, I whispered.  "Huh?" asked Grady.  "Nothing," I mumbled and went inside for the shotgun.

This bastard was big.  His belly was lime green and he was as big around as a beer can from stem to stern.  His rattles were broken off so it was hard to guess his age, but after I dispatched it with a 12-gauge, I flopped him over the yard fence and it touched the ground on both sides.  The shotgun did quite a number on it.  I never did find the head and I later wished I'd just killed it with a shovel so I could have skinned him out for an awesome, I don't know, sash (?) for Regina.  Plus, I've been on an Eat-Whatever-I-Shoot kick (minus ground squirrels), but there wasn't enough left in terms of edible meat.  But then again, there was no way in hell I was getting close enough to kill it with a shovel, so really the shotgun was a good choice.

It's not uncommon to have rattlesnakes on Hartstrand.  Hell, my brother has found them curled up in the shoes he left on the porch, but just not at our house. So, for the rest of the summer we played outside with our shoes on and always let the dumb dog take a lap around the yard first, before we ventured out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Eat Every Bean, and Pea on Your Plate

We try to be good role models and instill values like kindness, wisdom, and courage in our children, but when it comes to Dylan and Grady, the one constant is this: they're good eaters.  They might not always exhibit empathy or completely grasp what it means to be courageous, but cleaning their plates is something they totally get.  Is a healthy appetite a value?  Probably not, but one could make a weak argument that it's at least a virtue.

Our kids like pizza.  Freaks.
Our kids eat what we eat, but we've been lucky because they've never been picky.  In preschool, the most common comment we received when we'd pick them up was, "Wow, Dylan/Grady ate all her/his lunch!"  We were probably hoping for accolades for their bitchin' finger painting skills, or praise for really hitting the high notes on the ABCs song, but we were pretty proud of empty lunch pails too.  Recently, the kids have actually expanded my palate.  It was Dylan who encouraged me to save the heart from a buck I'd shot because she'd read a grilled heart recipe.  You know what?  It turned out to be our favorite cut of venison.  Now she wants me to save the tongue from the next deer I get, and is eager to try kidneys and head cheese if I ever make it.

Guess who loves carousel sushi?
My buddy shot a black bear this year and generously gave me a chunk of backstrap from it.  I've only tried bear meat once before and it was horrid.  I wanted to give it another shot, and besides, Grady was really psyched to eat a bear.  So, I grilled it up and the four of us sat down for Sunday dinner and dissected its flavors like a bunch of Top Chef judges.  Was it good?  That doesn't matter, but I'll tell you that we ate the entire cut, and saved only one slice so Dylan could bring a bear sandwich to school the next day.  (And yes, it was good.)

I know what you're thinking, we're ranchers, do our kids eat mountain oysters?  The answer's No.  We're adventurous in our eating, but we're also not on Fear Factor.  I'll catch hell for saying this, but any food that has to be fried to be edible is really just a bullshit food.  Besides, my brothers did the, "Open your mouth and close your eyes, I'm going to give you a big surprise," trick on me when I was 8.  I was expecting chocolate, I got a pickled testicle.  I've never gotten over that.

I'm just happy that our kids are down for trying just about anything we put on their plates.  Dylan's drawn a soft line against onions, but I think only because she felt like she had to have something she didn't like.  Grady hates tapioca pudding, which I don't get, but I think it's a texture thing for him.  We'll see what happens when I mash up a cube of head cheese.   Hate it or love it, at least I know they'll try it.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Life at the Orphanage

Ranch kids get cool holidays.  No, they aren't federally or state recognized, but they are, in most rural areas, excusable absences from school.  There's National Castration Week, Shipping Day (not to be confused with Boxing Day), Horseback Holiday, and Preg Check Fridays.  When our kids roll in to school a few hours late with speckles of fresh cow shit on their boots, the school secretary just nods as she checks them in and notes "ranch school" on her tardy slips.

Skipping school for the "big" ranch jobs is generally a reward for the hours of chores they're generally stuck with.  In the summer, I drag the kids along with me to irrigate, cut and bale hay, and check cows.  They're pretty good little helpers -- they can chauffeur me around on the 4-wheeler while we're changing pipes, and both are getting good enough on their horses to help gather cattle.

Last week was our first shipping day of the fall and we sent a couple loads of steers to a feedlot in Nebraska.  Dylan brushed up on her addition by recording the weights and number of steers that went through the scales.  She learned about net and gross weights and probably learned a few good swear words too.  While we loaded the trucks, Grady brushed up on his swordsmanship skills with a cattle sorting stick.  He and Dylan squared off and jousted; I finally stopped them when I overheard one of the truck drivers tell the other, "That's not going to end well."

And now, as part of their morning chores -- which already includes feeding dogs, cats, chickens, and goats -- we've added three orphan calves.  Yep, Shakey, Spooky, and Sugar are our newest projects.  Because there are three, I help feed them and it's like tossing chum off a boat and watching sharks swarm.  They knock their bottles to the ground, they nurse each other's ears, the bawl and slobber and shit and run.  It's a blast and usually when I come in from work the kids, and Lardo, are out rolling around in their pen.

Academics keep our monkeys pretty busy and I don't feed bad pulling on the reins now and then to let them peel away and enjoy the fun side of ranch life.  Besides, if you come to class late, you'd better be able to impress your teacher with newfound practical match skills like: 144 nuts = 72 (ex) bull calves.  Where else are you going to learn that?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

16 Homes

Fig. 1
Halloween started early this year.  No, we aren't the goths of Eastside who get so excited about October 31st that we decorate in September so a month later the jack-o-lanterns have transformed into grotesque mold-droolers that leer at you with droopy eyes.  If fact, we just carved ours Sunday (see fig. 1).  It's just that Tuesday Halloweens tend to prolong the holiday to ensure adults get plenty of proper boozy time on the weekend.

I took Grady, Dylan, and Dylan's friend, Mickala, to a haunted house in Yreka on Friday.  I knew, absolutely, Grady wouldn't go through it, besides, it was billed as 12 and older so I was hesitant bringing two 10-year old girls.  They both informed me, after I bought their entry tickets, that they were terrified of haunted houses.  Mickala, especially, didn't want to go.  At all.  The young lady taking tickets at the door finally had to abandon her post and walk through it with them.  The girls gripped her arm so tightly they gave her bruises.  Oh, and Mickala wore her jacket backwards, with her hood up like a mask, through the entire house (see fig. 2).  I treated them to McFlurrys for their valor.
Fig. 2

By Tuesday, the excitement of Halloween had built so much that Dylan woke up a half hour early so Regina could curl her hair and apply her witch's makeup.  I smeared camo face paint on Grady as he walked out the door.  They did the Etna loop for the traditional elementary school parade (best parade of the year) and then, that evening we hit the road.  That's right, it's that country here.  You either 1) go to town to trick-or-treat, or 2) drive around the Eastside.  We've always done the latter.  Hell, I did the same loop, and stopped at the same houses, when I was a young goblin.  Everyone knows Grady is gluten-free and makes him his own treats and I can pretty much tell you what treat each house will give out.  I can count the houses we stop at (16), and we all go in at every stop so we can chat, watch a little baseball, grab a beer, and then pile back in the truck to drive another mile or so down the road to do the same at the next house.  It takes the better part of 3 hours to do the loop and our kids get as much candy at those 16 stops as the "city" kids do at 50 houses, so they don't miss out on anything.

This year I realized that we hold on to our Halloween traditions more tightly than any other holiday, which just might make Halloween my favorite holiday.  So watch out, next year I just might start carving out those pumpkins in September.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tuesdays with Juddy

Food + Booze = Pure joy
I'm a quitter, or so it would seem.  Obviously, this blog has been pretty high on the list of things I've quit.  My last post?  Almost four months ago.  Pathetic.  I also quit my 17 year long gig as a part-time instructor, which actually feels great.  Theoretically, since I quit one, I should have more time for the other.  My brain tells me that, or part of my brain tells me that.  The other part tells me, "Dude, you are waaaay behind on The Walking Dead.  You'd better catch up."  The good side is finally winning, so here we are.

Summer's over and our busiest part of fall has passed, and once all that work is done I sometimes get a little too ambitious with my goals.  "I'll try for a weekly post," I thought, probably one day as I was unwinding with an Old Fashioned (I didn't quit those; I'm a quitter, not an idiot), but then thought, "Calm down, cowboy, what the hell would you write?"  Probably not much, but it's a start and might lead to some really bizarre posts.  Bi-weekly posts almost seems more plausible, but skip one week, might as well skip ten.  Which leaves only seasonal blogs, and that really feels like some Martha Stewart shit.  So I guess I'm back to weekly.  At least for now, and there are no guarantees.
At least I also quit that creepy mustache.

Tuesdays feel like a good day, so I'll pour a bourbon (again, seriously, not quitting), sit down with a spotty internet connection, and let you in on the kids, the ranch, and the life.

It feels good, right?  Back at the keyboard, clanking away.  As they say in everyone's favorite Academy-Award winning Western Gay-Porn, Brokeback Mountain, "I wish I could quit you."

I wish I could quit you, too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I knew that I ought to take one of the ranch trucks to our mechanic when I hauled the horses to town for Drill Team completely without brakes.  Bill, aka Wild Bill, aka Mad Mac, is an excellent mechanic who has a filterless vocabulary.  Whenever we leave his shop, I smell like reservation cigarettes, the kids have their pockets full of gumdrops, and I have to remind Dylan and Grady to never repeat anything they just heard.  This trip to Bill's was no exception.  I told Bill of the problem and he took a look at Big Blue.  "Fuck!  Fuuuuuck!  Goddamn you fucker!" he shouted from beneath the front end.  I wasn't entirely sure who he was talking to, but I assume it was me.  Dylan's eyes widened, and I gave her the "Don't tell your mother" look.  She was surprised, but not shocked; she's been going to Bill's with me since she was a baby.

But let's face it, we live on a ranch, in the country, where people name their pets things like Dammit (my favorite), or Shithead (or worse, but that's another post on racism, not swearing).  I've tried to shield the kids from hearing cursing, but one day in the corrals while we're working cattle sets us back three years.  I've also tried to rationalize swearing: I'm a rancher with an English degree, it's my duty to swear!  That argument makes little sense, I know, but it's the one I'm most fond of.  I also had the "swearing in context" conversation with the kids.  I was only 23% sure they really understood what I was getting at.  We talked about cuss words in songs (fun!), cussing on the ranch (mandatory!), and swearing at school (you'd better not).

But then this happened recently.  Again, it involves pulling a stock trailer to town, this time with Dylan's fair heifer in the back.  On the way I looked out at our neighbor's freshly cut grass field and saw a feral hog running right towards us.  We don't see wild pigs everyday, so I pointed it out to the kids as I slowed.  The hog didn't slow down, ran smack into the fence, bounced off, made a right turn, and kept on running.  Now we were driving alongside the singleminded pig as the kids leaned out the window to watch it and cheer it on.  I realized, a little too late, that we were both heading for the same gate-less corner.  Surely the pig will yield the right away, I dumbly thought as I banked into the corner.  For a second, I thought I was right, that the pig did, in fact, see the big truck and trailer coming, slowed or veered, and kept on going its merry way.  That's when the trailer ran over the hog.  It bounced up like I'd hit a large boulder and I yelled, "Shit!" I watched, in the passenger mirror, as the pig rolled out from the trailer and I looked at the kids and said, "Did you see that?  Holy shit!"  Remember, I was still driving, but I was spending a lot of time excitedly checking my mirrors and looking at Dylan and Grady.  That's why I ended up stacking the truck into the neighbor's fence.  Pretty sure I said a little worse than shit as I heard the screeeeech of wire on fender (GDFS is my go-to swear when it really hits the fan, so that's most likely what I said).  But see?  Swearing in context.  What a valuable lesson for the children.  I backed out of the mess with a scratched up truck and the pig ... it just kept on running.  And I'm 100% sure the kids understand my "context" explanation now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Paradise City Dance Party

When Dylan and Grady announced that Etna Elementary was holding its first-ever Valentine's Day Dance, I feared it was going to be like the last school dance I attended.  I had visions of low lights, bathroom vomit, spinning disco balls, and awkwardly trying to dance to the slow-fast song, "Paradise City."  Thankfully, the reality was pretty much the opposite.

For starters, this was most likely the first "real" dance any of these kids had ever attended.  No one had any idea what was supposed to happen, which made it great.  It started as all dances do: with no one dancing.  But there were snacks, I know because I was generously offered cups of pretzels by the snack patrol boys at least seventy-five times.  The girls mostly huddled in little groups and the sweaty boys chucked bouncy balls at each other.  A couple of the bold parents herded a few kids into small dance circles and pretty soon those circles got larger and larger and the boys who weren't playing on the climbing wall joined in and then, BAM, a conga line formed and it was on like Donkey Kong.

Kids bounced around, parents worked out old moves and the cafeteria suddenly transformed into Soul Train.  I was even asked to dance!  Does it count that it was Grady who asked me?  It does.  Dylan and I danced to Bob Marley (of all things) and Grady and Regina squeezed in until the four of us swayed and sang, "This is my message to you-oo-oo."

Since the lights were already fully on, and the DJ was just a boom box playing Pandora, no one knew when to quit.  We finally checked our watches and realized maybe the best thing about an elementary school dance on a Tuesday afternoon was that last-dance came early.  There were no weird slow songs to wind this sucker down, just some pop candy song from the radio and a time to clean up announcement.  What a perfect ending.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Dylan and the Impossible Load or Grady and the Overdue Transformers

I have packed, on my back, mule deer across the Colorado wilderness; I have carried a very solid Grady, on my shoulders, into and out of mountain lakes; I can toss heavy bales of alfalfa hay and I can lift Lardo the giant St. Bernard into the bed of my truck, but what I cannot do is carry Dylan's backpack.  It's ridiculously heavy.  When I looked inside, I found books.  Books!  Who reads physical books these days?  Apparently she does, despite also having a Kindle.  I curse JK Rowling, Percy Jackson, and every new volume of Lumberjanes for their weighty tomes.  If you lifted her backpack, you'd swear she was smuggling ... what?  Bars of gold?  Dumbbells?  A fine hammer collection?  The Washington Monument?  They test the tinsel strength of LL Bean's stitching, but, thankfully, so far, nothing's burst.

Who wants to see photos of kids reading?  No one.
Here's a couple of them playing in the snow.
You're welcome.
Last I checked, Dylan was reading 6 books at the same time.  Six.  I get confused when ESPN runs a ticker tape while sportscasters are talking, but somehow she's able to keep Ron Weasley's love life, Ghosts major plot points, and Queen Elizabeth's suitors all straight and in order without confusing Henry VIII as a quidditch player and Hermione Granger as a spirit.

My Virgo-ness (read: OCD) tendencies finally got the best of me and I snapped.  Actually, I thought my vertebrae snapped when I tried to pick up Dylan's pack to put in her home lunch, and I knew this had to end.  Actually, my first thought was that I'd take her on my next hunting trip and let her pack out a deer.  It certainly would be a breeze compared to the library she's been packing around.  Regina was more practical (ug, Virgos, amiright?.  Oh wait, that's me too).  She came up with the 2 book rule.  Yeah, I know, we have to punish our kid for reading too much.  The horror.  But at this point, we're just trying to save her posture.

Grady's love of books runs just as strong and he is like Dylan, who reads then re-reads everything.  Grady is on a Star Wars, Transformers, Batman book loop at the school library.  We get overdue notices every other week and I swear I've returned whatever book they're asking for.  Yeah, I returned it, but he's checked it out eleven times since then.  At least the rotating loop keeps his backpack at a manageable weight.

So Grady can keep stashing library books underneath his pillow and Dylan confessed tonight that she's reading 3 books right now.  I can live with that, as long as she does the heavy lifting.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Juddy, Don't Take Your Guns To Town

The thing about military checkpoints in Mexico is that they don't spook me.  They shouldn't, of course.  I'm not smuggling illegals in my chassis or heroin in my spare tire.  They sometimes lead to fun surprises, like the time Regina and I stopped and one and inadvertently agreed to give an entire platoon a ride in the back of my truck.  But, they're also manned by boys with automatic rifles who look like they're learning to shave and frequently feature a guy in a sandbagged bunker with a .50 caliber trained at passersby.  So, yeah, they can be a little intimidating.

Checkpoints work like this:  The non-smiling military man in full camo and a shemagh around his neck leans into your window and says something unintelligible in Spanish.  I look blankly, then turn to Regina for support.  Then, in English, the non-smiling man asks, "Where are you going?"  I tell him, and usually because I know we'll repeat the blank stare game for at least another round, preempt any further awkwardness by asking if we can get out of the truck.  We enjoy the break, generally.  Regina and I stretch, the kids play, and the military check out our beat up camping gear before they send us on our merry way.  But when the non-smiling man takes something from your console and gives you a look of both fear and WTF, then you know you've really f'ed up.  The thing?  A single bullet, forgotten from a hunt three months prior.  The look on his face told me they were going to tear the Titan apart, piece by piece until they found the rifle that accompanied the bullet.  I told him he could keep it, which was dumb.  Regina, suddenly fluent and chatty, told them I was the greatest American hunter who ever lived and I was taking a break from a grueling season to visit their beautiful country.  Or, she said, "My husband's an okay hunter and a bit of an idiot.  Have mercy on him."  Either way, it worked and so began our Christmas in Baja.

The rest of the vacation was all shrimp tacos and cold beer.  We met great people who invited us into their home for Christmas and fed us pie; we smirked at the young studious kids getting off the giant "research vessel" parked out in the bay until we realized it was the Sea Shepherd and they were probably spending their holidays hosing down whale poachers; we ate fresh sea bass that Regina caught; we visited great-great-grandfathers grave; and we drank wine on the beach while the kids build sand castles.  I could have stayed another month (and when we returned home to -10 degree weather, I wish we would have).

Our trip home took us from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific ocean, and over a snow covered mountain range (something I'd never seen in Baja, but impressed just one person: Me.).  My Spanish is just bad enough to misinterpret most things I hear or read (See: checkpoint anecdote above), so I passed the long hours of driving by interpreting the road signs for Regina.  Some read, I think: Don't Drive Like a Jerkwad, Your Family Waits For You.  I like that someone in the roadsigns division decided to make that one personal.  You!  Yeah, you, Carlos.  Slow 'er down, buddy.  Usually, a few kilometers past the first one would be be another, less stern warning that, Drinking and Driving, You Know, Might be Bad.  Mr. Roadsign maker must've had a few Coronas when he came up with that one.  And my favorite sign, but definitely the most lazy, just read: Obey the Signs.  Okie dokie.  Thanks.

So, we obeyed the signs, drove up through Baja's wine country, which we thought would be like driving through Alabama's wine country, and we were a little more than surprised at the great wines we tried.  Granted, we had to use 4-wheel drive just to get to some of the vineyards, but they were Napa-gorgeous when we finally rolled in.  We sampled and bought more than a few bottles to take home.  So when we passed through our last military checkpoint -- the border -- with waaaaay more than our allowed 2 measly liters of wine limit, I didn't bat an eye when the guy in aviator glasses asked if I had anything to declare.  Nope, I said and smiled as I drove on.