Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity, by Julia Stuble –

My coworker – the lovely Ms. Julia Stuble – was asked to contribute to the Simpson Forum on one of the Wyoming news sites – WyoFile. She has shared incredible insight into the “vibrant and beautifully complicated Wyoming political identity.” An excellent read, and one – I’m sure – that many of us can relate to, regardless of our origins or residence.

Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity, by Julia Stuble –



Spring has finally burst forth from the mountains like an awkward fledgling. Snow has been recorded historically in every month of the year, but mercifully not this month. Garden equipment has begun sprouting outside Ace Hardware and True Value, the nursery greenhouses are overflowing with gallon pots, hanging baskets, decorative pots, seedlings in 4″ pots, fruit trees, annuals, perennials, and cement bays spilling top-soil and compost. Gardens are spilling over their fences as white and purple lilac bushes burst forth in an overwhelming display of vivid color and intoxicating scents. Green has come at last to the mountain slopes and an onslaught of wildflowers can be seen ascending the hillsides in an onward marching torrent of yellow as they strive for the snow-capped summits. The red cliffs and canyons around the house contrast sharply with the deep green of the new growth. Near to our house, federal land is leased by livestock ranchers and in mid May we were greeted by the bellows and grumbles of cows as they were turned out onto summer pastures.

The lengthening days provide for extended mountain viewing. Every hour shows a new face to the hillsides – whether shrouded in a cold and hugging rain or blinding flashes of yellow and gold as the contours of the earth are sharply contrasted as the evening sun sets behind the mountains, casting deep shadows along the dip of the smallest hill slope and illuminating the ridges in a highlight of brilliant green. Sunset stretches to infinity and dusk lingers until 10:00 pm as the sun climbs northward toward the summer solstice. The approaching summer brings changes to the valley as well – new birds are frequenting town as well as my bird feeder, vibrant shades of green, yellow, and purple swath the pastures dotted with grazing cows; mares and their young foals. My bird feeder has seen an assortment of new visitors as well – Bullock’s oriole, Baltimore oriole, Lazuli bunting, to name a few. Robins and meadowlarks have begun announcing the rising and setting of the sun, and Mountain bluebirds are nesting in the nest box on our fence.

As the weather warms, the tourists begin to thaw and move about town in increasing numbers. Memorial Day marks the start of the tourism season in the land where snow is sometimes seen on the ground until the middle of the month. To the south of town lie two historic mining towns, founded in the late 1800’s when immigrants traveling the Mormon, Lander, and Oregon Trails settled when gold was discovered along Cottonwood creek. Atlantic City and South Pass City still stand today, though their populations dwindle compared to the once booming metropolis’. South Pass City boasts 40 residents (most are not year round) and many of the houses are renovated cabins from the historic mining days. The town opens its Historic Site from Memorial Day to Labor Day and visitors can tour the historic cabins, mercantile, post office, bar, and jail house before moving up the road to Atlantic City for prime rib at the historic Miner’s Grubstake Restaurant and Saloon. Every other Saturday, the Miner’s Grubstake holds a whiskey and bourbon tasting event, followed by dinner and dancing.

I have been aching to get out in the garden and Memorial Day marked the start of gardening season here in the North. Furtive consultation with knowledgeable nursery staff and experienced neighbors led me to conclude that nothing should be planted outside until after Memorial Day, so May 25  dawned with a trip to the nursery and myself joyfully digging holes all over my garden. Raspberries, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, six varieties of tomatoes, sunflower seeds, hops, and clematis all made an appearance in my garden plot. I struggled with my drip irrigation system which seems to loose pressure after the first 50 feet, so I laid out an odd pattern with a long length and coiled it at the end of one of my beds – secured by stakes – while a second and shorter line of irrigation tubing criss-crossed to water everything the first had missed. Blue flax – a native wild flower – lends a nice back drop to my garden, as does the purple salvia and mint which have established themselves nicely among the rocks. Honey bees and mud daubers have appeared in the past few weeks and what was once a quiet place to sit on the deck is now nearly deafening as bees rummage through the flowers and birdsong echos across the valley.


As the days lengthen and the sun thaws the soil, I look forward to the changes as spring turns to summer. The daily change is imperceptible, but every so often I look at the hills and notice the golden line of wildflowers has advanced another few degrees toward the ridgeline and the cows are making their way higher up the mountain side – their bellows and mumblings floating down the valleys in the evening light as the meadowlarks bid farewell to another day.


Changing Point of View

How often do we tell ourselves that something better is coming? How many times is it true? Part of the reason for my creation of this blog has been to see what inspires me, what excites me, and what makes me want to get up every day and face the world. I have been given the opportunity to do whatever it is in the world that I most desire – and yet I find myself faltering. I spent two and a half years pursuing a masters degree in ecology, and yet I doubt my abilities. I love plants. I love the wilderness and the landscape level changes that happen – regardless of the activity level of human intervention into the ecological processes. What happens if we do nothing? Everything happens – just as it should. In the past days and weeks, I have begun to refine my passions with regard to applying my degree. I met a gentleman who was a true classical botanist and I have never been more inspired. His passion for identifying plants is infectious. I learned from him that Peter Lesica – the leading botanist in the state of Montana – is entirely self taught. I don’t believe he even has a bachelors degree in botany or plant science of any kind. He began by keying out one plant every day using the available keys, but soon realized the keys were inefficient and disorganized. So,what did he do? He wrote his own.

This is just one of the many stories of inspiration I have heard over the past few months. I have been struggling to decide what I want to do, but have mostly just learned what I don’t want to do. I guess that’s helpful, if only a little backwards. Maybe it’s like a taxonomic key – I have to narrow it down based what it isn’t, or what I don’t like. Apparently, I love to write. I knew this to be true, but more so now I find I am far better able to express myself and communicate with others through writing. Maybe I went to school and learned what I learned to apply it in an unconventional way. Like writing about it, or just experiencing it for myself and sharing it with those around me. It has certainly opened my eyes to what is happening around me in the natural world, and that has been a blessing. My attention to detail has improved dramatically, and has blossomed into an interest in all things natural: geology, ornithology, pyrology? I don’t think that’s  a word. Everywhere I go, I look at the landscape and wonder, “How did it get to be this way?”

What I have found is a decreasing desire to spend time outside in nature when it is my job. For the past two years I haven’t been camping or backpacking, and haven’t had the desire to. Even when I take the time to go to the mountains, all I think of is work and how what I’m seeing relates to my job. Every fishing trip and drive down a dirt road triggers “work” in my head when that’s what I do all day. A good friend of mine told me that sometimes taking a job out of your element turns out to be the best because you remove yourself from your passion and are able to leave work at work. You are then able to describe yourself without describing what you do at work. I suppose that is what I have been doing. “I am a rangeland ecologist” seems to be my default answer, not “I am a wife, a gardener, a chef, an amateur bird watcher, a daughter; I have a blue heeler. I want to decorate my house and make it a home; I love to shop at antique stores.” I want to describe myself as someone with passions and interests outside of how I earn money. I want to enjoy my job, but not let it describe who I am. I want to walk out of my job every day and leave it at the door, not bring it home with me. I want my home to be a refuge, a sanctuary, and a loving, cozy place to spend time with the people I love doing the things I enjoy. I can’t focus on growing my tomatoes when I’m thinking about work!

Year One


One year ago today, my husband and I were married on the Atlantic coastal beach of Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Over the past year, I have thought about that day often, remembering new details and feelings, and so thankful for all of the friends and family who made the journey to celebrate with us. There were 20 guests at our wedding and the celebration lasted five days in the sunshine. We shared amazing food and laughter, lounged on the beach, and enjoyed the company of friends and two families becoming one.

We have now been together four and a half years, but in all that time I have never been so in love as I am with him today. The most beautiful part of our relationship is the way it changes and deepens. Our relationship has been rough – not because of conflict or differences, but because of time spent apart. Over two full years living apart while I pursued an advanced degree. As impossibly painful and difficult as that was, I believe it shaped our relationship in untold ways. We learned to trust one another. We learned that we were capable of leading fulfilling independent lives, but embraced the fullness of life and how much we wanted to be together. We learned to talk to each other and to communicate. We learned to make the most of our time together and to appreciate and share each other’s interests and passions. Our marriage has truly benefited from the struggles we faced.

Our wedding was a wonderful expression of who we are. Everything was casual. I was barefoot during the ceremony. We didn’t have a wedding cake, but instead ate cheesecake and apple pie from Costco. My mom and I bought my flowers from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The signing of the marriage contract and the celebration was so much more a celebration of our commitment to each other and to where this relationship will take us in the future. Our celebration was like a ship’s christening ceremony – honoring the commitment we have made and sending us out into the world as one, to learn and love and fight for our love, to encounter devastating storms followed by the dawn of a clear new morning. To learn from our mistakes and from each other. I know that the vows we spoke will change in some ways, but in other ways they will remain unchanged. The basic principles on which they were spoken will continue to shape our relationship and our lives, though the emotions will deepen. Our love will change us and will be reflected in our continued commitment to each other and to our relationship.


The truth is, not very much has changed in our relationship from the outside. I have a new last name, we share bank accounts, what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. What has changed is imperceptible on the outside. For whatever reason, our lives seem to be filled with chaos and uncertainty, but amid all that uncertainty is security. Security in our commitment to each other, security in our love, and security in the basic tenet of the respect and understanding of each other. The security of knowing that someone knows you as well or better than you know yourself; the security of having someone to discuss and plan the future with; someone who enjoys the same things as you. One of the most important things I have learned over the past year is the value of putting the other person first in your relationship. This goes both ways, and only works if both people practice this. To always put yourself first is selfish, and to always put the other person first without having your needs taken care of can leave a feeling of neglect and dissatisfaction, even resentment. However, if each individual puts the other person first in their relationship, then the needs of each individual are always put first, and both feel cared for, loved, respected, and valued.

One of the wonderful things I look forward to in the years to come is continuing to grow, together, in our relationship. In my vows, I promised to grow with and not independently of my husband. I know that I have work to do and there is much room for me to grow, but waking up next to him every morning gives me reason and courage to encourage my strengths and develop my weaknesses. I see the physical changes in both of us – the maturity in our features, a grey hair here or there, the smile lines around our eyes – but I also see the slow but steady emotional and spiritual changes, and that is what I look forward to the most. I look forward to a deepened understanding of each other; the opportunity to challenge our comfort levels with difficult decisions, and the deepening trust between us. We have so much to look forward to, and I am so excited for what the future brings.




The north is hovering on the delicate verge of spring. It is barely imperceptible – except to the flocks of house finches, slate colored juncos, and mountain chickadees, and those of us yearning to thaw our bones on the sunny south-facing porch. Melting mud oozes from everywhere and rivulets of water replace the sublimation of snow and ice which dried the soil just last week. We met another of our neighbors at the beginning of the month who gains immeasurable pleasure finding fault with just about everyone and everything except the gluttonous heard of mule deer he feeds in his yard. Somehow they still find room to nibble the plants around our house, even though there is an unending supply of feed and salt-licks distributed throughout the neighborhood. He did tell us he appreciated our dog not running wild like a heathen. Small victories.

The paperwhite narcissus I planted at the beginning of January are in various stages of sprouting, blooming, and demise and I have yet to decide what to do with them. I forced most of them in water, and have heard varying accounts of the success associated with reblooming in future years. Gravity is acting on the weight of their lanky blooms and leaves, and they are beginning to escape the confines of their windowsills and various perches and dive headlong toward the floor.

On the precious few days when it’s warm enough to sit outside, the view of the mountains is spectacular. Red cliffs from a prehistoric geologic uprising face the west and the gentle slopes of the east-facing mountains rise toward the ridges. This time of year, the hills are still covered in a white, snowy icing, but ridges melt frequently, exposing grey and brown shades of dormant grass and sagebrush. Rocky mountain juniper, limber pine, and the occasional Douglas fir crouch in draws, sheltered from the wind. This time of year, the wind shows it’s many forms. Compared to elsewhere in the state, the wind is usually gentle, swirling the dust and leaves, turning the corner of the house and playfully lifting the pages of whatever book is au courant on my lap. Other days it barrels down the continent from the Arctic, picking up speed as it is shunted between mountains and valleys, screaming across the plains like the chariots of Mars – the God of War after which the month was aptly named – and colliding head-long with the north side of our house. Windows rattle, screens flap, sleet and snowflakes pelt the siding in the hurricane-force downdrafts preceding the storms. One such event relieved our weather vane of it’s moose decoration, which now lies buried under the snow, waiting to bloom with the rest of the dormant bulbs. We are beginning to read the wind like a well-seasoned weatherman. Even on afternoons when the radiant heat from the house heats the deck to a tolerable temperature, gusts of gale force winds will predict a cold front sending temperatures plunging below freezing and snow flurries by the next day. Mercifully, the wind often subsides as the snow arrives, allowing for a vertical descent  to earth where it settles and blankest the landscape, as opposed to the horizontal version that drifts against front doors and cars, thwarting unsuspecting shovelers as they viciously attack it with ergonomically designed snow shovels.

Our weekends are often filled with snowshoeing in the mountains, followed by dinner at the local brewery on Saturday night. The trail we take leads to a particularly spectacular waterfall, and then forks and leads up in to the wilderness. The trail to the waterfall is often busy and one passes numerous groups and individuals in progressive stages of undress from their winter wardrobe. Dogs bound unrestrained to greet on comers and – should you also possess a dog – the customary dog greeting ensues with sniffing and stalking, turning as each dog tries to face it’s supposed foe head on, while still maintaining firm contact with the other dog’s rear which causes a particularly spectacular display of do-si-do, followed by a tentative wag if all goes well. Breathless greetings are exchanged between hikers on the trail switchbacks and as quickly as they arrived, they depart up or down the trail. After reaching the fork in the trail, we are often the only intrepid hikers. Tracks proceed for several hundred feet and then turn around – defeated by the snow. Our weekly trek into the woods covers roughly six miles round trip, the only consolation after which is a few good beers and dinner prepared by someone else.

The local brewery is located on Main Street downtown, and serves as the local gathering spot in the afternoons. Week-day specials entice a stop over on the way home from work to enjoy one of their many brews for half price, and – though we are new to the area – often see a familiar face or two. The restaurant in the back serves the expected American bar food – wings, onion rings, burgers, pizza – but with an upscale flare: blue cheese and pepper crusted bacon burgers, locally grown produce and locally harvested meat, home made pizza crusts. Not bad for a rural Western town. A series of certificates on the walls chronicle the change of hands of the bar through the years, but the decor appears to have remained the same. Branding irons and horse shoes hang on the walls next to a singular ladies boot from the early 1900’s. A mounted zebra head, faded from years of neglect to a white and dirty-blond striped beast, wears an Australian leather hat and several inches of dust. The walls are splattered where wallpaper can be seen between the decorations, and the high reaches of the ceiling are stained from decades of smoke. The bartenders are always friendly – though sometimes forgetful – but all offenses are forgiven when the beer is tasted. People watching is especially rewarding and we often choose a high, two person table against the wall with an optimum view of the room. Cowboy hats and felted vests belly up to the bar as men hunch over their drinks, young coeds in fashionable winter sporting wear commandeer tables, dragging them together as more friends come through the doors. Hello’s are said, chairs are borrowed from neighbors, drinks are ordered, and undulating waves of noise begin to climb in decibels as the evening wears on. Snatches of conversations run the gamut from calving rates to neighborhood gossip. You can catch up on the local high school sports team statistics, or learn all you wanted to know about the supposed affair being had by an acquaintance of someone at the next table. For people like us who verge on being professional eves droppers, the rewards are exceptional.

After getting off on what appeared to be  a rocky first note with our neighbor, we decided to attempt to make amends. My husband is on the volunteer fire department with our neighbor’s son-in-law and they decided pie would be an acceptable peace offering. I baked a wonderfully good looking apple pie and we hauled ourselves up Mt. Everest behind our house to deliver. I almost died on the walk. Our neighbors have lived on the property for 15 years, but their house burned down a few years ago. They appear to be in the stages of rebuilding with an unfinished porch around the second level, but no stairs up to what may or may not be the front door. There were two doors on the ground level, neither of which had a door bell, and no answer to our knocking. After two consecutive days of attempted pie delivery, we gave up and posted a thank-you-for-plowing-the-road-during-snow-storms in the mail and resigned ourselves to apple pie and home made ice cream.

As the month draws to a close, the faintest sign of spring tickles the landscape. The emerging green is so imperceptible that we ask each other repeatedly if we are imagining the crested wheatgrass in the roadside ditches, or the flush of green on south-facing hill sides near the river. One evening as we left the house and drove along the sub-irrigated fields along the river to the highway, the ultimate sign of the impending shift from snow fields to hay fields appeared: Sandhill cranes. We pulled the car over and watched and listened as a mated pair descended toward the river – their guttural, whooping calls echoing off the hill sides and barns in the valley as their grey and red bodies gently floated to the valley floor. Spring is, indeed, on its way.

P.S. I realize this is for March – April and May have completely gotten away from me.

Grocery Budgeting

As I mentioned in my post about Household Budgeting, I have spent a lot of time working on our grocery budget because I feel that is an area where you can get totally out of control and thrown off track if you’re not diligent about your purchases. I have spent quite a while reading through other blog posts, following discussion threads, searching recipes, couponing, meal planning, and generally obsessing about our grocery budget and I would like to attempt to compile all of the information I have come across into one place.

I found it was really hard to just pull a number out of a hat and double down and never stray from the budget. It took us about two months to settle in to what was a reasonable budget. Our household budgeting technique is a spreadsheet and a receipt envelope, with every receipt from the month shoved into it and tallied up at the end of the month. For groceries, I set a ball-park number and tried to keep our budget at least near that number for two months and then reassess. Our grocery shopping schedule is about two major trips a month, supplementing with perishables as needed (we eat a lot of produce and it often won’t last 14 days). I do quite a lot of meal planning, and try to stock up on grains and proteins when they go on sale (I found whole chickens for $0.98/lb and bought four for the freezer).

After two months of settling into the grocery budget, I pulled all the receipts from both months and tallied up where our money was going to see if we could cut back on anything. Generally speaking, we spent about 50% on produce, 20% on meat, 20% on dairy/eggs, and 10% on snacks/dessert. Seems reasonable. Our meals are usually pretty simple and inexpensive as it is. We eat hot oatmeal for breakfast (super cheap – and a good source of fiber!), pack left over dinner for lunches, and make some combination of meat and vegetables for dinner. We live in a town with two grocery stores (Safeway and Mr. D’s – a Kroger affiliate I believe) and have found that the Safeway rewards program is quite good. I signed up for a Safeway card some time ago and use it every time I shop. They have started a relatively new program called Just For U savings that tracks what you buy regularly and gives you additional discounts when you buy those items. You can use their website to add the savings and coupons to your card so you don’t have to clip or haul around the circular. It also allows you to plan out your shopping list and they have a very handy smartphone app that I use constantly. Some of the savings we get pretty regularly are:

  • $0.99 eggs
  • $2.19 for one gallon of milk
  • $0.89 Cliff Bars
  • $3.00 off a produce purchase of $15.00 or more
  • $0.89 avocados

In addition, they have the Club Card price for most items so I was able to combine that with the offers from Just For U to get a 2 lb block of cheese for $5.50 instead of $9.00. Pretty good if you ask me. I have yet to start adding manufacturer’s coupons to my shopping trips, but I am trying to incorporate that in as well.

I do quite a bit of meal planning – not planning the whole month at once, but making sure I have pantry items stocked (tomato paste, beans, rice, etc.) and an assortment of grains (quinoa, bulgur, millet) to add in to dishes. I try to spread out proteins across several meals since it’s the most expensive ingredient to buy. Here is an example:

I BBQ’d a whole chicken last week and the first night we had chicken and rice. I will usually debone the chicken that night and put it in the fridge, saving the bones and fatty-gristly bits in a plastic bag in the freezer. I’ll use the remainder of the chicken meat in as many dishes as I can think of – a little bit goes a long way. Chicken enchiladas are pretty common in our house, as is chicken in tomato sauce over pasta or veggies; chicken pot pie; chicken, broccoli, and rice casserole. Speaking of poultry, at Thanksgiving we cooked an 18 lb turkey for two of us and froze the meat. We just finished it off at the end of January. I make chicken stock with the bones and giblets I tossed in the freezer and can usually get 4-6 quarts from one chicken carcass (just toss in garlic, onion, celery, carrot, fresh parsley, rosemary, and whole pepper corns; cover with 4-6 quarts of water and simmer for several hours, skimming off any any foam that forms. Strain and freeze for later use). I’ve also been baking our bread – which we don’t eat too much of, so it’s a nice treat. Flour and yeast cost much less than a loaf of bread and it is totally worth it. My trusty stand mixer makes it a breeze, and I can mix up several recipes of dough and toss them in the freezer before rising so that cuts down on time later on.  My friend Erin writes a great blog called The View From Up Here and wrote a really great post about all her freezer meals and prepping she does which you can read here. I really recommend it. She is very organized, unlike myself. Especially since she cooks for four strapping men and I only cook for one strapping man.

I do have a few things I would like to work on after reading the Blissful and Domestic blog post on grocery shopping and storing. I have started freezing some of the milk I buy since we don’t always go through a gallon of milk, but it’s cheaper by the gallon, so why waste it? So, here is a list of things I would like to incorporate:

  • No more canned beans- I plan to buy dry beans more often, cook them up in bulk in the pressure cooker, and freeze them. 
  • Freeze milk/half-and-half, etc. I have heard the consistency is a little different after thawed, but if it’s that bad, I can use it for baking.
  • Prep vegetables and store them, freeze them, etc. – Also in this category, buy heads of lettuce and not boxed, washed lettuce.
  • Buy more bulk grains, flour, etc. The Safeway in my town has a tiny, but nice, bulk food section with quinoa, bulgur, etc. that is much cheaper than the little baggies I find pre-packaged at the health food coop in the city. Plus, its close to home.

So, these are just a few things to get me going. Let me know what works for you, or if you have any input on this subject.


The Mountains

The great and open, uninhabited expanse of wilderness calls to people – tugging at their soul… beckoning, whispering. In the winter, the mountainous peaks are shrouded in a quiet, muffling snow. Clouds obscure the highest peaks; hibernating beasts slumber in the dark stone caves deep in the hills. In the wilderness of Wyoming, only the wind stirs in the trees, shaking the snow from the boughs of the firs, pines, and spruce trees. Or is that the only noise?

Wildlife is abundant in the uninhabited expanses of the wilds. The Shoshone National Forest in central Wyoming covers nearly 2.4 million acres of virtually undisturbed land. Outside of Lander, Wyoming – where my husband I live – is a 10 minute drive to the trail head of the Little Popo Agie (po-PO-gee-uh) Falls, and the trail that extends beyond and into the wilderness. We hiked there this afternoon – six miles round trip – and for more than four miles, were the only humans to set foot on the snow. The trail to the falls is well traveled by tourists and locals, alike, and with the temperatures climbing into the upper 40’s, much of the well-used trail was a slushy, vertical puddle in the hours after noon. At the fork to the falls, we donned our snow shoes and traversed the untouched and untainted snow, following the impression of the trail to over 8,000 feet of elevation. Something amazing happens in the absence of humans: life thrives. As we ascended the trail, the first signs of wildlife began to appear: elk tracks on the trail. A solitary elk – possibly a bull – meandering across the snow, and finally following the contours of the trail as it ascended up and up, toward the unscalable rock formations above. Switchbacks in the trail were trimmed by aspen trees – naked of their summer foliage under the snow – who’s bark extruded a powdery substance historically used by Native American’s as sunscreen. Limestone rock formations, blanked in a heavy, melting snow, crowded the trail as we made our way to the peaks of the ridge. Abundant wildlife tracks criss-crossed the trail, unaware of the humans just a few miles below. The snow had begun its slow spring melt and settled around the base of trees and rocks, like a heavy, wet blanket – obscuring pre-existing tracks and settling between the bushes and under the limbs of trees. Mice and chipmunks scampered here and there – leaving nothing behind but their tell-tale tracks as evidence they were ever there. A snowshoe hare – with it’s large hind feet tracks extending well in front of it’s terse, abrupt front tracks – exploded across the trail, leaving nothing but it’s impression in the snow for us to find. A mountain lion – possibly stalking a meal – had also been there. We saw the slow, methodical impression of it’s stalking walk – the pads of it’s feet surrounded by the dense fur which protruded between it’s toes; we imagined the explosive chase as it pursued it’s prey – the clustered, leaping tracks through the snow the only sign of the chase. Finally, the lightest tracks – so delicate as to not even sink through the crust of hardened snow – of a small mammal with feet like a miniature dog. Toenails present in the tracks, barely an inch across – possibly a pine marten or a short-tailed weasel. We will never know. The sun shone on our lunch stop as we gazed out across the miles separating us from the nearest alpine peaks, beckoning for a summer backpacking trip.


Two weeks ago, we burned slash piles on our five acres. A snowstorm had dropped close to 14 inches the week before and one afternoon we lit off 11 piles of thinned juniper trees on the steep slopes around our house. By 6:30 pm they had burned down to coals, but the wind had picked up and the decision was to stay outside with them until the snow started to fall. My husband disappeared into the house, emerging minutes later with a grocery sack full of bratwurst, BBQ sauce, marshmallows, Hershey bars, graham crackers, and cans of Coors Light. As the snow storm blew in, we, and cooked bratwurst and roasted marshmallows into s’mores over the lingering coals of the burn piles. Surrounded by 10 inches of snow, and watching the glorious sunset behind the mountains, the sky turned a deep, rosy gold as the snow began to fall. We watched the swirling flakes turn gold in front of the black sky to the East as they pummeled the side of the house, cloaking our car and truck in a three-dimensional sculpture of snowflakes. Within minutes, several inches of snow shrouded the protruding tips of sagebrush and the storm closed in around us, obscuring the hills to the North as the sun made a brilliant final attempt to illuminate the landscape. As we huddled close to the dying embers of the burn piles, the wind died down, leaving us in silence with no sound but the crackling of the coals and hiss and pop of the snowflakes hitting the fire. That evening, after a hot shower and cozy pajamas, we watched the snow settle on the deck, piling high on the railing, and that night, we dreamed of spring.

Household Budgeting

I am currently gainfully unemployed. With that being said – and tax season and other money matters on the brain – we have been very focused on budgeting. I started a budget in January of last year (when I was also looking for employment; funny how I’m sensing a pattern here) and it went really well until I got a job and we were not so concerned with our budget and finances as fire season and boat-loads of overtime came pouring in over the summer. So, here we are at the end of February and I am FINALLY satisfied with how I have structured our budget. It all started with our grocery budget, because I feel like that is where we have the most control over outlandish spending vs. reasonable purchases and meal planning to keep things under control. I spent several hours this past weekend stalking  intently reading threads on grocery budgeting and the average amount a family of two spends on groceries every month. There is a very wide range of grocery budgets, but I feel like the average two person family spends about $300 – $400/month on groceries. This doesn’t include alcohol or eating out. That made me feel pretty good, because there are definitely a lot of families out there who are struggling to pare down their grocery budgets from $1,000 a month!!! Holy buckets, people! That’s a lot of money, and for a lot of couples that doesn’t include eating out! Anyway, we are doing pretty well since I’ve been home and able to search coupons, plan meals, and make a lot of creative leftovers. I was struggling to keep our monthly grocery expenses under $200/month, but after actually seeing where we were spending the rest of our money and also looking at our grocery receipts to see where our money was being spent at the grocery store, I’m comfortable with not killing ourselves over trying to keep the grocery budget under $200 and have given us a little wiggle room.

So what I’d like to talk about is how I established our entire budget and how I decided how much to allow for each category and item. I found this really excellent article called Your Ultimate Budget Guideline: The 50/20/30 Rule put out by a company called LearnVest which has really useful online tools for creating your budget and tracking your expenses. You can link to all your accounts (bank, credit cards, etc.) but none of your tracking our routing information is stored in the website, and you can’t actually manage or transfer your money through the site, so it’s very secure – i.e. if your LearnVest account gets hacked no one can siphon off your money from the site. Anyway, the article recommends the 50/20/30 rule to divide up your budget: 50% of your income goes to essential expenses, 30% of your income goes to lifestyle expenses, and 20% of your income goes to what they call “priorities.” What I will do now is give you an idea of how I broke our budget down and hopefully this will help those of you struggling with how to prioritize and budget for yourselves.

Essentials: 50% – This category is basically anything you absolutely can’t survive without; a roof over your head, food in your belly, heat, gas in your car, etc.

  • Housing costs – rent or mortgage
  • Utilities  – we are on a cistern for water so we get water delivered approx. every 6 weeks, plus we have a separate electricity bill with no natural gas. Yours will likely include sewer/water if you live in the city
  • Gas – damages paid for public flatulence. Just kidding, gasoline or diesel.
  • Groceries – I chose not to include alcohol in this category since it’s really more an “Entertainment” category for us that we can cut out of the budget if we need to tighten the financial belt

Lifestyle: 30% – This category really gives you the wiggle room. Your income will ultimately determine what kind of car you drive, how often you go out to eat, how much you pay for TV/internet, etc. If you need to cut back, this is the place to do it. Do you really need 571 satellite channels of nothing to watch? (We do.)

  • Vehicle payments – we each have a vehicle so there are two in this budget
  • Insurance – necessary, yes, but you won’t die if you don’t have it which is why it’s in this category. You can substantially change the amount you pay for insurance based on your choices. Companies give BIG discounts for combining your policies. When we were renting, our renter’s insurance was only $4/month and lowered the cost of our vehicle insurance much more than $4, so we actually got way more coverage for less. You can also change the amount of coverage you have on your vehicles to decrease this cost if you’re looking to save. If you do combine your policies, make sure you ask and make sure the proper discounts are being applied. I found out our homeowners insurance wasn’t applied to our vehicle insurance and when it was corrected, our payments dropped $40/month! A month!! THAT’S A YEARLY SAVINGS OF A PLANE TICKET TO HAWAII. 
  • Cell phone bill
  • TV/Internet/Phone – city dwelling folks have the great option to combine these. In most cases it’s really a good deal (as long as you get one of the locked-rate ones that doesn’t increase your bill by a factor of 17 after the “intro period”). Be sure to check – you can often negotiate out of the price increase, or just go with a different company.
  • Entertainment – I included our alcohol budget in here, and this includes things like going to the movies, bowling, etc.
  • Restaurants – obviously, most people like to eat out
  • Miscellaneous – toiletries, cooking utensils, super glue or household repair items, furniture, you name it. This is what works for us as a catch-all category
  • Dog – I wish she could be included in the “essential” category, but in reality, pets are a lifestyle choice so her expenses go here.
  • Extra auto expenses – I included this in our budget here, but this doesn’t have a set budget every month. This includes registration, maintenance, and emergencies but depending on how you manage it, you may wish to pull these expenses out of an emergency fund or just go with it.

Priorities: 20% – This last category covers mostly savings. General savings, emergency fund, saving for a wedding, a trip, your kid’s college fund. It’s pretty important stuff. For now we have it all jumbled together into “savings” but it is, of course, up to you to determine what your saving priorities are. Oh, and paying off student loans and credit cards. Those are really important. Probably should be a priority if it isn’t already. Also, don’t forget things like retirement contributions if they aren’t already coming out of your paycheck.

This approach worked really well for us. I found it to be an excellent place to start because it forced us to focus on what was essential and what was fun. Sadly, when things are tight you might have to cut out some of the more expensive fun, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to spend your time. Maybe not eating out every lunch – whatever works. This is obviously just a set of guidelines but, while we followed the 50/30/20 guidelines you might have something that works better – maybe your essential expenses simply don’t use up 50% of your income and you can apply that to paying down your credit card bills or student loans. Check out LearnVest, by the way, and read some of their articles on budgeting and finances. I learned a lot from them.

I hope this helps. Please let me know! I am considering adding some meal planning and grocery budgeting discussions if that’s something y’all want to read about? In the mean time, here is a cartoon for you…

Slash the budget

The Beach

I have been born with a deep and unwavering hunger for the ocean. I was born in a tiny town on the north Pacific coast. Cars and buildings, fences and people were caked in a fine film of salt and fog. Buoy’s tolled their bells in the night and the flash from the light house could be seen up and down the coast – day or night. I live in the mountains now, 2000 miles from the nearest body of saltwater, and I often fall into a seawater-deprived depression that can last for days. It usually starts when I receive my bi-monthly issue of Coastal Living, but also stems from recipes in cookbooks, conversations with my mother who describes her walks on the beach or picnic lunch at the headlands overlooking the crashing Pacific. My soul requires a regular dose of fresh seafood, salty breezes, and sandy skin.

My husband shares my love of the coast, but his appetite for salt and sand is less pronounced. He was born in the Appalachian mountains, but spent summers at the Atlantic coast. When we decided to get married, we knew it had to be at the beach and immediately decided on Charleston, SC., where he spent childhood summers and where he took me on our first trip together. We were married at the end of May on the sandy strip between the Atlantic ocean and the sea grass dunes on Isle of Palms, north of Charleston, with 20 guests in attendance. We planned our wedding so we could spend as much time at the beach as possible, and to allow our friends and family to experience what we love so much about Charleston. We rented a beach house that slept 16 and spent a glorious five days enjoying the beach and our guests. Our ceremony was in the morning, followed by an afternoon celebration and sea food boil at the house. This gave us several hours to ourselves in between. One of my two favorite memories was changing out of my wedding dress, donning a bathing suit, racing barefoot down to the waves to spending two glorious hours laying on the beach next to my husband before the party began. My other favorite memory was the following day when we escaped to the private and secluded upper deck at the house with a cooler full of ice and beer and watched the waves on the reclining deck chairs as the breeze cooled the salty sweat from the humidity and white caps danced at the shore.

I recently read an article titled “Why the Beach Makes Us Happy.” Scientists, psychiatrists, and neurologists were interviewed about their research on the calming and mood altering affects of the beach. From the sound of the waves to  the memories we make, for the majority of the population, the beach is a vacation destination. It’s summers away from school as a child, sunbathing and first loves as a teenager, honeymoons, anniversaries. “Vacation” evokes images of waves and sand.

My beach memories from my childhood were not dotted with brightly striped sun umbrellas and bathing beauties in swimsuits. The north Pacific coast is notoriously chilly in the summer, with hot inland valleys drawing in a coastal fog that drips from the ancient redwood trees and necessitates windshield wipers most days in July. Temperatures hover around 55 degrees and only tourists brave the arctic current that sweeps down the coast from the Gulf of Alaska. Only in El Nino years does the ocean reach an appropriate swimming temperature. Bodies bundled in layers of jackets, dampened by the ever present fog, scurry up and down the streets of town and headlights burn in the summer fog. Beach strolls were brisk, with the wind biting at your cheeks and the salty spray and fog drying on your lips and glasses. My birthday is in July and sunshine on my birthday was a bit of a shock. I tried to have a few beach parties, but in most cases sand castles were abandoned to huddle around the bonfire and roast bratwurst and marshmallows while dancing from one side to the other, trying to avoid the thick, salty smoke produced by gathered driftwood. One beach party – whether or not it was a birthday, I don’t recall – the fog burned off late in the evening to reveal a massive full moon rise over the coastal mountains. Bonfires dotted the beach as the moon turned the sand the color of silver fish scales and mermaids called to us from the eddying and reflective waves where the mouth of the dark river met the churning and frothy sea.

Though my childhood memories are dominated by wave-crashed cliffs shrouded in fog where cormorants and gulls nest on offshore islands, my dreams of beach dwelling are inhabited by the oppressive southern heat and inter-coastal waterways of the South. Ancient live oaks line the streets and driveways of my future memories; Spanish moss creates natural draperies which frame the picture-perfect views of salt marshes; the explosive white of egrets against the dusty gray-green of the vegetation – flushed from their hunting grounds by old men in straw hats, paddling aluminum-bottomed boats filled with buckets of oysters as the tide begins to rise in the marshes. Plovers, turns,  and oyster catchers take advantage of cool morning breezes and abundant shore life to feast before the human crowds dominate the surf; cicadas drone in the heat of the afternoon when nothing moves across the landscape; where glasses of ice-filled beverages sweat and drip across the bare legs of small-town residents sweltering in the shade on the porch. Hurricane battered buildings with peeling paint and salt-crusted shutters welcome visitors as old friends. Where the beach scenes are characterized by striped blue and white folding canvas chairs, brightly hued sun umbrellas, and children with red and yellow buckets scooping shells or building sand castles as the breeze lifts the curls off their damp foreheads.

I long to smell the familiar salt and sea-life clinging to the morning breezes. To open my windows to the sunshine and hear the distant rumble and hiss of waves shaping the sandy inlets and shores, while buoy’s drone their bells to the rhythmically bobbing waves. To visit the fish markets and select the freshest seafood money can buy, or go saltwater shore fishing as the tide changes. During the first trip my now husband and I took to Charleston, we spent an evening walking through Battery Park at the end of Meeting St., where the city meets the harbor. Christmas was a few days away and antebellum houses were decorated with magnolia wreaths and pine garlands, lights twinkling from fences and gas lamps bubbling and burning at every gate. He said to me; “Let’s retire here.” Yes, darling. Let’s.