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 –


Fire Season and Family Emergency Evacuation Plan

Photo courtesy of Wyoming State Forestry
Photo courtesy of Wyoming State Forestry

My husband is an Eagle Scout and a wildland firefighter, so being prepared is a pretty big deal around here. Last year we bought a house at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the area surrounding our home is a combination of sagebrush and Rocky Mountain juniper. The juniper is very dense and often leaves very little soil moisture for much understory vegetation. Juniper is an excellent carrier of fire due to naturally occurring oils in the needles, even when the fuel moisture is high, and it is so dense around our house and the hillsides are so steep, it’s like living at the top of a chimney stacked high with tinder. If we ever had a fire, our whole subdivision would be obliterated. The other aspect of my husband’s job is to coordinate the FireWise program for all 23 counties in the state of Wyoming and manage the Federal grants program for fuels reduction in the state.

Last year we applied with our county to become a FireWise property for a number of reasons. 1) Always be prepared. 2) Each county has a coordinator to work with individual landowners to create a management plan to make their homes fire safe, or FireWise. The coordinator came to our house and worked with us to develop a plan for thinning the trees around the house to a safe distance and density to reduce the chance of our home burning in the event of a wildfire. Once we complete the work agreed to in the plan, we get monetarily reimbursed for time spent cutting trees and burning piles, and any direct costs are reimbursed. 3) Aside from being prepared in the event of a wildfire, when firefighters are working in the area they do what is called “structure triage.” Structure triage means they go from home to home in the area (if time and resources allow) and do what they can to prepare the house for fire in the area. This includes removing wood piles, deck furniture, and grills with propane tanks to a safe distance from the siding; cutting back vegetation from under the porches and next to the houses and scattering brush so it doesn’t linger after it burns. If a home has been prepared by the landowners, the firefighters will do what they can for the house and/or stay near the home (if safe and feasible) to help protect it. If the landowner has done no work to reduce fuel around the house, there is a good chance the firefighters won’t spend time preparing around the house if there is too much work to do, too much risk to the firefighters, or no chance to save the home. In addition to clearing trees from around the house, we also spent quite a lot of time along the driveway. Our driveway is kind of a hairy beast and ascends at a steep angle with a sharp hairpin turn in the middle of it. Firefighters will not risk their own safety to protect or prepare a house if they will be put at risk, so if the driveway has the potential to be a safety hazard (dense brush or trees, too narrow, no turn around, etc.) they won’t venture up. We spent some time widening the turn-around at the house, as well as removing brush on the sides of the driveway. Hopefully, none of this will ever be tested by a wildfire, but if it is, we want to give our house the best chance of surviving and encourage the men and women fighting the fire to do what they can to prevent our house from burning.

My husband left this afternoon for his first fire assignment of the season on the Lime Gulch fire outside of Colorado Springs. We were out of town and drove home this morning so he could leave for Colorado and on the drive we were talking about the event of an evacuation should a fire start near our house. The following is our family preparation and evacuation plan for 2013. For additional information and templates (some of which I have used myself) please visit Your Own Home Store: Survival Kit Ideas.


  1. Check attic and crawl space vents in house and garage – one of the main causes of homes burning is embers getting caught in the attic or under the house. Close crawl space/basement ventilation and check attic vents to determine if screen size is large enough to allow flying embers to enter the attic. Reducing the size of the screen or ventilation opening can prevent larger, hotter embers from becoming lodged in the attic and igniting the home.
  2. Remove propane tank from gas grill on the porch and store in garage when not in use
  3. Remove deck furniture pillows and umbrellas from the deck when not in use and store inside (garage, house, crawl space, etc.)
  4. Sign up for reverse 9-1-1 from the city or county. We live in a rural area, so the county sheriff’s department initiates the reverse 9-1-1 call. If you live in town, sign up through the police department
  5. Clear any bushes or plants from under the porch and along the house that are dead and dry. Keep any plants around the house well irrigated and properly pruned. This includes keeping grass short and green.


I have put together an evacuation plan and checklist should we need to evacuate. Every family will have a different list of important items, but the main idea is to know what needs to go, assign who gathers what, and have it written down. We have a coat closet next to the front door where I have staged our evacuation kit. On the upper shelf is a duffel bag which contains the following:

  • Emergency First Aid and Toiletries Kit
  • Emergency phone numbers and important information sheet
  • 3 pairs boxers
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 6 pairs socks
  • 4 t-shirts
  • 2 sweatshirts
  • 2 pair jeans
  • Zebra print ball cap (obviously identifying and hard to miss)
  • Umbrella
  • Day-Glo Orange emergency vest
  • Towel
  • Leather gloves
  • 2 pair knit gloves

The sheet of emergency phone numbers and important information contains family phone numbers, vehicle registration and insurance policy information, health insurance information, doctors phone numbers, and phone numbers of friends nearby. It isn’t something you want to think about, but if your house burns down you’ll be contacting your insurance carrier to file a claim and need that information. Additionally, should someone be hurt or need medical attention, it’s good to have the medical information in more than just one location. I have also backed up this file on Dropbox – an online cloud-based data storage location that I can access from any computer or my phone. Another good online backup and document/note storage program is Evernote.

In the First Aid and Toiletries Kit I have packed the following:

  • Ibuprofen
  • Tylenol
  • Sunscreen
  • Band aids
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Neosporin
  • Medical tape
  • Wound dressing
  • Pepto Bismol
  • Dramamine
  • Chapstick
  • Bug repellent
  • Shampoo/conditioner
  • Soap
  • Contact lens solution and cases
  • Extra contacts for each of us, labeled
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrushes
  • Tampons
  • Dental floss
  • Emergency heating pack
  • Q-tips and cotton balls
  • Emergency electrolyte powder
  • Deoderant
  • Extra prescription medication (if needed)


Next to the duffel bag of personal items is a box with non-perishable food and 4 gallons of water. All of this stays for the whole summer and doesn’t get raided for any event that isn’t the evacuation of our family due to wildfire or any other emergency.

I have also made two checklists for us of items to collect and pack should we get the call to evacuate. I made two lists – one in the event that we have 15 minutes or less and must leave RIGHT THIS MINUTE:


  • Three filing boxes
  • Mortgage packet
  • 2 external hard drives
  • Computer with charging cable
  • Wedding rings
  • 4 Gallons water
  • Food box
  • Emergency duffel bag
  • 2 pairs running shoes
  • 2 pairs hiking boots


  • Small dog crate from garage
  • Dog duffel bag with medical records
  • Dog leash
  • Dog bed
  • Dog food
  • Wedding photo with signed frame
  • Close windows and blinds
  • Close interior doors in house

The Fremont County Sheriff’s Department has a great webpage detailing what to do to prepare your home before you evacuate. I have listed to close windows and blinds and interior doors, and here’s why: fire produces convective, radiant, and direct heat. Convective heat is the transfer of heat from rising hot air and gasses – this is what makes fire race up hill as vegetation is heated and dried out by heated air and gas and moisture is forced from the vegetation, making it receptive to burning. Drafts and wind can influence convective heat by drawing hot air, which is why closing the interior doors in the house is suggested. By closing interior doors, drafts inside the home are reduced. Radiant heat is heat released in all directions from an burning object – this is why you get warm sitting next to a camp fire and nearby fire can heat up the outside of your home or even heat furniture and draperies through windows. For the most part, it’s possible to reduce the effect of radiant heat inside the home by drawing blinds on all the windows.  Finally, conduction is the process by which heat is transferred by direct contact. Removing flammable objects from directly touching the home during the preparation phase of Emergency Preparedness can reduce losses from heat conduction.

I also expanded the above list to include other items we might want to take if we have longer to pack – say one hour:


  • Three filing boxes
  • Mortgage packet
  • 2 external hard drives
  • Computer with charging cable
  • Wedding rings
  • 4 Gallons water
  • Food box
  • Emergency duffel bag
  • 2 pairs running shoes
  • 2 pairs hiking boots
  • Recipe boxes
  • Grandpa’s Marine keepsake album
  • Family quilts (1 from couch, 2 from cedar chest)
  • Family pocket watch
  • Diplomas


  • Small dog crate from garage
  • Dog duffel bag with medical records
  • Dog leash
  • Dog bed
  • Dog food
  • Wedding photo with signed frame
  • Eagle Scout frame and mirror
  • Special photographs
  • Photo albums
  • Family keepsakes

I listed the items by rank of importance with the idea that you go down the list and if you run out if time, you’ll have the most important things first. When we have some time I am planning to do a practice run through and time us as a team in collecting what needs to be gathered, as well as by myself since there’s a good chance I’ll be the only one home. Additionally, I have templates for emergency information, and for our dog. I created the dog ID page when we took her to be boarded since she has an annoying habit of escaping. The ID page includes a photograph of her, as well as her important information – physical description, AVID ID number, rabies ID number, vet contact information, our contact information, medical needs, etc. If you would like a copy of either of these templates, please leave me a comment and I can email them to you. This is also great for young kids should the unspeakable occur and your child become lost or kidnapped. Keep the photo up to date and take copies with you when you’re out of town.

This is the first time I’ve put the time and effort into this sort of emergency preparation. Natural catastrophes of any kind are scary as shit. There is so much anxiety and stress and fear running rampant in these situations and the best thing you can do is be prepared. I urge you to take the time (this took me 2 hours by myself) to make a list of important things, put them somewhere accessible, and print out a few lists. Even if you only consolidate your essential documents into one place that you can grab as you leave in an evacuation will make your life so much easier. Mother nature will have her way whether or not you’re ready, so take a few minutes to make a list; plan an afternoon with your family and make sure everyone knows the drill, what to take, and where to meet.


Every region has natural disasters and summer is ours. Please pray for the firefighters and families affected by the fires in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. I know tornado season and hurricane season are either already here or fast approaching. Think about where you live and what you will need to take with you to keep yourselves safe.

For more information about FireWise programs in your area, please visit their web page at for information about making your home and community a FireWise community. They have great resources for homeowners. Wyoming State Forestry recently published a great series of articles in cooperation with the University of Wyoming called Living with Wildfire in Wyoming. Additionally, you can contact your State Forestry agency for more information on cost share and funding for fuels mitigation in your area.



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.