A Prairie Home Companion (with Custard)

While this blog is not used as often as it was BK (Before Kid) and I usually reserve this space for dog related stuff, I felt that this is a memory worth saving. This seems like as good a place to put it as any.  

This week, there have been several calls, emails and Facebook messages all with the same general theme.

"How did it go?"

What these missives are referring to is a recent trip to Wisconsin that was sparked by an unfortunate-turned-fortunate snafu by the USPS in Wisconsin. (I'm not going to rehash it, but for the full appreciation of what happened, here is the account my side of the story in all its glory.Trisha's side of the story is equally, if not more hilarious.)

Black Earth Wisconsin's one stop shop for mailing packages and self-defense.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I knew there would be cheese. I knew there would be sheep herding. I suspected there would be lots of corn. But how would it go? Trisha and I hadn't talked a lot aside from a group meeting with our trainers and board at New England Dog Training Club the night before she gave a really moving, incredible presentation involving the effects of trauma on people, on dogs, and what it takes to move through the space of a traumatic event. Since there were so many people there, I thought this was it - I'm going to say hi, give her a little dental related gift for humor, laugh for a few minutes and that would be that. We'd grin and each go our merry way through life thinking about how this hilarious thing ended up with a nice clean finale.

After her talk, Trisha kindly offered for me to come out to visit Wisconsin. I thought she was being polite. It's just so American to say "Hey, yeah! We should do coffee sometime!" and just never get around to it. I'm totally guilty of this. I think to some degree, we all are.

Later that week, I sent an email thanking her for coming to talk to our little club and for being so honest about her own history - a history of traumas detailed honestly, brutally, poetically and powerfully in The Education of Will - a book I can't recommend more highly. She replied by suggesting she doesn't often invite near-strangers to come to the farm and that she meant it. I should come to Wisconsin.
I kissed a goat and I liked it.
Gleefully, I called my husband and booked my flight that day.

Maybe not even in that order.

The rest of the spring and summer was dedicated to getting through the end of our first year of preschool, helping urban dogs cope, and taking on my first pig client (!). Occasionally, people would ask when Wisconsin was coming up and I'd involuntarily bounce in place like a 5-year-old hopped up on pixie sticks. Sometimes I'd fret about how this could possibly go askew (like accidentally falling face first into sheep poo), but mostly just thought about how damn excited I was. As the summer waned and Google pushed flight announcements to my phone (you have 5 days before your trip to Wisconsin) excitement was partnered with nervousness.

My baby said goodbye with tears in her eyes as she flashed the "I Love You" sign language signal from the car seat. I disappeared into the train station and I could still hear her bawling as the Mini shrank in size. It dawned on me that this was the first time in 5 years I'd have a vacation without her.

There was the inevitable flight delay (because, Laguardia).
There was a near wardrobe malfunction in which I had to lace a woman back into her shirt (again - because, Laguardia).

We were told the delay was due to rain, but I grew suspicious as we taxied onto the runway.

Rain delay my ass.

With each passing hour of travel and flight delays, I started to get a bit worried. Would we have stuff to talk about? I mean, our entire relationship at this point was solidly rooted in the fact we were both involved in a rather funny story about kink-dungeon dental tools being shipped from one person to another by accident and emails that were 95% about food. While that can carry some distance, what happens if I get there and that's ALL we have to talk about?

That was decidedly not the case. Her patient, wonderful, amazing (did I mention patient?) husband listened to the two of us go on and on...and on and on and on... for nearly three days straight about sheep, dogs, the woods, politics, gin, food, more gin, more food, cheese, sports, food and all the things that two new friends cover in a short period of time. We cleaned out a barn, swallowed some sheep poo (well, one of us did on accident. There might have been a serious misjudgment on the physics of a bungee cord under a pile of sheep poo), and walked in a real live prairie.

There is also a thing called Custard Pancakes. I'll never be able to eat a traditional pancake again.
Seriously. Do it.
 Perhaps the thing that struck me the most, aside from how big Billy Goat testicles are ...

These things are like church bells! Also, this might be a ram. #CityGirlFail.
...was how beautiful this landscape is. On more than one occasion it was all I could do to keep breathing. It's a stunning land. In my head, Wisconsin had to be flat. That's where the corn and the sheep live - in the flat lands. This was not the case. There is a wonderfully picturesque region called the Driftless Area. As it turns out, glaciers don't give a flying leap about state boundaries. During the last glacial period, the glaciers came through nearby regions and completely flattened them, including much of the midwest. However, the Driftless region remained unscathed. Instead of the boring flat fields I envisioned, there are beautiful rolling hills, interesting landscapes, rivers that carve into the deep valleys and slink around numerous mountains.

It looked like Ireland from the sky as the plane was landing in Madison.

There is a rumor that deer and buffalo used to play here. 
This picture is a restored prairie that we were able to visit. Luckily there are many of these around the region. This entire week back in Boston, I keep thinking back to this landscape already with a bittersweet feeling.

There is a plan to install giant electricity towers up and down the driftless area of Wisconsin. Imagining this view, a view that is getting scarcer by the day in America, decorated by 17 story electrical towers, knowing that the contractors heading up the project will receive an annual 10% minimum kick back to the tune of several million dollars is simply gut wrenching.

But this is a potential reality.

Plant cancer
I'm a fan of jobs but destroying this and places like this for older technology that is not necessary (demand is decreasing) is like saying we should mass produce typewriters again because it will create jobs.

Or, use coal.

And while we're at it, since my overbooked flight to Wisconsin proved we need more options for air travel, let's bring back the Hindenberg.

We should be picky about the jobs that are created, not just create folly towers for the sake of doing so. There are much better ways of creating jobs than tearing this beautiful place up and relying on outdated technologies. It really broke my heart to think this area could look very different upon my next visit.

In addition to the prairies, there were acres upon acres of sunflower fields, towns decorated with giant trolls and quirky people with hearts as big as belted Galloways.

I was given an angry beaver by a very polite lady at Duluth Trading Post.

Time stamp: 8:54am. Beer sightings.

There was also a lot of bright green and yellow sports paraphernalia, suggesting I made the right decision in leaving my beloved throwback Patriots hat on my dresser.

Sidenote, the Madison airport is the NICEST airport I've been in. Ever. Hands down. Flights were delayed and there were apologies and long descriptions as to why people were stuck. It was almost comical how much detail went into the one delay in the gate next to my departure, and the gate attended seemed genuinely upset for those who were put out.

It's ok, the bar was open. They figured it out.


It was lovely to be invited into a home with three dogs, a sheep named Cupcake who I'll forever think of as my kind of girl, and I was given an amazing opportunity to "work sheep" (which for a n00b in farm parlance roughly translates to, "Stand here and don't get run over").

In all my years living in the city, I've lost touch with a lot of my roots living in rural America. Yet, for the most part, I'm still comfortable mucking stalls, rigging things, tying knots, and if there were horses in that field, I'd know what to do. I'm more uneasy with cobwebs and dark corners, but poop is totally fine.

Sheep. Let's talk about sheep They seem docile, fluffy, delicate - until you are standing in a corner with one that is less-than-happy with your presence because unfamiliar people are generally considered a threat. In that moment, it becomes quite clear that sheep get their power in numbers. If you are the guy between them and their way out and you flinch a muscle, it might be a very bad day. But these sheep were totally polite and gave me plenty of time to make a good decision (move out of the way).

It also became crystal clear in a way that isn't palpable in sheep herding demonstrations, how hard these dogs are really working. Getting first-hand feedback as to what the sheep are responding to was the key to figuring this whole thing out, insomuch as an observer can figure it out. In one case, a mom and baby were separated so the dog had to work much, much harder to keep the flock together, ignoring the calls from the bleating baby ewe.

Cupcake - I love ewe!

In another situation, a sheep stepped forward to challenge the dog, yet the dog held her ground. To the casual observer, it looked like a dog not taking any guff. Getting a little background as this was playing out, it turns out this is one thing that this particular dog has been struggling with. Her history indicated the sheep would get her goat (as it were) and the dog would charge in - but she wisely held her ground. Knowing this particular dog's history and how hard this was for her, I was fully prepared to appreciate this really incredible moment between animals, and an equally incredible moment between handler and dog.

You don't get that same intimate appreciation in a sheep dog demo at the local Scottish Festival (or on Youtube).

While those are incredible and fun, being 4' from Trisha as she explained what she was seeing, and more importantly when she would shut me up so she could focus, taught me much more about the different relationships on the field.

Happy Flowers.

All in all, Trisha and Jim's kindness is what I'll remember the most. They were so kind, welcoming, and lovely. It was also the first time I had left my family behind for anything since becoming a mom. This felt like a rite of passage in some bizarre way. Aislyn, who celebrated her fifth birthday three days before this adventure was about to have her first long weekend with my husband and I knew this was great for all of us.

It was the best laugh therapy, refreshing and rejuvenating thing I could have done. I'm so thankful to have been able to be invited to their home, play with their dogs, joke about the two fireflies who appeared to miss the memo on when their season ended, and share this time away from home with them.

I took this amazing trip to spend some time with someone I very publically declared a hero of mine.

I left with a real friendship, which honestly is much better.

Someday, I hope to take Aislyn here and show her this view.

Hopefully without a line of high voltage electrical lines cutting through.

For more information on Trisha's work, follow her blog: The Other End of the Leash and her Facebook page, Patricia McConnell, PhD. 

While you're at it, read her book, The Other End of the Leash . I go back to this year after year and it's perfect for dog owners as well as training folk. It's a relatable, often humorous, reminder that while dogs and people see things very differently, the bond between these two species is quite unusual. When I feel a bit lost in the balance of my job, I pull this out, laugh, refocus, and find my way back to center.

Lastly, her memoir, The Education of Will is a gripping memoir about overcoming trauma, not just for dogs but for people, too. Again, I can not recommend this book more highly. I think many people expect this to be a dog story, and while the anxiety for this dog was real and intense, Trisha knits a powerful account that is all too close to home for many women, many of whom can not tell their stories. We're all fighting demons of some sort. It's critical we remember that.

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