Latest book

My latest book, Coot Shoots – A Crazy Old Coot’s Anthology of Hunting and Shooting Stories and Essays, was published June 1.

Coot Shoots – latest of the six books in the “Old Coot” series.

Available in paperback and kindle editions at:

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Hotwires, insulators, and sheep

Connect the yellow dots: extension insulators on steel fenceposts that will support a hotwire 20 inches above ground level. Will this fencing prevent sheep from escaping the Ewe Pasture? I will find out. As you can see, Abbey is unimpressed.

Strange weather the past few days. The skies wouldn’t quite rain, and won’t quite stop raining. There are weeks when you concede that working in the mud is the only option.

The task was erecting a hotwire to front the four-strand barbed wire fencing that encloses the four-acre hillside tract we call the Ewe Pasture. Can a hotwire 20 inches above ground level keep escape-artist sheep confined? This summer, I will find out.

Degree of difficulty:
1) installing the plastic insulators and hotwire on the posts – easy, Olympic fencing rating 1.5;
2) mowing the weeds and brome along the fence line’s north side – moderate, Olympic fencing rating 2.0;
3) clearing brush along the fence line’s wooded east and south sides – difficult, Olympic fencing rating 4.8.
4) keeping my birddog Abbey out of the tangles of beggars tick and gooseberry – impossible, Olympic fencing rating 95.7.

Preparing for springtime fencing jobs becomes easier each year. I toss all the fencing supplies and tools into the box of the pickup and venture forth. Yesterday, I only had to return to the shed twice to get something I forgot. That’s a new record.

Fencing tools: fence post driver, shovel, various screw drivers and pliers, wire cutter, brush lopper, bow saw, machete, 20-inch wooden measuring stick, leather gloves and a three-pound hammer. Almost inevitably, there will be an unforeseen use for the hammer. I decided not to take the chainsaw on this drizzly day. Consequently, a thick-trunked buckthorn tree is still standing, but on the other hand so am I.

Fencing supplies: three steel posts (turns out, I needed four), a couple dozen T-post fence clips, three quarter-mile spools of 17-gauge electric fence wire, 150 plastic insulators for steel posts and 25 insulators for wooden posts, two gate connectors, and about 10yards of tangled and rusty old barbed wire. Plus a spare hammer.

The supplies were manufactured in Magill, Oklahoma, Lititz, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois. Some hunting is necessary to find and purchase stuff not made in China or elsewhere outside the United States, but it can be done.

At the end of the two-day job, I had become proficient at attaching five-inch extension insulators to steel posts and nailing easy-to-break plastic insulators to wooden posts and trees. That’s how it always is with me; I learn the best techniques about an hour before the job is finished. But at some chores I have modest skills; driving steel posts, clipping wire onto them, and mending barbed wire – hey, I got those jobs down pat.

About 3:30 it began to seriously rain. Didn’t quite complete the project. Came home muddy, scratched, and tired with brambles in my beard. Shaved off the beard, then had to clean up Abbey.

Two more days of rain are forecast. The sheep will have to wait a while before they move into their new home. And start escaping.


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April Fools snowfall

April Fools!

The weather gods waited until late on the night of April 1 to play an April Fools prank. We awoke to discover a two to three-inch snowfall across the North Country.

Was this because I removed the snowblower head from the DR power unit and replaced it with the bushhog head? Probably. The weather gods love to punish my hubris by administering a good whack to my head with the nemesis cudgel.

But the last laugh will be mine. Yesterday, using the bushhog for the first time this spring, I got a good start on fencing work. I mowed a “warning track” around the inside of the fence that surrounds the four-acre tract that we call the South Hillside Pasture, recently renamed the Ewe Pasture in honor of its most recent denizens.

I probably caused this April snowstorm by removing the snowblower head from the DR power unit.

The ewes became skilled escape artists last summer, so I mowed the strip along the fence in preparation for erecting a hotwire that will be mounted on insulators on the steel posts that hold the five strands of barbed bordering the perimeter of the pasture. Hopefully, this will be a better solution than the portable electric fencing we previously used with little success. Every few days, the deer knocked down a stretch of the portable fence, inviting the ewes to wander off in search of greener grasses in the hayfield.

Not that I am overly optimistic, but my expectation is that a hotwire running about 20 inches above the ground will touch the nose of any curious sheep, jolt it with a shock, and convince it to stay within the field of play. More likely, I will jolt myself a half dozen times this summer while trying to herd seep back into the Ewe Pasture.

You are no doubt asking, “Why the hammer?” Almost every farm chore I do requires the hammer, sooner or later.

The deer will not squirm through between the strands of barbed wire and break the hotwire, right? They will leap over the fence. Right? Well, hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I will update readers on this sheep-fencing solution sometime in June.

But on this April 2 Saturday, I am taking a snow day off from manual labor. I should be cleaning out the Hilltop Garden in preparation for tilling, but snowfall is forecast until noon, and that is reason enough to be lazy and profligate. Reading a book and perchance smoking a cigar. That is ambition enough on this April Fools prank of a day.


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Final day of March

Last storm of winter? An inch of snow and cold winds fell upon us the night of March 30-31.

The cold winds on this final day of March are trying their best to prolong winter, bringing with them a storm that has blanketed the North Country with an inch of snow. This northwest wind has also scoured all traces of humidity from the air, making it as light and lifeless as that uppermost level of the sky ruled by the Greek god Aether.

The cold gusts come down from on high, driving all they touch down to ground level, including me, a bent weed trying to hide from the razor-sharp scythe.

Spring is late. The deciduous trees have not yet dared to bud out with the promise of leaves, so on this bone-chilling walk across our farm with my birddog Abbey I can look down the face of the west bluff into the Trout River Valley. Almost all the ice is gone from this stretch of the Trout where it flows into the Upper Iowa River, fringing the edges of the pools of stagnant backwaters. There has been very little snowfall this winter, and consequently little snow-melt runoff to swell the Trout out of its banks and clean out these muddy puddles.

Just north of our farm is the confluence of the Trout River with the Upper Iowa River. During spring floods, an array of “natural” and “unnatural” flotsam and jetsam is carried downstream by both rivers.

Sitting in the lee of a blown down elm tree I am shielded from the worst of the wind and can watch the river roll along, chocolate brown from the silt and loam eroded from row crop fields along its course. During my half-hour watch there are several soggy clumps of flotsam and jetsam carried along in the river’s slow current. I tend to categorize this debris as “natural” and “unnatural.”

Natural wreckage comprises the trunks and limbs of dead trees, on occasion a drowned and bedraggled calf or winter-killed deer, clots of mud entangled in the tendrils of brambles that still cling to slim hope of life if they can wash ashore and re-root. One time I spied the tattered remains of a bald eagle – or more likely a turkey vulture. Another sighting, I am convinced, was the body of the last runty mastodon in the North Country; it may have been a bloated Brown Swiss dairy cow, but the long matted hair convinced me otherwise. The Mammut species were forest dwellers about 10,000 years ago, and it was always my hope to take one with a bow.

The unnatural river-born junk is mostly farm equipment and supplies, battered wagon boxes, sprayer tanks, rotten tractor and truck tires, discarded hoses and wiring, lots of seed bags, tangles of barbed wire fencing and waterlogged wooden posts – that sort of thing. Rarely, I may catch a glimpse of a partly submerged car fender, a bent-up tree stand or ground blind, tarps, gas cans, doors with broken windows, once an antique school desk – artifacts of an industrial-consumer civilization that some curious anthropologist may unearth in five or six thousand years and wonder, “What the hell is this thing?”

The river carries these ruins and rubble with the stolid patience of a garbage truck in a narrow alley between dumpsters. But instead of the city’s rats, we have raccoons and possums rooting for treasures and gifts.

Its current, sometimes sluggish, sometimes raging, makes me aware that life goes on and on despite hardships and glories, heartbreaks and disappointments, joys and achievements. The river suffers its tribulations and calamities, its delights and its triumphs. And we suffer ours.

In a week or so, spring will arrive and we will put this winter behind us.


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Home again, home again jiggity-jig

Our Southwest travel adventure has ended. We are back in the North Country in late March, the month we can expect alternating thaws and freezes, rain and snow, mud and ice.

The first night home, two inches of wet, slippery snow fell, winds increased, and the temperature dropped to 24 degrees. But all the snow melted over the next two days, and soon it will be spring.

We arrived just in time for the last snowstorm of the winter, We hope.

Why did we not delay our return until April? Perhaps next year, we will.

We arrived home late in the afternoon, backed the Scamp camping trailer onto its gravel pad, unhooked and disconnected all the links to the pickup, and went into the house to bring it back online: electricity, water, propane: everything was in good working order.

The only misery was the mice that had free run of our old, limestone foundation, log-construction farm house for the seven weeks we were away. If anyone has suggestions for this plague, please offer them. (No cats or rodent poison; those “solutions” are worse than the mice.)

The much-traveled Ranger pickup washed, waxed, and ready for the mud season.

Now, let the vehicle repairs of the trek to New Mexico begin. Camping trailers, we have learned, are not maintenance-free. Neither are pickup trucks. Three or four sand storms, three snow storms, and the bumps and thumps of 3,000-plus miles of travel to have taken their toll. Nothing major (except a microwave oven that came detached from its bracing), but much clean-up and minor tinkering.

Will we venture forth on this winter sojourn to the Southwest again? Yes, yes we will.

We saw a lot, learned a lot, experienced a lot, and had a good time. We’re even planning some summer camping trips.

And we timed our return north to Nebraska’s Platte River Valley so that we could see the sandhill crane migration. I will not even try to describe that amazing experience. You should most definitely travel there in early March to witness it yourself. Five million cranes spend a few days resting and recuperating along the Platte Valley on their migration route north from Mexico and the southwest states to Canada, Alaska, and even Siberia. The two days we were there, an estimated one million cranes were in the rowcrop fields along the valley.

An Old Coot recommendation: donate to the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center near Wood River, Nebraska,

We’re home, and oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!


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Gardens? What gardens? We’re in Kansas!

One of the greatest exchanges of dialogue in a scene from the motion picture “Casablanca”:

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert!
Rick: I was misinformed.

If you spend much time around a huge cattle feedlot, you may lose your enjoyment of beef. (Photo by Patti Johnson)

Our overnight stay in The Garden City RV Campground at the Bosselman Travel Center echoed that scene between the “Casablanca” film’s protagonist Rick Blaine (actor Humphrey Bogart), owner of Rick’s Café, and his adversary Captain Louis Renault (actor Claude Rains), head of the military police force in the colony of French Morocco during Nazi control of Vichy France in World War II.

Convenience store clerk: What brought you to Garden City?
Jerry: We came to Garden City to see the gardens.
Clerk: The gardens? What gardens? We’re in Kansas!
Jerry: We were misinformed.

Badly misinformed.

Garden City is the site of huge feedlots, railroad yards, industrial agriculture businesses, and truck stops. There are no apparent gardens.

The Garden City RV Campground at the Bosselman Travel Center was spacious and clean, with convenient electric, water and sewer connections at each of its concrete pad RV sites. It has about 175 semi-trailer truck parking spaces, 35 sites for RV’s, showers, a laundromat, a game room, lounge, movie theater, pizza restaurant, cinnamon roll shop, free wi-fi. and several other features.

We did not have the opportunity to enjoy most of these amenities because during our entire stay the wind was blowing at 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50. The wind was beyond the control of the travel center, of course, but our stay was also discomfited by the RV campground’s location.

The owners of the Bosselman Travel Center state they have created the place for drivers who need a convenient, secure and well-equipped truck stop. They have accomplished that objective, but I am not sure I would recommend it as a relaxing place to stay for vacation travelers in a small camping trailer.

The travel center was not the sort of place you could kick back and enjoy the evening.

To the south, the campground was bordered by a four-lane highway overpass. Just across the four-lane was a huge, HUGE, cattle feedlot. The wind was from the south. We decided to forego the pizza dinner and the cinnamon roll breakfast.

All the photo images posted in this blog are strikingly horizontal. It cannot be helped. Everything in western Kansas is horizontal.

To the west ran a railroad spur that appeared to be a sidetrack. The line of oil tanker cars on the track added to both the campground’s visual and olfactory appeal. At least there were no passing trains during our night there –not that we would have heard the noise above the howl of the wind.

To the east was the main truck stop with all its facilities, plus a tire shop. The travel center is a business place after all, and trucking is the business. The RV campground is a sideline, and that is understandable. The coming and going of trucks during our stay was not really noticeable (see previous comment about the railroad and the wind).

To the north we could look out across 2,000 acres of flat and stump-covered cornfield in all its industrial-farming, dust-swirling glory. It was obvious why Dorothy Gale was eager to escape western Kansas and go to Oz.

At the end of a long day’s drive, the travel center seemed to the best choice for a one-night stay, especially since the website photos looked so appealing. And it was an honest ambassador of all that Garden City has going for it.

But we agreed we will find another campground on our next trip through Kansas. Prairie Dog State Park, for example, looked wonderful on our drive-through: a reservoir, the adjacent Norton Wildlife Area, rolling terrain, grasslands, and the nearby town of Norton with its somewhat rundown but still-struggling-along historic downtown district. And no huge cattle feedlot.

Probably several gardens, too.

One cold cowboy. (Photo by Patti Johnson)


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Better keep your hat on a few weeks

Three months without a haircut was too long. Although I am balding (okay, almost bald), my head was beginning to resemble a ridged dome on a high plains prairie covered by little bluestem native grass: tufts and clumps jutting up raggedly in various stages of growth.

The advantage of this look is that it clearly identifies me as a Crazy Old Coot and warns strangers at public campgrounds not to approach me and annoy me with banal conversation. The disadvantage is that I have to show two forms of identification to convenience store clerks who assume I am a homeless derelict that has stolen a couple credit cards.

For at least a month before we began our Southwest Desert Trek on February 1, I had neglected to cut my hair, a fast and simple task since that long-ago day I discovered that running a Wahl pet clipper across my scalp saved me $15 or $20 for each trip to the barbershop. With a half-inch spacer attached to the dog clipper the result is a hairstyle like moss growing on a shiny-topped chunk of misshapen granite. Complemented by a shaggy white beard, I like to think of this as my signature look.

Hemingway had his, I have mine. But at a certain point, one’s signature becomes illegible.

So it was that my Beautiful Blonde Wife tactfully suggested that she should give me a haircut after six weeks on the road. Not that she was embarrassed to be seen with me, she insisted, but neither did she want people to think that she had been abducted by an escapee from a mental institution.

She asked if I had packed the dog clipper. Unfortunately, I had not. But in my shaving kit was an old Norelco electric razor with a beard trimmer. Maybe that would serve. She was willing to give it a try.

As I felt the trimmer sawing across my scalp I suggested that she work from the top of my head down, rather than from my neck up, so that the cut would be tapered in a style that was suitably suave and chic. “Oh!” she said. “I’m just cutting it all off the way you usually do.”

But without the dog clipper’s spacer attachment.

The haircut took longer than expected, but the result was good. Or at least not too bad. Glancing into a mirror I realized I resembled the German aircraft mechanic that had a fistfight with Indiana Jones in “The Lost Ark.” A good look for me.

She offered to trim my beard, too, but I opted to do that myself. The clean-shaven gleam of my exposed head was not an issue, but it is best if I hide as much of my face as possible beneath a beard. After a hot shower at the campground I returned to our Scamp camping trailer feeling quite dapper and debonaire. Smug and self-satisfied, I drank a beer and smoked a cigar

My BBW did not want me to put on airs, I guess. She looked me over and suggested, “Maybe you better keep your hat on for a few weeks.”

Just to avoid sunburn, you understand.


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No escape

This late-winter snowstorm is the sort of thing we wanted to avoid when we set out upon our trek to the desert Southwest. During the night of March 10-11, a weather front that streaked all the way from southern Arizona to the northeast Atlantic states dropped about two inches of wet snow on our campsite at Ute Lake, near Logan, New Mexico. Tomorrow’s weather forecast calls for a sunny day with high temperatures in the 60s, so this wintery scene should be gone before we begin the next leg of our journey back to the North Country. Where the last blast of winter is probably waiting for us.
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Drinker, smoker, carnivore

During the long, relaxed evenings of our winter vacation sojourn through New Mexico I have escaped the great evil of television “news” broadcasts and have enjoyed reading books on my favorite subjects: history, and biographies of historical figures. Currently, I am reading Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts, a biography of Winston S. Churchill, Great Britain’s heroic (and egotistical and sanctimonious) prime minister during World War II.

Roberts is a great apologist for Churchill, rationalizing his many poor decisions and lauding all his successes. Clearly, Roberts has never quite accepted the collapse of the British Empire, the diminishment of England’s aristocracy, and the rise of those contemptable commoners of the working class. But the book is still a good read if you can struggle through its 1,000-plus pages of too much trivial information.

One insight into Churchill’s perspective on the sybaritic pleasures of life did catch my attention and affirmation, however:

As a drinker, smoker and carnivore, outliving teetotalers and vegetarians never failed to give Churchill immense satisfaction.

I’ll drink to that. And partake of a beef brisket barbecue sandwich before lighting up a cigar.

Who am I, after all, to dispute the acumen of one of the world’s most renown wartime leaders and statesmen, a man who never let the burdens of government or history’s most horrible war interfere with his self-indulgent pleasures?

So, here’s to you Winston (and Andrew) for endorsing the last of my 19th century vices and chauvinistic behaviors.


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Sheltering from the wind

An outdoor writer who does not credit the wind as the predominant force in the shaping and the life of wild places has failed in his craft. The wind touches and forms or reforms every thing. The wind also touches and affects every person, sometimes rewarding and sometimes punishing according to its force and its fickle moods. Like all else in this windy world, human destiny is windblown, windborne, wind-tossed.

Wind is more-or-less invisible in photographs. Without the sound of the gusts through this valley between mountain rangers, this image of bending clumps of native grass loses its beauty – and its sense of the wind’s power.

Earth, water, fire, and wind. The four basic elements in Greek mythology. I hold wind the foremost of these. Invisible, indefinable, omnipresent, omnipotent, universal, unyielding. Wind-driven water. Wind-driven fire. Wind-driven soil. Tearing down and building up. Scattering and gathering. Destroying and proliferating life.

Today we are sheltering from a windstorm sweeping across central New Mexico. Constant wind speed is 25-30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 miles per hour. A man camped at a nearby trailer site said, “Damn! This wind is cold!” But it is not cold by North Country standards where the Polar Vortex frequently weakens its stratospheric hold on winds that come howling from the Arctic bringing temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero.

Even these moderately cold winds in New Mexico can make hiking a torture when a 50 mile-per-hour blast blows you off the trail and your hat goes sailing into an arroyo. After a descent from and a scramble back up to the trail to retrieve my hat, I concluded that was quite enough exercise for the morning. Even our French spaniel Abbey concurred, and she has a much lower center of gravity and therefore less chance of being tipped into a sheer-sided gully.

Now we are back in the relative safety of the Scamp camper feeling the trailer’s every shake and shudder. My beautiful blonde wife was wise enough to select the RV site most protected from this wind and to park the trailer parallel (as much as possible) to its direction, but we are still atop the federal campground’s ridgeline and are buffeted by each gust. I try to think of it as “minor turbulence” on an airplane flight.  

These are not the most wind-battered days I recall during a life in wild places. While hunting sharptail grouse in the Nebraska Sandhills a blast once whipped both the hat from my head and the eyeglasses from my face. The eyeglasses were almost buried in wind-driven sand 20 yards away. I do not remember if I ever found the hat. Hunting squirrels along our wooded bluff on another blustery day, high winds ripped a good-sized limb from an elm tree and sent it crashing down five feet from me.

There was not the chance of a lace valentine in the fires of hell that I could have bagged a grouse or a squirrel or other game on these storm-wind days afield, but the truth is that I was outside because the of gale force winds. It was an exciting and energizing time to be outdoors, and I was still young enough to think myself immortal, or at least impervious to serious injury. In recent years I have outgrown that delusion.

Now I am more of an armchair outdoorsman on foul weather days. I can sit by our picture window, or inside our Scamp trailer for that matter, and watch the wind do its nastiest best to shape or reshape the landscape.

Wind is a fascinating force of nature. It formed the sandhills. It has worn down mountains. Torn away beaches. Toppled huge forests. Driven fires that burned millions of acres of prairies. Altered historical events and transfigured the course of civilizations. Eroded the hardest block of granite and the set-in-stone proclamations of saints and sinners. And made my face a lined and weatherworn mask.

Abbey says it has made me miss shots at quite a few gamebirds, too. But what a joy to be afield on a windy day. A 15 mile-per-hour windy day, not a 50 mile-per-hour windy day.


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