Category Archives: snow

Chapter 11

 

Gifts and Trials of Winter on the Farm

 

 

Cher and Latte continue to bond, and Cher is nursing well and growing. I could go on, but that’s the thing about the alpaca farm. You imagine yourself caring for the animals, feeding them, training them, admiring them as they prance through the field, but most of your time will be spent taking care of other things on the farm, like winter.

 

Winter is an annoyance when you live in a neighborhood. You might have to put on a heavy coat. You may have to shovel your driveway (all 20 feet of it), you might have to brush off the top of your snowy car now and then with a broom, but winter on a farm is like a living thing. It can be a delicate, lightly snowy, chilly charmer, or it can be like a huge dog that has you firmly in its teeth. Every now and then it shakes you hard just to remind you that it can. The winter Cher came will be one of those.

 

It snows every few days and the temperature refuses to climb above the mid 30s. I am trudging up the hill to the barn to check on the alpacas several times during the day and evening, and I am also driving up and down the driveway to drop off and pick up children from the school bus twice a day, when I CAN drive it. Tom plows it in the evening but half the time the wind blows the snow across the fields all night, filling the driveway back in by morning. If it’s not passable, I hike up and down the driveway along with the kids.

 

Tom is also hiking in the snow. He leaves his small commuter car at the top of the driveway and trudges up to it each morning before driving to work.

 

I have given up on dressing in normal clothing. Every day I wear my winter farm lady uniform. This consists of a pair of blaze orange, camouflage overalls from the L.L. Bean outlet and an old, red parka over a pair of long johns. The overalls are designed for hunters; they are insulated and lined with polar fleece. Most importantly, they had been marked down from $120 to $20 dollars at the L.L. Bean outlet. But they are so very ugly. The camo print is not even nice leaves, but something called “Predator” which features jagged, thorny-looking branches. The blinding orange color is supposed to prevent me from being shot by another hunter.

 

On my feet are military-issue, “Mickey” boots, so called because they are huge and made of shiny black rubber so that your feet seem enormous in relation to your legs, like those of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes I top the whole ensemble off with a “mad bomber” style hat lined with rabbit fur. While inside the house, I remove the outer layers and walk around in the long johns. I am warm but very strange looking all day, every day.

 

making an ice bridge in the snow
Casey makes the ice bridge

 

One morning, when I drive up to the bus stop, our driveway seems especially snowy and slick at the top. I don’t want the kids to slip and get hurt, so I pull out and drive down our street a little way, to the entrance of a housing development. Casey and Nick can wait there on the plowed, paved road for the bus, along with the kids from the neighborhood.

 

This is nice. I am thinking that I might start taking the kids here every school morning, but then one of the parents, gets out of his car, walks up to my window and knocks on it. When I roll it down, he says, “You have a big gray bird on the top of your van.”

 

At this point, I have to interrupt myself and add that Tom and I had not stopped acquiring farm animals just because we had decided to run an alpaca farm. Animal cast-offs continued to find us, including various chickens and a small flock of guinea hens.

 

The guinea hens are said to eat their own body weight in ticks each day. They also sound like a loud, rusty gate when they squawk, and they squawk constantly. We have provided them with some nice barrels filled with straw to roost in, and placed these on their sides, against a hill, out of the wind, but the Guinea hens wander about and sleep wherever they like, sometimes on the porch chairs.

 

So now I am in an actual neighborhood, looking around at these parents, who all know each other, and are all wearing normal clothing, and I want to say, “Hey, I don’t know what that bird is doing up there.” But I DO know what that damn bird is doing there. One of the Guinea hens must have flown into the garage sometime yesterday and perched on top of my van, still warm from one of its many trips up and down the driveway. Whether trapped in the garage, or just too happy to move, the guinea hen had spent the night on top of my van, and she had probably been too startled to fly off it when I drove up our driveway and down the street to the neighborhood. She was, literally, along for the ride.

 

After a moment’s thought, I decide that the best thing to do is to leave the bird where it is and hope it stays on the van roof until I get back to our driveway. The school bus pulls up and the driver puts out his red stop sign to stop the traffic. Casey and Nick are enjoying the thrill of boarding the bus with the other kids; just one of the crowd, but that is about to change. It is at this very moment that the stupid guinea hen chooses to fly off of my van roof. It flaps around confusedly, and then lands on top of an expensive-looking Jeep that is stopped directly facing the school bus.

 

Children, parents and motorists all stop to look at this large gray bird that has flown down and perched in their midst. People start pointing and laughing. The bus driver, Mr. Hurley, has to speak sharply to the children to force them to finish getting on the bus. No one wants to miss the impromptu bird show. The Jeep’s driver gets out. He is wearing a business suit. He is not happy.

 

I force myself to climb out of my van wearing my awful, winter, farm lady uniform. The Jeep’s driver looks from the bird to me as though demanding that I do something. He is on his way to work at some important job. I am a woman in scruffy hunting attire that drives around with large birds on her vehicle. Over the excited shouts of the children, I feel like I can hear Casey inside the school bus saying, “What? No, that’s not my mother! That’s some lady who gave me a ride to the bus.”

 

More vehicles continue to pull up to the stopped school bus, so there is now a small traffic jam worth of commuters watching. I walk half-heartedly toward the Jeep, having no idea of what I am supposed to do. I can’t reach high enough to grab the bird. Should I shoo it? Just as I get near her, the guinea hen flies off again, this time landing on a neighbor’s roof. The spell is broken.

 

The school bus starts to pull away and traffic resumes, leaving in its wake the normal folks from the development, and me, the blaze orange, Mickey boot-footed, crazy bird lady. Words fail me. I climb back in the van and drive home.

 

The next day the driveway is impassible again. The kids and I trudge up the driveway. There are snowdrifts 4 and 5 feet tall that have blown into it during the night, so we try to find the lowest spots to walk in. The kids are so bundled up that they move like awkward, fat mummies. We wait and wait in the cold.   The bus is one hour late, but it feels like 10 hours to us. The kids finally get on and I turn around to head back to the house. We have not even gotten through January yet.

 

Maybe Tom should plow the driveway, pull the van up it with the tractor, (and me steering the van) and we can leave it at the top along with his car. We could use our expensive 4-wheel drive van as a bus shelter where we could sit out of the wind while waiting for the school bus.

 

The first week of February has passed and snow continues to fall every couple of days. The alpacas seem as crabby as I am. The Altiplano, their ancestral home in the high Andes mountain range, is a desert. It gets very cold, but it does not get humid. There is rarely a significant snowfall there, and it is blessed with plentiful sunshine. While the alpacas are fine with the cold, they’re not willing to walk through foot deep snow. Nor can they graze. They are making do with hay and grain and precious little sunshine.

 

Cher is the exception of course. Her joy at being alive is keeping us all from despair. As soon as I come up to the barn to feed the alpacas and rake up their manure, Cher begins rocketing around her small outside enclosure. She kicks up her back legs like a horse bucking. Sometimes she has trouble stopping and bonks into her mother, but Latte no longer seems to mind. Seeing Cher so quick and strong makes it hard to believe that 2 weeks ago she was still inside her dam.  Seeing her makes me laugh and appreciate my farm life.

 

kids playing in the snow
kids playing in the snow

 

One day, my friend Lois calls to tell me that she will drive over to the farm for a cheer up visit. I try to warn her off of our slick, snowy driveway, but she has a brand new 4-wheel drive Blazer truck and feels certain she can get in and out with no difficulty. I’m so starved for company that I can’t wait for her to arrive. We talk and have lunch together like normal people. We take cute photos of the alpacas with her new digital camera. All too soon, it is time for her to leave, and me to pick up the kids.

 

I have barely finished waving goodbye to Lois when I begin to hear a strange noise. It is like the screeching of metal on metal. It seems to be coming from the wire fence. I follow the sound up the hill and see that Lois and her new truck have somehow slid off the driveway backwards and through the wire fence into the field. Her left wheels are outside the fence line and her right wheels are inside it. Fence wires are running across the top of her truck and under it from the front to the back. Her brand new truck is stuck and getting scratched.

 

With no time to stop, I slog up the hill to get the kids. The bus is, mercifully, on time. I stop where Lois is stuck and send Casey and Nick down to the house. They are mildly curious about the truck but, being children, do not understand the predicament we are in. I try stepping on the bottom wires of the fence, near the truck, and holding the top wires above my head while Lois guns the engine, but the truck does not move. We try digging out some of the snow under the wheels, and then we try pouring cracked corn (duck food) on the ground for traction. We try sticking flattened cardboard boxes under the wheels. We do this for a couple of hours. Nothing works.

 

Lois is embarrassed about the fence. I’m feeling terrible about the scratches on her brand new truck. Both of us are dreading the moment when Tom comes home and catches the two of us in our humiliating Lucy and Ethel moment. Soon enough, he does just that. He does not laugh, but looks at us with a less than charitable expression on his face. He goes to the barn for the tractor while I check on the kids. Then he maneuvers the tractor in front of the truck and hooks a chain to the bumper. I am once again standing on some of the fence wires while holding the rest above my head. Tom backs up. Lois tries to follow Tom’s shouted steering directions. Nothing happens.

 

After 4 tries pulling with the tractor, Tom walks stiffly over to Lois and says, “You do have the 4-wheel drive on don’t you?” Poor Lois realizes that she does not. She thought she knew how the new truck worked, but she misunderstood its 4-wheel drive system. It had not been engaged at all, and neither of us had thought to check it the entire time we’d been frantically trying to free the truck. Tom switches on the 4-wheel drive and stomps back over to the tractor. He reattaches the chain and backs the tractor up again. The truck finally slides free. Tom climbs into the tractor and roars off.

 

I feel terrible that Lois drove all the way out here to visit me and now has to drive home and explain to her husband what happened to the new truck. She’s still concerned that Tom is mad about the fence. We’re both telling each other not to worry about that part of it. We finally hug and go our separate ways.

 

The weekend comes and Casey and Nick want to spend the time playing in the snow. Being children, they are not tired of it at all. Casey figures out all by herself that, if you dump enough snow in the cold stream behind our pond, and stomp on it with your boots, you can create an ice bridge. Nick joins in but is only allowed to be the helper, not a bridge engineer like his big sister. Even Sammie the dog is willing to traipse around in the snow for a little while, if it means sharing an adventure with the kids. My children have reminded me of something; trying to get through the snow is not the same as being in the snow. One is a chore, the other, a pleasure.

 

small dog in the snow
Sammie the dog in the snow

 

Though we may have come to see snow as an annoyance in our modern lives, real farmers love snowy winters. Snow acts as an insulating layer, a sort of chilly mulch that protects the bulbs and roots in the ground from freezing, and allows the nutrients from plant debris to be trapped and broken down more thoroughly. The moisture in snow is released slowly, in a way that won’t run off or cause erosion. Snow is like a blanket on the earth that allows it to rest peacefully so that it can wake up refreshed in the spring.

 

Chapter 10 – Saving Cher

 

girl hugging newborn alpaca
Casey hugging cria Cher

 

January 1st of the year 2000, has come and we still have no alpaca cria born out of our girl Latte. We spend a very quiet day on the farm, checking on the alpacas every hour and recovering from a New Year’s Eve celebration at the house of our neighbors, the Rogers. Just before midnight, their son-in-law, Ed snuck down to the basement, waited until the stroke of midnight and threw the breaker, turning off the electricity. We all gasped, frozen there in the dark, thinking that the cataclysmic Y2K event, constantly predicted by the news outlets, had actually occurred! Then we all realized that it was an excellent practical joke. A quick roll call made clear which smart ass was missing from the gathering. Our laughter was tinged with relief. We had escaped the 20th century without an apocalyptic societal meltdown after all.

 

Tom and I think that Latte is acting funny. She is lying on her side lately and she seems to be humming all the time. She lifts her tail when we come near her like she is showing us something. I spend a good bit of my “free” time sitting in the dirt against the outside wall of the barn, watching the cria kick against the swollen side of Latte’s belly.  At least I know it’s alive inside her and that’s reassuring. On January 3rd I see Latte’s vulva look a little more open. I can see a bit of bright red there when she lifts her tail. Is she cushing a little more? I think she is. The weather is unusually warm for this time of year, so at least I have a break from worrying about the frozen, broken-off ear tips scenario.

 

By January 12th I am not only ogling my alpaca’s vulva but staring at her teats as well. Are they larger than normal? Could her milk be coming in? She is starting to act like standing is a chore for her, poor girl. She begins to eat her grain lying down on the ground with her long neck stretched out and her head just reaching the bowl in a posture that is both sad and comical. The waiting is starting to seem endless! Why can’t she get on with it already?

 

very pregnant alpaca eating lying down
very pregnant Latte eating lying down

 

Meanwhile, Primrose is getting far more aggressive about getting some food when I come out with the bowls for the girls. She dives her head right in and ignores me if pet her on the neck or even between the ears. Her pregnancy is moving along as well, and the desire for food is suddenly outweighing her fears about being touched by people.

 

Polo has grown much taller in the couple months that we have had him, and is now unusually leggy for an alpaca. I will later find out that this legginess is common in male alpacas that were gelded early, at closer to one year old rather than two or two and a half years of age. Polo is still a little skinny, but Lindy, who is getting the same handful of grain as Polo is now a little chubby.   He will never grow to be very tall, but he is amazingly cute, like a little caramel-colored teddy bear with huge dark eyes.

 

On January 13th, Tom runs down from the barn at 9:45 yelling that the cria was coming! He had seen Latte lying down on her side, and her vulva was completely open and very red. Of course I had just taken a shower and was all wet! I dressed and ran up to the dusty barn, wet hair and all, only to find Latte standing up and calmly eating her hay, no sign of any impending birth. I stayed in the barn watching her for another 40 minutes, but nothing thrilling happened. I gave up and returned to the house.

 

I continue checking on the alpaca girls each hour that day, and at about 12:30 p.m., I think, “This is it!” I see Latte cush and then roll over on her left side. She lifts her tail and the skin under it bulges out a few inches like there are feet pressing against it from the inside. She makes a sound like a moan. My heart is racing. I am momentarily happy that the cria will come in broad daylight with the warm sun shining, but nothing further happens.

 

More than an hour later, I am still sitting outside the barn with the alpacas. The winds pick up sharply. There is going to be a storm. The alpacas are all cushed and Sammie, the dog, lies in on the ground near where I sit. The wind turns everything around us alive. Young trees bend over and snap back, and dried leaves skitter across the ground in large clumps looking like bands of brown mice that are running through the field. Miniature tornados made up of dust and small bits of hay whirl around in the air and some of them seem to attack the alpacas. I have to shield my face from the onslaught and Sammie has decided that he’s done with this. He trots back into the barn.   A few minutes later I also give in and the two of us retreat to the house.

 

That evening the temperature begins to drop dramatically, down from the 50s into the 20s, and winds are now gusting up to 40 miles per hour. I still climb up to the barn to check on Latte every hour or so, but now I am bundled up against the bitter cold. So much for the cria birth in warm sunny weather! I lock the alpacas in at nightfall with just a couple of barn windows open for fresh air. I don’t want to find a frozen cria on one of these nocturnal visits! Of course this means extra poop shoveling for me, as the alpacas are forced to poop in their pens all during the night.

 

On January 17th I call the vet and report that Latte is now more than two weeks overdue, and we are freaking out a little bit. The vet feels that this is nothing to worry about and explains that due dates for alpacas are a pretty fluid concept. They consider any birth between 11 months and 13 months of gestation to be in the normal range. Some of this may be due to the difficulty in knowing which breeding took, but some of it is definitely a variation in gestation time between alpaca females. Some girls tend to go early and some tend to go late. The chain of anxious waiting that links me to the barn may not be loosened up any time soon.

 

The last few days have been much colder. Our pond is almost completely frozen over. There is one small, un-frozen area where the underground springs feed it, and the poor ducks are crowded together, frantically paddling around this tiny spot, trying to keep what’s left of their water from freezing. They only desert their post when I bring the corn container out and dump the hard kernels on the ground for them to eat. There were snow flurries last night, but it was too cold for any real accumulation. Around midnight, I lock the alpacas back into the barn and crawl into my warm bed. Latte seemed her usual self, so I will not worry about her until morning.

 

newborn alpaca cria
newborn alpaca cria

 

Tom checks on the alpacas at 5:00 a.m, before driving off to work, and runs down the hill to tell me that the baby has been born in the night! He leaves for work, and I run up though four inches of fresh snow to the barn. The cria is a beautiful, female. She is a rosy fawn color that reminds me of a peach, and her fleece is still damp. There are pieces of partially dried amniotic sac sticking to her face and legs. She is tall and her legs seem spindly, but she is already scampering around and seems very healthy. The broken off stump of her belly button hangs down, reminding me that I need to fill a film canister with Novalsan and dip the stump in it to prevent infection. The cria puts up quite a struggle when I grab her to do this. She’s a little fighter. I dry her off with a towel and velcro a green cria coat on her to keep her warm. She races around the pen when I let her go. I feel a brief spurt of joy. Our first cria is born and she’s strong!

 

Latte seems bewildered though. She is not nudging her cria or even very interested in her. This is bad, as the cria begins to try to nurse, and Latte seems unwilling to let her. Meanwhile, Primrose is acting like the cria is hers. She is nudging her and humming at her. She is more worried about the poor little thing than her own mother is. I am forced to halter Primrose and put her in a pen next door so that she can’t interfere in the bonding between the new mother and baby. The thermometer in the barn reads 17 degrees!

 

At 6:15, I see Latte hold very still and push, and a giant purple bubble begins to emerge slowly out of her. It grows and grows, and finally a large gelatinous mass of placenta splats onto the ground. It looks like a whole, unbroken blob with some white streaks in it. I spend some quality time trying to shove this gooey mass into a plastic trash bag without wearing it all over me. This is one of those parts of alpaca farming that never make it into the glossy ads or television commercials – placenta wrangling. I hang a sling scale onto a rafter, pass the bellyband under the cria, and hoist her up to weigh her. She weighs 17 lbs. which is a good weight for a baby alpaca.

 

I spend a few hours in the barn, only leaving to get my own offspring ready for the school bus. They are very excited about the baby and eager to tell their friends that an alpaca was born on our farm. When I return to the barn I realize that Latte is still not wanting anything to do with her little girl.  The cria tries to duck under and feed every couple of minutes but Latte kicks at her and moves away. At 10:00 a.m. I warm up a bottle of cow colostrum from our neighbor the dairyman, and then I tie Latte up and milk out some of her colostrum into the bottle as well. Neither of us enjoys this process. Latte is pissed and tries hard to kick me, but I am pretty pissed off at this point too. We have a new baby to feed damn it!

 

Alpaca teats are not anything like as big as cow teats, even when full of milk, and the motion required to get the milk to shoot into the bottle is a difficult one to master. I am frustrated because I end up shooting some of the precious colostrum on myself, but I manage to get some of it into the bottle to mix with the cow colostrum. The cria sucks down the warm colostrum as fast as she can. She seems elated to finally be allowed to eat, but in less than twenty minutes, she tries to nurse again and Latte rejects her again. And she keeps rejecting her. What the hell? This is very hard to watch. Two hours later, all three of us go through the same routine again.

 

bottle feeding alpaca cria
bottle feeding alpaca cria

 

Tom comes home early from work and Latte is still being a complete bitch to her daughter. At 3:00 p.m. he holds Latte tight up against the pen gate, I crawl under her with the cria on my lap and hold the cria up to Latte’s teats. She sucks eagerly and I can hear her swallowing. Latte tries hard to kill us both by alternately kicking us and trying to collapse her legs and crush us underneath her, but we manage to get some nursing in for the cria. I keep thinking that Latte will calm down and realize that she must feed her baby, but she is acting like the cria isn’t hers.

 

Tom chains a space heater to the side of the pen to keep the cria warm while I frantically re-read my alpaca books. The cria should nurse within six hours of the birth, or it may not receive enough antibodies to fight off infection from common bacteria. Alpacas are born with no natural immunity. They are entirely dependent on getting the antibodies that recognize the bacteria from their mother’s colostrum. The antibodies are absorbed through the cria’s gut, but the receptors that can absorb them begin to close off after six hours, and they disappear completely within 12 – 24 hours after the birth. We don’t know the exact time of our girl’s birth, but she is certainly past the six-hour window now, and I doubt the small amount of milk we have been able to squeeze out of her struggling mother has been adequate. This could turn into a fatal situation for our beautiful little girl.

 

alpaca cria in coat with space heater
alpaca cria in coat with space heater

 

I call Antoinette and tell her what is going on. She says she is going to FedEx us a homeopathic remedy consisting of Bach Flower Essences containing Star of Bethlehem and Violets and that should help, but it won’t arrive until tomorrow morning, and it will take a few days for the dose to build up. She wants to know if we have tried the trick of taking the placenta and rubbing it all over the cria to remind the new mother that the cria is hers. We did not know this trick. The placenta is now gone. It turns out that the shiny, new cria coat might not have been the best idea either. It may have changed the cria’s appearance and smell at a time when her dam was already confused. Of course THAT warning is not on the package or advertising for the cria coat.   Antoinette suggests rubbing a little bit of vanilla on the mother’s nose and the cria’s rump, which I later try to no avail. She also tells me to call the vet and ask them to do an IGG transfer on the cria. On her final point Antoinette is adamant, we should NOT end up bottle-feeding this cria! We HAVE to keep forcing the issue until the mother takes her back and begins to feed her!

 

We have well over 6 inches of snow on the ground now and the temperature will drop again tonight. I am praying that this new little life will survive. I have to think of a name for her. I cannot describe the feeling that I had when I was crouched under Latte with the cria on my lap, holding her little mouth to her dam’s teats. She was so soft and brand new and perfect, and she wanted to live so badly. I wish I could wrap my arms around her and take her to the warm house with me and hold her on my lap, but this is how berserk alpacas are created; someone wanting to treat livestock like a baby.

 

At 7:30 p.m. Tom and I perform our routine. He holds Latte immobile while I scoot under and hold the cria’s mouth to her dam’s teats. It is exhausting work to hold and direct the baby’s head all crouched down under there. My back is beginning to protest. Since her mom is still fighting us and refusing to let her daughter nurse, I put the cria coat back on. The temperature is supposed to get down to 15 degrees tonight. In between forced feedings with her dam, I feed the cria more warmed-up cow colostrum.

 

I feel discouraged that so much has gone wrong with the very first birth on our farm. While the alpaca ads claim that most crias come in the daytime between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., ours came late at night. We failed to figure out that the dam was due for winter when we bought her. Then the dam rejects her own cria and refuses to let her nurse. Where was that chapter in the book? Also, I am sick. My head aches and my throat feels like I have swallowed a burning coal. I take the night off to get some sleep while poor Tom does bottle-feeding duty in the barn.

 

Tom, bottle feeding alpaca cria
Tom, bottle feeding cria

 

The next few days are a blur. Al Rogers plows our driveway one morning because it is covered with more snow. I now have swollen glands so I begin to take a course of antibiotics that we have laying around the house, rather than waste time trying to go to the doctor. Sometimes I trudge down the hill from the farm between cria feeding sessions and don’t bother to take off my snow boots or jacket. I lie on the guest room bed with my feet hanging over the edge and sleep like that for an hour. At one late night feeding, when Latte is particularly adamant that she’d rather squash her cria than let her eat, I lose my temper and yell at her and smack her hard on the side.  Latte’s expression changes from furious to shocked. I am so ashamed of myself for losing my temper. I hate myself, but I hate her a little too.  We are locked together in this battle of cold, dirt, stubbornness and anxiety with this bright little life awaiting the outcome.

 

The vet has located a bag of plasma from an alpaca dam whose cria had been stillborn. The next day we hang it from the barn rafter so it can drip though a tube and needle into the cria’s abdomen. The cria is lying on her side, on a hay bale with a blanket over it and I am practically lying on top of her. Small as she is, it takes all of my strength to hold her down while we do the IGG transfer. This treatment costs a fortune too, but at least she will not become septic and die due to a lack of antibodies – I hope. The vet gives Latte a shot of Banamine and a shot of Lasix, thinking that pain and swelling may be making her unwilling to nurse her cria.

 

Latte has now been tied up and forced to feed her cria several times a day for several days, and I am seeing a slight change in her demeanor. She still fights like hell when she is tied up and when the cria is first scooted under her, but she seems to give up fighting after a minute and stand there looking mad. The cria is fine with this routine, but does not like the bottle as much as she once did. I have to work to get her to suck it. Sometimes I let her suck my finger a moment and then switch the bottle into her mouth quickly to fool her, a trick I learned when trying to get my own children changed over from breast to bottle. I have no idea if she is getting enough, but she is very active.

 

Life goes on. I fit my cria feedings into the rest of our activities. One morning I drive the kids up our long, gravel driveway to meet the school bus, but later, when I try to drive back up to meet their bus in the afternoon, I get the van stuck in a snowdrift halfway up the hill. Continuous use of the driveway for a hundred and some years had caused it to sink a couple of feet below the level of the corn and hay fields on either side of it. Sometime between morning and afternoon, the wind had blown fiercely through the cornfield and pushed the powdery snow from there into the much lower, freshly plowed, driveway. The snowdrift is a couple of feet high.

 

On top of getting the van stuck, I had foolishly brought Sammie along for the ride. I jumped out of the van, holding his little body against me and began to push my way through the snow, desperate to make the school bus drop off at the top of the hill. No bus driver would let two elementary school kids out alone at the top of a long driveway, in the snow, but if the kids were returned to school how would I pick them up with a stuck van? Half jogging through the snow, dog in arms, I made it to the bus stop sweaty yet on time, but there was no sign of the school bus.

 

So Sammie and I wait in the bitter cold wind and boot-chilling snow for the next 35 minutes. I am holding him against me to keep his little paws off of the snow, but he is shivering terribly in my arms. What if the school bus has slid off of the road? It does this with some regularity on the hilly, rural roads here. I can’t just leave when my children could show up any minute, but what if my elderly dog freezes to death? What I would not give to have a regular house with a front door a few feet from the street like a normal person right now! I am about to stomp over to the house down the street, at the next bus stop, and throw both the dog and myself on the unknown homeowner’s mercy when I finally see the bright yellow of the school bus approaching. My kids are home! The driver had to get around some accidents in the slippery snow, causing the delay. I am so relieved to be free of the endless, anxious waiting that I almost don’t mind the slog back down the hill. The kids are super-happy with their snow hike adventure, blissfully unaware of their mom’s earlier anguish. I just have time to get them settled in the house before going up the hill to feed the cria again. Farm life is not for people who value personal comfort.

 

January 22nd is a Saturday. Tom and I do the forcible nursing thing at 2:00 a.m. 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and give the cria her bottle as well. Then I give Latte another treatment of the flower remedy. The cria has gained 1 lb.! Meanwhile I have checked the International Llama Registry for possible names and found that all of the variations of Peach, Peachy and Apricot are taken. Since this plucky little cria has fought so heroically to stay alive, through so many bitter nights, despite her dam’s mistreatment, I decide to name her Scheherazade after the heroine of 1001 Arabian Nights. We will call her “Cher” for short.

 

Desperate for some kind of breakthrough, Tom and I begin to experiment. We let Primrose back into the pen with Cher and Latte to see if it would cheer up Latte to have her friend back, and make her more willing to nurse Cher. It seemed to make no difference during the nursing ordeal, but after we untied Latte and let Cher go, Primrose acted very interested in Cher again. She sniffed and sniffed her and blew on Cher’s behind like she was encouraging her to poop. When Cher peed, Primrose got even more excited and sniffy, but then Cher tried to duck under HER and nurse and Primrose kicked out as her in an all too familiar way. Suddenly, Latte seemed interested in sniffing Cher for the first time, but still didn’t let Cher nurse. I have no idea what this all means, but based on the similarity of Primrose and Latte’s reactions to Cher’s attempt to nurse, it does seem like Latte thinks Cher is not hers.

 

Antoinette calls again and tells us not to do any more experimenting! Keep the same routine and do it quickly, but try to see if I can sneak out from under Latte halfway through and leave  Cher nursing under her dam alone. We try it and it works! It’s not like Latte is not still tied up with Tom holding her, but she is not trying to kick or smash down on Cher anymore. She’s just standing there. We have hope! Antoinette also insists that I give Cher a baby enema. This is done routinely on her farm to make sure crias pass the meconium; otherwise it can make them sick. I’m not sure about this, but I do the enema and Cher does pass a little, dark poop afterwards. I have now milked one alpaca and given an enema to another. I’m living the alpaca lifestyle dream here.

 

Over the next few days we see progress. Latte still must be tied up, but now requires a lot less holding during the nursing sessions. I can stand up soon after putting Cher under, and now I talk to Latte and stroke her, and this seems to help. Latte can’t decide what she wants anymore. Sometimes she bites my coat nervously; sometimes she leans into me and hums softly and mournfully. Sometimes she looks angry and makes a gurgley, noise like she is hocking up some chewed cud into her throat so she can’t spit it on me, but she doesn’t actually spit. She just wants me to know she could spit on me. Every now and then she rears up and throws her chest at me, just to remind me that she doesn’t have to put up with this B.S. if she doesn’t want to, and I have to jump backward out of her way. A few weeks ago I would have found this intimidating, but now I see it as an expression of frustration on her part. Latte really does not know that Cher is hers and she does not understand why we are making her feed some other dam’s cria.

 

Midnight and 2:00 a.m. in the barn are pretty weird. I feel like the only person awake in the whole world, walking up the gravel driveway in the snow, the crisp air and the moonlight. I hear animals moving and breathing all around me. Last night, I kept hearing an owl that was so loud I thought he must be very close, but I couldn’t figure out where he was. Still the moon has been so bright, and the snow so reflective, that I can see every tree branch and dark shape in the woods behind the barn. It’s beautiful and exhilarating out here. I feel like I have more in common with the wild animals outside than my neighbors, inside their warm, comfortable houses. Do any of them wonder about the life and death struggles going on outdoors in the midst of this cold, windy night?

 

On Sunday evening we finally have a breakthrough. Tom held Latte by the halter and got Cher under her nursing without having to tie Latte up. As soon as he haltered her, Latte stood still and let Cher under. I try the same thing at midnight and I am able to do it too. Latte has decided to give in and feed Cher – at least while we are there watching. We begin to believe that our feeding ordeal might end.

 

By January 25th, 10 more inches of snow have fallen and we still had not gotten rid of the last snowfall. The new storm came with howling winds and the hard-driven, icy kind of snow that stings your face. Tom drove off to work, of course. Having lived in Rhode Island for years, he refuses, on principle, to consider bad weather a reason to skip work.

 

Sammie would not go out and pee during the storm. I have to physically carry him outside and drop him on a shoveled spot on the driveway. Up in the barn at 9:00 a.m. things are looking very good. I hold Latte lightly while Cher scoots under and gets down to nursing. Latte hardly seems mad or distressed at all anymore, but she does still chew on my coat in a whiny way. Since she was being a good mom, I gave her a bowl of extra grain as a reward. She bent her head down to eat out of the bowl and Cher ducked right under her and began to nurse again. I was about two feet away from them. This is working!

 

Four feedings later I am tired and don’t know what to hope for. We got more snow. I am not sure how much, but it is over a foot, and some forecasters are saying we will get 20 inches total. Getting up to the barn is getting harder. The gravel driveway to the barn has not been pIowed yet. I have to slog my way up the hill through the deep snow. I start pulling one of the kids’ sleds up with me for each nursing session so that I can ride it back down the hill but my sledding skills are questionable. I have to roll off the sled at the end of the hill to avoid hitting our front steps or the propane tank. It’s not a graceful maneuver.

 

Latte seems to be in the holding pattern. She will let Cher nurse if I halter her and talk to her, but she still seems very stressed out. She has progressed from chewing on my clothing to chewing on the walls of her pen now. The poor gal has not been able to go outside in the fresh air for a week and she looks miserable when the other alpacas trot outside. But the snow is too deep for little Cher to walk through. Tom and I rig up, and shovel out, a small pen outside so that Latte and Cher can at least get some fresh air and sunshine.

 

cria and dam enclosure
cria and dam enclosure

 

On January 26th Latte and Cher went into the outside pen. They couldn’t go more than a few feet outside, but they had a great time out there. Cher raced back and forth and tasted the snow every few minutes. Latte just stood in the sun and looked happy for the first time since Cher’s birth. Casey and Nick came up to play, but they had a hard time keeping away from Cher and the feeling was mutual. Cher was thrilled to see these new creatures enter her world. I had to remind them frequently not to touch Cher too much.

 

alpaca cria curious about human boy
Cher curious about Nick

 

That night, at midnight, I trudged dejectedly up the hill to the barn, through the deep snow and bitter wind. When I walked inside and shut the door I saw Latte and Cher cushed together! They both jumped up when they saw me. Cher immediately scooted under Latte to nurse, and Latte stood still as a statue and let her. I can’t believe this. It finally happened! I got some grain for latte, quietly put the bowl down in front of her and left. I hated not giving Cher her usual bottle-feeding, worrying that she might be hungry in the night, but I didn’t dare intrude on the fragile, new bonding between dam and cria. I feel hopeful again.

 

Tom checks the alpacas at 5:00 a.m. the next morning and sees the same behavior, mother and daughter cushed together, then getting to their feet and nursing. I check them every few hours during the day and each time see the same beautiful, gratifying scene.

 

Sometime, during one of those long nights in the barn, I began to wonder why we only thought about buying, young, inexperienced alpaca females. Certainly the maidens are the only females we would have seen at an alpaca show. In addition to a show venue being way too stressful for a pregnant dam, no female ever looks quite so perfect after she has given birth and nursed a cria. The following year she may be gestating a cria while nursing last year’s cria. This process uses up a lot of energy that could have been used to grow a large fleece or store up some extra fat on the dam, making her more attractive.

 

It’s not possible to say with 100% certainty that choosing a dam that had already produced a nice, healthy cria, had plenty of milk for it, and had demonstrated a good mothering instinct, would have spared us the mess we lived through with Latte and Cher. It’s not unheard of for an experienced dam to get confused about whether a cria is hers, if she and her cria get separated somehow, or another female butts in too much, but this confusion is far more common in first time dams. Latte will live to have many more cria, but she will never refuse to nurse the others. In fact, she will one day take on an orphaned cria and successfully nurse it along with her own, a feat that is relatively rare in alpacas.

 

Why are humans inclined to find young, inexperienced animals more beautiful than those who have successfully produced and nurtured their young, even when the purpose of those animals is breeding? Why are we not hardwired to see signs of experience as physically attractive, especially when that experience produced a healthy offspring? It feels like Mother Nature may have gotten this one wrong somehow.

 

In my future life as an alpaca breeder, I will try over and over to convince first time buyers that they ought to choose an experienced dam, with a proven track record, to start their own breeding business, but I will end up convincing no one but myself. The next alpaca I buy will have a female cria at her side.

Chapter 4

The Storm Comes

watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson
watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson

“Why?”  This is the question on everyone’s mind when they find out that you will have, do have, or have had an alpaca farm.  How do a pharmacist and a computer programmer, neither of whom have ever lived on a farm, both of whom work for the Federal Government, decide to start an alpaca breeding farm?

I was currently living on a farm, with livestock,  and a husband who wanted to start a farm business.  Tom had been researching farm options even as I planned to go back to my safe, predictable life as a computer programmer.  He briefly researched vineyards, but we were already surrounded by boutique vineyards.  He looked into aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, but I couldn’t share his excitement about fish.  Finally he started mentioning alpacas.  I found the idea of fluffy, pretty alpacas very tempting, but way too risky.  Investing hard-earned money and years of work while taking a chance on wasting it all?  I couldn’t see myself doing something crazy like that!  I didn’t know then that I was about to be hit with the cosmic two-by-four.

For the last few years I had been increasingly concerned about my father, Tom.  Since his name is the same as my husband’s I’ll call him Col. Tom.  He and my mother, Ruth, had retired to Lewes Delaware after a 30+ year military career.  Lewes was then an adorable little beach town with many Victorian houses, one main road, a few shops and restaurants, and a ferry terminal from which the ferries sailed to Cape May, New Jersey.  It was about two and a half hours from our farm, and I visited often with the kids.

Both of my parents grew up in the 1920’s,  during the Great Depression.  My dad had been working on the loading docks in Boston when World War II began.  He signed up to fight and was sent to Algiers in North Africa.  He sometimes remarked that, upon joining the Army, he had the experience of being able to eat as much as he wanted for the first time in his life.  

Despite being poor, my dad was an excellent student and very, very smart.  He was great at math, but he loved history, poetry and literature as well.  He was crazy about art, and dreamed of being a painter one day. He was excited to see the exotic scenery of Algeria and Tunisia, ride camels, and study the customs of the Arabs.  It was during the winding down of this campaign that my dad’s commanding officer informed him that he was nominating him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  My dad was sent to Amherst College in Massachusetts to prepare.  The rest of his company moved on to Italy.  Most of them would die there.

No one in Col. Tom’s family had entertained the idea of going to college.  For these grandchildren of tough Irish immigrants, college was something only rich people did.  The war, and one commanding officer, changed the course of my father’s life.  He graduated from West Point with honors, and a degree in engineering.  The Army sent him to several more schools including the  famous Defense Language Institute in Monterey California.  Col. Tom ended up a PH.d.

He stayed in the Army and lived all over the world.  In addition to WWII, Col. Tom  served multiple tours in Vietnam. He had a messy dresser drawer full of commendation medals and award certificates.  During his long career he had been a paratrooper, a commanding officer, a professor at West Point, and a base commander.  He had lived in Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Korea, Alaska, Michigan, Texas, San Francisco, Virginia, Brazil and New York.  He had traveled all over Europe, Asia, South America and other exotic locales, plunking down his easel in spare moments and painting whatever took his fancy.  He had painted canvases in Rome, Portugal, Paris and Madrid, often sporting a corny, Picasso-style beret.

Man in beret black and white
Col Tom with his corny beret looking dashing in postwar Germany

Now my dad was starting to seem confused, agitated, annoyed; a different person than the one I knew.  Both of my parents prided themselves on being proper New Englanders.  They controlled themselves in all situations, and outward shows of annoyance by either of them had been extremely rare.  Maybe most people get more cranky when they are old, but the change in my father was more dramatic.  

On my latest visit my dad had asked me several times how to work his own camera.  Each time I answered, he seemed satisfied, but later he asked the same question again.  He had recently bought his first computer but could not work it, even after I explained it to him.  This purchase especially frightened me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s sudden desire to own a computer was because he thought it could be used to make sense of the information that his brain no longer processed correctly.  

Col. Tom’s mother had probably died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1970s. We did not witness her last years or her death. We were living in Asia then.   I’m not sure her type of dementia was ever officially diagnosed, but  we knew of erratic, confused behavior that required her to have a live in caretaker for several years.    By the time of my dad’s illness we knew that the tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease is partly inherited .  I hated the idea of being the one to bring up my father’s declining mental abilities.  I didn’t want to face what might be coming, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing either.  I felt that there must be some treatment that could help him.  On the first week in January of 1996, I went to Delaware to pick up my parents and bring them back to stay at our farm.  

I had spent several months trying to get my father a neurology appointment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  The Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, near my parents’ house, no longer offered any medical treatment for retired military personnel.  Bethesda still offered care, but it took multiple phone calls, and weeks or months of waiting, to secure one appointment and only those who lived in the area were eligible.  We had to claim my parents as  dependents of my husband, who was then active duty U.S. Public Health Service.  This stuck in the craw of my parents, who had seen their country through two wars and had been promised health care by the government they trusted, but there was no way around it. 

 My father was not yet clear on the true reason for this appointment, I had let him think it was a follow-up from a previous urology appointment, but my mother knew what it was about, and she was angry and resentful.  She had loved and admired this man for so long that she couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge what might be happening.  I wasn’t sure I could stand to know the truth either.  I felt like Pandora with my hand on the lid of the box.

We arrived back in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon.  The fateful appointment was set for Monday morning.  The Weather Service was forecasting a few inches of snow that weekend, but nothing our 4-wheel drive van couldn’t handle.  The atmosphere in the house was tense, but the kids were thrilled to see Grandma and Grandpa. 

The snow began falling hard on Saturday morning and kept on falling.  The storm began to look more and more serious.  The weather predictions about inches of snow became a foot and then more like two feet.  Tom climbed on his tractor and started to clear the driveway.  In a few hours the snow was too deep to push and he had to lift it up in the bucket of the tractor’s front loader and throw it off of the driveway.  Hours kept passing and snow kept falling.

Tom on the tractor in the snow
Tom on the tractor in the snow

I was starting to panic.  I had exhausted most of my personal courage in bullying my parents into coming home with me to attend an appointment where we might find out that what we most dreaded had come to pass.  What if we couldn’t make the appointment now?  Would I start the months of waiting and phone calls over again?  And, what if I couldn’t convince my parents to come home with me the next time?  Was the Universe just screwing with me now?   

I worried about my poor husband, out in the freezing wind and falling snow for what would turn out to be more than eight hours on the tractor.  He had never worked a marathon tractoring session like this before.  When I had spare worrying time, I worried about the goats.  How would they get to the brook to drink if there were two feet of snow in their paddock?  Who knew when we could get around to clearing a path to their barn to check on them?

This last fear turned out to be unfounded.  While my mother played with the children, Tom tractored snow, and my father and I shoveled pathways from the house to the garage, the goats were calmly engaging in their own survival plan.  They single-mindedly walked back and forth from the goat palace to the brook, over an over, all during the storm.  They would end up doing this for two full days.  In this way, they kept a snowy corridor to their drinking water open.  Once again, the goats had proven their superiority as a species. 

Tom finally came in, half-frozen and exhausted, just as night began to fall.  The tractor was out of diesel fuel.  The Weather Service informed us that another snowstorm was approaching rapidly.  Our situation was looking hopeless.  This was turning out to be a record-breaking storm and now we had no fuel for the tractor.

Sunday morning came.  Snow was falling again, but a small miracle had also happened.  The diesel fuel fairy had visited.  One of the Rogers, our wonderful, generous neighbors, had tied a large container of diesel fuel to an old-fashioned, runner sled and sent it sledding down our driveway.  We had not called them, they guessed that we had probably run out.  We had fuel!

Tom and I decided to move our van up to the top of the long, winding driveway, a few feet from the main road.   This is something we had learned to do when the driveway might be impassable for a while.  It is far easier to trudge up a snowy or icy driveway on foot than manage to drive most vehicles up it.  Tom attaches the van to the tractor with a chain and pulls it up while I nervously steer from inside the van, trying to keep it from sliding off the driveway.  

With the van parked safely at the top, I hike down through the lumpy snow and chilly air to the house where my parents and children wait.  Tom goes back to his lonely, cold, snow removal job.  He moves a few feet forward, lowers the bucket of the front loader, scoops up snow, lifts the bucket in the air, backs the tractor at an angle to one of the snowy walls on either side of him and dumps the snow over.  He does this for almost another full day.    Sometime in the afternoon he trudges back down the driveway to the house with more bad news.  The tractor’s axle has broken.  

We now have close to four feet of snow on the ground, but the storm is finally stopping, and most of the driveway is cleared.  We might be able to shovel the rest by hand.   Tom and I climb back up, lugging our snow shovels to the spot near the end of our driveway that is not yet cleared, and begin to dig.  It is miserable work.  I am sweaty and cold at the same time and my arms are aching from the effort of lifting the snow chest high to throw it high enough to clear the walls.  Sometimes I do it wrong and some of the snow plops back down on my head or slides down the neck of my parka.  Sometimes the wind blows it back into our faces.  We make progress, but soon the sun is setting and the cold is growing.  We are not going to make it.  We head back down before the dark overtakes us.  I try to be thankful that we have not lost our electricity or our roof.  Others have not been that lucky.  The news is full of stories of roofs caved in from the heavy snow.

Our driveway after snow removal
Our driveway after snow removal

Something makes us climb back up the hill early Monday morning to assess our hopeless situation.  Another miracle has occurred.  Someone has cleared the last part of our driveway of most of the snow, then hooked a chain to our van and yanked it out, adjacent to the road.  This time our guardian angel will turn out to be the Rogers’ son-in-law Ed, owner  of the auto repair garage in town.  Tom and I slip and slide excitedly down the driveway to the house to get my father.  We are going to keep our appointment!

We will reach the Naval Hospital an hour and a half later only to find it is officially closed.  The entire government has been shut down due to the record snowfall.  Only some of the lights are on inside, and there are hardly any people around.  The huge hospital feels like a ghost town, but we find out that there is a skeleton crew of doctors on duty.    Most of them have no patients to care for.  This results in my father getting all of the necessary tests in one day.  He is seen by the neurologist, X-rays are taken.  A CAT scan is performed.  Blood is drawn, tested and the results explained to us.  The tests last for almost 7 hours.  This seems like a very lucky break for us as these tests would normally be spread out over half a dozen appointments,  but the marathon of unfamiliar testing begins to seem sinister to my father.  He becomes paranoid and agitated as the day wears on. 

By the end of the day we have confirmation that Col. Tom has dementia and the neurologist does not think it is in the beginning stages either, but the middle.  My dad has been hiding it well, but now that he is exhausted and disoriented from the long hours of testing, it is all too obvious.  We have to talk him into going home with us.  He does not trust us, especially me.  He will later come to believe that his mental problems are my fault; that it began this day when I took him to people who experimented on his brain.  He will begin to hate and fear me, even as I continue to make him appointments and take him back to the same hospital, hoping for a treatment that can stop the progress of his disease.  Eventually, he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease but they will not find a treatment that can slow it.  

My father’s descent into madness was not caused by the terrible storm, but the two things  are forever connected in my brain.  The feeling of being trapped, cold, helpless, while the snow keeps falling and falling merges with the dread of endless waiting in the empty, dark hospital for the confirmation of something I don’t want to know.  My dad, the brilliant, brave, artistic Colonel is gone.  

It feels unfair that all this effort will lead to nothing except him hating me and believing that I betrayed him.  During the next few years I will often hope for a  magical, T.V.-movie ending where my father has a moment of lucidity and tells me, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”  This being real life, that moment won’t come.

Slowly I will begin to understand certain things.  We do our best, but we are not in control, not of the weather, not of our own fate.  Playing it safe does not make us safe.  We are never really safe.  I knew these things on some level, but since the storm, I really know them.  I am ready to take a crazy chance.  I’m ready to live a braver life.  I am ready to breed alpacas for a living.

Man and child in snow storm
Col. Tom and his granddaughter brave the storm