Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Janet is fond of recounting how the two of us lived together in a 280-square-foot bunkhouse for three years.

That is an exaggeration. It wasn't 280 square feet. It was smaller than that. Neither was it a bunkhouse. That is a euphemism. It started out as the wranglers' shack at the Golden Horseshoe Stables. Emphasis on shack.

When the stables were torn down, Janet paid good money to have the ruin she lovingly called the bunkhouse dragged over a few feet to her property to bask in all its lopsided grandeur.

It had a funky front door, but no back door, although there was a nice hole where one might go if there ever might be a reason to close up the place. There was a rusted wood stove that threatened to ignite the estate whenever anyone had the guts to start a fire. On the other hand, it did have an overhead sprinkler system (also known as a leaky roof).

It had thick plank flooring deeply scarred over the years by the spurs of many a wrangler killing time sitting around a table playing dominoes on a rainy summer afternoon.

There was no bathroom, no kitchen, no water, no electricity. Maybe “shack” was too kind a word.

Janet confided in me one day soon after we met that her dream was to move from her big, real house on the front of the property to her precious bunkhouse at the backside of the half-acre.

If only..., she sighed. If only she had a big, strong, smart, visionary of a man to make it all happen. Ta-dah.

Electricity, plumbing, new interior walls and ceiling and a back door, even, got the old gal (Bunkhouse) gussied up and the big moving day came about a year later. Somehow we squeezed into that tiny space a nice bathroom, a kitchen area with a full size oven, a built-in dishwasher, a refrigerator and a used-brick area crowned with a hand-hewed juniper mantle for the wood stove.

We were able to add a loft area for the bed and closet, all accessible by a rustic kiva-style ladder. It was not possible to stand up in the loft, so we had to walk hunched over. Not too hard once you get the hang of it.

That wood stove was our only heat. One year we went through 11 cords of wood, all split by that, sigh, big, strong guy.

What memories! Our Bunkhouse was a few feet from Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest land, only a short walk to the Little Colorado River and some ponds and beyond that...wilderness. It was possible in theory to walk straight out that new back door, cross the meadow and river and keep going east all the way to Texas without encountering anything resembling a town.

Whenever we heard – and felt – things that go bump in the night we knew it was an elk bumbling against our home while partaking of a few offerings from our garden.

That garden gave us bumper crops of lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, garlic and potatoes. The growing season is short in Arizona high country, where the danger of frost doesn't pass until June 15 and a freeze is possible by September 1. So some things can't be grown.

Salads were a nightly summer staple, for us and the critters.

One summer afternoon, I headed out the back door with my fishing pole and a few night crawlers taken hostage that morning from our driveway. “Going to catch dinner,” I told Janet in my most-confidant tone. She issued a non-believing chuckle in return.

It wasn't but a half-hour later I was walking back across the meadow with a string of rainbow trout. Janet screeched with delight. Trout from the river. A potato and salad from our garden. Ahhhhh!

The Bunkhouse is where I learned to eat mushrooms gathered in the damp hillsides in late summer.

Janet taught me how to find and identify a shaggy mane, the only non-poisonous one she was confidant of getting right.

The first time we did this together, we brought home shaggy manes to have with our steak. Janet cooked them to perfection. The next day, she took the leftover, cooked mushrooms and turned them into a gravy. The next day, she took those leftovers and turned them into a soup. Yum.

Trying to hold up my end of the food thing, I gathered wild raspberries in season from the shore around Badger Pond and baked occasional loaves of bread. I always had to make two loaves: One for us to eat as it came out of the oven and the other to eat over the next day or two. Two days? Who are we kidding? It was gone within 36 hours.

One of our favorites was the garden herb loaf recipe straight from the Fleischmann yeast book.

Good food smells are so intensified in such a small space. That is what we blame our Bunkhouse Diet on, but more about that in a later blog. (Hint: Bunkhouse Diet has nothing to do with losing weight.)

Adding to our bounty that first year was the “harvesting” of an elk by HD. We dined often on elk and loved the flavor.

During a visit by children, Janet fixed a delicious sausage gravy for our morning biscuits. We didn't inform a squeamish one, JC, that it was made from elk until after she ate. She nearly lost it and gave us a look that said: Why are you trying to poison me?

We kept a bowl of dry food on the front porch for our dogs, Ski and Oso, who ate from it when they couldn't find anything better. They once dragged home the hind-quarter of an elk and on another occasion came home with a whole pizza.

Oso and Ski...a rare nap in the Bunkhouse
Raccoons, skunks and bears also visited our feeding station. We learned from experience that Milk Bone dog biscuits brought in the bears, so quit leaving those outside.

One of our dogs, Oso, was strange. He appeared normal but would never let anyone, including us, touch him. Neither would he eat if he knew someone was watching.

On one summer evening when the weather cooperated, we dined on our back deck with a couple who was renting a nearby cabin. Our lady guest fancied herself to be a dog whisperer and offered to communicate with Oso for us.

If this had been a betting situation, I would have put all my money on Oso, who was keeping his usual 12 feet of distance from us. Dog Whisperer talked gently to Oso, who retreated one foot for every foot DW advanced.

DW eventually got down and rolled around in the meadow grass in an attempt, I guess, to bond with Oso. He would have none of it and gave our guest amused looks from his position, 12 feet away.

When the futile dance was over, we thanked DW for the performance. It had been a great meal, entertainment and all. Oso wagged his tail.

We had run electricity to the bunkhouse underground, so the sagging structure gave no outward appearance that it was habitable. Once in a while, a tourist from the city would carefully approach and look in the window and proclaim: “My God. Someone is living in there!” That made us proud.

Janet's friends from Tucson came to visit with the excuse that they wanted to wish her a happy birthday. They really just wanted to make sure she was okay.
Eventually, I attached a satellite TV dish to the outside wall and that really befuddled the tourists.

We didn't watch much TV, as the outside wildlife activities kept us entertained. Coyotes, bobcats, deer, migrating waterfowl, bald eagles and, of course, elk. Two blue herons nested on a small island in a small pond out back. We named them Gilligan and Mary Ann.

Another activity to pass the time was snow shoveling. One time, a particularly nasty storm left a big drift across our driveway. Janet and I both set out to shovel an opening for our truck.

We hadn't been at it too long when Dan Leeds stopped his car on the street. Dan is a native of the mountain, a self-employed logger, the guy who made the Greer fire department a reality.

Without a word, he grabbed a shovel from his car and started digging. We told him how much we appreciated his help.

“That's what neighbors are for,” he replied as he kept shoveling.

Janet offered him a bowl of posse stew as a reward, which Dan graciously accepted.

Good food. Good memories.
By guest blogger, Prickly Pete

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