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ReneeThere she was arse-over-teakettle, as we sometimes say, hanging by her pant leg cuff from the gate post. What could we do but laugh? Her horse was calmly standing there waiting for the shenanigans to end. So far as we could tell only her dignity was in trouble. This was one of the many little “events” that made my trail rides with my old girlfriends so fun and worthy of tall-tales over a cup of coffee at the local constabulary.

For years my friends Abigail and Clara (names changed to protect the innocent) and I had a trail ride every Sunday. Abigail had a key to a section of the local watershed that was off-limits to the public. She had come by this key years ago when she helped the ranchers who leased the land to move their cattle from pasture to pasture. This particular section of forest was set next to a large reservoir and was only open to the ranchers and the forest service. But Abigail had the key and she kept it safe because it allowed us to ride unencumbered of the public with their joggers, baby strollers and any number of things that might make a horse spook and head for the hills. We always rode on Sunday because that was the day we were least likely to come upon a forest service employee. Hence, we called it “The Sunday Key”.


The particular Sunday we had the incident of The Pants we were riding toward the section and we were going through a gate. We all had our horses trained to open gates from horseback so we didn’t have to get down and back up. Clara had worn regular pants that day that had floppy legs and when she went through the gate somehow her pant leg got caught on the gate post. Her lovely mare kept walking and the next thing you know Clara was hanging from the post like a Christmas tree ornament. She wasn’t very happy that we thought it was so funny but once she extricated herself she had a good laugh, too. Whew! Escaped a harrowing situation and lived to tell the tale.

The ride we took was through pine woods next to the reservoir and up through hilly oak savanna grassland. Near the reservoir there were egrets and their aeries. There were also large flocks of pelicans wheeling in precision flight. But mostly there was silence and peace. It was the perfect place to leave the cares of the world behind and to find our center again. We rode on fire roads that were wide and graded dirt that was perfect footing for horses. We could walk our horses or trot and if there was a good place we might take a little hand-gallop up the hill to the pylon where the view was spectacular. From there we could see the undulating hills of the coast range, the reservoir in one direction and the hills going out to the bay in the other. The days were hot and dry and the grass rustled in the breeze as we walked along. Even though the air temperature was hot it was relatively cool under the pine trees. It was the perfect place to discuss and solve the world’s problems from horseback.


(caption: Photo courtesy of Melissa White of Western Trail Rides in Ojai, California)

Once Abigail decided we should go “cross-country”. She was certain that there was an old trail and that she could find it. The next thing we knew we were committed to ducking through overgrown coyote brush to push through to somewhere more amenable. You can back a horse up but not very well especially when you find yourself in brush that is head high and dense.

Another time we learned that the bull in the cattle lease got left behind when they moved the cows out. We decided that we should go find it. We looked up hill, down hill, pillar and post but never found it. Yet, we found superb vistas and cool ravines. It was always worth the adventure.

Now we are all older and we’ve gone in different ways. One of us can’t really ride any more due to physical infirmities. I live far away. Only one of us still rides a lot but she has gone on to a different discipline which has her in an arena most of the time. Yet those days of the Sunday Ride still linger in my mind. They were the best of days and they will only be forgotten when we’re not around to remember them.


Renee-Lucie BenoitA flat bed truck is a very useful item on a ranch or small farm. It’s a lot easier to load and unload when you have to haul hay or straw, grain or feed sacks. If you have a regular bed truck, you can convert it into a flat bed with a little bit of effort. And you’ll save a LOT of money! If you have physical strength, patience and welding experience, you will be all set to try this. Otherwise just leave it to an experienced person. My aim here is to give you a taste of what you’d be getting into if you think you might want to do-it-yourself.

Our F-250 truck bed was getting dinged beyond recognition, and we already had another F-250 regular-bed truck that was in good shape. It was going to be helpful to have a flat bed for the various tasks we had around the place. So one day last fall we decided to just do it. The first step was to find a used flat bed frame in the classifieds. We lucked out and found one pretty close by for $600. Usually these things are standard size and construction, but it’s prudent to measure your truck before you go and to bring the tape measure when you get there. The one we found was perfect. It just needed to be sanded, primed and painted. Which we did and then it was time to attach it to the truck.

BUT first…

If there’s a bed liner, remove it. Look to see if screws are holding it in place. If there are remove them. Otherwise just yank ‘er on outta there. Take ‘er to your junk pile.


Have your finished flat bed on a raised platform. You will eventually be positioning the naked truck frame under it. At the Ranch we’re gerry-riggers to the Nth degree so we used old metal drums and 4x6 post beams. Be careful!


Now remove the bed from the truck. First find the bolts that attach the bed to the frame. They probably look something like this …


Remove the bolts and save them for using when you attach the flat bed.

This is where the fun begins. You have to lift the bed out gradually by jacking and pulling a little bit at a time. We didn’t have a hydraulic lift or block and tackle. We’re on a shoe string budget. At first The Husband tried to do this by brute force. Vlad the Magnificent. My opinion? I think they just need to try themselves because that’s what they do. He finally had to admit he was no superman. This is where superior brain power comes in so handy.




He used posts to brace and lift and a come-along attached to a tree to pull. Then with jockeying back and forth, all of a sudden – Voila! We did all this at the junk pile so all we had to do was drive away. Bye, bye little bed. You’ve been great!


The next step is to position the naked frame under the new flat bed. Drive carefully. This is where a helper is so handy. Once you have it exactly where you want it – lined up with the holes as close as you can – carefully lower it on to the truck frame.



Now comes the task of attaching the flat bed to the truck frame. Little problems will come up. In our case not all of the holes lined up. This is where patience and some skill come in handy. This is also where my husband’s skills as a welder really helped. Because the holes didn’t fit perfectly, he had to create new ones and because little parts of the new bed were in the way they needed to be cut off. I stood by with the garden hose to make sure he didn’t set the grass on fire. Of course we had it on as bare of ground as we could find. If we had a concrete pad inside a shop building we would have been in like Flynn. I have it in mind for when we win the lottery!

Once the bed is properly attached with the bolts that came out of the original bed, it’s time to add a wood platform and waterproof it.



Here’s the finished product all loaded up and ready to go, and we got it at a fraction of the cost of a brand new truck or even a used truck.



Summers come and go in a sleepy little Midwestern town. It was no different in the town where I grew up. If it was possible I would have not been surprised to find kids down the street named Jem, Scout or Dill. Or a father named Atticus. We even had our own version of Boo Radley, and just like those kids we ran wild in the neighborhood, in the cornfields that surrounded our houses and on the gravel roads that led in and out.

When you wanted to go downtown, you boarded the one and only bus that made the circuit. You could walk downtown in a half hour and across town in an hour if you were impatient to wait or late and it had already gone. You were walking slow and savoring every crack in the sidewalk. It was cool under the cathedral drape of the mature elm trees and you didn’t mind. Crawdads were under the bridge over the creek that you had to cross, and you had to stop and poke a stick at them until they grabbed hold and you lifted them out.

Hopscotch or jacks ruled the day, and Annie Over the night. When it got too hot and humid to do anything outdoors during the day, we spent hours in the cellar reading all the Life magazines my mom saved from the first date of publication. But what stirred my imagination the most was Mom’s jewelry box. It stayed on her dresser top at the back next to the mirror and I’d go in there and look at all her things.


The box was carved oak wood that looked old even when it was new. It had a kind of Currier and Ives landscape scene decoupaged to the top that was tattered and peeling at the edges. Maybe it had been passed down to her from her mother or grandmother. Maybe it caught her eye at a rummage sale or department store. She never told us and we never asked. Years later I wished that I had. It would have given the box that much more history.


Mom didn’t just have jewelry. She had memorabilia from the travels she had made and precious items that reminded her of her children. A lock of my sister’s baby hair. A picture block of her used for printing a newspaper article. A souvenir from a road trip to Mexico City. Spoons that she fed us kids with as babies that tarnished over time. It was my mom’s life in objects. In amongst her odd assortment of doo-dads and her double band wedding ring were the items that told a story of some fabled land or adventure she had made.


Mom wasn’t a pearls kind of person. She was an artsy, craftsman kind of person. Her jewelry reflected that. She had heavy silversmith jewelry of Hopi turquoise. She had a ring that was set with carved and polished black obsidian. She had a brass alligator brooch that came from Cameroon. All these items were picked out by me and tried on and fantasized about. Nine years old I gazed at myself in the mirror with a little bit of lipstick and rouge from the antique compact she kept and thought myself the Queen of Sheba.


Mom never stopped or scolded me. I think she trusted me and knew that the careful oldest daughter would put things back the way she found them. When Mom passed away, her two daughters were able to save the box and now when we look at the things Mom put in there, we are instantly connected to her. It’s almost as if she’s in the next room and might all of a sudden walk into the room and with a little smile on her face and say, “What are you girls doing?” We know we’re not in trouble. It’s just Mom.


Renee-Lucie BenoitI attended a recent arts and crafts faire near our home where there were a lot of local ladies selling their home made crafts. I had my little framed art doodles and I was happy to sell a couple. Across the aisle from me was a young mom, Tracy Whitney, who had a table full of the most charming little objects.



I got curious so we talked, and she told me all about her craft. Later, I went to her house, and, there at the breakfast counter, we went into detail. Only a few people are probably thinking about Christmas at this time of year, but if you’ve got your thinking cap on and you’re thinking ahead with it, needle felting is the perfect craft for when you have a minute here or there. Tracy does her crafting whenever she gets a break from her three young children. And they make great Christmas gifts. Not the kids. The needle felted creations. Whoops!


There’s a little bit of a learning curve with needle felting, but it’s not much, and it doesn’t take a lot of equipment to begin. This is why it’s such a good craft for someone who has little children, who can’t afford expensive equipment and needs to put the work down when they’re interrupted a lot.


Tracy was kind enough to share with me her inside tips. She said it takes three basic tools to begin needle felting: a felting pad, felting needles, and wool. Different types of wool have different quality fiber. Tracy likes alpaca because it is soft. The softness makes it a titch more difficult to work with, but she feels that the end result makes it worthwhile. For you newbies, merino wool is an easy one to begin with, for example.

The most difficult part is knowing which felting needle to use and which direction to poke. Experimentation will quickly tell you if you're on the right track. Fair warning: The absolute worst part is poking yourself with the needle! The needles have tiny little barbs on them to make the wool adhere to itself. They’re not ordinary smooth needles, so if you poke yourself you have to pull out the tiny little barbs. Yikes! I was thinking some kind of medieval torture device so to allay my fears, she let me feel the barbs. Gently. I am happy to report they’re almost imperceptible. But I believe her and will take it on faith that it hurts to be poked. Luckily there are steps you can take to avoid this. Tracy uses special homemade thimbles made with many layers deep of band aids over the usual thimble.


A pumpkin is a good starter project. Making one will give you a feel for how it works and then you can move on to more complicated projects.

Pull off a length of wool and make your base.


Start building by rolling up the wool into a rough ball.


Start poking rolling as you go until you've hooked all the loose ends.


Roll it in your hand for more compactness if necessary.


Make the stem.


Poke the stem into your pumpkin body.


Poke in for more details like spines.

Here's your little pumpkin. "Though she be but little, she is fierce!" (Sorry, I couldn't stop myself from quoting Shakespeare. There are so few opportunities.)



– You can make your own noses to save money.

– Store wools separately. If they touch each other, they’ll start blending and you’ll lose color integrity.

– Try to avoid bending the needle while you’re poking. The needles are not super-rugged and can break if over-bent.

– Keep your hands as soft as you can. This may be tough for us country gals who are used to digging in the dirt and helping out with chores. Unfortunately, rough hands can catch the fibers and make your felting a bit harder. So keep that bottle of hand lotion nearby. Tracy gifted me with a lotion ball that she made herself. Another great craft for another time!

You can see more of Tracy Whitney's work on Etsy and at Felt to Life on Facebook.


Renee-Lucie BenoitThe month of May sees guests at our ranch every weekend. This last month we were very busy, but we were especially busy this last week. We had to get though The Punch List for the first weekend of guests. Well, we did, but I tell you not much else got done. Among the many things we did: finished re-building the main house perimeter fence and sell a horse. The horse sale was not part of the guest preparations, but it further complicated what we already had on our plate.

So I’m all tapped out for this week. You know how it is. Sometimes you just need to kick back and take a breather so I’m going to offer my Aunt LuVerne’s Grilled Teriyaki Chicken recipe for this week’s blog. It’s very easy and about 300 times better than store bought.

Aunt LuVerne’s Grilled Teriyaki Chicken

I learned this recipe from my mother’s younger sister LuVerne. She’s 94 years young now and lives in Honolulu. When I was 18, I lived with her for a time and learned this recipe. Aunt LuVerne took to Island Life and many good things came out of it. This is one of them. And, as is many times the case, we never measure anything exactly so the proportions here are approximate. It always manages to come out just right.

6 boneless skinless chicken breasts (you can also use boneless skinless chickens thighs, or if you don’t care about the fat or like the taste just use the skin-on bone-in)
1 cup low-sodium soy sauce (regular is fine, too, and that’s what I learned with)
1 cup white wine (sweet or dry, it doesn’t matter
3 scallions, chopped (or 1 teaspoon onion powder)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger (or a couple teaspoons dried if that’s all you have)
2 tablespoons white sugar (I’ve never tried it, but I think honey would work nicely too)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped

Combine all ingredients. In a glass bowl, add chicken and marinade. Let marinate a couple hours or more depending on how strong you like the flavor. Turn the pieces of chicken from time to time so the marinade coats evenly.

When the chicken is marinated to your satisfaction (the pieces will get a nice light brown color) discard the marinade and grill as you normally would. I like brown rice, steamed carrots, asparagus or a green salad on the side.

Aloha lui noa!

Teriyaki Chicken - Fotolia

Photo: Fotolia/Road King


Renee-Lucie BenoitThe author goes in search of women who don’t feel the need to get dressed up, manicured, pedicured, made-up or coiffed to do ranch or farm chores. Women who work alongside the men outdoors in all kinds of weather and don’t sit in the truck waiting for the perfect photo-op. Women who have confidence to be who they are with no apology or artifice. Women like you. I call them The Real Deal.


Linda Strouse-Morris at her ranch near Elk Creek, California

You don’t have to be born into the ranch way of life to make it your own and be good at it. Linda Strouse-Morris is living proof. When you meet her you immediately feel comfortable. She has twinkling blue eyes and an easy laugh. She’s small and lithe, and you can tell she’s up to a task, whatever it may be. She’s got a real can-do attitude and there’s not a phony bone in her body.

She was born in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 40s. The kind of small town where kids could run free and everybody looked out for them. Think of Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It to Beaver. Her dad was a steel worker and her mom worked at the local bakery. One of the things Linda had going for her that would eventually make her a great rancher was that she was a dyed-in-the-wool tomboy. Playing outdoors, rough and tumble, suited her just fine. As she got older her dad bought her a horse. They kept her horse out in the country at her cousins' farm so every chance she got she was out there flying through the fields astride her pony like a wild Indian.


Linda at age 9 astride her cousin's horse

It wasn’t until she was 30 that she came to the ranching way of life. Before that she lived in the city and worked as an executive secretary. Her first marriage didn’t work out but that paved the way for her to settle permanently in California. She loved living in California and worked as a single mom supporting her daughter until one day her boss, Doug Coppin, said, "Come up to the ranch." The ranch was up in the foothills of the eastern Mendocino National Forest above Elk Creek. She went back and forth between southern California and Elk Creek a few times and somewhere in there she met Chuck Morris, who worked for her boss as a builder.

A month after they met, Chuck asked her to marry and she thought, "Well I just got rid of one" but soon he won her over, and they came to live at the boss’ house in the foothills full time. In a couple years, they acquired their ranch a little farther down the mountain a few miles west of Elk Creek. Linda’s boss had given it to them lock, stock and barrel for all the hard work they put in on his foothill ranch. It then became their task to make their new home ready for a family and what it is today.

When you drive up to their ranch today, it’s just pretty as a picture nestled in between two ridges. Chuck passed away and Linda has stayed on. The first thing you notice is how well kept everything is. There’s no baling twine holding things together. The ground cover is short and neat. The house and outbuildings are well kept. The gates are properly hung. It’s obvious someone cares and is willing to put in the time to keep it this way. Before they moved in newly married, Chuck and Linda’s home was only about 700 square feet. It had been a worker’s cabin in the mountains and was moved down to its present location. Still living at the main house, the two set about to expand and improve their little cabin. Linda worked alongside her husband, and little by little they built the house into a lovely split level bungalow, added miles of fencing, corrals, sheds and barns. They started out with 10 red and white heifers.

Linda still runs cows, about 27 cows nowadays. It’s not a big place but she tends it well with only a little assistance now and then at age 72. She was honed in hard work, and I’m sure that has made a big contribution to her good health. It’s impossible to say whether she would have been as fit if she had stayed working as an executive secretary in southern California but I’d venture to guess that she wouldn’t. There’s something about good honest hard labor. Stepping back and saying there it’s done and it looks fine. Satisfaction made three dimensional.

Somewhere along in the 43 years at the ranch they raised two children, a boy and a girl. There were the ranch dogs and cats, horses and cows. Linda did all the stone masonry around her house. She still cuts and splits her own firewood and loves her woodstove better than the central heating and AC that was installed on the house. She still gathers her cows horseback but uses the 4-wheeler for checking fence. It’s all in a day’s work for a rancher.

Through the years she has made time to become involved in organizations that benefit the community. She started the Rangeland Association with five other local ranchers. At one time it had more than 100 members but the numbers have dwindled. She was recording secretary for years and now she’s happy to sit on the Board of Directors. She’s been a member of the Stonyford (California) Horsemen’s Association for more than 20 years. They put on the annual Stonyford Rodeo, which attracts professional riders from all over the country. A few years back an artist of some renown, Manny Scarletta, began teaching painting classes in Elk Creek.­­­ Linda took classes from him for a long time and has become quite an accomplished painter.

Did you ever dream of living on a ranch?

Always. Always. I loved horses. I was 9 years old and I have a picture of me on that horse that my cousins' kept at their farm. We had a pony named Spot and he was a big fat thing and we’d go down to the farm. My cousins had kids my age and we’d get on that little thing bareback and trot around.

When did you first realize that this was the life you wanted?

It was immediate. I was ready. I married the manager of that ranch (Chuck Morris, the Circle C) and after so many years this (ranch) was deeded us. The guy who owned the ranch was a fantastic man. He ran the big companies and I was his executive secretary. He sent me up here for vacation before (Chuck and I) were married. I knew all about the ranch because I did all the paperwork when he was buying it. Then Chuck came in and I met him. And he came up and then he’d come back and forth while they were getting it all set up. And then pretty soon I came up here a couple times. We have 200 acres but Doug’s ranch across the road was 1,300 acres. We had seven cattle fields that we’d rotate the cattle through. When it sold out of the Coppin family, it became the Sanhedrin Ranch.

What characteristics does a person need to be good at ranching?

You have to be able to connect with the animals. You have to be able to handle them and a lot of people don’t like animals and a lot of animals don’t like people. Anybody who has a liking for animals be it a cat or and elephant. That’s it and you connect.

What skills?

(Laughing) You have to be able to duck or get behind a tree when (one of the animals) decides to chase you. A crazy old cow, an ornery old red and white face. She had me treed up under that tree one year. I was going into Angus at the time. But she treed me up in the tree, running around that tree, huggin’ and huggin’. What did I name her? She was here for several years. We started with 10 Herefords. Slowly I’ve gone into all Angus. They’re pretty easy to handle. I don’t trust their bulls too good! They’ll all be coming down. I like the Angus better than the white face.

What was it about your husband that you admired most?

Anything that he put his mind to do he could accomplish. He built this house. He could plow. He was a mechanic. All around, everything, anything that needed to be done. If he didn’t know how he’d figure it out. He was very logical. When our daughter was 16, we got a little Pinto (car) and he restored it. He got it running and painted. He could fix anything. He had a way with animals. They took one look at him and said "I guess I’d better be good." We rode a little bit at the beginning but then he was so busy with that ranch and this that I took over all the horseback activities. The guy who used to live down the road here years ago, Kenny Niesen, he was a good guy, we rode together.

Is there anything about ranch life that you don’t like?

During branding season it’s the getting’ up early and we have people coming, friends to help, but then I would have to fix the dinners. Now that we got it down, we have a little clique, there’s only a few of us that can do the cattle so I take them to lunch at the restaurant. If I’m happy with it everybody else is going to like it, too.

What one thing would you like people to know about you?

(laughing) I shouldn’t tell ‘em, huh! Well, I’m a happy person. I’m content. Here. Very satisfied. I sit and look out my window across the room there, I look out and think this is super, I’ve got my own place, my paintings on the wall, my furniture and I’m content. What more could you ask for?


Renee-Lucie BenoitI first heard about Indian Tacos while driving up through the Owens Valley of California one hot windy day. The eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada was on one side and the western flank of the White Mountains was on the other. We were traveling north on our way from Walt’s Point back to Bishop. In Lone Pine or thereabouts, I spied a vendor on the side of CA395. The sign – in handwritten letters – said “Indian Tacos.” What was that I wondered and immediately my interest was piqued. I like Mexican food in every shape, way or form. But Indian Tacos? I had never heard of those.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try them that day. My companions in the truck were too "destinated" on the next hang glider launch site. So I wondered and pined after Indian Tacos for years until I found a cookbook called Real American Food by Jane and Michael Stern. There, on Page 296, was a recipe for “The Ultimate Navajo Taco.” Not knowing anything and never having tried anything like this before, I was nevertheless too enthused to worry about making a mistake so I immediately set about making them.

Since then I have had Indian Tacos many times and in a lot of places. Not often. They’re impossibly caloric so you save them for special occasions when you’ve been good and exercised a little prior-calorie stinginess. They’re just like a regular taco in every way except one. What makes them special is FRY BREAD. Instead of the customary tortilla, fry bread is the base.

Now fry bread – to me – is an art and a science. In some ways a commercial vendor has a leg up on the average person. They have the large, temperature controlled fry vats. The average family can’t duplicate this. However, if you get yourself a good cooking thermometer, buy the right kind of oil and have a deep kettle you can do it, too. Native Americans traditionally make the fry bread over an open fire. It’s really not rocket science so don’t sweat it.

The secret to fry bread is making it fresh and hot every time. Cold fry bread is not nice.

Here is my favorite recipe from the Real American Food cookbook. I’ve used it many times over the years, and this version is tweaked a bit to make it more user friendly. Writer’s Note: this is not my image. I was too busy eating and forgot to take my own photograph! But it looks like a taco I would have made!


Photo: courtesy of

Gila River Fry Bread for Indian Tacos

Yields 6 small fry breads or 3 large.

2  1/4 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons lard or solid vegetable shortening, divided

About 3/4 cup warm water

Fat for frying. (Use a fat that has a high smoking point.)

Mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in 1 tablespoon lard. Melt and cool remaining 2 tablespoons lard and set aside. Add just enough water to flour mixture so dough holds together and can be handled easily. Knead on a lightly floured board until smooth, about 30 seconds, adding only enough flour to work dough.

Form dough into smooth balls. Two-inch balls make a small one. Use larger amounts to make the size you want. This is where you can experiment around. Brush each ball with cooled lard and let stand 45 minutes. You can be getting your toppings ready while they’re sitting.

In a deep skillet or kettle, heat your fat to 360 degrees F.

On a lightly floured surface, with the heel of your hand, flatten each ball of dough out into a round circle about 6 inches in diameter. Dough should be pretty thin. Maybe about 1/4 of an inch thick. If you’re using a bigger ball make the flattened disk larger.

Ease into deep fat. Dough will bob to surface. Cook until dough is light brown, a mere 45 to 60 seconds, turn, and cook the other side 45 to 60 seconds. Remove from fat immediately and drain on paper towels.


Layer refried beans or whole beans, then taco-flavored cooked ground beef, then chopped tomatoes, chopped iceberg lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese and finally a dollop of sour cream on top. You can also add chopped jalapeno, chopped red or sweet onion, chopped black olives, chopped green onion, or chopped avocado. You can also trade the taco-seasoned cooked ground beef with chili. The chili can be chili with beans or straight meat chili. If you use chili with beans, then omit the refried beans. Use your imagination!

Then go out and chop wood!

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