At the beginning of the YERT trip, I declared that at some point on this adventure we should find a way to do some WWOOFing. WWOOF used to stand for Willing Workers On Organic Farms and recently has been revised to stand for World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (which technically should be WWOOOF, but we’ll cut the organization some slack). It’s all over the world and it’s really a truly awesome concept and right up YERT’s alley. The idea (at least in the US version) is that you pay 20 bucks to join WWOOF-USA and in exchange for that, WWOOF-USA gives you a WWOOFing handbook that connects you to all sorts of organic farms in every state in the country who are looking for help in exchange for room and board. The farmers get very much needed help and, as a WWOOFer, you get free food, lodging, and some really cool organic farming experiences. In typical YERT form, we’d waited until the 11th hour to explore our WWOOFing options. With Wyoming and Montana our only viable remaining WWOOFing states (and Montana filling up too quickly with other stuff) our options were dwindling quickly and we hadn’t even “joined” WWOOF-USA yet. I put in a desperate call and email to one of the directors of the organization and she was kind enough to fast-track the process and give us access to the online directory of WWOOFing farms. We looked over the list and there were literally dozens of WWOOFing locations in Montana and…exactly 1 in Wyoming. What?!?! Only 1 in the whole state!?!? Fingers crossed I gave them a call to see if they could break WWOOFing etiquette and take us on one day’s notice for only a few days of WWOOFing (most places want you to stay for at least a week or two). To our delight they were thrilled to hear from us and would welcome us with open arms…in about 24 hours. This was exciting stuff – I’d wanted to WWOOF for the past 10 years or so. I had even joined the New Zealand WWOOFing organization with Julie several years ago in the hopes of WWOOFing out there, but we never got around to going. So finally getting to have a WWOOF experience (and in the midst of making an environmental documentary, no less) is fulfilling on a whole slew of levels.
Thursday, May 29th
Around 9:30pm Thursday night, driving from Rapid City, SD, we arrived at our WWOOFing hosts – Mona and Steve Mitzel – outside of Leiter, WY. We’ve spent nights in some pretty darn remote places on this trip, but this is very nearly the middle of nowhere. The entire town of Leiter, WY consists of one small building that houses a post office, bar/cafe, and small motel – and they live on the “outskirts” of Leiter. Trying to make time, we hadn’t eaten dinner, and our sweet hosts were quick to offer us elk steak that Steve hunted and salad while we sat around the kitchen table chewing the fat and getting to know each other. After our late meal, they took us out to our trailer about 1/2 mile down their “driveway” where we’d be spending the next several nights and got us set up. The next morning we’d be working by 8am so we hit the sack pretty quick.
Friday, May 30th
Shockingly, I got up even earlier than necessary – by well over two hours! To be sure, I am generally NOT a morning person, but I should remember that being in the country and in clear view of daylight always puts my body on a pretty wonderful circadian rhythm. In this case my bedroom window was facing due east and my head was facing the window, so I was gently but inevitably awakened by the sun each morning. It’s my absolute favorite way to wake up – getting bathed in early morning light with the sounds of the stirring morning countryside slowly seeping into your subconscious until they pull you out of your sleep. As I caught sight of the predawn glory outside my window at around 5am, I was compelled to leap out of bed, grab the camera from Mark and Erika’s room, and take full advantage of the opportunity to film a really wonderful sunrise out our back door which opens, stairless, about 3 feet above the ground. By 6:30 I was back in bed asleep ’til just before 8.
By 8:10 we were at Mona and Steve’s house ready for our first day of WWOOFing. Donning our work gloves in the Mitzel’s muck room, we headed down the hill for a “barn raising” or, more accurately, a “canteloupe tunnel” raising. Mona is trying to expand her growing season for a few key fruits, so we were going to be helping her and Steve erect a greenhouse of sorts – or at least the ends of the greenhouse. There was a skeletal steel frame in place so we’d be attaching the front face today. The directions told us not to attempt to do this in the wind and, sure enough, the wind was picking up a little by 8:30am, but we decide to sally forth anyway. It should be noted that attaching the front of the greenhouse involved stretching a giant white tarp over a 12 foot tall steel semicircular frame, clamping it down, and tech-screwing it into place while, and this is the most important part, riding 12 feet up in the shovel of their front loader to do all of this. Sweet! Any excuse to ride around in the shovel of a big orange front loader!
Because none of us had actually assembled one of these before, we spent the first hour or so prepping and debating which side of the “tarp” was the front. We ended up putting the exposed zipper side out to face the elements. This, of course, turned out to be backwards (we think), but we didn’t fully realize this until it was well attached and far too late to reverse our decision. Luckily, there was another end to attach to the greenhouse, so we would get another shot on Saturday. Erika and I hopped in the shovel of the loader to attach the top while Mark supported the bottom of the front face and coordinated efforts to line it up. After an exhilarating morning of riding the shovel, negotiating the pesky wind, and attaching clips, we broke for a lunch of egg salad sandwiches. Mark and I spent the afternoon attaching numerous other supports to the greenhouse while Erika ran interference for Mona’s two precious granddaughters (5 yr.-old Annie and 3 yr.-old Jillian) as Mona did some work on one of her planting beds and the active greenhouse. Then we all broke for dinner (pesto pasta and sauteed veggies) and an even earlier bed-time. We had decided to try to beat the wind on Saturday morning, to keep the other face of the greenhouse a little more slack-free, but this would mean starting at 6am. We’d also gotten wind that we would be performing a cattle drive on Saturday – the anticipation was killing me.
Saturday, May 31st
Saturday saw us at Mona and Steve’s house by 6:10am ready to tackle the back end of the greenhouse. The wind was cooperating with us so we got started quickly – attaching this side with the protected zipper to the outside. Mark and I went up in the shovel this time and the back side went up reasonably smoothly without the wind. We spent the rest of the morning finishing up attaching the side supports and Steve set about tech-screwing in a U-track along the ends of the roof frame – an insanely tough task given that the tech screws were woefully incapable of penetrating the steel pipe – this was definitely the most arduous part of the assembly.
Early in this tech-screw process, Steve needed someone to lift him up in the shovel of the front loader. A chance to DRIVE the front loader?!?!? Sure! Next thing I knew Steve was explaining the workings of his front loader to me and I was trying not to tear down the entire greenhouse maneuvering him around 12 feet in the air. It was awesome – and Steve’s still alive! Later in the morning, Mark and Erika worked on helping Mona build a pipe from the river to her current greenhouse while I helped Steve finish attaching the U-track to the greenhouse frame with those blasted tech-screws!
After sucking down some delicious quesadillas at lunch, we got down to the real business of the day – the cattle drive. Normally, we could just drive the cattle across the small river in Steve and Mona’s back yard, but they’ve had such a wet spring in NE Wyoming this year that the river isn’t crossable, which means a four or five mile cattle drive around the “back way.” Steve and Mona brought over two horses to help with the drive and to give us a chance to do it “old school.” With help from Steve’s neighbors we mounted our respective steeds (Steve and I on the horses – Alice and Shawnee, respectively; Mark and Erika on the four-wheeler; and Mona and the granddaughters on another 4×4 called the Mule). Cattle driving on a horse was a totally new life experience for me – and utterly thrilling. Mark and Erika, Mona and the grandkids, and a couple of the neighbors buzzed about on the 4-wheelers keeping an eye on things while Steve, his neighbor Jeremy, and I trotted and cantered around trying to keep the cows together and moving in the right direction. Pleasantly surprised by my modest horse skills, I felt like a cowboy (albeit, a totally clueless one) for about 4 hours as we spent the better part of the rest of the day shuffling the cows (about 100 or so) over hill and dale and several miles down the dirt road to some fresh pasture that Steve has started leasing for the first time this year.
There were a few unforeseen variables that made the cattle drive even more interesting. Half way through, two calves somehow got separated from the herd on the wrong side of some barbed wire and Jeremy, one of the neighbors, had to pull some smart maneuvering to get the calves back to the herd. Shortly after that, we were visited by a thunderstorm that soaked us pretty good and added the wonderful variable of lightning into the mix. Finally, we had to pay careful attention to the bulls in other pastures that were making every attempt to “get with” Steve’s cows as they passed by. This required some serious diligence – nothing like trying to foil foreign bulls from mating with cows in heat to keep you on your toes. Jeremy and I (and eventually Steve) slowly rode the horses back to the ranch which took another hour and a half. A bit saddle sore with knees that were barely functioning after being on a horse for the better part of 5 hours, I stabled Shawnee and headed to dinner, ready for some delicious homemade soup. After dinner it was off to bed before another early morning – this time helping Mona in the large garden across the river.
Sunday, June 1st
So far in our WWOOFing experience, the one thing we hadn’t done was some actual organic gardening, but that was about to change. Mona is in the process of becoming organically certified and has been using organic growing methods for several years. Today we would be doing some planting with her.
We started Sunday off at about 7am helping Steve attach the rototiller to his frontloader tractor and then heading into Mona’s greenhouse to soak plant seedlings in a diluted organic fish solution. I still don’t know what exactly fish solution is, but, as expected, it smells totally nasty and fishy. We did this while doing our best to keep the granddaughters happily occupied with a little kitten they’d been literally loving to death the past few days – seriously, if that cat makes it to Christmas, I’ll be amazed.
After loading up Mona’s pickup with seedlings, we took the 5 mile “long way” over to her large garden just beyond the pasture where we’d left the cows the day before – which is only about 200 yards from her house as the crow flies. Mark and I rode over in the Mule 4-wheeler and stopped to shoot some B-roll on the way enjoying a gorgeous view of the Big Horn mountains in the distance and revisiting the cows on the way. The last cow fence was nearly impossible to put back – Mark and I had to both pull together with all our strength for several minutes before we got it back in place. We totally felt like wussie city boys.
In the garden, Steve rototilled the alfalfa field into a great seedbed, while we spent several hours planting seedlings with Mona and little Annie and Jillian. We planted onions, kale, cabbage, and two kinds of lettuce. Erika showed up on the other four-wheeler after the first hour and joined in the fun. It’s awesome digging in the dirt – really one of my very favorite things.
Around 2pm we headed back to the ranch house. On the way back, Mark and I stopped in the cow pasture on the hill overlooking everything to film a short WWOOFing intro and shot some B-roll of antelope. Lunch was leftover soup and then Mark rested his sore back and slept, while Erika did some homework and I caught up on email, did a little trip planning, and finally got to check in with Julie by phone. In the evening, I headed outside with Steve to ride Shawnee again and create a little more horseback B-roll. Shawnee was MUCH more skittish and freaky this time (not sure why), so we cut the ride short. We stabled the horses and then headed out with Mona and Steve to check out a blue heron rookery that they have on their property. We all 4-wheeled our way out to this huge tree further down their river where close to a dozen blue herons were nesting in a tree. It was a pretty unbelievable site. What’s more, the river/marsh itself was also teeming with life – frogs, fish, all jumping and making noise to their heart’s content right around sunset. After we headed back to the house, I interviewed Steve about life in Wyoming – WWOOFing, coal, ranching, environmental concerns. Then, after about an hour, I headed back with Mark to the trailer and, there, we were all greeted by a spectacular thunder and lighting storm. This kept me up until 1am filming. Really a treat. It was a nice way to cap off our WWOOFing experience.
Monday, June 2nd
We slept in – all the way until 8:30 when Erika busted out some blueberry pancakes in the trailer for breakfast. Then we packed up, headed over to the house for a few final interview questions with Steve, and said goodbye to our fine WWOOFing hosts. I have to admit, in retrospect, our WWOOFing experience was all we could have hoped for and more. Great people, great experiences, and a great concept. And, if you ever want to WWOOF in Wyoming – this is THE place…literally. Can’t wait to do it again sometime soon!