Sunday, July 11, 2010

the trial

"So you're finally here with a dog." was what the smiling Barb Armata said to me under the yellow and white tent hosting our morning bagels and cream cheese. She had good reason to say that with such gusto. Barb was a sheepdog trainer and the woman who will be my mentor for our herding education. I told her I was thrilled to be here today, and I was. For three years I have been attending and volunteering at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trial. I had been a member of NEBCA (North East Border Collie Association) since that first visit when I had only lived in New England a few months. Last year I kept score and helped where I could. This year I did the same (and spent a few hours releasing sheep from the chutes at the top of the trial field). I had been here for years, at club events time and time again, and now I was finally standing amongst my peers with a respectable pup of my own. I felt rich. Barb knew it when she saw it.

All of the shepherds knew who Gibson's father was, and respected his breeder. When Steve Whetmore (the shepherd I read about in books and the first NEBCA member I ever emailed) said to people under the tent "Hey, this is a Riggs puppy!" my chest swelled. I am still a fly on the wall to many of them. I've never proven myself with a dog (failed one actually, as most know and I am still ashamed of) and never stepped on a trial field. But I haven't disappeared either. I have been around for three years come bad and good, and now I had a prospect. A dog that might very well make it to these fields as a competitor someday. And while rarely did a club member talk to me, they seemed to nod a little more, say good morning. And I took every bone that was thrown to me. I respect them and envy them more than they'll ever know.

Day 1
I woke up to a thunderstorm yesterday. It made me so happy. I was 28, and comfortable in the lull of the box fan in my farmhouse. I was half-awake and listened to the rumbles, smiling like an idiot. I adore thunderstorms so much, you just can't know. It was the best gift a farm girl could have, and even though the day was to be overcast I didn't care: it was a day for a sheepdog trial. The heat wave had been sliced open by the storm. It was milder, and the rain a blessing.

I drove early that morning to the trial with Gibson shotgun beside me. I had been told pets could not come, but Gibson was not just a pet. He was my business partner, a regally-bred registered dog, and a someday herder. He would get in. I'd see to it. (He did. We walked right in like he was High in Trial. Take that, stupid website rules!)

I spent the first day of the two-day contest just watching and walking around with Gibson. It was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate. There was no greater feeling than to be amongst these shepherds at the site of my first-ever-visited sheepdog trial with my own pup. I watched under the white tents while the rain came and went. The fog played with the tops of the trees and the competitors all hoped it wouldn't hit the fields and block their view of their dogs. I spent most of the day silent, sitting amongst the trialers listening. I watched dogs around me and how they never left their master's side. I looked down at Gibson between my feet, sleeping quietly and understood. I listened to the hot shots talk about their land and trucks. I talked to some folks who just came to watch. I wanted to help them get excited and understand. To them I might look like the real deal, but I identified much more to the fanny-pack-toting spectators from New Jersey than I did with the contestants. I was still green and clueless, I just happened to have come this far. I told them about sheepdog trials as if the World Cup never existed. This was the epitome of competition and sportsmanship: I bet I seemed crazy.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to talk ask Don McCaig if he would sign my copies of his books I stashed in my backpack. (Nops Trials, A Useful Dog, and Eminent Dogs Dangerous Men) Last year I kept his score on the trial field star-struck and nervous. McCaig is a NY Times bestselling novelist who writes about shepherding and lives on a giant farm in the southeast. He's the only person to ever write an approved sequel to Gone With the Wind. He keeps sheep, writes for a living, loves the history of the south and Civil War.... he's one of my heros.

He signed two of his books to me, and my copy of A Useful Dog to Gibson. What a guy.

Before I left for the day I stopped at the visitors' center and bought some lamb—which I took home and pan fried in cast iron with spices. I ate it over whole wheat pasta with marinara and garden basil. It tasted amazing: the rare lamb so moist and flavorful...the spices so rich. I had a Guinness and some chocolate cake to top it off and was grateful for the year. It was a great birthday.

But today I left the house at 7, and was at the post to work by 8. I had permission from the club to drive my truck right up to the main tents, so Gibson could be with me again while I worked and not far away in the parking lots. I parked right by the other NEBCA folks and felt a little more included in the scene. While I watched the trial he lay at my feet, but when I was down on the field keeping score he slept under the tailgate in the shade with a bowl of water. I remember looking at him, snoozing in the sun under the truck as I walked to the fields to keep score by the judge. Three years ago I had no truck, no sheep, no dog. Now I was (in a way) one of them. Most of the shepherds here had 50+ acres, 25+ sheep, and several collies. I had one pup, 6.5 acres (lawn-size to most of them), three sheep and a used truck. I still felt part of. What I had obtained may be meager to those with 25-ft-tall tractor, but it's mine.

Day 2
The second day of the trial was hosted under sunny skies and I was there to help. I kept score all morning, writing down the points removed from the 100-pt perfect score all dogs and handlers start with. I kept time, chatted with the judge, and watched the pros at their paces. I braked for lunch, walked around with Gibson (sweaty and hot) and ran into some blog readers from New Hampshire. Bill and Nancy were gracious, and were kind to Gibson and said wonderful things about the blog. I was glad to meet him. I only wished he commented more so I knew who he was. I love it when folks chime back on here. It reminds me that I am writing to people and not my computer.

My afternoon was spent high above the trial field at the chutes. That photo at the top of this post shows you how high above the action I was. The white tent is where the spectators were. The smaller white tent is the judge's station I had been keeping score at earlier. And all that distance between them and the photographer was the trial field. A very large, hilly, and rough place to run a dog.

The chutes are the pens that hold the 60+ sheep (this trial ran Katahdins) which are released three at a time for the trial dogs. It was hot as hell. I spent a few hours wrestling ewes into pens and then letting them out onto the field. (Lanolin mixed with sun block to make a smell few can relate to, but I kinda enjoyed.) Then something kinda great happened amongst the sweat and angry sheep. A really attractive guy (a Merck staffer, 28, and tanned and built as a 1960's surf movie extra) was driving a red truck filled with water for the sheep. At first he mostly ignored me through polite conversation. But as the trial went on we got to talking about my farm, Gibson, sheep, border collies, and his role as the main farm worker at Merck. He seemed to think Cold Antler was cool and was impressed I was doing it alone. He too was managing Merck alone, so could relate (even if the scale was far greater). He said he wanted to rescue a border collie from a local organization and have it work the farm with him. He seemed interested in what I was saying, even though I looked like a horror. (I was covered in sweat, flushed, in a ripped shirt and blotchy from the sun). It was far from movie fireworks, and I have no idea if this guy is A) single, B) even remembers my name, or C) I'd even like him once I got to know him more. But I realized just a few days after asking for a man to come into my life I was leaning against the tailgate of my pickup watching a pastoral scene of heartbreaking beauty with a local man who was my age, loved sheep, and was dedicated to agriculture. I might never see him again, but the fact I was enjoying the trial around such amicable company did not go unnoticed. I smiled. And my blood is as red as any woman's.... (something about really tan farm guys with sandy blond hair and a love of sheepdogs kinda gets me.) I told him to google Cold Antler if he was ever online. He said it was a name he could remember.

By the by: I have gotten a few emails referring to my dating post, for those slightly interested. My scheme worked in getting a response, and who knows, maybe there will be a date or two?

On the way home from the trial I turned the wrong way and headed into Sandgate. It was the instinctual way to go since those backroads were the same ones I drove for two years buying hay for my sheep in Hebron while I lived in the cabin. It had been a few months since I really drove through Sandgate, and little things called out to me. I noticed farms with new animals I didn't recognize> I saw what had once been the raw frame of a barn's cupola was now being sided with red boards. Little changes, but enough to remind me it was no longer mine. I drove through the notch and it felt different than before, harder. It hurt a little.

But I do not miss Sandgate (or living Vermont) like I thought I would. Jackson and Cambridge are starting to feel like my own. People know my names in the bookstore and the in some town shops like Common Ground Cafe. I was asked to do a talk at Hubbard Hall in the fall, a place where authors like Jon Katz talk. And the farmers at Common Sense Farm wave to me when I drive by. It's still new, and I'm still a stranger with Vermont plates to most, but it is starting to feel like home.

And with all that, I'm saying goodnight. I'm sore and sunburned and tired. It's back to the office tomorrow, with its own stresses and such, and while I don't look forward to it I am glad for it. I must remember I am not a McCaig. I'm a girl with a day job, a used truck, a puppy, one mildly-sucessful book, and a very small farm. But I am happy. I like where I am. It's enough.


Blogger DarcC said...

Glad you had such a great birthday weekend!

July 11, 2010 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger small farm girl said...

Jenna, that sounded like a great weekend!!!!!I'm glad your birthday turned out so well. It's nice to belong to something you feel so strong about.(It's also nice to share it with a nice looking boy. hehehe)

July 11, 2010 at 8:56 PM  
Blogger Toni aka irishlas said...

Sounds like you had a great birthday weekend!

July 11, 2010 at 9:14 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Great post, and so much to comment on!

Your birthday dinner sounded awesome and I wished I was there to share it with (writing this even after a restaurant in SF ruined lamb for me- I haven't been able to eat it since, and I grew up LOVING my grandmother's roast leg of lamb with mashed potatoes and lamb gravy at Easter- damn restaurant!) you. I'm glad you had a good birthday, spending it doing what you love.

The trials sound like a good time, and I'm not even into sheep like you. I am really hoping that someday in the future, people will be introducing new dogs as a 'Gibson puppy', with just the same sense of importance. And why not?

Regarding the tanned twenty-eight year old sheep/farming enthusiast: it's really hard not to let yourself get your hopes up, but sometimes the Universe does really move quickly. Hope everything works out well in that arena. Have you worked any Feng Shui cures in your love and marriage corner? Have you even figured out where that is in your house yet?

I think for twenty-eight, you are doing remarkably well. Hell, for thirty-eight, you'd be doing remarkably well. You've even figured out how to enjoy the simple things. You have what a lot, maybe most, folks don't: joi de vivre.

Don't lose that.

July 11, 2010 at 9:38 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Oh I have no hopes or interest in the blond guy, it was a conversation. But it was nice to have it.

July 11, 2010 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

and thank you paula, and all, for the kind words.

a Gibson pup!?

July 11, 2010 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger RenĂ© said...

Envy is a fun house mirror. There's always someone looking at someone else wishing they were them. I think the trick is to stop looking at others for what you want to see in yourself. You've taken more steps than most people I know toward having the life you desire; don't discount yourself or your efforts. Someone out there is wishing they had six acres, 3 sheep, a beat up truck and a dog.

July 11, 2010 at 10:46 PM  
Blogger Joleen said...

It all sounds so exciting. I'm so happy for you and Gibson (and the rest of the CAF family). By the way, I just watched your YouTube video and it was really fun to hear your voice.

July 11, 2010 at 11:50 PM  
Blogger Rachael said...

Jenna, you're an absolute hoot! You have guts, girl! When I turned 30 I felt the way you did. I was tired of waiting and decided I'd look into the whole "online dating" thing. Wouldn't you know that same week (maybe month, I don't remember) I went up to visit my parents and met my (now) husband. Met and married in three months. Life can change so quickly. Glad to be on this adventure with you. Can't wait to read about Mr. Right once he finally decides to show up.

Loved reading about the dog trials. Those Border Collies are fascinating creatures! I'm pretty attached to my Old English Sheepdog, but they're not as intense a herder as the Border Collie. I love him all the same though.

July 12, 2010 at 12:25 AM  
Blogger Cindy said...

What an amazing weekend, trials, cute guy, and a trip down memory lane. I am not surprised that Sandgate no longer feels like home. It does not take long for roots to grow deep in a place full of dreams.

I am so proud of Gibson for you (it's a Southern thing, we are proud for others). He behaved so well at the trials for a puppy. I can't believe that he is a border collie....he is so mellow.

July 12, 2010 at 1:05 AM  
Blogger Monique said...

What a lovely weekend. And yes, setting sheep is hot, sweaty and smelly... but rewarding too :)

I set MANY a set before I ever ran a dog...

You can see the adventures of me and my new collie on my blog if you find the time.

July 12, 2010 at 2:12 AM  
Blogger Melanie J. said...

Lord, girl, you make me smile. Thanks for such a thorough update. And would you believe you're motivating me to take better care of myself? I want to be able to work my body hard and sweat myself dry over outdoor projects when I have my little patch of land, and I won't be able to do that enjoyably with blazing arthritis and the extra 75 pounds on my rump. So I'm taking the extra 14 months that I'm trapped in our blasted, cramped apartment to get my body and our credit healthy for the next step. So grateful for your experiences seeding my dreams...happy birthday, girl!

July 12, 2010 at 10:21 AM  
Blogger E said...

What an adventure!
Dedication to your goal sure has paid off.

July 12, 2010 at 11:01 AM  
Blogger finsandfeathers said...


Having trouble with your e-mail.

Glad you had a great b-day weekend.


July 12, 2010 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger avw said...

Jenna - What a nice recap, sounds like it went really well. And I know you will find someone soon to share things with--it really does work to "put it out there." The universe will answer. Love your book and blog. Your independence and your hard work is so admirable. -Alexandra

July 12, 2010 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger Hopeful said...

another great post! sounds like your birthday was grand and had lots of new beginnings... it appears you really gotta prove yourself to move up in the ranks of the herding folks, and you're apparently making the grade! right on. really enjoy your blog. the first post i read of yours was on "barnheart" and it was instantly familiar. thanks for that as well. your blog gives me hope as i scratch and claw my way out of my current situation and trying to make it out of state to my own little homestead. keep up the work, hope and vision. you have done a lot. and, yes - you put your intention out there and were already talking to a farmboy! ha ha. keep honing that intention.

July 12, 2010 at 1:55 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

What gorgeous country you live in! I'm so glad you had a wonderful birthday, and are happy with the "enough" that you have worked to gain.

July 12, 2010 at 9:21 PM  
Blogger Tora: said...

I have always believed in sending out the request - it was good karma and good karma always comes back two fold.

July 12, 2010 at 10:45 PM  
Blogger Tora: said...

I have always believed in sending out good karma, and that's just what you did - it always comes back two-fold

July 12, 2010 at 10:46 PM  
Blogger Tora: said...

I have always believed in sending out the request - it was good karma and good karma always comes back two fold.

July 12, 2010 at 10:47 PM  
Blogger Norma from Misty Haven Alpacas said...

Your closing line...."But I am happy. I like where I am. It's enough."

I'm almost there and I'm much older than you.
I certainly wasn't there at 28.

Your life is rich.

July 13, 2010 at 6:43 AM  
Blogger mandyfarmer said...

If he googles you, (and he will), you should have him come see the farm...bake a pie or something. And for the love of all that's holy, PICTURES Jenna! And not of sheep! lol. Just kidding.

July 14, 2010 at 7:41 AM  
Blogger SouthernHeart said...

What an exciting weekend! Glad you had a great birthday filled with lots of great memories!

July 14, 2010 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Jenny Glen said...

Hope we see you soon on the trial field with your young pup. Glad you had a good time at the trial. You should try to make it down to Virginia for the Nationals this year.

July 18, 2010 at 11:41 PM  

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