By and large, 2016 has been a difficult year for us as a family. Too many losses. One of the few bright spots however was in July, when Melisa and I traveled into Grand Rapids for my oath ceremony to become a US citizen.
In 2009 I became a ‘legal permanent resident’, or ‘green card’ holder. That was a process that we had been advised could take between 18 and 24 months to complete. For me, the process turned out to be particularly swift and painless. It in fact only took about 7 months. When I embarked on my quest for Citizenship I had hoped that the process would be similarly swift, especially as the USCIS website was quoting a target processing time of 5 months. Alas, it was not to be. The process was beset with delays, with each step seeming to stall out until I made an inquiry as to why I had heard no more since the last communication. Some of the delays were ‘self inflicted’; I had to have my first Citizenship test rescheduled due to conflicts with work, and when I finally got a date for my Citizenship Oath ceremony, I had to have that rescheduled too, owing to being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at the time!
However, on July 13th it all came together, and I, along with 79 other immigrant from 35 different countries, were sworn in as new US Citizens. It was a very special day.
I said in my last post that 2016 had been a difficult year. Today we had to say goodbye to another fur-baby.
And Kizy really WAS a fur-baby! A huge white puff-ball of Great Pyrenees who had been with us for many years. Melisa found her on craigslist when we were in Colorado and she joined our pack there sometime in 2008 I think. We were her third, and forever, home and we think that she was around three when we got her. That meant that she was probably around Eleven, which is old for a giant breed. As always, it was a difficult and emotionally painful decision to let her go, but she was starting to fail, especially with her hips and hind-quarters and was feeling pain that medication wasn’t helping with.
For all or her size, Kizy was the most gentle of dogs who loved people, especially children and loved to be petted. She would walk up to people and sit down smartly in front of them, then look at them as if to say “I’m gorgeous. You may pet me now”.
She was very close to Melisa and always seemed to know when Melisa needed that special furry support that could only come from a huge teddy-bear-like dog.
While the other dogs would play and run around, Kizy was always aloof, but, there was one tug rope that, when she thought no one was looking, she’d toss up in the air and chase around like a little pup. And if she realised you were watching, she’d instantly drop it, and casually walk away as if to say ‘what? me? playing? No, you must be mistaken’.
It was with heavy hearts we had to say goodbye to Rowan, then four days later, with broken hearts, we had to say goodbye to Abbey.
Abbey was our second border collie, a red tri-colour. She was, to me, everything a border collie should be; pretty, loyal – but independent, smart – but biddable, energetic – but able to chill, and very very empathic. We got her from a working farm that had two litters of pups round the same time. One litter was two months old and the other four months old. We had gone with the intention of getting one of the two month old ones but had narrowed our choice down to one from each litter. We went with the farmer’s wife, into the kitchen – where the dogs were not supposed to go – to talk about them and Abbey, the one we were thinking about from the older litter, quietly followed us in and lay down under Melisas chair. It appeared that Abbey had made the decision for us!
Evidence of her smarts wasn’t hard to find. I remember, when we lived in Clevedon, leaving the hall way door ajar and, from the stairs, balancing a ball on top of the door. All the other collies would run up and down the stairs trying in vain to reach the ball through the banister railings. Not Abbey, she simply went down the stairs and pushed the door closed to knock the ball down to her feet. I used to take a ball and three waste-paper baskets, hide the ball under one of them and let Abbey watch me shuffle the baskets… she always picked the correct basket, pushing it over to retrieve the ball.
We did breed Abbey once, her delivery was difficult, but she had four surviving pups. Prue had a litter around the same time, but it was Abbey that looked after the all the pups long after Prue thought they should looking after themselves. Even years later, Prue’s pups looked up to Abbey more than they did Prue! We kept one of Abbey’s pups, Cinnamon, and the two were inseparable to the very end. Now Cinnamon has taken over the pack as the lead Collie.
Abbey was always leader of the pack and the one that looked after Melisa, she was really smart and used to watch tv intently whenever there were animals on. She would watch soccer on tv and if the ball was kicked out of view on the screen, she would go round the side of the tv to try to find it! She had my father well trained.. yes, I did get that the right way round. When we visited ‘Granddad’, Abbey would go into the living-room and sit down in front of the tv. She would then look over her shoulder at Granddad and give a big sigh and look back at the blank tv screen. After doing this a couple of times, Granddad would get the hint, switch on the tv and start the video tape that had Abbey’s favourite soccer game, Aberdeen versus Celtic. I wasn’t sure, but I always thought that Abbey was rooting for Aberdeen – the team in red-, even though they always lost!
I remember one time in Colorado, we were walking through a playpark and Abbey watched intently as a child climbed up the short, but steep, stair like, ladder and slid down the chute. With no prompting, Abbey walked over looked at the ladder, then climbed up it and followed the child down the chute. We couldn’t believe that she managed climb the ladder!
But now she was an old girl, almost sixteen, and in the past year or so had started to fail, developing a heart murmur after having to have a tumor removed. She was slowing down, in increasing pain and struggling to control her leg movements. She knew it was time to go, but didn’t want to leave us. It was a beautiful day, when we had to say goodbye. We spent it pottering around the garden with Abbey close at hand. For a long time she wouldn’t settle, wandering here and there, but then she laid down on the ground. Melisa took a pillow and laid beside her in grateful companionship for a while and we felt that Abbey was finally at peace with having to leave us.
We are heartbroken now that she is gone, but she still manages to mess with our heads. On several occasions I have looked round and thought I’ve seen Abbey, only to look back and see Cinnamon her daughter. Cinnamon has a similar build to Abbey, but is a completely different coloring. I think it’s Abbeys way of still being with us.
Today we had to say goodbye to Rowan. Rowan came to us as a package deal with his brother Larick and Mitch, other livestock guardians and our first goats. Rowan was okay with guarding the goats, but he did much prefer to come inside and guard Melisa. He has a much shorter coat than the other LDGs, so having him inside, especially in the winter time, wasn’t really a bad thing either. Unlike most LDGs, Rowan transitioned to house life easily and quickly.
Rowan really was a gentle giant, who loved any little critter. My favorite story about Rowan is from our time in Colorado. One day, the dogs were all outside and we heard a distubance, we went outside to investigate and the picture we saw made us laugh. One of the little kittens from the barn had crawled under the barn door in the the dog pen. A semi-circle of border collies and formed round the kitten and advanced only so far, as behind the kitten, with a paw on either side, Rowan was leaning forward, growling at the collies to keep them away from harming the kitten.
Rowan was around ten years old, quite an age for a giant breed, and had started having mobility problems that even pain medication was not helping him with, so it was a hard decision, but we had to let him go. The house seems so much emptier now.
While I was offshore for my first trip on my current ship – something that wasn’t going well anyway – Melisa had to deal with losing Blizzard on her own. It devastated her and there was nothing I could do to help. She knew something was wrong with Blizzard, and had taken her to the vet for tests, but when the end came it was sudden and in early hours of the morning Blizzard died.
I think it has been the only time that we have lost a dog when I was not there.
Blizzard was a white Border Collie that was deaf and mostly blind. Melisa and I had both found her, independently, on different pet adoption sites one time that I was offshore. Although we had talked about her, I didn’t know that Melisa had traveled over the mountians, in December, to the other side of the state to get her before I came home from that trip. Melisa picked me up at the airport and as she was pulling in to the pickup zone I saw the white dog in the car, but it was only as I got into the car and the dog came to look at me I realised, “wait a minute, that’s not Chloe!”.
Blizzard had been lost by her owners and turned into a shelter. I think she missed her family and it took a while before she really settled in with us, but she did, and became part of the Morrison clan. She bonded mostly with Domino, but she also liked playing with Rowan.
We don’t know for sure how old she was, the shelter guessed she was around two when we got her, but we had her for over nine years so she would have been at least 11.
It’s been a long time since my last blog post and again, it’s not because nothing has been happening, but rather that too much has happened, much of it very saddening to both Melisa and me.
Having pets, especially dogs, can be very rewarding. They worm their way into our affections and become part of the family. Even when they are naughty, and get up to mischief, they can usually get back into our good books quickly, sometimes with something as simple as a single repentant look, or by laying their head on our lap and giving a big sigh.
The biggest problem with pets is that they have a lifespan so much shorter than our own. They may occupy a brief period in our lives, but they make us feel like they have been there forever. And that little trick of theirs, making us feel that they are an integral and indispensable part of our life, makes the end, when it comes, so much harder to bear. The worst part is that, sometimes, we are the ones that must let them go. It is a difficult decision to make and in our fear of making the wrong decision we sometimes wait too long before accepting the inevitable. It’s a decision that Melisa and I have had to wrestle with too often already recently as our canine family are all very old for dogs.
Since we moved to Michigan, just over three years ago, we have had to say goodbye to eight of our dogs. Todd and Prue we lost in 2014, and Domino and Tessa in 2015. In the last few months we’ve lost four more. I’m going to make posts for each of the dogs in order and try to date the posts retrospectively. There have been other things of note, some good, which I will try to post in-between, but all those good things have been overshadowed by the sadness of our reducing furry friends.
Since my last post (yes, I’ve been tardy again!) I have had my first trip on the Seven Rio then a leave in Michigan. – I shall post more about the Seven Rio later, but for now I’m going to talk about this last leave.
A leave in Autumn – I still can’t bring myself to say ‘Fall’, even though I have been in the US for so long, it’s one of those quirks that I like to maintain while projecting myself as ‘an eccentric Brit’ – is usually one of my favourites. (continuing to use ‘u’ in words like favourite, colour and harbour is another of the aforementioned quirks that I will be maintaining for the time being!)
I do like the Autumn colours, though clearing up the fallen leaves is a bit of a pain, and the weather is usually the most agreeable, but most of all I like it because it tends to be one of the few times when I’m neither getting eaten alive by the mosquitoes nor having to shovel snow! It is usually a good time to slow down a bit, take stock of what we have achieved over the Summer and make any final preparations for winter.
We didn’t manage to do that this leave, or more accurately, we did it all other than the ‘slow down’ bit. Every leave this year seems to have been phenomenally busy, and this last one was no exception.
We did have a hugely sad event at the beginning of the leave when we had to say goodbye to two of our dogs, Tessa and Domino. Apart from the two most recent arrivals, Willow and Ceiba, all of our dogs are in the ‘senior’ stages of their lives and we know that their days with us are getting fewer, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take.
Tessa was our first dog and has been with us for almost as long as we have been married (Melisa got her while I was on my first trip offshore after our wedding) so she was almost 16 years old. Though she was a border collie, she was a ‘smooth blue’, meaning that she had a shorter coat than most collies and was predominantly blue-grey in colour. When we first got her, my father dotted on her, and as we added more dogs to the pack I think he thought we were slightly mad. He gradually came to accept the others, but Tessa remained his favourite. And Tessa, in particular, loved it when we headed to the car saying that we were ‘going to go see Grand dad’! Like our other Scottish Border Collies, Tessa came with us from Scotland, first to Colorado, and then on to Michigan.
I think that Domino may have been the first of the dog to join us in America. We knew about him while we were still in the UK and Melisa had made contact with his foster family before we moved. Domino was an Aussie who was deaf and mostly blind. He had been turned in to a kill shelter in California were he was rescued by a lady who tries to rehome Aussies. Once we moved over to Colorado, Domino’s foster family took him to us via what must have been a 2000 mile round road trip. We were told that he was very friendly, but preferred women to men. Obviously no one told Domino that as he seemed to favour me over Melisa! Domino was a very ‘rough and tumble’ dog, something that seems to be an Aussie trait – while the Collies were Soccer players, Domino was definitely more a Rugby player, bowling over any dog that got in his way. We have no idea of how old Domino was, we were told originally that he was seven when he was turned into the shelter, then he was with us for over nine years, either way he was no spring chicken. In the last few months he was experiencing increasing pain in his hind quarters and some mornings, he could barely stand.
We took Tessa and Domino together to say our goodbyes, and after the vet, we took them home to bury them in our pet cemetery where Prue and Todd are. We didn’t realise that, while we were losing two, we were gaining one.
A New Cria
After the sad events of the morning we went to check on the other animals and found that in the course of the morning Glenda, one of our llamas had presented us was a new male Cria. We knew that at least some of the four llamas could be pregnant (and two definitely LOOKED pregnant) but we had no idea of when they were bred, or when they would be due. The new boy had literally arrived while the two dogs were leaving us. When we found him he was ‘all legs’ trying to stand up but hindered by the after -birth that had dried round his hind legs. After helping clean him up a bit, we watched him take his first tentative steps. He seemed to be a little small but, so far, he is surviving. His arrival, and the facts that if the others are pregnant they can’t be far behind, and that winter is coming, put pressure on the timetable of getting some shelter built in the llama pen. The adult llamas, being used to winter in the Andes mountains, tend not to mind the cold and show too much, but we didn’t want any young ones to do with out at least some form of shelter.
It had been on the job list for this leave anyway, but the unexpected arrival of the Cria pushed up the urgency, so we built a ‘loafing shed’ for the llamas in their back pen. Having ‘put a wiggle on’ to get it built, I’d yet to see the llamas use it up to the time I left! As we wanted it to at least look the part, we build the loafing shed in our, now signature, white metal siding with copper coloured roof. I hope the llamas appreciate how stylish it looks!
The other outstanding things that we got done this leave was repairing the paths around the pond, then moving on to starting to clear our planned ‘park’ area between the house and the pond. The felling of trees for the clearance also doubled up with us continuing to set up wood for the wood stove over the winter. It is one of these things, the more we clear, the more we realise how much more we have to clear!
In between clearing the park and building the llama shed, I did, finally, get around to wiring the inside of the garage and my woodworking shop, getting lights up, and insulating and skinning most of the inside walls. This is a job that I had been wanting to get done for a long time and it is a huge relief to me that it is, if not completely done, at least in a usable condition.
All the big dogs have been taken to the vet for a check up and, because of their size and age, we got the VW Bus out of storage just for this purpose. The side door and low height of the floor makes it so much easier to get them into it than either the Suburban or Land Rover. (In fact, this was my very argument for investing in the bus in the first place!) I will admit that I have missed having the bus on hand and, as we had it on the Ranch, every time I needed to go somewhere that didn’t require one of the other vehicles specifically, I found myself using the bus. Alas, with winter on its way, the bus now must return to it’s storage bay.
As well as all the other things mentioned, Melisa had a trip to Bellefonte, PA for a few days to attend the opening of a museum exhibit that features one of her fiber creations.
Just before my leave ended, we did make a couple of purchases. Melisa had expressed a desire to get a couple of snowmobiles. Not just for fun (although I think that may have been a big part of it) but also for the practical purpose of mobility around the ranch, and even the surrounding areas, given how much snow we can get in this area over the winter. New snowmobiles are rather expensive (and big, and complicated) so Melisa thought that we should stick with vintage (after all, didn’t the 1970 Bus just prove it’s worth!)
After researching and searching online for a while, we ended up getting a red 1973 Scorpion “Super Stinger” for Melisa and a black 1992 Arctic Cat “Lynx” for me. So now, I’m almost looking forward to the winter snow!
I’ve just returned to Michigan after a short trip off-shore. This last trip was to Scotland, the first time that I have been ‘home’ for almost exactly a year. The ship was working out of Invergordon, a small port on the Moray Firth, not that far from the town that I grew up in. Moored in the waters leading into Invergordon are more than a handful of Idle Oil rigs, some just laid-up, waiting hopefully for their next contract, others at the end of their working life being de-commissioned A lot has happened in the year since I was last in Scotland, especially in the Oil and Oil Support industries. A year ago, the price of crude oil was almost $120/barrel, in the last 12 months it has plummeted to under $50/barrel.
For most people, this is great news, it means that gas for their cars is cheaper, prices in the stores should be cheaper, lower airfares for holidays. Even those of us who work in the industry don’t mind the lower prices when crude drops a little. But with prices at less than 50% of what they were, the knock-on effects are huge. Oil companies themselves start to tighten their belts; no new exploration or drilling, new developments are put on hold, only those projects that are already close to completion continue – on the premise that when so much money has already been invested then it’s silly not to complete them and start to get some return, however ‘small’ on their out-lay. Even routine maintenance is cut back to save on costs.
Hardest hit are the support companies, the ones that exist to supply services to the BP’s the Shell’s and the Exxon’s that they can’t (or wont) do ‘in-house’. And that is where I am, along with many workers from my home area. Now facing an uncertain future, wondering if our industry can stagger along until the price of crude starts to creep up again, will we be able to cling on to our livelihoods, or is a change of vocation on the cards, forced or other wise. The effect on whole communities can be devastating, as, one way or another, so much of the money generated in them comes either directly or indirectly from the “black gold”.
For myself, I know that in a short time, I’m going back off-shore, on a new vessel, a new position as a “mentor’ to a Brazilian crew working on this ship for Brazil’s national oil company Petrobras. What I don’t know of course, is how long that will last. Is it the twilight for my career, or just the darkness before a new dawn?
For these last few months work has taken away from my usual, month-on-month-off, schedule on the Skandi Seven and, instead, I have been working at various locations and ships around the southern US and Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve had a factory visit to an FMC facility in Houston, TX; maintenance on a carousel system at Core Base in Mobile, AL; a short trip on one of our pipe-lay vessels, Seven Borealis, in the Gulf of Mexico; a trans-spooling job on the HLV Stellaprima at Aker’s yard in Mobile; and a couple of trips on the Skandi Neptune, another of our cable lay vessels operating in the Gulf of Mexico.
At the end of my last trip on the Neptune I got off the vessel at Core Base in Mobile and, instead of getting flights home to Michigan, opted for a hire car instead. The ulterior motive behind this was that Melisa had arranged for us to get a new livestock guardian dog and, now that we were getting into the summer months, she couldn’t be air-freighted up to Michigan.
The new dog wasn’t named, so we had chosen the name Ceiba (pronounced Say-Ba) for her, and she was located in Oklahoma, not exactly a straight shot on the road from Alabama to Michigan.
I left the ship on Wednesday and wasn’t due to pick up Ceiba until Friday morning, so the first part of the journey was quite leisurely. I took a route that wasn’t a direct run as I wanted to avoid Texas and have as short a time in Oklahoma as possible due to the severe thunderstorms and flooding that was happening in those states at the time. From Mobile, out of Alabama, through Mississippi and up into Arkansas.
I had hoped to get as far as Little Rock, AR on the first day, but after a delay in the morning with picking up the car I was starting to get tired sooner than I expected, so I made it as far as a little town called Pine Bluffs which looked like a reasonable place to stop for the night. As I checked into the hotel I was greeted by one of the strongest London accents I’d heard for a long time. The hotel owner had emigrated from the UK 30 years previously, but still had his London accent even after all that time. Of course, when he heard me, he wanted to know what part of Scotland I was from!
Thursday, the second day of the road trip was a leisurely day too as I only had about 300 miles to go to get near to where Ceiba was. Through Arkansas, past Little Rock on I-40, over the Mississippi river and into Oklahoma and on to Shawnee where I knew there were a number of motels where I could find a room for the night. Shawnee was only 30 minutes drive from where Ceiba was, so I knew that I would be able to make good progress on Friday after picking her up.
Friday morning saw a quick visit with Ceiba’s owners who’d just come back with her from her vet checks ready for the trip to Michigan. On the road by 10:30am, heading back out of Oklamoma the way I’d come the previous day. Again, I was avoiding the shortest route, as that would have taken me up through St. Louis, MO. I wanted to avoid St. Louis as I’d driven through there twice before and hadn’t enjoyed the traffic congestion there much. I headed back east, out of Oklahoma, through Arkansas headed towards Memphis. Just before Memphis, I turned north and headed up out of Arkansas and into Missouri on I-55. I branched off I-55, as that would also have taken me through St. Louis, onto I-57 which took me out of Missouri and into Illinois. Pressing on north on I-57, I drove until late in the evening then looked for a rest stop where I could get some sleep. Having Ceiba with me meant that I wouldn’t be able to stay at a hotel or motel. Even if I could have found a ‘pet friendly’ one, I really didn’t know how Ceiba would react to that as she has only ever been an ‘outside’ dog. I did find a rest stop where I was able to get some sleep until the small ours of Saturday morning, so I was able to hit the road again, if not refreshed at least not totally exhausted.
Saturdays drive saw me continue up I-57 until I met I-80 and then head east until I got into Indiana. In Indiana I branched off I-80 onto I-94, continuing eastward and angling north into Michigan. I still had 150 miles to go, but at least I was now in my eighth, and last, state. Past Breton Harbor I joined I-196, then at Saugatuck I left I-196 for US 31, ‘our’ road, and only one and a half hours from home. I arrived home at 10:30am, almost exactly 24 hours after picking Ceiba up in Oklahoma which I felt, for almost 1200 miles, wasn’t too shabby.
The total miles for the trip was a little under 2000 and time from start to finish 70 hours, though I probably could have done it in 48, there was no need to push it. Once home, Ceiba was introduced to Willow, Larick and the goats. She gets on well with Willow but already she seems to have a special soft spot for old man Larick.
While I have been off-shore this last few weeks, a small landmark slipped by almost un-noticed. On the 6th of May it was a full two years since we up-rooted Alba Ranch and moved the whole lot, critters as well, 1500 miles across the US to Melisa’s home state of Michigan.
As with many endeavors there are grand plans that, once embarked upon, take longer than expected to come to fruition. This is what we are currently experiencing!
One of the attractions of the New Alba Ranch were the outbuildings. We knew that they weren’t perfect, but could be molded to what we wanted. I just don’t think we fully realised how much work it would be. The workshop, studio and storage room had all originally been built at different times, expanding from the garage in a bit of a higglty-pigglty manner, all different shapes and sizes with different roof-lines.
We found that a lot of the roof was in poor condition and needed replacing, so we took the opportunity to make some changes. Keeping the basic foot-print the same, we re-built the storage-room in line with the studio area, and when re-roofing the building we extended the old roof-line of the garage to give the finished building a much more consistent look. Now it looks like one single building rather than four that had been built separately and added to.
Then we finished it off with new white metal siding on the exterior walls and copper coloured metal on the roof. – We had used the same copper colour on the roof of the house, and once the house is stuccoed in white, I think the overall look of the place is going to be stunning.