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The length of winter—paradise down a dirt road

By Tom Parker

The Alaskan Highway officially ends at Delta Junction, but from there the road continues in a loop northward to Fairbanks before snaking down past Talkeetna and Wasilla—a small town virtually unknown to the world at large before vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was selected—and past the cutoff to Anchorage it stabs straight east to Glennallen, where it abruptly shoots north back to Delta Junction. Drivers on the loop are witness to stunning mountainscapes, zillions of trees and one lone farm.

“We were the only one visible on the entire road system,” Cecilia McNeal says with a laugh.

The McNeal family
The McNeals (L-to-R): Catie holding Hawkeye, Jacob, Cecilia, Dianne and Ben

Being so remote—and so conspicuous—meant a steady stream of visitors dropping by at any time day or night. Some wanted information, a few had questions regarding farming practices (such as a German traveler comparing hay cutting techniques), others wanted to stretch their legs and look at the animals and ask what it was like raising horses in the Last Frontier. One little girl asked how many baby horses were in a litter. And some stopped just to see the ducks. Mostly, everybody had a question.

“I guess because we were so open and everything else was buried in trees,” Cecilia says. “It gave people a kind of freedom.”

Another sort of question came from an unlikely source: her two younger daughters, Diane and Kate. But before it could be answered the question had to be broken down into its strangely complex components, each linked, each leading to another sub-question, until at last they delved to the root which would not only determine the answer but propel them southward like migratory birds, only theirs would be a one-way trip, and it hinged on the answer to the seemingly simple question: What is winter?

CanoesIt began like this: “How long,” Diane and Kate ask, “does winter last down south?”

“How far south?”

“Anywhere.”

“North America? South?”

“North.”

“It depends. Longer in Wisconsin, less in Texas.”

“But how many months?”

“What’s winter? How do we define it?”

“Snow to snow,” they say. First snowflake to last.

“Three months. Maybe four farther north.”

In a land where winters last eight grueling months, two girls stare incomprehensibly at their mother.

“That’s all?”

They were to experience the milder, shorter winters, soon enough.

Cecilia’s husband, a retired military chaplain, went looking for a new post. He wanted to find something rural, something small, preferably with several churches he could alternate between. He found them in southern Nebraska.

The churches were in Wymore, Barnston and in a cornfield. The latter was called Mission Creek Presbyterian Church, named for the nearby stream. It was their favorite of the three, a lovely church with intricate stained glass windows, and close to a farm they found and purchased. He had his churches, the girls had shorter winters, and Cecilia set out to make a retreat.

It was, she says, a continuation of a process that began before leaving Alaska. The next natural step. Many of the people who had stopped to ask questions had another: Don’t you have a place for visitors to spend the night? There it had been no. Here it would be yes.

Boats on creek

Their new farm was even more remote, hidden behind a wall of trees almost a mile from the gravel road north of Axtell in Marshall County. Cecilia laid out a plan involving semi-subterranean stone cabins, an idea quickly nixed by her daughters.

“How many years will that take to build?” they asked.

They remembered—if she didn’t—the felling of trees, the laborious stripping off bark and smaller limbs and sawing and planing to build a home in the back of beyond. So she looked around for something less labor-intensive and found it in a Lithuanian company. Soon she had three cabins shipped to their home, four empty walls, and the family designed the interiors. They sank pylons into the rocky soil about a half mile from their house in a little glade with a farm pond below backing up the creek, hard work that left them tired and dazed. But not as dazed as when they returned the next morning to find the pylons tilted drunkenly. During the night cows had rubbed against them and knocked them askew, and the cement footings cured and it all had to be whacked off at ground level and started over.

Their retreat was eco-friendly, solar- and wind-powered with blue water systems that filtered the refuse water and made it reusable. It also fit in with the new idea of travel, stay-cations, ideal for travelers wanting to travel but daunted by $4-per-gallon gas, airport security checkpoints and anti-American sentiment abroad. The cabins came with kitchenettes, bedding, furniture, coffee, tea, all the amenities of home with the addition of horseback riding, kayaking, hiking and fishing. Once the cabins were finished they set out their shingle, Box Lazy A Ranch Retreat, open for visitors on the not-so-busy Axtell highway.

And then the ice storm hit.

In Alaska, they had to drive a long ways to get anything. Here it’s about the same. Not so different. What is different is the amount of traffic that comes off the road to ask about horse litters or ducks.

In short, there is none.

“The only time we see anybody is in hunting season,” Cecilia says. “And I have to have people.”

She volunteers to assist at the Summerfield nursing home and remains active in the local church. And she acts as host to people seeking rural adventures. In the short time she’s been open they’ve come from Wichita and Kansas City, Junction City and Manhattan, all seeking something different. Something remote.

Remote it is. Visitors drive the mile-long road to her house and leave their vehicles there, transferring their overnight bags to golf carts that make the final leg into the sheltered woods. Cecilia and her kids bring their meals out or, starting next year, provide ready-made items at the main house. It’s a different sort of stay-cation, one that occasionally sees coyotes howling right outside the door, or the incessant drone of nightjars echoing through the night like records stuck in a groove, or even a nocturnal chorus of bull and leopard frogs. The most common question from astonished visitors: “This is Kansas?”

The ice storm shattered trees and, what’s worse, damaged the cabins. More work clearing the roads, sawing tree limbs, repairing shingles. More than anything it revealed what winters are like in the middle of the Lower 48.

“It was a fun first year,” Cecilia says, regardless of the storm. “We never anticipated so many people would show up. I’m amazed they found us.”

As for her daughters, the winters have been both more and less than they anticipated. Diane finds them too long and too wet; Kate thinks they’re too short.

For more information about Box Lazy A Ranch Retreat, call Cecilia at 785-736-2822, or e-mail her at boxlazyaranch@gmail.com. Each cabin comfortably holds two adults and two children and has indoor plumbing and showers. Kayaks and fishing gear are provided.

 

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Last Updated April 8, 2009->->->
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