Farm Girl Passing

I love it that cows keep eating even in the rain. They don’t even look up. Rain is meaningless to them.

This raises some questions. Are all cows born stoic, impervious to wet? Or did each learn that no one will come if they complain? And how would they complain anyway? Mooing?

These and other thoughts pop up while we are driving south on I-43 back home to Milwaukee from the U.P. Like, why are there car tires stuck on fence posts? Why do so many farmers own boats and why are the boats always for sale? Do the people living in farmhouses know that people driving by imagine they are them?

I think about living on a farm mostly because I am, at least temporarily, enamored of physical labor and can see myself in a smart pair of muck boots from the Tractor Supply Company. I also like weather and animals and the idea of having farm implements parked in various random places where the grass will grow long because the mower can’t reach. I like the idea of chickens pecking and goats wandering about – the look of freedom, wearing a flannel shirt untucked over a long underwear top, the waffle knit kind.

I wouldn’t be on the farm in my flannel shirt for two weeks before I’d want to get in the car and take off. That would be hard with the chickens and the goat and the cows, which were, after all, the impetus for this entire piece. You see, I don’t really want to live on a farm. I just want to think about living on a farm. Where I want to be is in a car driving by a farm and thinking about living there. Which is what I’m doing at the moment. It’s sort of a dream come true.


We had just driven through Buckeye, Arizona, and we were going nowhere. The exurbs of Phoenix seemed to go on forever, one beige/taupe/sand castle after another, the reach of old money seeping across the desert.

We were looking for ranches and rust, old cars, evidence of mistakes, fences falling over, dirt roads with weeds growing in the middle. We wanted to be free of curbs and sidewalks.

We stopped at a light and decided to go just a bit further. Mile after mile, the niceness started to thin out and the road got rougher.

And then as if by magic there was a parking lot full of horse trailers behind a metal fence where a big cloth sign flapped in the breeze: Welcome to the Buckeye Rodeo. We drove past and then turned around. We debated whether we should drive into the parking lot. There seemed to be no other vehicles there except pickup trucks hauling horse trailers, big horse trailers. We were driving a rented Chevy Malibu and we were wearing shorts. There were horses everywhere.


We parked the car. In a haze of tentativeness, we found the open door to the arena and after mistaking the calf chute for the way to the stands found seats about four rows up. An older couple sat a few rows higher, he watched the goings on, she watched us. Suspicious-like, as they say, out there in the country. Our foreignness sparkled amidst all the jeans and boots. Our shorts and baseball caps.


The calves were lined up in holding pens and then moved into the chute. They all wore protective headgear which gave the look of them being hired hands, if you will, like they did this calf-roping gig as an occupation. Calf-roping works like this: a calf is released from the chute, he runs like the dickens, two people on horses chase him, one ropes him around the neck and the other ropes his front hooves. And they do all this in about 5 or 6 seconds. After the roping, the calf gets up and heads to the end of the queue.  The way it looks, it seems like there’s been a lot of in-service training or great pay, maybe both.

20180304_160321We watched for a while and then walked around. Everywhere, there were people lassoing. They’d ride by with their lariats making circles just inches above the dusty ground, oblivious to us trying to stay out of the way. We tried to act like we always dodged getting lassoed, like, however improbable it might have looked, we belonged there. It didn’t matter. No one looked at us.


On the way to our car, I spied an old horse trailer. The shadows cast on its worn wood, the faded red paint were lovely, the prize we’d been looking for. So I stopped to take a picture and just then one of the cowboys walked by, looking sideways at us like we were tourists, which we were.

Friday Round-Up: DC Dash

The trick about road trips, especially short ones, is to know where you will end up for the night but not really care how you get there.

Take today’s little jaunt, for instance.

We started at a lovely hotel in downtown Washington, a stone’s throw from the White House which, if I might say, is looking a little tawdry lately, somehow lacking the majesty and cheer I remember from my visit two years ago. Anyway, the doorman told us it would take twenty minutes to fetch our F150 from wherever they decided to stow it, it being too big for the hotel parking lot. For a while, they parked it in the circle drive of the hotel, sort of like a commercial for an elegant car. Anyway, we waited.


We set out to find a crab shack for lunch. To find a crab shack, one must be near the ocean so we aimed for Rehoboth Beach, a couple of hours ago. Rehoboth is beautiful and cheesy at the same time. It’s saltwater taffy.


And saltwater.


We walked the beach for a good while where we found a lot of horseshoe crab shells and one beautiful scalloped shell which I put in my pocket, part of me thinking I ought to leave it being lovely and pink in the sand.

We left then to find the crab shack. A perfect one popped up on the right side of the highway but we passed it going too fast and, because of our no backtrack policy, we kept going but didn’t see a single other crab shack. Searching, we left the highway and drove east again on a two-lane road to Slaughter Beach where we came upon this perfect church and graveyard. I walked around the church to get just the right picture, heard a dog barking, and ran to the truck, hoisting myself up just in time to avoid being bitten by the big dog across the street behind a fence.


We gave up on the crab shack and decided to high tail it for Philadelphia, our destination for the night, where we went to Tony and Joe’s Pizzeria in Conshohocken and I ate my first ever Philly cheese steak, fulfilling a lifelong goal, and making me forget the current dinginess of our nation’s capitol. It was pretty darn warm and cozy at Tony and Joe’s.


A Quick Trip to Ajo

When we travel, we figure out where the tourist towns are and then we head the other way. Today’s trip was to Ajo, Arizona, a very small town 43 miles north of the Mexican border and on the edge of Organ Pipe National Monument.

Arizona 85 is the road to Ajo. Towns that have a single road going to them are always worth visiting.


Ajo was once a very busy mining town; on the outskirts of town you can peer over the edge of a mammoth hole in the ground. There is a sign that says “Beware of Snakes” so the looks at the mine are fleeting. Still, that the town was once very prosperous and then fell on hard times is clear. The wooden basketball backboards were left in place as a reminder.


So Ajo has reinvented itself as an historical place and it is, but in a casual, unkempt way which makes the history real and not polished. Not much has been curated here and there are no finely worded signs.

There are several gleaming white churches. Stopped in front of this one, I watched a black man walk in the front door. I wondered about him, black men being uncommon in this part of the world. He opened the door with such authority, I wondered if he might be the priest. The door nearly shut before I got this shot.


We stopped at Marcella’s to eat. As we sat down, an old woman with very bowed legs walked by wearing blue jeans and black high heels. She waved goodbye to her friends, got in her car and drove away.

Two Sheriff’s deputies sat at the next table. I mistook them for Border Patrol and for a small second wanted to engage them in a discussion about the construction of the infamous wall. What did they think of it, I wanted to know, but thought it was unwise to ask. As it turned out they were more concerned about arresting drunk drivers. They were both wearing bulletproof vests in this tiny town and I wondered what was so dangerous.


On the way out of town, we stopped the car to take this picture of a beautiful sky over a beautiful street. I love America, I thought, and all of its perfect and different places.


The sun was setting by then.


And we were lucky enough to see it from the side of the road on AZ 85.

Dust Bowl Tour: Road Trip Revelations

2,459 miles. Six days. Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin.

Here are my road trip revelations:

Listen to the locals. At the BBQ joint last night, the lady behind the counter told me that their mac and cheese was pretty good but I should probably order the creamed corn instead. Creamed corn in Kansas and Missouri isn’t the emulsification of corn that we think of as creamed corn. It is CORN IN CREAM and a fair amount of butter. I worship this corn now and want to eat nothing else the rest of my life.


Go to the small town museums. They are labors of love. Nothing except maybe really wrinkled old gum wrappers is curated out. It gets exhausting looking at all those old flat irons but each one pressed somebody’s shirts and deserves a look. These little homemade museums tell you what was important to folks. In Oklahoma, buttons were a really big deal. There were walls of buttons. It made me think about how little attention I’ve paid to my own buttons.

Viewshed is a thing. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: “A viewshed is the geographical area that is visible from a location. It includes all surrounding points that are in line-of-sight with that location and excludes points that are beyond the horizon or obstructed by terrain and other features (e.g. buildings, trees).” The viewshed in SW Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle is incredible. You think you can see your mother hanging out the wash fifty years ago in Michigan, that’s how huge the viewshed is.


Being ‘bummed out’ doesn’t mean what I thought. I came of age in the 60’s and my language shows it. I am frequently bummed out, think things are bummers. And actually say, “Bummer, man,” pretty frequently. So standing in the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma, I read a newspaper clipping where a guy describes his family’s experience as Dust Bowl migrants in California. He describes going door to door asking for food but being turned down because the locals who lived near the train tracks were “bummed out.” In other words, they had had enough of ‘bums’ coming to the door. Bummer.

There is nothing more precious to find than an old cemetery. While a museum holds people’s things, a cemetery holds the people. No matter how long ago they died, they are there, present, and it is quiet and still. I walk as if they are my own relatives, the parents and the babies, I read their names and their time on earth. I feel dutiful being there as if to say, somehow, I see you. You are very long gone but I am here today and I see you.


Those are my revelations from this fine little road trip. Worth the going.

Dust Bowl Tour Day 4

We have a friend, a flamboyant, beautiful woman, a singer who can electrify a room with her voice, a person who can talk to anyone anywhere and make them love her. We’ve known her for years and we always knew she was born in Kansas.

But we didn’t know she was born in Nicodemus until a few weeks ago. And we didn’t know what that meant until today.

Our friend’s ancestors were among the former slaves who bought shares in the Nicodemus Town Company and traveled from Kentucky to Kansas in 1877 expecting to find houses waiting for them, instead the folks who had come before them were literally living in the ground in dugouts. From this hard beginning, the families founded “what would become the oldest continuously occupied town west of the Mississippi planned and settled by African Americans.” (National Park Service)


There are still people living in Nicodemus. Not very many. Among them are our friend’s relatives, one of whom was in the video shown in the museum. Ernestine. We bought her homemade barbecue sauce to take home.

People came to Nicodemus to be free, finally free. To make their own lives, build their own houses, plow their own fields, play and sing and pray in their own ways. And that’s what happened. That’s what Kansas gave them. A new start in a free place. So it was inspiring to walk on the wide streets of Nicodemus. Even if most of the people were gone, it felt alive and true. American.

The thing about road trips, the thing that makes them worth the long rides and the endless turkey sandwiches out of the cooler in the backseat, the thing that makes road trips the joy that they are is this: stopping in the places where few people stop. Not rushing to the famous and glorious. Never standing in line because what you’ve come to see is small and quiet. Making U-turns to read historical markers made green with age. Taking time to study the beautiful faces in the old photos.

img_6192I’ll miss the road. I’ll miss stopping in random places. I’ll miss pulling over to the side of a road and eating lunch. I’ll miss the coleslaw dripping on my jeans for the umpteenth time. I’ll miss the big bag of chips and the cold sodas. But I’ll miss this most of all.


Photos of children and young woman from the Nicodemus National Historic Site

Dust Bowl Tour Day 3

In a cemetery down a dirt road off the highway from Guymon to Goodwell in the Oklahoma Panhandle, an area called No Man’s Land by the locals, there are several handmade headstones. This one was for a baby who died in 1929. Life was hard and rough here even before the Dust Bowl times, I thought, finding other baby’s graves mixed in with young children and another grave marked by a handmade headstone that said simply, Mr. Dawty.

img_6153We were the only visitors at two museums. The first was the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma. It is a town’s museum and it seems like everyone in the town had brought their grandparents’ heirlooms. The building was packed with things like wringer washers and flat irons, baby shoes and button hooks. A large set of panels told family stories and it was here that the quote about the Dust Bowl times made history come alive. Whatever else they had done, this little town had been wise to record people’s stories. What they remembered made everything seem so real.

The second museum was the Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City, Oklahoma, a city of just 2,500 people in the very corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle. This is a combination dinosaur, Santa Fe Trail, local history, and Dust Bowl museum. It has a wall full of button collections (apparently a very big thing in this part of the world) and rooms full of local memorabilia. There aren’t one or two military uniforms, there are dozens. They hang in a distinguished row.


We were in the museum so long, the smell of all the old things got in our lungs. Grasshoppers skittered across the floor while we studied the hundreds of different types of barbed wire. We never knew this about barbed wire. That it was art, not just science.

Outside, there was more. A long building full of farm equipment and two replica buildings – one of a Dust Bowl house and the other a red school house. Though replicas, they were weathered and dusty, so much so they might have been just left there from the thirties. Flour sack curtains were hung at the windows, knotted loosely at the bottom like one would do to let the light come in. In the kitchen, the table was set with the plates upside down, a technique we learned was meant to avoid the blowing dust from accumulating before dinner was served.

We loved this place. Oklahoma. The Dust Bowl. You can tell from this picture of my wonderful traveling companion.  We’re lucky to have come here.