Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Unplanned Road Trip: "The Day of the Tractors"

As I get my English 216 students to consider their own required road trips for the course, as irony would have it, I had to make my own.

Thus, I get to kill two birds with one stone: giving them a model for their project as well as writing both for the class blog and my Tractorpunk blog.  The impetus for the trip was simple. Our used but "new to us" Allis-Chalmers 6410 would be delivered by rollback to Buckingham County, then a John Deere 1250, the same tractor/backhoe that nearly killed my father-in-law, would come to Goochland where much work awaits it.  For more than a decade, I've worked on my in-law's old homestead to renovate an 1850 farmhouse and clear old fields and roads.  This trip to the farmhouse (shown above) would be a turning point. We no longer needed a backhoe to move mountains of dirt.

Plans like that rarely go smoothly. That mine did turn out well says a bit about the virtue of advance planning in spite of heavy weather. Driving up from Richmond on VA 6 and US 15, I'd made it as far as the little town of Dillwyn, VA, to await the truck carrying my tractor. As I made progress, the clouds thickened and the radio issued warnings with assuring words such as "horizontal rain" and "damaging winds."

Ignoring such loomings, down the road I went. I turned up my road-trip music, Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator)." Yes, take time enough, or just wait and pay enough attention, and all things will be revealed. I still buy CDs and crank them, rip them, and make my own mixes. But this recording of hers, while not about the Road, merits start-to-finish listening. There's not a weak song to be had.

Reaching Dillwyn, inspired by my road-hero William Least-Heat Moon, I ducked into two local places for sustenance. First I went to the window at Dairy Freeze, a drive-in of the 1950s sort that serves up decent cheeseburgers, good shakes, and oddities of Southern backroads such as Pizza Burgers, Bologna Burgers, and even a church flash-mob in 2012, dancing in the parking lot. I'm as suspicious of any organized religion as Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, but the video of the mob did make me grin.  That looks like a fun thing for God's followers to do.

God was not on my side at Dairy Freeze, however; they opened at 10 and it was 9:45. The obese lady getting ready to open, a woman who has often filled my orders with much haste and little mirth, shook her head and mouthed the word "closed." The weather looked like wrath-of-God stuff, so I drove my pickup across the highway (to take my shelter with me) and walked into Farmer's Foods for a road-snack. I came away with Lance crackers, a bottle of overpriced but cold water, and an Fuji apple. Not Sal Paradise's amazing deserts, "the pies bigger, the ice cream richer" (15) as he makes his first sojourn to Denver in On the Road, but any snack is welcome when the stomach growls and the sky lowers like an angry blanket.  For later I picked up a wedge of farmhouse cheddar cheese I have only found at this little store, a 1950s idea of a supermarket with decor that would never pass muster in Richmond because of its cartoonish rusticity: smiling cow, cartoon farmer, big pieces of fruit on the walls over the display cases.

The sign touts low prices and lacks letters, yet makes an attempt to be 21st Century with a Web address provided. Never mind that the address is tough to follow because of missing letters. From the Web site, I discovered that a real Johnny Farmer started the firm. A new Food Lion down the road has not put this location under, either. The store's scale and simplicity call to mind Heat-Moon's ideas, in particular his his encounter with a man who tells him "Americans have just got afraid to taste anything" (54). That would include having a taste for local culture that is not artisanal and expensive, as I find in the cities. On the other hand, Farmer's Foods is no mecca for local cuisine. Even my favorite cheese there is at best a decent mild cheddar, not too different from a good national brand. But folks in Dillwyn would not, and many could not, slap down fifteen dollars a pound for the sort of stuff I love.

It's easy to get Romantic about a place one passes through. I've shopped at Farmer's a dozen times in as many years, and I will never be a regular. The clerks know other customers' names. Not mine. They can't tell I'm an outsider from the way I dress when I'm in Buckingham--John Deere Cap, Duluth canvas work pants, work shirt, Redwing boots--that my tastes are different from Dillwyn's. Chalk it up to traveling the world. That opened my head: I want English table-water crackers with that farmhouse cheddar cheese and a craft-brewed local beer, not national swill. It just happens on the road. Travel, not mere tourist jaunts with a guide or in some prettified and sterile "resort," alter the traveler. Heat-Moon quotes John Le Carre, who noted about the journey of death that "Nothing ever bridged the gap between the man who went and the man who stayed behind" (188).  I would not recognize the person who, in 1985, boarded a flight for Europe.

Back then, after reading Blue Highways I learned something. Heat-Moon contributed to my desire to get out of Richmond. Yet my own road ran through the sky to Spain, where I moved for a year before graduate school pulled me back. I'd sold everything save a '74 Buick, dutifully stored in a garage with weight off the tires and stabilizer in the gas tank. I was never certain, however, that I would return for that car until I accepted the offer to attend Indiana University's PhD program. Spain was full of what Heat-Moon, quoting Proudhon, calls "the fecundity of the unexpected" (108). So is urban Richmond and rural Virginia, but I could not see it then.  All I could see in the 80s were Yuppies with more money than sense, bad musical tastes, and the and the ruination of farmland and forest along Broad Street into more of the suburbia I've loathed since childhood.

Rain was spitting as I got back to the truck, and I just made it. Soon the vehicle was shaking and shuddering in high wind, and only now, that I think back, do I recall those Weather Channel videos of cars being tossed around like Hot Wheels as a tornado strikes.  I wondered where my tractor might be, or more precisely, which ditch had swallowed it and the truck carrying it.  Then, on cue, the sky cleared and I picked up my smart phone. This happened to be my first-ever road trip with one of them. I phoned Ricky, the trucker hauling my rig, and he said was passing BB&T. That put him just down the rustic strip of quasi-suburbia from me. I only hate it less because downtown Dillwyn, a slate-mining town of nice brick storefronts, remains intact with only a few vacancies. Yet there is not a single place to eat there; for that, food has moved south to the strip and what it offers. I'm just pleased that Dairy Freeze packs in more folks than the McDonald's up the way.

Amid these somewhat morbid thoughts, I watched as Ricky's rig pulled in with my orange and "new to me" tractor. I was delighted. Ricky drove the fifteen minutes to our farm-gate and not a foot more. Our road in was nearly a half-mile of mud, at spots a foot deep. I had run it that morning, looking for downed trees, and I had to use four-wheel drive all the way. There was no way a service vehicle would make it. Luckily, by the time I got back with my John Deere backhoe, Ricky had unloaded the new tractor, and I drove it on through the mud all the way to my barn.

The unexpected had occurred again. There was not as much as a sapling down across the road from all that wind, despite the soil being saturated with water from the melted snow and the rain that melted it.  Weather works that way.

The next day my wife and I were there again at the homestead, with the Blue Ridge visible from the road at the top of our hill.  it would be an overnight mission, to cut some fallen pines and use the trunks to border our raised-bed garden.

Nancy had me stop the pickup at the top of the road, where a local man named Sam lives, a nice gent who once gave us his tiny phone book so we could look up a number. Sam told us "y'all keep it! Who am I gonna call? I know their numbers already."  My students probably will never again use a phone book, but I suspect they'd envy the view from Sam's front yard the visit stuns a visitor in clear weather. Our gently sloping mountains, largely protected from cancerous development, run across the entire Western horizon like a group of old friends coming to visit us. Nan  said "THAT looks like Virginia." She was right. If you love a place enough and are lucky to return and not be restless, there's a thrill of recognition of a place that looks like home.

In the shadows of those mountains local industries flourish: craft-breweries and cideries, ski-slopes (cutting tree and adding condos), vineyards, kayaking liveries, small-herd sheep and cattle ranching.  Each one beckons a short road trip far from strip-development, tract-housing, and big congested roads. I suspect that Heat-Moon was a bit pessimistic when he wrote Blue Highways. While disasters like Wal-Mart have devastated a great number of family businesses, there's been a concurrent and sustained interest, since the 1990s, in local food, local business, even a voluntary simplicity movement among consumers.

My hope is that these prove harbingers of a nation of blue highways or, at the very least, a space for tinkerers, homesteaders, nay-sayers, and gentlemen farmers like me.  Will my hope come to pass? Rolling home Sunday, for another week of education at the hands of my students, I realized that time would, indeed, be the revelator.

Works Cited:

Heat-Moon, W. L. Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. Boston: Back Bay, 1999.

Kerouac, J. On The Road. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why February Matters

On Facebook recently, some urban friends noted that this is a wasted month. Nonsense.

I used to think that too, but since moving to the country, I have come to really enjoy this shortest of months. It's one of the best months in Virginia for getting serious work done outdoors.  In New Hampshire or North Dakota, it would be a different matter.

Of course, the weather has to cooperate. Today was one such day. The academic life has many advantages, but my favorite is the flexibility of my hours. Today showed nothing on my work calendar and foul weather ahead for Saturday. So, thought I, flip your Saturday for your Friday, and get work done outside while the weather is fair. Tomorrow will suffice for school work. In the countryside of the 21st Century, it's easy enough to have a VPN connection and high-enough speed Internet. My academic work will get done before Monday.

But today, with waxing daylight and temperatures in the mid-40s, it's time to hit the fencerows.

That's February for me. It's my time to prune fruit trees, clear areas around our little apple orchard, plant garlic in raised beds, get rid of an overgrown chain-link fence, limb up cedars broken by storms, run the wood-chipper, plant roses and other woody plants, take a little time off to do some target practice with the varmit-rifle.  It is a snake-free month to do the real Spring-cleaning chores. The old truck body, shown above, is one of several eyesores on our property I'm removing. It has a nice home now, as storage space at a landscaping company locally.

February is not a wasted month.  The cold air is different from January. There's a tiny hint of Spring.

No month is a wasted month, even in town. Go outside and see the daylight growing every day, preferably while taking a walk with the phone turned off.