Chaos—the primordial material of God’s Creation. Chaos—the disastrous state of our children’s room. Chaos—the erratic anarchy threatens governments and officials. Chaos—the breeder of social dysfunction. Chaos—the disordered state of many minds. Chaos—the emotional plasma of adolescence. Chaos—one half of a cosmic dynamic duo. Chaos—the womb of creativity. Chaos—the antidote for boredom. We need chaos as spice to add meaning to our lives. Without chaos there is only stasis. Without chaos, no one possesses the power of inspiration. Without chaos, we have nothing to strive against, for we are driven toward order. We crave order until we have too much of it. We welcome order until it stifles us. We use order to protect ourselves from others unlike ourselves. Too much order makes us prisoners of fear. It feeds on us to maintain its existence. We become bored prisoners of stasis until a random event, an unseen conceptual meteorite, an unexpected political candidate, an unheralded economic collapse breaks up the carapace of order, sets chaos loose, and frees us once more to pursue a creative path toward a new order. Chaos. Life is impossible without it.
What does abandoned mean? Immediately I think of desert islands, marooned sailors and objects of no further use left behind. The word ‘abandoned’ cries out as forsaken. The words for abandoned pile up: Deserted. Desolate. Derelict. Ditched. Dumped. Scratched. Chucked. Discarded. Thrown-away. Forsaken. Jilted. Rejected. Severed. Separated. Cut-off. Disconnected. Vacated. Emptied. Unwanted. Left behind.
Empty barns and farmhouses dotted the Minnesota countryside around our farm in the 1940s. Gray, unpainted houses with square, boxy lines and broken windows, stood vacant, like homely brides jilted by owners who went under, sold out, or moved to town. Deserted, vacated, and left behind—abandoned.
My college sweetheart and I married but disconnected gradually over a dozen years. We separated at Christmas when everyone else was tightly coupled to spouses and children. A sad time when I felt jilted, forsaken and rejected—abandoned.
The Casa Loma, a rural dancehall and bar near our farm, closed in the 1950s. A man bought it and opened a junk yard. Soon he filled the lot with the worn-out carcasses of farm pick-ups, mangled sedans, dead combines and invalided tractors. He ran a hospice for derelict hulks of iron and steel, unwanted, disowned, thrown-away—abandoned.
Years ago, on a hiking trip across Wyoming’s high, open range, I came upon a cluster of rotting log cabins. Once a gold camp, its population consisted of half-wild range cattle that loitered in the saloon under its sagging roofline. The cadavers of autos made in the 1920s lay on their sides long ago amputated of useful parts. Rotted wooden ladders descended into pitch dark shafts bereft of ore. A ghost town, vacated, empty, deserted—abandoned.
In my files resides a book manuscript I can’t sell. Well-written, articulate, and informative that no editor wants to publish it in these times. I can’t bear to throw it away but I can do nothing with it. Thus it is buried in file case, unread, useless, unwanted—abandoned.
One night while canoeing Montana’s upper Missouri River, my father and I camped near homesteads built in the early 1900s. In the morning, we wandered among the small cabins of cedar logs and sod roofs, rusting hay mowers and breaking plows. Homesteaders tried to sink roots in the early 1900s, then ripped them up and walked away during the dusty 1920s. As one-time farmers, we understood. Disconnected and isolated from markets in this beautifully desolate place, they chucked farming and ditched their dreams. Their hard work thrown away, discarded, left behind—abandoned.
A good friend lost his wife to another woman. For a long time, he lost his good spirits and went about as a vacant soul, a desolate and disconsolate temple of the spirit. Morose and distraught, he told me about feeling cut off, jilted, unwanted—abandoned.
For eight years I worked to earn a PhD and become a college professor. After the courses, the lectures, the seminars and exams, I knew this wasn’t the life for me. I severed connections with the academic world and gave up serious scholarship for a public life. A false dream rejected, set aside, left behind—abandoned.
Writing, careers, spouses, cars, homesteads, houses, mines—we abandon them, leave them behind, and cast off each one like a husk to assume something else. Those who abandon do so for a lack of hope, or out of hope for something better. And those who are abandoned are forlorn, diminished, forsaken. Whatever and whomever we leave behind, reject, throw-away, cut off, separate, forsake, ditch, dump or discard—all are a part of who we are and were and what we dreamed. Abandoned houses and cars, junk yards and careers, give mute testimony to fate, folly, and the human inability to foresee the future. Those whom we have abandoned write our moral epitaphs with their pain and fear. Abandoning something or someone may open new possibilities for us but there is always a moral price we must pay.
My daughter is an actor on stage, my father was a legislator, and I am a writer. Each of us wears a ‘mask.’ Not a physical mask but a figurative one, a persona. On stage, my daughter creates a person that isn’t her own but draws on her inner life. It’s for her art. As a leader, my father’s partisan expressions reflected his values but not his nature. He did it to influence followers. As a writer, I choose my words to show you—the reader—what I want you to see. Actor, politician, and writer, we wear our masks for effect.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t show everything to everyone because we can’t. It’s humanly impossible because we aren’t omniscient. Our mortality limits what we can know and reveal about ourselves at any one time. As mortals, we are restricted to revealing what is useful in living our lives.
I think masks reveal more of us than they hide. When I visit anthropological museums in Mexico, I study the indigenous masks from Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan and Olmec civilizations. Made of clay, stone, metal and wood, they present a bewildering array of heads. The faces aren’t realistic and some are hideous, nightmare visages with long, forked tongues protruding from their mouths. These are bizarre to someone formed in the representational artistic traditions of western Europe. We expect the realistic figures from which we might infer their character. To the indigenous cultures, the funeral masks represented who the individuals were to the people of that time and place. In those largely preliterate cultures, the masks expressed symbolically the qualities, character, and personality of the deceased. They were three dimensional eulogies for nobles, warriors and priests.
The masks beg timeless questions. Who are we? What are the secrets to our identities? Questions that philosophers, theologians, psychologists and writers have asked these questions for ages. Some clues still come from masks.
In Masks of the Spirit, Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica, Peter and Roberta Markman describe Mesoamerican masks as metaphorical expressions of “a particular relationship between matter and spirit, the natural and the supernatural, the visible and the invisible.” Central to basic Mesoamerican religion is a belief in the natural world as merely a skin or mask of the supernatural. “The mask and its wearer exist in a series of relationships” that visually express the inner, spiritual identity of the wearers. They conceal and yet reveal the inner spiritual force of life itself, and create a “metaphorical relationship between man and the numinous.” As symbols of transformation, the masks provide the means by which humans transcend material existence to unite the realms of matter and spirit.
Does the mask or persona I wear daily to work, to school, or at home fulfill a similar function, even if on a mundane level? How much of my mask is designed to hide who I am and how much of it is intended to reveal my identity? Does the mask truly represent me in all times and places? Is it authentic?
Like Mesoamerican masks, I think mine mask—and yours—is fashioned by family and society to help me live and work harmoniously if not happily. For the most part, you and I accept our personas as a ‘given;’ like the sky or the air. We take it for granted and seldom examine our identity unless we are in crisis. Society accepts my mask and yours because they are consonant with our respective communities and cultures, their histories and traditions.
My mask presents an imperturbable face of understatement over a buttoned-down persona that rarely makes overt expressions of emotion. This mask fit well over the introverted side of my personality, especially during adolescence, when I thought (erroneously) my reticence added an element of mystery to my imagined ‘coolness when, in fact, it simply hid my social awkwardness. It worked well in an emotionally guarded family living in the fervently indirect social environment of rural Minnesota.
As I entered upon a career, I updated the mask without changing the underlying design as I adapted my persona to new settings and new colleagues. It represented who I thought I ought to be, wanted to be, and was. The mask felt comfortable in Minnesota in a profession where its qualities furthered my aims and ambitions.
I spent time in Mexico as an adult learning the language and culture, and arrived wearing my usual Minnesota mask. But the peoples and cultures of Mexico are different from those in Minnesota. And so are the masks people wear. As I worked at learning the Mexican culture, some of my Minnesota persona felt out of place and I had to assume another one to ‘fit in.’ As actors know, masks possess transformative power. In Mexico, my assumed role, drew upon aspects of my personality and character little used in Minnesota. Before long, a more extroverted and emotional facet of my persona emerged and struggled for a place alongside my buttoned-down imperturbability.
I liked the Mexican ‘mask’ and experiencing myself in a new way. At the same time, I faced the question of which persona, which mask, reflected my authentic identity? Was the more open, extroverted Mexican persona more authentic than the buttoned-down professional mask everyone knew in Minnesota? Which was real and which a pretension?
After several years of struggle, I now regard each mask as authentic. Masks are transformative and the sum of my being is greater than I can express in the attributes of a single mask. Each persona reflects an authentic part of me consonant with where I am and who I’m with. Like the Mesoamericans, I believe we have relationships with our masks as we have with ourselves. My mask—and yours—is a channel for expressing our life force in a manner accessible to others.
In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.
I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.
When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.
Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.
My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.
Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’
My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.
Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.
In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.
When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.
You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.
It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.
During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.
Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.
For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.
By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.
All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.
Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time. I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.
Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.
While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.
Some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We’ve all met them—crabbed creatures with small hearts whose concept of reality is limited to accounts expressed as debits and margins of profit. Lamentably, we are all infected to a degree and fail to distinguish value from price.
Here, in Oaxaca, artisan goods are plentiful and, except for high end shops in the city center, they lack price tags. A buyer must ask how much, “¿Cuanto cuesto?” Asking is a good thing for a curious buyer because it may lead to a conversation, possibly an education, if not a form of fleeting friendship.
“Pasale,” the weaver says, inviting me to enter his tienda or shop to look at his rugs or tapetes. Most artisans sell directly from their tallers or workshops with a stall at the weekly tianguis or market, and occasionally at the periodic ferias or fairs held at public celebrations, such as during Holy Week.
He is an engaging man in his forties with an open expression and easy way of speaking. Although I’m not in the market for a tapete, I pause and admire his work out of respect for his craft. This tienda is ablaze with rugs in brilliant colors—crimson, cinnamon, chocolate, gold, black, blue—woven into the Zapotec motifs of the indigenous people resident for millennia in this part of Mexico.
“Me encanta los colores, modelos ydiseños. Muy hermosos.” I tell him I love the beautiful colors and designs of his work. He smiles. I’m not in the market to buy one, I tell him, because I already have many in my house. But I admire your work. There are no other customers at the moment and he is happy to talk.
“Esta es nuestra herencia, de generación a generación.” He tells me weaving is his family’s heritage. He learned from his parents and grandparents and now teaches his children to weave. Like most weaving families, they memorize their designs and motifs; there are no patterns in books. This is innate knowledge they pass on to succeeding generations much like families pass down to daughters and new brides the treasured recipes of the grandmothers. Recipes explain how to make a cake, but a family recipe is about a cake that transmits traditions as part of the family identity. And so it is with weaving. It’s more than a skill, it’s an identity.
As a family, he and the children card, spin and dye the wool, and then work the telar or loom to produce tapetes, table runners, bedcovers, shoulder bags, and coasters. Weaving has a small margin of profit, he says, and the tourist market is always uncertain. Sometimes he sells only one or two tapetes a month, at other times more.
Why do this if the margin is so small, I ask.
“Me encanta telar.” I love to weave, he says with a smile that comes from deep satisfaction. Despite narrow, uncertain profits, and hard, meticulous work, it is a labor of love, an essential part of his identity as a man, a resident of Teotitlán, and as a Zapotec with a language and culture extending back several thousand years. Even through the veil of Spanish, his and my second language, I hear his pride, authenticity, and love of creative work. In these intangibles of heart and soul, family and tradition lie the fuller value of the tapete, the rug some discerning tourist may buy as cheaply as possible to hang on her wall. It’s the love and dedication represents the full value of his work.
I ask if his price includes compensation for the time spent making the tapete. It doesn’t, he says, shaking his head, his expression wistful. This is true for all the artisans of tapetes, camisas or shirts, and faldas bordadas or embroidered dresses, rebozos, carvings, and other items. It is true of painters as well. The rug spring from a love of the labor more than mere financial gain.
The full cost of the tapete isn’t reflected in its price because the cost doesn’t account for the time spent making them, nor the accumulation of skill from years of practice and application. The cost includes the tangible materials, transportation, and other measurable items plus a margin above out-of-pocket costs in order to sustain the enterprise.
How to put the true price on several thousand years of cultural life, the accumulated skill and wisdom in creating art like no other in the world? Any astute observer will quickly see the disconnect between the hidden cost of producing a tapete, its intrinsic value and its market price. A five-by-seven foot tapete may take two months to produce and sell for $1,800 pesos or just over $100 dollars. To this yanqui, that’s inexpensive and a good buy—if I think only of the price.
But, after conversations with many artisans, it’s clear the value of what I want to buy is at odds with the price offered. This isn’t because the weaver is a poor businessman, it’s because art isn’t a commodity, each item is an individual work incompatible with ideas of piece-work and mass-production.
We who are buyers or “consumers” (how I hate that word!) of art, miss much of what we purchase when we concentrate on getting it for a lower cost. To some degree, we are all infected with a commercial perspective of wanting a bargain—of getting more for less if we can. We call this ‘thrift’ and tell ourselves it’s a virtue. However, most of us aren’t thrifty (look at our credit card debt) and our ‘thrift’ looks more like the cardinal sin of greed.
If the price is all we see, and the bargain is our ‘object,’ then we miss the intrinsic value of the object and—more importantly—we fail to see the human and cultural richness invested into the tapete. In that failure, we missing seeing something of ourselves in the lives, the hearts, the souls that produced the rug. As affluent buyers, generosity rather than ‘thrift’ becomes us. Paying full price, giving artisans a complement, a word of conversation, adds to their lives and enriches ours as well.
My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.
This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.
I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.
County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.
Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.
Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.
A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.
The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.
After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.
They name it The River Farm.
Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.
He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.
I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.
But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.
Late November. This is the perfect season for a day of thanksgiving – at least in Minnesota. Autumn is over, except on the calendar. The day for giving thanks comes at the end of harvest, as it should. Now the season’s harvest of corn, oats and soybeans – the fruits of considerable cost, risk, and sweat – was secure in the bins and cribs. Unless snow came early, we usually finished plowing most of the stubble. November days are cold, the sky is cloudy most of the time, occasional skiffs of snow blow through and winter lurks just over the western horizon. It’s the kind of weather that draws us closer to each other. Thanksgiving Day punctuated our year far more than did Christmas. Continue reading “Days of Giving Thanks”→
Have you considered the advantages of traveling slowly and depending on the kindness of strangers? That’s why I like to walk. It’s my favorite way to go from one place to another when time allows. The quality of travel varies with the mode. By going on foot I move at a pace where I can see everything around me and take the time to experience the country I am moving through and the people I’m traveling with. What’s the rush?
I came upon the pleasures of slow travel nearly 40 years ago when a friend and I hiked for 650 miles across the high plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. For nearly two months, we lived out of our packs as we tramped along America’s first superhighway–the wagon road known as the Oregon Trail.
The seed of this idea sprouted one sunny August afternoon near South Pass, Wyoming. I stopped the car at a historical marker for “The Parting of the Ways”. Behind the sign, two sets of ruts diverge in the waist-high sagebrush; one set aimed at the California goldfields, the other pointed to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. For many a westerner, a moment of decision; for me, an inspiration.
I walked along the Oregon-bound ruts for half a mile until I couldn’t see the car. Then I stared far west. What will I see if I keep walking? The question nudged me for two years until Geoff and I hoisted our backpacks at Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebraska, and set out in dust storm to retrace the longest, undeveloped stretch of the Oregon Trail across open range until they vanished asphalt roads and barley fields in eastern Idaho.
Our simple maps, scaled at two miles to the inch, gave few details about what lay ahead. We didn’t have a watch, and we left behind such comforts as air mattresses and extra clothes. The best equipment in our kit were our personalities–we were each the other’s alter ego, the missing piece, the traits that made us greater than the sum of our parts. It worked–most of the time.
The Trail was never a single set of ruts but a broad corridor and we followed dirt farm roads for the first few days through the irrigated corn fields of the North Platte River Valley. Each day had its pattern: Rising at dawn, eating oatmeal and stewed fruit, hiking until midday, then a making a meal of fry bread and soup, napping for several hours in the shade of riverbank cottonwoods before taking to the Trail and walking in the low evening light of summer.
Walking opens opportunities to notice the things that are invisible from a car going 70 miles per hour–the things that define a place. At 70 mph, Wyoming looks uninviting, a blur of gray sagebrush and glaring sunlight. At three miles per hour, the details are visible: the intense orange of globe mallow blossoms, smooth, white prickly poppies, and sky-blue flax. On foot, we moved to the rhythmic crunch of footfalls on the gravel; felt the sun’s reflected heat seeping through our boots; watched vultures wheeling in silent gyres like bits of black paper in the wide sky and over our shoulder, we watched afternoon thunderclouds atop Laramie Peak drift toward us.
Weather was our intimate companion, and the summery copulation of temperature and humidity produced sweat, thirst, and fatigue. Wind was a fickle friend, one day it’s a cooling breeze that wards off sweating but the next day it’s a dusty blast from an oven. Evening was usually the best of times, when the wind lay down for the night, cooler air flowed from the mountains, crickets sang, and we came out of mental hibernation and talked to each other.
Although we saw very few people in seven weeks, we didn’t travel alone. The backs of our simple maps held typed excerpts from the journals of those who crossed the Trail a century before us . Explorer Robert Stuart (1813), mountain man Jim Clyman (1829), Lt. John C. Fremont (1843), humorist Mark Twain (1862) and many ‘forty-niners guided, advised and entertained us daily.
Many times, when we rested beneath a tree, or along a dry creek, we read their words and compared what we saw with their description of the place. In 1977, the big energy boom hadn’t yet disturbed too much of the area and what we saw largely matched the view of the pioneers. We lived in a time warp. Thank God!
We planned to be completely self-sufficient but the kindness of strangers was always a bonus. The dust storm died at the end of the first afternoon, the bluffs glowed in the red sunset as we asked for water at a farmhouse. The farmer turned on a hose and then asked what were we doing and why were we doing it. “Wish you’d come sooner. We would of like to have you eat with us.” Before we left, his wife gave us a batch of peanut butter-oatmeal cookies. So began our travel with the kindness of strangers.
Geoff and I started the trip bickering over the proper walking pace. He wanted to make three miles an hour for seven hours a day. I argued for a two miles an hour for 10 hours a day because I knew his pace wasn’t possible with heavy packs. I said okay figuring experience would slow him to my pace. It did, in the end, but not until he raised blisters the size of silver dollars and I bruised my Achilles tendon.
“You want to see a doctor?” Geoff asked, massaging my swollen ankle.
“No! He’ll tell me to take aspirin and stay off my feet,” I said, popping a couple Tylenol. “Let’s find a place to lay over a couple days. If it doesn’t get worse, it’ll get better.”
At dusk, a farmer let us camp in a vacant pasture that had two ponds stocked with bass. I thought we’d died and gone to heaven. For two days, we rested, swam often, and ate our fill of fresh fish we caught using my fly-rod and grasshoppers.
Historical markers, landmarks, and graves mark nearly every few miles of the Oregon Trail. Some sites are off the highway, but some of the best aren’t easy to find and a few aren’t marked at all – that’s the draws.
We usually stopped briefly at the well-developed tourist attractions, like Ft. Laramie National Historic Site but lingered at the undeveloped ones like the Guernsey Ruts. Here the wheels of passing wagons cut a deep trough into the marl ridge near the Wyoming town of that name. The country hadn’t changed much, and the view from the ruts was that of a century ago. We camped in a pasture a few miles farther at the foot of Register Cliff where forty-niner carved their names in the soft rock. A third generation rancher’s family donated the site to the state.
Despite the interest in historic sites, my inspiration for the trip was to experience the Great Plains environment of short grass prairies, alkali flats, rocky ridges, hot sun and high winds for long enough to truly know the West. I felt an emotional lift after Register Cliff when our Trail left the North Platte River for higher and drier ground. Now we were under the Big Sky, crossing the country I wanted to see. At last!
No fences blocked our way, the traces of wagon ruts showed through the thin sod and, in all directions, spread the short grass prairie dotted with sunflowers and clumps of sage. The vastness, the smell of air, the light filled us with a wild joy. Our packs felt lighter and we easily crested the sweeping ridges, made noon camps beneath cottonwoods in anonymous arroyos, and camped for the night under clumps of scrubby pines. But for the absence of buffalo, the country remained largely unchanged.
Within days, we began to think of ourselves as kin to the mountain men, the individualistic trappers who first mapped the West. Without the encumbrance of wagons and teams, no amount of imagination could transform us into Oregon pioneers. With only each other for company, we thought of ourselves as reincarnated mountain men and lived in a psychic bubble of our own creation.
Two weeks into the trip, the urban world and the norms we had known seemed alien if not ridiculous, at times. After a couple days in flesh-pots of Casper (population 50,000), we happy to leave the city behind us–-but only after we gave a newspaper interview and I sealed a deal to write a series of articles about the trip for the daily newspaper.
Hiking takes a lot of water, and it’s the one thing we couldn’t replace on our own. Many times we were down to our last pints before we hit a stream, a windmill or an isolated ranch. The Trail West of Casper drifted through 50 miles of barren hills with springs of caustic soda as strong as Drano. Like the pioneers, we dreaded this stretch because we couldn’t carry enough water for two days of hiking. The only potable water was Willow Spring, somewhere in the hills. But which spring was it?
Months before we started, I wrote to a man who used to ranch in these hills and asked about the spring. He was retired and asked me to call him when I arrived in Casper. He wasn’t home when I called, so I left a message. He didn’t call back and we started out not knowing where to find Willow Spring.
We conserved water, camped after 20 miles from Casper, and then started again, sipping water to make last. Pools of seep and spring water beckoned from the swales and arroyos, but all had a tell-tale white alkali crust. At midday, we sat in grass by the jeep road to consider our next move. A few minutes later, an older pulled up to us in a pick-up and called my name. He got my message and had been following our tracks in the dust.
“Willow Spring is about a mile ahead,” he told us. “You’ll find it inside a shed at an abandoned ranch. You can’t miss it.” Then he climbed into the Dodge to complete some errands. Ah, guardian angels.
We were fortunate to reach Independence Rock a couple years before the historical interpretation industry limited access and put up signs to tell us what we needed to know. It was deserted and we ate our lunch , climbed to the summit and looked at the names chiseled into the granite. That night, and for several nights thereafter, we camped and caught trout in a nearby pasture at Devil’s Gate where the Sweetwater River passes through a small gorge in the granite mountains.
So began the most beautiful stretch of Trail, and the part that sticks with me after nearly 40 years. It’s the 100 miles along the Sweetwater River, from Devil’s Gate to South Pass on the Continental Divide. The stream’s water was clean enough to drink, the grass was lush, the mountains of pink granite made grand scenery, and herds of antelope entertained us.
We rarely saw anyone, and fervently hoped we wouldn’t because they might break the illusion of living a reincarnated life we had lived 150 years before. Meeting others would be like going back to earth after dying and entering heaven.
One night we camped under a granite ledge to ride out a thunderstorm, warmed by a fire, and lulled to sleep by owls. Another day, we made a noon fire on the exposed flanks of the Wind River Mountains under a gray, chilly sky. Nearby, a marker of iron pipe commemorated some Mormons who died there in an early winter storm. A note inside the crossbar asked passersby for any information about the unknown dead. Without their names, the dead aren’t at rest.
We clambered out of Sweetwater Canyon one morning and passed the abandoned pits and detritus of several mining booms near the ghost town of Radium Springs. The rusted frames of 1920s cars mingled with rotting log cabins, wooden wagon boxes, and pieces of iron. An angus steer greeted us from the door of the defunct saloon with a swayback roof.
South Pass made westward expansion possible. We crossed the pass over a broad, sere plain at 7,000 feet where a solitary granite boulder marks the Continental Divide. We felt humbled standing atop the continent, two tiny figures in a vast, empty plain. The soil is poor, moisture is scarce, the climate is so severe the sagebrush scarcely exceeds a foot in height. Geoff studied this ‘end of the world’ landscape, and said: “Any cow grazing on this range would be glad to go to the slaughterhouse.”
That night we camped on a mattress of pine needles, sheltered by trees for the first time in nearly a month. The full moon rose in majesty over the plain of South Pass, lighting one side of the pine trees, and throwing long shadows across the ground.
Two nights later, we said goodbye to kindly rancher, and set out at moonrise to cross the Green River Basin, 50 parched miles of sandy plains overgrown with sagebrush between the mountains and the Green River. Wagon trains often crossed at night to save water and stock. Under the full moon, the sandy tracks of the Trail looked white against the black sage. As we hiked, a huge meteor streaked overhead. To the south, we saw the silhouette of Squaw Teat against the moonlit skyline. The hours passed slowly and, at times, we dozed as we walked.
The last 20 miles to Green River tested us more than any other segment. In the clear air, we saw the cottonwoods growing along the river but they never seemed to draw closer as we walked toward them. The morning turned hot, the wind died, and the sand dragged at our feet. My energy ebbed, my head ached, my pulse raced, and I had an onset of diarrhea. Walking was an act of will. I told myself, I’ll survive this if it kills me.
We reached the Green River at dusk–grateful. Two days later, we straggled into the hamlet of Big Piney and I knew I was ill. Geoff booked us into the ‘motel’, a collection of mobile homes, and I went to bed alternating between sweats and chills. I had a fever and feared this might be the end of the trip. Geoff wasn’t ready to consider that. Ever practical, he found a solution.
“There’s no bus service here. We’d have to hike somewhere to can catch a bus,” he said. “We can’t do that until you’re better. I found there’s a medical clinic about a mile or so from here. Let’s check it out. Once you’re well enough to hike to a bus you’ll be well enough to keep hiking.”
He was right, of course. The next day we walked a mile to the clinic. It had no doctor, only a nurse–but a retired Army nurse. She took my vitals, listened to my heart, and told me I had the same virus that was going around. Then she wrote a prescription for paregoric, an anti-diarrhea opiate, and gave me a list of foods I should eat until my innards recovered.
“Come back if you’re not better in 48 hours. Otherwise, have a good trip.” She held out her hand. Thirty-six hours later, we checked out of the motel and hit the Trail for the last leg.
Our two last weeks took us up, into, and over the Wyoming and Caribou Ranges through stands of aspen, pine and fir; across streams flanked by multi-colored gardens of paintbrush, sneezeweed, bluebells, and orchids. It was only the first half of August but frost rimed the tent at night. From the serrate Wyoming Mountains, we came into the Mormon settlements of Star Valley on the Idaho line. The fields of ripe barley and the small farmsteads under cottonwoods reminded me of Minnesota. An old man let us camp by a field at his dairy farm, then he and his grandson brought us two quarts of fresh milk and telling us to leave the bottles by the gate when we leave.
We hadn’t planned the exact ending to the trip but the end mirrored the beginning. All signs of the Trail petered out beyond Star Valley among the barley fields and we were forced to hike along the paved road. Nothing changed a mountain into a bum faster than asphalt. We tramped over the low, Caribou Mountains into the lush grassy basin of Gray’s Lake where whooping cranes nested and sat in a ditch to consider our next move.
This was the end of the Trail for us and now we needed to find a town with bus service. Our map didn’t show any towns or major highways. Trusting to karma, I asked directions at a farm with the same Ford tractor my father used. The amiable cattleman summered his herd there and invited us into the small, white house and told us how to reach Soda Springs, a few miles away. Then his wife invited us to lunch–lamb chops, potatoes, lettuce salad, home-made root beer, and oatmeal cookies. We said no but not too strongly, they insisted, and we agreed to stay. It was our intention all along. Ah, the kindness of strangers!
The Oregon Trail was America’s great road west until completion of the transcontinental railroad. Thus, it was only fitting that we returned home on the train-– the Amtrak version of the Northern Pacific’s Empire Builder. We stood on the platform between the cars watching the west roll by in the sunset. We’d seen the elephant.
Shortly after this trip, I read letters written by my great-grandfather as a 19 year-old infantry private. He would have recognized most of the route we hiked. In the summer of 1867, he covered 1,700 miles of wagon trails, from North Platte, Nebraska, across Wyoming to the Utah line, then north to Soda Springs, back across the Wyoming Range and South Pass on the Oregon Trail to a fort just east of Casper. It was easy to imagine him there, and easier to feel I was living his life again.
Such travel is only possible at a human scale and tempo. Every one of those miles taught me volumes about myself and the meaning of determination, persistence, and downright stubbornness. At the same time, I learned about the innate decency of people, their uncommon generosity, and compassionate curiosity. It was a great lesson in what it means to be an American.
October marks a year since my brother, sister, and I sold the southern Minnesota farm where we grew up, where our parents lived their dream, and rest forever beneath woodland phlox in the woods. Until I went to college, ‘The River Farm’ was my playground, a magical place that evolved as I did. I have let go of the physical space but not the memories of my inner childhood.
I first saw this playground on April 10, 1947, the day we arrived at our farm as migrants from New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was three years old and remember the day in shades of gray. The ashen hue of our muddy 1940 Plymouth, the steely tint of the low clouds, the pools of pewter colored snowmelt, and the charcoal smudges of thawing soil.
The sun came out, April turned into May, and a curious three-almost-four-year-old made everything a toy, a fun house. For companions, I had the geese that hissed when I approached the goslings. Mom taught me how to a bottle to feed a lamb. I imitated Dad and gassed my trike, an imaginary tractor, at the tank.
When I was a little older, and my cousins came visiting from town, we played hide-and-seek in the barn, hiding among the bales of hay. At night, we played kick-the-can, lurking until the last minute in the shadows from the yard light, and then kicking the can by the well.
The pasture and its winding creek became my Wild West where my pals and I played cowboys. A little later, as I approached middle school, I often sat there and gazed in wonder at at the cumulous clouds, majestic cauliflowers of air and vapor, delicately tinted in shades of pearl, coral, and blue-gray, sailing like Spanish galleons. They looked so solid, like mountains yet, in the eye of my imagination, I saw narrow canyons and deep caves. Watching clouds feeds the imagination.
Sometimes, the farm wasn’t a playground. As I grew up, I inherited chores suitable to my age. For years, I fed the chickens, then collected, and cleaned the eggs. I hated it. Chicken care was a woman’s job; real men kept livestock. By the age of 12, I spent hours on a Ford tractor tilling the soil for planting, or spreading manure, or plowing. An active imagination is necessary for enduring the monotony and I spent it with dreams about learning to fly.
Most of our fields lay north of the winding, prairie river dividing our farm. South of the river was 120 acres of hardwood forest, mostly walnut, basswood, and burr oak. After the age of 12, the woods became my playground in all seasons.
In summer, I hiked a half-mile to swim in the river’s deeper holes under cut banks. In September, I hunted squirrels among the burr oaks on the ridge. In October, I hunted ducks along the river, and pheasants in the weed patches and cornfields. When I got older, Dad and I spent winter days there thinning the oaks, and hickories, and pruning walnuts to produce good lumber – some day.
Prairie blizzards altered the playground with huge drifts in the windbreak where I dug snow caves and built forts. My pals and I had fierce snowball fights, and went sledding down a hill where I made a ramp so our sleds would ‘fly’ for a couple feet.
Our draughty farmhouse (ca. 1878) sheltered us well, and on winter Sunday afternoons, my parents listened to classical music on CBS radio while my sister and I played Monopoly or read books. We raised crops for exactly 50 years, and most year, we celebrated Thanksgiving dinners with cousins and friends. From the big table, we looked out across the corn stubble and plowing dusted with snow, corncribs filled with the harvest, satisfied and secure at passing another crop year.
The playground changed when Dad retired the fields and enrolled them in a conservation plan. The former fields of corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa became switchgrass, timothy, and oak plantations. He loved his farm, conservation was the right thing to do, but I lost the visceral connection I felt as a child.
What is the price you put on memories of the places that formed you? Is there a value I can put on the pasture, the windbreak, the pattern of corn, soybean, oat, and alfalfa fields? Their colors changed throughout the year as they matured. What can replace the sound of my mother working in the kitchen, preparing a Thanksgiving meal while chatting with relatives, perhaps dropping in a French phrase? How can I replace the memory of hearing Dad, whistling show-tunes in the evening air as he drove the tractor, preparing a field for spring planting?
I have the memories and photos, but I don’t have the farm. Without the cycle of cropping, plowing, and planting, it isn’t the farm I knew, the farm that imprinted itself on me. Nor is it the same farm without Mom and Dad. They lived their dream to the end. That dream is done. Neither I nor my siblings will live there so we sold it to another family to live out their dream.