Monday, July 16, 2007

Travel home filled with great sights

Travelling the busy highways and dusty gravel roads of three states and three Canadian provinces within a week to get back to my parents’ farm, I felt blessed.

While it meant so much to see loved ones even for a short period of time, I was fortunate to witness many great sights along the way.

On my final day of travel, early one morning I needed to stop the vehicle as a mother moose led her calf across the road near Elkford, British Columbia. Later, down the road, a young deer buck stood unafraid for a few minutes and stared at me long enough to get several photos.

If one prefers machinery to wildlife, a half hour drive away is the largest truck in the world at Sparwood, B.C.: a huge truck that worked at one of the open pit coal mines in the region. The truck became a tourist attraction after the mining company decided this rare truck was too expensive and difficult to maintain for parts.

It’s hard to imagine how such a large truck can toil high up in the mountains. One of my uncles drives a truck — a bit smaller — and tells stories of what it’s like to drive these massive vehicles high in the mountains on foggy winter nights. Barrels of kerosene have straw stuck at the top of them, and then the straw lit on fire. The barrels are placed just enough yards apart for the truckers to be able to see the fires lighting their way up and down the mountain roads.

Such are the challenges for those who deliver coal to an energy-dependent world.

I saw miles and miles of beautiful crops in various stages of ripening, and in particular the colorful patchwork of canola fields that so many prairie farmers are depending on as one of their main cash crops this year.

Some of the last elevators still standing on the prairies remind us of the changing technology and how those elevators once stood as the proud sentinels announcing another small town had been reached.

Storm clouds rose high into the skies and thunder clapped in the distance; late sunsets and almost endless twilight stretched deep into the night, lasting later the further north I traveled. The twilight at my parents’ farm lasted almost three hours’ longer than where I live in Oregon.

Northern lakes beckoned my family to fish: lakes where the water sparkles, loons cry out to each other, and blue herons slowly flap overhead. Coyotes yip from somewhere beyond out sight, blueberries can be found in the underbrush, and best of all, often we are the only humans at the whole lake. Armed with our fishing rods, my father and I spent one relaxing afternoon casting from the shore, Dad’s line arcing across the water as he cast past the lilypads and reeds, and occasionally a Northern Pike could be seen splashing at the end of the hook.

The fishing was good. The next day, my younger brother, Dad and I returned with a boat to the same lake to test deeper waters. Again, we had the lake all to ourselves, as we chatted about fishing, farming and family, or occasionally just quietly sat in the boat and allowed the wind to drift us closer to the shallow fishing spots. All we could hear was the birds in the forest, the squeaking of our reels, and an occasional splash of a fish at the end of our hook.

The week spent at the farm was a time of reflection. Each minute is precious, even the ordinary became extraordinary with the sounds, smells and sights that summer brings to the farm.

The hay had just been cut — the best scent in the whole world.

Rain drops precariously balanced on wheat leaves.

The weather-beaten snow fence along the now abandoned railway near our farm caught the last of the sun’s rays one day and stood out against the ripening wheat crop.

Another fence, another sunset, another day also caught my eye. The fence has gone through so much, but still successfully keeps the cattle where they need to be.

Most of our cattle are gone to summer pastures a few miles away. We have only a couple of heifers at home, waiting for my older brother to transport them to his place soon. Away from the rest of the herd, the two heifers have become almost like inseparable twins — even in the feed bucket.

Each visit home shows how much the community grows older and changes. More deserted farms from neighbors who have retired or passed away. The church could use more maintenance, but it’s hard for the small congregation that now can hold a church service once a year, rather than weekly.

The school my brothers and I attended is now permanently closed, since 2004, and there’s a person living in it by himself. Last year he served some prison time after police discovered he had been growing drugs in the school after it closed. It seems the authorities became suspicious when it was noticed the power bills were higher AFTER the school closed than while students had still attended.

On the farm, I noticed our 300-feet long barn — built in 1939 — is really starting to deteriorate. The barn that had held so many barn dances by the early pioneers in the area when they wished to raise money for a local post office and other services in the community is now badly in need of funds itself. Unfortunately, too much.

I wonder how many people attended dances in this barn over those early years before bales filled the loft instead of dancers. Some of the people who had visited those dances told me they remember there were bands on both ends of the loft, since one band couldn’t play loud enough for the dancers to hear from one end to the other. With guitars, fiddles, accordions and drums, those early bands had so many cowboy boots stomping and high heels spinning, that the memories dance on even decades later for some of these people.

My family now has a sign warning people they can’t go upstairs in the barn anymore. The floor is dangerous in the loft: no longer can anyone even walk across the floor. The loft remains a popular place for bird nests, mice and occasionally stray cats. They keep our dog busy. At 14 years old and with a bad hip, he still believes it's his duty to guard the barn.

Buildings aren’t all that are aging. Visiting relatives and neighbors, with many of them well past retirement age, I noticed the whiter hair, the bit more stooped backs, the slower walking pace. I took time to walk with them a lot: along the country roads, through crops, into the garden patches, and into hilly pastures.

One evening, as I accompanied my father as he checked gopher traps, I gazed up at the silhouette of my father as he walked back towards his half-ton truck. Mosquitoes buzzed around us, coyotes were howling, and a killdeer kept trying to lead us away from her nest. I captured the image with the camera, although I already knew I would carry home that image forever in my mind from that trip.

Driving back the thousand miles or so from the farm, I continued to enjoy the images around me as I crossed provincial, state and country borders: The patchwork of ripening fields, the farm yards and buildings, the small towns and communities that are slowly disappearing but still are home in someone’s heart out there.

At one point, I went off the beaten path. In Washington state, not far from Ritzville, I took the road that leads to the Paha cemetery on top of a hill, then down to Paha Station where farmers delivered their grain.

Paha was a place where a flour mill and other businesses once attracted farmers in the early 1900s. When the mill closed around 1911, this community in the heart of wheat country saw the rest of its town become deserted, until now it has but one family and a few empty or collapsed buildings and an abandoned truck.

Across from the terminal, golden sunset beams blending with the rust on the old truck. This truck had probably in the past driven up and down those nearby surrounding hills that produced some of the best wheat harvests in the world. The truck’s owner had probably gazed on landscape similar to what I had enjoyed earlier that evening, pondered the yields of the crops, what moisture conditions were like, and whether any storm clouds in the distance carried rain.

Sitting in Paha, as clouds began to build to the west, I realized it doesn’t matter where you grow up, which farm you call home, or even what era you live in.

Farmers can always relate to other farmers. They will always feel the tie to the land, marvel at nature around them, appreciate long summer days, and compare their jobs to those of others — and realize there are jobs much worse than farming … Like driving a huge coal mine truck up a foggy mountain in winter.

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