Monday, March 01, 2004


A couple inches of snow fell during the night. The temperature is not far from freezing. The snow wiped off the windows of the car easily enough.

Signs posted along the motel inform us that snow-mobiles are not to be driven up onto the walkway in front of the rooms and there is to be no gas, oil, or snow-mobile covers taken into the rooms.

Last night pick-ups pulling snow-mobiles on trailers made almost a continuous parade on Highway 41 in front of the motel. This morning when I looked out about 6:00 a.m. there was a Snow Cat pulling some sort of machine to groom the trail that runs between the motel and the roadway along Highway 41.

I took breakfast downtown at the Shabee Cafe. When I walked in the place was empty. I thought - oh-oh. A woman was wiping down tables and booth seats. The woman back in the kitchen looked out.

"Do you have breakfast?" I wondered aloud, the place being empty.

"Yes, we do," the waitress said. "The special is Shabee's Omelet." The sign said: ham, American fries, onion, cheese, green pepper. Sure enough, the fries were rolled right into the omelet with everything else, making a tidy heap on the plate that got served me. And it tasted awfully good that way. I had coffee, too.

I looked at the local paper, the L'Anse Sentinel, while I was eating. There was an article about how well two area businesses seem to be recovering. Pettibone in Baraga makes lifts for work in rough terrain and equipment for gas and oil exploration (eight of these were shipped to Afghanistan is December). They also make the Carry-Lift, "one of the pioneer machines in the business." The other company, Terex Handlers in Baraga, makes extending forklifts for work in rough terrain. The companies are poised to recover from recent hard times, but the price of steel could derail that. According to Pettibone's president, Kevin Walsh, a lot of American steel these days is made from recycled steel and the cost of recycled steel has gone from $90 a ton to $320. And coke, which is needed to make new steel, is becoming more expensive as well. Only two coke mines had operated recently in the United States - one of them has closed down, the other had a fire in January. An increasingly larger percentage of the world supply of coke now comes from China, the paper reported.

The Shabee Omelet was a bargain at $4.50. Before I could spend too much time wondering about why the place was empty, it started to fill up.

A couple men wanted to have coffee and to talk about sports. As I ate, another two men joined them. They were talking about local basketball teams, it sounded like. Apparently there are a couple fellows on the L'Anse high school team who come off the bench and really hustle.

"They should be starting," one fellow said.

"Maybe they'll get to start next year," another one said.

"Not the one of them. He's only a junior, but he'll be too old to play."

"How old is he?" someone asked.

"Twenty-seven," he said.

The men laughed. It was a morning coffee kind of joke.

There was an old couple having breakfast across the aisle from these men then. And on my side of the partition a couple of working fellows had come in for breakfast. One of them went to the bathroom to wash his dirty hands.

The other fellow, the older of the two, sat down at a booth and got his coffee. "You just get up for breakfast?" the waitress asked him.

"No, no, I got up two hours ago, yeah, two hours ago."

The other man came back from the bathroom, ordered coffee, toast, orange juice.

Three others came in and took a booth nearby. "You guys workin' or playin'?" the waitress asked them.

They answered together and the waitress got conflicting information. "Well, which is it?" she wanted to know.

"Two of us are working, one of us is playing, I guess," one of the men said.

The fellow who had been to the bathroom to wash his hands had to give the waitress a hard time. "I want to register a formal complaint," he said. "I stopped here for supper last night. I pounded on the door for half an hour but nobody answered. If you want to be a truck stop, you have to stay open 24 hours a day."

"I don't want to be a truck stop," the waitress said. "I've done that. I don't want to do it again."

"We serve only breakfast on Sundays," she explained. "We closed at 1:00 p.m."

"The sign out on the highway says you serve breakfast, dinner, and supper. It doesn't make any exception for Sunday," the man responded.

"I'll tell her," the waitress said, tilting her head back towards the cook. "But I'm still leaving at 1:00 p.m."

By the time I finished my breakfast, there were fourteen of us in the cafe, enough to make it look like it was indeed open for breakfast this morning.

When I stepped back outside, the snow was continuing. It was a beautiful morning: everything was white and wet, or fast becoming white and wet.


The sun started breaking through the clouds by the time I was ready for lunch.

I'd already stopped at the L'Anse Sentinel office and had gotten a barrel of information about people from the community that I might talk with. The fellows at the paper couldn't have been more helpful: the editor, Barry Drue; the advertising director, Joe Schuette; and general manager Gale Eilola. And I set up interviews for Thursday and Friday with Eilola and Schuette.

Back at my motel room I'd already made some phone calls. I've got two interviews set up for this afternoon, two for tomorrow, another for Wednesday morning. There are a couple more people I need to get hold of yet, but we are underway - we are definitely underway.

I had lunch at the Shabee Cafe. Same cook, with another cook on duty. Same waitress, with another waitress on duty.

It was the other waitress talking to the fellow in the booth in the back corner. The fellow said: "February's almost over. It's melting out there. Winter's back is broken."

That other waitress responded: "You know how many conversations we have in this place about the weather? I hope those who don't have to work out in it appreciate those who do. The one nice thing about our weather here is that it keeps the population down. I like that. Only the strong survive. We get rid of the rest of them."

I suspect she was pretty close to exactly right: if you can't take the weather here, you'd head some place else, most any place else.

There were sixteen people eating in the cafe by the time I was ready to leave. The place was doing a little carry-out business, too. You like to see the little mom & pop places survive. At least I do. You may actually have different preferences entirely for all I know as certain.

Soon enough it was time for me to head to Baraga for an interview. "That's BEAR-ah-gah," I'd been told earlier when I said "b'-RA-gah."

"You'll get farther if you say BEAR-ah-gah," the fellow said.



So Vagabond field editor* Deba Horn of Ripon, Wisconsin, was reading her February 23 copy of Newsweek magazine when she was startled up and out of her chair: right there on p. 53, in an article called "Family TV Goes Down the Tube," was a quote by Rhonda McCartan, a mother of three from Emmetsburg, Iowa. Emmetsburg is my Vagabond "focus community" for Iowa, it's the county seat of Palo Alto County where I grew up (well, if I ever grew up, that's where I grew up). Rhonda was explaining that you have to watch out for what comes on even at seven o'clock in the evening, you just don't know what you'll see.

If I talk to Rhonda when I'm in Emmetsburg the week of April 18th (and I might), I might tell her how for ten years when our daughters were growing up we lived without a TV. The girls were perceived at school as being kind of geeky as a result, for they didn't have the vaguest idea of the latest new thing on TV; but both of them grew up loving books, and that's better than anything you can get from television. "Blow up your TVs," John Prine encouraged us a long time ago; we should, but we don't.

*Okay, so perhaps I exaggerate the "field editor" part; I don't have a field for her to edit. But if I did, she would.



The laws of nature shape human nature. What pushes the mountains pushes us.

To be fully spiritual we must acknowledge and account for our being physical.

The sun rises, the sun sets. We move and are moved. We are rocked in the cradle of creation from our birth to our death. Indeed, we came from star dust; and we return to star dust.

What lifts the tides that does not lift us?


FEBURARY 27, 1998

Wet and windy and wild. Grey. The wind has behind it the rhythm of great, rumbling kettle drums; the percussion section in the orchestra is out of control. This is not February, no matter what the calendar says.

On a scale of One to Ten, what kind of day is it? Let me say there is another dead raccoon this morning. Let me say there are soda containers and hamburger wrappers and all manner of what else bare naked and revealed in the ditches along the way. The wind wants to blow the truck about - and I don't care too much one way or the other.

Today it's like closing time in a bar, like I've had a few beers and this morning is the only girl who hasn't said she's going home with someone else. What are you going to do? You take what you get, sometimes.

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